Many, many, many thanks to estellacat who helped, re-read, corrected (I speak French – this is the first essay I ever write in English), checked back the quotes and extracts, translated most dialogue from La Terreur et la Vertu in English, which I had typed in French while listening the film, and all the quotes from Saint-Just’s writings. It had to be perfect – because Saint-Just is worth it. This essay was written in two days (first time I ever write so much that fast as well!) and during a very, very long night (I believe I went to bed at 7am, after typing all those quotes from Saint-Just’s writings). Took a week to get the final results you're now soon about to read. Two or three parts were added and re-worked after my extended comments with victoriavandal and Sibylla as can be read here (that thread inspired me).
NOTE 1: My thoughts on La Terreur et la Vertu in the final paragraph were written before I find a link online to the second film. Hence my joy when I did.
NOTE 2: I overlooked Saint-Just’s physical appearance in the docudrama: for example, the fact that they gave him an emo haircut (!!!) when it wouldn’t have been so complicated to curl up his hair a bit and cut them accurately – nobody had bangs like that in the 18th century! In fact, it’s far for being an innocent choice. Like trf_chan points out in her review, this docudrama aims at speaking to the younger generation of today through this particular Saint-Just. Exactly like Mona Ozouf is speaking to our present hedonistic world through the libertine idealization, they are speaking to our present younger generation by making him look like one of us: this blending of the past and present is a proof even more striking of this “documentary”’s nature as propaganda.
“Thank God I’m pretty, every skill I ever have will be in question…”
Emilie Autumn – Thank God I’m Pretty
I am responding to what will soon be unleashed through the English-speaking world: the horrible after-effects of the BBC program Terror! Robespierre and the French Revolution. I am “partial”, no need to tell you this. Usually, considering the subject of my studies, I would probably prefer to focus on the mess they made of the representation of Robespierre. Yet, at the risk of disappointing, I will say that this type of misrepresentation (the whole “Robespierre = Stalin, Mao, Castro, Hitler, Khomeini” package-deal that makes no logical sense) is nothing new, and therefore it is not necessary to make it the center of our critique, though surely we will find many opportunities – here or elsewhere – to attack it anyway.
It is the misrepresentation of Saint-Just in this 90-min. program that I would like to attack here. Those who read my direct “as I watched it,” not-very-scientific critique of it on my journal will know that I lost my calm and presence of mind over it. It shocked me, precisely because most people would probably gloss over it and all the hidden meanings behind it: they would ignore it or dismiss its consequences. Moreover, because people, in this type of scenario, always have the same thing to say in response: “Yes, but he’s pretty and pouty!” As you can read here, the aftereffects have already started to appear. I know this type of reply: I was there once; I said it about Christopher Thompson’s interpretation of Saint-Just in La Révolution française: les Années terribles, and I know how damaging it is. This essay is a testimony to my own past: I was there three years ago; I won’t go back.
The type of Saint-Just played here by the actor George Maguire is in the same vein as Christopher Thompson’s. (He seems to have been cast from the same mould.) Which is to say, twenty years after the Bicentennial of the French Revolution, we’re still there, that we haven’t progressed at all. Even, it’s worse than ever.
Read the manifesto.
In fact, it is at the moment when wearing them became exclusively feminine that they took it into their heads to systematically represent Saint-Just wearing an earring. Quite obviously, the operation fulfilled not the concern to serve historical truth, but that of discrediting his character by putting his virility into question. Many of those who have evoked Saint-Just, not content with tearing away his face and his physical aspect, have also disposed of his soul.
(Bernard Vinot, « Chapitre Premier : La beauté de la jeunesse », Saint-Just, Fayard, 1985, p. 14.)
