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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Who are you? and why are you reading this?

Hello!

I have noticed a lot of you are “following” this site all of a sudden: 332 at last count.

(editor’s note of 8/7/14: I will update this figure regularly to track the growing population of readers. The number was 235 when I originally wrote this article.)

I am curious.

Who you are?

mirror-06

Why does this interest you?

Maybe it’s the pictures, the style stuff?

Or are you a hard-core history buff?

Maybe it’s the cool music…

Some of you are Haitians, right? Maybe you know my friend Père Fritz Louis? (bonjour!)

Is there a class at an Australian university following this website?

You can stop reading here, if you’re tired.

Since you’re still reading, I figured I might as well say hello and assume you’re really interested. And take the opportunity to do a bit of flagrant self-promotion and tell you what has just been published by yours truly. After much toil and heartache it is a joy to see this stuff finally get into print.

Book Chapters

“Martyrdom, Terrorism, and the Rhetoric of Sacrifice: The Cases of Marat, Robespierre, and Loiserolles,” in Terrorism, Martyrdom, and Religion: European Perspectives, ed. Dominic Janes and Alex Houen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, 109-130.

“Les martyres de Marat et de Sebastião: Une légende révolutionnaire mise à jour,” in La Révolution française et le monde d’aujourd’hui. Mythologies contemporaines, ed. Martial Poirson. Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2014, 451-63.

Book Reviews

“On Being Revolutionary,” review essay of Marisa Linton, Choosing Terror; Sanja Perovic, The Calendar in Revolutionary France; and Richard Taws, The Politics of the Provisional. In Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 47, no. 4 (Summer 2014): 435-438. All three are excellent books.

Chapter in progress

“Teaching Les Misérables and the French Revolution, or How to Keep the ‘Unfamiliar Light’ Aflame,” essay under way for MLA book, Approaches to Teaching Hugo’s ‘Les Misérables‘, ed. Michal Ginsburg and Bradley Stephens.

Edited books in progress

Art in the Service of Humanity: Rousseau and DIGNITY. Volume under review at University of Notre Dame Press (1/17/14). With 42 contributors, age 7 to 92, and including some big and up-and-coming names in Rousseau studies, and the photographs of the Amnesty International DIGNITY exhibit! Making progress towards production.

Teaching Representations of the French Revolution. Volume to be published in the MLA “Options for Teaching” series. Lead editor with the wonderful Catriona Seth (Université de Lorraine) and Antoinette Sol (University of Texas at Arlington). In progress and with great contributors!

Other work: articles, one that has already been rejected twice. But I remain ever hopeful, like a loyal dog, and keep revising until they arrive somewhere.

Book Review in progress: Jonathan Israel, Revolutionary Ideas : An Intellectual History of the French Revolution, for The Review of Politics. More on that in the fall.

Also of note:

REVIEWS OF THE FRANKENSTEIN OF 1790

Jean-Clément Martin, in Annales Historiques de la Révolution française, 376 (2014): 224-25.

Laura Mason, in the American Historical Review 118, 5 (December 2013): 1612-1613.

Jean-Louis Trudel, in ReS Futurae 3 (2013) http://resf.revues.org/419

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.

David Coward, in The Times Literary Supplement (London) (May 10, 2013).

Daniel Sullivan, in The Ernest Becker Foundation Newsletter 20, 1 (March 2013): 2.

Allan Pasco, in Choice (February 2013)

(Thank you, reviewers!)

Thank you too, readers.

see you around.

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?

LePen is not a moderate

Far-right babyAm I dreaming, or did the New York Times just commend the National Front this morning for its “moderation”?
The photo attached, of an adorable cherub holding a French flag at a political rally for Marine LePen, brings back memories of Vichy. Please, New York Times, do not write off the anti-semitism, anti-immigration, and xenophobic politics of the National Front as “moderate.” They are racist, hateful, and detrimental to the republican values that many French people (and their allies abroad) still cherish: that is, universalism, fraternity, and equality.

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

Call for proposals, ‘Teaching Representations of the French Revolution’ (MLA book)

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Call for proposals, Teaching Representations of the French Revolution

Essay proposals are invited for a volume in the MLA’s Options for Teaching series entitled Teaching Representations of the French Revolution, to be edited by Julia Douthwaite (University of Notre Dame), Catriona Seth (Université de Lorraine), and Antoinette Sol (University of Texas Arlington).

This goal of this collection of essays is to make this field more accessible to non-specialists and to teachers in different settings, from the Humanities class at a community college to the research seminar in a graduate program. The collection of essays will complement traditional sources and include the arts, ephemera, realia, archival material and once popular but now forgotten texts in the classroom. Accordingly, we intend to highlight through a number of settings how the revolutionary heritage lives on in our own vulnerable times. As a glance at any newspaper will reveal, we still live in a world of propaganda, advertisement, political violence, terrorism, revolution, and reaction. The essays in this proposed volume will speak to ways current students will be helped in understanding these things as well as learning about more narrowly focused topics.

The volume is divided into four sections: 1) How to Represent the Revolution: Classic Debates; 2) What Are the Musts of the Revolution (and Why Should Anyone Care)?; 3) Global Reverberations: The Impact of Emigration and Radicalism; and 4) Teaching the Revolution for Diverse Audiences.

