Anti-Jacobin!

April 16, 2010

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.

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A Peep…

November 20, 2007

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Foul things lurk in the dark, damp caves of seditious politics! If my ignorance of Latin doesn’t hobble me too much, it says on the right, “Truth is great, and will prevail.”  (The thumbnail gives a larger and more clear uncolored image of this wonderful print by James Gillray.)

This print is from the Anti-Jacobin review, a journal dedicated to combating liberal and revolutionary sympathies in England in the last decade of the 18th century. All sorts of good people were pilloried in its articles. James Gillray was, for part of his career, in the pay of the Tory party, not an unusual arrangement for a satirist in those days.

Gillray, however, even as he took one side in his work, was not likely to let the other side off easily. In the print below, he shows Price, a well known liberal divine, surprised in his study as he pens subversive, “revolutionist” texts. And who, or what!, is finding him out? Edmund Burke, the famous conservative, here represented primarily by his nose. (Compare to the contemporary portrait detail shown below.) As the Gillray collector and scholar, Draper Hill, remarked,

“with typical ambiguity, the content of the engraving is critical of Price but the form ridicules Burke.”

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For a wealth of images and background on Gillray, visit this excellent online gallery: New York Public Library – Gillray

Here are the notes on the image above:

Although originally a Whig and a supporter of the American Revolution, statesman and celebrated orator Edmund Burke warned that the French Revolution would lead to the collapse of order and an outbreak of regicide and atheism. Reduced here to a pair of peering spectacles, a prying nose, and a pair of tiny hands wielding a crown and a crucifix, Burke split with the Whigs and by 1792 had allied himself with the Tory leader, William Pitt. The “rat” upon whom Burke spies is the Dissenting, radical clergyman Dr. Richard Price. Gillray imagines Price at work on an imaginary essay “On the Benefits of Anarchy Regicide Atheism,” with a picture of the execution of Charles I hanging over his desk. Price’s actual sermon before the reformist Revolution Society, which praised the French Revolution and its ideals of liberty, and championed an elective monarchy, provoked Burke to write Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). While Burke’s essay was probably instrumental in changing Gillray’s attitude toward the French Revolution, the artist chose to portray Burke as a crazed fanatic. As Draper Hill has commented, “with typical ambiguity, the content of the engraving is critical of Price but the form ridicules Burke.”