Revolutionary Chic

Neal Ascherson

The noblest and most innocent of all revolutionary manifestos is the Hessische Landbote, written by Georg Büchner in 1834 when he was 20 years old. Addressed to the peasantry of Hesse, the Landbote had almost no effect except to provoke a wave of repression against the young intellectuals who were behind it. It is written, deliberately, in language of Biblical simplicity, and its subtitle might have been spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘Peace to the Cottages! War on the Palaces!’

This slogan went straight into the German radical tradition and, from there, into folkmemory and cliché. I had always assumed that the words came straight from Büchner’s heart; Friede den Hütten! Krieg den Palästen! But when I read this biography of the aphorist Chamfort, I found they came out of another revolution entirely. Chamfort, a middle-aged wit and drawing-room radical, went to a Paris dinner party in 1792 with his friend the English poet Helena-Maria Williams. It was around the time of the battle of Valmy. After a few drinks, he improvised a battle-song for the Army:

Troupes guerrières
Sur vos drapeaux
Placez ces couplets:
Paix aux chaumières,
Guerre aux châteaux.

I think it is true, and to excuse my own ignorance I hope that it is true, that Chamfort has been almost totally forgotten in the Anglo-Saxon world. Arnaud demonstrates that he was widely read and appreciated on the Continent, when his aphorisms were published after his death, and that his sayings became common currency not only in France but in Russia and Germany. Büchner read him, and at the end of the 19th century Nietzsche resurrected him as the model of an amoralist who glorified vital strength. De Gaulle actually quoted him in wartime broadcasts. But British popular history about the French Revolution and its prelude manages to do without Chamfort, perhaps because this odd and protean character cannot be made to serve as evidence for any particular hypothesis. In any case, I was so blank on Chamfort that I had read my way more than a hundred pages into this book before I could allay suspicion that there had been no such person and that Arnaud’s work was in fact a devilishly clever documentary novel. It seemed possible that Chamfort had been invented in order to bring into sharper relief the outlines of ‘real’ people like Mirabeau, Condorcet, the Rolands or even Robespierre. Chamfort seemed to correspond more to the shape of the space between famous people than to a personality in his own right.

This fancy evaporated – Chamfort really did live, write and suffer – but it was not utterly unreasonable. Chamfort was one of those curious people who re-invent themselves to suit changing circumstances. Claude Arnaud writes that he ‘constantly rewrote his projected destiny, the better to shed overly constraining prophecies and to avoid dehumanising himself’. People like this in our own age are mocked as trendies or groupies. But in 18th-century Paris, with its complex upper-class structure of clientship based on the patronage of a great man or the salon of a famous woman, it was more important to be rewarding and interesting than to show craggy Victorian consistency. Moreover, ‘creative gifts’ were not yet the sole standard for judging men and women with intellectual pretensions. Chamfort was an outstanding aphorist, but most of his maxims were composed late in his life and only published after his death, so that before the Revolution his contemporaries knew only his plays. These were smart and second-rate, but their feebleness in no way put off his many admirers. They were less interested in paradigms of ‘quality’ than in the context – what Marie Antoinette thought about Mustapha, or who was behind those who attacked La jeune indienne (a great success, mostly because of ‘Mlle Doligny, an 18-year-old prancing naked under her tiger skin in the title role’). By our criteria, again, Chamfort was an indolent sponger. I open the book at hazard and read that ‘stroking the Angora cats that Mme Helvétius fed on chicken breasts, he let himself be cared for by this extremely rich heiress to one of the most important families in Lorraine (she had previously furnished his little retreat in Meudon).’ Like many indolent spongers, however, he was eventually to support a revolution which would do away with Angora cats fed on chicken-breast, with numerous wealthy ladies like Mme Helvétius and even with frivolous parasites like himself.

Chamfort became the space between the great courtier Vaudreuil and the rebel aristocrat Mirabeau in the first moments of the Revolution. Earlier, he had filled the space between the fashionable fringe of Versailles life and the ‘republican’ savants of the Enlightenment. At the end of his life, on the eve of the Terror, he tried to refashion himself between the Gironde and the Montagne. But here he failed. These were distances which could no longer be bridged by charm and a clever epigram; Chamfort fell into the gulf between them and was destroyed. Until then, he had never encountered trouble as a result of his taste for having a foot in both camps, and the list of those who knew him, enjoyed his company and were ready to help him out of difficulties, is almost a celebrity-index of his times.

He even invented his own name. Chamfort was the illegitimate son of Jacqueline de Vinzelles, an aristocratic married lady from the region of Clermont-Ferrand, and a young canon at the cathedral. He was dumped on a baker’s wife, whose own baby had died, and given the dead baby’s name: Sebastien Roch Nicolas. Brilliant as a schoolboy, tormented by rage and resentment when he discovered his real parentage, he went to Paris and became a writer. He was only 21 when he wrote La jeune indienne and retitled himself ‘de Chamfort’, spending most of the rest of his life disguised as the blue-blood he felt he ought by rights to be and lying, slightly, about his age. He was very attractive, good in bed and an instant celebrity. People in our own time who carry that sort of chip tend to become journalists, and indeed Chamfort exhibited the typical ambiguity of a gossip columnist: on the one hand, the obsession to flatter, climb and belong, and, on the other, a violent ‘revolutionary’ contempt for the élite he tried so hard to join.

