Happy birthday, Mr. Robespierre


Today is the birthday of Maximilien Robespierre.
In a work-in-progress, we have been poring over the many biographies dedicated to the man behind the Terror and a surprising fact has emerged. The best ones exhibit a marked tendency to borrow literary tropes from one of the genres that would exploit Robespierre's fall to greatest effect in the first decades of the nineteenth century, that is, the gothic family saga. This is unsurprising when one recalls that a fascination with psychology, especially the psychology of the mind in trauma, is central to both biography and gothic fiction. The acceptance of psychology among historians may be somewhat more controversial, but this subject matter (the scant documents about the man’s private life, and tainted nature of most testimonies) does much to justify the recourse to the mind.
The pathology of paternal abandonment forms the basis of Max Gallo’s psycho-biography, L’homme Robespierre: Histoire d’une solitude (1968). Exposed at the age of six to the results of his father’s multiple failings—bankruptcy and paternal irresponsibility chief among them—Robespierre felt forced to assume control of his three younger siblings and to give them the father-figure they so desperately needed, according to Gallo. From this early trauma emerged the man who would push for his agenda with unflinching determination. “Maximilien must have felt this wound, this original and crushing shame, and bore within him the guilt for a father whose very memory he wanted to rub out, and whom he had to renounce in adopting a radically opposed attitude” (29). The father would return in absentia to haunt him more than once, as when at age 23 the young man was pulled into familial bickering caused by the financial morass of Robespierre senior. Gallo notes apropos that these petty and commonplace quarrels weighed on Maximilian: they made him rigid and intent on seeking success as the only means to erase the past at the same time as they forced him time and again to confront “this annoying shadow of a father” (“cette ombre gênante d’un père,” 40).
Just 13 years later, Robespierre would give up the fight entirely in his ultimate public act. The astounding speech to the Convention on 8 thermidor An II (July 26, 1794)—in which he implied knowledge of multiple criminals in their midst but refused to name any names–is interpreted by Gallo as an act of defeat by one who had grown too tired to fight the shadows any longer, and who accepted the martyrdom he had long seen coming (309). One cannot deny the gothic tone of this analysis, replete with spectral fathers, awful secrets, and a human stain spreading across the generations.
More recently, Ruth Scurr has followed Gallo’s methods in Fatal Purity (2006). She does not adopt his Marxist Vulgate or the painful penchant for the Incorruptible that marks the 1968 work, but rather adopts a less partisan approach and, more importantly, a less reliable sympathy for the subject. Admitting with some bemusement that Robespierre “still makes new friends and enemies among the living,” Scurr subtly weaves her tribute with a threat: “friends, as he always suspected, can be treacherous; they have opportunities for betrayal that enemies only dream of” (9).
What better tribute to the man than those strangely menacing words.
Rest in peace, Mr. Robespierre.

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