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5 The Terrible Years
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L'histoire a sa vérité, la légende a la sienne.
Hugo, Quatrevingt-treize

History has its truth; legend has its own.

The dilemma posed by the excesses of 1793 had long concerned Hugo. As early as 1841, in his speech upon entering the Académie française, Hugo painted a positive portrait of the Convention Nationale, the legislative assembly that condemned the king to death in January 1793 and authorized the Terror in the months that followed. He began gathering material for Quatrevingt-treize as early as 1863, well before the Terrible Year. Yet Quatrevingt-treize is very much a novel


of the moment. Hugo scrupulously notes in his diary the date he began writing: 21 November 1872. Ironically, this novel too was a work of absence, written at Hauteville House, that is, the home on Guernsey in which the writer had spent most of his years of exile, where he had written, among many other works, Les Misérables, his novel of the Restoration and the July Revolution. Here as before, Hugo seems to have been able to conceive Paris best by removing himself from the complexities, and the distractions, of the contemporary city.

The challenge of 1793 for any appreciation of the Revolution is to account for the founding event of modern France by accepting its least acceptable moment. To define the Revolution by and through 1789, as Hugo did in Notre-Dame de Paris and in the introduction to Paris-Guide, raised few problems, certainly not for Hugo, who never wavered in his belief that Paris owed its place in history to the destruction of the Bastille. Clearly, though, the year of 1793 required different tactics; violence on all sides sullied the ideal of the revolution. The execution of the king that opened the year ("the legend of the 21st of January seemed tied to all of its acts," as Hugo would note in Quatrevingt-treize ),[11] the governance of the Committee of Public Safety, the summary justice dispensed during the Terror, the war against the Allied forces in the east, and the civil war in western France—altogether these events constitute a year fully as "terrible" as any Hugo had lived through, including 1871.

The novelist needed to refurbish the ideal of the Revolution, and in order to do so, he needed an interpretation that would transcend the ideological divisions of the present and provide common ground on which the republic could build. Translated into his writings, the politics of performance showed up in the novel as a politics of transcendence: "Above revolutions truth and justice remain like the starry sky above the storm" (171). "Above" was Hugo's preferred point of vision; his was the eye of the bird in flight that moved across space, the vision of the prophet who ranged across time. At issue are the points of intersection between the political and the literary. Quatrevingt-treize fulfills the dual political and literary engagement that drove Hugo's entire career. This novel is, in sum, Hugo's legacy of the Revolution to the republic. Once again Hugo consolidates existing political equations into a re-vision of the political landscape.


Quatrevingt-treize recounts the dramatic tale of the Vendée, the metonymy that then, as now, designates the counterrevolution of the 1790S fought by an alliance of royalists and peasants in western France in the Vendée and in Brittainy just to the north. For Hugo, writing from the vantage point of 1872, the revolt was a lost cause that provoked ferocious cruelty on both sides, "savagery against barbarity" (177). At the same time, the Vendée was "a prodigious phenomenon," another example of the union of contraries "so stupid and so splendid, abominable and magnificent" (181). Hugo personifies the epic confrontation of the royalist Whites, led by the marquis de Lantenac, against the republican Blues, led by his grandnephew, the exvicomte Gauvain. The Blues carry the tricolor flag and swear allegiance to France and to the republic. The Whites and the ignorant Breton peasants remain faithful to the king, to the church, in a word, to the past. "To understand the Vendée, one must imagine this antagonism: on the one side, the French Revolution, and on the other, the Breton peasant. . . . Can this blindman accept this light?" (18182). The fundamental problem is one of vision. The Revolution literally lights up the dark forests in which the peasants live almost like animals, in caves, in the bush, in one instance in the hollow of a dead tree.

