Revolutionary comfort. The Jacobins must be spinning in their graves…

Air France Revolutionary ComfortThe new campaign that is being launched by Air France to American consumers juxtaposes two incongruous terms: “revolutionary” and “comfort.” This marketing ploy would have been inoffensive, if the artist had not coiffed the model with a revolutionary bonnet rouge complete with cockade, placed her in an gilt chaise, and set the whole scene in the most famous symbol of wealth and privilege: the Versailles gardens. The French revolutionary tradition has sold out in the name of comfort, this ad seems to suggest. Vive le capitalisme?

Making Medical Myths – the Case of Maximilien Robespierre, by Peter McPhee

Reconstructed face of robespierre acc to Philippe FroeschMassive media interest followed the digital reconstruction in late 2013 of Robespierre’s face and a new medical diagnosis by Philippe Froesch of the Visual Forensic Laboratory (Barcelona), a specialist in 3D facial reconstruction, and Philippe Charlier from the medical anthropology and medico-legal team at the Université de Versailles-St. Quentin, France. Their conclusion, reported in The Lancet in December 2013, was that Maximilien Robespierre suffered from sarcoidosis, a crippling auto-immune disorder in which the body’s defences attack its own organs and tissues.[1] He was dying from within before he was killed from without.

In making their claims Charlier and Froesch rely in large part on the evidence I adduced of his illnesses and their symptoms in a recent biography and article.[2] But they ignored my historian’s caution about the use of such evidence, raising troubling suggestions about the willingness of these medical researchers to sacrifice judiciousness for media publicity.

Some evidence seems incontrovertible: Robespierre suffered from a facial twitch; he was short-sighted; he had some smallpox scarring; and he was treated for a varicose ulcer. Most important, across the Revolution from 1790 to 1794 he was forced to absent himself from public life for increasing periods, from a few days to six weeks. There were at least eight such periods. He admitted several times that he was ‘exhausted’. In my recent biography I used this evidence to suggest that his ascetic lifestyle and remorseless workload made this extraordinary revolutionary prone to physical and nervous exhaustion to the point of collapse in 1794. It is well known that he was almost completely absent from public life for six weeks before his final appearances at the Convention on 8-9 Thermidor (26-27 July), but this final collapse was only the most prolonged in a long series, correlated with political crises in which he had been involved.

Other evidence Charlier and Froesch accept as “fact” – his consumption of oranges, his jaundiced complexion, his nosebleeds – may possibly be true but were among later allegations made by bitter enemies, such as Stanislas Fréron. In fact, virtually all the evidence we have about Robespierre’s physical condition derives from after his death and has to be taken with extreme caution since Robespierre was then the victim of a massive hate campaign. This sought to vilify him in many ways, including suggesting that his physical appearance was somehow disgusting or could be deciphered to reveal hidden vices.[3] The medical scientists have not allowed for these prejudices in a way that modern historians would.

Most important, the reconstruction of Robespierre’s death mask is almost certainly based on a fake. The lower part of his jaw had been blown apart by a gunshot (there has always been dispute as to whether this was the result of a botched attempt at suicide or from a shot fired by one of those sent to arrest him). His face was roughly held together by a bandage for about seventeen hours, and this was only torn off as he was about to be guillotined. His remains, and those of his allies, were then rapidly buried. There is no evidence that a death mask was made, and the mask used by Charlier and Froesch is suspiciously devoid of scarring on the jaw.

It is to be regretted that the conclusions drawn by Charlier and Froesch have been seized upon by journalists to make the most preposterous claims about this “monster” and “tyrant,” perpetuating the stereotypes constructed by his enemies immediately after his death in order to make him solely responsible for the excesses of “the Terror.” A properly historical account of his life tells a radically different story.

Notes:

[1] “Robespierre: the oldest case of sarcoidosis?,” The Lancet vol. 382, issue 9910, p. 2068 (21 December 2013).

[2] Peter McPhee, “Crises politiques, crises médicales dans la vie de Maximilien Robespierre, 1790-1794,” Annales Historiques de la Révolution Française 371 (2013): 137-152; Peter McPhee, Robespierre: a Revolutionary Life (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

[3] See, for example, Bronislaw Baczko, Ending the Terror: The French Revolution after Robespierre, trans. M. Petheram ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press & Éditions de la maison des sciences de l’homme, 1994); Antoine de Baecque, “Robespierre, monstre-cadavre du discours thermidorien,” Eighteenth-Century Life 21(1997): 203–21; and Colin Jones, “French Crossings : III. The Smile of the Tiger,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (Sixth Series) 22 (2012): 3-35. I thank Colin Jones for his advice on writing this brief article.

