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

Assassin's Creed Unity videogame-super  French

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.

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…

Life mirrors literature again! (Thank you, Victor Hugo)

I think that literature can inspire action and change your mind.  Not forever, but at least now and then, in little ways.  And I think I may be living proof of it as of last night.

(First, you should know I spent most of the summer working on an essay on teaching the revolutionary spirit through Les Misérables!)

  Around 7:30 last night, my husband Rich and I had an experience that, in retrospect, seems like it was uncannily similar to Les Misérables, Book Eight, “Le Mauvais pauvre” (chapters 1-7).  Remember the scene, where Marius looks through a hole in the wall (Judas de la Providence), and is stunned to witness the abject poverty of the family next door?  The stunner is this line: “Il était en quelque sorte, lui, le dernier chaînon du genre humain qu’ils touchassent, il les entendait vivre ou plutôt râler à côté de lui, et il n’y prenait point garde!” (2:28; “he was in some way the last link of the human race that they touched, he heard them live or rather breathe beside him, and he took no notice!” [744]). Empathy fills his heart, and he is spurred to kindly action thereafter (at least for a while).  

Here’s what happened to us.

Rich and I were sitting on our front porch after dinner, watching the lightning flashes illuminate the darkening sky, when we saw a boy wobbling by on a slightly too-big bicycle, with a large black dog running alongside him.   At first, we thought: wow that is amazing; what a well-trained dog.  It is unusual to see a dog that stays alongside its owner on a bike. 

But soon we realized that the dog was not obeying her young owner, rather it was running all around and the boy was trying to coax the dog to come with him.  Meanwhile, even though the street was quiet at that time of twilight, there was still some traffic now and then.  Every time a car (or worse yet one of those obnoxious SUVs going too fast on our street—speed limit 20 MPH), travelled by, we would brace and anxiously watch in fear of the boy or the dog getting hit by a car. 

After a few minutes of watching that, we couldn’t stand it anymore.  So we put on shoes, grabbed a dog leash and ran out to help the boy.  The dog is a large, frisky puppy and clearly not obedient yet, but she is friendly and we easily got her on a leash.  We tried to show the boy how to ride and hold onto the leash at the same time, but it was clearly not going to work with such a strong dog and a little boy.

So I gave him the leash and I got on his bike, and rode alongside him to his house, which turned out to be right around the corner.  But oh so far from our comfortable world.  The boy lives on Yukon Street, literally two blocks away from us, but around the corner toward the ghetto.  His house is rundown, the front gate is broken, trash lies in the street, and worse, no one was at home when we got there and the front door was locked. 

I stayed with him for a few minutes when a big black Cadillac drove down the alley and it was his mom and little sister.  They had been out driving around the neighborhood trying to find him and the dog.  The mother, Orlene, was visibly shaken, just like we would be if our young child went missing around twilight on a summer night.  After she calmed down, opened the house door, and ushered the kids in, we got to talking.  She is a single mom of four kids, ages 7-17, and clearly has her hands full.  She works as a school aide in the South Bend schools.

After talking a bit, I said, “How old is your son?”  When I learned he is 10 years old, I perked up and said, “Would you like to enroll him in a class I teach for free at the public library?”  And she was very interested.  Next thing I knew, we were headed out for another little walk—Orlene, her daughter, and their dog—back to my house!  They sat on the front porch while I ran inside to get a flyer for the class, “Write YOUR Story” and now the boy (whose name is Zondré) is going to be one of my students! 

While we were talking on the front porch, Orlene told me the story of Gilgamesh.  I did not know that story—and what a wonderful story-teller she is! 

It was a magical moment.  Right here on Riverside Drive in South Bend, Indiana.

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.

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


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.


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!

44. July 28. THE DAY KNOWN AS THERMIDOR! Answers to Thermidor Fun Facts game

Answers to Thermidor Fun Facts game (June 14 – July 28, 2014)

minus 1-5: excellent!
minus 6-10: good job
minus 11-20: not bad
minus 21-43: keep reading!

1. d. Adultery. Although guilty of many other acts, Robespierre Sr. seems to have been a faithful husband. The misdeeds of Maximilien-Barthélémy-François de Robespierre (1732-77) are recounted in Max Gallo, Robespierre: Histoire d’une solitude (repr. 1994), pp. 29-31.

