June 1, 2006

Morning Reading

Scanning the Winds of Change's post from "Calimachus", he flagged this Adam Gopnik's recent New Yorker piece on recent writing on the French Revolution:
"HEADLESS HORSEMAN, The Reign of Terror revisited.

Revisionism in history knows no boundaries Just in the past few years, we have been told that that comet may have glanced right off the dinosaurs, prodding a few toward flight an feathers; that the German blitzkrieg barely meandered across Europe; and that Genghis Khan was actually a sharing and caring and ecumenical leader, Bill Moyers with a mustache and colorful folk costume. So it was inevitable that we would get a revisionist history of the French Reign of Terror?the period from September, 1793, to July, 1794 when the Committee of Public Safety, in Paris invented the modern thought crime, cut off the heads of its enemies, and created the apparatus of the totalitarian state. Since the time of Burke through Carlyle?s history of the French Revolution and, above all, Dickens?s ?Tale o Two Cities,? the imagery of the Terror?of the sansculottes knitting as tumbrels rolled?has been lodged deep in our imagination. ?All perished, all , Friends, enemies, of all parties ages, ranks, Head after head, and never heads enough For those who bade them fall, Wordsworth wrote, in disillusioned horror after it was over; and we see the heads falling still.

Yet our sense of such an iconic moment is bound to be partial?icons are flat. The real question about revisionist history is whether it turns something flat into something three-dimensional or just hangs it on the wall upside down. This revisionist history, now that it has crossed the Atlantic, turns out to be subtler and more interesting than some of the British reviews might have suggested. Written by the academic historian David Andress, the new book is called ?The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France? (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $26), and the subtitle emphatically semaphores the new position.

...jumping down to...

The Committee of Public Safety? one of the first great Orwellian euphemisms?was formed to bring the massacres under control, or, as it turned out, to centralize, rationalize, and mechanize them. By then, the Convention (the successor of the National Assembly) had turned from its more or less orderly and bourgeois phase into a gathering of radical clans, who met every day in a former church to argue, drink, speechify, and accuse. It was as if S.D.S. had seized power in Washington in 1968 and Mark Rudd, Abbie Hoffman, Jane Fonda, and two or three ambitious renegade generals were all suddenly trying to run the country, while their followers smoked pot and played Jefferson Airplane records, oscillating between a vague, messianic utopianism and a baleful, apocalyptic vengefulness.
The drift toward absolute radicalism was dictated by the circumstances. In an ordinary political meeting, the action is bowl-shaped: everything flows toward the center. In a revolutionary meeting, the terrain is cambered, and everything flows toward the extreme right or the extreme left. Either a general or a fanatic was almost certain to prevail in those circumstances?a man with guns or a man who could hypnotize the men with guns.

The man to emerge was Maximilien Robespierre, who led the drive to decapitate the King, and became the chief magistrate of the Terror. Robespierre?s life is the subject of ?Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution? (Metropolitan; $30), by Ruth Scurr, a youngish scholar who teaches at Cambridge. A more conventional account of the intersection of a single life and time than Andress?s book, ?Fatal Purity? is in its way just as rewarding, because of what Robespierre represents: the ascent of the mass-murdering nerd?a man who, having read a book, resolves to kill all the people who don?t like it as much as he does. There is a case to be made that the real singularity of the Terror was the first appearance on the stage of history of this particular psychological type: not the tight-lipped inquisitor, alight with religious rage, but the small, fastidious intellectual, the man with an idea, the prototype of Lenin listening to his Beethoven as the Cheka begins its purges. In normal times, such men become college professors, or book reviewers or bloggers. It takes special historical circumstances for them to become killers: the removal of a ruling class without its replacement by a credible new one. In the confusion, their ethereal certainties look like the only solid thing to build on.

(Self conscious, self depricatory emphasis mine.)

Posted by Dennis at June 1, 2006 9:17 AM

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