Spinoza y la sinagoga


FUENTE Harvard System:

Popkin, R., 1998. The Excommunicant. Review of The God of Spinoza: A Philosophical Study by Mason, R. and Spinoza, Liberalism and the Question of Jewish Identity by Smith, S. London Review of Books [Online] vol. 20 no. 20 pp. 38-42. Available from http://www.lrb.co.uk/v20/n20/richard-popkin/the-excommunicant [Accessed 24 April 2011].

The Excommunicant
Richard Popkin
The God of Spinoza: A Philosophical Study by Richard Mason
Cambridge, 272 pp, £35.00, May 1997, ISBN 0 521 58162 1
Spinoza, Liberalism and the Question of Jewish Identity by Steven Smith
Yale, 270 pp, £21.00, June 1997, ISBN 0 300 06680 5
Shortly after the end of World War Two, a young American professor submitted an article to a leading philosophical journal, explaining a difficult point in one of Spinoza’s arguments. In short order he received his manuscript back with the news, written on it by hand, that ‘we are not now and never will be interested in Spinoza.’ Spinoza had been dropped from the Anglo-American canon.

The positivists regarded him as one of the worst examples of a metaphysician. For Spinoza, God or Nature is everything and is everywhere, and whatever is, is an aspect of God or is in God. God is the cause of whatever takes place. Whatever happens follows necessarily from the nature of God, and nothing can be different than it is. Spinoza made it clear that he was not talking of the Judaeo-Christian deity, but a purely philosophical being. He then worked out a stoic-like ethical system in which the highest good for man is to see the world from the aspect of eternity, and to achieve the intellectual love of God. As Richard Mason reminds us, Spinoza’s neglect of epistemology made him of little interest to those who insisted that the problem of knowledge as set out by Descartes defined what philosophy was properly about. Spinoza found a little room for that problem only at the end of the second book of the Ethics. A decade ago, when I offered a course on Spinoza at UCLA, I was told it was years since one had been given. A senior colleague told me he had never read Spinoza, but knew he could not be all bad since he had been expelled from the Amsterdam Synagogue.

This attitude is now dated. We have recently been getting much new information about Spinoza’s background, the context in which he worked out his philosophy, and his influence. There is now an international journal, Studia Spinoza, and Spinoza societies exist in various Western countries. Above all, two new English-language editions of his writings are now appearing, one from Princeton, translated by Edwin Curley, of the entire corpus, the other from Hackett, translated by Samuel Shirley, of the Ethics, the Theologico-Political Tractatus and the Letters.

Much new material has also become available about the Jewish community of Amsterdam in Spinoza’s day, about events connected with his excommunication, his involvement with various radical Christian groups, the writings of his Latin teacher, a revolutionary ex-Jesuit, and about his place in the intellectual world of the time. The old picture of the solitary philosopher devoting his life to the pursuit of truth is now being replaced by a very much richer one.

These two new books focus on Spinoza’s theological and religious views. They seek in opposite ways to show the great significance of the Tractatus. Richard Mason starts from the Ethics, then carefully expounds Spinoza’s theological metaphysics, going on to interpret his critique of existing religions and his justification for complete religious toleration. Steven Smith starts from Spinoza’s role as the first secular Jew (after his excommunication), and the way it is reflected both in his critique of religion, especially Judaism, and in his political theory.

In both books, the excommunication of 1656 is the turning point, when Spinoza rejected his Jewish heritage and stepped into modernity. This is an event we now know much more about than we did. It was not a clear-cut case of rigid Orthodox Jews throwing out a free-thinking rebel. Indeed, it is not at all obvious why Spinoza was excommunicated. Details uncovered by the late I.S. Révah show that in 1659, three years after the excommunication, Spinoza attended a theological discussion group in Amsterdam, along with another former member of the synagogue, Juan de Prado, at which he is reported to have said: ‘God exists, but only philosophically.’

In 1656, three people had been accused of heterodoxy: Spinoza, Juan de Prado and Daniel Ribera, all accused of teaching questionable views in their Sunday school classes. (One can date the point at which Spinoza became unhappy with the synagogue from the records of his financial contributions, which had been substantial until one week in 1655 when they dropped to one cent.) The synagogue apparently did what it could to get the three miscreants to recant and apologise. Ribera just disappeared. Prado was a doctor and had been a Catholic theology student in Spain, where he was said to have been a deist, whatever that might then have meant. The synagogue leaders wanted to resettle Prado and his family if he did not recant his heterodoxy; they offered to drop the charges against Spinoza if he would come to the High Holiday services, and keep quiet. Prado recanted, but Spinoza did not.

Recant what, however? No specific charges appear in the excommunication statement, which looks so forceful and fearsome, and reads as if the community really hated the young Spinoza, but was in fact a form statement. Back in the early days of the Amsterdam Jewish community, when they wanted to throw out an obnoxious member, they did not know how to do it. They sent the future Chief Rabbi, Saul Levi Mortiera, to get the advice of Venetian rabbis, who gave him the form of words. It appears that during the 17th century over two hundred and eighty members were excommunicated from the Amsterdam Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community, for non-payment of dues, failure to keep a marriage contract, insulting one of the Board of Directors, buying a chicken from an Ashkenazi butcher instead of a Sephardic one, and so on. Only five ideological cases are recorded. Almost all excommunications were withdrawn when the penitent paid a fine, and/or made promises of future good behaviour. Spinoza is one of the very few who did not recant, or get received back into the good graces of the community.

The old hagiographical picture is of the brilliant young Spinoza opposed by a community that wanted nothing to do with new ideas. The Amsterdam community was not like this, however. It consisted of people who had lived as Christians in Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and Belgium. Some had studied at higher educational institutions, and knew about the science, philosophy and theology taught in them. They tried to keep up their Iberian heritage by training students in similar subjects, and ran Spanish poetry societies and put on Spanish plays. Few had any Jewish training before coming to Amsterdam. The members of the Jewish community were also involved generally in business, and were well aware of the different beliefs held in the city.

It is hard to imagine what Spinoza could have said or thought that would be so shocking to these people, most of whom regarded the Amsterdam synagogue as a business club for Marranos returning to Judaism. The excommunication seems to have occurred in the midst of a crisis about how to take care of thousands of Jewish refugees from Brazil and from Eastern Europe. It was pronounced privately, in the office of the Chief Rabbi, without Spinoza being present. In fact, he had already left the community, and started on his new life, the excommunication being simply a way of acknowledging this. It did not shut him off from the world, maybe not even from the Jewish world, since he had friends among former and fringe Jews in the Netherlands. (There were many partial Jews in Amsterdam who attended the synagogue but were also involved with various churches.) Spinoza himself never brought up the issue of his excommunication. He told people he had left Amsterdam because somebody tried to murder him with a knife – he kept a coat which had knife holes in it, and showed it off to people. He lived peaceably in the Netherlands and eventually died of natural causes, in spite of his radical views.

The so-called ‘Jewish Question’, as to whether and how Jews could fit into a modern ‘secular’ state, was first raised in Amsterdam early in the 17th century, when Hugo Grotius was asked to define the legal status of the emerging Jewish community. His proposal, involving many restrictions on Jewish life, was never acted on; instead, a de facto agreement was reached, whereby Jews could live as legal residents provided they did not cause scandal, and did not require government aid for their indigent members. The local community was as emancipated as any Jewish group in the world at the time, but Jews were not Dutch citizens. They could participate in making policy as stockholders in the India companies, but not as citizens.

The arguments about Jewish emancipation went on in France and Germany from the end of the 18th century. The Jews living in the Netherlands were offered Dutch citizenship by the French Revolutionary army that conquered the territory. Two groups opposed giving the Jews citizenship, the orthodox Calvinists and the Jews themselves. The Calvinists insisted that the Jews had to remain just Jews in order to fulfil their Providential role in world history. The Jews expressed gratitude for their treatment in the Netherlands but did not wish to be Dutch citizens because they might have to leave at any moment if their Messiah arrived. So they opted for temporary residency rather than citizenship.

Discussion of the place of Jews in modern society hardly starts with Spinoza, except for his attempt to play down the significance of Jewish customs and practices in post-Biblical society, and his advocacy of toleration of all religious groups which accept that their role is to persuade their members to obey the laws of the state. Spinoza’s Tractatus-Theologico Politicus, which most likely grew out of his unpublished answer to the Synagogue, starts by arguing that there is no special religious knowledge, neither by prophecy nor miracles. The purported Providential history of the ancient Jews has to be understood in context. The Jews had escaped from Egypt and had no legal society. Moses formed one for them, and reinforced its claim on them by attributing his laws to God. The ancient Jewish state was based on theocratic beliefs, which can be understood and evaluated in terms of the circumstances of the time. Now, centuries later, it is just a curious ancient history, having no claims on the present world. Those who want to re-create a Hebrew Republic, like some of the Dutch Protestants, do not understand that the Biblical world is over and done with. The Bible is just a set of human documents which were written and preserved over time. What is binding in them is only what a rational person would comprehend as the basis for modern human society. Churches should realise that their function is to make people obey the laws of the state, and to tolerate everyone.

The real debates about Jewish emancipation began in 18th-century France and Germany, culminating in Napoleon’s calling a Sanhedrin to decide whether Jews could be law-abiding citizens in an Enlightenment state. Spinoza is not responsible for the fact that emancipation did not lead to the acceptance of Jews as political and social equals. It is perhaps in the United States that something close to what Spinoza envisaged has developed, beginning with the founding Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the form of which may have been influenced by the 1729 English translation of the Tractatus that was in Benjamin Franklin’s library, a collection used for reference by the framers of the Constitution.

Spinoza’s prospectus for a post-Jewish and post-Christian world was part of his plan for ending human servitude by inducing all those who can to live a rational, free life. The new rational religion he proposed in the Tractatus, needing no Scriptures, has only seven principles, relating to an acceptance of God’s existence, and the need to show charity and a love of one’s neighbours. If this became the religion of the state, then everyone should be accepted as equal, even those who still adhered to Jewish or Christian religious groups, provided these inculcated obedience to the state and charity to others. Had Spinoza’s liberal state come into being, would there have been any ‘Jewish Question’?

