Tag Archives: french revolution

Eiffel TowerI am not watching Downton Abbey. I reached my quotient of British TV drama with Upstairs, Downstairs 40 years ago. Since then, it has been rehash on rehash, and I no longer feel any connection.

It is a widely held truism that American intelligentsia is divided between Anglophiles and Francophiles. The one portion watches Masterpiece Theatre on PBS and cannot get enough of Edwardian melodrama. They swoon over Merchant-Ivory films and generally rate Henry James as readable.Books

The other half reads Camus, loves Montaigne, adores Truffaut.

The one side grieved the death of Princess Di; the other the death of Claude Levi-Strauss.

It is a divide as solid as red-state, blue-state: In one corner, you have Sherlock Holmes, in the other, Inspector Maigret.

The English sleuth, cool, rational, friendless; the Frenchman, intuitive, patient, uxorious and with a small glass of pastis in one hand.

When the English talk of logic, you know a tweedy lecture is in the offing. When the French talk of logique, you know something as baroque as an 18-car pile-up will follow.Palais Garnier - putti

Just as psychologists can divide personalities into types: introvert vs. extrovert — so, too, can we divide Americans into those who identify with the island or the continent.

This is, of course, a divide entirely set amongst the reading, thinking public.  Outside of the library, Americans are suspicious of anything foreign, and especially anything European.

Which is why Americans so much love to despise France. It is hard to understand this, given the history of our two countries, from the time of the American Revolution onwards.

“Cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” we say. Which shows how little we Americans understand about French history. Doesn’t exactly describe Napoleon or his army. And who was it, after all, who won the American Revolution for us? Ah, yes, Admiral de Grasse. And Lafayette was no monkey of any sort.

But back to the bookish Yankee: Perhaps this divide became palpable in 1789. Many Englishman at first applauded the French Revolution, but even most of them eventually grew horrified at the excesses of the Terror.Rabbitshangingmarche

It left England with a slowly dwindling monarchy, and gave France a fresh, if confused start. It has never really comfortably settled, the current Republic being the Fifth, merely five decades old.

The English much earlier had their own paroxysm, but that one ended with the restoration of the monarchy, and an inbred conservatism that has lasted to this day, and I believe, is what so appeals to that brand of American college-educated reader who would rather watch The English Patient.

Or perhaps it is the British Protestant history vs. the lingering Catholicism of France. America is more at ease with the strict, moralistic Puritanism it inherited from its English forebears. There is something suspect about the theatrical exuberance of the Roman religion that is the cultural inheritance of even French atheists.

England says, No, or at least, Not Now. France says Yes, or at least Let’s Try. It is why English food is the butt of jokes, while French food is the world’s standard for gustation. The English do not believe they should enjoy their food.Bayeux store window

For the English, anything of which you partake should be good for you, that is, make you a better person. For the French, it is the same with this difference: Something that excites the senses is good for you and does make you a better person.

The Puritan influence in America wishes to outlaw foie gras.

Well, I love foie gras. It is the most intense flavor I can remember eating,  sunburst of umami, with the cloak of saccharine provided by the onion confiture and finally washed with an excellent fruity sauterne — not the cheap sugary drink Americans buy by that name.

Which means I fall into the camp of Francophiles. I love everything about the country, even their craziness.Rouen Lingerie shop window

I love that the French Revolution elevated reason above all other virtues, and proceeded to get all unreasonable about it. I love that they have a theory for everything, and will argue for an hour on a TV talk show, not about whether a speaker has his facts right, but whether he has his theory right. There is a kind of divine looniness in it all.

In contrast, the British can suck the life out of any proposition. While we can agree that Adam Smith was a genius, have you ever actually tried to read him? Or David Hume? Not bloody likely.

So, you can have your boiled joint and your suet pudding, I will always go for the cassoulet and the moules Normande. There is nothing better tasting than a properly prepared magret de canard. You can keep your English goose.Driving France

When I am in France, I feel at home in a way that is irrational. I do not speak the language; I can never dress as stylishly; I can barely read Le Monde or Figaro. But somehow the culture feels familiar. There is an easy fit, a comfortable tolerance, in the engineer’s sense, you have room to rattle around.

Even the landscape is home. The trees of Verdun, the mountains of the Vosges, the beaches of Normandy, the craggy peaks of the Massif Central, the caves of the Perigord, the waves of the Mediterranean, the 2,000 year history of Arles, the white hills of Aix.Forests of Verdun

And finally, and most importantly, the small, highway-ringed city of Paris, where the girl in the flower shop asks how your wife is doing when you pass in the afternoon and your wife is resting in the hotel room.

