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Four Cultural Upheaval and Class Formation During the French Revolution
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For nearly a thousand years, French society had revolved—in theory certainly and in growing reality as well—around the notion of ordered and in-


termediary bodies (privileged guilds, estates, corps, parishes, regions, clients, families). As Delamare wrote in his Traité de Police of 1705:

l'homme est tellement né pour la société, qu'il en fait son objet favori & sa principale satisfaction. là vient que dans l'ordre de la nature, non content de ce premier lien qui ne fit de tout le genre humain qu'une grande société, il a recherché avec empressement des unions plus étroites, d'où se sont formés dans la suite les familles, les Villes, & les plus grands Etats; & dans chacun de ces Etats, des societez encore plus intimes, par les emplois & les professions particulières.[1]

In the middle decades of the seventeenth century, however, the social and administrative elites of the French nation began to rethink the shape of their collective life. By the 1780s, for reasons that are still opaque but which we will try to address, two poles had come to focus their energies on this score: first, meritocratic individualism, about whose nature and merits they were seemingly quite clear; and, second, what might be called, for want of a better term, "public life," a realm whose scope had widened steadily since the creation of the "Old Régime" in the mid-seventeenth century, a great transformation that holds our particular attention since that same trajectory from the corps to the nation has been widely reversed in our own times.

Nature, reason, humanity, civisme , sacrifice, people, and nation were varyingly used at various times to approximate this communitarian social nebula.

The terms private and public , which had had relatively little relevance only decades before, gradually acquired overwhelming cultural centrality. Montesquieu's popularity in France during the 1780s derived from his individualistic denunciation of arbitrary rule and not, as it did in America, from his defense of intermediary bodies or from his concern for the benefits of mixed government. The venality of offices, which had been allowed in the minds of Frenchmen by the collapse of the public and the private, was universally decried, even by the parlementaires whose social existence depended on it. Meritocratic academies gained at the expense of painters' guilds. Intellectualized, Parisian, and "ungendered" salons—where divisions of status were, if not ignored, at least suspended—waxed as the model of court life as Versailles waned. Privilege, heretofore a kind of private law, now became synonymous with abuse. The state itself, under the indirect aegis of the physiocrats, gave the (fitful) signal for an attack on feudalism and corporatism, especially in Paris. Of similar relevance to the rise of the new and "areligious" ethic of the private and the public were many newly introduced institutions: masonic lodges, for example, with their coded, neoparliamentarian rules of order; "lycées"; and "sociétés de pensées," where nobles and nonnobles found common cultural ground. Reference should also be made, though this is less clear, to the educational institutions of the times, some of


whose programs and personnel were renewed in the third quarter of the century.

These new foci of social life, then, were the staging areas for transformed definition of the public and the private, and for new patterns of sociability and thought. Their effect was felt in the near and distant corners of social life, in the explicit redefinition and secularization of public fêtes, for example; or in the increasing reluctance to consider Protestants and Jews as members of subprivileged groups rather than as individuals entitled by nature and reason to freedom of opinion.

A less important but perhaps more symbolic consequence of this reordering of priorities was the enlightened interest in pornography, which can be defined as the intimate and illicit made outrageously and illicitly public, as the interface between unrestrained individual desire and undefined natural circumstance. Sade's fantasies have suggestive relevance to the structure if not the content of Jacobin thinking on the relationship of nature to man and "others."[2]

A similar if inverted effect of this same reordering found expression in the conceptual opposite of pornography, that is to say, in a new and highly gendered literary genre, the epistolary novel. In La Nouvelle Héloïse and Les Amants de Lyon , the private and exemplary letters of a blameless woman were made public for the edification of the public, but only after the heroine's more or less suicidal and wholly apolitical death. Here, womanly selfsacrifice allowed the licitly private to be made licitly public as well.