The Revolution also carries this light forward in time from the Enlightenment (the "Age of Lights" for the French language) and outward from Paris (the "City of Lights," as French culture has conceived it). Although almost four-fifths of the book takes place in Brittainy, part 2 ("In Paris") occupies a pivotal place in the novel because Paris determines the course of the Revolution and, hence, contains the future. What is 1793?, Hugo asks in his usual grand rhetorical style: "'93 is the war of Europe against France and France against Paris" (118). One could scarcely imagine a more succinct definition of 1870-71 . Hugo continues with the question that figures the entire book, "And what is the Revolution?" The answer Hugo gives to this constitutive question makes it clear that the present—1871—contradicts the past: "It is the victory of France over Europe and of Paris over France," a conquest that explains "the immensity of this terrible minute, '93, greater than all the rest of the century" (118).

Despite the relatively few pages taken up by events in the capital, the opposition Paris-France structures the entire novel. Hugo's summary highlights both the double generic reach of Quatrevingt-treize,


which comprehends epic as well as tragedy, and its dual periodicity, which includes the subtext of 1871 as well as the text of 1793. "Nothing more tragic," Hugo notes early on in the novel, "Europe attacking France and France attacking Paris. A drama that has the stature of an epic" (118). Once again, Hugo's visionary sense reveals to him the palimpsest of history. No writer is more conscious that every text is simultaneously an intertext that makes sense only within the larger network. So too every regime reaches backward and forward to other regimes. Hugo's distinctive vision of history is precisely that history is a vision. In the introduction to Paris-Guide, Hugo the historian reads backward, from the contemporary city to the old. In Notre-Dame de Paris and Quatrevingt-treize, Hugo the prophet reads and writes forward, from the old city, and the old regime, to the new. But Hugo's novel, like history, like the city, like the Revolution that it produces, holds both the old and the new.

The metaphors and images that carry the novel leave no doubt of the victor in this monumental battle of light against darkness, good against evil, and, more curiously, compassion against the exigencies of revolutionary justice. The present will necessarily triumph over the past. The only question is how to represent the struggle so that the necessary outcome also appears as the right outcome. Quatrevingttreize makes yet another gesture in a politics of transcendence. Hugo attains the necessary distance from the quotidian by constructing the novel around the dramatic confrontation of contraries, by "sublimating" the individual into the cosmos, and by "naturalizing" social and political phenomena. All three strategies are characteristic Hugolian modes of textuality. Here, in the context of the Terrible Year, each operates to produce a politics, and a text, of transcendence that sets the Revolution back on course and on site, in Paris.

Perhaps the most striking example in Quatrevingt-treize is the treatment of the Convention Nationale, the legislative assembly that governed France from 1792 to 1795. It is for Hugo the "visible envelope" for the revolutionary idea, through which materializes "the immense profile of the French Revolution." Too long, Hugo asserts, has this key moment in the Revolution been misunderstood by "myopic" judges, who can see the "abyss" and "the monster" of the Terror but not the "sublimity" of the "prodigious phenomenon" that founded the First Republic. It is, once again, a question of perspective (150-51)  It was also the stage for the Revolution. "Whoever saw the drama


[of the Convention] thought no more about the theater" (157). There was "nothing more deformed, nothing more sublime" (157), in the judgment that echoed the prescriptions Hugo had offered for romantic drama over forty years earlier, "a pile of heros, a herd of cowards" (157). Hugo depicts the workings of the Convention as a battle of words as "violent and savage" as the war being waged in Brittainy (156). The epic combat between right and left pits a "legion of thinkers" against a "group of athletes" (157).

