Tuesday, January 22, 2013
What the hell were they thinking?
The two aspects of the French Revolution that most fascinate me are: 1) What were people thinking? and 2) the influence of the media, in the form of libelles, songs and pamphlets, in forming public opinion and, thus, propelling events. My friends and family probably think the primary interest is a macabre voyeurism of the violence of the time, but that's not the case. People's feelings, opinions and lives are profoundly interesting to me and what more fertile ground for feelings, opinions, lives could there be than the Fr Rev? There may be other periods of time more saturated with feelings and spectacular events, but the Fr Rev was my mother's interest, too, which gives it the edge, in my mind. It all goes back to Mom, but I'll save that story for my therapist.
So... I have this book, "Paris in 1789-94: Farewell Letters of Victims of the Guillotine," by John Goldworth Alger. It's an absolute goldmine. Besides the letters, there are reports from spies on the street, prison documents, Paris addresses of historical import, and more. Fear, probably of the paralyzing sort, squelched the production of diaries during the Revolution. There are many first-person accounts in the form of memoirs, but they were written after the fact when details may have become fuzzy and recollections may have been tainted with self-justification or vindication. According to Alger, a M. Biré, a Frenchman well-acquainted with the Revolution, published a diary, "Journal d'un Bourgeois de Paris", kept during that the time, but, according to Alger, it was based on the newspapers of the time which either didn't want to, or didn't dare, reflect the truth. Alger says the publication "stands to a real diary just as an artificial flower stands to a real one."
We have no diaries, but we do have a window into the daily lives of Parisians during the Revolution, because the Bureau de l'Esprit Public, assigned to at least six "observers," the task of hanging out in food lines, wine shops, public gatherings, to record the public sentiment. Alger found their reports, previously undiscovered, among the 200 boxes of papers (mostly collected by Fouquier-Tinville) belonging to the Revolutionary Tribunal. I believe they were and, perhaps, are, in the French National Archives. No amount of daily (Ha. If only I were that self-disciplined.) hour-long increments of Rosetta Stone will teach me enough French to be able to interpret the thousands of pages I would love to read in the French National Archives. If I could get past the gendarmes. Good luck with that.