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.

These assumptions may in fact prove generally adequate, yet in the case of the French Revolution the extraordinary passions released by the event do not seem wholly intelligible without more rigorous psychological analysis. What is one to make of the 22-year-old Saint-Just holding his hand in the flame created by the burning counter-revolutionary pamphlets and swearing to die for the fatherland? What of the ‘profound and sombre silence’ (according to one eye-witness) in which the self-appointed executioners of hundreds of ‘traitors’ (mostly priests) went about their grisly business in the Abbaye in September 1792? How, as Lynn Hunt asks, should we read the difference between the solemn and orderly trial of Louis XVI and the wild accusations of adultery, lesbianism and incest that dominated the proceedings against Marie-Antoinette? As for the execution of the King, even at the time observers did not fail to compare the spectacle to a ritual sacrifice offered up to the jealous goddess Liberty.

Hunt takes as her starting point Freud’s classic investigation into the origins of religion and society in Totem and Taboo, with its suggestive story of the primal band of brothers who killed and ate their father because he kept all females for himself. As with the term ‘family romance’, she does not try to apply Freud’s analysis literally to the historical events, as if the revolutionaries had literally re-enacted this elemental drama. She simply argues that the execution of a man commonly referred to as the ‘father’ of his people, by a government that counted ‘fraternity’ among its principal watchwords, indicates that the founding of the Republic involved precisely the sort of family conflict that Freud describes. Furthermore, while the Republic’s legitimacy depended on one level on the political doctrines it advanced, on another it depended on its ability to convince citizens that figures other than symbolic fathers could command their obedience.

The first skirmishes in this family conflict, and the first steps towards a new model of authority, Hunt suggests, took place long before the financial crisis that forced a weak and vacillating Louis XVI to convoke an archaic representative body, the Estates General, in the summer of 1788. Already in the middle of the 18th century, French novelists and playwrights had begun to draw a contrast between two sorts of father figures: on the one hand, the bad father who tyrannically imposed his will on his children, and on the other, the good father who gently guided them with love and affection. Strikingly, the same images cropped up in the most visible works of political opposition of the period, the remonstrances of the noble parlements (high courts), which explicitly equated good fathers with good monarchs, and bad fathers with despots. In subsequent decades, the figure of the bad father dwindled, and stories about filial rebellion and marital strife gave way to wholesome (and insipid) evocations of family harmony.

Yet the good father did not retain his popularity for long. Rather, an increasing number of successful works appeared that included no fathers at all. The most popular novel of the revolutionary decade, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Paul et Virginie (which, incidentally, remained a French favourite long enough for Flaubert to make it Emma Bovary’s chosen reading matter), featured two children raised by their mothers alone. Hunt notes keenly that the same effacement of the father also characterised a very different genre: the memoirs of the leading revolutionaries, who tended to dwell at length on the virtues of their mothers, but rarely even mentioned their fathers. She concludes, somewhat baldly, that the weakening of literary father figures under the old regime not only prefigured the eventual sacrifice of the King, but ‘fatally undermined the absolutist foundations of the monarchist regime’.

During the Revolution itself, the ‘band of brothers’ who replaced Louis made a determined effort not to erect new father figures of any sort in his place (in this respect, they differed from Freud’s primal band). Thus revolutionary cults of personality centred not on living leaders, but on martyrs such as Marat; and until the rise of Napoleon, government by committee predominated over government by individuals. Robespierre today is remembered as a self-aggrandising dictator, but this legend arose largely after his death, perhaps in order to provide his successors with yet another bad father figure to measure themselves against. Beyond this horror of symbolic fathers, the revolutionary government also attempted to eradicate paternal authority throughout society, pursuing family legislation designed to end fathers’ control over grown children, and generally transfer many of their rights to the state. As Danton famously proclaimed: ‘children belong to society before they belong to their family.’ In all these respects, Hunt contends, the French differed from the American revolutionaries, who did not challenge the idea of paternal power, and quickly seized on George Washington (alternately ‘the father of his country’ and one of several ‘founding fathers’) as a substitute for the bad, tyrannical George III.

