A reader sent in a response to my Phantom of the Bakery post that I’d like to share (with permission). I love to hear from readers, and this one is particularly fun if you are a fellow history geek and loves to get lost in details that almost certainly have no relevance to the original thread of ideas.

John,

If I understand your argument correctly, you’re saying that the phantom’s activities cannot, given the information we know about him, be confined solely to the opera.  Given his propensity for using phantom-related extravagances to fund his work, and a lack of any other discernible skills, he likely survives using those same phantasmic spectacles.  Which would create an embarrassing disproportion between his methods and his aims as he goes about his day.  ‘I command you to give me a brioche and some cheese, or you shall all suffer my wrath!  No, no, not that kind of the cheese, the Camembert, please.  No, you don’t have to wrap it, I’ll just take it to go.  No, I’m sorry, I haven’t got any centimes.  Can you break a 5 franc piece?  Fear me!  See you tomorrow.’  That sort of thing.  Or, to avoid such unpleasant situations, he just pays for everything in secret, using the opera as his bank.  Which leads one to wonder, did the play focus on the least intriguing part of the phantom’s life?  Was Paris being consumed by phantom-adjacent hysteria, riots in the street, collapse of governments, coups and counter-coups, people coming forward as phantom impostors, baseless accusations of phantom activity against prominent citizens played out in the press, and yet we’re only shown his effects on the opera?  Why not show us a city taken hostage by a series of mysterious notes written by a man that no one’s seen?

…I would propose that the phantom is only semi-corporeal; he’s an impingement of an abstract idea into the physical realm.  I think he represents French nationalism, and the idea of what constitutes what it means to be French.

Firstly, there’s the timing.  The Prussian army reached Paris in 1870-71, before which Louis Napoleon was deposed.  German unification was in 1871, and Italian unification was completed around the same time.  Nationalist movements were feeding what would become a persistent series wars in the Balkans, and were tearing Austria-Hungary apart.  It had been a century which had begun with the Napoleonic wars, which was thrown into turmoil by the revolutions of 1848, and which would see fragile empires disintegrate slowly until World War I ushered in an era of nation states.  The phantom is born of the fall of Napoleon III.  The spectre of a French Empire, of pan-European enlightened despotism, has been cast out into the shadows, where it survives in a degraded, malicious form.

Secondly, there’s the symbolism of his habitat.  The modern city of Paris was largely shaped by Louis Napoleon’s urban planning.  Even Victor Hugo, who had been exiled by the emperor, writes extensively of Parisian tunnels and the efforts made to refurbish them (although Les Miserables takes place in 1832, during the July monarchy, I think Hugo talks a little about Napoleon III’s infrastructure projects).  Where might the ghost of French conquest retreat, but into the substructures which provide the foundation for its greatest city?

Thirdly, there’s the music.  Nationalism in Europe was always more visible in its concert halls than in its newspapers.  Dvorak wrote operas in Czech, while Liszt wrote Hungarian rhapsodies, and Chopin Polonnaises.  Nabucco may nominally be about the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, but in ‘The Chorus of Hebrew Slaves’ Italians heard a call to Resorgimento.  If the ideal of a French empire had died on the battlefield, the one place it might survive and flourish would be through the opera house.  I think Milan Kundera once wrote that, ‘the history of Europe is the history of its wars and of its music.’  Having lost one, the other remains.

Fourthly, there’s the plot.  What’s the phantom’s obsession with Christine Daaé?  Is she really so much more talented?  Or is his preference for her based on her Frenchness?  A French soprano to sing French operas in French?  And her rival, wikipedia tells me, is Carlotta Guidicelli.  Not a Frenchwoman.  She’d have the accent for Verdi, but not Bizet.

Lastly, there’s his deformity.  Like all ideals of nationalism, the phantom is, at heart, hideous and abhorrent.  He’s consigned to the sewers by polite society because the ideas and the logic he represents are dangerous and destructive.  People would pretend he doesn’t exist.  In 1900, France would be caught off-guard by the Dreyfuss Affair.  Anti-semitism apparently was rife beneath a society in which it was not spoken.  The military might lie or bungle, as long as it was in the interests of an abstraction called France.  Dreyfuss, innocent or not, might as well be condemned, because his guilt was in the best interests of France herself.  He could be pardoned as a criminal, but he had first to be convicted as a Jew.  Nationalism in such bald viciousness is rarely confronted.  But the phantom doesn’t seek a confrontation.  He survives, waits, and bursts into public at the opportune moment.  The latent ideas of empire, of cultural superiority, of race theory, burst unexpectedly into a polite society unprepared to deal with their own preconceptions.  If the flag represents liberté, égalité and fraternité, the phantom represents the darker realities (African and Asian colonies, the memory of the slave trade, of the Haitian revolution, of empire and cannon fodder, and Robespierre’s terror) that undergird these lofty ideals.  Where have Frenchmen ever been more equal, than in the graves of Waterloo?  When have they been more free, than in murdering a weak, mild-mannered man named Louis Capet?  Where does France find brotherhood, if not on the barricade?  Certainly not in the salons of Paris Saint-Germaine, or in the lobby of the National Opera House.

So, my theory, is that the events of the play demonstrate a failed transgression of the ideal into the material.  The phantom is born of the fall of the Second Empire, and survives as an abstract ideal toward which history and society can progress.  He is able to impinge on the physical world, but only through culture, through the ephemeral settings of music.  He does blackmail the opera house.  Why does he need money?  For social status, the same as generations of nobility before him.  His goal is to take physical form, become the embodiment of a movement towards national solidarity and national purity.  He is the predecessor of Pétain, and thus the first Vichy Frenchman.  And, like all zealots, he is capable of unlimited cruelty in pursuit of his ideal, which, at its heart, is the elimination of everything and everyone not entirely French.  It’s a dream of the absolute destruction of everything.