I. Saint-Just’s “Puritanism”
This is how Saint-Just is introduced in this docudrama, by the narrator’s voice-over:
“[Carnot’s] rival was the puritanical Saint-Just, whose astonishing maiden speech in the Assembly had called for the execution of the king.” (Part One, 05:37)
Usually, they tend to introduce him through Organt (and insert a few sarcastic comments and witticisms from people who obviously have no idea what they’re talking about and just copy/paste from what the others said before them) – or is this the French who just prefer this approach through Saint-Just’s once almost-libertine youth? No, here, we get Saint-Just’s introduction through Puritanism – and here I thought this was an adjective usually kept for Robespierre. What interests us here (beyond the “maiden speech” and the classical allusion to Michelet, who compared Saint-Just to the “Virgin of Tauris”, or Iphigenia the priestess of Artemis) is how they then choose to explain his “Puritanism” through this dialogue between Saint-Just and Carnot (Part One, 05:46):
SAINT-JUST: Take the liquor out of the Convention, and then we’ll get more rational debates.
CARNOT: Perhaps, but I’ve also known crushing bores who swear allegiance to only lemonade.
Frankly, here, I’m at loss. I have no idea where they took their inspiration to imagine this dialogue. I am not aware of anything that even vaguely resembles it in Saint-Just’s thought, or that historian or biographer has mentioned it. The closest I can think of is a part of his Fragments des institutions républicaines (which, in case it needs to be recalled, were not decrees or speeches, but personal notes and fragments of an unfinished project which were collected and put together after his death and called the “Institutions républicaines” by his friend Gateau, who survived the Thermidorian Reaction) in the “Institutions des [sur les] moeurs” (Institutions on Mores): « Celui qui, étant ivre, aura dit ou commis le mal sera banni. » (He who speaks or commits evil while drunk will be banished.)
Besides, as estellacat has pointed out, it would be practically impossible to ban liquors/alcohol from 18th century France, “considering the general quality of the drinking water”. The only thing I’m personally aware of is a project presented by Ch. Delacroix, deputy of the Marne, to the Committee of Public Instruction on 20 July 1793, in which he suggests that children should not be permitted wine, coffee or sugar (Art. 11). Whether that’s Puritanism or not, well, good luck arguing that.
The second example of the “Puritanism” of Saint-Just (and of Robespierre) can be found in Schama’s shocked exclamation at the end of Part Two (09:54) continued at the very beginning of Part Three (until 00:16):
“It’s not a “high standard”. It’s only a “high standard” if you want the world to dissolve into tyranny. Saint-Just, he’s a deeply intolerant person, as indeed is Maximilien Robespierre. The notion of “power” as schoolmasterliness equipped not just with the right to cane you but to cut your head off. He does believe in an elite class, the guardians, who are the kind of mystical receiving antennae of “wooo”, some trembling ether coming down, you know, from the universal hominist (?) to tell us, exactly, how we should be living our lives.”
Which is immediately followed by this line Saint-Just addresses to Robespierre, as he’s writing a speech (Part Three, 00:16):
SAINT-JUST: You should be clearer when you talk of happiness, Maxime. Some people still confuse it with pleasure.
This fictive dialogue serves to illustrate a line from Robespierre’s speech of 17 pluviôse Year II, which is later quoted in the docudrama (Part Seven, 01:09): « Nous voulons substituer, dans notre pays, [...] le charme du bonheur aux ennuis de la volupté. » (We want to substitute, in our country, […] the charm of happiness to the tedium of sensual pleasure.) It also seems to hint at a few parts of Saint-Just’s speech of 23 ventôse Year II, the Rapport sur les factions de l’étranger, which insists a great deal on the definition of happiness, and includes this famous quote: « Mais ce ne fut point le bonheur de Persépolis que nous vous offrîmes ; ce bonheur est celui des corrupteurs de l’humanité: nous vous offrîmes le bonheur de Sparte et celui d’Athènes dans leurs beaux jours... » (But it is not the happiness of Persepolis that we offered you; that happiness is that of the corruptors of humanity: we gave you the happiness of Sparta and Athens in their good days...)