Smith tries to make too much of Spinoza as the father or inspirer of Jewish emancipation, and also lends too much weight to his probably ironic statement in the Tractatus that if the Jews have not been made too effeminate by circumcision and by emulation of their neighbours, God might someday redeem them by re-establishing them in their homeland. Thus, Smith contends, Spinoza became the first political Zionist.

The re-establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine loomed large in 17th-century thought. Millenarians and Messianists like Isaac La Peyrère, John Dury and Peter Serrarius expected the recall of the Jews to Palestine any minute, where they would rebuild the Temple and set up a government. Arguments about whether they would return as Jews or as converts to Christianity were common. Menasseh ben Israel seemed to believe they would return as Jews; La Peyrère as Jewish Christians. Spinoza’s contribution to this debate is trivial. He was living in a world where Christian Millenarians both in England and the Netherlands were trying to establish a New Israel. Spinoza was worried by the violence that had accompanied the Puritan Revolution in England, and that the same might happen in his homeland. He had lived through the frenzy of the Sabbatai Zevi episode, when almost all Dutch Jews came to believe that the Messiah had arrived and would lead them back to the Holy Land.

Some Christians, too, believed this, and Christian political Zionists have played an important role, both then and now. Present-day ones, like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Hal Lindsey, accept a Jewish state as a necessary pre-condition for the rebuilding of the Temple, to be followed by the return of Jesus and the conversion of the Jews. Spinoza, however, played hardly any role in the development of such thought. The current attempt in Israel to make him a Zionist hero reveals more about the political situation there than about Spinoza’s thought.

Mason says more than once that, where Spinoza’s metaphysical system is concerned, he is trying to ‘get it right’. Part of this involves making modern readers realise that he was not concerned with whether it is factually the case that God exists. Spinoza starts with God as a given, and then explicates what this implies. Mason goes on to reconcile this with his discussion of religion, principally in the Tractatus, where Judaism and Christianity, and their different conceptions of God, are among the main topics. Mason argues over and over that Spinoza has to be understood in the context of contemporary religious discussion.

Mason helps greatly to remove some misunderstandings by stressing that Spinoza was writing before the Enlightenment, for which he was a major source. The possibilities of agnosticism, deism and even atheism were just then being formulated, partly as a result of Spinoza’s own work. The idea that Moses, Jesus and Muhammad were frauds and fakers was soon to be known as ‘l’esprit de M. Spinosa’, even if it was not put about by him (though his good friend Henry Oldenburg worried about how to refute it). Even the radical consequences of his Biblical criticism only started to emerge in full after his death, in the writings of Father Richard Simon and Reimarus. Spinoza saw the Bible as growing out of the special political ‘religious’ circumstances of the ancient Hebrews. In order to understand how they had developed, the texts had to be studied historically, philologically and contextually. The end result of this kind of interpretation was to see the Bible as a literary-historical collection of documents, rather than as writings reporting divine truths.

The final aim of Spinoza’s examination of Hebrew history was political, to re-interpret it in order that a secular, tolerant state might come into being. His substitution of his own deconstructed Judaeo-Christianity for the avowed beliefs of existing churches and synagogues is intended to separate religion from the state. Only a rational religion can lead to the religious experience portrayed at the end of the Ethics, which views the world as if from eternity and teaches an intellectual love of God.

A footnote to this is that, in the Tractatus, Spinoza presents Jewish history and beliefs, and the significance of Jewish survival, in the way that would most jar his Jewish contemporaries in the Netherlands. Most of them had been raised in a world in which the Inquisition was the great enemy, and they tried in various ways to preserve some remnants of their Jewish roots. They all had friends and relatives who had been victims of the Inquisition. They had fled to Amsterdam because of fear of the Inquisition and because they wanted freely to express their Jewish feelings and beliefs. Henri Méchoulan has shown how Spinoza’s revisionism would have offended the sensibilities of the Marranos who had returned to Judaism, and who regarded this return to be of the greatest significance to themselves personally, as well as to Judaism and the future history of the world. Spinoza may have been tone-deaf to the Weltanschauung of his family and his original community.

It always surprises me when present-day interpreters of philosophers contend, as they often do, that they are the first properly to understand them, and can safely ignore earlier interpreters. In Spinoza’s case, by the end of the 17th century three now almost totally ignored interpretations had appeared which were to dominate evaluations of his thought for years afterwards: those of Pierre Bayle, Jacques Basnage and J.G. Wachter. Bayle debunked some of the hagiography and stressed Spinoza as a noble and systematic atheist, who, contrary to the claims of many theologians, was not corrupted by his disbelief, but was actually more moral than most Christians. Enlightenment readers came to see Spinoza in the light of Bayles’s interpretation. It was in keeping with this view that the manuscript entitled Les Trois Imposteurs, Moses, Jesus et Muhammed, ou l’esprit de M. Spinoza, appeared towards the end of the 17th century. There are well over two hundred copies of Les Trois Imposteurs in libraries all over Europe and America.

A quite different interpretation of Spinoza was offered by Bayle’s close friend, Jacques Basnage, in his Histoire des Juifs. Basnage sought to find out about Spinoza from people who had known him. In particular, he questioned a rabbi (probably Isaac Aboab, who had read out the excommunication sentence) and was told that Spinoza had plagiarised his ideas from the Kabbala, putting them into Cartesian dress to make it appear that he was original.

At first glance, Basnage’s interpretation seems preposterous, especially since Spinoza dismissed the Kabbalists as triflers. However, the same interpretation was offered by J.G. Wachter, who visited Amsterdam at the end of the 17th century. What caught the eye of both Basnage and Wachter was the partial similarity of Spinoza’s theories to those of Abraham Cohen Herrera, the great Neo-platonic kabbalist whose classic, Porta de Cielo, had appeared in Latin in 1677, at the same time as Spinoza’s Opera posthuma. Herrera, who had studied with Florentine Platonists and with one of Isaac Luria’s disciples, ended his life in Amsterdam, where he wrote his masterpiece. He belonged to the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue, and was the teacher of both Isaac Aboab and Menasseh ben Israel. It seems perfectly plausible that Spinoza would have read this kabbalistic classic. Wachter, however, carried his interpretation to the point of contending that Spinoza’s thought is the essence of Judaism, and not a recent heresy. To convert the Jews one would therefore have to make them realise that they are all Spinozists.

Spinoza has been read in many different ways at different times: as the consistent Cartesian who demolished Descartes’s theory of substance; as a late medieval Jewish thinker who abandoned the medieval framework; as the first systematic atheist; as a secret Kabbalist; as a pantheist; as a ‘god-intoxicated’ man; as the first secular Jew, or secularist tout court; as the first political Zionist; as a self-hating Jew; as a quasi-Buddhist; as an early feminist. All of these have been proposed. Which is right?

Many new possibilities of deciding that question now exist, based on our much greater knowledge of the Jewish community of the Netherlands and Dutch intellectual and religious history. We are at the opening of a new era, as we find out more about the issues Spinoza was discussing and the people he might have discussed them with. We know that he was involved with members of Collegiant and Mennonite groups, and probably some Quakers and former Jews, like Juan de Prado, from before the excommunication until the 1660s. He then seems to have become involved with serious thinkers abroad, like Henry Oldenburg and Robert Boyle. We know that in The Hague he discussed philosophy with the libertines Charles Saint-Evremond and Henry Morelli, with Leibniz, and with people around the Prince de Condé. In the last four years of his life, when he was living in the home of the painter Hendrik van der Spijk, we are told that he spent most of his time working and studying, but also found time to make at least two hundred charcoal drawings of his visitors – many learned and eminent persons, including ‘ladies of quality’ and some Jews. Van der Spijk showed them to people as late as 25 years after Spinoza’s death. I have always hoped that they still exist and may yet be found.

A downloadable PDF version of this book review is also available for purchase from the London Review Bookshop. Contact us for rights and issues enquiries.

Published in: on April 24, 2011 at 2:18 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags:

Robespierre


‘What a man this is, with his crowd of women around him!’
Hilary Mantel
Robespierre edited by Colin Haydon and William Doyle
Cambridge, 292 pp, £35.00, July 1999, ISBN 0 521 59116 3
For a time, early last year, there was no trace of Robespierre to be found on the street where he lived in the days of his fame. The restaurant called Le Robespierre had closed its doors, and after a while its portrait sign was removed from above the entrance of the house on the rue Saint-Honoré. Once again, the plaque on the wall had been smashed. The marble was shattered, the letters gouged away by a vindictive chisel. Just before the Bastille celebration, on a day of misty heat, a new plaque appeared. In the interim, only the staff of the new patisserie were able to confirm that it was true: Robespierre lived here.

The house on the site has been rebuilt, and so the room he occupied is, as his biographer J.M. Thompson has said, a metaphysical space. You go down a passage between shops; it widens a little, into a high-walled enclosure. It doesn’t look like a place where a tragedy would occur, but if we had a diagnostic for such places we would always cross the road and stay away. In 1791 the gateway opened into a yard, with sheds where wood was stored; Maurice Duplay, who owned the house, was a master-carpenter. In this courtyard, Paul Barras saw two generals of the Republic picking over the salad herbs for dinner, under the eye of Madame Duplay. Robespierre lived on the first floor, in a low-ceilinged room with the plainest of furnishings.

