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.

Revolution beer, an intriguing newcomer to the market

Revolution beer clenched fists for saleA visit to the website of Revolution beer, brewed in Chicago, makes for an interesting foray into the ambiguities of revolutionary popular culture as it is understood today in the USA. The brewery’s icons, which draw heavily on Soviet propaganda and Maoist imagery (brawny hunks and clenched fists feature prominently), promote the drink primarily as a working man’s brew. The few women included such as on the “Bottom Up Wit T-Shirt,” available through its gift shop, are also defined by their hard bodies and toughness, as her slogan declares: “This working woman don’t drink no girly beer.” But what makes Revolution beer revolutionary? The website tries to make capitalism sound compassionate by stressing the founder’s ties to the neighborhood: “He worked to promote local businesses and manage the Logan Square Farmers Market. While working at the Chamber, he found a cool, old building on Milwaukee Avenue with a nice tin ceiling.” As fellow admirers of the revolutionary spirit, we wish the folks at Revolution Brewing well. But we hope that in the future they might do something really revolutionary with their clout, instead of becoming yet one more trendy product vying for the beer-drinker’s cash. How about it, CEO Cibak?

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).

Bastille Day quiz 2013

Feu-d'artifice-du-14-juillet-paris-2012

1. The “Rive Gauche” of Paris only took on that name during the Revolution, in 1789. Before 1789, the neighborhood to the South of the Seine was called:
a. Là-bas, or “over there”
b. La Rive du Sud, or the “South side”
c. Le Méridional
d. L’Outre-Petit-Pont or the “other side of the Petit-Pont.”

2. What Danish-born author revered Robespierre as a young person and wrote about France as the “holy land” of freedom?
a. Søren Kierkegaard, author of Fear and Trembling and The Concept of Irony
b. Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa and “Babette’s Feast”
c. Hans Christian Andersen, author of The Little Mermaid and Thumbelina
d. Niels Bohr, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics for his understanding of atomic structure and quantum mechanics

3. This event of 1870-71 is widely considered the last gasp of the French revolutionary tradition.
a. The Algerian War
b. The slow assassination, by poison, of Émile Zola
c. The Civil war known as “La Fronde”
d. The Commune

4. What novel published in 2013 features a ventriloquist’s dummy made in the image of Madame Defarge, the malevolent tricoteuse of Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities?
a. We are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler
b. Bad Monkey, by Karl Hiaasen
c. The Powers, by Valerie Sayers
d. 1q84, by Haruki Murakami

5. Where can the aficionado of the French Revolution find a treasure trove of dolls, manga, T-shirts, cheese wrappers, and other icons of the spirit of ’89 from global popular culture right now?
a. At Georgetown University in Washington, DC
b. At the Farragut, TN, Folklife Museum
c. At the Louvre in Paris, France
d. At the Musée de la Révolution française in Vizille, France

6. Which rock song features lyrics that sound like an account of Louis XVI’s last days?
a. The Rolling Stones, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”
b. Hall and Oates, “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)”
c. Coldplay, “I Used to Rule the World”
d. Gilbert O’Sullivan, “Alone Again, Naturally”

7. According to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), one of the most demeaning affronts dealt to King Louis XVI and the royal family in October 1789 was that they were brought back to Paris and forced to live in a royal mansion that was converted into a ….
a. Pig sty
b. Bastille
c. Meeting hall
d. Brothel
.
8. What company was raked over the coals as “Marie-Antoinette’s Favorite Airline” in a January 2013 article by the Wall Street Journal?
a. American Airlines
b. Delta
c. Air France
d. United Airlines

9. A New York Times article of March 2013 (“You May Now Kiss the Computer Screen”) mentioned Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette as precursors of a trend that is rising in the USA. What trend is that?
a. The habit of kissing a computer screen (or, in the 18th-century, a life-size human replica) instead of a real person.
b. Unconsummated unions (le mariage blanc)
c. Proxy marriages via the Internet
d. All of the above

10. Which one of these revolutionary-era child icons has been turned into a verb?
a. Gavroche, hero of Hugo’s Les Misérables
b. Louis-Charles, aka le Dauphin, pretender to the Bourbon throne
c. Joseph Bara, the boy hero immortalized in Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Death of Bara
d. Kung Fu Panda, hero of Kung Fu Panda’s French Revolution by Kaylee Mcgrew

