Sunday, May 22, 2005

PERMANENT REVOLUTION. Finally finished Carlyle's History of the French Revolution. At the start I thought myself in for a 750-page Burkean peroration on the folly of Godless democracy. From the beginning Carlyle is Jeremiacally disdainful of the Revolutionary dream:
... Of a truth, the long-demonstrated will now be done: 'the Age of Revolutions approaches' (as Jean Jacques wrote), but then of happy blessed ones. Man awakens from his long somnambulism; chases the Phantasms that beleagured and bewitched him. Behold the new morning glittering down the eastern steeps; fly, false Phantasms, from its shafts of light… For what imaginable purpose was man made, if not to be 'happy'? By victorious Analysis, and Progress of the Species, happiness enough now awaits him… Nay, who knows but, by sufficiently victorious Analysis, 'human life may be indefinitely lengthened,' and men get rid of Death, as they have already done of the Devil? We shall then be happy in spite of Death and the Devil.--So preaches magniloquent Philosophism her Redeunt Saturnia regna.
Sounds like John Derbyshire with poetry, eh? Carlyle doesn’t think much of "Evangel Jean-Jacques" Rosseau ("Theories of Government! Such have been, and will be; in ages of decadence"), nor of Figaro ("thin wiredrawn intrigues, thin wiredrawn sentiments and sarcasms; a thing lean, barren…"), and at times, many times, a reader may think that he considers this Revolution nothing more than a "mad Gaelic effervescence" of "eleutheromania." He mentions America hardly at all, and Pitt only as a Sansculottic bogey-man (L'ennemi du genre humain) or as one who deals with "his own Friends of the People" by "getting them bespied, beheaded, their habeas-corpuses suspended, and his own Social Order and strong-boxes kept tight" -- in the face of the French madness, an apparently wiser course. Lafayette is a sap, and Voltaire a carbuncle-eyed false prophet.

But as Carlyle proceeds more deeply into the (to use one of his favorite words) Cimmerian opera buffa of the Revolution -- the risings, the factions, "sea-green" Robespierre, "People’s-Friend" and "Dogleech" Marat, the Terror, the legislative spasms, the Feast of Reason, the rise of Gilded Youth, all finally "blown into space" by Napoleon -- it seemed as I read that the author had grown more forgiving; certainly not toward the rough treatment of innocents, or even of the guilty, or toward farewells "too sad for tears"; the worst outrages he delineates in the simplest language, for maximum heart-rending effect. Yet even in the worst atrocities Carlyle finds understanding, if only because 750 pages (written twice over*) is an awfully tall mountain from which not to discern a context. The pathetic end of the Dauphin he describes, in an odd premonition of Dickens, "as none but poor Factory Children and the like are wont to perish, unlamented." Even the Terror has its reasons -- the plotting of exiled aristocrats, invasion, starvation, the need for unity -- and, from Carlyle, an unexpectedly gentle epitaph:
It is a horrible sum of human lives, M. l'Abbe: -- 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…

But what if History, somewhere on this Planet, were to hear of a Nation, the third soul of whom had not for thirty weeks each year as many third-rate potatoes as would sustain him?… History ventures to assert that the French Sansculotte of Ninety-three, who, roused from long death-sleep, could rush at once to the frontiers, and die fighting for an immortal Hope and Faith of Deliverance for him and his, was but the second-miserablest of men! The Irish Sans-potato, had he not senses then, nay a soul? In his frozen darkness, it was bitter for him to die famishing; bitter to see his children famish. It was bitter for him to be a beggar, a liar and a knave. Nay, if that dreary Greenland-wind of benighted Want, perennial from sire to son, had frozen him into a kind of torpor and numb callosity, so that he saw not, felt not, was this, for a creature with a soul in it, some assuagement; or the cruellest wretchedness of all?

Such things were, such things are; and they go on in silence peaceably…
Oh, have I mentioned that this is among the most gorgeous English prose ever written? And that it defies comparison to anything, literary or political, in our own poor, benighted age -- though, People’s-Friend that I am, I will draw your attention to some Carlyle musings on Revolutionary Journalism:
One Sansculottic bough that cannot fail to flourish is Journalism. The voice of the People being the voice of God, shall not such divine voice make itself heard? To the ends of France; and in as many dialects as when the first great Babel was to be built! Some loud as the lion; some small as the sucking dove...

Folded and hawked Newspapers exist in all countries; but, in such a Journalistic element as this of France, other and stranger sorts are to be anticipated. What says the English reader to a Journal-Affiche, Placard Journal; legible to him that has no halfpenny; in bright prismatic colours, calling the eye from afar? Such, in the coming months, as Patriot Associations, public and private, advance, and can subscribe funds, shall plenteously hang themselves out: leaves, limed leaves, to catch what they can! The very Government shall have its Pasted Journal… Is not every Able Editor a Ruler of the World, being a persuader of it; though self-elected, yet sanctioned, by the sale of his Numbers?…

Placard Journals, Placard Lampoons, Municipal Ordinances, Royal Proclamations; the whole other or vulgar Placard-department super-added -- or omitted from contempt! What unutterable things the stone-walls spoke, during these five years! But it is all gone; To-day swallowing Yesterday, and then being in its turn swallowed of To-morrow, even as Speech ever is.
Sounds familiar, blog-readers, n’cest pas?

(* The burning of Carlyle’s original manuscript is one of the great literary stories. Carlyle said that writing the History over again was like "swimming without water." (The sole web account of that quote describes its circumstances differently than I recall it, but I think most writers will support my version.) Speaking of things only writers would appreciate, this is my favorite part of the story linked up above: "Carlyle was terribly upset about the loss of his work. He was, in fact, on the verge of giving the project up entirely. That night, however, he had a dream, in which his father and brother rose from the grave and begged him to give up writing. He awoke with a new determination.")

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