We welcome proposals for essays that draw parallels to current events, on the idea of revolution itself, on global reverberations of the French Revolution (Haiti, Russia, Cuba, China, South America and even the recent ‘Arab spring’), on how these later revolutions intersect with literary representations of the earlier one, and essays on the French Revolution in literatures other than French, American and English such as German, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Haitian, or Italian. In short, essays dealing with European, transnational and the global impact of the French Revolution will round out the French and English traditions.

We are particularly interested in pedagogically-oriented essays on ways to integrate the French Revolution into diverse courses, including European Literature, Humanities, language and writing courses for community colleges and liberal arts colleges, along with ways to present difficult material, how to engage students, and how to help students acquire the necessary contexts to understand the volume’s topic. In addition, essays dealing with teaching with translations, finding source materials (written, visual, or musical), and suggestions for ways to use these in the classroom are welcome.

If you are interested in contributing an essay (3,000-3,500 words) to one of these sections, please submit an abstract of approximately 500 words in which you describe your approach or topic and explain its potential benefit for students and instructors alike. The focus of proposed essays should be pedagogical.

Note that if you plan to quote from student writing in your essay, you must obtain written permission from your students to do so. Proposed essays should not be previously published.

Abstracts and CVs should be sent to the volume editors by 1 June 2014. Please send e-mail submissions to Professor Julia Douthwaite (jdouthwa@nd.edu), Professor Catriona Seth (Catriona.Seth@univ-lorraine.fr), and Professor Antoinette Sol (amsol@uta.edu) with the subject line “Approaches to Teaching the Fr Rev.” Surface-mail submissions can be sent to Professor Douthwaite at the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556.

Engagement: Pankaj Mishra should give it a try

pankaj_mishra+akrEngagement: what does it mean? I have often noted a disconnect with friends in France on the subject (engagement seems to boil down to intellectual debate in France, where we Americans set our trust in volunteerism and social activism, even if our enthusiasm for mass politics has waned). Based on those exchanges over the years, I thought that the American media had a better grasp of the matter. An article in today’s New York Times Book Review is thus disappointing. Pankaj Mishra claims that “The writer chronicling political events in fiction is most effective when participating in a historical process or movement. No such tonic immersion is available to most contemporary writers, who, as sequestered as ever, must strive alone to transcend the general impoverishment of the political imagination.” This seems incredible to me. Mr. Mishra, according to Wikipedia, divides his time between London and India. And he has found no meaningful way to engage in the contemporary scene?! If those of us who live the American heartland have ways to engage and feel the “tonic immersion” of historical process, why can’t he?
Engagement begins at home. Being a mentor to an at-risk adolescent and teaching language arts to first-generation college hopefuls from the African-American community in South Bend, Indiana, where I live, are two of the ways that I have made meaning out of my life, and discovered the excitement of participating in historical process. I think Mishra has developed an exaggerated sense of history’s unfolding. History is what we make, every day, wherever we are. There is a lot of hope, struggle, and need all around us, and things are happening all the time. I hope for his sake that he finds his way back from self-imposed authorial “sequestration” and joins the living.

Creating Relevance: What Jeff Bezos, Jeff Daniels, and the Journal de Paris national have in common

All the news published over the past two weeks about Amazon giant Jeff Bezos and his purchase of the Washington Post generated an interesting swirl of speculation about what he might do to innovate print journalism. Long gone are the days when, as Ezra Pound once wrote, the man who believes what he reads in the papers could be considered the foundation of a modern democracy. Other media, with unregulated and informal attitudes toward objective reality, have usurped that role. I personally have taken heart from Bezos’s move, as well as the fine show, The Newsroom starring Jeff Daniels, which is airing these days. I have high hopes for a return of news with integrity, and a heightened awareness of the creative and vital relationship between journalism and the other arts. My next book project, “The Creation of Relevance,” will tap into that deep and vibrant current at key moments in French history.

Consider the role played by the news in the months following the Terror (an excerpt from chapter 4 of The Frankenstein of 1790, p. 178):
One reader pleaded for respite in the Journal de Paris national in January 1795 and in so doing announced a new literary market on the horizon. In an unsigned letter printed on 9 nivôse, the author thanks the editors of the paper for political news: “in presenting to our eyes the long script of counterrevolutionary atrocities committed by Carrier and his confederates, you have well served the Republic: publishing crimes prevents their return.” But he admits that a certain compassion fatigue has set in, noting that “our souls are weary of so many horrors and we need softer emotions for relief. Nothing refreshes the blood of a decent man [un honnête home] . . . like the tale of a good deed.” The letter ends by producing “that happy effect on your readers” with the example of a generous shopkeeper in a lower-class neighborhood known for its left-wing militantism. His shop is located on la rue de la Chanvrerie (first arrondissement), future setting of the barricade and the battle that took so many lives in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862). This valorization of the worthy workingman would launch a major publishing industry in mid-nineteenth-century France.

Today’s events suggest another paradigm change may be on the horizon, and attest to the necessary bond between writers of every age.

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