Then something odd happened. There had been much competition for Chamfort as a lover (‘You think he’s only an Adonis, yet he’s Hercules,’ said Mme de Craon meaningly), and he had made himself famous by saying that ‘love, such as it exists in high society, is merely an exchange of whims and the contact of skins.’ In 1766, though, he fell suddenly ill with some strange affliction which destroyed his looks and left him temporarily unable to read or walk. Arnaud refers vaguely to possible leprosy, elephantiasis or ‘granulatosis’, whatever that may be. He observes that it was probably not a venereal disease, but Chamfort and his friends evidently thought that it was, and he struck a new pose as a sensitive pessimist and misanthrope wounded by Cupid’s careless arrow. He did not exactly give up sex, but he dropped the role of a salon Hercules and was much less seen around. His cosmic bitterness against the unfairness of the world grew more intense.

The best thing about this book is what it tells us about the prelude to revolution – that long period of dissolving respect for the old order, of fantastic glimpses of what new heaven and earth might replace it. The Philosophes, most of whom Chamfort knew, were critical enough and some of them drew famous pictures of an alternative world of nature and reason. Intellectually, Chamfort was far more conservative than they were. But he had the one quality which they lacked and which is indispensable for revolution: hatred. Others based their rebellion on a belief in primordial human virtue, or on the rights of ‘the people’. Chamfort, who was to write in 1790 that ‘for me the public represents the height of bad taste,’ had no clear vision of ‘sacred liberty’, but instead he hated the Ancien Régime – which had fed him and petted him and pulled him into its beds for so long – with parricidal intensity.

In 1790, the publication of volume after volume of the Livre Rouge, the list of the King’s confidential grants and pensions, had the impact of the Stasi files in modern Germany. Chamfort figured prominently. By then he was one of the better-known personalities of the early Revolution, close to Mirabeau and Siéyes, a busy journalist who had surged forward on the crest of all the tumultuous events of 1789. But the Livre Rouge revelations did him little harm, because nobody had expected anything else of him and because in that happy interval, it seemed natural and splendid that human beings should be transformed from corrupt misanthropes into radical ‘patriots’ and friends of the people. Chamfort gave his savings to the Revolution – and did so anonymously, surely the most impressive act of his life. La jeune indienne was revived as a ‘patriotic’ piece of theatre and put on, improbably, by the Cordeliers Club. For Chamfort, the Revolution’s first few years were incomparable fun and excitement. He thought still in terms of a constitutional monarchy. In 1789, Chamfort had helped Siéyes by giving him the title for his famous pamphlet: ‘What is the Third Estate? Everything. What does it have? Nothing.’ But he supposed that social and economic reform would be forced through by the progressive wing of the aristocracy rather than by the Third Estate itself, let alone by the People in Arms.

Even when the Revolution accelerated, he hung on. At one point, he joined the Jacobins and – following fashion – achieved his most bizarre quick-change by turning himself into a bore who droned on about the wicked frivolities of literature in times of crisis. But he was unable to keep this up for long, and soon fell in with the far more congenial intellectuals of the Gironde who formed the government in 1792. France was at war now, and the great August insurrection had overthrown the monarchy, but for the last time Chamfort was back with clever, funny, hospitable people who understood – as their grim Montagne successors did not – what a cultural revolution might mean. Manon Roland, who stood for all the imagination and generosity that the Terror soon destroyed, was his close friend, and her husband, now in the government, persuaded Chamfort to become director of the Bibliothèque Nationale: ‘I am the Minister of Money; you are the Minister of Intelligence.’

All collapsed. The hatred of Danton and Marat for the Gironde élite was a gap which Chamfort could not cross. By October his circle of friends was being denounced as a ‘hotbed of counter-revolution’, while what Claude Arnaud adroitly names ‘revolutionary misogyny’ presented the Roland salon as a sort of whorehouse where women behaved with scandalous liberty and men dared to enjoy themselves. Early in 1793 the remains of the Gironde Government disintegrated and in June the mass arrests began. In July, Charlotte Corday murdered Marat, and Chamfort was denounced by an employee at the Bibliothèque Nationale for declaring that Corday was a heroine. In September he was arrested and held in the filth of the Madelonnettes prison; he was let out after only 48 hours, but his indestructible self-confidence, his delight in life, died in the cell. Mme Roland went to the guillotine on 1 November, and her husband killed himself in hiding. Two weeks later, Chamfort was told that he was to be rearrested. A hideous suicide attempt followed, in which he blew out one eye and lacerated himself with a razor. He survived, so badly injured that the executioners lost interest in him, and lived on for five months until his wounds caught an infection.

Chamfort died on 13 April 1794. His corpse vanished, and his manuscripts were mostly stolen. Was he ‘important’? His contemporaries found that listening to his relentless stream of epigrams and funny stories for more than a short time left them horribly depressed. The aphorisms have much the same effect today. One in ten is memorable (‘the French government was an absolute monarchy moderated by lampoons’), but most of them now seem overweight and less than witty. Chamfort’s own life matters more. Claude Arnaud’s rapid, richly-detailed, gossiping and name-dropping biography turns out to be one of the most instructive of all histories about what revolution feels like and how its heat can suddenly and repeatedly transform personalities until they are unrecognisable. Those who retain consistency, even in the heart of the furnace, are often those who are already social chameleons and masters of the skills of multiple identity. Revolutionary chic began with Chamfort.