I find it all so inviting, so warm, friendly and comfortable. Paris is a city you can negotiate, where every corner — every one of its 20 arrondissements spiraling out from the Ile de la Cité — is as familiar as a classmate from school, and just as distinct.

It is the Berber faces, the Jews of the Marais, the Asians running the butcher shop, the Turks selling pizza, the line each morning and evening at the boulangerie for baguettes, the sculptured heads over the doors, the fountains, the public statues, the warren of roads changing names every few blocks. The squalid suburbs, the train stations, the Bois de Vincennes, the violinist echoing through the tunnels of the Metro, the fromage blanc at the Chinese restaurant, the old men playing pétanque in the flat dust of the Tuileries.Blvd de l'Hopital

There is nothing wrong if you prefer London. If you like bad food and dirty streets, boring television and infuriating politeness.

À chacun ses goûts.

My wife and I have been to France many times and cannot wait to get back. I recently came across the diary I kept on our first trip there, in 2002 (I had visited much earlier — in 1966) and I will be sharing portions of it over the next several blog entries. I don’t know if I can persuade any of you to give up your Downton Abbey for the French version of Inspector Maigret (with Bruno Cremer), but perhaps I can suggest why we find the nation so compelling.

"The Death of Marat," by Jean-Louis David, 1793

“The Death of Marat,” by Jacques-Louis David, 1793

It was called, simply, “the Terror.”

the last death no one leftIt was probably the closest Western Europe ever came to the horrors of Rwanda — not just in body count, but as mere anarchy loosed upon the world.

It was the French Revolution, and from September 1793 to July 1794, nearly 2,000 people a month were beheaded in Paris, many for nothing more than being too tepid in support of the Revolution.

And in the middle of this bloody storm was painter Jacques-Louis David, who created the most famous painting of the Revolution, The Death of Marat, in 1793. It was a masterpiece of political propaganda.

But that is not all David did for the Revolution: That is not red paint on the artist’s hands. The painter personally signed at least 300 death warrants as a member of the Jacobin government’s Committee for General Security.

The painting, originally called Marat at His Last Breath, created a martyr of the revolution from a man who is more properly a war criminal. And it again raises the question of art’s moral responsibility.



The dead man in the painting, Jean-Paul Marat, was a journalist who called for thousands of heads to roll. “No, hundreds of thousands,” he wrote.

And on July 13, 1793 — the day before what is now Bastille Day — this greatest, most bloodthirsty exponent of the Terror was stabbed to death by a young woman.

“I killed one man to save a hundred thousand others,” she said.

She miscalculated. She had killed Jean-Paul Marat, but his death unleashed the worst of the Terror.

Jean-Paul Marat was not the kind of person you would think of if you wanted to create a hero.

He was a peculiar man, formerly a physician — some called him a quack — and at turns vicious and paranoid. He cut an unpossessing figure: Ugly, short, he suffered from a skin disease, likely a psoriatic arthritis, that left his face scarred: He called it “leprous.” To salve his discomfort, he conducted his daily business from a bathtub filled with cool water. On his head he wore a towel soaked in vinegar for relief. A board across the tub provided a desk.

Marat published a newspaper called Friend of the People, which harangued and incited. He lauded what he considered republican virtue and selflessness, and called for the death of anyone he considered a traitor: that is, anyone who didn’t agree with him. Patriotism and selfless devotion to the cause drove Marat.

James Gilray on The Terror

James Gilray on The Terror

It went well beyond a call for the beheading of the aristocracy.

In fact, during the Terror, 70 percent of those killed were from the lower classes. People settled grudges by informing on their neighbors. An accusation was enough.

But for painter Jacques-Louis David, Marat became the perfect subject to deify when he was assassinated in the early months of the “Reign of Terror.”

"Charlotte Corday" by Paul Jacques Aime Baudry, 1860

“Charlotte Corday” by Paul Jacques Aime Baudry, 1860

His assassin, Charlotte Corday, then just 23, felt just as keen a patriotism as Marat. But for her, patriotic duty meant she must kill “the monster, Marat,” even if it meant her own death.

She came to Paris, bought a 6-inch kitchen knife, wrote a note explaining her actions and pinned it to the inside of her dress. In it she called Marat “the savage beast fattened on the blood of Frenchmen.” She also bought a new hat, a green one.

On the morning of July 13, 1793, she went to Marat’s apartment, armed and determined. She couldn’t get past Marat’s bodyguards. But she came back in the evening, slipped in behind some delivery men, flashed a phony list of the names of “traitors.” Marat showed interest, calling her to his tub.

