Effervescence

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.

The essays which make up this short book are unpretentious, well-read and illuminating. One particularly attractive feature is the way Blakemore demonstrates the consistency between Burke’s political writings narrowly considered and the concerns of his Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. He picks up the way Burke associates the strong, indeed frightening notion of sublimity with the protective and authoritative role of the father, and therefore makes beauty a weak, feminine quality. Of course, the sublimity of traditional patriarchal politics is only one form of political sublimity, and Blakemore is as quick as anyone to notice that Burke is awkwardly placed to praise the sublime discipline of the governments of the Ancien Régime while repudiating the sublimity of revolutionary discipline. As Blakemore observes, at this point in the argument Burke has to move to more concrete complaints against the Revolution. It is its utopian goals, its chaotic administration, its needless bloodletting that have to bear the burden of condemnation. As befits the title of the book, Blakemore writes always from Burke’s perspective, but never so as to endorse without argument his view of the matter in hand. On the nature of constitutions and the merits of patriarchy as a ruling principle, to take a central example, the reader may well come away feeling decidedly sympathetic to Paine’s no-nonsense prose, matched to Paine’s no-nonsense demand that he should be shown the much-vaunted British constitution before being asked to refer it to the French, and preferring Mary Wollstonecraft’s robustly contemptuous dismissal of lisping fragility to anything Burke says in equating feminine beauty and feminine weakness.

The Impact of the French Revolution on European Consciousness, to render its title in full, is a collection of essays first written for a conference on the subject. As conference proceedings will, it sprawls a good deal – from Châteaubriand’s melancholy reflections on the infirmities of human nature to Dickens’s surprisingly thoughtful reflections on 1789, 1830 and 1848, and from William Doyle’s opening attempt to divine the ruling principles of the Revolution at one end of the book to Norman Hampson’s engagingly self-mocking attempt to draw out its lessons at the other. But a good many of the essays are sustainedly interesting, and all have their moments.

The less literary-minded will probably enjoy Professor Hampson’s piece more than any other. Hampson is too fluent in the ways of Revolution historiography to proceed unselfconsciously. Like everyone else, he knows that the effect of the Revolution of 1789 – or more exactly, of the atrocities of 1792-1794 – so deeply poisoned French politics that France was all but ungovernable for the next 175 years. The unfinished business of 1789 had much to do with France’s inability to resist Hitler’s armies in 1940. Anyone who has seen the coins and stamps issued by the wartime Vichy government will recall that in its usual small-minded and silly way it tried to repudiate the Revolution along with most of the rest of the modern world. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité were replaced by Travail, Famille, Patrie – ‘somewhat less inspiring’, as Hampson mildly observes. Many of us have come to think that one of de Gaulle’s achievements was finally to lay those old quarrels to rest. ‘The French Revolution is over’ was how François Furet began his Penser la Révolution Française some ten years ago. Hampson isn’t so sure. ‘Some of the writing inspired by the bicentenary of 1789 suggests that the old wounds bleed as freely as ever.’ It is certainly true that the French Government seems to have been anxious enough about re-opening old feuds to settle for a celebration of the bicentennial in the shape of historical soap opera – a decision it would have been easier to mock if the United Kingdom had not had its own reasons for keeping quiet about 1688 and the Glorious Revolution.

If Professor Doyle starts the volume by observing that every principle the Revolution adumbrated it also violated, Norman Hampson ends on a cheerfully undaunted note. Certainly, revolution is a hideously expensive way of bringing about social change and enlarging the freedom of ordinary people. Certainly, revolutions disappoint the utopian expectations people have of them. But ‘despite what Burke wrote, the French proved that it was possible to tear a country up by the roots, to repudiate the past and make a new start.’ Of course, that doesn’t always come as good news. Andrew Sanders’s brisk and engaging dash through the reactions of Dickens, Carlyle, Thackeray, Macaulay, and heaven help us, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni, shows just how rapidly British middle-of-the-road opinion could slide into Podsnappian condemnation of all things French, especially the French Revolution. Even though Carlyle’s French Revolution was the source for most of the ideas and all the more high-flown rhetoric of both Dickens and Thackeray, Carlyle was much less simply hostile to the Revolution than were those who borrowed from him. His emphasis on the ‘Sham’ of the Ancien Régime was intense enough to take a good deal of the edge off his criticism of the philosophers, journalists and assorted dreamers who made and botched the Revolution: but, truncated and popularised, his hatred of abstraction became a general anti-intellectualism, and his radicalism became a feeble philanthropy.

The view expressed by Monied Interest in Dickens’s story ‘The Flight’ might have made an epigraph for Seamus Deane’s The French Revolution and Enlightenment in England. It was Monied Interest who declared that it was ‘quite enough for him that the French are revolutionary – “and always at it”.’ The eight essays that make up what Froude would have described as ‘a short study on a great subject’ cover both more and less than the title of Professor Deane’s book implies. The Revolution itself looms large and obtrudes less continuously than one might expect, while the Enlightenment looms rather larger. But what really holds the book together is an idea that is at once illuminating and obscure: the idea that in responding to the Revolution and to the Enlightenment which had produced it, British writers were engrossed with its Frenchness.

In tackling this theme, Seamus Deane covers a period of some fifty years, ranging back to Condillac, Helvétius and Holbach, and carrying the story on to the 1820s. 1789 is anything but salient. Burke’s Reflections were an early response to the early hopes of the revolutionaries and Deane is mostly concerned with later reactions: Coleridge came to terms with Rousseau between 1799 and 1809, British responses to the politics of the French émigrés were affected by Napoleon’s seizure of power in 1799 and by the Peace of Amiens in 1803, while Hazlitt was carrying on his Jacobin campaign against English conservatism and Benthamite radicalism down to the 1820s. The central issue around which everything rotates is the French national character, and whether there was something in it that caused the Revolution, and doomed the Revolution; and if so, what that was.

