Monday, July 21, 2014
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“THE FRENCH REVOLUTION” by Thomas Carlyle (first published 1837; revised 1857)
About twenty years ago I was an infrequent attender of “Slightly Foxed”, a pseudo-literary-cum-antiquarian club in Auckland, composed mainly of bibliophiles who wanted to talk about old books. Prior to one of our club meetings a topic was set – name your ten favourite books and explain why you like each. I sat down over a week and diligently produced a list of ten books, with a long explanatory note on each. I won’t annoy you by naming all the books I chose, for the simple reason that I no longer agree with all the choices I made, so much are one’s tastes modified by the years. Some that I chose (such as Don Quixote) I would still include if I were asked to make a similar list now. Others I regard almost with embarrassment. I am not embarrassed by having included Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution on my 20-year-old list, but it would no longer figure among my ten favourites. Re-reading passages from it before writing this article, I find Carlyle’s present-tense narration vigorous and dramatic up to a point, but quickly tiring, as if the man were incapable of writing in a more reflective, analytical, style. And while I could once have forgiven his views on the revolution as the product of Romanticism, I now find many of them unsympathetic, not to say sinister.
I can claim the feeblest and most notional of family connections with Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). As it happens, he was born in Ecclefechan, the same Scots Lowland town from which my mother’s family the Burnets had come to New Zealand in the late nineteenth century. As a child, I visited this unco dour Presbyterian town when my mother was in search of her ancestral connections, and saw the statue of Carlyle in the main street. Obviously that was the first I’d ever heard of the man. As an adult, I read The French Revolution in the old illustrated two-volume Collins Clear Type edition, running to a bit over 1,000 pages, which still sits on my shelf.
The story of the gestation of this book is well known. John Stuart Mill was commissioned to write a history of the French Revolution. He didn’t have time, so he passed the project on to Thomas Carlyle, who was then about forty. Carlyle worked away at it for about four years, eventually producing a three-volume work. But when he sent the only copy of the manuscript of the first volume to Mill for Mill’s comment, one of Mill’s servants accidentally burnt it. Carlyle re-wrote the volume from memory. This is one of the heroic stories of Eng Lit. Equally egregious, however, is that the type of “grand narrative” Carlyle produced is exactly the sort of thing that is now regarded with suspicion by academic historians. While teaching a paper on historiography five years back, I quickly found that Carlyle’s work, and his contemporary the American William Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico and Peru, are now seen almost with contempt as Victorian bestsellers which tell vigorous stories but which are not to be trusted as history. And certainly The French Revolution has none of the scholarly apparatus that would now be essential in an academic work of history – no footnotes, endnotes, bibliography, naming and evaluation of sources etc. Just the sweeping narrative, where we have to trust that the author is not making it up.
Though first published in 1837, two years before Queen Victoria’s reign began, The French Revolution was indeed a Victorian bestseller and made Carlyle’s name with the public. Carlyle revised it in 1857 and it had a big impact on imaginative writers, most notably Charles Dickens, whose slant on the French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities is very much indebted to Carlyle (as Dickens acknowledged). Also worth bearing in mind is how recent the French revolution was when Carlyle was writing. 1837 was a mere 42 years after the date (1795) where Carlyle chooses to end his history. It is as if we were to write about the 1970s.
As I now clearly see it, Carlyle was writing to a thesis. He was a big one for Capitalising Abstract Concepts, so his thesis about the French Revolution, as I understand it, goes like this:
Carlyle’s enemy was “Analysis”, meaning the querulous and endless chattering of intellectuals, to which he opposed “Belief”, meaning a core of unquestioned values, which he saw as necessary for a nation’s survival. But if Belief becomes routine or ritual, then it is a mere “Form” or Formula. To this Carlyle opposes Reality or Fact, the hard physical events of history. Thus his thousand-page history of the French Revolution reads as the Age of Analysis (philosophes, Voltaire, Montesquieu etc.) being swept away, the old Formulas (Catholic belief, absolute monarchy) crumbling, the terrible Facts marching through bloodily, leading to a new Belief, vital and real, which regenerates the nation.