Marat looked the list over and told her, “Don’t worry, in a few days I will have them all guillotined at Paris.”

She then pulled out the knife and stabbed him in the chest once, severing his aorta and puncturing a lung. A jet of blood sprayed the room. He died calling for help from his friends.

Four days later Corday was beheaded for her crime, and Marat was transformed into a patriotic martyr.

And David was just the man to do it. He had been the artist of the Revolution, creating images of republican virtue and the glorious past.

When the news of Marat’s death reached the National Convention, one delegate yelled out, “David, where are you? Take up your brush — there is yet one more painting for you to make.”

Cartoon of Marat as defender of the People and the Peoples' rights

Cartoon of Marat as defender of the People and the Peoples’ rights

The propaganda machine went into high gear. A great public funeral was held — organized by David — streets were renamed for Marat, poems and songs were written. At least one new restaurant opened in the rue Saint-Honore called the Grand Marat.

“Indeed, Marat dead was perhaps more useful to the Jacobins than the unpredictable, choleric live politician,” wrote Simon Schama in Citizens, his history of the French Revolution.

A commission for a painting was voted and David began three months’ work on what would be seen as his masterpiece.

When it was finished, it was paraded around Paris like a Mexican santo, rallying the people to redouble their republican ardor and sharpen the cleansing edge of the guillotine’s blade.

Marat's death mask

Marat’s death mask

Thousands of cheap engravings were distributed, made from a death-mask portrait drawn by David. Marat’s eyes closed, his head tilted in death.

Copies of the painting were ordered from David and his atelier, to be sent to the other cities of France.

Instead of stopping the violence, as Corday had hoped, her act only worsened the Terror. The assassination now became a cause.

As for David, when the Terror ultimately collapsed and its architect, Maximilien Robespierre, was guillotined, the painter went to prison. At least he kept his head.

He was released after about a year in a general amnesty.

When Napoleon came to power, David became the imperial artist, glamorizing the First Consul as he had glamorized the Revolution. David was a political chameleon, a slippery eel. The artist was always looking for a “great man” to glorify, whether it was Marat or Napoleon.

"Napoleon in his study"

“Napoleon in his study”

When Napoleon fell, David went into exile in Belgium, where he died in 1825.

His great painting had a similar fate: It was withdrawn from the public shortly after the fall of Robespierre and sent back to the artist’s studio, where it remained, unexhibited till well after David’s death.

Finally, in 1848, republican sentiment arose once more in France and Marat came out of storage. The poet Charles Baudelaire saw it and wrote a famous encomium, which raised public awareness of the masterpiece once more. The painting became canonized.

Today, the most recognized souvenir of Marat’s life and death is the painting David made to immortalize the journalist.

It is powerful: “David weaponizes art,” said one museum curator.

David’s painting is hugely original, mixing an almost journalistic sense of the here and now with familiar iconographic symbols, like the hanging arm of Michelangelo’s Pieta, turning the dying journalist into a Christ figure.pieta arm

That isn’t just a conceit: The subconscious reading of the painting can’t help seeing the echoes of earlier, religious paintings. David was able to mythologize current events and give them depth and power.

“If there’s ever a picture that would make you want to die for a cause, it is Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat,” historian Simon Schama says in his TV series The Power of Art. “That’s what makes it so dangerous — hidden from view for so many years. I’m not sure how I feel about this painting, except deeply conflicted. You can’t doubt that it’s a solid-gold masterpiece, but that’s to separate it from the appalling moment of its creation, the French Revolution.

“If ever a work of art says that beauty can be lethal, it’s Jacques-Louis David’s Marat.”

David has turned the paranoid fanatic into a saint of the revolution. He had also made what some have called the first “modern” painting: spare, direct, almost abstract in its design.

But the image raises a question: Can great art be made for evil reasons?

The question is not merely academic. These questions have come up many times in the past: Can Leni Riefenstahl be a great filmmaker if the films she made glorify Hitler? Can D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation really be one of the most important films ever made if its heroes are the Ku Klux Klan?

And what about Westerns? Are our heroes cowboys? Or do we acknowledge our own genocide? What was once the patriotic foundation myth of our nation now embarrasses any thoughtful American. The once-famous Battle of Wounded Knee has now become the Massacre at Wounded Knee.

So, what do we make of art when we question the artist’s motives?

There are some who believe composer Aaron Copland’s music can’t be any good because of his lefty political leanings. And the take people have on Shostakovich often depends on whether they see him as a Soviet apologist or a secret dissident.