On Being Revolutionary

Linton Choosing Terrror coverPerovic The Calendar coverTaws Politics Provisional coverWhat does it mean to be revolutionary? That is, what does it mean to exist, to live, to have a real state or existence for a longer or shorter time under a revolutionary regime? Such existential questions run through the exciting new books pictured here in the fields of History (Marisa Linton), French Literature (Sanja Perovic), and Art History (Richard Taws). Perovic tackles the question of being in time quite literally in her study of the schemes invented to tabulate the days, weeks, and months of the period 1788-1805, some of which included astronomical or symbolic information. Taws embraces the conundrum of existence more philosophically by studying transient forms of art (objects such as passports, paper money, playing cards, and prints) that circulated widely during the tumult but have left few traces to our day. As for Linton, the issue of being and non-being comes across viscerally in her biographical portraits of the men who destroyed each other and themselves in the name of the Republic.
– from a forthcoming review essay placed in issue 47.4 of Eighteenth-Century Studies

What do women want? Invisibililty

Riding coat RedingoteSophie Hicks wears Celine 16womens-well-philo-slide-H2S5-slideThe latest version of women’s styles en travesti, exemplified by yesterday’s dour black and white portrait of London architect Sophie Hicks looking stern in Céline, brings to mind the fashion’s most outspoken proponent during the 1780s and 1790s: Marie-Antoinette. While Caroline Weber championed the queen’s “heroic” adoption of equestrian styles in her 2006 book, suggesting that dressing as a man was proof of her strong character and visionary fashion sense, Marisa Linton in her 2013 book reminds us of another reason for dressing like a man: invisibility. As the New York Times article states, “Invisible. That is what Phoebe Philo’s clothes for Céline make you feel. … Simply invisible. A woman in a perfectly cut shirt and a pair of pants. And, oh, what a relief!” What better reason to dress like a man, especially if one needed to sneak out of the castle at night to attend meetings of the Austrian Committee.

Re-invigorating Teaching the French Revolution: the role of Lego? by Kate Astbury

devise for Astbury

Kate Astbury has been working with school pupils aged 9 and 10 as part of a scheme to teach them research skills. The pupils had a day at the University of Warwick where they learned how to evaluate historical sources and where they were introduced to the collection of Revolutionary prints held at Waddesdon Manor (see http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/french/research/previousprojects/revolutionaryprints)
The pupils particularly enjoyed hunting for the hidden images of the royal family in prints from the post-Terror period.
They then returned to school to undertake their own research projects. They were asked to
- Work in pairs to take one event or theme of the Revolution and examine how the prints can be used to reflect what people felt at the time
- Present their findings as a story board or a newspaper front page or a news bulletin or an essay.
Pupils from Allesley Primary School, Coventry, produced the stop animation video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xM9en0m87pU ) using Lego figures.
You can see more about the Revolutionary prints in a video made by Dr Astbury: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/knowledge/culture/revolutionprints

More reviews of ‘The Frankenstein of 1790 and other Lost Chapters from Revolutionary France’

In preparation for the roundtable at the MLA annual convention, readers may be interested to consult the following reviews of my book which have appeared in the past few months:

- Laura Mason, in The American Historical Review (2013) 118 (5): 1612-1613.

- Jean-Louis Trudel, in >ReS Futurae</ 3 (2013)

- Sanja Perovic, in French Studies 67, 4 (October 2013): 565-566.

- Nanette LeCoat, on H-France Review Vol. 13 (July 2013), No. 103

- James P. Gilroy, in Histoire sociale/Social history 46, Number 91 (May 2013): 231-233.

- Kelsey Rubin-Detlev, in Journal of European Studies 43 (June 2013): 175-77.

In addition, there are the first reviews, posted on May 13, 2013:
- David Coward, in The Times Literary Supplement (London), May 10, 2013.
- Daniel Sullivan, in The Ernest Becker Foundation Newsletter (April 10, 2013).
- Allan Pasco, in Choice (February 2013).

Battle of the books at MLA

Douthwaite_J_Frankenstein_Astbury book cover

Friday, 10 January, at the Mayfair room in the Sheraton Chicago
Session 237. Revolutionary Afterlives: Why Do We Continue to Care about the French Revolution?
10:15–11:30 a.m.
A special session
Presiding: Margaret Anne Cohen, Stanford Univ.
Speakers: Katherine Astbury, Univ. of Warwick; Julia V. Douthwaite, Univ. of Notre Dame; Mary McAlpin, Univ. of Tennessee, Knoxville;
Biliana Kassabov, Stanford Univ.