The effect in eighteenth-century France of the invention or development of secularized privacy (an ancient English locution that to this day has no strict equivalent in the French language) can best be traced in the recently rewritten history of women in eighteenth-century France. The traditional political and public role of females (as queens, royal mistresses, or, more humbly, as vicarious voters in elections to the second estate in 1788–1789) was recoded, devalued, or even eliminated. Women (and children, whom they were held to resemble psychologically and physiologically, in the pitch of their voices, for example) were removed from the public eye and placed at the center of private life. Quite typically, Diderot, in the Encydopédie , considered citizenship as an exclusively masculine concern:

on n'accorde ce titre (de citoyen) aux femmes, aux jeunes enfants, aux serviteurs que comme à des membres de la famille d'un citoyen proprement dit; mais ils ne sont pas vraiment citoyens.[3]

This redefinition of feminized, private life had very wide effect. It spilled over into matters as varied and numerous as how and where men and women should work; children's literature and birthday celebrations; a concern for domestic comfort; for better heat and better smells; for women's bodies and


the joys of sex; and for the virginal white muslins with which women were ordinarily enrobed, both in the paintings of the counterrevolutionary painter Vigée-Lebrun and in David's elaborate settings of revolutionary fêtes. The sustained antifeminism of nearly all revolutionary leaders, from Chaumette to Robespierre and Amar (with some conspicuous exceptions, especially of Condorcet, a child of Reason more than of Nature, and the heir of Poulain de la Barre's Cartesian reasonings) finds its first and most obvious origin in the widely shared belief that the private sphere of woman could not be fused directly with the public life of men. It is curiously expressive that revolutionary anticlericalism should have had as one of its rhetorical motifs the forced marriage of heretofore culturally androgynous Catholic priests, a ceremony that might involve his entering a closed confessional in priestly (and womanly) robes in order to emerge from it reborn, régénéré , since attired in the manly—and public—uniform of the national guard.

The puzzling extent of the revolutionaries' antifeminist (and anticlerical) aggressiveness allows us also to apprehend the deep insecurities created in the minds of men by this Great Transition in the reshaping of sexual roles.[4] Public men and public women were set at the two extremes of a new ethic whose requirements had only been uncertainly interiorized by both men and women.[5] Marginal groups would pay the price of that insecurity in the years to come.

In similar if converse fashion, the rise of a new conception of the secularized public good (and of the "nation" as its prized institutional locus) found expression in the desire to depersonalize power and in the attendant desacralization of the monarchy, after 1750 especially. Architecturally, the newly discovered majesty of the public sphere was given physical expression not in palaces, as before, but in impressive, geometrically shaped and balanced squares (the first of them being in Paris, the Place des Vosges conceived in the reign of Henry IV; the last, the Place de la Concorde in 1754) and in the spacious, ordered cours and allées of Paris and many provincial cities like Nancy, Bordeaux, and Rheims, a spatial model so successful that it was soon copied all over Europe by would-be-modernizers from Lisbon to Copenhagen.

Though nationalism as a term was not coined until the revolutionary and imperial armies of the Grande Nation had made their aggressive effect painfully obvious from Madrid to Moscow, the reality of French nationalism and of militarized patriotism was everywhere visible long before 1789. The War of American Independence was very well received in Paris: "They tell me," wrote a delighted John Adams, "it is the first Time the French Nation ever saw a Prospect of War, with Pleasure."[6] It was popular in part as the first major conflict that the crown financed nearly exclusively from loans and not from taxes. But nationalism was yet more relevant to the zeal aroused by the struggle against perfidious Albion. Paradoxically, Britain was at once an


accepted social and economic model and the national enemy, so that masculine suicide—at times defined either as an individuated gesture, as "l'acte le plus libre," as a Catonian gesture of empowered and national self-sacrifice—was also (and contradictorily) held to be an "English disease." The nation became a standard unit of social measurement with the development of statistics and of social analysis.

