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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Nine views of Jean Paul Marat (first part)

Création difforme de la société, Fille sourde de cette mère aveugle. Lie de ce pressoir, Marat c’est le mal souffert devenu le mal vengeur… "
- Victor Hugo

1. Of all those revolutionary lives in the 1790s, Marat's has the most symbolic narrative arc -- a hider in the sewers, a brief triumph over his enemies, the moderate Girondists, a death in the bathtub, apotheosis in David's famous picture. Its symbolic perfection is exploited both by those who find Marat a saint and those who find him an ogre. To Taine, he was obviously insane with delusions of gradeur – le delire ambitieux. To his Marxist biographer, Earnest Belfort Bax, he was, as he entitled himself, the “people’s friend,” although untutored in the ways of class – a transitional figure, in short, which nineteenth century Marxists loved the way Darwinians loved fossils of mammoths and pygmy horses. I think he is a prototype of that essentially modern figure, the Underground Man. After all, he literally did hide underground – in Paris’ sewers, waiting out a hunt mounted for him by the police. While hiding from the police is nothing new, there is something very interesting about Marat’s legendary descent into the sewer. He himself exploited it for its mythic resonances – as though he foresaw the romantic aura that would attach to it in the nineteenth century. On November 2, 1792, Marat writes:

“Freres et amis, c’est d’un souterrain que je vous addresse mes reclamations. Le devoir de conserver, pour la defense de la patrie, des jours qui me sont enfin devenus a charge, peut seul me determiner a m’enterrer de nouveau tout vivant pour me soustraire au poignard des laches assassins qui me poursuivent sans relache.”

[Brothers and friends, I am sending you these protests from the underground [literally – from an underground tunnel]. The duty to preserve myself for the defense of my country, with the days that I have left, are the only reasons that have determined me to bury myself once gain, alive, in order to remove myself from the dagger of cowardly assassins who pursue me without letup.]

2. This is unbelievably stirring, if you have the right historic sense for it. On a popular level, this is the release of a voice that will be exploited throughout the nineteenth century, in novel after novel. This is the Comte de Monte Cristo. This is the attitude of Les Miserables – or part of the mix of elements Hugo put into that novel. The more sinister undertone, in English novels, is borrowed by such covert master villains as Holmes’ great antagonist, Moriarity. And that voice will continue on in the twentieth century in film and comics, the dividing line between the hidden hero and hidden villain expressing the new moral uncertainties of politics in the age of capitalism – which is also, intrinsically, the age of contesting capitalism. In fact, Marat’s enemies didn’t believe a word of the underground story. “We know that Marat was in England, in consultation with Pitt, when it was believed he was hidden in the underground in Paris,” wrote Fantin des Oudards in 1801 – when the denigration of all Marat stood for had been going on for some time. To be in the underground could mean that you were anywhere – only the Shadow knows.

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