montagnarde1793: (Default)
So I just finished reading Claude Mossé's L'Antiquité dans la Révolution française, which will be a pretty good overview for my senior thesis. (It may seem like I'm insanely ahead on this, but actually, since I'll probably have to do most of my research next year when I'm in France, I'm actually - scarily enough - not.) At any rate, I thought Mossé's analysis was pretty solid. She especially got into some of the nuances and/or possible contradictions of Robespierre's views on Antiquity, and Sparta in particular, though of course one could probably go into a lot more depth on that aspect alone.

Only about 100 pages were on the Revolution itself, which I thought was both a shortcoming - in the sense that, considering the title, you wouldn't necessarily expect more than a third of the book to be, essentially, a drawn-out introduction - and an asset, because it allows Mossé to explain the points of Ancient History most referenced by the Revolutionaries to a general audience no longer likely to be familiar with them and to show how very Enlightenment figures had already made use of Greek and Roman references. I actually feel she could have done more with that last point, that maybe she could have discussed how much of the Revolutionaries' interpretations of Antiquity were direct and how much filtered through Rousseau, say, or Mably's interpretations. Not that that's a question that could be definitively answered, but it might be worth exploring.

Mossé repeatedly makes the assertion that most of the Revolutionaries knew Antiquity pretty much exclusively through Plutarch. It would be interesting to investigate the truth of this, since it seems to me that Plutarch, though clearly widely read, would have been one of the least likely candidates to be taught in schools, considering that most collèges had greatly de-emphasized Greek in the period when the Revolutionaries would have been in school. Which begs the question, if Plutarch was their only acquaintance with Antiquity, then what Latin texts were they reading in school? Since I'm currently researching a paper on collèges and universités in 18th century France, I can safely say that not much has been written about the curricula at most of these schools (Louis-le-Grand and the other collèges of the Université de Paris forming a notable exception), for one reason or another, and there would have been even less in 1989 when this book was published.

In any case, this book presents an excellent summary and has given me a lot of possible further leads for research, so I can't complain about it. Besides, it's refreshing to see a historian of Ancient Greece who can write intelligently about something so far removed from her subject as the Revolution. There are so many historians who are fine writing about anything but the Revolution, but then someone go haywire whenever they mention it. And that's even among 18th century French historians whose main focus is not the Revolution. (Take Robert Darnton for example. His studies on the Ancien régime are brilliant, but he has a less than perfect understanding of Revolutionary mentalities and becomes very condescending along ideological lines when it comes time to talk about the Revolution.)

On the other hand, most of the studies I've found of representations of Antiquity during the Revolution are by historians of Greece or Rome. It would be nice, I think, to get the perspective of a few historians for whom Antiquity is less familiar than the Revolution to complement that of these historians for whom the opposite is true. I also felt - and it's possible I'm wrong, since I haven't done enough of my own research on the topic yet - that Mossé perhaps overemphasized Greece because that's her speciality. She herself seemed to admit as much, with the statistics she provided on the number of citations of Rome vs Greece (citations of the former were far higher), but statistics can sometimes be misleading. I was also somewhat disappointed that she didn't call Desmoulins out on his "citation" of Tacitus, which as has been demonstrated - and can be verified by actually reading Tacitus with Desmoulins' passage in mind - is not actually in there.

Probably though, the single most important thing that annoyed me about this book had nothing to do with the content, which, aside from the few misgivings I've already spoken about, really was excellent, was its lack of footnotes/endnotes. Mossé quotes a lot of different sources, but more often than not, fails to give exact locations for them. She lists sources in the back, but it's not particularly helpful to know that a quote came from somewhere in the thousands of pages of the Archives parlementaires. It really makes it much more frustrating than it needs to be to look them up. (This would be the negative example for why I love footnotes. The positive example being that I managed to cram 65 of them into a 14 page paper last year, as you may recall.)

I should say, before I sign off, that I apologize for any incoherence in the above assessments. I blame it on the fact that it's nearly one in the morning. The bottom line is, I highly recommend this book as an overview, but be aware that it's not perfect.
montagnarde1793: (maximebust)

I just finished reading Paule Becquaert's Le Jugement Secret, and I really don't know what to think of it. Naturally, it was incredibly depressing, but I knew that it would be just from the premise--it takes place during Thermidor, after all. There were some parts of it that were very moving, certainly, but it was more upsetting than I could have imagined. Here's why: the play is divided into three acts, one in which Robespierre is judged by the Ancient Greeks, one by the Romans, and one by the early Christians.