The historian François Furet tells us: ‘The revolution speaks through him its most tragic and purest discourse.’ It does not matter where he lived or what he was like, or that he walked through this gate the day before his horrible death. His temperament is of no consequence, nor the will that drove his punitively controlled body through the all-night sittings. But this abstract Robespierre is not the one that interests you, as you stand inside the passage, sheltered from the street. After all, you keep his portrait on your wall; if Furet’s formulation convinced you, you would not feel so desolate, and almost panic-stricken. The passage itself is confined and dark. Your throat constricts a little, and you remember what Michelet said: ‘Robespierre strangles and stifles.’ There are closed doors on your left. You glance up to the first floor. The windows are dirty. You say: ‘it is only a metaphysical space.’ Metaphysical wild horses would not drag you into Robespierre’s room or any space that might have been occupied by it. You lean against the wall, expecting something to happen.

When the restaurant was still trading, the management used to hand out a photocopy with a Brief Life on it. Someone thought its tone lacked warmth, and had scribbled in the margin what follows: ‘these walls still resound to the speeches, ardent and flawless, of Maximilien Robespierre.’ The phrase delights you, but you would feel exposed if you had written it. Objectivity is such a god, and your brain, such as it is, interests itself in subjective trivia. He was a man of spectacular absent-mindedness. He liked flowers. Sometimes he laughed till he cried. He caught Madame Tussaud when she slipped and fell downstairs on her sightseeing-trip to the Bastille. Discern a subject, not an object, and feelings creep in. You throw up ramparts and dig trenches to defend yourself against them; one day, perhaps, you will notice that the house you are defending is empty and nobody has been at home for years. Meanwhile you are here in the half-dark with the patriote isolé. ‘Millions of French people were brought up in the worship of Robespierre,’ says François Crouzet in an essay here. How is it that none of them come by? Sometimes you think of leaving flowers in the passage. But you never do it, or let us say, you have never done it yet.

To write about Robespierre you have to find the courage to allow yourself to be mistaken. Otherwise every sentence will be freighted with conditionals and qualifiers, and every quotation prefaced by ‘alleged to have said’. You will contradict yourself, because he contradicts himself. If you want to know why he excites such extremes of adoration and loathing, you have to study not just the biographies but the life stories of the people who wrote them. His 19th-century biographer Ernest Hamel worshipped him, the socialist historians Mathiez and Lefebvre championed him, George Sand called him ‘the greatest man not only of the Revolution but of all known history’. Lord Acton described him as ‘the most hateful character in the forefront of human history since Machiavelli reduced to a code the wickedness of public men’. In 1941 the historian Marc Bloch tried to call time: ‘Robespierrists, anti-Robespierrists, we’ve had enough. We say, for pity’s sake, simply tell us what Robespierre was really like.’

But it’s not so easy. It’s not only novelists who perpetrate fiction, and it seems that whatever you say about him, you say about yourself. ‘The whole corpus of Robespierre studies is a hall of mirrors,’ Mark Cumming says in his piece in this volume. Intending only to look at Robespierre, we see ourselves with our own startled eyes, starved or gross, inflated or diminished. Carlyle’s ‘thin lean Puritan and Precision’ scuttles forever through the English imagination. But would he have been recognised by the man who met the Incorruptible strolling in the Bois de Boulogne, wearing a waistcoat embroidered with roses?

The present book contains 16 essays about what Robespierre thought, what he did, and how he has been perceived and interpreted, not only by historians but by playwrights and novelists. There are chapters on his ideology and vision, on his political role, and on how he has been represented to posterity in the 19th and 20th centuries. The authors are the leading scholars in their field and each essay is presented with impressive clarity of thought and expression. They have avoided the kind of history that asks, in George Rudé’s words, ‘whether he would have been an agreeable dinner companion or a suitable match for my daughter’; though contemporaries did ask these things, of course. The tone is judicious, though an outburst of ritual name-calling from David Jordan belies the subtlety of his longer study, The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre. For him, Robespierre is ‘unworldly, resentful, vain, egotistical, susceptible to flattery, contemptuous of or indifferent to all the social pleasures except conversation . . . inflexible, unforgiving . . . secretive . . . obsessively self-regarding’. It’s as well to have it over in the first paragraph. As Baudrillard puts it, ‘There are those who let the dead bury the dead, and there are those who are forever digging them up to finish them off.’

The editors’ introduction highlights the problem of evidence. When Robespierre was dead, outlawed and guillotined in July 1794, his papers were sorted by Courtois, a relative of Danton’s, and Courtois did his job dishonestly, selecting and destroying. Those closest to Robespierre died with him, and few of his former colleagues were interested in putting the record straight. As the editors tell us, the victors of Thermidor ‘not only blackened his memory but possibly also exaggerated his importance for posterity’. Once dead, he could be blamed for the ‘excesses’ of the Terror, but the blame would only stick if he could be shown to have been a powerful, singular figure. There were men who were far more bloody, in intention and in deed: Fouché, Collot, Carrier. He had acted as a check on their ferocity. But he was the best-known of the members of the Committee of Public Safety, their ideologist and spokesman. He is remembered as the theoretician of the Terror. It is he who bears the blame, when blame is handed out.

Robespierre went to live with the Duplays in 1791, in the summer of the backlash against the ‘patriots’, when the radical papers were closed down, presses were smashed, and the left were on the run. Marat disappeared from view, Danton crossed the Channel, but Robespierre simply moved house. He had already gained a Christ-like reputation, but Maurice Duplay was not much like the carpenter of Galilee. A member of the Jacobin Club, he owned other houses besides the one on the rue Saint-Honoré, and had a good business. The Duplays were a plain-living, high-minded family, all of them politically committed. One daughter was married and away, three daughters were still at home. Eléonore, the eldest girl, was an art student. Danton called her Cornélia Copeau: little Miss Woodchip, the carpenter’s daughter. Elisabeth, who was in her mid-teens, talked many years later to the dramatist Sardou. ‘He was so good!’ she said of Robespierre. He listened to all her troubles. He was patient and kind. We used to go for walks and take his dog to swim in the river; in season, we picked cherries and cornflowers. Interpreted by Elisabeth, the Duplay household takes on the bourgeois calm of a painting by Chardin, its inhabitants entranced and absorbed among everyday objects, blocks of colour and light overlaid with a sober, reverential geometry. Sardou was horrified. ‘Which Robespierre had she known?’ He proceeded to demolish her memories. Silly woman! Sentiment was blocking her access to her own history.

It is possible – if fiction is your business – to feel some disturbance about the Maison Duplay. Once behind the gate, Robespierre left only briefly, when his sister Charlotte turned up in Paris and demanded her sisterly right to keep house for him. He would only agree to move a street away, and then at once became ill – he was subject to every kind of psychosomatic attack. Within days he was back in his room over the woodyard. He and Eléonore were seen to walk hand in hand. ‘Eléonore thought she was loved,’ said a fellow-student, ‘but really she only scared him.’ Many people assumed that she was Robespierre’s mistress. It is interesting, if he was the judgmental prig of legend, that he didn’t seem to care what people thought.

Robespierre was 36 when he died and we know almost nothing about the first 30 years of his life. There is a persistent legend that the Robespierres were of Irish origin, but both J.M. Thompson and the painstaking French novelist Marianne Becker have traced the family back to Northern France in the 15th century. Maximilien was born in Arras in 1758, four months after his parents’ marriage: so he was by way of an accident. His father François was a lawyer, and his mother was the daughter of a master-brewer. When he was six, she died in giving birth to her fifth child. After her death, François ran up debts, started disappearing for long periods and finally went for good. The children were parcelled out among the family. Maximilien was a quiet child who liked to keep small birds, though later, of course, people would decide that it was for the purpose of cutting off their heads with a toy guillotine which he had – with uncanny prescience – invented for the purpose.

When Maximilien was 12 he was awarded a scholarship to the Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris. He was poor to a humiliating degree, but formidably diligent and clever. In his early twenties he returned to Arras, having qualified as a lawyer. He began to pay off his father’s debts. He had a reasonable success and was appointed to a minor judicial position. Sometimes he drove into the country with friends; sometimes he wrote light verse. But he soon managed to alienate sections of the local establishment. He did not want what the old regime could give him, and within a few years he would make himself a person with nothing to lose. He identified with victims, and would use the language of victimhood like an offensive weapon. He constantly declared that people were trying to ‘oppress’ him; if you disagreed with him, he would declare himself ‘oppressed’. He began to refer, in his writing, to the ‘laborious life’ and early death he foresaw. He had an unspecific but powerful intimation of disaster and glory. Montesquieu informed his intellect and Rousseau informed his emotions. Later he described himself as ‘timid as a child’ and said that he shook with nerves when he had to make a speech. He was not constituted for confrontation. His voice, people said, was not strong; so it was up to him to create, in those halls of the Revolution with their disastrous acoustics, a climate in which he would command a hushed assent.

In 1789 he was elected to the Estates General and went to Versailles. In the National Assembly which evolved from the Estates, he was part of a tiny radical minority, but this did not bother him because he did not count in the ordinary way. He was always part of a greater majority: the People and Maximilien, Maximilien and the People. He quickly suspected that the heroes of ‘89, when in power, were merely old regime politicians with a different vocabulary. They spoke the language of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, while furthering their sectional interests. He tried to shame them into following the logic of their proclaimed principles; mostly, he failed. In the two years following the taking of the Bastille, he pursued an impeccably liberal and far-sighted agenda. He spoke for manhood suffrage and against a property qualification for voters; against slavery; in support of civil rights for Jews; against capital punishment; and against censorship.