2. b. Pillow (because he was prone to nose bleeds). Robespierre’s biographer Ruth Scurr notes a servant’s claim that “every night he bathed his pillow in blood” and explains: “Perhaps Robespierre had nosebleeds (people with high blood pressure and fiery tempers often do). These certainly would have left him anemic and contributed to the unusual pallor of his skin that many contemporaries noted” (Scurr, Fatal Purity, 2006), p. 112.

3. c. Sister Charlotte Robespierre (1760-1834) was author of Mémoires de Charlotte Robespierre sur ses deux frères (1835).

4. True. His concerns were outnumbered by colleagues in the Convention; his proposal did not make it into the law.

5. d. Snake, as in La Queue de Robespierre (1794). See Baczko, Comment sortir de la Terreur or Douthwaite, Frankenstein of 1790, ch. 4.

6. b. Mme de Genlis, author of Adèle et Théodore and many other edifying tales, dramaturgy, novels, and memoirs. See Lesley Walker, A Mother’s Love.

7. a. A mob invaded the Tuileries palace on June 20, 1792.

8. d. The orator Georges-Jacques Danton does not feature in La Nuit de Varennes. He is played by Gérard Depardieu in the 1983 film, Danton, by Andrzej Wajda.

9. b. The two “reigns of Terror” in religious history were 1792-94 and 1797-98, as detailed in Aston’s book and Victor Pierre, La Terreur sous le Directoire. Histoire de la persécution politique et religieuse après le coup d’état du 18 fructidor (7 septembre 1797). (Retaux-Bray, 1887). Other historians, however, speak of the “White Terror” (Terreur blanche) which erupted in spring 1795, especially in the South-East, and which incited royalist gangs to attack Jacobins or those associated with Jacobinism.

10. b. It is Charles-Henri Sanson, the Royal Executioner of France during the reign of King Louis XVI and High Executioner of the First French Republic, and he seeks atonement for regicide in Balzac’s story.

11. d. All of the above. The Constitution was the ushered through the legislative process by the Montagnards and by popular referendum under the First Republic.

12. b. Lobster Thermidor, a dish consisting of a creamy mixture of cooked lobster meat, egg yolks, and brandy (often cognac), stuffed into a lobster shell. Lobster Thermidor was created in 1894 by Marie’s, a Parisian restaurant near the Theatre Comédie Française, to honor the opening of the play Thermidor by Victorien Sardou. Due to the expensive and extensive preparation involved, Lobster Thermidor is usually considered a recipe primarily for special occasions (or the 1%).

13. c. Georges-Jacques Danton spoke those words.

14. c. Fructidor is the twelfth month of the republican calendar; it means “fruit” and “present or gift.”

15. b. General Napoléon Bonaparte pulled off a successful coup d’état on the day known as Brumaire. Brumaire is the second month of the republican calendar; it comes from the French word brume or fog.

16. a. In February 1793, the revolutionary government declared war against England and Holland; in March 1793 the war was also directed against Spain. (War had already been declared against Austria in April 1792).

17. d. hot. The earth was too hot to tread upon, according to Wordsworth in Book Nine of The Prelude (1804).

18. c. Thomas Paine (born English, naturalized American). A decree was passed at the end of 1793 excluding foreigners from their places in the Convention; Paine was thus arrested and imprisoned in December 1793. A chalk mark, supposed to be left by the jailer to denote that the prisoner in this cell was to be collected for execution, was left on the inside of his door, rather than the outside, as the door happened to be open. But for this quirk of fate, he would have died the following morning. He was finally released in November 1794.

19. a. The marquis de Sade, Justine, was allegedly a favorite book of the Committee members, due to its graphic portrayal of violence against innocent victims.

20. a. In May 1794, a young woman named Cécile Renault was caught near Robespierre’s dwelling with two knives in her possession. She was executed a month later.

21. e. all of the above. Vive l’amitié franco-américaine!

22. d. “Les cheveux à la Titus. Women who were wore this style were considered quite bold. Source: L’Art et les artifices de la beauté, 6 ed. (Paris: Uzanne, Octave, 1902), 88.

23. b. D. W. Griffith in Orphans of the Storm (1921). Two thumbs up for that film!

24. a. started hugging and kissing each other, thus Le baiser Lamourette, featured in Robert Darnton’s classic book, Kiss of Lamourette (1989).

