Sunday, 21 September 2008

Carlyle's French Revolution: 3 Champ-de-Mars

Whistler painted Carlyle, I find:

So now we know Carlyle had a beard and didn’t shave his head. The fact is, painted portraits don't often tell us much.

To our real business. In his set-piece scenes Carlyle’s history is as gripping as a Scott novel -- as he explicitly intended. Here’s one. (As my intention here is mainly to give the flavour of the book with a few selected passages, in the hope of convincing somebody that it’s worth reading, and even reading out in school, I'll print the extract below without comment.) It's from Part II Book I Chapter 12 (p298 in The Modern Library); Chapter 2.1.XII in Gutenberg online.

The background: In an uprush of patriotic fervour, all France is to swear a universal oath of brotherhood on the anniversary of the Fall of the Bastille, on 14th July 1790, in Paris on the Champ-de-Mars, which superhuman efforts by an enthusiastic populace have prepared for the great event, converting the Field of Mars into an amphitheatre. On the morning of what became known as the Feast of Pikes, cold for July though it is,…

Two hundred thousand Patriotic Men; and, twice as good, one hundred thousand Patriotic Women, all decked and glorified as one can fancy, sit waiting in this Champ-de-Mars.

….On the heights of Chaillot are many-coloured undulating groups; round and far on, over all the circling heights that embosom Paris, it is as one more or less peopled Amphitheatre; which the eye grows dim with measuring. Nay heights, as was before hinted, have cannon; and a floating-battery of cannon is on the Seine. When eye fails, ear shall serve; and all France properly is but one Amphitheatre: for in paved town and unpaved hamlet, men walk listening; till the muffled thunder sound audible on their horizon, that they too may begin swearing and firing! (Deux Amis, v. 168.) But now, to streams of music, come Federates enough,—for they have assembled on the Boulevard Saint-Antoine or thereby, and come marching through the City, with their Eighty-three Department Banners, and blessings not loud but deep; comes National Assembly, and takes seat under its Canopy; comes Royalty, and takes seat on a throne beside it. And Lafayette, on white charger, is here, and all the civic Functionaries; and the Federates form dances, till their strictly military evolutions and manoeuvres can begin.

Evolutions and manoeuvres? Task not the pen of mortal to describe them: truant imagination droops;—declares that it is not worth while. There is wheeling and sweeping, to slow, to quick, and double quick-time: Sieur Motier, or Generalissimo Lafayette, for they are one and the same, and he is General of France, in the King's stead, for four-and-twenty hours; Sieur Motier must step forth, with that sublime chivalrous gait of his; solemnly ascend the steps of the Fatherland's Altar, in sight of Heaven and of the scarcely breathing Earth; and, under the creak of those swinging Cassolettes, 'pressing his sword's point firmly there,' pronounce the Oath, To King, to Law, and Nation (not to mention 'grains' with their circulating), in his own name and that of armed France. Whereat there is waving of banners and acclaim sufficient. The National Assembly must swear, standing in its place; the King himself audibly. The King swears; and now be the welkin split with vivats; let citizens enfranchised embrace, each smiting heartily his palm into his fellow's; and armed Federates clang their arms; above all, that floating battery speak! It has spoken,—to the four corners of France. From eminence to eminence, bursts the thunder; faint-heard, loud-repeated. What a stone, cast into what a lake; in circles that do not grow fainter. From Arras to Avignon; from Metz to Bayonne! Over Orleans and Blois it rolls, in cannon-recitative; Puy bellows of it amid his granite mountains; Pau where is the shell-cradle of Great Henri. At far Marseilles, one can think, the ruddy evening witnesses it; over the deep-blue Mediterranean waters, the Castle of If ruddy-tinted darts forth, from every cannon's mouth, its tongue of fire; and all the people shout: Yes, France is free. O glorious France that has burst out so; into universal sound and smoke; and attained—the Phrygian Cap of Liberty! In all Towns, Trees of Liberty also may be planted; with or without advantage. Said we not, it is the highest stretch attained by the Thespian Art on this Planet, or perhaps attainable?

