Blog : Posts tagged with 'French Revolution'

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Salvation and me

In which we discuss the language barrier


Back when I was 11, I started secondary school, and we started to learn French.* Like most English children who learn French, one of the first words we came across was salut. As a greeting, for use with friends, something like “Hi”.

When I was a few years older, I read my way through my parents’ bookshelves of 1960s and 1970s thrillers. One of the books on it was Papillon, the autobiography of a 1930s French crook called Henri Charrière; a long picaresque tale of his imprisonment in the jungles of South America, on Devil’s Island, and various escapes, recaptures, masturbation, sex with dusky native wives, and so on and so on. I’m not sure how much of the sex made it into the inevitable film version, because I’ve never seen the inevitable film version.**

One thing about Papillon, though, confused me. Not the long story with all its peregrinations and jewels-up-the-bum, but the geography. I’d heard of Devil’s Island before, but I hadn’t realised it was part of a group. Les Iles de Salut. Or, according to the French I’d been taught at school, the Islands of Hi. Something about that didn’t sound quite right. Back then, I couldn’t just pop online and check up on this, though, and so it was a while later that I discovered: salut doesn’t literally just mean “Hi!”. It is, in fact, “salvation”.

Well, that makes rather more sense, despite being rather darkly ironic for the prisoners of pre-war days. It’s somewhat stranger, in fact, that the French apparently use “Salvation!” as something like an equivalent to “Hi!” And there, in my head, the matter rested.

In the meantime, between then and now, lots happened. I read some stuff about the French Revolution one day, then read some more, and later more still, until I knew such vital trivia as Louis XVI’s favourite hobbies, or the name of Robespierre’s dog.*** I certainly knew about the Committee of Public Safety, the body which in many ways became France’s primary executive power in 1793-94; a dour committee of serious-minded men who promulgated government by terror, passing laws that banned any sort of anti-Revolutionary word or deed or thought, the punishment being clean, scientific and egalitarian decapitation.**** “Committee of Public Safety” is a very dull and bureaucratic name for a body convinced that France needed saving from its reactionary self, whatever the cost of the purge.

All of my reading, of course, was in English, my French being just about good enough to order a Metro ticket. So it was only the other day, when we visited the Museé Carnavalet – the museum of Paris’s history – that I found out what the CPS’s real name was. La Comité de salut public. Not just responsible for the public safety, but for the public salvation. The committee to save the French from themselves, whatever it takes.

All of a sudden, in my head, their actions made much more sense than they ever had before. It just goes to show what you can lose in translation, between safety and salvation; or, indeed, between safety, salvation and “Hi!”. Maybe I should have worked on my French harder in school, and the Terror would have made more sense earlier. Salut.

* Actually, there was another abortive attempt to teach me French, by my first school teacher, at the age of 5 or so. It didn’t get very far.

** starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Presumably the masturbation was also omitted.

*** Hunting and locksmithery; and “Brount”. And I didn’t get asked either of those things when I went on the telly.

**** The “egalitarian” part of that isn’t just me using long words: before the nobility lost its Old Regime rights, they alone were entitled to execution by decapitation. The common people got to hang. The guillotine, incidentally, wasn’t as clean as Dr Guillotin thought it would be; it spilled large amounts of blood, so much that the site of the guillotine was steadily moved away from the centre of Paris to try to limit the number of districts which started to get a pink-tinged water supply.

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Apologia

In which we try to justify a one-line description


Talking of Robespierre, I recently said that he was, well, one of the villains of the French Revolution. And – well, he is and he isn’t. He’s also someone who, in many ways, I admire: that’s not really a way you can describe a villain. But, having thought of the handy “for some people he’s a hero, for others he’s a villain” line, I couldn’t bring myself to call him a hero.

“Apologia”, incidentally, doesn’t mean the same as “apology”. It’s something more like “justification”. It’s possible to justify almost anything, of course;* but I think there are good reasons to say that Robespierre couldn’t really be called anyone’s hero.

