Les miserables sur l’etoile

Much has been said about Paris’s l’étoile (the 12 boulevard road system centred on l’arc de triomphe) by peace practitioners. The fact that 11 of the 12 avenues are named after military heroes, la grande armee itself, and perceived places of glory bestowed on warriors (the infamous shopping mecca, Champs-Élysées is translated as the Elysian Fields, the place of the blessed in Greek mythology) is troubling to those who wish to reverse the tendency of nations to exalt war victories. They have a valid point, to be sure. However, I choose to see it all a different way.
The remaining boulevard is Avenue Victor Hugo, celebrating the distinguished author of seminal works like Les Misèrables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. So in this 240 m², visually impressive road system dominated by military references, you have this beacon of art. Hugo was a righteous champion of the unwashed masses, and through his art, he struggled with major themes of repression, duty, and justice. I have stated to the above-noted (and often bloated) peace practitioners that if all the boulevard names were changed to reflect notions of peace (say, a rue de Gandhi or Avenue des Affirmations), it would not only disregard history but it would miss the point of peace.
It sounds harsh to the sycophants: I can live in a world where millions starve, but I cannot live in a world where no artist thrives. Therefore, l’étoile to me is a symbol of a military empire which has, to be sure, left millions in devastation throughout history, but which has also produced some of the most beautiful writers, philosophers, painters, singers, and couturiers. By the mere presence of Avenue Victor Hugo, we are reminded that life is unsanitised, unfair, and yet sublime. It is vital that we don’t just merely rage against that which is displeasing to us, but that we produce art to transcend depravity, degradation, oppression; that we always know how to exalt through that indescribable quality of art, even as we spend our lives killing each other.


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