La Nuit de Varennes


Incompetence among the ruling elite is not new to the world with the administration of GWB. No, it is as old as government. [As Milos Forman said in a radio interview yesterday, “Wise authority, I like, but you so rarely get that!] Louis XVI dithered and dallied as the ancien regime collapsed into a molten puddle around him. To flee? Stay put? So hard to tell, to decide! Finally, he agrees to bolt from Paris with his family, and the tale is one of the most lively passages of Carlyle’s history of the revolution.

Nothing went quite right. Why did the king flee in a huge, elaborate carriage with full escort? Why was an escort sent out ahead, exciting and alerting the suspicions of the populace? The carriage was sooo slow, and it left late. The queen had to have her luggage and her waiting maids. The king’s profile was recognized by a wily patriot who checked it against his likeness on a bank note he had, and he sounded the alarm, quietly. That is, he and a companion took horse to follow the wagon train and caught up with it at Varennes where the king was finally taken into custody.

Ettore Scola presented it all wonderfully in his film that has the name of this post, and Harvey Keitel plays Tom Paine, whom Carlyle calls the rebellious Needleman. Even then, when they were discovered and confronted, Carlyle muses that the king, if he had been resolute, if he had called upon the deep reserves of awe for his royal person that were still present in the Patriot People, might have saved himself with a quick and commanding action and left his stunned would-be captors behind. One of those what ifs for the counter-factualists.

But no, Carlyle subscribes to Lichanos’ Iron Law of Causation. He writes:

…did the World’s History depend on an hour, that hour is not to be given. Whereby, indeed, it comes that these same would-have-beens are mostly a vanity; and the World’s History could never in the least be what it would, or might, or should, by any manner of potentiality, but simply and altogether what it is.

…Alas, it was not in the poor phlegmatic man. Had it been in him, French History had never come under this Varennes Archway to decide itself.

It had to happen that way because that’s what happened.


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