In Hunt’s analysis, however, the undermining of fathers left the revolutionary leaders without one of the strongest traditional arguments for the subjection of women to male authority. It therefore became possible for early French feminists to respond in unprecedented ways to the Revolution’s seemingly universal promise of equality, and to demand that the rights of man and citizen be extended to the other half of the human race. To counter these demands, the revolutionaries thus needed to put new stress on the physical differences between men and women, which supposedly suited the latter only to the domestic virtues of bearing and raising upright republican children. Thus after an initial period of tolerating women’s political clubs, the Jacobins turned against them harshly in the fall of 1793, denouncing their members as ‘adventuresses, knights-errant, emancipated women, female grenadiers’. The need to exorcise the spectre of female political power also explains, in Hunt’s view, the extraordinary vilification of Marie-Antoinette. Such were the Austrian-born Queen’s supposed uncontrolled uterine furors that she was accused by one prosecutor (‘on whose foul head his foul lie has recoiled’, wrote Carlyle) not only of sexually dominating her husband, but of committing incest with the eight-year-old heir to the throne.

The Queen followed her husband to the guillotine, yet neither this act, nor the fall of the Jacobins in 1794, brought stability to the shifting and uncertain notions of familial and sexual authority in France. Indeed, Hunt implies that during the five years before Napoleon’s seizure of power the confused state of French ‘family romances’ fully matched the chaos of the political scene, with its widespread corruption, frequent coups d’état, and occasional whiffs of grapeshot. The link comes through most clearly, she argues, in the Marquis de Sade’s novel Philosophy in the Boudoir, which probed the ultimate, absurd consequences of the disappearance of paternal and political power. This bizarre work, whose characters run guiltlessly through the entire spectrum of possible sexual activities, also contains a pamphlet calling for the complete sexual availability of all women, and the decriminalisation of theft, sodomy, incest and murder. With the normal foundations of social order removed, Sade implied literally anything should go. Only slowly did the French retreat from the abyss into which the Marquis so willingly leaped, and struggle toward a new, steadier ‘family romance’. In it, paternal authority was rehabilitated, but only on condition that it cleave to the model of the good father. Women were allowed a more visible public role as well, but only as mothers and nurturers, not as independent political actors.

Beyond sketching out this story, Hunt’s book also calls for feminist scholarship on the period to turn in a new direction. Today, the French Revolution places feminists in much the same dilemma as it once placed Marxists. What mattered most? The promise of emancipation and equality (for women or workers) that briefly shone through the fog of revolutionary strife? Or the quick betrayal (of women and workers) by male bourgeois politicians? Current feminist writing has opted largely for the second answer, arguing that revolutionary ideology did nothing but replace an older model of male domination, based on the power of the father, with a new, and in some ways even more repressive one, based on the seclusion of women in the domestic sphere (the same argument is made, more broadly, about liberal political theory in general).

While hardly ready to let the revolutionaries off the hook, Hunt’s analysis of the family romance nonetheless leads her to argue that the shards of the old model did not fit together into new patterns quite so easily. Whereas political ideas grounded in traditional conceptions of paternal authority automatically excluded women from participation, liberal political theory which accorded women rights as civil individuals had to be twisted and distorted to achieve the same end. Thus the sacrifice of the father made the exclusion of women into a burning issue for the first time. It is no surprise, Hunt writes, that the French Revolution gave birth to a self-conscious, if short-lived feminist movement, while the American Revolution did not.

All in all, Hunt lays out her story lucidly. She uses Freud’s concepts deftly, even while occasionally swerving away from them to borrow from René Girard’s work on ritual sacrifice (seen through this lens, the King’s execution had less to do with parricide and incest than with concealing ‘the community’s terror of its own violence’ and thereby reinforcing the social order). She has a great talent for summarising tortuously complex historical and psychological debates in crisp, clear sentences, and so manages to plough through some exceptionally dense, highly-charged historical material in barely two hundred thickly illustrated pages without passing into over-simplification or reductionism. Without presuming to explain the causes of the Revolution, Hunt’s book offers a striking new way of thinking about it.

