The Reason for their Success (of New York and of the French Revolution): Taking Care of Land and Water, Together

The success of New York city may seem unrelated to the success of the French Revolution. But the central reason for the former (according to Russell Shorto’s article in today’s NYT)—that stewardship over the land and water are crucial to the creation of a cohesive, successful community—is also a cornerstone of the latter.

The source of New York’s greatness, according to Shorto, is a tolerant spirit and an entrepreneurial energy married to a collective concern for the water and land of the island. As he writes: “The Dutch [founders of New Amsterdam] maintained the balance between the individual and the collective out of necessity, for water management continued — and continues to this day — to be vital to protecting their country. Funnily enough, because of climate change, the rest of us are all in that same place today. We don’t just need to rebuild infrastructure to guard against flooding. We need to embrace concepts like regional planning, to acknowledge that there are issues in which individual and even municipal autonomy have to be sacrificed to the greater good.”

What is the connection to the French Revolution? I would have been stymied to explain, had I not spent the weekend in the company of an excellent guide: Jean-Laurent Rosenthal‘s book, The Fruits of Revolution: Property Rights, Litigation, and French Agriculture, 1700-1860 (Cambridge UP, 1992).

Rosenthal explains that medieval institutions were remarkably resistant to change, because the people involved—that is, the individuals, groups, and the king—would have had to bear the redistributional consequences of land and property reform. And they preferred not to. Despite the efforts by King Louis XVI and his ministers, nothing changed…. until 1789.

“The high degree of uncertainty in Old Regime property rights ensured that, in the absence of reform, conflicts over the ownership and control of land and water would no doubt have continued to monopolize the energies and resources of landowners. Because of the very uncertainty of property rights, however, reform could not have occurred without dramatic redistribution. Since redistribution of property was contingent on political change, it is impossible to separate the Revolution’s economic reforms from the Revolution itself” (179). So it was worth it, for the good results produced by the Revolution could not have come about any other way.

The Dutch have known it since time immemorial. The inhabitants of New York realized it in the 17th century. The French were forced to admit it in the 19th century. And the rest of the Western world is now waking up to the fact today: we will not survive unless we work together to protect our land and natural resources. How can such a mentality take hold? Through an engaged citizenry who can see beyond private interest for the public good. Are we ready for that challenge? One can only hope…

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

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

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

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

Here’s what happened to us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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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).

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