On Being Revolutionary

Linton Choosing Terrror coverPerovic The Calendar coverTaws Politics Provisional coverWhat does it mean to be revolutionary? That is, what does it mean to exist, to live, to have a real state or existence for a longer or shorter time under a revolutionary regime? Such existential questions run through the exciting new books pictured here in the fields of History (Marisa Linton), French Literature (Sanja Perovic), and Art History (Richard Taws). Perovic tackles the question of being in time quite literally in her study of the schemes invented to tabulate the days, weeks, and months of the period 1788-1805, some of which included astronomical or symbolic information. Taws embraces the conundrum of existence more philosophically by studying transient forms of art (objects such as passports, paper money, playing cards, and prints) that circulated widely during the tumult but have left few traces to our day. As for Linton, the issue of being and non-being comes across viscerally in her biographical portraits of the men who destroyed each other and themselves in the name of the Republic.
– from a forthcoming review essay placed in issue 47.4 of Eighteenth-Century Studies

Revolution beer, an intriguing newcomer to the market

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

Universalism under Attack: Thanksgiving Reflections inspired by the French

Coq d'indeIt is breath-taking to realize just how different philosophical and political debate is in France as compared to the USA. The contrast rarely emerges with such clarity as in the debate over universalism that is currently shaking the French intelligentsia.

As explained in an admirable article by CNRS historian Sophie Wahnich*, France is currently polarized by two rival views on universalism. On the one hand, there are the proponents of post-colonial studies, often the same people who are held guilty of foisting identity politics in the Hexagon, who charge the nation with hypocrisy. They hold up the 1789 Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen as proof, since its writers promoted universalism without eradicating the injustices and crimes that they were party to, as participants (more or less direct) in an economy built on the slave trade.

On the other hand, there are the die-hard républicains who argue that such anathema is misplaced, because the Revolution’s Declaration of Rights was the watershed moment when the hierarchical, class-bound order of court society was finally revealed for what it was: morally untenable. Universal equality, the Declaration states implicitly, applies to people of color as well as to people born in all socio-economic classes.

Although the French attitude towards the “others” amongst them is complex (and potentially at its nadir at present), the Declaration should not be held up as the enemy, because it has had concrete, positive effects on the creation of national solidarity. Consider the debates inflamed by the persecution of Lt. Colonel Alfred Dreyfus in 1892, and the way statesman Jean Jaurès used the Declaration to defend French Jews such as Dreyfus. Wahnich explains: “Souvenons-nous que Jaurès lorsqu’il doit faire face à l’antisémitisme, rappelle que la Révolution française avait déracialisé l’humanité. Ainsi dans La dépêche du midi du 2 juin 1892 : «Je n’ai aucun préjugé contre les Juifs. […] Je n’aime pas les querelles de race, et je me tiens à l’idée de la Révolution Française, si démodée et si prudhommesque qu’elle semble aujourd’hui : c’est qu’au fond, il n’y a qu’une race, l’humanité.»
True, this solidarity is daily put to test in a country more diverse than ever. But the founding principles are not the enemy.

Wahnich is scheduled to join a public debate about these issues today; we will watch the results with interest.

This debate seems a prime example of how the French maintain a high level of public discussion on important issues of principle. Such abstract, historical discourse strikes most Americans as high-falutin’ talk, less for public consumption than for ivory tower intellectualism. But we eschew such debate at our own risk. Perhaps a bit more talk of principles could curb the alarming rise of hate-speech and hate-crimes amongst us…

Although our nation was also founded on universal principles of equality, special interests have significantly altered the original spirit of the USA.
Consider that most ordinary gesture, repeated by every schoolchild coast to coast, the pledge of allegiance. In July 1942, when the pledge was first approved by the American Congress as a means to bolster national spirit, it went like this: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

That version remained true to the universalistic spirit of the French Declaration of Rights and the US Bill of Rights.

But a mere 12 years later, our pledge departed from its original purpose and became a tool of special interest. Under pressure from groups such as the Knights of Columbus and the Presbyterian Church, and in the hands of a president recently converted to Presbyterianism, the words “Under God” were added. Moreover, they were inserted before “with liberty and justice for all,” thereby suggesting that there exists an order—a moral order, sanctioned by monotheism—superior to universal, legal rights of the American citizen.

