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Writing About Revolution

Revolutions are acts of hope. That's why they are the terrain of novelists as much as historians.

Edwin Frank

After twenty years in which revolution has been dismissed as the enthusiasm of under-stimulated professors, over-excitable students, and the odd follower of Bob Avakian, the Republicans have succeeded in making it popular again.

The extraordinary coincidence in 1989 of the fall of the Berlin Wall with the 200th anniversary of the fall of the Bastille seemed to provide irrefutable symbolic evidence that the age of revolution was, at last, over. Radical revolutionism had come to nothing, and even the reformist project of social democracy, which had presented itself as the constructive alternative to revolutionary destruction, suddenly appeared historically irrelevant.

At the time, such political reflections found support in scholarly debate on the French Revolution. A new generation of historians -- most prominently Francois Furet -- undercut the claim to universality that was the basis for the mythic appeal not only of the French Revolution but of revolution itself. Their work exposed the fundamentally local character of the Revolution's animosities and did not mince words about its atrocities. The Revolution was not, as Marxist historians had claimed, the transformation of the feudal state by a newly ascendant bourgeoisie, but a bloody distortion of modernizing and liberalizing tendencies that were already at work in the ancien regime -- forces that, failing the Revolution, might very well have run their course far more effectively. The only world-historical significance the Revolution retained was to anticipate the later barbarisms committed in its name. Otherwise, it was just another detail in the "register of crimes, follies and misfortunes" that Gibbon famously declared history to be. In short, a mistake.

The book that most successfully caught the spirit of that moment in the late eighties, when revolutionary aspiration had come to seem a distraction from the business of everyday life, was Simon Schama's Citizens.1 Published to take advantage of the anniversary, Schama's book was not an original piece of historical research, but a grand and engaging synthesis of revisionist scholarship, distinguished by what can only be called aesthetic distaste before the whole phenomenon of revolution. For Schama, the French Revolution was worse than wrongheaded; it was de trop: its Rousseauian sentimentality and paranoia, the self-consciously histrionic history-making of its major and minor actors, and its rhetorical -- leave aside real -- overkill made it too deplorably melodramatic for words.

And yet, only six years later, we have a revolution breaking out in the unlikely cause of freeing us from the tyranny of welfare queens. Grotesque as it undoubtedly is, this reactionary appropriation of revolutionary rhetoric helps to reopen the question of the historical significance of revolution. Superficially, it bears out Schama's sense of the perversity, illiberalism, and vulgarity of the revolutionary spirit. But the bad faith of the Republicans should not disguise either the rootedness of the resentments they have exploited or the failure of the liberal state, so painfully apparent under the avowedly reformist Clinton administration, to establish itself as anything more than an apologist for high finance. And in this light, Schama's inquest on the French Revolution looks like an exercise in wishful thinking: far from taking the measure of revolutionary reasons and passions, he could be said to have simply averted his face from them. Is there a way to reconceive the history of revolution that will neither exempt it from its failures nor reduce it to them, but will do justice to the power it continues to exercise over our political and moral understandings? The question has come to seem urgent again.

The French Revolution -- any revolution -- is not just a sum of events, but an event in the imagination. One of the appealing things about Citizens was that Schama saw as much -- as he remarked, "It is not in the least fortuitous that the creation of the modern political world coincided precisely with the birth of the modern novel" -- and so tried to bring a novelistic breadth of conception and intensity of focus to his treatment of the Revolution. Schama's commendable ambition on this score was compromised, however, by his even greater determination to prove that the Revolution was nothing more than an outbreak of mass hysteria.

The recent book that best captures the character and import of the Revolution for our time is instead a novel, plain and simple. Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety appeared in 1992 to high acclaim in the author's native Great Britain, where she is recognized as one of the best younger novelists at work today.2 In America, however, the book has been unduly neglected. Mantel's huge, vividly intelligent book is, as she says in her introduction she hoped it would be, "a novel that gives the reader scope to change opinions, change sympathies: a book that one can live and think inside." In it, far more than in Schama's history, the French Revolution and its claims on our attention and expectation come back to life, as real and unresolved and critical as ever.

As a rule, historical novels tend to approach their subject obliquely, telling the story of little people, people like you and me, caught up in great events. By contrast, Mantel approaches her subject head on, in the naive manner of books for children and movie blockbusters. Her book covers the history of the Revolution from the financial crises of the 1780s, through the political collapse of the monarchy, to the institutionalization of the Terror from the points of view of Camille Desmoulins, Danton, and Robespierre. Inevitably, Mantel must represent them in their public roles, but she spends as much time detailing their personal lives. On the basis of the bare notices of the historical record, she has provided them with childhoods and families and the complicated triangular alliance among them that lies at the heart of her book. She has given us, in other words, a glimpse into the intimate lives of great revolutionaries.

Her book is an improbable success; one can hardly imagine an approach more likely to backfire. Major and minor figures of the Revolution -- Mirabeau, Louis Seize, Marquis de Sade, Brissot, among others -- regularly enter and exit; famous lines pop casually out of character's mouths in a way that is apt to remind the reader of one of those hokey old "You Are There" broadcasts in which Walter Cronkite, microphone in hand, would get the big interview with Christopher Columbus or Hector. Mantel pulls it off thanks to her compelling, indeed near miraculous, ability to convey the drift and substance of complex historical events and the speed she imparts to her narrative at all times. Rather in the manner of Dos Passos, her book mixes up reportage, dramatic dialogues and monologues, outtakes from the historical record, and plain old third person narrative to suggest the multiple determination and meteoric progress of the Revolution. Like the characters in the book, the reader hardly has time to consider what has happened before being overtaken by something else.