The art of Englishman Damien Hirst horrifies some people, because he may use dead animals, pickled in formaldehyde, as part of his art. His shows bring out the picketers.

Wagner cannot be played in Israel because of his anti-Semitism and because Wagner was Hitler’s favorite composer. Where can we draw the line on this?

Do we ban politically injurious art, the way many would ban the use of Nazi medical research?

"Execution of Robespierre" detail

“Execution of Robespierre” detail

“I can appreciate pure ‘art for art’s sake,’ ” says artist Anne Coe, whose paintings are never politically neutral.

Coe is an ardent environmentalist and lover of animals, and her paintings promote her views.

“But to me, the really knock-your-socks-off art has a little more,” she says. “It has ideas behind it. I think art is insipid without some sort of idea in it.”

And David’s art is all about ideas.

“David is the artiste engage par exellence,” says Mary Morton, associate curator of paintings at the J. Paul Getty Museum. “He gave himself completely to politics.”

The subject of the painting, she points out, is not so much Marat the man but the virtues of republican self-sacrifice.

“David’s art is very didactic,” Morton says. “It is about civic responsibility.”

And perhaps we are removed enough from the events of 1793 that we can see in David’s painting the idea rather than the man — the spirit of democracy instead of the call for blood.

“What is that line between propaganda posters, like ‘Uncle Sam Wants You,’ and the David painting, or the paintings of religious martyrs?” Coe asks.

“Does some art lead to evil things? That is the risk you take in a society that says everything is relative.”

There is no single answer to the question; you have to take each case individually and weigh it in your own conscience.

“I listen to Wagner. I love Wagner,” Coe says. “You can’t have an answer.”


Don’t get me wrong: I believe America should adopt the metric system. There is no good reason for us to go our own way in a world where otherwise a single system of weights and measures works fine for everyone else. America’s failure to metrify costs us a good deal of money in international trade, despite the “soft metrification” that goes on under our noses. (Two-liter Coke, anyone?)

But when it comes to the arguments for adoption, I demur. No, the metric system is not “more logical” than the so-called English system. And in many ways, it simply fails the test for logic, at least if by logic you mean usefulness.

I admit that when it comes to particle physics and engineering, the fact that you can do a good deal of your math by simply moving a decimal point has a lot in its favor. For the very large and the very small: for astrophysicists and nano-technologists, the 10-based metric system is the logical choice.

But I resent the patronizing tone so many pedants take toward the older system, as if it made no sense at all — when in fact, it makes a great deal of sense. There is a logic to the English system, and one that makes our lives easier — and more human.

Just start with the thermometer. When  Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit invented the mercury thermometer in 1714, he devised his system of measuring temperature in very human terms. Zero degrees was a cold as he make brine before it froze, and 100 degrees was (he was a little off) body temperature.

And using the Fahrenheit thermometer, when it is 0 degrees F, you know it is cold, and when it hits 100 in the shade, you know you’re hot.

The Celsius, or centigrade system that is used in metric nations, is based on the boiling and freezing points of fresh water. Sounds logical, perhaps, but I’m not water, I’m human. Why should it be considered logical to base your thermometer on water?

Anders Celsius

Anders Celsius

To make it all just a little more goofy, when Anders Celsius devised his centigrade system, he put the boiling point of water at 0 degrees, and the freezing point at 100 degrees. Yes, that’s right.  That was later reversed to the standard Centigrade (now called Celsius) scale.

The scale, however, is just not geared to the human experience. Is ”in the 30s” in Celsius comfortable or not? In the constricted Celsius scale, the difference from 30 to 39 degrees is the difference between a warm springtime comfort and sweltering summer heat: It spans 86 F to 102 F. In Fahrenheit, it means something to say that the temperature is in the 80s. In Celsius, you don’t know whether to bring a sweater or a bathing suit.

The range of comfort-index for Fahrenheit runs from 0-100. That’s the “centigrade” — or hundred degrees — that counts. That same range in Celsius runs from approximately minus 18 to 38 degrees C. Numbers that do not relate to human experience in any meaningful way.

And it is human experience that is behind other units of measurement in the English system. And the logic behind most of it is found in the ratio of doubles and halves.

If we start with a body part, like a foot or a knuckle, we wind up with length measurements such as the foot or inch. There are 12 inches in a foot, and the division into 12 makes it easy for a carpenter to half that length, or to take a half or quarter inch, or for that matter, a 32nd of an inch.


Yes, you can divide a meter into tenths, but how often do you need a tenth of something, or ten times something, compared to how often you half or double, say, a recipe. Doubling and halving works for things in everyday life.

