How Does it Feel to be a Revolutionary? Hari Kunzru seizes the day.

Hari Kunzru my-revolutions

No book captures so passionately the effervescent anxiety of revolutionary action better than Hari Kunzru, My Revolutions,* a book I just discovered by chance.  Should be required reading for any student of revolution of any period.  It is one of those books you have to put down now and then, simply to make the experience last longer.

Consider the passage below, which relates the thoughts of an underground group of young activists during the build-up to their most radical phase.  It begins with a reproach against violence, and ends with … well, you’ll see.

Q:  Your gesture is infantile.  The revolution will be led by the working class.  A terrorist is just a liberal with a bomb, arrogantly presuming to lead the way.

Rubbish.  You’re covering up your cowardice with quotations.  Change is imminent.  It’s happening around the world.  The slightest pressure will tip the balance in our favor.

One spark, a thousand fires burning.

We were so impatient.  We wanted the time to be now.  Of the core group, only Matthias and Helen remained seriously troubled by what we’d done.  We were supposed to be protesting against war.  Surely a peaceful gesture would have been better?  I accused them of fetishizing nonviolence, telling them they’d just internalized the state’s distinction between legitimate protest and criminality.  Leo and I were censured for our individualism, but the logic of confrontation did its work.  By the end of the meeting, everyone was in agreement.  We would go further.

*Hari Kunzru, My Revolutions (New York: Plume / Penguin, 2009), 173-74.

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.

Christmas in Kyiv, by Alexandra Fedynsky

Tires in Kyiv summer 2014

EuromaidanThis article, about recent events in Ukraine, is one in a series by a young friend and student of French at Notre Dame, Alexa Fedynsky

I first visited Maidan in December 2012, just in time for New Year’s Eve. Snow covered everything. My brother and I struggled against the cold each time we ventured outside. Despite the bone-chilling weather, people were preparing for the upcoming holidays as they do year after year. We had to push our way through the throngs of people on the metro, bicker with shop owners for various goods, and wait in line with fellow tourists to visit monuments. On one of our excursions, we saw an advertisement for a Maidan concert to ring in the New Year, which was to feature many famous Ukrainian bands, most notably the singer Ruslana. We arrived just in time to hear her sing, and after her show she counted down from ten kicking off the New Year. At the stroke of midnight I was surprised to see, after a brief moment of hugging and cheering, everyone standing straight and singing the national anthem of Ukraine. Despite the social atmosphere of the evening, people displayed the pride they had for their country, forgetting the festivities for a moment. The concert then proceeded as normal: more rock songs, dancing, and champagne drinking. The next day I flew back to America feeling the pride of Ukraine. Staring out the window onto the green Ukrainian countryside, I knew I wanted to go back.
One year later, the Ukrainian government was getting ready for Christmas again. Government employees began to set up the giant Christmas tree in the middle of Maidan, along with tinsel and ornaments. However this year’s “celebration” was to differ greatly. By setting up this tree, the government strove to disperse the massive crowd which had gathered to protest against President Yanukovych and his failure to sign a trade agreement with the European Union. Instead of government workers setting up holiday decorations, protesters took charge, throwing flags and banners across the scaffolding. Around this time began the whispers of nightly attacks by the Berkut, the special police force of Ukraine. In response, people set up barricades around Maidan and Khreshchatyk, using tinsel and decorations as part of the foundation. These barricades withheld most attacks, even withstanding the bloody weekend of February 21, where the Berkut murdered over 100 protesters. After this bloodshed, the president fled, and Euromaidan seemed to be a success. In a symbolic, as well as fearful gesture, the tents and barricades stood until well past the inauguration of the new president–a remembrance not only of the lives lost but also the common struggle the Ukrainian people have shared for centuries.
I arrive this summer, with barricades all around. The smell of ash engulfs people walking up the stairs from the metro. Pedestrians watch where they step, the sidewalk missing large sections of cobblestone. During the revolution, protesters had picked up the stones to throw at the Berkut. The giant Christmas tree scaffolding, strewn with flags and banners of support, imposingly stands in the center of Maidan, surrounded by large green army tents. These tents maze through the entire Maidan, as well as a good portion of Khreshchatyk, the stakes hammered into the concrete of the street. Narrow pathways wind around the tents, mostly empty except for the occasional “protester.” The people there now represent various demographics, from the stranded Eastern Ukrainian unable to return home, to the overly-emphatic Western Ukrainian student, to those who leech off the self-sufficient city. Few cars drive down the once busy street, the tents taking up almost all of the road. Despite all of this, I still sit for a nice lunch right on Maidan–ironically a Crimean restaurant–where service is completely normal only a few months after the tragic events of both Maidan and the Crimean takeover. Tourist sites remain open, allowing me to see the inside of the grand St. Sophia for the first time. In the midst of important events, be this New Years celebrations or a life-changing revolution, daily life continues. In spite of this tragic event the hope of freedom and happiness remains, clear in the conversations and interactions among people. And one day soon, the crowds around Maidan will gather, singing the national anthem of Ukraine, both as a sign of unity and once again, celebration.
Christmas in Kyiv Summer 2014

