Happy Thanksgiving and a query on the political significance of cheese labels

Bonhomme de Normandie brieCamembert du Pere JeromeWhat is the deal with the bonnet blanc of the Bonhomme de Normandie on the circle of Brie cheese with his portrait?  And how does it compare, politically, with the striped white and red bonnet of his rival Père Jérôme of Camembert fame?

Are they supposed to resemble the head-ware for men of a certain age in the Norman peasantry?  Or are the modified, blanched out versions of the revolutionary bonnet rouge?  They certainly look a lot like the Phyrgian bonnet…  Any thoughts out there?

Bon appétit to you, reader, on this day when Americans coast-to-coast (with some exceptions) probably eat better than the French.

Eric Hazan and Sebastian Budgen respond to David Bell

I keep going back to this piece because it makes for riveting reading, so I’ll pass along the tip to you here.
Eric Hazan, French writer and activist, published A People’s History of the French Revolution, and it appears that Prof. Bell did not approve.

Thanks to Dave Andress and his blog: The French Revolution Network, for bringing us up to speed on controversies among French historians such as this one.
I felt sort of sad to hear Princeton’s History department skewered for being right wing and out of touch, because in my day it was probably the best department at Princeton, with faculty such as Natalie Zemon Davis, Robert Darnton, Jerrold Seigel, Christine Stansell, and sometimes Joan Scott from the Institute.

The Politics of Revolutionary Art Today: what news is really newsworthy?

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Today’s New York Times carries two splashy articles of interest to revolution-watchers, but a third, short piece buried in section C makes the most useful commentary on the way things are. The first article details the backlash of the Parisian intelligentsia to a new video game set during the French Revolution; the second article reviews Jennifer Lawrence’s role as leader of a people’s revolt in the Hunger Games series (Mocking Jay, Part One). Neither of them will surprise you much. The video game has incited anger because of its inaccurate portrayal of the Revolution, and especially its sympathetic depiction of the royal Bourbons. Reporter Dan Bilefsky suggests that such outrage is misplaced, given other more important issues facing the country, and dismisses the whole event in ironic ridicule, announcing: “only in France could a video game provoke an earnest philosophical debate over the decadence of the monarchy, the moral costs of democracy, the rise of the far right, and the meaning of the state.” Describing the sequel to the Hunger Games franchise, Manohla Dargis notes that the heroine’s “very survival has made her an existential threat to Panem” and that her bellicose actions in this installment “serve as a rebuke to the Capitol,” until the end at least. It appears that the film winds down to a rote handling of gender and war, where “Katniss Everdeen stands gaping at the rescue, with widening and watering eyes.” If it is unsurprising that an American reporter would scoff at the French outrage over the memory of the First Republic, it is also unsurprising that a Hollywood film would treat its heroine like “the girl.” Both media—the NYT reporting on French foibles, and the Hollywood film industry’s treatment of young women—can be counted on to perpetuate those stereotypes.

HAACKE-GALLERY6-superJumboFor a bracing wake-up call on the people’s power to change the world (or rather our impotence), readers have to look a little deeper into the paper. I suggest you look into the work of Hans Haacke, reviewed by Ken Johnson on page C24. Haacke’s work foregrounds the role of money, notably the money of the billionaire Koch brothers, who have helped conservative causes rise to unprecedented prominence in American affairs. It does so by making novel use of artistic media, such as the 13-foot-tall “Gift Horse” sculpture (soon to be displayed in Trafalgar Square in London), whose leg is harnessed to the London Stock Exchange. Or consider “Circulation,” which operates through a system of transparent tubes piping water–and power–across the gallery floor. As Johnson notes, this kind of art provides “sane thinking about the real world and its interwoven systems.”
Haacke’s exhibit at the Paula Cooper gallery is unlikely to lull observers into a feel-good sense of our superiority. It will most likely gnaw at your consciousness by reminding you of your insignificance.

And for that reason, exactly, it deserves our attention.

