Why “sentimentalism” requires a grain of salt: Hints from early works by Robespierre and Marat

The conference on “Terrorism, Martyrdom, and Religion” held at Notre Dame’s London Centre on 7-9 April 2011 was a splendid event, especially for the panel composed of David Andress (Univ. of Portsmouth), Dominic Janes (Birbeck College, London), Greg Kucich (Notre Dame), Ron Schechter (William and Mary) and myself, where literary, political, and historical forays into the Reign of Terror were framed by methodologies ranging from queer theory to the “new positivism.” One issue was raised and remains unresolved, however, regarding our understanding of “sentimentalism,” that is, the gushing, emotional style which dominated in the 1790s and notably in revolutionary polemics.

Most critics take sentimentalism seriously; indeed a cottage industry in scholarship has developed around the concept. But what if we were to think about the continuity between what writers imagined themselves to be before the Revolution and how that self-fashioning changed during the upheaval? In most works on the Revolution, 1789 is the point at which things began. But people did not experience life like that. How can we reconstruct the revolutionary mentality so that it embraces earlier modes of thinking from the hierarchical, Bourbon court to the egalitarian Republic which was adopted with such fanfare in 1792? A look at the deputies’ writings pre-1789 may wield some answers.

In Maximilien Robespierre’s Eloge de Gresset (1785), he defends the author (a minor poet of the rococo style) against those cynics who did not believe his repentance. Gresset’s notoriety derived from two highly publicized scandals: 1) his saucy comments on the Jesuits and their subsequent expulsion of him from the order, and 2) his withdrawal from le monde. Voltaire flippantly made light of his disgrace with the comment: “Gresset se trompe, il n’est pas si coupable” (Gresset is wrong; he is not that guilty). Robespierre’s Eloge cuts both ways: he claims to admire the poet’s verve while implicitly denouncing his immorality, as if to rebut Voltaire and say: “Gresset is right; he really was that guilty.” It seems to me that this persona–of the defender who feels the shame of the victim and yet punishes him for it–may help us understand the incongruous Virtue of Jacobinism. But more interesting is Robespierre’s praise of badinage. Did he really like the amorous battle of wits? Or was his praise of badinage motivated by other forces, such as a desire to advance his own standing among the aristocratic arbiters of taste?

Jean-Paul Marat’s profile in his Eloge de Montesquieu (1785) implies a similar defense of dissimulation. He expounds at length on Montesquieu’s irony in De l’esprit des lois and shows how a literal reading of Montesquieu’s works misses the point. Montesquieu was not only a serious magistrate, he was also an adroit stylist, Marat claims, and he wielded the “bitter laughter” of irony with aplomb. Montesquieu’s treatise was no simple diatribe against prejudice, but rather a subtle dig at the unenlightened and their pig-headed ways of thinking.

A few years later, these men forcefully disassociated themselves from the clever badinage of the Bourbon court. They pretended to be taken seriously as republicans, when just a few years earlier they endorsed a highly exclusionary mode of witty banter and ironic ridicule. Surely some witnesses would have remembered their earlier persona, and been taken aback by the new rhetoric of sincerity that Robespierre and Marat affected so publicly in the 1790s.

Perhaps we need to interpret the theatrical earnestness of “sentimentalism” with a grain of salt… and remember the supreme values of wit, banter, and clever argumentation that dominated upper-class French society during the 1780s. As Montesquieu noted some-50 years earlier, equality is a much-beloved virtue, but it is scarcely realized here in society: “Les hommes naissent bien dans l’égalité, mais ils n’y sauraient demeurer.” Could Robespierre and Marat really have believed what they wrote? Should we?

2 thoughts on “Why “sentimentalism” requires a grain of salt: Hints from early works by Robespierre and Marat

  1. But if they didn’t believe that, what did they believe? How will we know? Does any public speaker ‘believe’ the content of her rhetoric in any absolute sense? Or is she more concerned with whether listeners will accept it? I am certainly more interested in the question of how a discourse develops in the context of experience than in trying to decide whether the speakers are, to some definable percentage, ‘sincere’. The latter is to reproduce the immanent critique of sensibility already present at its birth, and simultaneously to go down a rabbit-hole of concern with hidden interiority at the expense of what is practically knowable.

    There is a well-known joke about Lord Olivier’s advice to budding actors: “Sincerity! If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” But an actor will also tell you that to portray an emotion, one must at least to some extent actually feel it – and indeed, to portray it IS to feel it, at a certain level, and to make others feel it empathetically. Diderot certainly thought so, however else we might read his famous encounter with Garrick’s [sic?] techniques of mime. Acting, and public speaking, also involve considering the expected responses of the audience, where the quest is to make them ‘sincerely’ believe what you have to say, or show.

    So, somewhere in this equation, someone is expected to really believe something. Rhetoric is understood as effective; therefore even if we might wonder whether an individual speaker has a ‘sincere belief’ in the propositions they put forward, somewhere in the system of communication, there is ‘sincere belief’ in the effectiveness of that form of address. I think that a speaker like Barere, for example, could play on the sentimental register with great competence, even when churning out hundreds of pages of boilerplate revolutionary prose. On the other hand, I do think that a figure like Robespierre went to a higher level of emotive engagement, not merely trying to press others’ buttons as Barere did, but showing that his own buttons were firmly engaged – and when it came to giving leadership through rhetoric, for a long time until quite close to thermidor, Robespierre was strikingly effective. Whether he always entirely believed himself, who knows, but he seems to have believed very strongly that he should say what he said.

    And that’s quite enough from me.

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