Mother’s Boys

David A. Bell

  • The Family Romance of the French Revolution by Lynn Hunt
    Routledge, 220 pp, £19.99, September 1992, ISBN 0 415 08236 6

It used to be that historians searched for the causes of the French Revolution in the manner of detectives on the track of a master criminal. Over the years, unfortunately, they dragged such a bewildering variety of suspects into the historical station-house that one would be forgiven for thinking a posse of bumbling Inspector Lestrades had been let loose in the archives. Sometimes the suspects were individuals (most popularly, Rousseau or the Duc d’Orléans), sometimes they were collective (philosophes, freemasons and the rising bourgeoisie, the last of whom once seemed the historical equivalents of serial killers, leaving their fingerprints everywhere), and sometimes abstract (the Esprit de Système, the Idea of Freedom, Capitalism ...). Many of the accused seemed convincing culprits at the time, but such is the nature of historical inquiry that even the occasional Holmes among historians failed to make the charges stick for long. Nonetheless, each generation of specialists enthusiastically brought new techniques and methodologies to the same gigantic, confusing mass of clues.

Recently, though, many historians of France seem to have grown tired of this game. For one thing, a generation of wrangling between partisans of the ‘social interpretation’ of the Revolution (enter the bourgeoisie, stage left) and a hardy band of ‘revisionists’ has left the crime scene more cluttered and confused than ever. On a deeper level, some of the more philosophically inclined in the profession have come to doubt conventional notions of causality altogether. In an influential book, Roger Chartier went so far as to urge historians to abandon the traditional search for the causes of the Revolution, and to consider Michel Foucault’s ‘systematic deployment of the notion of discontinuity’. The philosophy of history has certainly changed since the days of R.G. Collingwood, to whom the comparison between historians and detectives still seemed perfectly appropriate.

Whether these developments will ultimately produce a more sophisticated understanding of the French Revolution, or only fuel the production of unintelligible academic jargon, is very much open to question. In the short run, however, the freedom to speculate on what occurred in France between 1789 and 1799 without having to drag yet another suspect into the dock on suspicion of revolutionary activity has been all to the good. Lynn Hunt’s new book, The Family Romance of the French Revolution, is a case in point.

Hunt, best known for her work on revolutionary political culture, has now turned to a subject which, almost by definition, resists detective work of the traditional sort: the collective political unconscious of the French nation. Drawing on pornography and Gothic novels as heavily as on political speeches and pamphlets, she has set herself the task of exploring the unconscious images that helped to structure (but certainly did not determine) revolutionary politics. In particular, she concerns herself with the most fundamental of psychological frameworks, the family, borrowing Freud’s term ‘family romance’, and redefining it to mean not the neurotic’s fantasy of replacing his parents, but the visions of family life which, she argues, underlie all notions of authority, personal and political.

While Hunt’s is not an entirely new undertaking, it is remarkable how few students of the Revolution have dared step onto this important, if treacherous territory. Perhaps repelled by the way 19th-century crowd psychologists such as Hippolyte Taine and Gustave Le Bon analysed – and demonised – the ‘savage’ and ‘irrational’ revolutionary mobs, most of them rejected all historical applications of psychoanalysis as inherently unreliable. Yet as Peter Gay has aptly pointed out, insofar as every historian operates with a theory of human nature, every historian is inescapably an amateur psychologist. The choice is not whether to use psychology or not, but whether to borrow the insights of professional psychologists or to rely on one’s own unchallenged assumptions.

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