Pity and its adversaries

Villette, « Something to Reflect Upon for the Crowned Jugglers » (« Matières à réflexion pour les jongleurs couronnées » [sic], 1793).

Villette, “Something to Reflect Upon for the Crowned Jugglers,” 1793.

Is emotion political?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau defined pity as a profoundly human emotion.

Why did revolutionary thought associate pity with weakness, manipulation, and deceit?

I am currently preparing a lecture,  « La Pitié et ses adversaires :  La politique de l’émotion dans les écrits révolutionnaires» to be presented at « Emotions et puissance de la littérature » conference at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, rue d’Ulm, Paris, June 12, 2009.
The lecture builds upon my research on the pamphlets, fictions, and correspondence on the King’s demise following his ill-fated attempt to flee the country in 1791, and considers these materials in the light of the history of “emotives” outlined in William Reddy, The Navigation of Feeling (Cambridge UP, 2001) and “Against Constructionism: The Historical Ethnography of Emotions,” Current Anthropology 38 (June 1977).
The fall of Louis XVI is an excellent case to test Reddy’s claims that 1) sincerity is culturally managed; and that 2) “emotional control is the real site of the exercise of power” (NF, 111; “AC,” 335).  My study explores how authors described and criticized who could be a rightful recipient of pity at three key moments in the political history of the French Revolution:  1791, 1800-01, and 1803.  Not only was the king’s  sincerity and legitimacy radically challenged after he was arrested in June 1791 at Varennes, he also lost the right to people’s pity.  Most intriguing from a literary perpective is the contrast  between Regnault-Warin’s novel, Le Cimetière de la Madeleine, and the king’s correspondence (1803, ed. Helen-Maria Williams).  Whereas the former presents an explicitly sympathetic reaction to the king’s fate, mirroring through a number of mise en abyme techniques the desired reader’s response, the latter repeatedly challenges the king’s claims of sincerity and efforts to elicit pity with an ironic series of editorial “commentaries.” 
Death of Louis XVI, King of France
Death of Louis XVI, King of France

In updating this message tonight, after posting the “Weird Liaisons” article earlier today, I was struck by my own insensitivity to the man known as Louis XVI.  Surely the decapitated head above is just as offensive as the Dolce & Gabbana imagery of bloody victims?   How quick we are to dismiss a person–because of his or her status, creed, or color–as unfitting of basic human pity and kindness.  I have thus posted this sympathetic English icon of Louis’s execution to render homage to another facet of his memory.  Tyrant or timid, dull or deliberate, Louis XVI was no monster, and his memory deserves a more dignified tribute than Villette’s grotesquerie.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s