25. d. Madame Roland said those famous words.

26. d. poisoning their bodies with intravenous injections of chemicals. To be technical, b. is also correct: chopping off their heads with repeated blows of an ax. I confused French with English methods here. As Susanne Alleyn notes in her comment, the executioner in France had victims kneel and sliced off their heads with a sword, instead of using axes as in England. (Bungling did happen, however, with both methods.) Thanks to Susanne for the keen attention to detail that makes A Revolution in Fiction so much fun! “Thermidor Fun Fact Day Twenty-Six: The Humanity of the Guillotine” (7/09/14).

27. e. all of the above

28. b. great anxiety and concern. This was outrageous, and dangerous for the country! Necker’s dismissal on 11 July 1789–provoked by his decision not to attend Louis XVI’s speech to the Estates-General–made the people of France very angry. Soon rumors spread that the king meant to attack Paris or arrest the deputies. This tumult eventually provoked the storming of the Bastille on 14 July. The king recalled Necker on 19 July.

29. c. Toussaint Louverture

30. d. absent; Charlotte Corday is not seen in David’s painting.

American trivia Bastille Day quiz. Answers published at the bottom of the quiz on July 14, 2014.

31. a. Victor Hugo in Les Misérables (1862). The quote is by Bertrand Barère (de Vieuzac), presented on 23 messidor An II (July 11, 1794).

32. b. the king’s confessor, the Irish non-juror priest Abbé Edgeworth, is one of the co-narrators of Le Cimetière de la Madeleine.

33. c. the Chapelle Expiatoire is on the site of the original Madeleine Cemetery.

34. d. 1832 is the date of the revolution in Hugo’s Les Misérables; he witnessed the killing in person and called it “a folly drowned in blood.” 800 people died or were wounded during the June uprising.

35. a. Leïla Sebbar, Le Pays de ma mère: Voyage en Frances [sic](Bleu autour, 2013); illus. Sébastien Pignon. This is in Sebbar’s chapter on “La République,” pp. 16-21. It is a bewildering (or uncoherent) chapter. On the one hand, Sebbar takes a militant stance about women’s rights; on the other hand her book features pen and ink drawings of nude women wearing the bonnet rouge of the Republic but displayed with legs wide open, in ways that utterly lack dignity. What was she thinking?! Sebbar is describing the life of young Muslim girls in France here, and she ends on an equivocal point:
“Les grandes sœurs sont musulmanes, elles le disent, elles ne sont ni putes ni soumises, elles sont françaises, elles défendent la République laïque française.
Que diront les héritières aux jeunes filles au hijab?
Elles diront que la liberté n’est pas négociable,” 20.

36. b. “Oublier n’est pas pardonner.” Not intended to suggest that Baudelaire was royalist, just an interesting echo of an emotion in the air.

37. d. At Quiberon, along the Côte sauvage of Brittany.

38.. b. Victor Hugo, Les Misérables. This image is found in Book II, Cosette, 1, Waterloo, chapter XVII.”Faut-il trouver bon Waterloo? / Should We Approve of Waterloo?”

39. c. Marie-Thérèse (born 1778), who became la Duchesse d’Angoulême by marrying her cousin who was the son of le Comte d’Artois. For twenty minutes in 1830, she was Queen of France, and her tombstone reflects that fact by calling her “Reine douairière.”

40. a. they were the same person. The Comtesse allegedly replaced Marie-Thérèse, who suffered from nerves, at the public life in the court of King Louis XVIII.

41. c. Jules Michelet (1798-1874). Michelet was born in the disused chapel formerly owned by the sisters (religieuses) de Saint-Chaumont, on the rue de Tracy near Saint-Denis (Paris 1e-2e).

42. d. Shades (les mânes) are not usually seen to wear a pointed beard, a black beret, or to be smoking a Gauloise. That would be existentialists.
* See Schechter’s essay in Martyrdom and Terrorism, ed. Dominic Janes and Alex Houen (Oxford, 2014), pp. 152-178.

43. a. Robespierre was born on May 6, 1758, and so in July 1794 he was 36 years old at death.

44. July 28. THE DAY KNOWN AS THERMIDOR! Answer to Thermidor Fun Facts! END OF ARTICLE. (whew! what was I thinking?!)

Hope you enjoyed it!
à bientôt,
Julia D.


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