The literature of the French Revolution generated later developments in fiction and politics, yet it remains unknown. Two new books fill that gap in radically different ways: The Frankenstein of 1790 and Other Lost Chapters from Revolutionary France and Narrative Responses to the Trauma of the French Revolution. This “creative conversation” invites the audience to join speakers in debating the relative benefits to be gained by Douthwaite’s new positivism as opposed to Astbury’s trauma theory.

keywords: Revolution, Fiction, Terror, Trauma, Romanticism

Universalism under Attack: Thanksgiving Reflections inspired by the French

Coq d'indeIt is breath-taking to realize just how different philosophical and political debate is in France as compared to the USA. The contrast rarely emerges with such clarity as in the debate over universalism that is currently shaking the French intelligentsia.

As explained in an admirable article by CNRS historian Sophie Wahnich*, France is currently polarized by two rival views on universalism. On the one hand, there are the proponents of post-colonial studies, often the same people who are held guilty of foisting identity politics in the Hexagon, who charge the nation with hypocrisy. They hold up the 1789 Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen as proof, since its writers promoted universalism without eradicating the injustices and crimes that they were party to, as participants (more or less direct) in an economy built on the slave trade.

On the other hand, there are the die-hard républicains who argue that such anathema is misplaced, because the Revolution’s Declaration of Rights was the watershed moment when the hierarchical, class-bound order of court society was finally revealed for what it was: morally untenable. Universal equality, the Declaration states implicitly, applies to people of color as well as to people born in all socio-economic classes.

Although the French attitude towards the “others” amongst them is complex (and potentially at its nadir at present), the Declaration should not be held up as the enemy, because it has had concrete, positive effects on the creation of national solidarity. Consider the debates inflamed by the persecution of Lt. Colonel Alfred Dreyfus in 1892, and the way statesman Jean Jaurès used the Declaration to defend French Jews such as Dreyfus. Wahnich explains: “Souvenons-nous que Jaurès lorsqu’il doit faire face à l’antisémitisme, rappelle que la Révolution française avait déracialisé l’humanité. Ainsi dans La dépêche du midi du 2 juin 1892 : «Je n’ai aucun préjugé contre les Juifs. […] Je n’aime pas les querelles de race, et je me tiens à l’idée de la Révolution Française, si démodée et si prudhommesque qu’elle semble aujourd’hui : c’est qu’au fond, il n’y a qu’une race, l’humanité.»
True, this solidarity is daily put to test in a country more diverse than ever. But the founding principles are not the enemy.

Wahnich is scheduled to join a public debate about these issues today; we will watch the results with interest.

This debate seems a prime example of how the French maintain a high level of public discussion on important issues of principle. Such abstract, historical discourse strikes most Americans as high-falutin’ talk, less for public consumption than for ivory tower intellectualism. But we eschew such debate at our own risk. Perhaps a bit more talk of principles could curb the alarming rise of hate-speech and hate-crimes amongst us…

Although our nation was also founded on universal principles of equality, special interests have significantly altered the original spirit of the USA.
Consider that most ordinary gesture, repeated by every schoolchild coast to coast, the pledge of allegiance. In July 1942, when the pledge was first approved by the American Congress as a means to bolster national spirit, it went like this: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

That version remained true to the universalistic spirit of the French Declaration of Rights and the US Bill of Rights.

But a mere 12 years later, our pledge departed from its original purpose and became a tool of special interest. Under pressure from groups such as the Knights of Columbus and the Presbyterian Church, and in the hands of a president recently converted to Presbyterianism, the words “Under God” were added. Moreover, they were inserted before “with liberty and justice for all,” thereby suggesting that there exists an order—a moral order, sanctioned by monotheism—superior to universal, legal rights of the American citizen.

As we reflect upon our national identity this week on Thanksgiving, we Americans would do well to look to the French for a bracing reminder of what “for all” is supposed to mean.

* Sophie Wahnich, “Un soupçon sur l’universel,” Libération [section Société] (22 novembre 2013).
Thanks to Olivier Morel from bringing this article to my attention.

Call for proposals, ‘Teaching Representations of the French Revolution’ (MLA book)

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Call for proposals, Teaching Representations of the French Revolution

Essay proposals are invited for a volume in the MLA’s Options for Teaching series entitled Teaching Representations of the French Revolution, to be edited by Julia Douthwaite (University of Notre Dame), Catriona Seth (Université de Lorraine), and Antoinette Sol (University of Texas Arlington).