Carlyle despises the political bases of pre-revolutionary radicalism, and often refers scathingly to the “Evangel of Jean-Jacques [Rousseau]”, which he sees merely as a new Formula. He hates particularism, mammon, self-interest. The nation can’t be federal, can’t be money-mad and must have a common purpose. What he lauds is a sense of national purpose under strong leadership. This leads him to admire “men of destiny” (although he never actually uses that term) – those strong men who overrode what he sees as mere parliamentary squabbles and who took bold decisions at crucial points. King Louis XVI lacked decision before the new “Facts” of the Third Estate. In turn the Girondins, although the best and the brightest of France, failed because they continued to analyse and debate instead of recognising the “Fact” of Sansculottism and the force of radical Jacobinism (much as Carlyle hates Robespierre, the most prominent Jacobin). Carlyle hates Anarchy (also always capitalised), which he tends to equate with popular democracy. He laments eloquently the endless horrors and murders of the revolution. At his worst, he seems to admire most simple power and well-organised brute force.
Who emerges most sympathetically in his account? The general Dumouriez (for his decisiveness in battle); Danton (for his sense of Reality in rallying the nation against invasion), and, of course, Bonaparte. Carlyle’s history begins with the death of Louis XV in 1774 and ends with Bonaparte’s “whiff of grapeshot” in Vendemiaire, 1795. In effect, the whole revolution becomes a prologue to the emergence of the enlightened despot Napoleon.
This 19th century British “myth” of the revolution is quite different from the received 19th century French “myth” of the revolution as articulated by the republican democrat historian Jules Michelin. Michelin divided the revolution into an “heroic” early period of idealism and necessary reform (“l’epoque sainte”) and a “sombre” later period of violence and terror (“l’epoque sombre”) when the masses were forced to excesses by external dangers. This has tended to remain the standard French view (no matter how much it has been modified by Marxists, postmodernists and others). Recently, on the indispensible Youtube, I watched the two state-sponsored movies (each nearly three hours long), which French television broadcast in 1989 to mark the 200th anniversary of the revolution. They are divided into “Years of Hope” and “Years of Sorrow” in true Michelin style. Jean Renoir’s famous 1938 movie La Marseillaise, made in time for the 150th anniversary of the revolution, deals only with the early years of the revolution, and therefore sticks with the “years of hope” (one hostile reviewer said it made the revolution look like some sort of cheerful outdoors public demonstration). It too was a distant child of Michelin. On the other hand, there is also the persistent myth of Napoleon in France. Abel Gance’s epic silent film Napoleon, made in the 1920s, has scenes that could almost have been cribbed from Carlyle. One shows the young revolutionary general in his study, watching from his window a bloody riot in the street, looking at the copy of The Rights of Man and the Citizen hanging upon his wall, reflecting that this is what has led to such anarchy, and resolving to save the nation. Like Carlyle’s book, it is undiluted “Great Man” theory of history.
All of which has led to the most persistent criticism of Carlyle. By his “Great Man” theory and his contempt for popular democracy and his desire for a unified, ordered state, he is in effect a precursor of the Fascism of Right and Left. Flash forward a century and his satire on “Analysis” translates into Mussolini’s tirades against rotten liberal democracy; his man of destiny recognizing brute Facts and saving the nation is simply Hitler’s Fuhrerprinzip; his despotism of innate genius is Stalinists and Maoists seeing their Great Leader or Great Helmsman as the incarnation of the popular will. Add to this his lectures on Hero Worship and his admiring double-decker biography of Frederick the Great (read enthusiastically in Germany) and, much as it simplifies things a bit, the criticism seems to me a valid one
And did I mention the racial element of Carlyle’s The French Revolution? Racial assumptions run as an undertone through this long book, perhaps connected with Carlyle’s North European Protestant and Calvinist background. The impulsive “Gaelic” (i.e. Gallic or Gaulish) temperament is contrasted unfavourably with the “Frankish” and Germanic sense of stoicism, firmness, resolve and duty. In a way, Carlyle’s French revolution is the history of a disorderly and potentially anarchic “Gaelic” rabble awaiting “Frankish” discipline and leadership. Germanic courage is of course what he emphasises when he describes the massacre of the Swiss Guard.
There are other blind spots in Carlyle’s vision. For all his stated theory, Carlyle’s sympathies are large and his feeling for common suffering is genuine (see particularly the chapter “Grilled Herrings” in the last Book). But when he considers pre-revolutionary France, what moves him most is not the misery of the people, but the “Sham”, the “Quacks”, the Formulas and the Analysis – in other words the lack of Belief and a vital force to unify the nation. His understanding of Catholicism is minimal – he sees and accounts for only the decadent aspects of the pre-revolutionary church, largely misses the regeneration of faith during [and after] the revolution, and seems convinced that the revolution has destroyed Catholicism. He pays little attention to rural France, or France outside Paris, except when giving evidence of the “Terror” there, and he does not really have the patience to analyse the political doctrines of the various parties. Debate in times of crisis is to him absurd. He also, especially in the earlier chapters, assumes the reader knows certain facts. For example, while he frequently refers to Cardinal Rohan as “Necklace-Rohan”, he never gives an account of the pre-revolutionary “Queen’s Necklace” scandal that might justify this sobriquet.
