One of Andy Warhol’s more confronting works was a painting of a can of Campbell’s soup. Was that art? Well, it depends on the criteria you apply to fix that label. And that reminds us of the remark of George Bush Senior that labels are what you stick on cans of soup.
Here in Cambridge for a Summer School on revolutions, you see historical labels used in the conventional way that they are applied by historians. But we must remember that there was in fact no such thing as ‘the French Revolution’ or ‘the English Revolution’. Those terms are merely labels that we apply to series of events – and there is great disagreement about which events satisfy that label for the French case, and where it, the revolution, started and finished – let alone how and why.
The purist might therefore be unsettled to read that he is doing a week’s course on ‘John Milton and the English Revolution’ when the same tutor is giving a lecture on the Friday on ‘Was there a revolution in 17th century England.’ Well, most historians would say that there were at least two series of events that would warrant that label, but what if the lecturer answers no? Have we been walking on quicksand all week?
Similarly, one essay topic is ‘Did the Terror save or betray the Revolution?’ ‘Terror’ is another label for a series of events, and current events show just how slippery it is. How does one label ‘save or betray’ anything, let alone another label?
Playing with abstractions is an occupational hazard at any university – or indeed in any profession.
Poet of the month: Keats
Ode on a Grecian Urn (41-50)
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou sayst,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.