As we reflect upon our national identity this week on Thanksgiving, we Americans would do well to look to the French for a bracing reminder of what “for all” is supposed to mean.

* Sophie Wahnich, “Un soupçon sur l’universel,” Libération [section Société] (22 novembre 2013).
Thanks to Olivier Morel from bringing this article to my attention.

Two Thumbs down for Maureen Dowd

ImageJust in case this does not make it into the New York Times, I reprint it here for the readers of “A Revolution in Fiction.”

Letter to the editor, Sunday Review, New York Times

July 7, 2013

Dear Editor,

Can you spell trite?  I am very disappointed that the NYT would stoop to print the essay by Maureen Dowd (“Goodbye Old World, Bonjour Tristesse”).  A journalist with any moxie would have sought out the French people who are pushing beyond these old clichés and fueling the intellectual marketplace with events that put a novel spin on the past and embrace all kinds of people into a multi-cultural present-day France.  Consider Martial Poirson whose new exhibit at the Musée de la Révolution française joins together popular culture from around the world to show how people have repurposed the past to harness present-day hopes for democratic change.  Or Laurent Loty, the mastermind behind the big banners wrapping the walls of the Université Paris-Diderot, which reproduce quotes of the 18th-c. philosopher Diderot in order to prompt enlightenment of a non-sectarian sort, quotes such as “Élargissons Dieu” (which can mean either “Let’s release God” [as in, from prison], or “Let’s give more space to God” or “Let’s make God bigger”).

Get real, Maureen Dowd.  France is vibrant, exciting, and full of talented active people.  It just takes a more talented reporter to find them.

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?

L’affaire Depardieu / The Depardieu affair, by Sonja Stojanovic

The actor Gérard Depardieu has given back his French passport and is moving to Belgium to avoid paying taxes. This is a gross simplification of what has sparked a polemical debate in French cultural and political circles.

Philippe Torreton, another French actor, in a virulent column published on December 17, 2012 in the French newspaper Libération calls out Depardieu on his fiscal exile.

The column addresses Depardieu using the informal you “tu” instead of the polite and more formal “vous” and attacks him using lines from Depardieu’s famous film, the adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac; he accuses him of leaving his country in the midst of a crisis.

catherine deneuve in fur coat
This column sparked a response from French actress Catherine Deneuve who took to writing a column published on December 20, 2012 also in Libération, entitled “Monsieur Torreton”. According to her, she not so much defends Depardieu as scolds Torreton for his pettiness and debasing words. Then, she finishes her short piece with a dramatic “What would you have done in 1789, [to think of it] my body is still trembling” and the oft quoted statement about tolerance taken from Voltaire.

Also jumping on the bandwagon is Laurence Parisot, the president of the MEDEF, France’s largest employers’ union. She remarks that the current politics are reminiscent of a climate of “civil war” and aligns herself with Deneuve. “I say like Catherine Deneuve said this morning in Libération, we have the feeling today that one is looking to recreate something that is relating to 1789, one needs to realize how insufferable this is for many talented people and this is why they are pushed to leaving, let’s not invert the order of things”.

Why bring up 1789? Who is exactly this (new) nobility and why is their (fiscal) exile something to accept / defend / deplore? Since when is the super rich paying taxes viewed as something negative – revolutionarily speaking? And why would Deneuve tremble at the thought of 1789? Both she and Depardieu would have been part of the Third Estate back then. Are the French starting to regret the legacies of the French Revolution?

What do you think?

Breaking News in Revolutionary Art: Johann Rousselot’s “Freedom Fighter” series

The most exciting art from the revolutionary scene this fall comes to us from Johann Rousselot, the Paris-based photographer who is already known to readers of A Revolution in Fiction thanks to his fabulous work on India in the DIGNITY exhibit (Amnesty International) which opened this spring in the USA (see “Teach This!” posting no. 10). We at Notre Dame were proud to welcome him to campus in February, and to feature his work in the DIGNITY exhibit, soon to launch its tour of the USA.

Now showing in Perpignan, Rousselot’s new work called “Freedom Fighters” draws on photographs he took on site in Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Libya, and Tunisia, and which mix formal portraits with a variety of text (graffiti, Facebook), and montage techniques. They are all gripping, gorgeous, and powerfully wrought; check out his site!