The two latter principles, notoriously, would buckle under pressure. In the early years of the Revolution he let the radical press establish his credentials. From the spring of 1792 to the early summer of the following year he made a low-key venture into journalism, publishing a weekly paper, of comment rather than news. His distributor was in the cour du Commerce, on Marat’s doorstep. It is hard to imagine him in that territory of inky little hacks, trading sneers and insults over each others’ misprints. He had been, as Hugh Gough’s essay says, ‘consistent and tenacious’ in defence of press freedom and had refused to take legal action over the many libels published against him, believing that public opinion would vindicate him. After the fall of the monarchy, the anti-censorship case had to give way; only a community of saints would have allowed the royalist press the opportunity to campaign for a restoration. In the spring of 1794, his childhood friend Camille Desmoulins would tell him that it was not vertu but freedom of thought that was the basis of a republic; but the offending issue of the Vieux Cordelier would not make it into print and the childhood friend would go to the scaffold. In this affair you can convict him of timidity, or of coldness of heart, rather than hypocrisy. It is unhelpful to read a man backwards. Robespierre’s early commitment to press freedom was genuine, but did not extend to a press which, as he saw it, had been systematically corrupted. As Gough shows, the Committee of Public Safety, when Robespierre was a member, did not reintroduce the repressive censorship of the old regime nor anticipate that of the Directory; though perhaps it was want of capacity, rather than lack of will. By late 1793, Robespierre profoundly feared the press. A syllable, he felt, could sabotage his policy. For example, he had said: ‘the republic, one and indivisible.’ The press reported that he had said ‘one and universal’; thus aligning him with distrusted cosmopolitan radicals. He did not think this was a mishearing, but a plot to trap him.

His personal history gave him no reason to believe that the world would let him have his say. He was, it is reported, frequently shouted down and silenced early in his parliamentary career. He had no presence, there were no crowd-pleasing mannerisms or orator’s flourishes. Historians usually report that his speeches are arid. It is interesting, then, to read his speech against capital punishment, which is as fresh as if it had been made today. It is perfectly constructed, a brilliant fusion of logic and emotion: as much a work of art as a building or a piece of music could be. You can believe that, as Desmoulins reported, he could bring 800 men to their feet in a single moment. You could quibble over the head-count, but the power seemed to be real. It extended to the women of Paris, who attended the public galleries of the Jacobin Club. This worried his contemporaries. They thought he was taking some sneaky advantage. ‘What a man this is, with his crowd of women around him!’ said Rabaud Saint-Etienne. Condorcet, the champion of women’s rights, sulked because he had got their attention.

The status which Robespierre achieved in the Revolution cannot be explained in traditional political terms. For most of his career he fought shy of office, and most of the parliamentary measures he proposed were rejected as too progressive. When he joined the Committee of Public Safety he did so in the quietest manner possible, simply replacing a member who had fallen ill. Soon after he joined the Committee, it began to accrete executive power, till it was the effective Government of France. Its proceedings were generally not minuted, so his role is often unclear. Is he speaking for himself, or for the Government? Whatever the source of his authority, he was undeniably effective. David Jordan’s essay describes him as ‘that rare being, an ideologue with exquisite political reflexes’. Part of the secret of his success, no doubt, was that initially he was underrated. He was cautious, and could bury himself in detail; these traits were thought the hallmarks of mediocrity. But he had a canny sense of timing and the kind of persistence that wore his opponents down; the weary Danton, at his trial, described him as ‘above all, tenacious’. The Robespierre of 1793 is the patron saint of the formerly overlooked, one of the meek who are to inherit the earth. His moral authority held together under pressure of circumstance, and his reputation for probity often seemed the one constant when coalitions were fragile and the reading of events uncertain. He was an idealist who did not believe in losing. As Coleridge put it, ‘Robespierre . . . possessed a glowing ardour that still remembered the end, and a cool ferocity that never either overlooked or scrupled the means.’

In May 1793 he told the Convention: ‘To fulfil your mission, you must do exactly the contrary of what existed before you.’ Alan Forrest’s essay on his part in war organisation shows him confronting the generals with unblinking radicalism. He had opposed a declaration of war by the French, which made him temporarily unpopular. But he knew that, in times of war, public liberty never increases. He was suspicious of soldiers in general, their outlook; they were oppressors by nature, he thought. He was sceptical of the notion that the French Army would spread freedom through Europe: ‘who loves armed missionaries?’ He suspected that the war was unwinnable, and that once it began it could not be limited. Victories might be more lethal than defeats; he saw a military dictatorship as the end of it, and of course he was right. But as Forrest shows, he became ‘a war leader in spite of himself’, his imagination and his willingness to tear up the rule book contributing to the high morale of the volunteers and helping to win the Republic’s battles. Ideology reinforced strategy. The ambit of heroism was not narrowly defined; a woman who sent her son to the front was also a hero. The soldier was not a brute, but a citizen: not cannon-fodder but a free man whose intelligence must be addressed.

But it’s not enough to win; you have to be right. The Revolution, he believed, must be justified at every step, and every Revolutionary action must be an expression of virtue. No cynic ever learns anything about Robespierre; unable to come to grips with ‘virtue’, he retires, baffled. There is a problem with the English word ‘virtue’. It sounds pallid and Catholic. But vertu is not smugness or piety. It is strength, integrity and purity of intent. It assumes the benevolence of human nature towards itself. It is an active force that puts the public good before private interest. Its meaning is explored in Patrice Higonnet’s Goodness beyond Virtue (1998), which is an extraordinary manual of practical Jacobinism. Higonnet has not much time for Robespierre, who, he says, ‘probably died a virgin’ (not that historians ever gossip, of course). But his book shows the
day-to-day vitality, during the Revolution, of ideas which had a venerable pedigree, but which had been presumed to be entirely theoretical. Robespierre thought that, if you could imagine a better society, you could create it. He needed a corps of moral giants at his back, but found himself leading a gang of squabbling moral pygmies.

This is how Virtue led to Terror. Virtue and Terror became inseparable, a single Janus-faced god who guarded the gate to a better world. Was the violence of 1793-
94 just the product of circumstances, forced on an unwilling Government panicked by war, civil war and sabotage? Or was it somehow the logical outcome of everything that had gone before? By late 1793 there was a rotten substructure to the Revolution, a web of crooked Army contracts, stockmarket frauds and forgeries, and a capital full of spies and foreign persons of, as Robespierre saw it, dubious worth and allegiance; all information which came to the Government was suspect at source. Also, it was clear that the Sovereign People did not always act in its own best interests. It seemed, from the actions of looters and strikers, that it was given to short-term thinking. Robespierre tried to forge an inner consistency, clinging to the idea of a virtuous people misled by corrupt and factious politicians, by enemies who were masked and veiled. If the Revolution didn’t have moral force behind it, it was merely a series of self-serving crimes. Danton had laughed at the idea of virtue; he was therefore not fit to govern. After the courtroom battle with the Dantonists, Robespierre began to fear that the trial process was itself anti-patriotic, criminal, dangerous: the existing law bred crime, if it protected the enemies of the people. Four years of polemics had failed to save the patrie, which was a spiritual, rather than a temporal space; the battle for territory was less important than the battle for the imagination. From now on, there were to be no trials, in the old meaning of the word. The enemy could be judged by his actions, not by a hypocritical form of words he might wield in his defence. There were to be no more arguments, only justice, as swift as death on the field. It was Hérault de Séchelles who, before falling victim to the guillotine, had described it as ‘a sabre cut’.

It is monstrous, of course. But – in practice – the monstrosity did not belong to Robespierre alone. What he embraced as principle, others embraced for aggrandisement. His religion, which some Jacobins mocked as a private hobby of his, was a creed for toughened spirits, for the habitually unconsoled, and in discovering it he had consulted intuition, not reason. For him, and for Saint-Just no doubt, terror was a means of discovery and self-discovery. In public, one might say that the triumph of good was inevitable. In private, there were spiritual doubts. ‘Vice and virtue forge the destiny of this earth; these two opposing spirits fight each other for it.’ In Robespierre’s mind, the Year II was a battleground, the stage stripped for apocalypse.

Now I will ask you, look at the portraits. Ask what they can tell us. He was so much drawn and painted, as if every amateur artist reached for his pencil, in wonder at what he knew to be a transitory phenomenon. So there is plenty to look at; it is our fault if we can’t see. An Englishman called John Carr, travelling in Paris in 1802, was surprised by a bust ‘taken of him, a short period before he fell’. He noted:

History, enraged at the review of the insatiable crimes of Robespierre, has already bestowed on him a fanciful physiognomy, which she has composed of features which rather correspond with the ferocity of his soul, rather than with his real countenance. From the appearance of this bust, which is an authentic resemblance of him, his face must have been rather handsome. His features were small, and his countenance must have strongly expressed animation, penetration and subtlety.

There is a salon portrait of 1791, attributed to Mme Adelaïde Labille-Guiard. Two years into the Revolution, she has painted a boy with a face of conspicuous sweetness, gentle and shy: a black coat, white cuffs falling over those exquisite, boneless, long-fingered hands that only portrait painters have ever seen. In the posed portraits, he is always smiling: faintly, perhaps; impatiently, perhaps. Then there is a sketch taken from life, 1793, in the National Convention. He is not smiling. He has pushed his spectacles into his hair. His eyes have moved sideways, in suspicion or a kind of dread. Under the sketch the artist Gérard has scribbled: ‘eyes green, complexion pale: coat of green stripe, gilet blue on white, cravat red on white’. A man, as Belloc put it, for colour rather than ornament. The face is still very young; the expression is closed, guarded, as if he had seen something move in the shadows. By Thermidor, it appears he has aged ten years. The final sketch, taken again from life, shows features pared to bone, jaw muscles rigid, every line drawn taut and fine. A day or two after it, Mme Tussaud took his death mask.

The Revolution represented a ruinous physical struggle for its front-line personnel. You didn’t need to be a soldier to be wrecked by it; the home front shattered constitutions, with its unrelenting schedules, its emergencies and exigencies as punishing to the mind as to the body. ‘I confess an immense fatigue,’ Robespierre said, in his last speech to the Convention. In the weeks before it, he had preserved a silence which worked on the nerves of his colleagues. His face became unreadable. But the narrative behind it is always old and always new.

