Irrevocability: hope of mankind (Nemesis again)

LI has been considering Chamfort in the light of Herder’s Nemesis not simply because Chamfort is another late Enlightenment writer, but because both Herder and Chamfort would seem, by their intellectual silhouettes, to be the kind who would go easily into the anti-revolutionary column. Herder with his doubts about the enlightenment “man”; Chamfort with his ferocious pessimism.

Yet neither were reactionaries. Herder never renounced the revolution, but retired from all comment upon it after the Terror. And Chamfort…

Well, Chamfort threw himself, body and soul, into the revolution. He impoverished himself, he wrote speeches for Mirabeau and Tallyrand, he, it is said, suggested the title for Sieyes critical pamphlet (Qu' est-ce que le Tiers-Etat? Tout. Qu'a-t-il? Rien) which neatly summarizes what, actually, all modern political revolutions are about – the struggle between what is really All – the working class – and its false political position – what does it have? Nothing.

A title that is echoed in one of Chamfort’s maxims:

“Me, all; the rest, none: thus it is with despotism, aristocracy, and their partisans. Me, this is an other; an other, this is me: thus it is with the popular regime and its partisans. After this, decide yourself.”

That Chamfort the pessimist, Chamfort the executioner of the Enlightenment smile of reason, was also Chamfort the revolutionary, Chamfort the anti-monarchist, this became the paradox that stuck in the throats of the reactionary writers in the 19th century, up to and including Nietzsche. They took comfort in the lineaments of a monstrous Chamfort conjured up by his sotie, his double, the charming salon reactionary Antoine de Rivarol, who, before the revolution, ran in the same circles as Chamfort, wrote for the same journals, cultivated the same leisurely cynicism. Afterwards, in exile, he became Chamfort’s most bitter critic, and it is from his pen that flowed the rumors and scandals about Chamfort that created his reputation in the 19th century as a sell out of the philosophes, a nihilists, a revanchist who, not content with the epigram, picked up the guillotine at the first opportunity. But Rivarol was not the only one of Chamfort's companions to be shocked: Chamfort seemed to especially burn the anti-revolutionary crowd, who saw in him one of themselves. He was the philosophe who went ultra. Into the bushes. Unlike Tallyrand, whose motives seemed transparent – greed – Chamfort seemed to have reached his conclusions coherently; he seemed to have thought they unfolded from his dethronement of God and his corrosive view of man. There was, in the reactionary view, a pit even under cynicism, and Chamfort was its guardian devil. Thus, among the conspiracy minded among them (and the exiles from the French revolution were massively inclined to theories of conspiracy – De Quincey rightly compared their visions to that of an opium smokers) Chamfort must be accounted for as a kind of intellectual criminal master mind. After all, it was Chamfort who came up with the slogan that smelled of blood and jacquerie: War on the castles! Peace to the huts! (Guerre aux chateaux! Paix aux chaumieres!) under which, in effect, the countryside of France seemed to be reorganized. In 1810, Marmontel, an old litterateur, publishes his memoirs and includes an anecdote about Chamfort – long dead, of course, by 1810, another victim of the Terror. I’ll quote from Pellison’s biography:

‘The passage is curious – we have to cite it. When Marmontel objected to Chamfort’s reform projects, [saying] that the better part of the nation will not let any attack be carried through on the laws of the country and the fundamental principles of monarchy, he (Chamfort) agreed that, in its foyes, in its counting houses, in its workshops, a good part of the stay at hom citizens would find perhaps that the projects bold enough to trouble their repose and their enjoyments. But, if they disapprove, that will not, he said, be but timidly and quietly, and one has in had to impose upon them that determined class which has nothing to lose in the change and believes it sees much to gain. In order to organize them into a mob, one has the most powerful motives, famine, hunger, money, alarms and terrors, and the delirium to blaze a path and the rage by which one will strike upon all minds. You have not heard among the bourgeois but the eloquent speakers. Know that all your tribune orators are nothing in comparison with Demosthenes at a quid per head who, in the cabarets, in the public places, on the quais announce the ravages, the arsons, the sacked villages, flooded with blood, the plots to starve Paris. I call those gentlement the eloquent ones. Money principally and the hope of pillage are omnipotent among the people. We are going to make a test of Faubourg Saint-Antoine. And you won’t believe how little it costs the Duc D’Orleans [The rival of King Louis XVI] to have the manufactury of honest Reveillon sacked, which was the living of one hundred families. Mirabeau has gaily upheld the idea that with a thousand Louis D’or one can create quite a pretty insurrection.”

Thus spake Chamfort, the Goldfinger of his time. Evil keeps a book, and ticks off in it just what he will do: destroy the living of a hundred innocents, spread rumors, dethrone culture. Did Chamfort really put the fear of God into Marmontel? The conversation is recorded years after one of the major participants committed a very bloody suicide, so we don’t know what Chamfort did. We don’t know whether this was mockery. The note about the Duc D’Orleans sounds, at least, significantly false, the sort of crackpot notion that all the reactionaries loved. But the more fundamental falsity at the bottom of this is Marmontel's sense that Chamfort is betraying a pact. The pact, unspoken, unwritten, was that those who “came from the people”, the intellectuals, and adhered to the aristocracy even while savaging the superstitions that held back the nation, could never go back to the people. Hence, the place of the Duc D'Orleans -surely Chamfort must be operating on behalf of some powerful figure. The reactionaries had a hard time accepting that a revolution is not a fronde. As Chamfort wrote:

“All who emerge from the class of the people are armed against it to oppress it, from the militia man, the mercant become the secretary to the king, the preacher who comes from a village to preach submission to arbitrary authority, the historian son of a bourgeois, etc. These are Cadmus’ soldiers: the first armed turn against their brother and jump on them.”

Chamfort is one of Cadmus’s soldiers who, to the surprise of all, turns not against his brothers, but strikes at Cadmus the King. There was a part of him that did accept the bitterest consequences of the revolution:

“In the moment that God created the world, the movement of chaos must have made one find the chaos more disorganized than when he rested in the midst of it in its peaceful state. Likewise, among us, the the embarrasment of a society reorganizing itself having to appear as an excess of disorder.”

This is what makes Chamfort stand apart – his notion of the irrevocable is not a nostalgia for what is lost, not a view of the present as an obstacle in our way, but expresses instead the hope that the irrevocable will bury the past, expressed in a language that brings the revolution and Genesis together.


P.M.Lawrence said…
Typos galore. Ubi scribes ibi peccas.
roger said…
Mr. Lawrence, do you mean solecisms? Worried by your comment, I went over and corrected a few awkward sentences. But typos, no, not galore, not there.
P.M.Lawrence said…
"sotie" (sotise?), "a nihilists", "De Quincey rightly compared their visions to that of an opium smokers" ("...of an opium smoker" or "...those of opium smokers"? if not a typo for the former, a solecism for the latter), "foyes" (foyers?), "stay at hom", "mercant"... Easily six, from a cursory and not necessarily exhaustive scrutiny.
roger said…
Oops, you are right about sotie - sosie, double, is the word.