To appreciate the continuity with the art of the 1790s, consider Rousselot’s portrait of Mouad Belghouat (alias L7A9D; El Haked – The Outraged) alongside the “Mysterious Urn” (ca. 179-99) (featured in our posting of May 13, 2009).
Rousselot’s caption explains that Mr. Belghouat, an engaged rap singer, was imprisoned for political reasons from September 09th, 2011 to January 12th, 2012. He quickly became an icon of the protests nationwide organized by the M20 – Movement of the 20th of February (2011). Seen among the royals on this wall, his portrait forms an ironic riff on celebrity-mongering or act of lèse-majesté. But if one day the caption disappears, his portrait may confound viewers seeking a straightforward political message. They may well wonder which side it supports, just like the enigmatic mixture of monarchical and republican iconography in the “Urn.”

As Rousselot explains, the M20 – Movement of the 20th of February –set up many protests in the main cities of the kingdom, and called for a boycott of the legislative poll of November 25th, 2011 where the king Mohamed VI attempted to calm down the Moroccan street and avoid any propagation of the Arab spring. “Graphic inspiration for this series came from the ubiquitous presence of the framed picture of King Mohamed VI in virtually every shop, hotel, train station, and administrative buildings of course. I decided to replace his image with those of the militants, like a lese-majesty crime.”

Bravo to Johann Rousselot for this brave and beautiful testimonial to the revolutionary spirit!

Mélenchon’s populism: marketing solidarité

What a wonderful moment for students of the French Revolution! A full-fledged re-enactment of 1789 is unfolding on the streets of Paris, thanks to the populist campaign of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Today’s article by Raphaëlle Besse Desmoulières in Le Monde provides a excellent summary of Mélenchon’s clever recycling of revolutionary rhetoric. “Take back the power” (“Prenez le pouvoir”), his campaign intones, “Make way for the people” (“place au peuple”). Exploiting the unease (morosité) of the current situation in France, Mélenchon is gambling on the notion of a radical break with business-as-usual. These are fighting words! Is the government of the Fifth Republic really analogous with the absolutist Bourbon monarchy? Or is the Front de Gauche merely exploiting the French sympathy for populist sloganeering, such one might find on an advertisement for an insurance company?

Vik Muniz and Marat, revisited

In my October 26, 2010 posting on Viz Muniz and Jean-Paul Marat, I concluded on an idealistic note that “Ashes to ashes, sewer to junkyard, l’ami du peuple would have been proud.” Returning to the topic now in preparation for next week’s exciting conference on The French Revolution in Global Popular Culture, I am starting to see things a bit differently.
Although Ellie Bronson argued in a 2011 article in Art Critical that Santos was “fittingly styled after David’s ‘The Death of Marat,’ I now wonder: what is “fitting” about Muniz’s reappropriation?
The more that I learn about Sebastião dos Santos (known as Tiaõ) and the more that I study Vik Muniz’s project, the less sense this connection makes.
Unlike Jean-Paul Marat, Tiaõ dos Santos received a minimal education. He began working as a garbage picker (more precisely, as a picker of recyclables) in the Jardim Gramacho landfill at age 11. The stunning successes he has attained as founder and organizer of the ACAMJG, the union that has embraced the needs of the Jardim Gramacho workers, are the result of his formidable intellect and drive to make something of his life. It is interesting that the primary influence he mentions is The Prince, by Machiavelli, which he found in the trash. “I learned so much from that book,” he says.
(Marat, on the contrary, was born into what appears a comfortable family situation in Neuchâtel; both he and his brother were sent to school and his brother eventually attained a prestigious post as professor of the Lycée impérial of Tsarkoïe Selois–now known as Pushkin, a city nearby Saint-Petersburg, Russia. Marat pursued studies in medicine, traveled widely in Britain where he attained a certain success as a writer and scientist, and for a time had a flourishing practice among wealthy Parisians.)
In Wasteland, we learn that Santos is a good father, caring, warm-hearted and tender. We see Santos walking hand-in-hand with his young daughter, and sitting cozily next to her on a couch, where he stokes her dreams of going to school to become a psychologist. He is also a good son: we see him telephoning his mother in tears of joy after the London auction where he portrait was first sold.
(In his later life, Marat was apparently estranged from his family. It is uncertain if he married. He had no children. These facts have long been used against him, and have helped forge the portrait of the cold-hearted terrorist that prevails today.)
The final credits of Wasteland reveal the fundamental disconnect between these two men: the portrait of Santos as Marat is juxtaposed against a text mentioning that “a lot of people now believe in Tiaõ and look to him as a leader; some dream that one day he could become president.”
Although Marat achieved a powerful following among certain groups in Parisian society during the mid-1790s, and was elected deputy to the Convention government in 1792, he was not a gifted statesman, to put it mildly. He was a writer of corrosive prose and a divisive figure. Some claim he mounted one of the bloodiest errors in revolutionary history (the September massacres of 1792). His fame was not due to his humanitarianism, but rather to his inflammatory newspaper and prowess at self-fashioning himself as the truth-speaking “man of the people.” His assassination at the hand of a royalist was almost too good to be true: it launched a hack writer into martyrdom by realizing what he had long been telling readers of L’Ami du peuple.

