August 10, 2010

Another visit to a museum after Spanish class – this time to the Frick.  Madame d’Haussonville is ever watchful, and I still cannot figure out how her eyes follow one no matter from which side you look at her.  My brain was very much softened by the oppressive heat and humidity here – I saw correspondences everywhere!

Do I imagine them only?

Looking at the Old Testament stalwart by El greco brought Samuel Beckett, a very different sort of seer, to mind.

The pictorial source for the famous pose of the female at the center of J. L. David’s Rape of the Sabines has been documented as deriving from my favorite cartoonist, James Gillray, but did Gillray get his idea from…Fragonard of all people?  Can you imagine a more bizarre commutation of ideas:  rococo Fragonard  —>  acerbic, TORY, and hilarious Gillray —> righteous revolutionary propagandist, David??!

And just what is the meaning of the gleaming white silk dress that George Romney has painted onto Lady Warwick’s otherwise unimpressive figure?  An entire painting about a fabric?  Do you get to be a Lord or a Lady if you can illuminate your surroundings that way?

At the Metropolitan

May 1, 2010

Some images from my most recent visit, all taken in ambient light, so pardon the fuzziness.  Flashes are not allowed.  Some images are linked to others if you click them.

L) My kind of interior – dizzying, isn’t it?    R) Lombard tryptich – click for more info.

Back view of a Chinese  stele with multiple images of the Buddha.

Samurai daggers and sword, objects of incredible beauty and precision.  Click to enlarge.

From an altarpiece by Lorenzo Monaco, one of my favorite artists.  Note Abraham with the flaming sword, and Isaac, in the upper right.  Click for more info.

Those northern mannerists!  They’re weird, but I love them.    Oil on copper plate, for a piece of furniture.  Click for more info.

A favorite of mine, Antoine Lavoisier and his wife, Prima della rivoluzione by that propagandist for 1789, Jacques Louis David.  Carlyle had fun with him and his revolutionary fervor.  Antoine was not so lucky.  He, a liberal, was guillotined by the radicals – dare I call them terroristes? – just leave it at Jacobins.   His wife survived.  Madison Smartt Bell has written a nice capsule biography of him, his monumental contribution to the creation of modern chemistry, and his destruction in those chaotic times, Lavoisier in the Year One.

The imminence of the divine, by an artist in Verrochio’s worshop [full image], a teacher of Leonardo.  From here to 2001 is not such a stretch – click to see why.  And to the right, the floor, mundane, just for balance…


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.


August 12, 2009


On NPR today, I heard an interview with a Marine Colonel directing American forces in Afghanistan against the Taliban.  He remarked on the nature of the countryside in which they were fighting, describing it as some of the most difficult you could imagine in which to wage a counter-insurgency effort.  The countryside is divided up into squares that are bounded by trees and shrubs, providing cover for small bands of fighters, and making movement of his troops slow and dangerous.  The description matches exactly that of Balzac’s portrait of Brittany in his historical novel, The Chouans.

This was Balzac’s first entry into his monumental cycle of novels, and it is his only in his projected “scenes of military life.”  It tells the story of brutal guerilla warfare between the agents of the infant French Republic, and the rebellious people of Brittany who, like the great Vendee, fought the authority of the Paris government and supported the return of the king.  The novel is heavily influenced by the work of Walter Scott, and it is remarkable, I thought, for its gritty and believable portrayal of a bloody provincial civil war.

Balzac’s politics were “conservative” after a fashion, he was a monarchist, but he plays fair.  The Chouans are often shown as bloodthirsty, ignorant, bestial peasants led by noblemen with various degrees of integrity and clergy who seem to be mentally in the middle ages.  The Republicans are led by Commandant Hulot, an impressive, honorable, and laconic man who lives again, and dies, an old decorated soldier in the magnifient novel, Cousin Bette. But there is also Corentin, a cold, devious, unprincipled spy for the Republic’s police, who cares nothing for honor, and would turn his coat for the right price, or the right woman delivered to his bed.  In his introductory role in Balzac’s comedy, he is an incroyable, one of the enthusiasts of the first revolutionary days known for their outrageous and scandalous dress, and he reappears much later in A Harlot High and Low, where he meets his match in Vautrin, the arch-criminal.

The novel turns on the romantic and machiavellian actions of a central female, Marie de Verneuil, a pre-cinema Bond-girl.  Is she a whore, a noblewoman, a spy, a republican, a royalist?  All of the above?  She is destroyed by the deadly game she plays, one that will not make space for a deep and true love that is beyond, or above, politics.  Or is that just too sentimental, and does she deserve everything she gets?  You decide.

Robespierre, I will drink the hemlock with thee!

March 10, 2008

Death of Socrates by J. L. David

The Revolution is running its course, the God, Revolt, is devouring its children. Robespierre reigns supreme at the helm of the Committee for Public Safety, but he is troubled. Enemies of the Revolution are everywhere:

Meanwhile Robespierre, we still observe, goes little to Convention, not at all to Committee; speaks nothing except to his Jacobin House of Lords, amid his bodyguard of Tappe-durs …The Incorruptible himself sits apart; or is seen stalking in solitary places in the fields, with an intensely meditative air … Art not thou he who, few years ago, was a young Advocate of promise; and gave up the Arras Judgeship rather than sentence one man to die?—

The men in charge all fear for their lives. Like the circle around Stalin, it could be the turn of any of them to next make a trip in the tumbril to a rendezvous with Madame Guillotine. Still, life goes on – one cannot cower in fear in a corner all day:

…there was a remarkable bachelor’s dinner one hot day at Barrere’s … But at this dinner we speak of, the day being so hot, it is said, the guests all stript their coats, and left them in the drawing-room: whereupon Carnot [his son would practicly invent the science of heat, thermodynamics] glided out; groped in Robespierre’s pocket; found a list of Forty, his own name among them; and tarried not at the wine-cup that day!