As a matter of fact – and as far as 18th century concepts are concerned – happiness and pleasure are indeed two very different things. But let’s not be fooled into believing that this docudrama really aims at discussing concepts: they’re imposing an ideology through that brilliant juxtaposition of “scientific speech” and “dramatized dialogue”. It reminds me of an article very recently published (December 2008) by Mona Ozouf in a special issue of Le Nouvel Observateur on the subject of happiness. Mona Ozouf obviously had to write an article to demolish Saint-Just’s “totalitarian” concept of happiness (recycling and updating Benjamin Constant’s arguments) and opposing it to what she considers to be the real concept of happiness in the 18th century:
« Ce bonheur austère, frugal, enrégimenté, était-il d'autre part une idée si neuve? Sans doute, si on songe au siècle qui prend fin comme à un siècle féminin, libertin et frivole, de langage leste et de mœurs légères, où chaque jour on rend grâce à la musique et au théâtre d'exister, où l'on chérit la civilité, la conversation éclairée, les bons soupers, les nuits voluptueuses et sans lendemain; où l'on a osé soutenir que le plaisir était la vertu «sous un nom plus gai»; où l'existence de Dieu, si on en croit Voltaire, est suffisamment prouvée « pour tout homme qui boit du vin de tokay, qui embrasse une jolie femme, qui, en un mot, a des sensations agréables ». »
(“Moreover, was that austere, frugal, regimented happiness such a new idea? Doubtless, if one considers the century that is coming to an end as a feminine, libertine, and frivolous century, one of risqué language and loose morals, when every day people gave thanks that music and the theatre existed, when they cherished civility, enlightened conversation, good suppers, voluptuous nights without repercussions; when they dared to maintain that pleasure was virtue ‘by a more cheerful name’; when the existence of God, if Voltaire is to believed, was sufficiently proven ‘for every man who drinks Tokay, who kisses a pretty woman, who, in a word, has agreeable sensations.’”)
What this historian, though her speciality is the 18th century, is in fact giving out here is a generalized and absurd cliché of the 18th century libertine lifestyle: a myth which speaks to and fits perfectly with our own late 20th-early 21st century hedonistic, consumerist society. Moreover, Ozouf’s example of Saint-Just for her argument is flawed, for she forgets that Saint-Just had tasted the “libertine” ways before he “converted” to the austere, “totalitarian” virtue. Vertu, a word which, Hilary Mantel defines as well in the docudrama:
“You have to ask yourself whether he [Robespierre] was in the right place. Was he a practical politician? He thought that the language of virtue was the only possible revolutionary discourse. He did not think that the language of pragmatism was the appropriate one in which to discuss the Revolution. You can see he was out of place there, that what he really was was a prophet. [...] I think vertu translates badly into this rather prim, English word virtue. I think vertu meant strength and honesty. It meant purity of intent. You see, Saint-Just was already saying that it is a crime to fail to hate the enemies of the Revolution, so a very high standard of engagement was being required here.” (Part Two, 07:35-08:08, 09:22-09:53)
Vertu has nothing to do with Puritanism: it’s a civic ideal, a Roman, republican ideal. As defined by Montesquieu: « Ce que j'appelle la vertu dans la république est l'amour de la patrie, c'est-à-dire de l'égalité. » (What I call virtue in the republic is the love of one’s homeland, that is, the love of equality.)
II. Saint-Just the “schoolboy”
“Jeune homme atroce et théâtral,” (an atrocious and theatrical young man) said Sainte-Beuve, describing Saint-Just. That is the image of Saint-Just presented by this docudrama, combined with the portrait immortalized by Edme-Bonaventure Courtois’ Rapport fait au nom de la Commission chargée de l’examen des papiers trouvés chez Robespierre et ses complices in Year III:
« Un étourdi de vingt-six ans (Saint-Just), à peine échappé de la poussière de l'école, tout gonflé de sa petite érudition, avait lu dans un grand homme (Montesquieu) qu'il n'entendait point, qu'un peuple s'était laissé corrompre par le luxe, enfant des arts et du commerce: il avait lu encore qu'un autre grand homme (Lycurge) qu'il entendait un peu moins sans doute, avait, dans l'enceinte de quelques milliers de stades, formé un peuple de braves; et, tout de suite, notre maladroit copiste de l'Antiquité, sans examen des localités, des mœurs et de la population, appliquant ce qui était inapplicable, nous venait dire ici, d'un ton de suffisance qu'il n'eût été que comique s'il n'eût point été atroce : « Ce n'est pas le bonheur de Persépolis, c'est celui de Sparte que nous vous avons promis. »
(“A scatterbrained twenty-six year-old (Saint-Just), having just escaped from the dust of school, all inflated by his small erudition, had read in [the writings of] a great man (Montesquieu) whom he didn’t understand, that a people had let itself be corrupted by luxury, child of the arts and of commerce: he had read too that another great man (Lycurgus) whom he understood even less, no doubt, had, within a few thousand fathoms, formed people of braves; and, immediately, our inept copyist of Antiquity, without examining the locales, the mores and the population, applying that which was inapplicable, came here to tell us with a conceited tone which would have been comical had it not been atrocious: ‘It is not the happiness of Persepolis, but that of Sparta that we promised you.’”)
