With the Trump Revolution impending, it’s worthwhile looking back briefly at the history of the French Revolution. This is hardly to compare the two revolutions. But one factor is common to both: fear and loathing.
The French Revolution was complicated with a welter of names, characters and personalities. Perhaps Baron d’Holbach summed it up best when asked what he did during the French Revolution: “J’ai vecu,” he said. “I lived (survived).”
Many good men and women did not survive. One was Georges Danton. He was guillotined during the Reign of Terror, a betrayal of the very meaning of the French fight for freedom. Another victim was Mme. Roland. Just before being guillotined, she declared: “O Liberty! What crimes are committed in thy name!”
But the French Revolution, stretching from 1789 to 1800, to its everlasting credit did abolish the tyrannical monarchy and institute a republic.
The principal figures in the struggle among the radicals (Jacobins and san culottes), moderates (Girondists) and the counter-revolutionaries (Vendeeists) were:
Dr. Guillotin (designer of the guillotine that flashed in the Paris Place de la Revolution [Concorde today]; Robespierre; Mirabeau; Marat (murdered by Charlotte Corday in his bath, see painting by David); Sieves; Desmoulins; Marie Antoinette; Louis XVI;
Also: Rochambeau (an aristocrat, he narrowly escaped the guillotine); Lafayette (an aristocrat, he fled to London to escape the Terror); Napoleon (led armies against the reactionaries who despised the Revolution); Voltaire (proclaiming his Enlightenment); and Talleyrand, crafty, cynical diplomat who ranged in ideology from Jacobin on the Left to Thermidorian reaction on the Right.
AMERICAN REVOLUTION HEROES
Lafayette and Rochambeau were heroes in the earlier American Revolutionary War.
Britisher Norman Hampson writes an unflattering portrait of Danton in his biography of him, “Danton,” (paperback, 1988, publisher Basil Blackwell). Hampson portrays him as devious, venal, cunning, ambiguous and demagogic.
In other words, a politician, perhaps the worst thing you a can call a public figure. Nevertheless, although Danton often switched sides, he was a revolutionist par excellence.
Danton was largely responsible for overthrowing the monarchy in 1792. He sat on The Mountain, the high radical benches in the National Convention. He voted for the death penalty of King Louis XVI in 1793 (although a humane man would have opposed it no matter how radical he was).
Danton was a cultured lawyer who read Rousseau, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Shakespeare, Buffon and Beccaria. And he was a powerful orator with a stentorian voice said to “reach across the Seine.”
As a minister of justice during the Revolution he sat with the radical Enrages on the Committee of Public Safety.
Although he rightly opposed Robespierre’s Reign of Terror in 1793, that was his fatal mistake.
Danton was on trial, not for a crime, but a political act. Everything was a political during the French Revolution.
BOB DYLAN: NOBEL LAUREATE
Bob Dylan’s music was not my kind of music: folk, blues, gospel, hillbilly and rock ‘n’ roll. (Mine is classical and jazz.) But Dylan’s genius cannot be denied.
As the New York Times editorialized: “Dylan has built a body of work, written and sung, that achieves greatness in its breath and beauty.” He was greatly influenced by Woody Guthrie, the editorial added, “whose style and methods the young Dylan lifted for his own.”
The Times ran an analytical obit that began: “A half-century ago Bob Dylan shocked the musical world by plugging in an electrical guitar and alienating folk purists. For decades he continued to confound expectations, selling millions of records with dense, enigmatic songwriting.
“Dylan, 75, is the first musician to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (first awarded in 1901). He is also the most radical recipient while being extremely popular, his 38 albums selling 125 million copies. In sharp contrast, many Nobel winners have been obscurities, forgotten the day they were announced by the Swedish Academy.”
Besides, Dylan sprinkled literary references in his music, such as poetry by Rimbaud, Verlaine and Pound.
Prominent writers–Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates and Salman Rushdie–celebrated Dylan’s achievements. Rushdie called him “the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition.” Precisely. The Academy likened his songs to Homer and Sappho.”
I loved his protest songs: ”Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are a-Changin’ “ and “Like a rolling Stone.”
Dylan was fiercely independent, refusing at first to acknowledge the Nobel Prize. He has a Nobel predecessor: Jean-Paul Sartre.
Sartre, refusing to accept the prize in 1964, declared: “The writer must never allow himself to be transformed into an institution.”
That’s the spirit of literature.
Jake Highton is an emeritus journalism professor from the University of Nevada, Reno. (firstname.lastname@example.org)