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.

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

Assassin's Creed Unity videogame-super  French Revolutoinrs_634x971-140910121501-634.mockingjay.cm.91114

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 snide NYT reporting on French culture and politics, 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.

A whirlwind week for revolution watchers

This has been a whirlwind week for revolution watchers world-wide. Ukraine remains unstable, Syria is flashing into red-hot crisis-mode, and now there is the Hong Kong situation or the “Umbrella Revolution” unfolding before our eyes!
Not to mention the mock demonstration mounted by Chanel during Fashion Week in Paris….

Karl Lagerfeld leads a demonstration Paris Oct 2014

As seen in the photo, from the October 1 New York Times, Karl Lagerfeld led a group including Gisele Bünchen holding a bullhorn through a fake city street set up in the Grand Palais. The placards announce, “Boys Should Get Pregnant Too!” “Tweed is better than Tweet,” and “Be Your own Stylist.” (A couple in the back are in French but illegible in the photo.)
Perhaps the most obnoxious is the one announcing, “Be Different!”

Really, Chanel?

Is that the most politics you can muster?
Whatever happened to the feisty French spirit of engagement or solidarité?

The mock demonstration of Lagerfeld et al. is tasteless, weird, and one might even say crudely irresponsible, given the many injustices encountered daily in France, and the legitimate revolutions trying to stay afloat these days, and whose freedom-fighters could use some support. Check out the photo of the protesters in Hong Kong, from the same day’s paper.

Hong Kong Protesters October 1 2014
Consider the words of Martin Lee, whose article in today’s New York Times provides riveting reading. He begins, “At the age of 76, I never expected to be tear-gassed in Hong Kong, my once peaceful home. Like many of the other tens of thousands of nonviolent protesters in the Hong Kong streets last Sunday, I was shocked when the prodemocracy crowd was met by throngs of police officers in full riot gear…”
And especially read this part: “What would be worse, of course, is if the mandarins in Beijing conclude that global censure is meaningless, that over-reacting with tear gas and violence against peaceful protesters will cost them nothing but a few weak protestations from the world community.”

Hey, readers from the world community, that means you! that means us.

François Hollande and Louis XVI?

LouisXVI-France115hollande-articleLarge

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…

Brotherly love in the classroom, or how to teach Les Misérables

Gavroche

This summer I wrote an article on how to keep the “unfamiliar light” aflame in the teaching of Les Misérables. What follows are my favorite parts:

VI. Problems and opportunities

This last point reveals the main problem of studying Hugo’s commitment to revolutionary ideals in Les Misérables: it is inconsistent. Despite the militant preface and the moments where people help each other, Les Misérables ends with a comforting vision of Christian death en famille. Parts of Valjean’s dying speech sound like the words of a wealthy industrialist, not a repentant ex-convict: he dies happy, knowing that his son-in-law now owns not only his fortune, but also the manufacturing secrets that made the Montreuil-sur-mer factory such a success. Through their tears, the Baron Pontmercy and wife Cosette embrace the bourgeois happiness this will bring. As Brombert notes, “not a word is said about social conditions, while private property is justified, indeed sanctified.”*

Faced with this disappointing ending, the teacher has some choices. One can explain it as a result of Hugo’s socio-spiritual milieu (Brombert), side-step it by labeling Hugo a “divided person” (Ewing), or turn it into a discussion of privilege. Although economic privilege is at stake here rather than race, the basic principles could easily be extended to the American case. Consider Kristof’s bleak article on the working class in the American west. It concludes on a decidedly Hugolien note: “the essential starting point is empathy.” For a more political discussion, consider the explosive revelations found in White Privilege: “The economic power system is not invisible—everyone knows that money brings privilege. But the myth persists that all have access to that power through individual resourcefulness. This myth of potential economic equality supports the invisibility of the other power systems that prevent fulfillment of that ideal” (Wildman and Davis). By narrowing his vision to one exceptional person, Hugo brushes the unfairness of capitalism and privilege under the rug.

The author seems to have lost his nerve by the end of the novel, and the recent adaptations have done even more to muffle the political potential of Les Misérables. Critiqued for its “push-button emotionalism” and “lurid melodrama” on opening night, Les Miz has nevertheless been packing theaters around the globe since 1985 (Nightingale and Palmer). Can one blame Tom Hooper, director of the 2012 film, for following such a lucrative lead?

Faced with this media onslaught, students might be invited to rewrite the end of Les Misérables. Maybe they could make it answer to the preface. Perhaps Marius might remember his father’s sacrifice, or see the ghosts of Enjolras or Éponine lighting a path forward? Using creativity may be the best way to restore urgency to Les Misérables. It might allow some students to feel brotherly love, if only in the classroom. What happens next will be up to them.

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Did you hear the one about Joséphine the fish monger?

The  Progress of Empress Josephine VERY close-up
Those of you interested in the poissard tradition will be intrigued to learn (as I was) that Empress Joséphine had a certain connection to the humble women of the marketplace. As seen in this English engraving, not only was she depicted as a child of the land (“A planter’s daughter”), but even when she ascends the social hierarchy she is still labeled a “Loose Fish” (bottom left). Another print of 1805 by Gilray represents an obese Joséphine as having “ci-devant poissardes” as her bridesmaids.
This tantalizing print and excellent background material are found in Joséphine, exposition présentée au Musée du Luxembourg du 12 mars au 29 juin 2014 (Paris: Musées nationaux, 2014), 20-21.

Anybody else out there interested in the history of the Directory period (1795-99)?
I have posted calls for papers at the ASECS conference in Los Angeles (March 19-21, 2015), and the American Comparative Literature Association conference in Seattle (March 26-29, 2015), and I’m open to proposals!

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