You can hear all the obvious resentment of a man of then about forty or forty-one years old, who felt his life was dictated by a twenty-six-year-old. This is the resentment Simon Schama expresses (Part Three, 00:12), the one Hilary Mantel feels (Part Five, 0:04), and her belittling words are exactly those of Courtois, remixed for the modern taste:
“But for Saint-Just, before ‘89, he was a schoolboy. He's irreproachable. He’d never had to compromise because he’d never encountered the compromises that real life demands. And I think, when you look at Saint-Just in particular, you see someone who's stuck in adolescent posturing: he's the classic rebellious teenager who's not that long out of his teenage years and he's playing out his own psychological battles, but suddenly he's playing this game with the lives of thousands of people. The Revolution is allowing him to play it out on mass scale. Of course I don't think they could see him like that. It's hard for us to realise what people at the time found so impressive about him. We think, why didn't they just call his bluff and say ‘sit down, child’?”
This resentment does appear in the drama: not through Courtois – a Thermidorian as part of a counter-revolutionary propaganda documentary? That would never do! – but through Carnot (who was the same age than Courtois), who, in the film La Terreur et la Vertu (1964), tells Saint-Just on the eve of Thermidor: “Tu n’es qu’un enfant, et un enfant vicieux, et tu voulais te partager les dépouilles de la patrie avec un scélérat et un éclopé!” (“You're nothing but a child, and a vicious child, and you wanted to share the spoils of our homeland with a villain and lame man!”. The quote exists, although sometimes slightly different, with “infirme” rather than “éclopé”. It also appears more or less this way in Hamel’s Thermidor (Chapitre 6, VI), but it’s Barère who says it, and not Carnot.)
Saint-Just the schoolboy, the child, the voice of Robespierre, the shadow of Robespierre: a Thermidorian characterisation contested by Bernard Vinot in 1985 (and again in 2004 by Miguel Abensour)... and renewed by Patrice Gueniffey in 1994, who personally seems to have an “allergy” for Saint-Just, as his contribution to Robespierre: figure-réputation (ed. Annie Jourdan, 1996) shows:
« It est aussi vain de chercher le secret du Robespierre de 1793 dans l'avocat des années artésiennes que de vouloir découvrir le Saint-Just de 1794 dans Orgon [Organt], médiocre poème écrit par un médiocre chenapan. »
(“It is as vain to look for the secret of the Robespierre of 1793 in the lawyer of his years in Artois as it is to wish to discover the Saint-Just of 1794 in Orgon [Organt], a mediocre poem written by a mediocre rascal.”)
In the “gallery of portraits” of “the Men of ‘93” he wrote to accompany his article on Robespierre, titled Itinéraire d’un tyran *coughs*, and published in the French historical-vulgarisation magazine L’Histoire in May 1994, no. 177, (coincidentally, the general topic that magazine in that number on Robespierre was called: Robespierre, la Révolution et la Terreur – not too far from the title of the present docudrama...), Gueniffey notes that Saint-Just was given a far greater importance than he truly deserved (p. 41: “Il est assurément l’un des personages les plus énigmatiques de la Révolution, et l’un de ceux dont les historiens ont le plus exagéré l’importance.”). This statement is part of the same project that made Saint-Just disappear from the hardcover edition of the revisionist and “furetian” Dictionnaire critique de la Révolution française. In the second, paperback edition, the introduction explains the addition of an article on Saint-Just by pointing to “complaints” that the “legendary Saint-Just” was missing (See: Miguel Abensour, introduction to Saint-Just’s Oeuvres completes, 2004, p. 13; Marie-Hélène Huet, Mourning Glory, 1997, quoting Jean Baudrillard, p. 169: “A vision which allows us to eliminate Saint-Just from the Dictionnaire de la Révolution. ‘Overrated rhetoric’, says François Furet, perfect historian of the repentance of the Terror and of glory.”)