Answers

1. d. L’Outre-Petit-Pont. The South of the Seine was called « the other side of the Petit-Pont » because the Petit-Pont was for many years the only bridge that led from the Ile de la Cité to the area lying to the South of the Seine. The Rive Droite was called L’Outre-Grand-Pont (since the Grand-Pont—what is today called le pont Notre-Dame—was the only bridge that led from the Ile de la Cité towards the Northern neighborhoods).
2. b. Isak Dinesen was a life-long Francophile, as seen in “Babette’s Feast” and Letters from Africa: 1914-1931.
3. d. The Commune. Although the Commune of spring 1871 was relatively short-lived (73 days), the brutal suppression of the rebel communards had long-term ramifications. From the successful Russian Revolution of 1917 to the failed 1989 revolution on Tianenmen Square, those who have sought political change have looked to the Commune for inspiration.
4. a. Karen Joy Fowler, We are All Completely Beside Ourselves.
5. d. The exhibit called “Popular Cultures of the French Revolution, 20-21st century” is on display from June 2013 to April 2014 at the Musée de la Révolution française in Vizille (near Grenoble). The show will likely travel to the US and Canada afterwards, so stand by for more news on that!
6. Any of the above. But today’s audience would probably choose c., the British rock band, Coldplay, “I Used to Rule the World” track from their 2011 album Vida la Vida. Lyrics include: “I used to rule the world / Seas would rise when I gave the word / Now in the morning I sleep alone / Sweep the streets I used to own /People couldn’t believe what I’d become / Revolutionaries wait / For my head on a silver plate / Just a puppet on a lonely string / Oh…who would ever wanna be king.”
7. b. Bastille. Burke describes the royal family’s trek from Versailles to Paris as a funeral march: “After they had been made to taste, drop by drop, more than the bitterness of death, in the slow torture of a journey of twelve miles, protracted to six hours, they were, under a guard, composed of those very soldiers who had thus conducted them through this famous triumph, lodged in one of the old palaces of Paris, now converted into a bastille for kings.” (Reflections on the Revolution in France, Paragraphs 100-124).
8. a. American Airlines was criticized in the Wall Street Journal for declaring bankruptcy all the while holding onto a luxury home for the use of its executives on one of London’s wealthiest streets. (It apparently sold for a cool $23 million.) It is interesting to see how feudal privilege has translated into shorthand for capitalist excess…
9. c. Proxy marriages. The article reads, “These are called proxy marriages, a legal arrangement that allows a couple to wed even in the absence of one or both spouses. They date back centuries: one of the most famous examples was between Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who were first married in her native Austria in his absence, before she was shipped to meet him in France.” See Sarah Maslin Nir’s article of March 6, 2013.
10. a. Gavroche, the brave street urchin of Les Misérables. The verb is found in the couplet, “Paris sous cloche / ça me gavroche” in the 2007 song by Thomas Dutronc, “J’aime plus Paris.” He is describing what Paris has become: a city for well-off people cut off from lower classes. “Gavrocher” means to “make mad” or “infuriate.” Check it out!

Julia Douthwaite is Professor of French at the University of Notre Dame and author of The Frankenstein of 1790 and Other Lost Chapters from Revolutionary France (University of Chicago Press, 2012). The Bastille Day quiz is a regular feature of “A Revolution in Fiction” since 2011.

Reviews of The Frankenstein of 1790 and other Lost Chapters from Revolutionary France

Douthwaite_J_Frankenstein_
The reviews are starting to arrive!
- David Coward’s review was published as “The March of the Women” in the the Times Literary Supplement (London) on May 10, 2013.
- Daniel Sullivan‘s review was published in the Ernest Becker Foundation April 10, 2013 newsletter, here.
- Allan Pasco‘s review came out in the February 2013 Choice.

Doonesbury and Marat

2012 David Maratdoonesbury and marat db130421
This article picks up where the discussion on Go Comics and other sites left off: with an informed linkage to the revolutionary original.

Trudeau’s cartoon strip memorializes his hero just as David did with his 1793 portrait. Subtle differences reveal a less glorious message however: where David put an enigmatic smile on Marat’s death mask to reveal his serenity and wisdom, Trudeau’s hero Razil is portrayed with the gaping stupor of an idiot. Like Razil, Marat wrote quickly, did little research to back up his views, and subsequently few if any of his writings are worthy of reading today. The only reason Marat lives on is David’s masterful portrait and its mysterious aura. Razil will not fare so well; the dopey expression Trudeau inscribed on his face says it all.

