Alan Ryan

  • Burke and the Fall of Language: The French Revolution as Linguistic Event by Steven Blakemore
    University Press of New England, 115 pp, £10.00, April 1989, ISBN 0 87451 452 5
  • The Impact of the French Revolution on European Consciousness edited by H.T. Mason and William Doyle
    Sutton, 205 pp, £17.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 86299 483 7
  • The French Revolution and the Enlightenment in England 1789-1832 by Seamus Deane
    Harvard, 212 pp, £19.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 674 32240 1

Whatever else the French Revolution was it was certainly a literary event. Indeed, it was a literary event in a good many different, though related ways. As Robert Darnton has emphasised, it was a literary event in that it unlocked the printing presses and called forth a torrent of newspapers, periodicals, pamphlets and essays. Where France possessed no uncensored newspapers before 1789, almost two hundred journals of news and opinion appeared in that year and more than three hundred the next. It was also a literary event in quite another sense. The revolutionaries themselves felt impelled to create a new language to describe and sustain their new world. To emphasise the completeness of the Revolution’s break with the past, the regions of France were redefined and renamed, units of measurement were redefined and renamed, the names of the days and the months were changed, while the King of France was first renamed ‘the King of the French’ and finally ‘Citizen Capet’. It was a literary event in another sense, too. Controversialists on every side tried self-consciously to attain a rhetorical pitch appropriate to their commitment. Burke, Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft, as much as Brissot, Danton and Robespierre, tried to seize the stylistic initiative as much as the political initiative, or more accurately as part of seizing the political initiative. This wasn’t simply a matter of the struggles among revolutionaries taking the form of pamphlet wars and news manipulation. There was a real intellectual issue at stake – how to characterise political and social upheavals of a wholly unparalleled kind.

It is on this theme that Stephen Blakemore focuses his attention. Burke and the Fall of Language concentrates on the writer who was more aware than anyone – other than his mortal enemy Rousseau – of the extent to which politics is not just described but actually constituted by the language in which it is acted out. This perception sustained a variety of charges against the revolutionaries. A relatively straightforward charge was that the revolutionary government misdescribed its actions so as to blind both itself and its opponents to their true nature. Though Burke was a counter-revolutionary, his complaints about the jargon in which the French revolutionaries wrapped their misdeeds is reminiscent of the complaints levelled by opponents of the Vietnam War against the gobbledegook in which the military wrapped the facts of murder and atrocity. Attacking Brissot, Burke observed that ‘the whole compass of language is tried to find synonyms and circumlocutions for massacre and murder. Massacre is sometimes agitation, sometimes effervescence, sometimes exercise, sometimes too continued an exercise of revolutionary power.’

A rather more complex claim was that the revolutionaries had lost touch with the forms of speech proper to discuss and act out the politics of a civilised people. Hence the notion of a ‘fall of language’; both the world and its vocabulary had suffered a disaster. But Burke had to argue a slightly awkward case for he both had to allege that the common speech of mankind picked out the atrocious facts that revolutionary euphemism camouflaged, and yet to insist that common speech could err by oversimplifying, and ruin everything by stripping away the polite fictions that made the politics of the Ancien Régime possible. If murder was murder, and not ‘effervescence’, Marie-Antoinette was emphatically not just another woman. Burke’s counter-revolutionary writings from 1790 on are couched in a prose which acts out his commitment to a patriarchal, hereditary, traditionalist politics; their Latinity is a rebuke to the unlettered plebeians now, as he thought, in command of France, and their continual half-quotation of Milton’s Paradise Lost conveys far more effectively than any direct utterance could have done his conviction that the struggle launched by the revolutionaries was a satanic war against heaven. What he has to defend is essentially one kind of political theatre against another: he knew all too well the precarious balance of myth and reality which sustained aristocratic government, and his most embittered writing comes precisely when he sees aristocrats failing to play their parts properly.

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