This docudrama is the logical conclusion of that process: Saint-Just is not important. It is not worth it for him to be there. But then, why is he still there? Erasing him from the storyline would obviously be noticed and decried – but then, they erase Billaud, Lindet, Barère, Prieur de la Marne, Prieur de la Côte d’Or and Saint-André (the six other members of the Committee of Public Safety) without anyone’s getting particularly upset. But there are reasons why they can’t eliminate Saint-Just – because no matter what Patrice Gueniffey would like to think, he is useful to them:
1) They can’t validate the Thermidorian legend of a « triumvirate » if Saint-Just disappears, after all. (Note how the docudrama begins (Part One, 00:06) by referring to Robespierre, Saint-Just and Couthon on Thermidor as "the leaders of the Committee of Public Safety", and yet through all the docudrama, you get the feeling that Robespierre is a dictator, Saint-Just a useless valet and Couthon pretty much as useless, a "weirdo crazy who thought that they acted the way they did [in Lyon] because of the climate" – speaking of which, this particular part should be checked and investigated, because I suspect they completely misinterpret the sense of his letters. I'm not sure and I'd have to look it up, but I'll try to remember that.)
2) Saint-Just always had the clear role of indicating some of Robespierre’s traits, depending on the way their relationship is depicted. (See Part V on Saint-Just and Robespierre.)
III. Saint-Just and Carnot
Saint-Just is introduced in juxtaposition with Carnot, the already brilliant “mathematician, engineer and natural-born bureaucrat” (Part one, 05:30) who is later said to have been “the Committee member appointed to organize France’s defence” (Part One, 08:03) – which is known to be a Thermidorian legend. (The Committee of Public Safety on the whole was meant to “organize France’s defence” – that was its purpose. But after Thermidor, in the Reaction that followed, the trials, etc., the “good things” had to be separated from the “bad ones” (le bon grain de l’ivraie, as the French historians always say), and when they were done eliminating the actions and accomplishments of the “terrorists” (Robespierre, Saint-Just, Couthon, Barère, Collot, Billaud), there were very few left, except those of Carnot, who lived all the time he needed to create his own legend. This legend: not only making him the only responsible for the military, but making him “innocent” of the “terrorist” actions, which yet also bear his signature in many cases.)
Carnot appears as the only source of military “authority”, next to which both Saint-Just and Robespierre are inept (Part Two, 01:57):
COUTHON: Have faith, citizen: remember Valmy.
CARNOT: We do not need another Valmy, Georges.
SAINT-JUST: Valmy was a patriotic sensation.
CARNOT: And very nearly a military catastrophe.
SAINT-JUST: One hundred thousand volunteers walking towards the sound of gunfire. I would take another Valmy, citizen.
CARNOT: What? Men who should have been at the harvest? Men who would have been better employed repairing the roads so that artillery could get to the front? “Men who were told to march to the sound of the gunfire”: men who had never heard the sound of gunfire, and when they did, they were useless. Not one single weapon the same, hundreds of different calibre, many men carrying scythes, pitchforks, to march against the king of Austria? No! Chaos! We do not need another Valmy. These men only understood one command: to march against the aristocrats—
ROBESPIERRE: That is a good command.
CARNOT: (sarcastic) Oh, it is an excellent command – morally, citizen. But it is no substitute for organization.
Next to this characterisation of Carnot, Saint-Just would obviously appear as nothing but an arrogant, ignorant kid; a “rival” who does not truly appear up to any comparison with the amazing Carnot. Though the rivalry concerning military affairs is real, this docudrama completely destabilizes it and literally eliminates any argument between the two to weight the balance in favour of Carnot (with arguments he each easily wins, having no real opponent!). Carnot puts down and belittles Saint-Just with snarky and derisive remarks in every scene in which they interact, yet Saint-Just is allowed to give no reply! This is obvious wish-fulfillment (on Hilary Mantel’s part, at least) of all the old and/or conservative historian-novelist dinosaurs who believe that the young should be given no opportunities – and yet the Revolution was made by the young, all revolutions are: the Revolution was brought about by a generation which was between 25-35 years old at its beginning. Radicalism belongs to the young: this is the obvious fear of the older generations, a fear for their acquired privileges. The fact that they would give the upper hand to Carnot in this debate (while in some books, I’ve read sympathies tending to lie with Saint-Just) is indicative of the old and rotten ideology presented by this docudrama.