It was not merely that 1789 had turned out to be something wilder, more violent and altogether less intelligible than the Glorious Revolution of 1688. That was certainly true, but it was only a part of the truth. What was more important to those who thought in these terms was to discover what it was that caused the French to take up ideas that were the common stock of advanced European thought and to make them the pretext for regicide and terror; and whatever that was, it could emerge clearly only in the light of a contrast with the British character. Though Professor Deane has a lot else to say, his distinctive theme is the various ways in which British thinkers explored the British political character in their obsessive exploration of the French.

That this is the way to read a good deal of Burke, we probably take for granted. Burke’s Reflections were provoked by Richard Price, an English Dissenting minister, and addressed to an anonymous French gentleman, but when Burke says ‘you’ he is apostrophising the French nation at large, and when he says ‘we’ he claims to speak for the whole British people – or at any rate for all those among them who were politically active. What is more surprising is that Burke’s categories of analysis and polemic recur in Sir James Mackintosh, permeate Coleridge’s ruminations on Rousseau, and provide an unexpected link between Carlyle and Southey. On Hazlitt, Deane puts forward the startling but in the end persuasive hypothesis that Hazlitt thought Jacobinism had been defeated both in England and in Europe less by British Toryism than by the essentially French philosophy of self-love put forward by Condillac and Helvétius and naturalised into England by Adam Smith and Bentham. Hazlitt raged against reaction and tyranny in England, but the intellectual roots of what he raged against were French, not English.

Even the group which welcomed 1789 most warmly, the politically active ministers of the Dissenting Churches, felt the same doubts about French tendencies. French sexual mores were too lax; the Philosophes had gone too far in broadening a justified attack on the superstitions and despotic affinities of Catholicism into a general assault on Christianity as such. Since most Dissenters had only wanted their own legal and political disabilities removed, it took very little to persuade them that 1789 was not 1688, and that the French had, as was to be expected, gone too far.

Professor Deane is properly anxious to point out that not everyone went down the same xenophobic track. Godwin, for one, switched from rationalism to the philosophy of moral sentiment between editions of Political Justice, but retained a lofty cosmopolitan perspective from which one nationality was scarcely distinguishable from another. Bentham and James Mill thought the subject of national character would have a place in a rational science of legislation, but agreed that as things stood appeals to national character were largely an aspect of political abuse – a view spelled out in one of John Stuart Mill’s earliest essays in the Westminster Review and defended all his life.

Professor Deane is equally scrupulous about distinguishing one antipathy and its objects from another. In the early stages of the Revolution, émigré priests were made much of, since it was the Revolution’s attack on the Church that caught the eye: but it was not to be expected that British political opinion would remain attached to a vengeful and reactionary group that looked forward to the restoration of just the kind of Catholic absolutism the British had rid themselves of a hundred years before. After 1799, a more lasting affection lighted on Mme de Staël and constitutionalists like Mallet de Pan, who admired the constitutional compromises of the British system of government and were sworn enemies of Napoleon. The British propensity to congratulate themselves on the unique perfection of the British constitution was quite consistent with a hunger for congratulation from other sources too.

Seamus Deane begins, as we all begin, with Burke. It has long been fashionable to find in Burke a divided consciousness, less unequivocally anti-revolutionary than he liked to think. His acute consciousness of the fact that his career had been built entirely upon his own merit must often have made him wonder whether the Ancien Régime deserved the devoted service that men like him had given it. His Letter to a Noble Lord, written in 1797 after the death of his only son, gives vent to a deep bitterness at the contrast between his concern for the welfare of aristocratic England and aristocratic flirtation with revolutionary ideas that would bring down the whole edifice. The delicate balance between his sense of his own abilities and his belief in the virtues of aristocratic government must always have taken some preserving, especially when the estate he purchased at Beaconsfield did so much more to wreck his finances than to elevate his social standing.

Many commentators have argued that his Irish background, and his awareness of the grievances of the Catholics in his home country, must have made him more sympathetic to the siren songs of the revolutionaries than his ferocious assaults on them would suggest. Seamus Deane extracts a neater and more persuasive analogy. In his unpublished Tracts Relative to the Laws against Popery in Ireland, written in 1765, Burke took issue with the English historians who depicted the Irish as naturally rebellious. He denied that nature had anything to do with it: it was oppression that made the Irish rebellious, not a flaw in their nature. Burke drew the obvious analogy between Irish Catholics fleeing Ireland and the persecuted Protestants fleeing France: both were an indictment of the policies that drove them from their homeland. Whenever he considered the Protestant Ascendancy, Burke attacked it as a monster of bigotry and injustice, fuelled by no religious feeling and expressing only a passion for persecution. During the 1790s, the full moral lesson could be drawn. The Protestant Ascendancy was an abomination because Irish Protestants formed a plebeian oligarchy, and in Burke’s opinion, ‘a plebeian oligarchy is a monster.’ This was Burke striking at all his enemies – the other two plebeian oligarchies on his mind were Warren Hastings’s East India Company, and the Jacobins.

What the English did in Ireland was what the Jacobins did at home by proscribing their enemies in the name of a fictional national interest. The policies of the English in Ireland looked all the more wicked because they were so much at odds with the character of English politics at its best. At its best, English politics relied on a chain of affection and duty, stretching from the humblest to the greatest, and based on the love for place and family celebrated in Burke’s emphasis on the ‘little platoons’. As Seamus Deane puts it, ‘France was a threat, Ireland a dire warning, England the ideal middle term between the two.’