Many, and perhaps even most, nobles were unable to resist this cultural shift: unable to persist in the view that theirs was an immanent unit in an integrated society of traditional Orders. Some aristocrats did stumble backward onto the wholly factitious theory of the distinct, Frankish racial origin of the noble-born. But the more representative response of nobles was, optimistically, to reconsider the role of the French nobility as a nationally useful and mercantile group, or as a remilitarized fraternity of trained and skilled officers whose self-appointed task would be to defend the fatherland more efficaciously and more professionally as well.

The nation became a standard point of cultural reference: a new feeling for national and public life found expression in the growing and archival interest for the historial origins of the French state, of French chivalry, and of the French or Frankish races. Latin now seemed less important than the national French language to these "moderns" who nurtured a thriving and corresponding disdain of local dialects. Many schemes of national education were floated here and there, one of them by an otherwise highly reactionary parlementaire, La Chalotais. By the time of the Revolution, the French had even developed a national musical canon, a repertoire of often-performed works which emphasized patriotic continuity rather than mere esthetic novelty.

It is critical to understand that this new and enlightened, private/public polarization of "a-religious," elitist sensibility was not perceived by its votaries as being conflictual. Sensibility, it may be useful to add, is more appropriate to describe the situation of prerevolutionary France than is the term ideology . Like social classes whose yearnings they express, ideologies ordinarily presuppose conscious and antagonistic allegiances. But to the contrary, the sensibility of the French prerevolutionary elite actively assumed the effortless social and political reconciliation of universally acknowledged principles.

Commentators who reflected on the gradual, meliorist emergence of the (feminized) private and the (masculine) public easily assumed that this newly discovered ecumenism was embedded in the books of Nature and/or Reason which previous generations had only falteringly and partially deciphered. Heuristically, many schools of thought might be harnessed to justify these new categories of social thought: Cartesian innovations as well as the more traditional principles of natural law were easily adapted to current needs. The new cultural arrangements, it was thought, needed only to be


conceptualized in order to realize themselves in practice. Revealingly, many thinkers were indifferent to the political context that would best realize their schemes. Before the 1780s, there was not much to choose, it seemed to many, between the rule of parliaments or of enlightened despots.

The social costs of the new ethic were drastically underestimated by meliorist "philosophers" who perceived the past as a record of failures never to be repeated. Nearly to a man (few of them were women), the philosophes assumed that the new social model would make existing social distinctions irrelevant or, at least, transparent , to use a term that has been appropriately used to describe Rousseau's seminal interpretation of man's ideal social condition. Indeed, during the 1780s it was widely held (in Paris) that the inhabitants of the newly emancipated, thirteen colonies, regenerated by independence and—as Brissot was to explain in 1792—by virilizing war, had already succeeded in reaching this Republican and fraternal goal. Americans, they concluded, had brought forth in their wilderness near-perfect replicas of the ancient republics.

A suggestive parallel can also be drawn between the expectation of civic harmony-to-come, which they assumed would soon characterize French public life, and the harmony that many French couples expected to find immediately, in their current, private, and maried life. Significantly, the political involvement of wives and husbands during the Revolution was often intertwined. On the side of the Revolution, the Rolands, Desmoulins, Roberts, and Condorcets, come to mind, as do also Pauline Léon and the enragé, Leclerc; the analogs on the right are Charette's Vendéan "amazons" like Mme. de Bulkeley and Thérèse de Moëllien, or, for that matter, the king and queen. In the apt words of Dominique Godineau, "l'existence de couples de militants est une donnée du mouvement populaire parisien."[7]

It is in this central assumption of social and cultural, private and public harmony (and in its failure) wherein lie the origins and the failure also of "l'esprit révolutionnaire." Jacobinism, which was to be the ideologized and politicized essence of that sensibility, pointedly harked back to lost ideals of classical antiquity. It was, in Benjaminian terms, a political phantasmagoria, a utopia that dreamed the future as the reincarnation of an imagined, classless, and harmonious past.

In the mind of the revolutionary elites, liberty (or the modern freedom of the individual) and equality (a common and classic access to the allencompassing politics of the commonwealth) were to be conciliated by Republican fraternity, in our own times a risible public slogan, but a critical concept for Frenchmen and women at the time: "la République," Roland was to explain in September 1792 to the newly arrived Conventionnels , "est une seule et même chose que la fraternité."

