Home/ Opinion / When in Paris, love as the Parisians do

Paris is widely acknowledged as the most romantic city on earth. Couples young and old dream of memorializing their love for each other on its streets and cafes and boulevards and museums. One of the most popular modes of such memorializing, when they do land up in Paris, is to leave padlocks bearing their names on the guard rails of any of the several historical bridges on the Seine, and throw the key into the river. Typically, this tradition is concentrated on two bridges—the Pont des Arts and the Pont de l’Archevêché.

According to media reports , these “love locks", as they’ve been branded, which were at first treated as harmless, cutesy things that also served the useful function of being tourist bait, are now being viewed, with increasing alarm, by Parisians as acts of vandalism that pose a danger to the city’s historical structures, besides creating environmental hazards. Two American expats living in Paris, Lisa Anselmo and Lisa Taylor Huff, are currently running a “No love locks" campaign targeted at the removal of all these locks from the bridges and banning this tradition altogether.

It is estimated that the Pont des Arts, built in the 1800s under Napoleon, “currently carries about 700,000 locks with an estimated combined weight of 93 metric tonnes—roughly the same as 20 elephants standing on a bridge designed for pedestrian traffic."

While the weight of all the locks is threatening the ageing structure of the bridge, all the thousands of keys thrown into the river, and presumably catching rust, has evoked fears of water pollution.

Given the enormous popularity of these love locks among tourists, the Paris city council has so far been unwilling to act . But the official Paris website has begun urging tourists to go for “e-love locks".

While the safety concerns around these locks are, no doubt, of vital importance, another, rather philosophical, critique of these love locks—trust the French to come up with one—takes issue not with the physical presence of the locks themselves but with what they represent, and how the very concept of a “love lock" does violence to the idea of love—or at least the Parisian idea of love .

A lock, by definition, is a device targeted at safety. It minimizes the risk of the object being locked up getting away, or getting stolen. It immobilizes, or limits movement, and in doing so, transforms the space it controls into a prison, and the object of the locking, into prisoner. In the case of a love lock, the prisoner, obviously, is love itself. To want to make one’s love eternal by locking it up, as the love lock tradition has it, ends up putting a question mark over the resilience of the love being locked up. Besides, love being shut in a prison runs contrary to the libertarian, if not liberal, and rather libertine-friendly ethos of love that Paris has come to be known for. So, off with those silly metallic eyesores, goes the argument.

Yet the practice of commemorating love in historically charged public locations is neither new nor unique to Paris. Other cities such as Rome, Prague, Liverpool, Hamburg, Seoul, and Moscow also have “love lock points". And in India, one can hardly find a historical monument standing whose walls have not been taken over by unsightly scrawls of love and longing.

It is perhaps because love has been so repressed, rendered persona non grata in the all-important domains of our social, political and economic lives, and confined to the private and the personal, that it is forever itching to claim whatever public spaces it can, so that it gets due recognition as a human element that matters in secular collective life.

Moreover, the hundreds of thousands of padlocks that are now weighing down Parisian bridges also represent a democratization of the will to monument-making that seeks to leave a personal signature of love that would remain long after the lovers themselves are gone. If you are not Shah Jahan, you may not be able to build a Taj Mahal, but you can certainly scribble your (and your beau’s) name on the walls of the Taj Mahal (this is not a recommendation to do so). Or, alternatively, contribute a metallic brick to a collective Taj Mahal of padlocks across the Seine in Paris.

The problem, then, is not so much with the form of this ritual as with its content – the lock as a metaphor of enduring love. One of the most celebrated philosophers of love (among other things)—a Parisian, naturally—Alain Badiou, in his little treatise, In Praise of Love, famously argued that the “first threat to love [is] what I would call the safety threat." Badiou is defending love here from its enemies that were becoming manifest, ironically enough, in the public spaces of Paris—not the love locks, but the proliferation of posters promising “perfect love without suffering".

A love lock put out in the world—presumably for ever—is an invocation of Badiou’s “safety-first love" imagined as longevity (eternal love). The magical thinking and harmless superstition that underpins such an irrational gesture, paradoxically enough, embodies a certain rationality wherein the lock becomes a symbolic insurance policy against the risks of love. It is this impulse of rational egoism—which typically ends up denying that love is “at all important" in this world—that Badiou identifies as the second threat to love.

So while there is certainly an element of sentimentality to the Parisian love lock, and also a bit of “been there, done that", it is less a genuine celebration of love than a pre-fabricated gesture bereft of meaning.

To return to the original question, should Paris then ban these love locks? Yes —not for environmental or heritage or safety reasons but to save love from lovers who would lock it up.

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Updated: 03 Apr 2014, 02:17 PM IST
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