Dolce & Gabbana’s Medieval line: Nostalgia for a Very Old Regime

Dolce & Gabbana 2014 3Dolce & Gabbana 2014 2.jpegOn this dank, grey autumn day, as the rain comes lashing against the attic windows, I write in celebration of going elsewhere, ailleurs, through the beauties of fashion photography.
There have certainly been a lot of strange-looking affects lately, in the feathery and box-like looks featured in the New York Times. So imagine my surprise on opening the September W, and finding the Middle Ages come walking off the page. And they are gorgeous!
Girl knights in diamonds and black beaded tresses,
Queens in red flowing and gauzy long dresses.
Pouting young peasant boys gazing with love
These are a few of my favorite things.
Thank you, Dolce & Gabbana, for making the past look so luscious. The ongoing recycling of past styles—as described in Chris White’s now classic article on the “Hot Baroque“—and here, is what makes Dolce & Gabbana such a fabulous line to watch.

p.s. Dear Chris, Did you know that your article is the all-time favorite posted on “A Revolution in Fiction”? Congratulations! Write some more!

François Hollande and Louis XVI?

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This just in from our friend Sonja Stojanovic (Ph.D. candidate at Brown Univ.): a recent article in the Wall Street Journal is tarring François Hollande with the same brush as is usually employed on Louis XVI! What could a myopic, timid-looking head of state who is enjoying the worst-ever popularity ratings have to do with the grandson of Louis XV?!
Read it for yourself and find out:
Jonathan Fenby, “French Malaise, from Louis XVI to Hollande,” Wall Street Journal (September 10, 2014).

The Reason for their Success (of New York and of the French Revolution): Taking Care of Land and Water, Together

The success of New York city may seem unrelated to the success of the French Revolution. But the central reason for the former (according to Russell Shorto’s article in today’s NYT)—that stewardship over the land and water are crucial to the creation of a cohesive, successful community—is also a cornerstone of the latter.

The source of New York’s greatness, according to Shorto, is a tolerant spirit and an entrepreneurial energy married to a collective concern for the water and land of the island. As he writes: “The Dutch [founders of New Amsterdam] maintained the balance between the individual and the collective out of necessity, for water management continued — and continues to this day — to be vital to protecting their country. Funnily enough, because of climate change, the rest of us are all in that same place today. We don’t just need to rebuild infrastructure to guard against flooding. We need to embrace concepts like regional planning, to acknowledge that there are issues in which individual and even municipal autonomy have to be sacrificed to the greater good.”

What is the connection to the French Revolution? I would have been stymied to explain, had I not spent the weekend in the company of an excellent guide: Jean-Laurent Rosenthal‘s book, The Fruits of Revolution: Property Rights, Litigation, and French Agriculture, 1700-1860 (Cambridge UP, 1992).

Rosenthal explains that medieval institutions were remarkably resistant to change, because the people involved—that is, the individuals, groups, and the king—would have had to bear the redistributional consequences of land and property reform. And they preferred not to. Despite the efforts by King Louis XVI and his ministers, nothing changed…. until 1789.

“The high degree of uncertainty in Old Regime property rights ensured that, in the absence of reform, conflicts over the ownership and control of land and water would no doubt have continued to monopolize the energies and resources of landowners. Because of the very uncertainty of property rights, however, reform could not have occurred without dramatic redistribution. Since redistribution of property was contingent on political change, it is impossible to separate the Revolution’s economic reforms from the Revolution itself” (179). So it was worth it, for the good results produced by the Revolution could not have come about any other way.

The Dutch have known it since time immemorial. The inhabitants of New York realized it in the 17th century. The French were forced to admit it in the 19th century. And the rest of the Western world is now waking up to the fact today: we will not survive unless we work together to protect our land and natural resources. How can such a mentality take hold? Through an engaged citizenry who can see beyond private interest for the public good. Are we ready for that challenge? One can only hope…

The difference a review can make

Book reviews are not necessarily an author’s favorite choice for late-night reading. But last night, caught in the grips of pre-back-to-school insomnia, I happened to stumble upon the review of The Frankenstein of 1790 by Katarzyna Bartoszyńska, in Modern Philology (2014): E001-E004. I have never met Katarzyna Bartoszyńska nor set foot on the campus of Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, where she works. But as I pondered, weak and weary, if I still have the stamina to meet the expectations of college teaching again this fall, her words were a wonderful boost. She clearly had taken the time to read the whole book, and she accepted the invitation I extended to readers, to seek out other traces of the revolutionary legacy today, wherever they may be found. A note on recent events in Ukraine (see related interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot) accomplished my hopes–that the book would incite readers to take my findings and plumb the stories for what they may teach tomorrow’s readers, about the power of words to keep revolutionary hopes alive.

So I’d like to say thank you, young colleague, for giving me back the energy I thought I might have lost.

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