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.

Franco-American Trivia Bastille Day Quiz

1. “I think every woman should have a ___________________ ,” declared American culinary phenomenon Julia Child, host of the top TV series, The French Chef (1963-1973).
a. husband
b. family
c. dog
d. blowtorch

2. Duration is one of the differences between the American and French revolutions. Compared to the French case which ended more or less abruptly in 1794, Pierre Rosanvallon claims that “in America one can speak of a ____________________ revolution,” marked the by steady rise of the egalitarian ethos into the 1800s.
a. failed
b. continuous
c. dangerous
d. brief

3. A New York Times article of March 2013 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 doll) instead of a real person.
b. Unconsummated unions (le mariage blanc)
c. Proxy marriages, now via the Internet
d. All of the above

4. What French revolutionary leader was recently vilified in a poem published in a major American newspaper? The poem drew outrage for describing this man as a pathological killer, with lines such as: “Who wouldn’t like to have the power to kill / Friends and enemies at will.”
a. Jean-Paul Marat
b. Louis Antoine de Saint-Just
c. Georges-Jacques Danton
d. Maximilien Robespierre

5. 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

6. When France refused to support the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, some high-ranking Republicans in Congress directed the three House cafeterias to change their menus and avoid use of the word “French.” Their alternative name for French fries, used from 2003 until 2006, was:
a. Impeach George W. Bush Fries
b. Freedom Fries
c. Pommes frites
d. Belgian Bites

7. Recent writers on economics and political history have made some astute comparisons between the USA and France–think of books by Thomas Piketty and Jean-Philippe Mathy–but no one seized the essential difference between our countries quite as well as an orator in September 1789. He declared: “France is not a collection of states. She is a unique being, composed of elementary parts.” Who was that orator?
a. Emmanuel Sieyès
b. Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau
c. Maximilien Robespierre
d. Jean-Paul Marat

8. What American city has been sister-city of Paris since 1996?
a. New York
b. New Orleans
c. San Francisco
d. Chicago

9. What American has long been revered by French writers because of innovations in the detective genre and a morbid sense of humor, as witnessed in stories such as “Murders in the rue Morgue”?
a. Sara Paretsky
b. Nathaniel Hawthorn
c. Stephen King
d. Edgar Allan Poe

10. What French general was honored for his many contributions to the American war of independence, named an honorary citizen of the USA in 1781, and went on to lead the French National Guard during the Revolution of 1789-94? He was so revered among Americans that many places took his name, as we can easily see still today.
a. General Hoche
b. General LaFayette
c. General Bugeaud
d. General DeGaulle