To use the terms but not the argument of Albert Hirschman's excellent book, public interest was not displaced by private greed or passion. To the


contrary, the two were aggressively perceived as separate halves of a complementary dynamic. For Montesquieu, the apparent inequality of meritocratic reward was actually a proof of equality, provided that all men were equally free to develop their varying abilities. Likewise, the giving of alms plain and simple was a poor idea since it discouraged individual endeavor. But the final effect of that wiser kind of charity that required the poor to become productive individuals would be to raise the disadvantaged to a suitable standard of civic equality.

In a more noble register, Lafont de Saint-Yenne, the first modern art critic, urged French artists to imitate Roman models, because in that ancient Republic, "every private person having his part in governance [of the state], the good constitution of the State became his private and personal interest."[8] Many philosophes were quite conscious of the wide gap that was implied by the simultaneous defense of property and of civic humanism; but they generally assumed that this difference could be transcended by the creation, in Rousseau's words, of an "égalité morale et politique." The voluntarist politicization of difference was to be a path not to conflict but to be unprecedented cultural integration.

Rousseau, the universally famous and solitary "Armenian" hermit of the Ile Saint-Pierre, the most representative figure of his age, a man whose life and works were to be a model for revolutionaries great and small, male or female, conceptualized this universalist ethic as the General Will, a masculinist moral universe within which an empowered and sovereign citizen might commune with his neighbors through the civil religion of a revived polis.

The Social Contract , it is true, was not widely read; but thousands of men—and women, especially—wept over the analogous message of La Nouvelle Héloïse . They communed with Saint-Preux, the suicidally prone, narcissist, self-obsessed and sensual hero of this epistolary novel who had managed to find a place in the patriarchal, fraternal family that revolved around his beloved Julie. In Rousseau's world view, man's nature, though not invariably communitarian and good, was nonetheless distinctly pliable. Man, if touched by social rather than divine grace, could—with the help of his fellow men—make himself good. Saint Vincent de Salles had explained, in the previous century, that the purpose of a Christian education was to break the sinful nature of the individual child. Rousseau proposed instead to nurture the child's desire to love and to be loved by others: "the vices and misfortunes of children," he reminded the subjects of the French king, "are chiefly the effect of the unnatural despotism of the father."

Public and private were everywhere held by the prerevolutionary elites to be in potentially consensual, antiauthoritarian, neo-Republican accord. So was it, for example, that the first and appointed task of contented women in the home was voluntarily to begin to shape through principle and affection the sensibility of future civic-minded or even Republican, fraternal, and pub-


lic figures. The sudden popularity of the rosières , or "queen of virtue," much praised by Target, the first lawyer of his day,[9] was expressive of this new and integrated private/public perception. Personal integrity and the upholding of public morality were enmeshed as the integrated, cardinal principles of the day. And in a higher (and later) register, the mutuality of the private and the public were to be reproduced in the (universalist) Declaration of the (private) Rights of Man of August 1789, which emphasized less the specific and inherent, imprescriptible rights of the citizen, than his total empowerment in the context of the nation-state. It was indeed this simultaneously naturalized and nationalized quality that in the eyes of its makers essentially differentiated the French statement from its inferior and more positivistic, Virginian antecedents.

In a lower but more immediate key, the craving of the reading public for a collapse of public and private values was inversely evinced in its horrified fascination for tales of courtly and monarchic corruption. The Diamond Necklace affair was the cause célèbre of the 1780s. Countless revolutionary politicians would also learn, in time, to fear politically crippling accusations of corruption, of having placed their private gain before the public weal. In this context, Danton and his foil Robespierre immediately come to mind. Only a genuinely base man, replied Robespierre to the Girondin Louvet in November 1792, could refuse to see that his entire sense of self must have the national good as its purpose. Ortega y Gasset aristocratically derided Joseph Chénier's denigration of Mirabeau: "Je considére qu'il n'y a pas de grands hommes sans vertu."[10] But this was to miss the point of Chénier's unspoken and wholly representative argument.