Danton thought he had the story straight: ‘He can’t fuck, and he’s afraid of money.’ Broad-brush portrayal is as far as many historians ever get, because Robespierre is judged in a way that is visceral as much as intellectual. He is a monstrous archetype of the grand inquisitor and mystic, and both historians and imaginative writers have been happy to set up archetypes around him; chiefly Danton himself with his ‘prodigious tout ensemble’. Imagination creates a false opposition between the two men; for most of the Revolution, there was little difference of policy between them, and Robespierre – on the principle that it is better to win even the
battles you have not chosen to fight – abandoned Danton when he could do nothing more for him. But as Norman Hampson says elsewhere, the Danton of legend is hard to resist, especially since he imposed himself on contemporaries as well as posterity. After his death this well-read, greedy, secretive lawyer became a sort of roaring boy, a great-hearted, common-touch, chicken-in-every-pot man. As the 19th century progressed, Robespierre acquired a set of nervous twitches and shudders, and a hideous yellow complexion highlighted by green veins. The 18th-century inch being a variable measure, he shrunk physically, while Danton expanded. As Mark Cumming’s essay describes, Robespierre is accused of ‘physical impotence, cowardice and effeminacy’. Of course, most people who have written about Robespierre are men, and wish themselves to be, au fond, masculine, beneath their academic gowns or tweed jackets. They like to believe that if it came to it they could knock their opponents down: more like Danton than like Robespierre, after all.

Two essays in this collection concentrate on Robespierre in drama and in French fiction. The most famous play about the Revolution is Büchner’s Danton’s Death. Astonishing in form rather than content, it embellishes the legend of the world-weary philosopher done to death by a Robespierre-machine. Anouilh’s Poor Bitos, tricksy in form and hollow at the centre, tells us more about postwar France than about the France of 1793, just as Andrzej Wajda’s film Danton tells us about Poland in the 1980s. If we suspect that Danton is both flattered and denigrated by Gérard Depardieu’s mesmeric performance, we are still repelled by the film’s sick, neurotic, elderly Robespierre. Romain Rolland complained that ‘the greatest figure of the Revolution still has no stature in France’ and proceeded to commemorate him in an unperformable play with a 300-page text and a notional playing time of six hours. Henry Irving played Robespierre in a Sardou melodrama of 1899, in which the Great Terrorist was forced to compromise his principles to save his long-lost illegitimate son. But William Howarth’s essay shows that Robespierre has not been entirely ill-wished by the theatre. An 1888 play by Combet has a memorable stage direction. ‘Then Robespierre appears, borne on clouds. At his entry, the heavenly choir bursts into song.’

Howarth’s piece on Robespierre in drama has little to say about Stanislawa Przybyszewska, on whose work Wajda based his Danton script. She was the maddest of all female Robespierrists (and in this matter I yield to few). Born in 1901, daughter of a Polish writer, she was an artist of starvation and frost, who dated her letters by the Revolutionary calendar, and died at 34, in Danzig, where she had been living in a sort of out-house, unheated through the winters, painting her food with lysol to preserve it, while thinking intensively and extensively about ‘this handsome petty lawyer who at the age of 35 single-handedly ruled France.’ Tuberculosis, morphine and malnutrition were adduced as the causes of death, but she could more truthfully be diagnosed as the woman who died of Robespierre.

If you try to write either drama or novels about the Revolution, you have to consider your likely audience and the state of their prejudices. For historians, creative writers provide a kind of pornography. They break the rules and admit the thing that is imagined, but is not licensed to be imagined. It’s no use insisting that you have applied for your licence, either; you may as well brace yourself for attempts to run you off the territory. The editors of this volume are generous about the possible role of fiction in reimagining the past, but Mark Cumming warns about ‘the perilous delights of picturesque history’. We are likely to succumb to them, until history is written by machines; there are not two kinds of history, one sceptical and rational, and the other imaginative and erratic. Cumming makes the uncontentious observation that ‘the historical image is two-faced, pointing outwards to the historical subject and inwards to the author’s psyche.’ This is as much true of academics as of accredited fictionalisers. But it is Carlyle who is the subject of this essay, Carlyle who made it so difficult (for the English-speaking reader, anyway) to look at the Revolution except through the highly-coloured filters which gave us ‘the sea-green incorruptible’. A real heroine of the Revolution is the housemaid who lit the fire with his first draft. Dickens borrowed from Carlyle his best effects, and as Orwell pointed out, A Tale of Two Cities is largely responsible for the English reader’s notion of the Revolution as ‘a frenzied massacre lasting for years . . . whereas in reality the whole of the Terror, so far as the number of deaths goes, was a joke compared to one of Napoleon’s battles . . . To this day, to the average Englishman, the French Revolution means no more than a pyramid of severed heads.’

The general view has not changed much since Orwell’s day. In the non-Francophone world, the bicentennial was dominated by Simon Schama’s Citizens, which does not challenge comfortable preconceptions. Schama uses his narrative skill and his wealth of illustration to confirm people in the belief they already hold, which is that the Revolution was a bloody and nonsensical waste of time. For the French, of course, Schama is irrelevant, because he is telling them nothing they have not heard from their own revisionist historians.

In the present book, Malcolm Cook’s chapter on Robespierre as seen by French novelists serves to show their general timidity, their failure to break with stereotype. But the scope of his enquiry is not wide. Has he not read Dominique Jamet’s 1988 novel Antoine et Maximilien ou la Terreur sans la vertu, with its refreshing portrait of Robespierre as a paedophile and child-murderer? Worth five minutes of anyone’s time, it leads a novelist to examine the ethics of the trade. Imagination must be free, the dead have no remedy in law; all they can do is haunt you.

Which, in effect, is what Robespierre does. He takes a grip on the imagination and does not easily let you go. Michelet, ambivalent about the Incorruptible, always crossing and recrossing the line of his own argument, accused Louis Blanc, Hamel and others of a corrupting partiality: ‘You have a friend in the city, and this friend is Robespierre.’ But in her 1997 book Mourning Glory, Marie-Hélène Huet quotes a passage in which Michelet, having completed his great history of the French Revolution, speaks of what Robespierre had come to mean to him:

In this entire history, which was my life and my inner world for ten years, I formed, on the road, many deep bonds of friendship . . . The greatest void I felt at this whitewood table, from which my book now departs, and where I remain alone, was the departure of my pale companion, the most faithful of them all, who had not left me from ‘89 to Thermidor; the man of great will, hard-working like me, poor like me, with whom I had, each morning, so many fierce discussions.

Michelet’s book is finished; the argument still smoulders in the air.

In his last weeks, Robespierre stayed out of the public eye. He went for walks in the woods or shut himself up at the rue Honoré. No one supposed he was a spent force, but after the death of the Dantonists he had seemed to lose his sureness of touch. He could not survive if he trusted nobody, and could not work out who to trust. The truth about the motives of his fellow-revolutionaries seemed to be beyond mortal reach. In his 1978 biography of Danton, Norman Hampson pointed out that ‘the truth was whatever corresponded to anything that Robespierre wanted to believe at any particular time.’ But there is a difficulty here: in what words can the truth be told, when the secret enemies of the Revolution have stolen its language? He had always warned that the devil had the best tunes. All that is left for him is the word which is guaranteed because it is spoken by a dying man. ‘What objection can be made to a man who wishes to speak the truth and agrees to die for it?’

The Revolution, as a creative enterprise, died with him. There is a formulation in which his death is a kind of blessed release for the nation; but after it, the Terror continued, and what lay ahead was a new tyranny and 20 years of war. In his last speech to the Convention, he said: ‘my reason, not my heart, is beginning to doubt this republic of virtue which I have set myself to establish.’ The heart leaves its faint trace: Michelet alone at the whitewood table, Stanislawa obsessively rewinding her typewriter ribbon. Otherwise, not much is left except a battered document case in the Musée Carnavalet, placed in proximity to Danton’s large monogrammed knives and forks. The leather is stamped with Robespierre’s name, but it has almost faded away. As Lamartine says, ‘he was the last word of the Revolution, but nobody could read it.’

On the final document his signature is unfinished. He had written just two letters of his name, before a pistol shot shattered his jaw; whether he fired the shot himself, no one really knows. Lying in his own blood in an anteroom of the Committee of Public Safety, he gestured that he wished to write, but no one would give him a pen. I would have given him a pen, Barras said later, uneasy at the cruelty and the lack of a possible disclosure. He was half-dead when he was taken to the scaffold, and his decapitated remains were buried near the Parc Monceau. Eléonore survived, and was known as ‘the widow Robespierre’. Maurice Duplay was imprisoned and driven out of business. His wife was found dead in her cell. Fear sealed the lips of witnesses, papers were burned, memories were reformulated. After the revolution of 1830, a group of admirers tried to locate the body. But though they dug and dug, no one was there.

A downloadable PDF version of this book review is also available for purchase from the London Review Bookshop. Contact us for rights and issues enquiries.

facebook twitter shareemailletterciteprint
Letters
Vol. 22 No. 8 · 13 April 2000

From W.S. Milne
Hilary Mantel mentions Andrzej Wajda’s film Danton in her review of Colin Haydon and William Doyle’s Robespierre (LRB, 30 March). The central ‘character’ in that film is neither Danton nor Robespierre, but the guillotine itself, the inanimate menace behind all the rhetoric and posturing. It looms like Death at the beginning and end of the film, and appears intermittently during it. Unwrapped from its sticky, stiff tarpaulin cover, it is revealed as the reality underlying the Revolution’s abstractions. As for the ‘small’ numbers who went to the guillotine compared to those killed in one Napoleonic battle, it is the nature of the machine that interests Wajda. He uses it to evoke the cold, calculating, rational nature of the state itself (vertu, justice, integrity, whatever you want to call it). What better embodiment of the paradox of Robespierre himself and the ‘progressive’ politics and technologies of the Enlightenment: butchery in a basket, the clean shave if you step out of line.