As the origin and foundation of the major “myth” of the French Revolution among English-speaking peoples, especially as reflected in popular novels, Carlyle’s book created durable, if highly questionable, portraits of the leading personalities. King Louis XVI is likeable but slow-witted – a devoted father but lacking resolve (this is one portrait that seems to square with later and more detailed historical research). Mirabeau is the great chimera and aristocratic factotum, mainly quack and charlatan, but at least recognising the great Fact of leadership. Danton is the “big” man, the true incarnation of the soul of Sansculottism and Patriotism. By contrast, Robespierre is spiteful, “small” and “sea-green” (Carlyle hammers both epithets to death). Incidentally, Carlyle accepts implicitly the idea that Robespierre attempted suicide just before his arrest, an idea which is now strongly contested by the evidence that his shattered jaw (at the time he was taken to the guillotine) was more likely inflicted by a shot fired by one of the arresting soldiers. Curiously, while his detestation of them is plain, Marat and Hebert are shadowy figures who play little part on Carlyle’s account – at least until the virginal heroine Charlotte Corday kills Marat.
When he comes to the heroines of his story, Carlyle has that ecstatic worship of virgin purity and sacrifice characteristic of his age. In this manner, he treats the deaths of Marie-Antoinette, Charlotte Corday and Madame Roland almost as martyrdoms.
How do I now assess this maddening and fascinating book? Much of it is airy, windy, repetitious, epithet-laden rhetoric. Certainly it can no longer be read as a serious history of classes and causes and economics and ideals. It is a panorama, a pageant, a series of dramatic scenes. Ralph Waldo Emerson was right to refer to it as a “poem”. Yet it does have a sense of vitality, of movement en masse. There is deep involvement in events rather than the detachment of a scholarly historian. At one and the same time we can say that this is and is not the way it happened, and yet it is the way it must have seemed to thousands of those who took part. Thus, paradoxically, it is a ‘true history’ – a history of feelings rather than of accurate facts.
What lingers in the mind are the individual dramatic episodes. When I first read the book, I listed the ones that most impressed me thus:
* The march of Parisian women to Versailles (Part I, Book VII)
* The “Feast of Pikes”, or first celebration of Bastille Day on the Champs de Mars, 1790, with its ludicrous portrait of Talleyrand having his mitre filled with rainwater (Part II, Book III)
* The royal family’s flight and capture at Varennes in 1791 (Part II, Book IV)
* The meeting and jibber-jabber of the inexperienced new Legislative Assembly in 1791-92 (Part II, Book V)
* The massacre of the Swiss Guard (Part II, Book VI)
* The sufferings and death in jails during the September Massacres of 1792 (Part III, Book I)
* The excesses of blasphemous “de-Christianisers”, especially in the chapter “Carmagnole Complete” (Part III, Book V)
* Danton’s execution (Part III, Book VI).
Carlyle’s account of the taking of the Bastille (Part I, Book V, Chapters 3-7) may be the most oft-quoted passage in the book, and is filled with phrases and allusions showing clearly where Dickens gained his inspiration for the parallel passage in A Tale of Two Cities. Oddly enough, though, this passage struck me as confused and over-written, lacking the narrative power of the other passages I have listed here.
I conclude by quoting the passage which I believe shows the best and the worst of Carlyle. It comes from Part II, Book III, Chapter 1 and concerns that first anniversary celebration of Bastille Day:
“Alas, what offences must come. The sublime Feast of Pikes, with its effulgence of brotherly love, unknown since the Age of Gold, has changed nothing. That prurient heat in twenty-five millions of hearts is not cooled thereby; but is still hot, nay hotter. Lift off the pressure of command from so many millions; all pressure or binding rule except such melodramatic Federation Oath as they have bound themselves with! For Thou shalt was from of old the condition of man’s being, and his weal and blessedness was in obeying that. Woe for him when, were it on the heat of the clearest necessity, rebellion, disloyal isolation and mere I will becomes his rule!”
Yes, Carlyle was quite right to see that good intentions and displays did not of themselves solve anything. Yes, his satire on talkers and planners is apt and funny. Yes, he perceived accurately that once a revolution had begun it could not be stopped by fine words. Yes, he noted correctly that a society needs binding values and there has to be more to it than atomised individual self-interest. But his craving for “command” led to an admiration of a new sort of tyranny, and in time it proved to be more terrible than the one the revolution had overthrown.