Thermidor Fun Fact Day Forty-One: A child of the Revolution becomes its Historian

What nineteenth-century historian had a special connection to the Revolution, due to the fact that he was born in a disused church (une église désaffectée) in Paris, and grew up in the building housing a printing press where his folks worked making assignats among other things. [A hint: He expresses sympathy for the ordinary working man in Le Peuple (1846).]
a. Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869)
b. Adolphe Thiers (1797-1877)
c. Jules Michelet (1798-1874)
d. Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)

Thermidor Fun Fact Day Thirty: David’s painting and the myth of Marat

Today is the 221st anniversary of Charlotte Corday’s assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, left-wing journalist and politician, author of the newspaper L’Ami du peuple. Marat’s fame would doubtless have waned years ago, if not for the gorgeous portrait by Jacques-Louis David called La Mort de Marat (1793). Produced by order of the Convention in response to the groundswell of anger after Marat’s murder, in David’s masterful hands Marat looks younger, more handsome, and healthier than he really was. He symbolizes the people’s triumph over adversity. That is why David represented Charlotte Corday as ………. in the painting.

a. crucified behind the martyred Marat

b. lying at the feet of the martyred Marat

c. peering in the window at Marat in the bathtub

d. absent

Thermidor Fun Fact Day Twenty-Eight: The potent issue of state finances

On July 11, 1789 Louis XVI dismissed the Finance Minister Jacques Necker, who returned to his home near Geneva, Switzerland. The public reaction to this was ….?
a. indifference. Everybody knew he deserved to get fired.
b. great anxiety and concern. This was outrageous, and dangerous for the country!
c. ignorance. Ordinary people did not know what happened behind the closed doors of Versailles.
d. enthusiasm. Good riddance to foreign influences.

Thermidor Fun Facts Day Seven: June 20 is an important anniversary

June 20 is not only on the cusp of the summer solstice, it is also the anniversary of an event that marked an important step toward democratic rule in France, or toward the reign of Terror, depending on your perspective.
What happened on June 20, 1792?
a. A mob invaded the Tuileries palace and forced the king to wear a red wool bonnet in honor of the Revolution and to proclaim his loyalty to the Constitution.
b. A mob invaded the chateau de Versailles and forced the royal family to move back to Paris.
c. Deputies of the National Assembly took what’s known as the Tennis Court Oath, vowing not to disband until France had a new Constitution.
d. The National Assembly submitted its new Constitution to King Louis XVI.

On Abolishing privilege in 2014 and 1789

An interesting article in today’s Libération by Marcela Iacub brings to mind the night of 4 August 1789, during which deputies representing the clergy and aristocracy gave up their inherited, feudal privileges. The fundamental question facing the population in 1789 now faces us today, and an acute sense of injustice is mounting daily in France and the US, which are both struggling with ways to restore a sense of justice in countries which appear to embrace, enforce, and protect the privileges of the few. Should privilege be abolished from the top down, by governmental decree, welfare or taxation policies? Or should the state maintain its laissez-faire economics and allow the market to continue widening the gap between the 1% and the rest of us?
The history of the French Revolution provides one example of people voluntarily relinquishing their rights to privilege, but it is worth noting that the generous élan of August 4, 1789 followed a bloody summer known as the Great Fear, when peasants and other disenfranchised folks took justice in their own hands, pillaging, stealing, and otherwise leveling the playing field in rural France. The famously public generosity of August 4 was thus generated by fear more than solidarity. Our time is heading in the same direction, as Marcela Iacub notes, and it remains to be seen what solution may be found to curb the rightful anger of the disenfranchised. Iacub proposes a law that would limit the ability of the super-rich to inherit the wealth of their families (above a certain level), and thereby restore a sense of justice among those unlucky folks who inherit nothing but the will to work hard and hope for a better life. But can the dispossessed find satisfaction without violence against their oppressors? And is it reasonable to expect the privileged to relinquish their comforts voluntarily?

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?


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