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
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 ( ) using Lego figures.
You can see more about the Revolutionary prints in a video made by Dr Astbury:

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


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 (, Professor Catriona Seth (, and Professor Antoinette Sol ( 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.

Bastille Day quiz 2013


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


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.

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.

The French aristocracy today, according to Anna Gavalda and Albin de la Simone. Facile satire or signs of an authentic paradigm-shift?

albin_de_la_simone_03Albin de la Simone, “Mes épaules”
Two popular artists are dealing an interesting curve-ball to the hidebound prestige of the French aristocracy today, although the ultimate meaning of their works remains ambiguous…

1. Anna Gavalda

Q: Where can you find a living, breathing counter-Revolutionary from the Vendée today?
A: In Anna Gavalda’s novel, Ensemble, c’est tout.
His name is Philbert Jehan Louis-Marie Georges Marquet de la Durbellière ; he was born in 1967 in La Roche-sur-Yon, and as a child, he fought off bullies by swinging a satchel armed with a Latin dictionary.

Gavalda must have had a good time inventing his quaint speech patterns for this book! When he finally gets over his stuttering enough to introduce himself to the down-on-her-luck heroine, he explains: “Vous avez devant les yeux un magnifique exemplaire d’Homo Dégénéraris, c’est-à-dire un être totalement inapte à la vie en société, décalé, saugrenu et parfaitement anachronique!” (163). It is thanks to his family’s cavernous apartment on avenue Émile Deschanel (one of the capital’s most prestigious addresses, bordering the Champs de Mars, Paris 7e), that the group of oddballs joins forces in this delightful saga of three misfits who find each other and, against all the odds, form a lasting, loving, “recomposed family.”

Philibert is a caricature of hilariously outmoded habits. When the trio writes up a list of rules for the household, he pulls out a signet and stick of wax, and seals the document with his family’s arms. He is hopelessly incapable of battling it out in the rough-and-tumble capitalism of the twenty-first century, and makes a paltry living by selling postcards of Paris monuments on the street. The history lessons he conducts on their road trips are peppered with deadpan asides on his family’s ties to the French throne (Marguerite de Valois being one of his mom’s cousins). The rest of the Marquet de la Durbellière clan is equally ridiculous; the dead fauna hanging on their walls brings images of The Adams Family to mind, but it is a cold, dusty kind of Gothic here without a touch of humor or gore. Their outdated speech habits (le vouvoiement oblige) and austere home life underline the aristocracy’s inability to evolve, as does their soul-less Catholicism. (The Easter blessing of “Bénissez-nous Seigneur… et bla bla bla” being symptomatic! 545) The author stresses their impervious blindness to economic realities at a boorish banquet at which the marquis and his wife lord it over their son’s friends while serving tasteless canned peas on dishes of priceless china, accompanied by elegant crystal glasses of cheap wine. Baffled by the presence of these lowbrow strangers, the marquise trills, “Comme c’est pittoresque” (541), as if her son was indulging in a bit of Belle époque encanaillement (hobnobbing with the rabble).

The weekend would have been ruined, if Franck (the foul-mouthed, talented cook who is Philou’s best friend from Paris) hadn’t taken charge of the kitchen and whipped up a fabulous Easter dinner, inciting the marquis to share some exquisite bottles of his uncle’s wine, and to get a little drunk and tell funny old stories of his hunting days. On the return trip to Paris, Philou suddenly recalls the reason why he had wanted to visit home: his engagement to a girl from the working-class neighborhood of Belleville, and which he forgot to mention. Significantly, they do not turn the car around. Nor do any members of the Marquet de la Durbellière tribe attend the sweet nuptials, celebrated in the Town Hall of the 20th arrondissement.

2. Albin de la Simone
A similar melancholy about the emptiness of the aristocracy haunts a song that is popular among French youth today, by Albin de la Simone, “Mes épaules.” Ostensibly a love ballad by a young father to his wife and baby, where anxiety over the role of breadwinner is symbolized by his skinny shoulders (“pas bien baraquées,” he swoons), the song also belies the singer’s unease with his particule-laden family name. “Le poids de mon nom ridicule / De ce fantôme à particule / Qui avance quand je recule,” the song goes. Typifying a particularly French strain of wimpy male singers whose penchant for self-pity surprises American audiences (remember Alain Souchon’s hit “Allô Papa Maman”?!), Albin de la Simone is nevertheless a favorite among young Frenchmen today, according to reliable sources in Paris. What is interesting is how he combines his worries over fatherhood with his sense of embarrassment over his aristocratic name.

Could it be that France is finally breaking free from the class-bound system of the past? Is Bourdieu’s paradigm in Distinction really due for a tune-up?

Or are these recent phenomena merely a pose, like the long tradition of rueful yet self-congratulatory writers who make up the French canon?

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.


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