The first group, the Greeks, are made up of (as described in the character list):
Solon, Athenian politician
Agis, king of Sparta
Socrates, philosopher
Homer and Aristophanes, poets
Themistocles, Athenian statesman
Ariane, a young girl (this last doesn't get to give an official judgment, for obvious reasons)
Now, you might think, because this is a play written by a Robespierriste, that they would find Robespierre innocent. Not at all; only Homer and Agis find him not guilty; all the rest condemn him. 

The Romans (Brutus, politician; Fabricius Luscinus, consul; Sylla, dictator; Antonia, a young girl--who also doesn't get a judgment) also condemn him, this time unanimously.

The Christians break the pattern, because they don't really give an official judgment; the "old man" of the first scene of the third act doesn't give one at all, and "Juses, a young man" (who, I think, is supposed to represent Jesus, even if his name is a bit different) and "Blandine, a young girl" are both favorably disposed to him.

Now, perhaps it's just me, but it seems a bit unlikely that ancient Greeks and Romans, knowing only the basic facts of Robespierre's life and having listened to his defense rather than the calumnies of the Thermidorians, would all condemn him (Homer and Agis aside--and also Ariane, Antonia, and Blandine, who all find him both sincere in his defense and attractive). I was, admittedly, a bit upset when I read that. But I considered that the author must have had a reason for having them condemn him.

I think it may be that the play can be read on several levels. First of all, Becquaert leaves it somewhat ambiguous whether this judgment is really happening or whether it's a dream Robespierre is having when he's lying wounded on the table of the CSP. In the latter case, the reproaches of the figures from Antiquity might be meant to represent those that Robespierre might make to himself: especially given that many of them are rather unfair and we often judge ourselves more harshly than we deserve. Another version of that would be to say that they represent what he thinks (on a subconscious level, at least) those Greeks and Romans would think about him.

In the former case, Becquaert could be saying one of several things. The first is perhaps that the men of Antiquity were just human too, and thus they have their own prejudices and imperfections--maybe subtly implying by this that the Revolutionaries who used them as examples may have thought too highly of them. (Because whether they say Robespierre is guilty or not guilty, they all seem to measure him against themselves. For example, Agis judges him not guilty because he says he knows what it's like to be a reformer and have to deal with people who don't want whatever the present way of doing things is to be changed, whereas Socrates judges him guilty because according to him he did not do enough to educate the people--that is, he didn't go out among them, as Socrates is said to have done, and ask them uncomfortable and thought-provoking questions.)

She could also be commenting more generally on how it's impossible for a person to rightly judge another person, and whether that other person happens to be Robespierre or not is irrelevant. Or it's possible she's condemning the idea that 18th century people and events can be judged by Greek or Roman standards. From which I would assume a more general critique of trying to judge the 18th century by any standards but its own. And then there's the point of view of literary value: no one, as sad as this is, would think it plausible if they all, or even a majority of them, acquitted him. And it would remove most of the drama. Besides, Becquaert does seem to imply--and rather strongly, at that--that it is Robespierre's destiny to be misunderstood. And certainly, it's happened enough historically that it would feel like too much of an easy way out if his "judges" had acquitted him...

Still, I can't help but feel that some of the judgments either are some kind of misunderstanding or reflect the difference between the circumstances of Rome especially and of late 18th century France. I'll admit I was rather upset by the Romans' judgments especially (probably in part because, unlike the Greeks, they condemned Robespierre unanimously):

"BRUTUS: We have deliberated. Here is our judgment. Fabricius, your verdict.

FABRICIUS, to Robespierre: Virtue was only the instrument of your power over your fellow men. You made them your slaves. I vote for death.

SYLLA, advancing: Me too, for you did not find a way to stop the brutal course of your revolution, nor to retire forthrightly when you still had time.

BRUTUS: Death, because you deserve it.

ROBESPIERRE: You? But that's insane! How can a republican want the death of another republican?

BRUTUS: You were not a sincere republican and the republic, on your lips, was but a vain ornament with which you seasoned your speeches. You used it only to establish your authority."