By now, Santos has likely learned that Marat was more than just “an intellectual” (the only adjective used by Muniz to describe him in the film). I wonder if he still appreciates the connection? And I wonder if Muniz regrets yoking his friend to this villain of international disrepute?

Robespierre and Jean Ferrat, “Ma France”

A little over a year ago, the world lost a great man: Jean Ferrat, politically-committed singer, songwriter and town councilman of Antraigues-sur-Volane (Ardèche). All of those who have signed or are considering signing the Musée Robespierre petition (see September 10 posting), should take a moment to listen to Jean Ferrat’s song, “Ma France.” Read his obit, too, by Pierre Perrone, and think about the censorship that Ferrat suffered on French TV not so very long ago. As Perrone reminds us, Ferrat did not mince his words: “I don’t sing to pass the time,” Ferrat said and and sang in 1965. He later reflected: “I’ve never been a yes man for anybody. What really pleases me is that I reintroduced the great French poetry of writers like Aragon to the man in the street. I did that by going against the wishes of the music industry. They used to tell me that what I did was beautiful but of no interest to the general public. I proved them wrong but those idiots didn’t learn their lesson. They are still flogging crap to young people.”

What singers have taken up the fight for the ordinary working man and woman today in such lyrical ways?

The lyrics to “Ma France” include a cryptic reference to Robespierre; I’m not sure that I understand exactly what he means… But the rest of the song is a powerful anthem to the French land and French history far and near, in all its beauty and shame.
Ferrat’s words are intelligent, powerful and remain politically useful. May his warm baritone remain a presence in our lives for years to come. Enjoy!

Jean Ferrat, “Ma France”

De plaines en forêts de vallons en collines
Du printemps qui va naître à tes mortes saisons
De ce que j’ai vécu à ce que j’imagine
Je n’en finirai pas d’écrire ta chanson
Ma France

Au grand soleil d’été qui courbe la Provence
Des genêts de Bretagne aux bruyères d’Ardèche
Quelque chose dans l’air a cette transparence
Et ce goût du bonheur qui rend ma lèvre sèche
Ma France

Cet air de liberté au-delà des frontières
Aux peuples étrangers qui donnaient le vertige
Et dont vous usurpez aujourd’hui le prestige
Elle répond toujours du nom de Robespierre
Ma France

Celle du vieil Hugo tonnant de son exil
Des enfants de cinq ans travaillant dans les mines
Celle qui construisit de ses mains vos usines
Celle dont monsieur Thiers a dit qu’on la fusille
Ma France

Picasso tient le monde au bout de sa palette
Des lèvres d’Éluard s’envolent des colombes
Ils n’en finissent pas tes artistes prophètes
De dire qu’il est temps que le malheur succombe
Ma France

Leurs voix se multiplient à n’en plus faire qu’une
Celle qui paie toujours vos crimes vos erreurs
En remplissant l’histoire et ses fosses communes
Que je chante à jamais celle des travailleurs
Ma France

Celle qui ne possède en or que ses nuits blanches
Pour la lutte obstinée de ce temps quotidien
Du journal que l’on vend le matin d’un dimanche
A l’affiche qu’on colle au mur du lendemain
Ma France

Qu’elle monte des mines descende des collines
Celle qui chante en moi la belle la rebelle
Elle tient l’avenir, serré dans ses mains fines
Celle de trente-six à soixante-huit chandelles
Ma France

P.S. Thanks to Robert Fishman for bringing this great man and song to my attention.


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