Update on ‘Babette’s Feast’: A Parable of French Politics and Cookery from the Age of Revolutions

Babette's FeastBabette book cover DanishAs an epicurian (married to a chef-de-cuisine, how could I not be in love with food?) “Babette’s Feast” continues to haunt my thoughts. And now, with some recent discoveries, I am more convinced than ever of its debt to revolution. And the need for a remake!
A few thoughts on my discoveries, to intrigue you:

- On the feisty spirit that emerges in Danish!
Thanks to the great book by Frantz Leander Hansen, The Aristocratic Universe of Karen Blixen (2003), nowadays a more bracing and sober accounting is available to English-language readers. Hansen proves that Dinesen, in rewriting the tale for Danish audiences, reinforced the revolutionary tone and threatening aspect of her heroine. Fantastic linguistic analysis! Thanks FLH!*

- On “Babette’s” Sympathy to La Commune and its Ideals
The 2003 translation of the 1891 history of La Commune by Isak Dinesen’s father, Wilhelm Dinesen Paris sous la Commune, Translated from the Danish by Denise Bernard-Folliot, provides the historical subtext that was hugely important to Dinesen: a fact that has been ignored by most readers. WD was very sympathetic to the ideals of La Commune, and this book should be a “must” for anyone seeking a thoughtful eye-witness account of the terrible events. Thanks DBF!

- Third, tucked in the stacks of Hesburgh Library at ND, I found a copy of the 1952 Danish translation by Jørgen Claudi with the fabulous cover illustration featured here. This rendition makes a startling contrast with the tasteful and cleaned-up rendition presented by Gabriel Axel, no?

In my work-in-progress, these elements are juxtaposed to the film and show how much stronger and more menacing the heroine is in the original text (especially in Dinesen’s Danish version). Dinesen’s character does not forget the past or the utopian hopes she once harbored for La Commune. Rather she transforms them into the ultimate beau geste of a consummate artist and an unrepentant radical. For the last supper of Babette’s Feast is not a liturgical rewriting of silent sacrifice but rather a sadly misunderstood celebration of a lost era. However no one realizes it except Babette. (And her new readers today!)

Hope you enjoyed this little taste of work-in-progress. More to come… jd
(updated 3/15/13)

* Thanks are also due to Lise Kure-Jensen who notes that one of the interesting challenges of studying the work of Isak Dinesen is that, after writing her stories in English, she translated many of them back into Danish (her native tongue) and made significant changes along the way. Most notably, she made the Danish translation of “Babette” WILDER! See LKJ, “Isak Dinesen in English, Danish, and Translation: Are We Reading the Same Text?” in Isak Dinesen: Critical Views, ed. Olga Anastasia Pelensky (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1993), pp. 314-321.

Marie-Antoinette action figure and Call for other objets d’art of revolutionary culture

Marie-Antoinette action figureIn honor of a fascinating art exhibit opening soon at the Musée de la Révolution française (see below), I would like to share my personal favorite French Revolution toy: the Marie-Antoinette action figure! First found in the Archie McPhee store in Seattle, this edifying little objet d’art is now available via multiple vendors on the internet. An authentic version should feature: 1) the ejectable head with its detachable wig; 2) the two costumes of the queen: regal robes and a fetching peasant outfit.

My friends, students, and family have so enjoyed playing with our Marie-Antoinette that her plastic head socket has gotten a bit out of joint. Thus my question: how, oh how, will I ever get the queen’s head back on her shoulders?!

An announcement : The volume, Les Mythologies révolutionnaires : la Révolution française dans les cultures et imaginaires populaires aujourd’hui, ed. Martial Poirson, is forthcoming, Éditions Garnier !
A query: An exhibit will be hosted at the Musée de la Révolution française in 2013-14 on the topic of « Popular Culture and the French Revolution Today, » organized by Martial Poirson and Museum Director Alain Chevalier (from June 2013 to April 2014). The organizers seek suggestions of objects from popular culture to include in the gallery, for example, novels or popular fiction, school books, images, caricatures, photographs, and any kinds of objects or accessories dating from the last 20 years. Do you have any suggestions on “Musts” of the French Revolution? If so, let us know (we would love to share your findings with the readers of this site) and/or write directly to Martial Poirson.

Version française
Une annonce : Le volume, Les Mythologies révolutionnaires : la Révolution française dans les cultures et imaginaires populaires aujourd’hui sous la direction de Martial Poirson est désormais à paraître aux éditions Garnier !
Une question, un appel aux contributions : Il y aura une exposition au Musée de la Révolution française sous la direction de Martial Poirson et Alain Chevalier, consacrée à “Cultures populaires et Révolution française aujourd’hui”, qui se tiendra à Vizille de juin 2013 à avril 2014. Dans un tel cadre, les organisateurs sont à la recherche de romans populaires, manuels scolaires (moins pour la qualité du récit ou de l’analyse que pour l’objet livre ou de la culture graphique), images, caricatures, photos, objets, accessoires, produits dérivés (des vingt dernières années uniquement), qu’ils pourraient exposer dans différentes vitrines et sur les murs.
Auriez-vous des suggestions “incontournables” ? Faites-nous savoir (nous aimerions bien l’afficher ici pour les lecteurs de « A Revolution in Fiction ») et/ou contactez Martial Poirson.

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