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)