Admirable, he was. For people who don’t know much about him: he was a fairly dull provincial lawyer who suddenly had a chance to thrust at power. When the King of France decided to call the Estates-General – the closest thing ancien regime France had to a parliament, but lucky to get convened once a century – he strained to get himself elected, then strained to get closer and closer to power on a platform of radical equality and socialism. He wasn’t a typical-looking revolutionary, though: always carefully-dressed, never a sans culotte and refusing to wear the red cap of liberty, he set up a new Deist state religion at the same time as trying to introduce state education. Identifying himself as the revolution personified, he became obsessed with purging France of anyone he considered counter-revolutionary: people could be executed on a rumour that they’d told a joke, with no right to defence. After one final blood-soaked month,** he was purged himself, by the other members of the National Convention, ostensibly on the grounds that he was too lenient to his friends. He was never a dictator, despite his enemies’ claims: if he had been, his death would hardly have happened in the way it did.

So why is he admirable? He started off from a point of principle – particularly, the works of Rousseau – and he never, ever compromised. It caused him problems: he refused to ever admit his mistakes, even when executing someone who had earlier been an ally. But he was the sort of politician who it’s impossible to imagine nowadays: one who said what he believed, who stood by what he believed, and could never consider compromising a policy to further his personal career. His nickname was “the Incorruptible”, and it was used as both a compliment and almost as an insult.

I could never call him a hero, though. Admirable, but not a hero, and for precisely the same reason. Although he was perfectly willing to sacrifice himself for France, he was all too willing to sacrifice other people too. If a friend disagreed with him, however close a friend, then they would end up purged for the good of the country. For the Incorruptible Robespierre, being pure and incorruptible was more important than any personal loyalty; and any form of dissent was seen as treasonable behaviour. Dissent against himself, that is, meaning the same as dissent against the Revolution itself.

Heros, I’d say, should be people you want to adore close-up. Robespierre might be admirable, but he is somebody I’d always want to stay at arms’ length from. He’s not, never could be, a black-and-white person; but if it comes down to hero or villain, then he could never ever be my hero.

* especially if you have access to a word processor.

** during which the guillotine had to be moved further and further from the centre of Paris, as the bloodflow was contaminating the water supply

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On the telly

In which we read ahead in the schedules


Regular readers might recall that, a few months back, I produced a few posts referencing the French Revolution, partly because it seemed relevant to events, and partly because it was on the top of my head at the time.*

Well, if you enjoyed those, you might be interested in something else I noticed. Browsing through the BBC’s websites the other day, I noticed that the new series of Mastermind has started. And one of this week’s specialist subject is, it says, “The Life And Times Of Maximilien Robespierre”. It’s on Friday at 8pm,** if you’re interested in French Revolutionary things, and if you’d like to watch.

* to be honest, I thought I’d mentioned it more than I actually have

** That’s the 4th of September. Unless you live in Wales, in which case it will probably be on some time the following week

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The Politics Show

In which FP goes through a few voting-related topics


I’ve been quiet about politics here lately, save for that post about revolutions the other day. The more noise there is about politics in the press, the less I want to add to the “debate”. All I feel like doing is pointing out the endless opportunism and hypocrisy of all, and that’s so plain it doesn’t need to be said.

We did vote, though. However apathetic I might get about politics, I still keep an eye on the news and the policies; and voting’s important. To get back on to the French Revolution, it’s one of the rights that Robespierre fought for even as he was also fighting for the right of the government to purge anyone he considered to be in the government’s way. I know I keep harping on about the French Revolution, but it’s still rattling around in my head a lot and I’d like to get it out of the way to make room for normal things again. Getting back onto the topic: lots of people would say that the European Parliament isn’t important, that despite the laws that emanate from it, most of the work done there emerges from the back room of the Commission. To that I’d say: voting for part of a partly-democratic system is better than voting for none of it. Moreover, I have my own view of Britain, and how I’d like Britain represented in the wider world,* and the MEPs that represent us form an important part of that.

The city elections made the news, being the one yellow blob on the map surrounded by a sea of blue; but we didn’t get to vote in those. Due to the city electing by thirds, only two thirds of the city wards participate in each election. This year, we were one of the wards which took a holiday from electing.