The Thespian Art, unfortunately, one must still call it; for behold there, on this Field of Mars, the National Banners, before there could be any swearing, were to be all blessed. A most proper operation; since surely without Heaven's blessing bestowed, say even, audibly or inaudibly sought, no Earthly banner or contrivance can prove victorious: but now the means of doing it? By what thrice-divine Franklin thunder-rod shall miraculous fire be drawn out of Heaven; and descend gently, life-giving, with health to the souls of men? Alas, by the simplest: by Two Hundred shaven-crowned Individuals, 'in snow-white albs, with tricolor girdles,' arranged on the steps of Fatherland's Altar; and, at their head for spokesman, Soul's Overseer Talleyrand-Perigord! These shall act as miraculous thunder-rod,—to such length as they can. O ye deep azure Heavens, and thou green all-nursing Earth; ye Streams ever-flowing; deciduous Forests that die and are born again, continually, like the sons of men; stone Mountains that die daily with every rain-shower, yet are not dead and levelled for ages of ages, nor born again (it seems) but with new world-explosions, and such tumultuous seething and tumbling, steam half way to the Moon; O thou unfathomable mystic All, garment and dwellingplace of the UNNAMED; O spirit, lastly, of Man, who mouldest and modellest that Unfathomable Unnameable even as we see,—is not there a miracle: That some French mortal should, we say not have believed, but pretended to imagine that he believed that Talleyrand and Two Hundred pieces of white Calico could do it!

Here, however, we are to remark with the sorrowing Historians of that day, that suddenly, while Episcopus Talleyrand, long-stoled, with mitre and tricolor belt, was yet but hitching up the Altar-steps, to do his miracle, the material Heaven grew black; a north-wind, moaning cold moisture, began to sing; and there descended a very deluge of rain. Sad to see! The thirty-staired Seats, all round our Amphitheatre, get instantaneously slated with mere umbrellas, fallacious when so thick set: our antique Cassolettes become Water-pots; their incense-smoke gone hissing, in a whiff of muddy vapour. Alas, instead of vivats, there is nothing now but the furious peppering and rattling. From three to four hundred thousand human individuals feel that they have a skin; happily impervious. The General's sash runs water: how all military banners droop; and will not wave, but lazily flap, as if metamorphosed into painted tin-banners! Worse, far worse, these hundred thousand, such is the Historian's testimony, of the fairest of France! Their snowy muslins all splashed and draggled; the ostrich feather shrunk shamefully to the backbone of a feather: all caps are ruined; innermost pasteboard molten into its original pap: Beauty no longer swims decorated in her garniture, like Love-goddess hidden-revealed in her Paphian clouds, but struggles in disastrous imprisonment in it, for 'the shape was noticeable;' and now only sympathetic interjections, titterings, teeheeings, and resolute good-humour will avail. A deluge; an incessant sheet or fluid-column of rain;—such that our Overseer's very mitre must be filled; not a mitre, but a filled and leaky fire-bucket on his reverend head!—Regardless of which, Overseer Talleyrand performs his miracle: the Blessing of Talleyrand, another than that of Jacob, is on all the Eighty-three departmental flags of France; which wave or flap, with such thankfulness as needs. Towards three o'clock, the sun beams out again: the remaining evolutions can be transacted under bright heavens, though with decorations much damaged. (Deux Amis, v. 143-179.)….