Now, obviously, I don't think Becquaert is saying that these Romans have accurately characterized him, but the possibility that she finds those judgments inevitable on the surface is rather troubling. :/

I can't say I really understood the last act, with the early Christians, but perhaps if I reflect on it more it will come to me.

Other than that, the play did have a couple of moments I found amusing, though I'm not sure this was entirely intentional on Becquaert's part. For example, Robespierre mistakes both Ariane and Blandine for Éléonore (and doubtless, if he had found Antonia alone first, as he did with the other two, he would have thought the same of her XD). But that was about the only "light" part of the play, and I might even be the only one who finds it amusing.

All in all I found Le Jugement Secret to be upsetting and depressing, but also thought-provoking. I'm not sure I could claim to like it, per se, but it was interesting...

montagnarde1793: (OMSBWTF?)
What is wrong with Americans when it comes to La Fayette? (I could, of course, ask that question more generally, but that would be an entirely different subject.)

I just read a review of a new book about La Fayette in Newsweek and it says the following (with annotations by me):

"Their [La Fayette and Washington's] egalitarianism should not be overstated [You can say that again, really]. By "all men," they meant white, male property owners. But they were true revolutionaries: they were intent on overthrowing a system that fixed status at birth and replacing it with a system that rewarded merit [Is that so? It doesn't look like it from where I'm standing]. Washington and Lafayette were more progressive than most of the Founding Fathers [though, to be honest, that's not saying much]. After the Revolution, Lafayette suggested that the two men buy an estate together and free the slaves who worked there. The idea never materialized--Lafayette sailed home to agitate for liberty in his native France [but then, so did Mounier in the years leading up the Revolution, and yet we find him sitting with the monarchiens in the Constituant Assembly]--but Washington's will dictated that his slaves be feed after he and his wife died. [Considering the attitude of the Convention as far as slavery goes, I can't really say I'm particularly impressed.]

"Gaines [the author], a former editor of Time [that would explain it], writes about the two [one] great republican revolutions of the late 18th century knowingly [I'll believe it when I see it; in the meanwhile, you'll forgive me for being skeptical.] and, at times, elegantly, though readers may get bogged down in his dense forays into French thought and politics [Oh no! not the dense forays! What ever shall we do?!1!!!1]. His portrait of the relentlessly optimistic Lafayette, swept away by the excesses of the French Revolution [like the excess of innocent and unarmed civilians shot on the Champ-de-Mars, or are we forgetting that detail?] and driven into prison and exile [driven by himself and his own ambition, perhaps], is poignant [I'm sure]. Lafayette was ultimately vindicated--the modern French Constitution invokes his [Hear that? Gilles César is now solely responsible for the Declaration of Rights--good to know that no one else was involved and that there wasn't a more evolved version set out in 1793. It's especially good to know that La Fayette is personally responsible for everything positive in the entire Revolution, whereas, I assume, responsibility for anything negative goes exclusively to the Robespierristes. I don't know what I could have done without that information.] Declaration of the Rights of Man [...] But he [La Fayette] was no hypocrite [Evidence?]. During France's revolutionary upheaval of 1789, Lafayette, who had been appointed commander in chief on the National Guard [Let us all take this moment to note that La Fayette's only position of power was unelected, and that he lost the mayoral election to Pétion], could have seized power as the classic Man on a White Horse (he rode an enormous white charger). But he remained faithful to an abiding principle: that government belongs to the people, and not to any one man, no matter how noble."

Now, that last bit is just a complete lie: if La Fayette didn't seize power, it certainly wasn't through lack of trying, as he attempted to seize the dictatorship on two separate occasions, the second one of which was such a complete failure that his troops refused to go with him to the capital. Following this, he defected to the Austrians in order to escape a quite justified arrest. Honestly, I don't have much sympathy, either for him, or for the author of this article. Far be it for said author (Evan Thomas, if anyone wants to know) to let the facts get in the way of his hero-worship.
montagnarde1793: (OMSBWTF?)

So, I watched the History Channel's documentary on the French Revolution again. Because I'm clearly a masochist. 

The following could speak for itself as to what was wrong with it: the only French-speaking historian on it is an Antoinette specialist!

In other news (just as depressing), Paris seems to have gone to Sarkozy. Which means we're likely screwed. (I say we of course because if France goes right, there's no hope whatsoever for anywhere else--though of course, personally speaking, I want more than anything that things should go well in France for its own sake.)

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