Answers
1. d. blowtorch. Through her engaging spirit and sense of fun, Julia Child set off a culinary revolution in the USA during the 1960s and 1970s. Our current appreciation for local ingredients and artisanal products was shared by her in books such as Mastering the Art of French Cooking, 1961 (co-authored with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle).
2. b. Continuous. As Rosanvallon writes, “What alarmed them was not the end of revolution but its continuation.” The Society of Equals, p. 61.
3. 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.
4. d. The poem, “Robespierre” by Frederick Seidel, appeared in the June 5, 2014 edition of the New York Review of Books. The scholarly outrage appeared on H-France.
5. a. American Airlines. The article featured the lavish suites offered to company executives during trips to London.
6. b. Freedom Fries.
7. a. Emmanuel Sieyès, cited in Jean-Jacques Clère, article “Administrations locales” in Dictionnaire historique de la Révolution française, ed. Albert Soboul, p. 6. “La France n’est pas une collection d’États. Elle est un tout unique, composé de parties intégrantes,” (7 September 1789).
8. d. Chicago. Events include concerts, festivals, and wine tastings; see http://chicagosistercities.com/sister-cities/paris/
9. d. Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1848) is cited with admiration by authors such as Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and the Surrealists of the 1930s. Baudelaire translated Poe’s work into French; the first volume, Histoires extraordinaires (Extraordinary Stories), was published in 1852.
10. b. Thanks to his enthusiastic and tireless support for the American War of Independence, LaFayette (also written Lafayette) became an American hero. (See also the Revolution in Fiction blog post for July 4, 2014, for more details on Franco-American collaboration during that war.)

The Shock of Recognition, and an Update for Jean-Philippe Mathy

Mathy artwork

Tonight I had a rare readerly experience: a shock of self-recognition.
It happened while I was reading Jean-Philippe Mathy’s provocative book, French Resistance: The French-American Culture Wars. As a scholar of the French Revolution, I have long suspected that my politics and history were involved in this choice (see related MLA Commons site).

But what Mathy explains so startlingly, and what I did not suspect until now, is the generational tide of this return to the Republic. My eccentric (to me) embrace of republican ideals in 2014, here in South Bend, Indiana, is actually not so unusual or odd. Rather, it is a generational phenomenon shared by a cohort of intellectuals who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s. Mathy calls it a “return to la République” and argues that this move is akin to regression: it is “a retreat to a fall-back position on the part of a generation of progressive intellectuals non-plussed by the demise of the emancipatory narratives that they had championed in more idealistic times and fearful of the consequences of an amoral, relativistic capitalist culture” (French Resistance, p. 25).

Mathy concludes that this nostalgia for a happier moment has ground into an impasse. French intellectuals think that they are under siege on two fronts: “On the one hand, we have countless descriptions of the way the liberal solvent has eaten away at the moral fiber of republican humanism; on the other, discussions of extreme cultural pluralism as striking a decisive blow at the integrity of the nation, understood in the tradition of Michelet and Renan as a voluntary association of free and equal individuals” (French Resistance, p. 107).

Paradoxically, those morose thoughts have left me energized tonight. Energized because much has changed since 2000.

If Mathy’s narrative of Franco-American relations is correct, then my experience must be part of a new phase. Because what motors my embrace of la République is not a reaction against cultural pluralism, but rather an attempt to reignite the “emancipatory narratives” of more idealistic times and indeed to make the 2010s a time of renewed civic engagement. And I am not alone. The people whose work I feel most connected to are French, not American.* In their words and their deeds, people such as Martial Poirson, Jean-Clément Martin, and Guillaume Mazeau exemplify an openness to Franco-American influence and exchange. As far as I can tell, they neither view Americans as a corrupting enemy nor is dialogue a mere slogan. In Skype-organized bilingual sessions on subjects of mutual concern, an extraordinary new book that traces revolutionary iconography over time and around the world**, the creation of conferences, exhibits, and other concrete actions, these scholars are re-kindling respect for la République among French and non-French sympathizers alike.

Moreover, this healthy international dialogue has propelled some new kinds of civic activism among us academics. Initiatives such as theater performances, writing workshops for kids, and other sorts of Public Humanities outreach are routinely part of our workaday worlds.

So cheer up, Jean-Philippe Mathy. The Revolution is going fine. And Franco-American relations are going fine along with it.

References: Jean-Philippe Mathy, French Resistance: The French-American Culture Wars (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

*Two major American inspirations remain the fascinating work on newspapers by Jeremy Popkin and all of Robert Darnton’s work, always.

**La Révolution française et le monde d’aujourd’hui: Mythologies contemporaines, ed. Martial Poirson (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2014).

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?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 935 other followers