What a revelation! the King’s College workshop on the French Revolution effect

Kings College London

The King’s College workshop on the French Revolution Effect was a revelation. I feel like I discovered a friendly parallel-universe in London, of people whose work and attitude toward academia is–or could be–leading the avant-garde in its combination of theory and genuine practice.

The movement of ideas around Europe was not just rhetoric here. These were true experts providing in-depth yet entertaining forays into the specifics of political thought and action, in art and literature, from all across Europe. Originating in Paul Hamilton’s comments on the period in English and German philosophy, speakers then presented representative examples of revolutionary aspirations coming alive in Greece, Germany England, Spain, Italy, and France. I don’t know about the other participants, but I have never quite so enjoyed a conference as this one.  I felt as if I were part of something, an electric current of politically-engaged scholarship wrapping around the Continent. This is not a feeling I’ve had before in the English-speaking world.

Not only did our various contributions put pieces of the geopolitical map back together, we also restored the intellectual network beyond conservative truisms, to consider minorities such as freemasons, Jews, and émigrés, as presented in my lecture and in that of Adam Sutcliffe.  The trip to the London Freemasonry Museum and Library was a truly bizarre experience and I can hardly wait to go back.

The conference brought many surprises for me, and it was so much more enjoyable to go learn about it in person, rather than reading about it laboriously in a book.  Each of the speakers possessed an excellent style, if I do say so, and the discourse moved along not only rapidly but also in deep detail. That is what keeps all these papers so close to mind: the engaging and surprising stories they told.

It was a complete surprise to hear about the Inquisition, for example, as it was discussed by Daniel Muñoz Sempere, who explained that many Spaniards supported the Inquisition in the eighteenth century as a sort of court system!  Also interesting was Roderick Beaton’s disquisition on the Greek example—all beautifully explicated via poetry and imagery on Rigas, Korais, and Byron.

Germany was well represented in J.H. Campe’s Briefe aus Paris and the protean pastorals discussed by Elystan Griffiths. I really enjoyed the discussion of radical politics and politicians by Maike Oergel. She totally sold me on Karl Follen!  For those of you who don’t yet know him: he was first a fervently radical, black-cloak and white beret wearing student in Germany, inspired by the French example. Later he left Germany to become the first professor of German at Harvard and a Unitarian. Follen was finally fired for his abolitionist views.

Jon Mee’s colorful portrayal of Thelwall’s pyrotechnics and courageous views, as discovered in a rare and unknown letter found in an archive, was a delight. Also entrancing was Richard Taws’s by now classic style of elegant, imaginative, and probing art and media critique, this time winding together the history of the pencil and drawing technologies during the period. Kate Astbury’s use of an elegant music video to show us what a revolutionary dialogue, as between a heart-broken father and son in a play by Pixerécourt, would look and sound like, was most effective and memorable; it would be great to put a link to it here!

However, the most empowering part of the French Revolution workshop for me was discovering real-live people who approve of anti-clerical wrting today (and don’t mind saying so). Thus it was that the work of Erica Mannucci blew my mind. She presented a lucid analysis, engaging and not lacking in humor, about materialist philosophy as it moved across French-Italian borders in the revolutionary years. What was most powerful to me was the tone of respect and appreciation Mannucci showed for the work of translators who brought to Italy thinkers such as D’Holbach and Sylvain Maréchal. Dissenting Protestants were well represented in the heartfelt and convincing foray into the work and motivations of Anna Barbauld, by Emma Major. Adam Sutcliffe’s animated presentation on the Jewish Enlightenment—which had some intriguing links to mine on the notions of cosmopolitanism and freemasonry, was also eye-opening.

Toiling in the groves of American Catholic academe, as I have for the past 24 years, it was most refreshing to hear people speak with respect and approval for atheists, agnostics, Protestants, Unitarians, Anglicans, and all Dissenters. I finally felt like I was hearing the “other” side of the story—my people’s side. Not only do I come from a long line of anti-papists (the Douthwaites were Unitarian and Quaker), but the colleagues gathered at King’s College also share an enduring commitment to revolutionary ideals, as do I.

The combination of word and act was patent not only in the lectures but also in the proof of people’s involvement in the local scene. It felt authentic. Paul Hamilton’s comments on distinguishing Jacobins from the Terror should be a reminder to us all, of the work left undone. Will this kind of “practice what you preach” attitude take hold in academia? or remain a war in words?

In short, the entire event was an absolute smash. Thank you to Sanja Perovic and Rosa Mucingat for bringing us all together.

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