Hugo builds his own drama from just such antitheses, which contend only to create a higher synthesis. "Antithesis," he argues, "is the great organ of synthesis; it is antithesis that makes light." In Enlightenment terms, that light is not an artificial creation of the intellect but a product of nature.[12] The Convention produced the revolutionary synthesis effected by the confrontation of opposites. "Even as it was bringing forth the revolution, this assembly was producing civilization. A furnace, but also a forge. In this cauldron where terror was boiling, progress was fermenting" (167). The mechanical metaphors are hardly accidental. Friction and combustion produce light, enabling a revolution on the technological no less than on the political plane. The alibi and the justification of the Convention and, by extension, of its acts, always come back to its place in history as an agent of progress. To substantiate the association of the Convention with modernity Hugo lists its many decrees, from the abolition of slavery and the establishment of free public education to the new codes of uniform weights and measures and the Institut de France. Of the 1 1,2 10 decrees of the Convention, Hugo proudly reports, two-thirds had a humane rather than a narrowly political goal.

As in Notre-Dame de Paris, Hugo operates within a visionary mode of history. To convey the immensity of the revolutionary phenomenon he frequently reaches beyond history to myth. The Convention is a corn batant in the eternal war of light against darkness as it struggles against the "hydra" of the Vendée that it carries in its entrails and the heap of royal tigers on its shoulders (168). Yet, because this myth plays out in specific historical circumstances, it is, properly speaking, neither myth nor history but legend. For his novel Hugo claims this truth of legend. "History has its truth, legend has its own" (181).

The rhetoric in which Hugo indulges—the great use he makes of antitheses, the outsize, even grotesque images, the litanies of names


and events—is the linguistic resource by which he recasts history into legend. The dramatization of the Convention, the synthesis of opposing ideologies, the dissolution of ideological contraries into a larger, comprehensive whole, have the effect of depoliticizing this most political of institutions. The litany of names ends up obscuring their differences. The product—modern France and the civilization that it incarnates—justifies the production; the end justifies the means.

The political is depoliticized still further by the transformation of individuals into types whose archetypical status is stressed by continual reference to classical heroes. The youthful, wise, and brave Gauvain is likened to Hercules (204), to both Alcibiades and Socrates (205), to Achilles (219), and to Orestes (227). In a mother seeking her kidnapped children, Hugo sees Hecuba. And so on. The even more forceful Christian model moves the individual still further beyond the narrowly historical. Gauvain is patently the christological martyr who sacrifices himself to save humanity and, here, to redeem the Revolution. Plainly not entirely of this world, Gauvain acts as the agent of a superior force. His followers see him as a Saint Michael who, as in all the images of this local Breton saint, will triumph over the hydra of the Vendée (168, 345). The scaffold frames a veritable apotheosis in the "vision" that transforms Gauvain into an archangel surrounded by a halo (379). In Hugo's eschatology, Gauvain's sacrifice enables the Revolution to move beyond 1793, beyond the deadly strife incarnated by the marquis de Lantenac, on the one side, and Cimourdain, the emissary of the Committee of Public Safety, on the other.

The Christian model, in turn, is sublimated into a vision that encompasses all of nature. The insistent comparisons between the individual and the natural, between the social and the cosmic, assimilate the quotidian into the cosmic, into nature itself. The Convention is a mountain top, a Himalaya (150), a wind, an ocean wave (170-71). The most striking example of this naturalization of the political and the historical is the extended confrontation of La Tourgue, the medieval tower that is the ancestral Breton home of Lantenac and Gauvain, and the guillotine, the efficient modern machine of death that has been transported from Paris. The one is the emblem of feudalism, the other of the Revolution; the one represents a dogma, the other an ideal; the one is a monster of stone, the other a monster of


wood. Hugo offers his historical explanation through the grotesque, which makes the guillotine the necessary product of the tower. Constructed of wood, the guillotine is a "sinister tree" that has grown on the land, watered by the sweat, blood, and tears of every tyranny. Hence the guillotine "had the right" to say to the tower: "I am your daughter"—a daughter who is therefore a matricide (376). The present time is "a tempest," a "great wind" that delivers civilization from the "plague" by which it was afflicted. The "horror of the miasma" explains the "fury of the wind" (372). Piling up image upon image, each more overblown than the last, Hugo justifies the Revolution even in its greatest excess. Quatrevingt-treize, finally, is politics as cultural performance.

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