A few examples of the “oh-so-witty” exchanges between Saint-Just and Carnot:
PART ONE, 05:46
SAINT-JUST: Take the liquor out of the Convention, and then we’ll get more rational debates.
CARNOT: Perhaps, but I’ve also known crushing bores who swear allegiance to only lemonade.
I’ve already discussed the pure invention of this line of Saint-Just’s. The only contribution of Carnot’s remark – and what an introduction! – is to belittle Saint-Just right at the start: because he, too, is a “crushing bore” and indeed, what stupid propositions he wants to make to the Convention! This is what happens when you put schoolboys in charge!
PART ONE, 9:36 – PART TWO, 0:00 (Beginning)
CARNOT: Their plan is to dismember this country.
SAINT-JUST: We are not Poland. This committee is not just a group of futile students in Warsaw. The French Republic exists. It is a product of philosophy, but it is also a product of real events. And behind the idea is the sovereign people. Twenty million Frenchmen aching to enter the age of Rousseau.
CARNOT: Very good. (smirks) We’re not short of speeches in the army. We are, however, short of nearly everything else.
As if Saint-Just’s sole contribution to the military affairs consisted in speeches! I refer the reader to the many decrees he made and the measures he took during his missions in Alsace and in the North, or as Gateau said (as quoted by Jean-Pierre Gross in Saint-Just, sa politique et ses missions (1976, p. 17): « La collection des arrêtés [de la mission de Saint-Just en Alsace] sera sans contredit un des plus beaux monuments historiques de la Révolution. » (“The collection of decrees (from Saint-Just’s mission in Alsace) will undoubtedly be one of the most beautiful historical monuments of the Revolution.”)
Saint-Just deplored much of what Carnot mentions in his long speech that continues throughout the video – in some cases, Carnot took them from Saint-Just himself! – and what has become of Saint-Just’s reputation for laconism? His austerity? His rigorous style? Saint-Just did not favour “speeches” over action, but rather the reverse. Yet Carnot is given this role (not to say Saint-Just’s stoic impassivity!), against Saint-Just’s “tantrums,” in this docudrama.
PART FIVE, 0:10
After Hilary Mantel has thoroughly explained her thoughts on Saint-Just’s complex personality and identity, the docudrama shows the scenes of Saint-Just, looking arrogant and sulky once more, his head rising higher from time to time, and arriving at the Committee to exclaim:
SAINT-JUST: We need to purge the army again.
To which Carnot obscurely replies:
CARNOT: Someone couldn’t bear to part with their glorious past?
Saint-Just then throws his coat to the floor in a type of “furious tantrum” akin to the legendary “anecdote” in which Saint-Just throws his hat into the fireplace.
The problem here – apart from the obvious stereotyping of the whole reaction and situation – is that there is no context given. If you know Saint-Just, you suspect that he has just returned from one of his missions. Yet the narrator doesn’t explain it. There is no mention of his missions at all. The docudrama gives no explanation for why Saint-Just wants to “purge the army”, or change generals and officers. Saint-Just didn’t spend his missions satisfying his “childish whims”: but we will never know this, because this program will never tell us, will never give Saint-Just motives, explanation, responsibilities or even context.
PART SEVEN, 9:50
On the speech on the arrest of Danton, etc.:
SAINT-JUST: Let him [Danton] first hear these charges in the Convention. I intend to read them to his face.
CARNOT: Well, that would be stupid.
Frankly now, does this even need commentary? Saint-Just, not replying to that? If he’s just “slightly” susceptible to tantrums, why isn’t he throwing one right there? Because it sure looks like a good opportunity they missed to have him burn his hat!
NEXT POST: PARTS IV-V, CONCLUSION.