W.S. Milne
Esher, Surrey

Vol. 22 No. 9 · 27 April 2000

From Charles Swann
I am uncertain what Hilary Mantel meant when she wrote, in her piece about Robespierre (LRB, 30 March) that ‘a real heroine of the Revolution is the housemaid who lit the fire’ with the first draft of Carlyle’s French Revolution. I’m not being picky about the facts (though one fire with the whole manuscript makes for misgivings), but if she is blaming Carlyle for leaving the English reader with an impression that the Terror is at the centre of the French Revolution, she does him an injustice:

It was the frightfulest thing ever born of Time? One of the frightfulest. This Convention, now grown Anti-Jacobin, did, with an eye to justify and fortify itself, publish Lists of what the Reign of Terror had perpetrated: Lists of Persons Guillotined. The Lists, cries splenetic Abbé Montgaillard, were not complete. They contain the names of, How many persons thinks the Reader? – Two-thousand all but a few. There were above Four-thousand, cries Montgaillard: so many were guillotined, fusilladed, noyaded, done to dire death; of whom Nine-hundred were women. It is a horrible sum of human lives, M.l’Abbé: – some ten times as many shot rightly on a field of battle, and one might have had his Glorious-Victory with Te-Deum. It is not far from the two hundredth part of what perished in the entire Seven-Years War. By which Seven-Years War, did not the great Fritz wrench Silesia from the great Theresa … The head of man is a strange vacant sounding-shell, M.l’Abbé …

Such things were; such things are; and they go on in silence peaceably: – and Sansculottisms follow them. History, looking back over this France through long times … confesses mournfully that there is no period to be met with, in which the general Twenty-five Millions of France suffered less than in this period which they name Reign of Terror! But it was not the Dumb Millions that suffered here; it was the Speaking Thousands, and Hundreds, and Units; who shrieked and published, and made the world ring with their wail … that is the grand peculiarity.

Charles Swann
Keele University

Vol. 22 No. 10 · 18 May 2000

From Hilary Mantel
Charles Swann (Letters, 27 April) accuses me of an injustice to Thomas Carlyle, perpetrated in my piece on Robespierre. I am guilty as charged. It is true that I haven’t the facts about precisely how the housemaid – I shall call her, from now on, ‘the legendary housemaid’ – lit the fire with the first draft of Carlyle’s manuscript on the French Revolution. It is indeed possible that she went on to stuff some pages in the kitchen range; or that she had merely kindled a spark with an epigraph, when big boots stamped it out. I am indulging in picturesque history, am I not? The kind that Carlyle taught us.

In cheering on this wonderful domestic, I am not so much questioning Carlyle’s interpretation of the events of 1793-94, as simply regretting – rather whimsically, perhaps, and not altogether seriously – that his book on the French Revolution ever saw the light of day. My point is that the English imagination can’t get past it and that naive people (I am sure Charles Swann isn’t one of them) think it is holy writ; they count themselves well up in the topic if they’ve read it. For the longest time, I didn’t know Carlyle was to be taken seriously. I read his history of the Revolution in my teens, and, having no faculty of awe, thought it was a comic turn. Then, when I had my novel about the Revolution published, I was amazed that reviewers were keen to drag in references to it, so that we’d know they knew their stuff; and kind people asked me: Were you not very much influenced by it? Was it not the book that fired your interest?

W.S. Milne’s letter in the previous issue points to the primacy of the image of the guillotine in Andrzej Wajda’s film Danton. I agree with his analysis of the film, though I might not go so far as to call the guillotine a ‘character’. The issues are complicated and I don’t want to seem dismissive of the many interesting studies of the guillotine as icon of the Revolution; however, though it is unfashionable to say so, I am not sure that a concentration on iconography helps us to understand what happened in the Year II. Or perhaps I should say, it helps us to understand what happened from our point of view, but not from theirs; it helps us to formulate elegant intellectual trivialities, and distracts us from the less exciting business of working through speeches and writing to see what the Revolutionaries themselves thought they were doing. The guillotine was not invented or designed as an instrument of the Terror, but came into use in 1790, in very different conditions. Wajda, Milne says, ‘uses it to evoke the cold, calculating, rational nature of the state itself’. But we need not capitulate to Wajda’s imagination, any more than we need to capitulate to Carlyle’s: any more than you need to capitulate to mine. The guillotine offered, according to Milne, ‘the clean shave if you step out of line’. Which line would you have walked, if you wanted to stay alive in 1794? The line taken by one of the factions in the Committee of Public Safety? The Police Committee’s line, if you knew what it was? The Commune’s line? I am not sure that rationality had much to do with the events of those months. No one who went to the guillotine thought he was suffering because Robespierre was being too reasonable today.

Hilary Mantel
Knaphill, Surrey

Published in: on April 24, 2011 at 1:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

Danton


He Roared
FUENTE Harvard System:

Mantel, H., 2009. He Roared. Review of Danton: The Gentle Giant of Terror by Lawday, D. London Review of Books [Online] vol. 31 no. 15 pp. 3-6. Available from http://www.lrb.co.uk/v31/n15/hilary-mantel/he-roared [Accessed 24 April 2011].

Hilary Mantel
Danton: The Gentle Giant of Terror by David Lawday
Cape, 294 pp, £20.00, July 2009, ISBN 978 0 224 07989 1

‘Give me a place to stand,’ said Archimedes, ‘and I will move the earth.’ In the spring of 1789, your place to stand was a huddle of streets on Paris’s left bank. If you put your head out of the window of the café Procope, almost everyone you needed to overthrow the regime was within shouting distance. The Revolution was dreamed here before it was enacted, beneath the dark towers of Saint-Sulpice. George-Jacques Danton lived here, and Camille Desmoulins, Jean-Paul Marat, Legendre the master-butcher, Fabre d’Eglantine the political playwright, and a dozen others who would make their names through the fall of the old order. In the year the Revolution began, this area was known as the Cordeliers district, taking its name from the monastery of the Cordeliers, the Franciscan friars. It was not a working-class area like Saint-Antoine, but respectable with a bohemian fringe, bankers and civil servants ensconced on first floors, garrets stuffed with malcontent actors; its agitators garnished their invective with classical allusions. From 1789 onwards, this district, with Danton as ward boss, became notorious for hair-trigger revolutionary reflexes. ‘Spontaneous’ street protests could erupt there in an instant, and radical journalists hid their presses and their persons in the warren of houses. When a reorganisation of the city’s divisions threatened the identity of the district, the citizens turned themselves into a political club, and colonised the disused monastery for a meeting place. With Danton in the chair, the Cordeliers were a formidably disruptive force, noisier and cheaper to join than the Jacobin club on the right bank. The Cordeliers had an opinion on everything, from the parish to the world; you would think they owned the Revolution.

You would disagree, of course, if you were across the river at City Hall, and struggling to impose good order on the populace. In the months after the fall of the Bastille, Mayor Bailly thought he owned the Revolution, along with Lafayette, commander of the National Guard. The National Assembly thought they owned it; the Duc d’Orléans, who hoped to replace his cousin Louis as king, thought that if he did not own it he had certainly paid for it. Mirabeau, the renegade aristocrat who was a hero both to parliamentarians and to the crowd, thought he had a right to it – was this not his hour to save his country, and at the same time get his debts paid? And perhaps Mr Pitt, plotting in London, thought it was Whitehall’s revolution; the opportunity to destabilise, embarrass and disable the old enemy could not be let slip, and if a bribe here and there could do it, he would be glad to have some revolutionaries in England’s pocket. Later, in 1793, the journalist Desmoulins would denounce the revolution of 1789 as a false revolution, bought and paid for, sold and resold, a put-up job, a fix. As a republican from the start, he could claim his hands were clean and his motives were pure; but where did that leave Danton, his old revolutionary comrade? Ambiguity hangs over his life and over his conduct as a leader of the Revolution, and what is soon evident about David Lawday’s spirited and highly readable biography is that he stands Danton in a flattering light and pays insufficient attention to movements in the shadows. ‘The Gentle Giant of Terror’, the subtitle calls him: which suggests, along with revolutionary vertu, a certain daft innocence. Lawday’s Danton is the Danton that Gérard Depardieu enacted for Andrzej Wajda in his 1983 film about the great man’s trial and death. He is a passionate defender of instinct and truth against the cold formulations of Robespierre: he is a peasant in a lawyer’s coat, a son of the soil, one of nature’s patriots; he is, in himself, a force of nature.

Such men are not often successful lawyers. Before the Revolution, Danton was doing well; he was not one of the people with nothing to lose. He had a wife, a comfortable home, and an established legal practice; many of the men who were his future comrades had nothing but sheaves of unpublished poems, unsung operas and unapplauded plays. But he was restless and perhaps, as Büchner suggested in his play Dantons Tod, he was easily bored. Revolution offered him five years of diversion and aggrandisement, and amplified his voice to the whole of Europe; in quieter times, 30 years of plodding application, bowing and scraping to his intellectual inferiors, would perhaps have taken him into the lower ranks of the establishment. Danton’s origins were one generation removed from the peasantry. He was born in 1759 in Arcis-sur-Aube in the Champagne region, the fifth child of a petty lawyer, who died when his only son was three. Georges-Jacques’s father had been married before; his mother would marry again; he had a network of relatives through the region. The family structure was stable, cohesive; his uncles and cousins were farmers, merchants, priests. His childhood was rural but eventful. Encounters with livestock left him broken-nosed, with a gash from a bull’s horn across his lips; smallpox left him scarred; he was tall, and grew burly if not obese. His ugliness was not of the craggy kind: ‘His bulbous cheeks,’ Lawday says, ‘gave him the look of an enormous cherub.’ To his political opponent Vadier, during the Terror, he was a turbot farci, a huge fish to be gutted. Danton’s riposte embodied all his smooth elegance: ‘I’ll eat his brains and use his skull to shit in.’