Mantel's greatest achievement, however -- and one that is all the more remarkable in light of all the simply factual information she is obliged to provide -- is her subtle command of characterization. Her book opens with a series of vignettes from the childhoods and schooldays of her famous protagonists. Desmoulins, the child of a disappointed, detached, and quizzical provincial attorney, is an uncannily clever and insolent creature with a peculiarly aggressive stutter and an androgynous appearance that matches his ambiguous sexual proclivities. Danton is a brutish but intelligent farm boy, who compensates for a lack of imagination by an excess of determination. He means to make something of himself. Robespierre is a dutiful, diligent child, left to the care of grudging relatives by his mother's death in childbirth and his father's subsequent abandonment. But Mantel does not mean these glimpses of early, and quite ordinary, disorder and sorrow to explain her characters; they serve instead as motifs, fragmentary but distinct, ready for development. She gives her characters just enough personality for us to sympathize with their desire and desperation to be something else.

For it is transformation, personal and political, that is the natural subject of Mantel's book. What interests her above all is the terra infirma between the personal and political the Revolution opens up; the way that private associations become a model for public commitments that can in turn transform the individual almost beyond recognition. (What, after all, is it to be a person? The Revolution made that an openly political question.) Her book explores such relations at first in light of the friendships that Camille strikes up with Robespierre in school and later, as a young lawyer, with Danton (or rather, since at this point he is interested in affecting respectability, d'Anton). As ever, opposites attract, and both Danton and Robespierre, stolid characters in their different ways, are attracted to Camille's uncontrollable, almost selfless recklessness. He makes concrete for them the sense that things can be other than routine, even as he sees in their greater deliberation the possibility of ballast and direction missing from his own life. Their friendship embodies in small those virtues, ambiguously public and private, that the Revolution was to apostrophize as fraternity.

If the Revolution finds its metaphorical source in the transformative regard of friendship, it takes on its distinctive shape as something else: a quest of transformation for transformation's sake. Once her characters have kicked the traces of old allegiances, it is not going somewhere but simply going that makes them run. The career of Camille, a kind of shapeshifter who can make people imagine the unimaginable, epitomizes this development. Camille's sensibility concentrates a desire for a better world with a simple lust for destruction. Mantel is at her best describing his exhilaration when he delivers the famous address at the Palais Royal that is said to have prompted the storming of the Bastille. He enjoys his sudden apotheosis all the more for his sense of its utter improbability:

    If he survives this. . . he will have to write it down, the life that feeds the writing that feeds the life to come, and already he fears he cannot describe the heat, the green leaves of the chestnut trees, the choking dust and the smell of blood and the blithe savagery of his auditors; it will be a voyage into hyperbole, an odyssey of bad taste. Cries and moans and bloody promises circle his head, a scarlet cloud, a new thin element in which he floats....
    The blood has set like marble in his veins. He means to live forever.

It is, as Camille already partly appreciates, all too good to be true.

Danton's rise to power involves a similar expansion and dissipation of identity. A family man, a man intent on succeeding at all costs, Danton's initial, sensible, impulse is to play his cards carefully so as to take advantage of the many opportunities opened by the Revolution. His discovery of his extraordinary powers of persuasion and, failing that, of physical intimidation, occurs gradually. Almost unconsciously, he picks up the knack of using the threat of violence to form connections among the Revolution's proliferating political camps. To that extent, his greater and greater involvement in Revolutionary politics is born of his belief that the Revolution will not last. At a certain point, however, he discovers that his carefully crafted role of Danton the revolutionary has become his real nature, all that he has to show for himself. It is then (1792) that he puts himself on the line and rallies the faltering revolutionary forces to resist a seemingly irresistible invasion from abroad. It is then too that he covertly acquiesces in the terrible "September massacres" of Royalist prisoners.

As these examples suggest, Mantel finds things both to deplore and admire in her characters. She is not, however, interested in issuing moral report cards on them, so much as she is in observing the process of moral definition within them and within the Revolution. The initial energies of the Revolution reflected a simple desire for change; they were reinforced by a success that promised infinite opportunities for transformation. And yet, at some point, one runs out of luck or energy or ideas. Exhilaration gives way to exhaustion. What does one do when one is no longer simply rejecting an alien and alienating past, when the burden of one's own actions comes to constitute an inescapable past of one's own? In the book, the lives of the women -- Gabrielle Danton, Lucille Desmoulins, Anne Theroigne, among others -- afford a significant sidelight on the main action, partly because, as women, they are excluded from directly enjoying the opportunities of the Revolution. More importantly, though, the exigencies of their lives -- the risks of childbirth, above all -- make clear the physical, human limits beyond which even the most radical project of self-determination cannot hope to proceed. Suffering and care will always come to circumscribe our endeavors. It is typical, however, of Mantel's acute intelligence that even this judgment, which runs the risk of fatalism, is conditional; for if women's subjection marks the limits of the revolutionary demand for change, it is also an arresting reminder of its appeal.

Danton and Desmoulins came to repent their participation in the excesses of the Revolution; they tried to reign it in, to make it livable, at the cost of their lives. Mantel's account of this very famous piece of history is surprisingly subtle: She makes Danton's great last words to the executioner -- "Show my head to the people. It's worth the trouble." -- ring with the man's extraordinary sense of occasion and courage, but with all his vanity as well. Her most brilliant and nuanced treatment of the problem of moral limitation and definition is, however, her portrait of Robespierre. Robespierre is a notoriously intractable likeness. His progress from earnest provincial lawyer, proponent before the National Assembly of a failed motion to abolish the death penalty, to mastermind of the Terror is one of the Revolution's great mysteries, one the histories tend to gloss over by simply turning him into a monster -- Carlyle's "sea-green incorruptible."

Originally published in the Summer 1995 issue of Boston Review

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