He wouldn’t dare

David A. Bell

  • Blood in the City: Violence and Revelation in Paris 1789-1945 by Richard D.E. Burton
    Cornell, 395 pp, £24.50, September 2001, ISBN 0 8014 3868 3

Of all the elements which go into making Paris such an exquisite object of desire, not the least is the memory of bloodshed. It adds a note of danger to the city’s frivolous pleasures, a sombre colour to an otherwise oppressively light palette. No other city’s history can offer such an extraordinary mixture of luxury and savagery, and the visitor who delights in the first also thrills, secretly, to the second.

In Blood in the City, Richard Burton takes his readers on a walking tour of Parisian sacrifice and slaughter. He moves from the Bastille to the place de la Concorde (where Louis XVI was executed), to the Hôtel de Ville (where successive generations of revolutionaries raised the flag of the Republic), and so on around the city. The tour includes the slaughter of the Communards in 1871, the round-up of the Jews in 1942, the settling of scores with Nazi collaborators in 1944, and many other horrific episodes. Burton also traces the way these effusions of blood seeped into France’s literary imagination, quoting liberally from the goriest passages of de Maistre, Bataille and Maurras. All these pages of blood, fire, dismemberment, gibbets, firing squads and the guillotine leave the reader with the impression of a culture devoted to the macabre. ‘It is,’ Burton writes, ‘the figure of a martyred, often decapitated human body, male and female, that dominates French history, literature and painting from the Terror to the Liberation.’

He is particularly concerned with the religious resonances of Parisian violence. Perpetrators and poets alike, he argues, saw bloodshed as expiatory and cleansing. In case after case, behind the ideological slogans and polemics, lay unconscious imitations of the Crucifixion, of ritual sacrifice, holy war and autos-da-fé. French history and literature were steeped in blood between 1789 and 1945, he says, because of an irrepressible longing for lost certitudes: the certitudes of faith and of pre-Haussmann Paris, with its comforting organic unity, its pleasing tangle of tiny streets and its sense of spiritual community. Faith eroded, however, and the great boulevards sliced through old neighbourhoods like a guillotine blade through flesh, leaving Parisians attempting, over and over again, to refound their lost cité (a word that can refer to a physical or spiritual city, as well as to the island at the centre of Paris) through expiatory sacrifice. Something of the same longing could be seen in France last month, as a full third of the electorate embraced the political extremes, with their violent denunciations of a ‘corrupt’ and ‘decadent’ political system, their promises of easy solutions and, in the case of the Front Nationale, their evocations of an older, pristine France, now defiled by alien influence. In response, tens of thousands of student demonstrators fell back on their classic scripts, even building a barricade in the place de la Concorde, and forcing the police to resort to tear gas.

Burton may exaggerate the centrality of bloodshed in French political culture, but his close attention to what Natalie Zemon Davis has called the ‘rites of violence’ reveals some enduring historical patterns. As he puts it, episode after episode of ‘almost choreographed violence’ followed the ‘same basic scenario’. The hapless governor of the Bastille, cut down in the street and decapitated with a kitchen knife, was succeeded by the Communards, lined up against the walls of Père Lachaise and shot, and the Vichyite collaborators hauled up in front of juries of Resistance members for perfunctory trials. Each change of regime involved the theatricalised killing of carefully chosen sacrificial victims, accompanied by hysterical conspiracy theorising and apocalyptic rhetoric.

The targets of obsession varied, of course. In the fervid imagination of the Left, the priesthood filled the central role of occult, demonic conspirators. Priests numbered prominently among the Left’s victims, from the Revolutionary prison massacres of September 1792 to the execution of clerical hostages, including the Archbishop of Paris, by the Commune in 1871. As a direct result of this last atrocity, Sacré-Coeur, built in expiation of the Commune’s sins, now looms morosely over the city. For the Right, the key conspiratorial role was increasingly filled by the Jews. Hence the Dreyfus Affair and its accompanying anti-semitic violence, and Vichy’s voluntary deportation of 76,000 Jews to their deaths during World War Two.

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