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Friday, May 13, 2011

Beginnings (15)—Michelet's History of the French Revolution

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[a] 1792   RF

Summer's coming. At this time of year, as I wind down my teaching activities—turning in grades, sorting through files, and generally getting ready for a summer filled with a different kind of work—I think of Jules Michelet. I can't help it. Ever since I first read the preface to his History of the French Revolution, I have been convinced that he had the highest purpose of us all while he was "descending from [his] chair," cleaning out his desk drawers, and arranging his papers in anticipation of "break."
Most of us are wondering whether we will have commencement outside or in the gym. Michelet (who held the Chair of History at the Collège de France during two decades in the middle of the nineteenth century) thought Big Thoughts. 
In the following lines, Michelet mixes a tranquil picture of summer life in a university town with the themes of the Revolution (there was only one for Michelet). The entire preface is long and searching, and we will only cover the first few paragraphs of it. Even in this snippet, you will still see many of the historical themes with which people in all walks of life struggled during the nineteenth century. You will also see the hope and optimism that is vintage Michelet.
The translation was made in 1847 by an Englishman, Charles Cocks. It was modified by the esteemed American historian of France, Gordon Wood, in the 1960s. As Wright notes in his own introduction, the 1840s prose of the translation gives a nice "feel" for the tone of Michelet's writing.
And do be aware that when he speaks of descending from his chair, he is speaking in the rich tones of synecdoche. "Chair" refers not (only) to the thing in which one sits, but to the "professorial chair" from which one is given rein to pontificate within and beyond the university (or Collège).

Jules Michelet 
History of the French Revolution
Every year, when I descend from my chair, at the close of my academic labours, when I see the crowd disperse,—another generation that I shall behold no more,—my mind is lost in inward contemplation.
Summer comes on; the town is less peopled, the streets are less noisy, the pavement grows more sonorous around my Pantheon. Its large black and white slabs resound beneath my feet.
I commune with my own mind. I interrogate myself as to my teaching, my history, and its all-powerful interpreter,—the spirit of the Revolution.

It possesses a knowledge of which others are ignorant. It contains the secret of all bygone times. In it alone France became conscious of herself. When, in a moment of weakness, we may appear forgetful of our own worth, it is to this point that we should recur in order to seek and recover ourselves again. Here, the inextinguishable spark, the profound mystery of life, is ever glowing within us.
The Revolution lives in ourselves,—in our souls; it has no outward monument. Living spirit of France, that have succeeded each other, hostile in all other respects, appear at least agreed in this, to resuscitate, to awaken remote and departed ages. But thee they would have wished to bury. Yet why? Thou, thou alone dost live.
Thou livest! I feel this truth perpetually impressed upon me at the present period of the year, when my teaching is suspended,—when labour grows fatiguing, and the season becomes oppressive. Then I wander to the Champ de Mars, I sit me down on the parched grass, and inhale the strong breeze that is wafted across the arid  plain.
The Champ de Mars! This is the only monument that the Revolution has left. The Empire has its Column, and engrosses almost exclusively the arch of Triumph; royalty has its Louvre, it Hospital of Invalids; the feudal church of the twelfth century is still enthroned at Notre Dame: nay, the very Romans have their Imperial Ruins, the Thermae of the Caesars!
And the Revolution has for her monument—empty space.
Her monument is this sandy plain, flat as Arabia. A tumulus on either hand, resembling those which Gaul was accustomed to erect,—obscure and equivocal testimonial to her heroes' fame.
The Hero! do you mean him who founded the bridge of Jena? No, there is one here greater even than he, more powerful and more immortal, who fills this immensity.

"What God? We know not. But here a God doth dwell."
Yes, though a forgetful generation dares to select this spot for the theatre of its vain amusements, borrowed from a foreign land,—though the English race-horse may gallop insolently over the plain, a mighty breath yet traverses it, such as you nowhere else perceive; a soul, and a spirit omnipotent.
And though that plain be arid, and the grass be withered, it will one day, renew its verdure.
[c] Liberté, egalité, fraternité    RF
For in that soil is profoundly mingled the fruitful sweat of their brows who, on a sacred day, piled up those hills,—that day when, aroused by the cannon of the Bastille, France from the North and France from the South came forward and embraced; that day when three million heroes in arms rose with the unanimity of one man, and decreed eternal peace.
Alas! poor Revolution. How confidingly on they first day didst though invite the world to love and peace. "O my enemies," didst though exclaim, "there are no longer any enemies!" Thou didst stretch forth they hand to all, and offer them thy cup to drink to the peace of nations—but they would not...

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