In Troyes, Danton was given the best of modern educations by the Oratorian order. Later, he built up an extensive library, and he spoke, or at least read, both English and Italian. He was 20 when he went to try his luck in Paris. He clerked for a Maître Vinot on the Ile Saint-Louis. Rather than sit the Parisian bar exams, he took a pragmatic trip to Reims, where the diploma could be picked up for a fee on proof of a few days’ residence. In 1787, in one of those arrangements so French that they almost defy translation, he bought the legal office of avocat au Conseil du Roi from a man called Huet de Paisy, who was engaged to marry his long-time mistress, Françoise Duhauttoir; Françoise herself lent Danton some of the purchase price. A 1964 biographer, Robert Christophe, speculated that Françoise may have had a child by Danton, and that he paid an inflated price to settle his obligations. He certainly drew on the dowry for his upcoming marriage to Gabrielle Charpentier, whose father was a tax official and the owner of a popular café near the law courts. As France slid towards bankruptcy and political turmoil, Danton had assets and prospects, but he also had entangling debts, obligations.

The Dantons had a son within a year of marriage. He did not survive babyhood, but two more boys followed. The household made an ambitious move to an apartment in one of the recently built townhouses near the Théâtre Français. There was an entrance on the cour du Commerce; his front door, it is thought, opened approximately where his statue stands now, in the carrefour de l’Odéon. He would live there for the rest of his short life. At this time, Danton may have talked of ‘revolution’, as he did – in Latin, and in typically ambivalent terms – at his reception into his new association of advocates. But he clearly thought the upheaval would be of a limited nature, for he chose to adopt the particle of nobility, calling himself d’Anton. It’s unlikely that anyone laughed; the manoeuvre was too familiar a stage in the progress of a social climber.

In May 1789 the Estates General met in Versailles. In Paris, there was sporadic rioting throughout the spring, the price of bread shot up, and Louis ringed the capital with troops. When the Bastille fell, Danton was not there; he was often elsewhere on days of revolutionary action, as he had a canny regard for his own skin. But within days a citizen militia, which would become the National Guard, was formed to keep the peace on the streets. This was Danton’s chance to put on a paramilitary uniform and strut about impressively. People were looking for leaders, and he – with the big presence and the big voice – was a natural leader. He was hospitable, a generous host, the glad-handing focus of the neighbourhood. He had also joined a Freemasons’ lodge; probably that was how he met the liberal, anglophile Philippe d’Orléans. In the duke’s circles, money changed hands, Lawday says, ‘and Danton was aware of it. Who wasn’t? But the giant from Arcis was not there out of greed, he was there riding the tide.’ At this time, it seemed a change of monarch, with the new one limited by constitution, might be enough to satisfy reformers; Orléans, the obvious candidate, functioned as a walking chequebook for Danton’s friends. Was Danton the fastidious exception? So many future leaders of the Revolution were scooped into the golden net of Orléanist pretentions, that they could hardly hold it against each other in the days of brutal accounting that came in with the Terror. Danton – devoted to Cicero, but fluent in street language – was just the sort of investment Orléans liked.

Nothing can be proved, though Danton’s finances are worth more scrutiny than they receive here. Allegations that he was an agent in English pay had surfaced as early as the autumn of 1789. We don’t know where his money came from, but we can be fairly sure it wasn’t from his legal practice. We know where it went – he was buying up land in Arcis. The evidence was marshalled in Norman Hampson’s 1978 biography, a wry, spare and careful assessment. Where others see a calculating opportunism running through Danton’s revolution, Lawday sees a man free from ‘demon ideals’ and driven by ‘impetuosity and heart’. At any rate, he was led by his heart when he chose his friends. Two men he was close to at the beginning went straight through his political career with him, and died on the same scaffold. Fabre d’Eglantine was an actor and playwright, interior designer and prize-winning poet, or so he said; he was a charming con man, and his stock market scams, uncovered during the winter of 1793, would start the Dantonist faction on the slide to oblivion. Camille Desmoulins was a freakishly brilliant failure till the Bastille days. He was a timid boy with a stammer, but the Revolution, he claimed, had made him brave; he made his name as a street orator, then launched one of the era’s most successful newspapers. His politics were republican before the Revolution; as he was ahead of everyone else, racing through a private revolution on his own speeded-up plan, it was only a matter of time before he collided messily with the rock-like Terrorist convictions of his childhood friend, Robespierre.

The company he kept, and his talents as a demagogue, made Danton suspect to the right bank grandees trying to steer the Revolution on a moderate and constitutional course. He was always adaptable, always approachable, and yet he seems to have scared them. It was the second wave of revolution in the late summer of 1792 that carried him to power: the attack on the Tuileries, the fall of the monarchy, the institution of the republic and the summoning of the National Convention. At a time of national emergency, with the troops of the enemy allies just 90 miles from Paris, Danton seized a position as de facto head of a provisional government. Lafayette, the commander of the French forces, defected to the Austrians, and at the same time rebels were on the march in the Vendée under the slogan ‘Death to Parisians’. The Duke of Brunswick, commander of the allied Prussian and Austrian forces, had threatened Paris itself with ‘exemplary vengeance’. The leaders of the Revolution were dead men walking, and the danger was that the capital would freeze with fear. Danton put the city on the march; he organised a giant recruiting drive and the seizure of all weapons in private hands. House-to-house searches picked up 3000 suspected royalists, many more than the prisons could securely hold. On 2 September 1792 Danton delivered his finest speech, ‘the charge against the enemies of the patrie’, who must be met with ‘l’audace, encore de l’audace, toujours de l’audace’. This was happy and forceful phrasemaking; like much revolutionary rhetoric, it loses some impact in translation, but all the same it is helpful that Lawday translates everything, and does it easily and idiomatically. That day of boldness was, Lawday says, the best and worst of Danton; his speech had a galvanising effect, but it acted as a call for direct action among the citizens, as well as a strike against the external enemy.

Danton’s style as leader of the government was a simple one. ‘Why do I do what he wants?’ the navy minister asked. ‘Because he scares the hell out of me and he’d give my head to the people otherwise.’ Danton’s official position was minister of justice, and he took Fabre and Desmoulins to the place Vendôme with him. Justice was in scant supply in early September, when the mobs broke into the prisons and massacred 1600 people. Some of them were prostitutes and others, detainees in a reformatory, were little more than children. Danton did nothing to stop the killing. In his 1899 biography, Hilaire Belloc said ‘he might have saved his reputation by protesting, though perhaps his protest would not have saved a single life.’ Danton roared on more than one occasion that he did not care about his reputation. A brutal realism prevailed: ‘No power on earth,’ he said, ‘could have stopped the national vengeance from spilling over.’ There could not be a revolution without blood, and no single man could hold up his hand and say ‘Enough.’ It was Danton who, the following spring, proposed to the Convention the establishment of a Revolutionary Tribunal: for which, he would later say, ‘I ask the pardon of God and of humanity.’ His reasoning at the time was that only swift, visible justice would stop the mobs taking the law into their own hands. But the Tribunal would become the instrument the revolutionaries used to slaughter each other.

The pressure of that terrible summer eased, though the republic’s victory at Valmy in September was less a military triumph than a propaganda coup. The allied commander withdrew, and Danton’s opponents claimed that he had bribed him with the French crown jewels, which had recently gone missing. If so, it was an ingenious use of them. Once the immediate panic was over, Danton left office and went home to the cour du Commerce, because as a member of the new National Convention he was not permitted to hold a ministry. Jean-Marie Roland, however, hung on to his post at the Interior, and mounted a relentless attack on Danton’s probity, demanding he account for the large sums he had disbursed during the days of emergency. Danton could not do it, and his failure would be a thorn in his side in the months ahead. Lawday makes much of Madame Roland’s animosity towards Danton, which (like generations of male historians) he takes to be a backhanded compliment to what he calls Danton’s ‘blatant bull-maleness’. Perhaps it’s time to revisit this condescending nonsense and give Manon Roland the benefit of the doubt; maybe, when said she disliked and distrusted Danton, she meant what she said and no more. Readers of her memoirs may see her as an irritating and self-regarding woman, but they will also remember her frankness about her early sexual experiences; she was not a fool, and not someone who lacked self-awareness. It’s questionable, anyway, if her personal feelings mattered as much as Lawday thinks. She had influence, but no power. Lawday uses the word ‘party’ often in relation to the Rolandins and the Girondins, though they were the loosest of groupings. In revolutionary politics, to represent your opponents as a ‘party’ was to defame and endanger them; it was to represent them as self-interested to the point of lacking patriotism. First you made them a ‘party’, and then, as they went to the guillotine, a ‘batch’. At the time, the men whom later historians call Girondins were more often referred to as ‘Brissotins’, as so many of them were friends of Jean-Pierre Brissot, a deputy, journalist and veteran of liberal causes. Brissot had been around long enough to be compromised; Marat and Desmoulins claimed he had been a police spy before the Revolution. They had been around too, so they knew. They held secret files on each other, or so they said.

What did mark out the Girondins, Rolandins and Brissotins was their federalist impulses; they distrusted Paris, and in a moment of panic in the autumn of 1792 they proposed taking the government out of the capital, an idea Danton dismissed with contempt. They favoured a policy which the left wing of the Convention saw as suicidal; unless united, how could France possibly withstand a grand European alliance dedicated to the crushing of the Revolution? It was not a big step, later, for the left to represent federalist sympathies as traitorous. Robespierre blamed Brissot’s friends for taking France into what they advertised as a ‘cleansing’ war. He regarded it as immoral, unwinnable and likely to end in military dictatorship. Danton would have avoided war too, and worked busily behind the scenes to negotiate a cessation of hostilities, while pumping out nationalist, expansionist rhetoric: ‘The boundaries of France are drawn by nature. We shall attain them on their four sides – the Ocean, the Rhine, the Alps and the Pyrenees.’