Should we accept her story? For all its cogency, it does make two important assumptions. First, there is an assumption about the sources. Of necessity, Hunt rests her conclusions on the analysis of a very small number of printed works, paintings and engravings. For instance, she makes much of the fact that while David’s great 1785 work The Oath of the Horatii features three brothers taking an oath in front of their father, a 1793 engraving depicting an oath-taking by three revolutionary soldiers shows no father, only a fallen comrade. The comparison perfectly illustrates her thesis about the revolutionary band of brothers refusing to create a new father figure, but of course it does not prove the thesis. Were the two works in fact emblematic of their respective periods? Is a comparison between a grand painting destined for the Salon, and a popular print a valid one to begin with? Hunt writes that ‘in the iconography of the radical period of the French Revolution ... there were virtually no emblems of fatherhood.’ Was this actually the case? The name of the leading radical newspaper, the Père Duchesne (!), perhaps deserves more attention than a short footnote.

The Family Romance of the French Revolution also raises doubts about sources when it suggests that the eclipse of paternal authority led some revolutionaries to take a benign view of incest, but also claims that for Marie-Antoinette’s accusers, ‘incest was the final crime, the very suggestion of which was cause for horror.’ To be sure, thanks to her impressive earlier works, Lynn Hunt can write on revolutionary culture with considerable authority, and The Family Romance is an extended essay, not an exhaustive thèse d’état.

As soon as we accept the validity of Hunt’s story – if we do – another question arises: whom does it apply to? Hunt, like the Romantic historians of 1789, has a penchant for the collective noun ‘the French’, as if the entire nation had acted in unison (to return to the detective story analogy, we might call this a Murder on the Orient Express approach to the Revolution). But how much relevance does Hunt’s story have for the peasants and sans-culottes who saw the occasional broadside or pamphlet, but had nothing to do with the rarefied milieux in which The Oath of the Horatii caused such a sensation? One wishes she had extended her brief to include popular songs, sans-culotte publications, and newspapers such as La feuille villageoise, which aimed at a peasant clientele.

Similarly, Hunt does not ask whether revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries (let alone Jacobins and Girondins) shared the same family romances. At one point she writes of how ‘the French ... killed their king’. But the Convention which voted Louis’s death had been elected by less than a tenth of all French adult males, and aroused massive, bitter, armed opposition throughout the country. The violence of the Revolution was mostly not the violence of ritual sacrifice, but rather the violence of civil war. Hunt is asking us not merely to assume the essential unity of the revolutionary experience, but also to take the Terror in Paris as its defining, emblematic moment. These assumptions fit in well with the current direction of revolutionary studies (and particularly with the work of François Furet, who has greatly influenced Hunt in the past), but not all historians would accept them.

Hunt acknowledges that a more exhaustive study of the family romance would have to examine what separated the different groups and factions more closely, but she insists that her story describes ‘the most persistent and powerful unifying features of the political imagination’. Yet did the political imagination of revolutionary France really find its truest expression in the individual imaginations of the most radical revolutionaries? These figures, the Saint-Justs, the Robespierres, the Babeufs (and the Sades), at once compelling and repulsive, exert a continuing fascination because of the seeming purity of their beliefs, what Victor Hugo in his novel Ninety-Three called ‘the blind certitude of the arrow that sees nothing but the target and flies straight there’. Because of this fascination, there is always temptation to take their words as evidence of a deep collective longing which only they dared to express. Yet this is the view the Jacobins had of themselves. Others saw in their ideas and actions nothing but distortions and misrepresentations of the spirit of the Revolution. It’s not obvious whom we should believe.

Still, in the end, any work that presupposes the existence of a ‘collective political unconscious’ must make the sort of assumptions that Hunt does, and her initial essai, in the French sense of a venture into unknown territory, is to be applauded. The Family Romance of the French Revolution has provided one possible reading of a collective French revolutionary unconscious, and in doing so has opened up the psychological dimensions of the event in a way that historians have not before managed to do. Whether her reading still works when pursued deeper into the sources, and whether alternative readings could be constructed from the same evidence, are questions that only further research can answer.