I did hear, a few months back, of a campaign to end the “by thirds” system in Bristol and move to all-out elections. It seemed to be a Labour Party led campaign: at least, I first heard about it via a now-former Labour councillor, who had started a petition for it on the council website; and it emerged just after the council’s minority Labour administration had resigned. I could see partly why the Labour party might be attracted to the idea: although they only held about a quarter of the seats on the council, at the elections, over a third of the seats up for election were Labour seats. They lost heavily, as they were predicted to do, at a time when they were the party with the most to lose. What goes around comes around, though; at the next election, things will be a little more balanced, and Labour will only be holding about 20% of the seats up for election.**

I’m not convinced that there’s any need for all-at-once elections. It might make it hard for some parties, some of the time, to gain control of the council; but often those parties find themselves in the position they deserve. Moreover, it can be a good thing for it to take several elections for a party to gain control of the council, and the overall time taken is no longer. All-out elections would only make sense if proportional representation was brought in at the same time; and I can’t see the local Labour Party being in favour of that. Maybe they will be after the next council elections, though.

* not to mention the regions I have particular attachment to

** still a higher percentage than they now hold across the full council.

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Estates-General

In which we discuss differences between Britain and France


Politics seems to have become a bit of a grind at the moment. The same stories, over and over, over and over until all the details get confused; the government pushing on grim-faced against public opinion, and the Tories trying to jump onto the election-calling bandwagon on the grounds that they expect to win the election and want it to come along ASAP. It might be the sort of politics that needs doing; but it’s not the sort of politics that stirs the imagination. It’s hardly another revolution.

Jeremy Paxman announced on Newsnight tonight that the Prime Minister had announced a National Convention on Democratic Renewal. Either Paxman made a slight mistake or my ears did, because elsewhere on the Internet it’s described as a National Council on the subject. I was slightly disappointed. I liked the sound of a National Convention, possibly because I’ve been reading about the French Revolution a lot lately. By the time the French called elections for a National Convention, to create a French Republic, the Revolution had already been revolving for three years or so, through a succession of failed democratic structures one after the other.

Those democratic structures had different names, over the years, and differences in detail; but at heart they all derived from one concept: that the nation’s elected representatives are a sovereign body, because they represent the will of the people. They became France’s de facto sovereign body in June 1789, a few weeks before the Bastille fell; and its de jure sovereign body over the following months as they created that country’s first written constitution.* The National Council on Democratic Renewal, though, doesn’t sound like any of these French assemblies. Rather, it sounds like an earlier French assembly from 1788: the Assembly of Notables, a handpicked crew gathered to debate ways to save the country from ruin. In one sense, they failed, because their recommendation was for a democratic and representative body to meet in their place. I doubt whether the National Council on Democratic Renewal will come up with any recommendation quite so revolutionary.

Then again, that’s probably a good thing. You’ve probably heard about the actress and TV presenter Lynda Bellingham, who, a couple of months back, called for a revolution along French lines. I’m not sure if she realises quite what the French Revolution involved: that it wasn’t just a quick riot followed by a bit of workaday guillotining of the king and some aristocrats. Indeed, the king stayed on his throne for the first three years; the mass guillotining of “counter-revolutionaries” started a year after that, by which time France had provoked a major European war. All in all, revolutionary government lasted for about 12 years in total; think back from today to the election of Tony Blair. That’s how serious a revolution is.

* After the fashion of the American one which, ironically, had partly led to the French Revolution. It was the French who saved America in the American Revolutionary War; and it was the American Revolutionary War which bankrupted the French royal government.

** which the British were heavily involved in, even capturing one of France’s main naval ports at one point.

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Great Spectacle Wearers From History

In which we consider Robespierre’s eyesight


Since briefly writing about Maximilien Robespierre the other week – particularly, writing about the biography Fatal Purity by Ruth Scurr – I’ve had a couple of search hits from people looking for Robespierre information. And one, in particular, tickled me.

maximilien robespierre glasses

Drinking glasses with Robespierre etched on the side? Possibly. But, I assumed, about spectacles. Because Robespierre was famous for wearing spectacles. His whole life, he had terrible eyesight. He habitually wore glasses with green-tinted lenses, and often when speaking, a second pair over the top.

