One of the themes that swirls around my empty head endlessly is the French Revolution and The Terror. Not really surprising that I should be transfixed by it – it held men and women in thrall in its day and long after. And, of course, it seems to embody that political/moral question of the place of violence so well. And then, there’s Gillray.
The image above is from a bound collection of the Anti-Jacobin Review that I just purchased. James Gillray was commissioned to illustrate it, but after the first few months, his cartoons were dropped. The Jacobins were the radical element among the revolutionaries, named after their clubhouse on the Rue St. Jacques. The allegory depicted, “A peep into the Cave of Jacobinism,” shows Truth scaring the bejeezus out of Sedition, whose human mask drops away to reveal a monstrous creep, while the light of Truth’s lamp sets his anarchistic, murderous tracts aflame. For a version with original coloring, visit this post.
Like many Englishmen, Gillray sympathized with the French Revolution at first, but then turned against it as it grew more radical. Being a genius, even when he is at his most partisan and propagandistic, he is powerful, often hilarious, and just plain fascinating. I can’t wait to read the articles and poems in this volume! Will they rise to the level of Burke’s Reflections or will they comprise the reactionary froth of intellects at the level of Rush Limbaugh?
And of whom do we think when we are thinking about The Terror? Robespierre, of course. I am reading some of his works right now, in a book named after his most famous phrase, Virtue and Terror, presented by Slavoj Zizek, a radical celebrity, I have now learned. In his intro, Zizek recalls the oft repeated circumstances of Robespierre’s death. He was captured in a raid on his club, and his jaw was broken. At the guillotine, the bandages around his head that kept his jaw in place interfered with his getting properly seated in the apparatus, so the executioner ripped it off of him. His horrible piercing scream sounds through history, and is mentioned by Simon Schama (Citizens) among others. Zizek comments that many – all bourgeois, of course – seek to interpret this scream as the release of Robespierre’s horrible inner spirit, the revelation of his true nature in extremis. I thought of it that way.
Now that I’ve read a few of his speeches, I think better of Maximilian. His speech on granting voting rights to actors and Jews is a well reasoned attack on prejudice and humbug. He tirade against the war party in the National Assembly – he was a committed pacifist – is a fine analysis of the terrible costs of war, costs that he felt were justified only as a means of national defense. Still, there is that Terror, and those speeches equating terror and virtue, the guillotine as a sort of social tough love.
Zizek realizes that Robespierre is a problem for the radical left, and he rightly states that the Left must deal with him, or suffer the attacks of bourgeois critics who will use him as a way to beat the entire radical program into the ground. After all, nobodywants to be seen as the party of Robespierre! His lengthy essay on this problem is frequently incomprehensible and ranges widely. I was tickled to see that he endorses something that I have often posited as a potential consequence of current trends in radical green-thought, known as deep ecology, a science fiction type dictatorship of the ecologists.
He says – Terror is one of the four moments (Alain Badiou) of revolutionary-democratic terror that opposes itself to the excesses of egalitarian democracy. These moments are the only way to counter the threat of ecological catastrophe that looms over our horizon. (I’m sure he’s devoted a lot of thought to the scientific issues involved here…) And what is terror but the ruthless punishment of all who violate the imposed protective measures.
This seems to be a common way for these radical thinkers to elide the serious moral stain of terror and its bloodshed. They always associate it with something we take for granted – punishment of law breakers, for example. And in that future eco-world, having three children, burning some coal, breathing too much? maybe will be a capital offense. After all, mustn’t the community protect and police itself? Recall, Robespierre was the head of the Committee for Public Safety! And so, one of my favorite books in college that entranced me with its over-the-top rhetoric was Henri Lefevre’s Everyday Life in the Modern World, in which he labels our society a terroristic society of controlled and enforced consumption. Terror is nothing but the radical and sudden restructuring of the rules of life in line with a new program, and isn’t that what every advertiser would like? All life directed towards the buying of his or her products? I think the inmates at the Lubyanka prison would not have agreed.