Friday, September 11, 2009

Vive la Revolution

I personally have not posted yet because we were given the instruction to write something about our first few days in Paris that made us realize that yes, we were, in fact, living in Paris. Perhaps it's a sign of a phlegmatic temperament? I hear leeches are good for it, but my knowledge of Paris is mostly limited to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, my areas of academic interest.

To me, Paris is the city of philosophes and revolutionaries, where all classes somehow mixed together to create one of the most astonishing and sweeping reforms in all history, the French Revolution. Say what you will about the Terror, the guillotine or the Jacobins, but the revolutionaries earnestly believed in what they were trying to do and believed that they could accomplish it. For perhaps the first time in history, it didn't matter where you had come from or how close you were to the local seigneur. Your potential mattered, not your family's connections. It was an odd melange of the individualism of Voltaire and the General Will of Rousseau, an astonishing display of philosophy in practice and in politics. It wasn't perfect, but I find that there is a mesmerizing sort of virtue in the fact that they tried so hard, despite the fact that all the rest of Europe wanted to slaughter them in the streets as regicides, despite the fact that there was still famine in France, despite the fact that no one could really get along and despite the fact that they had next to no chance of getting supplies for their armies. Their idealism pushed their armies, whom Napoleon, then a rising officer, called perhaps the worst equiped in Europe, to incredible victories against enemy armies of overwhelming strength and force.

Modern day Paris is remarkably berift of sans-culottes and firey young demagogues ready to leap up on tables and demand Parisians storm the Bastille, but it is possible to see that legacy everywhere. I grin each time I see, "Liberte, egalite et fraternite" written on a building and I have to laugh each time I see Danton's statue near the Metro stop in the Latin Quarter. I suppose Paris really became the Paris I studied when I saw the display on the French Revolution in the Musee Carnevalet. I saw the drums the soldiers used, I saw the flags they carried into battle, I saw the pistols that Saint-Just, the youngest and potentially most passionate Jacobin, carried with him when he crushed the Royalist uprising in the Vendee, and I saw the briefcase Robespierre used when he worked to help write Le Declaration des Droits de l'homme et du citoyen.

In Paris, there is a very real sense of not only living with one's history, but learning from it and caring about it. The French Revolution isn't, like I sometimes feel people think of it in the States, a massive, chaotic series of executions that heralded both facism and communism in its tyranny. It's a part of daily life, hidden, but present, where real people worked to try and realize their ideals.

No comments:

Post a Comment