Sometimes it looks as if there is no logic to the English measuring system, but that is usually because some former measurement has simply dropped out of common usage.

Take liquid measurement. Two cups make a pint; two pints make a quart, but four quarts make a gallon. That seems discontinuous, but there is a missing piece: The pottle. Two quarts make a pottle, two pottles make a gallon.

In fact, the system begins, just as distance, with the human body: the mouthful, which is (or was, when it was used) ½ ounce. (The same was also called a tablespoonful.)

Two mouthfuls (or 2 Tbs) equal a pony; two ponies equal a jack; two jacks a gill, and so forth, doubling through the cup (8 ounces or 16 mouthfuls), pint, quart, pottle, gallon, peck, kenning, bushel, strike, coomb, hogshead and butt. You remember Shakespeare’s “butt of malmsey” from Richard III, the final resting place of the Duke of Clarence? That would be 128 gallons of sweet Madeira wine, surely enough to pickle the offending traitor quite comfortably.

doubles and halves

It is true that when you look at the many weights and measures in common usage in England from the time of the Norman invasion till the adoption of the metric system, there is a lot of overlap, discrepancy and contradiction. Some doubles and halves are based on units of 12, like the foot, others on units of 16, like the pound.

Then you’ve got fathoms, chains, furlongs, drams, grains and scruples. There is no question but the old system could use a bit of regularization. It’s just that decimalization isn’t a very practical answer, at least for ordinary people in everyday situations.

For that, we have doubles and halves. Every time you half a decimal number, you add to its complexity: .5, .25, .125, .0625, etc. For cooking, metric units are a pain in the butt, with no malmsey to compensate.

So, to those who say that decimalization is more “logical,” I say, you are stuck in a provincialism. There are more things in heaven and earth, as they say, and more than one way of logic.

And if I wanted to reverse the direction of the calumny visited upon the old system, all I need to is remind you of the great comedy of the creation of the metric system. It came from a people so blinded by a desire to be “rational,” they came flat up against common sense and the wheels of creation.

It was the “Age of Reason,” and it devolved into bloodshed, terror and ideology. It was the French Revolution, and the revolutionaries were so convinced they had the handle on truth, they were willing to let heads roll like marbles on the schoolyard ground.

One of their reforms was that of weights and measures. It was a preoccupation of the 18th century.

International commerce was expanding exponentially and keeping contracts straight was a problem when the seller was dealing in 12 oz. pounds and the buyer was expecting 16 oz. pounds.

There were some reasonable people: Thomas Jefferson came up with a plan that used a metal pendulum. Since the period of a pendulum’s swing depends on its length, he figured a bar that took exactly one second to swing back and forth would be a dependable standard, with repeatable results. It was an elegant solution. He even suggested calling this new unit a “meter.”

But in France, in the middle of the muddle of the French Revolution, and all its insanity — with an attempt to make the whole world rational — including 10-hour days and 10-day weeks — they came up with their own meter.

In the middle of war with Prussia and Austria, the French revolutionary government hired three surveyors to map the quadrant of the earth from the North Pole to the Equator through Paris. These surveyors were arrested more than once, and by both sides, as suspected spies, as they wandered the war-torn countryside with their transits.

They then decided to take one ten-millionth of that measured distance and call it a meter.

Whenever someone tells me how sensible the metric system is, I laugh, because its origin is as loony as it gets.

Take that 10-hour day, with its 100-minute hours and 100-second minutes. OK. But how about a 10-day week, and a 10 month year? Doesn’t quite match up with the motions of the celestial bodies. Do we repeal the solar year?

When the 10-month year (compromised with 3-week months) didn’t add up to the proper number of days, they capitulated to a 12 month year, with months of three 10-day weeks, leaving the year a little short. The interval between the “logical” calendar and the irrational heavens, was filled with a national religious ceremony celebrating the triumph of Reason.  Parades and ceremonies to the goddess of reason were held.

Fête de la Raison2

They also tried to make priesthood in the Catholic Church an elective office.

You simply cannot impose regularity on an irregular universe, and doubles and halves works at the higher mathematical principle of ratios, not of arbitrary measurements. The great cathedrals were built by geometers, working in ratios, not in arithmeticians, working with rulers and yardsticks.

The graces of living come in ratios, not uniformities. Like music: It is the ratios of notes that make rhythm, not their exact durations.

So, is 10 the most logical base? Just imagine music on the metric system. No quarter notes, no eighth notes. Only whole notes, tenth notes and hundredth notes. Talk about white people not having a sense of rhythm.