He was both short- and long-sighted, so everything he saw was slightly blurred. His glasses helped him focus, they filtered the harsh sunlight, and they were also props used to dramatic effect as he spoke at the tribune. (Scurr, p10).

Strangely, though, there are barely any portraits of Robespierre that show him wearing glasses. There were probably thousands of images of him made during his lifetime – his own study was practically papered with him – but in just about all of them his forehead and eyes are bare. There is one portrait showing them resting high on his forehead; and one rough sketch, made the day before his death, in which he’s wearing them.

Maybe it’s something about his depiction, often in an idealised fashion; but that doesn’t apply to all the portraits made of him by a long chalk. Maybe, though, it’s about his own personality. Robespierre had something in common with the modern far-left politicans George Galloway and Tommy Sheridan: a noticeable pride in his own appearance and clothing, bordering on vanity.* He always dressed well, as well as he could afford, and fashionably.** Maybe he didn’t want to be seen in glasses, even though he had to wear them all the time. It’s certainly a possibility. If he was around today, I’m fairly sure that he’d go for contacts.

* Apart from that, and their place on the far left, he had very little else in common with them, of course. On the one hand: Robespierre did achieve a position of high political importance in his lifetime. On the other, he’s unlikely to ever appear on Celebrity Big Brother, what with being dead, and all. Robespierre was often libelled in the press; his response was to start his own political newspaper. Court cases weren’t really an option at the time.

** The BBC’s rather unhistorical Saturday-teatime version of The Scarlet Pimpernel was particularly inaccurate here, showing him always in dour black outfits, when he was famous for his brightly-coloured jackets and embroidered waistcoats.

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Reading list

In which we discuss books and the French Revolution


One thing about yesterday’s post: it gives you a good look at the state of one of our bookshelves. Not a good enough look to make out what most of the books are, though, unless they’re books with distinctive spines that you’re already familiar with – like Peter Ackroyds’s London, for example.

Over on top of that pile on the left, though, is a book I mentioned here a few months ago. Shortly after restarting the regular blogging cycle, I mused aloud as to whether I should restart the Books I Haven’t Read reviews, and predicted one book that might fall victim: Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down. It’s there on top of the pile, in the blue cover. And, I have to say, so far the prediction’s been right. But not because of the book itself; because there’s been too much else to read. Below it on the pile there’s Graves’ White Goddess, also mentioned as a potential Book I Haven’t Read. I still haven’t read it. Further up, though, there’s a biography of Robert Graves, which I picked up on a bookstall outside the Watershed cinema. I thought: if I’m going to write about The White Goddess, I need to know more about him to do it justice. Coming across the biography by chance, I bought it. I started to read it. I still haven’t finished it.

Elsewhere in the house there are many more books I haven’t finished reading. Amazingly, though, yesterday, I finished one, and it was a book I only made a start on a few weeks ago.* Fatal Purity, a biography of Maximilien “The Incorruptible” Robespierre, by Ruth Scurr. A shy, fastidious man, who I find very intriguing; someone who found himself trying to impose morals by whatever means necessary, because his cause was justified. He was shortsighted both literally and figuratively, and was a logical man who became trapped in his own logic. He was willing to execute his oldest friends, because he thought his cause, the Revolution, was more important.

I’m not sure I read the book properly, because it left me feeling I’d stepped through a lacuna at one point: I wasn’t sure at all how he went from being the people’s leader, to giving a speech that he apparently could see was to try to save his own life. One thing I definitely learned about, though, was Robespierre’s inability to ever, at all, admit that he had been wrong, even after his stance had changed, or when condemning people he had earlier supported. I’m still not entirely sure whether, for that, he should be applauded, or condemned himself.

* Because it was a Christmas present from K’s brother.

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