The Masses are Revolting


“Sire, come quickly! The peasants are revolting!!” You know that old joke.

Carlyle, my constant companion these days, writes of the black, sulphorous mass beneath all society, slowly rising up, for good or ill. The masses, with their red Phrygian caps of liberty, planting liberty trees everywhere, staging revolutionary spectacles on the Champs de Mars that mix royal pomp, medieval papistry, and carnival.

Gillray pilloried James Fox, yet again, by showing him as a scruffy, farting, bloodied sans cullote (in fact without [knee] breeches, not without pants, but Gillray can’t let such a chance go) shouting Ca Ira!, [It will go well!] loosely translated here:

We’ll string up the aristocrats!
Despotism will die,
Liberty will triumph
“We will win, we will win, we will win,”

And we will no longer have nobles or priests
“We will win, we will win, we will win,””
Equality will reign throughout the land

And the Austrian slave will follow it.
“We will win, we will win, we will win,”

zenith_gillray.jpg And here is Gillray showing the zenith of the glorious revolution, speaking of stringing up people on the Lanterne as Carlyle refers to the lampost cum lynching post.

Was this the true birth of mass society? The rule of the mass-mob-demos-and consumer? Carlyle devotes a chapter to journalism of the day – it was everywhere:

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… Constant, illuminative, as the nightly lamplighter, issues the useful Moniteur, for it is now become diurnal: with facts and few commentaries; official, safe in the middle…

A daily newspaper! The Moniteur. Faithfully reporting the news so that I, centuries later, sunk in my collegiate ennui, deep down in the third sub-basement of the library, can happen upon its collected numbers, bound, gilt-edged, in tattered leather covers, and turn hopefully to the news of January 21, 1793, and read of the execution by guillotine of Louis Capet. (Where did I put that photocopy?)

And news for all!

Nor esteem it small what those Bill-stickers had to do in Paris: above Three Score of them: all with their crosspoles, haversacks, pastepots; nay with leaden badges, for the Municipality licenses them. A Sacred College, properly of World-rulers’ Heralds, though not respected as such, in an Era still incipient and raw. Such is Journalism, hawked, pasted, spoken. How changed…since the first Venetian News-sheet was sold for a gazza, or farthing, and named Gazette! We live in a fertile world.

Mass journalism, for anyone with half a penny. Posters, placards, propaganda on parade. The satirical prints of the day were more scatalogical than Gillray’s by far! The revolution sought to manage information, to create its record consciously.

And what of Ortega y Gasset, author of The Revolt of the Masses? He despised the mass-man, but like Flaubert, did not identify him with an economic strata, but as a type. (Flaubert: I despise the bourgeois in a worker’s smock as well as the one in a top hat!) Could it be that Ortega is writing about the genesis of kitschman?

He felt that history was moved by aristocrats, the Nietzchean supermen, the special ones, but why did he feel that? Because the movement of history was marked by the “progress” in things he valued. What about movement for its own sake? What if history just moves, never progresses? No theory, no subject class, just one darn thing after another. And the mass-men, the sans cullottes, Carlyle’s hero-men, they all play their part.

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