Danton was with the armies in Belgium when his wife Gabrielle died giving birth to her fourth child. When he arrived in Paris, a grieving, howling wreck of a man who had been too long on the road, it was to find that the child was lost too and that Gabrielle had already been buried. She had been dead for a week when Danton had her exhumed so that a sculptor could take a mould for a bust; this gruesome proceeding, carried out by night, suggested that he was a man who, goaded to the edge of exhaustion, had tipped into emotional breakdown. At the king’s trial, he had voted for death, and death was what he had got. Perhaps it began here, the strange numbness that overtook him when he was most required to act. His political judgment was no longer secure, his lucky touch had gone. Until almost the last moment, when he deserted to the Austrians like Lafayette before him, Danton backed the army’s supreme commander, General Dumouriez. He had to explain that misjudgment to the National Convention; all the same, his domination of that body, in debate after debate, became clear in the spring of 1793. With the republic once more on the brink of being invaded, and threatening to break up internally, he launched another round of recruitment and requisitioning, declaring that Paris would have to save the country. When the Committee of Public Safety was first formed, in April 1793, it was known as the Danton Committee.

The idea was to fill a power vacuum; as the men seen to matter in France were deputies to the Convention, and so debarred from ministerial office, the old structure had lost status and the force of the executive arm had diminished. The Committee contained no Girondins, Brissotins or Rolandins. By June they were in prison or had fled. At this point, so many battles behind him, Danton faltered; he thought of his private life; he married again, Louise Gély, the 16-year-old daughter of a neighbour. To meet her family’s wishes, he married her secretly, before a renegade priest who had not taken the oath to the Constitution. His secret was soon out. ‘I can’t live without women,’ he pleaded. He took to spending time with his bride in a country house he had rented outside Paris. In July, he was dropped from the Committee. Two weeks later, Robespierre was elected. Till this point he had avoided government posts, but his time had come. He did not need women or relaxation, and did not have secrets. He often threatened to ‘unmask’ his opponents. For a long time he avoided thinking about what lay beneath Danton’s mask.

In October 1793, pleading illness, Danton took himself off to Arcis, to seal himself up in his much renovated ancestral home and try to ignore the Paris newspapers. That autumn the city of Lyon was razed by republican troops; Marie Antoinette and Manon Roland went to the guillotine, so did the former Duc d’Orléans, so did Bailly, Paris’s first revolutionary mayor. Desmoulins and Fabre begged Danton to come back and reassert his authority. When he reappeared in Paris, he found he was living in the Year II. The old calendar had ceased to exist, and so had his old address; he was now at home in the rue Marat. The political landscape was changing as fast as the street names. As the year closed – the old-style year, 1793 – Desmoulins launched a press campaign to end the executions and release the thousands of interned suspects held throughout the country. In its first weeks, the campaign for clemency was wildly popular. Robespierre gave cautious approval; then he pulled back, becoming aware that, of all those who needed clemency, the Dantonists perhaps needed it most. A fulminating stock market scandal, in which Fabre was deeply implicated, seemed in the climate of the times to have political ramifications. Perhaps it did: forgery was involved, and insider trading, and a dubious and cosmopolitan bunch of disparate individuals suspected of being enemy agents. Perhaps wisely, Lawday doesn’t attempt to unravel this affair, but he confuses his account of these crucial weeks by persistently referring to Danton’s friends as ‘the Cordeliers’. The club had long since been taken over by a populist faction, led by the journalist René Hébert. That was why Desmoulins’s newspaper, which led the clemency campaign, was called the Old Cordelier. Hébert was Desmoulins’s first target. Camille’s notion of mercy was qualified: he would first eliminate the immediate opponent, whom he hated like poison, and then all revolutionaries would be perfect friends.

Hébert had been a nuisance to the Committee of Public Safety, and when these new Cordeliers went to the guillotine, the ground was suddenly cleared, the revolutionary atmosphere bright, the light searching: an abyss opened beneath the feet of the Dantonist faction their opponents now called the Indulgents. Danton could perhaps have escaped. He had a warning, an hour or two before his arrest. But as he said, ‘You can’t take the patrie with you on the soles of your shoes.’ Danton lived by the word, but not the written word. He never wrote his speeches; he grew them extempore, and fed them on the emotion of his audience. All his life he was at the mercy of patchy note-takers. Alphonse Aulard, who held the first chair in revolutionary studies at the Sorbonne, investigated the problem in 1922: are Danton’s famous phrases real, or are they later inventions, are they what historians think he ought to have said? ‘It is probable that he said them. One hopes that he said them. Historically speaking, one cannot be sure. Perhaps they are more true than authentic.’ In any event, and however he phrased it, Danton disdained the chance of last-minute flight. In 1791, fleeing a backlash against the radicals, he had spent six weeks in England. He was not welcome then, he would be less welcome now. There was nowhere to go: now, March to April 1794, it was time for Danton’s many selves to meet each other.

A stormy session of two Committees – the Committee of Public Safety and the Committee of General Defence, usually called the Police Committee – had resulted in two members refusing to sign the arrest warrants. Robespierre’s signature appeared, very small, very faint, at the foot of the page. Leaving his house in the small hours, under arrest, Danton told his little wife to expect him back. A few days later he faced his accusers with great courage, but he could not face them down. By this stage, the Committee did not ‘lose’ a trial. Danton, Desmoulins and other deputies found themselves tried alongside men who were strangers to them – Fabre’s shady cronies. Before the Convention, Saint-Just’s rhetorical deconstruction of Danton’s career seemed to show that every patriotic action had its ugly, shadow side. The trial process was truncated and farcical. Like the trial of the king, it was a political coup, not a forensic process; it was an assassination. Danton had hoarded a phrase for the scaffold: ‘Show my head to the people. It is worth a look.’ The Convention did not rally to him, the people did not rise up to save their old hero. Less than four months later, Robespierre himself stood at bay before the Convention, his voice faltering, dying in his throat. A deputy shouted: ‘It is the blood of Danton that chokes you!’

‘Is it Danton you regret?’ he snapped back. ‘Cowards! Why didn’t you defend him?’

It’s a good question. Historians have been doing it energetically ever since, though his contemporaries were slower to exculpate him. After Robespierre’s fall, the Convention decreed that flowers should be placed on Desmoulins’s presumed grave; no one had a bouquet for Danton. He divides people: those who value heart and flair, against those who are good at adding up on their fingers, sucking their teeth and shaking their heads. If you condemn him you are, like Robespierre, more in sorrow than in anger. Lawday takes Danton at his own valuation, which at all times was high. He was never reluctant to bellow out a testimonial to himself. ‘I have created what I am on my own . . . I know how to marry cool reason with a burning soul and a steadfast character.’ We know much more about his tactics than about his beliefs. He was a skilled, pragmatic political operator who, like Mirabeau before him, was expert in covering his tracks, and he has covered them from posterity. He had a brilliant oral memory, but avoided even writing letters, and Lawday speculates that nowadays we would have called him dyslexic. When he went to Paris, the lawyer who took him on as a clerk remarked that his handwriting was indecipherable; ça ne fait rien, Danton said haughtily, as he didn’t mean to make his living as a copyist. He preferred other people to put his thoughts on paper for him; then, of course, he could always repudiate them. Perhaps Lawday is right and there was some neurological glitch; the more jaundiced explanation is that he was secretive, and with good reason.

David Lawday lives in Paris and he is not one of those tepid Englishpersons who does not understand why these desperados wanted a revolution in the first place. He takes them on their own terms, these young men who threw off their powdered wigs, sought liberation from a lifetime of stifling politesse, and ended up wading through blood. On the other hand, he has a wholly English distrust of political theory. He makes Danton a man who often reacted to events rather than trying to shape them, and that seems a shrewd assessment. When things were going his way Danton took advantage of the moment, and when they were not he cleared off to Arcis till he could see improvement. Lawday writes as if Robespierre, by contrast, was in possession all along of an unshakeable plan, which included the destruction of Danton. He sets up the Danton/Robespierre contest early in the book. At his first appearance on the page, Robespierre has a ‘feline aspect’ and ‘joyless eyes’. This is better as drama than history. It easy to imagine their first meeting was not a success; Danton traded in first impressions and Robespierre was very hard to impress. But for most of the Revolution they worked together amicably enough, if on opposite sides of the river; and they worked in political agreement. Lawday can’t stretch his imagination to see Danton as Robespierre must have seen him: a blustering windbag, with his faux heartiness, his distractibility and his unreliability. To revolution, Robespierre had a vocation; he expected to follow it, and he expected it to kill him. It may have seemed to him that Danton saw revolution as a second career; he expected it to make him rich. Until the end, Robespierre decided to believe, or at least said he believed, that the gossip against Danton was slander. He took him for a patriot, with all his faults and flaws, and Lawday persuades his reader to do the same.

His book is not searching, contains little new, and for facts it would not be first choice. It is a romantic view of the Revolution; Lawday’s July crowds are pulled towards the Bastille ‘by some great intuitive magnet’; in fact, the fortress, almost emptied of prisoners by the authorities who had anticipated the attack, was a pre-selected target because of the explosives stored there. But Lawday creates some great set-pieces and striking turning points. At Danton’s first meeting with Mirabeau: ‘The two men had sat inspecting each other in silence for some minutes, impressed by each other’s ugliness.’ He is able to capture the atmosphere of the early Revolution: its inflammable mix of devilment and righteousness, reckless selflessness and flagrant self-promotion. He sees that Danton was more than the sum of his crimes, the sum of his secrets; he celebrates him, ‘large heart and violent impulses in irresolvable conflict’. He understands that much of his public aggression was a pose; Danton was by nature a negotiator, even if his negotiations sometimes looked more like an offer from a prostitute. One evening at his apartment in the cour du Commerce, Danton entertained Henry Holland, Fox’s nephew. ‘You can pay Danton 80,000 livres,’ he claimed, ‘but you can’t buy Danton for 80,000.’ Lawday assures us: ‘Gabrielle would have understood that he was talking of the compensation he had received for his legal practice.’ Only a wife or the fondest of biographers could believe that. He was simply raising the stakes.

The print edition of the London Review of Books in which this book review appears and a downloadable PDF version of this book review are also available for purchase from the London Review Bookshop. Contact us for rights and issues enquiries.

facebook twitter shareemailletterciteprint

Published in: on April 24, 2011 at 1:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,