And so, out of self-preservation, the men will act to defang the tyrant Robespierre. Good Soviet men only dreamed of killing Stalin – nobody had the nerve! A fatal encounter, at which Maximilien addresses the conspirators against him:

Long-winded, unmelodious as the screech-owl’s, sounds that prophetic voice: Degenerate condition of Republican spirit; corrupt moderatism; Surete, Salut Committees themselves infected; back-sliding on this hand and on that; I, Maximilien, alone left incorruptible, ready to die at a moment’s warning. For all which what remedy is there? The Guillotine; new vigour to the all-healing Guillotine: death to traitors of every hue! So sings the prophetic voice; into its Convention sounding-board. The old song this: but to-day, O Heavens! has the sounding-board ceased to act?

Well, the jig is up, but some people have timing that is a bit off. The ever ready painter, Jacques Louis David declares:

Robespierre, I will drink the hemlock with thee,” “Je boirai la cigue avec toi;

As Carlyle drily notes:

—a thing not essential to do, but which, in the fire of the moment, can be said.

Perhaps David’s timing was better than it seemed. He was always able to adapt, to wiggle through. At the other end of the tunnel he paints the light that shone over France. From propagandist of the high ideals of revolution to image maker of the imperial order.

Robespierre, condemned, tries to blow his brains out but fails, destroying only his jaw. He spends a night in agony and then meets his fate on the platform of the guillotine.

J. L. David - Coronation of Napoleon (detail)

Terror Neat, Please

March 8, 2008

Medusa Cellini

As readers of my drivel know, I have a fondness for extreme political rhetoric, the more apocalyptic the better. There is also a bizarre frisson to be had from the prose of political “theorists” who stare down the abyss of terrorism, and find it good. Maximilien Robespierre is one of the best (emphasis mine):

The two opposing spirits that have been represented in a struggle to rule nature might be said to be fighting in this great period of human history to fix irrevocably the world’s destinies, and France is the scene of this fearful combat. Without, all the tyrants encircle you; within, all tyranny’s friends conspire; they will conspire until hope is wrested from crime. We must smother the internal and external enemies of the Republic or perish with it; now in this situation, the first maxim of your policy ought to be to lead the people by reason and the people’s enemies by terror.

If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most urgent needs.

There you have it. The Last Days are upon us, and the battle between good and evil will be resolved. Enemies are everywhere – anyone could be a traitor. There is a need for merciless terror, but it is virtuous. With such axioms and logic, almost anything can be justified.

I love the formula by which he clearly demonstrates that terror is justice. I am fascinated by the tone of the piece – so elevated, alluding to the revered, shared values of the classical past. It brings to mind that wonderful piece by the ever able propagandist for the revolution, and later, for Napoleon, Jacques Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii. Can we be so virtuous? We can, we must, but we must not flinch from the use of terror!

As the history of revolution moseys along, things change a bit. Here’s V. I. Lenin:

“We will turn our hearts into steel, which we will temper in the fire of suffering and the blood of fighters for freedom. We will make our hearts cruel, hard, and immovable, so that no mercy will enter them, and so that they will not quiver at the sight of a sea of enemy blood. We will let loose the floodgates of that sea. Without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds. Let them be thousands; let them drown themselves in their own blood.

Sounds so much more emotional than Robespierre. Who knew Lenin was so romantic? Almost biblical, could easily have come from the mouth of Martin Luther, mutatis mutandis. Ah, this is more like it:

“We stand for organized terror – this should be frankly admitted. Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution.

Here, however, Trotsky waffles a bit:

Our class enemies are in the habit of complaining about our terrorism. What they mean by this is rather unclear. They would like to label all the activities of the proletariat directed against the class enemy s interests as terrorism.

Whatever the eunuchs and pharisees of morality may say, the feeling of revenge has its rights.

If we oppose terrorist acts, it is only because individual revenge does not satisfy us. The account we have to settle with the capitalist system is too great to be presented to some functionary called a minister.

What bothers me is the drift away from aesthetically pleasing moral certitude that Robespierre states so succinctly. Lenin and Trotsky argue. Maybe they felt guilty. The ends justify the means, but all that blood! Stalin was a stronger man, but not so eloquent.

Finally, we get the degenerate prose and rhetoric of the apologists for terror of the 40s to the 60s; the supporters of Stalin and his successors who were repelled by the violence of the Soviet State, but wished to portray it as somehow necessary, or no worse than the concealed violence of the capitalist regimes. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, with his Humanism and Terror is prominent here. Why not just come out and say YES to terror?  “I’ll take my terror neat, please.”

I’m not trying to knock the left here, though it might seem that way. It’s just that liberal-socialist-marxist thinkers have a professed committment to reason, so they have to argue for the goodness of killing women, children, innocent men, etc. They have to show that in the end, it’s all for the best, sort of like Pangloss proved in Candide. This perversion of rationality is what intrigues me. Except for Ayn Rand, I cannot think of people on the right who do the same. (She perverted rationality, but I don’t know that she supported terror.) When they plunk down for terror, they usually do it out of blood lust, romantic hero worship, satanic apocalyptic yearnings, or unutterably sick, evil, and convoluted workings out of their own psychological problems. Many vicious fascists, anti-semites, Nazi fellow travellers fit this bill.

The Masses are Revolting

February 14, 2008


“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.