Before 1789, the detailed contours of the constitutive private and public elements of the new French collective identity were carefully annotated. On one side, rigidly moralizing distinctions were developed between positive and negative definitions of private life, that is to say, between those shapings of privacy that did dovetail with the public good and those which failed that acid test.

The physicality of breastfeeding was pleasing. Female sexuality in marriage was likewise much praised: the Desmoulinse's double-bed was for them and others the symbol of an emotionally and politically collaborative marriage. For Choderlos de Laclos, the author of the celebrated (and ironically epistolary) Liaisons Dangereuses , the sexuality of women could not be denied (as was made obvious in countless statements ranging from novels to "sexuated" representations of male and female skeletons); but within happy, mutually satisfying marriages this potent force of nature might well be tamed. (Choderlos was a prerevolutionary partisan of divorce, which was to be legislated in September 1792.)

Simultaneously, however, perverted female sexuality (i.e., a private yearning that sought fulfillment irrespective of the public good) was much


feared. Lesbianism now suddenly seemed far more threatening than male homosexuality, which in the recent traditionalist past had still been punished by burning at the stake. Dr. Tissot's criticism of female onanism, or tribadisme as it was then known, was warmly stated.

Republicanism for men, by contrast, often verged on homosexual, masculine friendship. In David's Oath of the Horatii , it united masculinized citizens in militarized and fraternal amity, just as it relegated women to the bosom of familial love, ordinarily inscribed in the devalued, bottom-righthand corner of vast canvasses. In the Year II, Romme, the self-sacrificing and fraternal "martyr de prairial," insisted on marrying any widow of a fallen and revolutionary soldier who might be assigned to him by his Parisian Section: this highly subjectivized but self-sacrificing Jacobin aimed to commune with both the Nation and an unknown, fallen, comrade through a female body, now become like other material and social forms, a "transparent" and almost irrelevant object.

In this same context of sexualized politics, Marie Antoinette, her prerevolutionary reputation, and the obscenities of her trial readily come to mind also, as does, on the other shore, the relatively unimpeded progression of Cambacérès and Fiévée from Republic to Empire and the more checkered career of Chaumette during the Revolution.[11]

Similar distinctions, positive and negative, were applied to the public side of the reconceptualized vision of sociability as well. Aged, country nobles who had grown poor in the unrewarded service of the state were much praised. Court nobles were by contrast despised, and this same distinction of "corrupt court and worthy country" was widely held, even in 1789–1790—even by Brissot, a man who lived from the crumbs he snatched from the tables of the titled great, and even when the more worldly and younger nobles of Paris and Versailles had repeatedly shown themselves to be the manifestly more liberal at the Estates-General than their troglodytic country cousins. In that same mode, it is worth noting that in 1793–1794, the most victimized of all nobles—both male and female—were parliamentary aristocrats, that is to say the most enlightened and wordly patrons of arts and letters. It did not matter that many of these often-enlightened jurists were as private persons (like Hérault de Séchelles and Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau) personally liberal. In the lottery of execution, their established reputation of indifference to the public good was an insurmountable handicap.

In short, by 1789, in many noble and nonnoble minds alike, the newer categories of private and of public (like those that defined the male or female) took precedence over the older distinctions of estates and corps as the structuring elements of l'imaginaire social . Rousseau, Thomas, Diderot, Mme. d'Epinay, and countless others pondered the question of woman's nature. And implicit in the background of the frequently raised question, "What is woman?" was, as has been said, the more dreaded if silent theme, "What is


man?"[12] Where did his self begin and end? Could it fully express itself in privatized social life? The emphatic declaration of man's rights and responsibilities in August 1789 can be read as an answer to hidden, unstated questions of gender as well as to the more explicit dilemmas of public politics.

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