In this way, and in such ways, however, has the Feast of Pikes danced itself off; gallant Federates wending homewards, towards every point of the compass, with feverish nerves, heart and head much heated; some of them, indeed, as Dampmartin's elderly respectable friend, from Strasbourg, quite 'burnt out with liquors,' and flickering towards extinction. (Dampmartin, Evénemens, i. 144-184.) The Feast of Pikes has danced itself off, and become defunct, and the ghost of a Feast;—nothing of it now remaining but this vision in men's memory; and the place that knew it (for the slope of that Champ-de-Mars is crumbled to half the original height (Dulaure, Histoire de Paris, viii. 25).) now knowing it no more. Undoubtedly one of the memorablest National Hightides. Never or hardly ever, as we said, was Oath sworn with such heart-effusion, emphasis and expenditure of joyance; and then it was broken irremediably within year and day. Ah, why? When the swearing of it was so heavenly-joyful, bosom clasped to bosom, and Five-and-twenty million hearts all burning together: O ye inexorable Destinies, why?—Partly because it was sworn with such over-joyance; but chiefly, indeed, for an older reason: that Sin had come into the world and Misery by Sin! These Five-and-twenty millions, if we will consider it, have now henceforth, with that Phrygian Cap of theirs, no force over them, to bind and guide; neither in them, more than heretofore, is guiding force, or rule of just living: how then, while they all go rushing at such a pace, on unknown ways, with no bridle, towards no aim, can hurlyburly unutterable fail? For verily not Federation-rosepink is the colour of this Earth and her work: not by outbursts of noble-sentiment, but with far other ammunition, shall a man front the world.

But how wise, in all cases, to 'husband your fire;' to keep it deep down, rather, as genial radical-heat! Explosions, the forciblest, and never so well directed, are questionable; far oftenest futile, always frightfully wasteful: but think of a man, of a Nation of men, spending its whole stock of fire in one artificial Firework! So have we seen fond weddings (for individuals, like Nations, have their Hightides) celebrated with an outburst of triumph and deray, at which the elderly shook their heads. Better had a serious cheerfulness been; for the enterprise was great. Fond pair! the more triumphant ye feel, and victorious over terrestrial evil, which seems all abolished, the wider-eyed will your disappointment be to find terrestrial evil still extant. "And why extant?" will each of you cry: "Because my false mate has played the traitor: evil was abolished; I meant faithfully, and did, or would have done." Whereby the oversweet moon of honey changes itself into long years of vinegar; perhaps divulsive vinegar, like Hannibal's.

Shall we say then, the French Nation has led Royalty, or wooed and teased poor Royalty to lead her, to the hymeneal Fatherland's Altar, in such oversweet manner; and has, most thoughtlessly, to celebrate the nuptials with due shine and demonstration,—burnt her bed?

Carlyle’s comment on all this: It was nothing but empty theatre, ‘the highest stretch attained by the Thespian Art on this Planet, or perhaps attainable?’

How true also… is it that no man or Nation of men, conscious of doing a great thing, was ever, in that thing, doing other than a small one! (286-Chapter 2.1.IX)

He contrasts the meaninglessness of such national theatricals with real historical movements such as the earlier uprising of the women of Paris who had marched to Versailles demanding bread:

‘Pardonable are human theatricalities; nay perhaps touching, like the passionate utterance of a tongue which with sincerity stammers; of a head which with insincerity babbles,—having gone distracted. Yet, in comparison with unpremeditated outbursts of Nature, such as an Insurrection of Women, how foisonless, unedifying, undelightful; like small ale palled, like an effervescence that has effervesced! Such scenes, coming of forethought, were they world-great, and never so cunningly devised, are at bottom mainly pasteboard and paint. But the others are original; emitted from the great everliving heart of Nature herself: what figure they will assume is unspeakably significant. To us, therefore, let the French National Solemn League, and Federation, be the highest recorded triumph of the Thespian Art; triumphant surely, since the whole Pit, which was of Twenty-five Millions, not only claps hands, but does itself spring on the boards and passionately set to playing there. And being such, be it treated as such: with sincere cursory admiration; with wonder from afar. A whole Nation gone mumming deserves so much; but deserves not that loving minuteness a Menadic Insurrection did.’

Unlike real historical developments, the Feast of Pikes, colossal spectacle though it was, meant nothing and had no consequences. Anarchy took its course: 'These Five-and-twenty millions, if we will consider it, have now henceforth, with that Phrygian Cap of theirs, no force over them, to bind and guide' -- the immensity and unprecedented nature of this historical upsurge is one of his great themes.

Carlyle’s other observation worth noting: the fatuity of the artificial religious ritual -- he will have more to say of that later, when the Revolution sets up the Goddess of Reason.

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