This goal of this collection of essays is to make this field more accessible to non-specialists and to teachers in different settings, from the Humanities class at a community college to the research seminar in a graduate program. The collection of essays will complement traditional sources and include the arts, ephemera, realia, archival material and once popular but now forgotten texts in the classroom. Accordingly, we intend to highlight through a number of settings how the revolutionary heritage lives on in our own vulnerable times. As a glance at any newspaper will reveal, we still live in a world of propaganda, advertisement, political violence, terrorism, revolution, and reaction. The essays in this proposed volume will speak to ways current students will be helped in understanding these things as well as learning about more narrowly focused topics.

The volume is divided into four sections: 1) How to Represent the Revolution: Classic Debates; 2) What Are the Musts of the Revolution (and Why Should Anyone Care)?; 3) Global Reverberations: The Impact of Emigration and Radicalism; and 4) Teaching the Revolution for Diverse Audiences.

We welcome proposals for essays that draw parallels to current events, on the idea of revolution itself, on global reverberations of the French Revolution (Haiti, Russia, Cuba, China, South America and even the recent ‘Arab spring’), on how these later revolutions intersect with literary representations of the earlier one, and essays on the French Revolution in literatures other than French, American and English such as German, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Haitian, or Italian. In short, essays dealing with European, transnational and the global impact of the French Revolution will round out the French and English traditions.

We are particularly interested in pedagogically-oriented essays on ways to integrate the French Revolution into diverse courses, including European Literature, Humanities, language and writing courses for community colleges and liberal arts colleges, along with ways to present difficult material, how to engage students, and how to help students acquire the necessary contexts to understand the volume’s topic. In addition, essays dealing with teaching with translations, finding source materials (written, visual, or musical), and suggestions for ways to use these in the classroom are welcome.

If you are interested in contributing an essay (3,000-3,500 words) to one of these sections, please submit an abstract of approximately 500 words in which you describe your approach or topic and explain its potential benefit for students and instructors alike. The focus of proposed essays should be pedagogical.

Note that if you plan to quote from student writing in your essay, you must obtain written permission from your students to do so. Proposed essays should not be previously published.

Abstracts and CVs should be sent to the volume editors by 1 June 2014. Please send e-mail submissions to Professor Julia Douthwaite (jdouthwa@nd.edu), Professor Catriona Seth (Catriona.Seth@univ-lorraine.fr), and Professor Antoinette Sol (amsol@uta.edu) with the subject line “Approaches to Teaching the Fr Rev.” Surface-mail submissions can be sent to Professor Douthwaite at the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556.

The politics of fear, circa 1797: The sans-culottes as bogey-man

Goya_-_Que_viene_el_coco_(Here_Comes_the_Bogey-Man)Exploiting people’s fears for political advantage may seem like a contemporary phenomenon, but while perusing a little-known newspaper of 1797 today, I came across a striking case from those long-ago days. It may seem ludicrous to modern eyes, but one can only imagine the anxiety it aroused among parents in the unstable days of the Directory. Read on to enjoy first-hand the image of the sans-culottes as bogey-man, and keep your children close by, just in case…

“Avis aux pères et mères.”

Il y a quelques soirs, deux jolis enfants de cinq et de six ans, jouant derrière la chaise de leur maman, et seulement à quelque pas d’elle, sur le boulevard du Temple, furent accostés par deux obligeants sans-culottes, qui leur dirent que leur mère les envoyait pour les reconduire chez eux.
Les enfants les croyant, les deux frères et amis s’esquivèrent tenant chacun le leur; puis, à une certaine distance, ayant l’air d’avoir oublié l’adresse, ils la leur demandèrent, et les amenèrent effectivement à leur domicile, où ils se firent bien récompenser de leurs bons services.
Quant à la malheureuse mère, qui s’aperçut à l’instant de la perte de ses enfants, rien ne peut peindre l’état horrible de désespoir où elle fut depuis la fin du jour, jusqu’à ce qu’à onze heures du soir on pût la découvrir au corps-de-garde du boulevard du Temple, qui l’avait recueillie et lui apprendre que ses enfants étaient retrouvés.
On doit ajouter que ces petits incidents sont fort communs depuis quelques temps, et forment une spéculation assez lucrative. Quand les enfants ne peuvent donner leur adresse, on les dépouille, et ils disparaissent… et ce manège odieux se fait sous les yeux du ministère de la police.”

Journal du Petit Gautier, fructidor an 5 (September 1797)

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