[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]
THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
Thomas Carlyle (1837)
J M Dent & Co (Everyman), 1906; 2 volumes; burgundy cloth with gilt lettering; subsequently placed in split slip-case with marbled exteriors, and burgundy silk ribbon extractors.
The Art of Insurrection. It was an art needed in these last singular times: an art for which the French nature, so full of vehemence, so free from depth, was perhaps of all other the fittest.
How would a French provincial official back then have gone about making an observation about King Louis XV in a ‘sleek official way’? At the very start of this book, Carlyle tells us that a man called President Henault took occasion ‘in his sleek official way to make a philosophical reflection’ about Louis XV. If you look up President Henault, you will find that he seems to have been just the sort of French official who might have acted that way. So, here we have a writer who arrests us in his first line. We know at once that he is writing this book as literature, or, as we might now say, journalism. But the book is much more than journalism or literature – it is theatre, and very high theatre at that.
As you get into this book, you will get used to being affronted in both your prejudices and your senses. It is like being on the Big Dipper, and you are frequently tempted to ask – just what was this guy on when he was getting off on all this stuff?
The writing is surging, vivacious, and elemental. The author likes to see the world from on high, and to put us all on a little stage. When poor Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette quit the Louvre under cover of night in a bid to escape from France, we get a costume drama. ‘But where is the Lady that stood aside in gypsy hat, and touched the wheel-spoke with her badine? O Reader, that Lady…was the Queen of France!…Flurried by the rattle and rencounter, she took the right hand, not the left; neither she nor her Courier knows Paris…They are off, quite wrong, over the Pont Royal and River; roaming disconsolate in the Rue du Bac; far from the Glass-coachman, who still waits.’
You too can ‘roam disconsolate’ in Paris. It is simple to retrace those steps, and it must have been quite a stroll for the Queen of France. Instead of heading up the Rue de L’Echelle, they went up Rue Saint Honoré, and then ended up on the left Bank. What turn might the Revolution have taken if the Queen had turned the other way? Or if the Austrian Marie Antoinette had known as least something of the lay-out of Paris? That the Louvre was then as it is now on the Right Bank?
The coach driven by the Swedish Count Fersen gets the royal family out of Paris ‘through the ambrosial night. Sleeping Paris is now all on the right-hand side of him; silent except for some snoring hum…’ There is a change of carriage and then a German coachman thunders toward the East and the dawn. ‘The Universe, O my brothers, is flinging wide its portals for the Levee of the GREAT HIGH KING. Thou, poor King Louis, fares nevertheless, as mortals do, toward Orient lands of Hope; and the Tuileries with its Levées, and France and the Earth itself, is but a larger kind of doghutch, -occasionally going rabid.’ This is very typical – a surge of Old Testament, Shakespeare and Romantic poetry that invokes the heavens, and then falls calmly but flat in the gutter.
Louis is spotted by a tough old patriot called Drouet who recognized the nameless traveller from the portrait on the currency. They are brought back from Varennes to the City of Light. At Saint Antoine, the workers and the poor have a placard; ‘Whosoever insults Louis shall be caned; whosoever applauds him shall be hanged.’ This was the second time that the family was returned to Paris. The first was when the fishwives brought them in from Versailles. Carlyle had then said: ‘Poor Louis has two other Paris Processions to make; one ludicrous ignominious like this: the other not ludicrous nor ignominious, but serious, nay sublime.’
Carlyle would later become infatuated with heroes and the idea of the strong man, but even French historians struggle to find heroes in their Revolution. Carlyle does his best for Mirabeau and Danton, but they were both on the take. The bad guys are easy for him – Marat and Robespierre. (Both Danton and Robespierre used the ‘de’ before it became lethally unfashionable.) When someone moots a Republic after the flight to Varennes, we get: ‘“A Republic?” said the Seagreen, with one of his dry husky unsportful laughs, “what is that?” O seagreen Incorruptible, thou shalt see!’ After Robespierre lies low in the general unrest, we get: ‘Understand this, however: that incorruptible Robespierre is not wanting, now when the brunt of battle is past; in a stealthy way the seagreen man sits there, his feline eyes excellent in the twilight…..How changed for Marat; lifted from his dark cellar into this luminous” peculiar tribune!” All dogs have their day; even rabid dogs.’
The two references to rabid dogs are characteristic. The son of a Calvinist stonemason in the lowlands understood and loathed the lynch mob, which France had descended into. At the beginning of the chapter headed The Gods Are Athirst, Carlyle said that La Revolution was ‘the Madness that dwells in the hearts of men.’
And this Scots Calvinist rails against the weakness of mankind like a Hebrew prophet. He knew, with Isaiah, that all nations before God are as nothing, and are counted before God as less than nothing, and as vanity; and that God brings the princes to nothing, and makes the judges of the earth vanity. And he knew, with the author of the book of Ecclesiastes, that all is vanity, and that when it comes to evil, there is nothing new under the sun.
The lynch mob was at its peak in the Terror. In some of the strongest passages in the book, Carlyle tells us how they made wigs (perrukes) taken from the heads of .guillotined women and breeches from human skins at the tannery at Meudon. (The skin of men was superior and as good as chamois, but women’s skin was too soft to be of much use). There is, we know, nothing new under the sun.
Hilaire Belloc thought that this writing was ‘bad’ and ‘all forced.’ That moral evasion may have been possible in 1906, when Belloc wrote it, but not after Gallipoli, Armenia, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Rwanda, and Srebrenica. We have now seen other nations, European nations, forfeit their right to be part of the family of man. Carlyle is merely documenting one such case in one of the most civilized nations on earth. Does history hold a more important lesson for us? Has the story been told this well elsewhere?
So, we can put to one side all the later stuff about heroes. (It is just as well that the book ends with the non-existing ‘whiff of grapeshot’ – Carlyle had a view of Napoleon that is not now widely shared on either side of the Channel.) If nothing else, Carlyle believed that people make history. The alternative, that history makes people, has to face the challenges that it is dogmatic, boring, dangerous, and bullshit. You will see that problem in spades when we get to Tolstoy.
Carlyle wanted to tell a story and to make the dead come alive. In his own terms, he wanted to ‘blow his living breath between dead lips’ and he believed that history ‘is the essence of innumerable biographies.’ He has done that for me six times, and I am about ready for my next fix. The graph-makers can stick with their graphs. The French Revolution is history writ very large, and it has never been writ more largely than here.
When Winston Churchill came to describe the heroism of the Finns in resisting Soviet Russia, he finished with a figure of speech that concluded with the words nay, sublime. When a journalist on The Wall Street Journal came to describe how French bankers recently went long on Italian debt, she said that they had done do in their sleek official way. There was no attribution in either case, and none was needed – it is a comfort for some that there may be a community of letters out there.
And look out for the one who gives you a dry unsportful laugh, whether or not his feline eyes glitter in the twilight.