demography and poetry

On July 4, 1793, a group of children coming from the faubourg Saint-Antoine shelter for foundlings paraded before the national convention in order to thank the deputies for the recent law that promised the principle of rights of succession to natural children. “You have shown yourself fathers in rendering to them the rights that they lost in being born in a manner one has always regarded as illegitimate,” declared the teacher of the children. “You did more: you have returned them to the social body… You have established the base of government upon equality.” In a few words, in its fashion, the Convention gave body to its promise. The astonishing and controversial law of 12 brumaire Year II (2 November 1793) accorded to illegitimate children, when they were recognized by their parents, rights of succession equal to those of legitimate children. The same law implicitly suppressed the customary right which permitted single mothers or their progeniture to petition for action in recognition of paternity in order to obtain a food pension.” - Susan Desan, What is a father? Illegitimacy and paternity of the Civil Code of Year II, Annales, 57:4 935.

So far, LI’s discussion of the issue of free love seems to follow the plot lines of various nests of gentle folks. In particular, the romantic movement in Germany as well as in England seems, when one examines it, an astonishingly close knit affair, with almost all participants being at one to two degrees separation from each other. It is this closeness which makes the history of German literature during its classical period seem so very much like a People magazine article about marriages and divorces among today’s young stars. It is a “small world” network. And yet, of course, it is operating in a much larger world – that Georg Forster ends up dying in Revolutionary Paris, writing his fascinating defenses of the French Revolution as a sort of embodiment, on the social plane, of physical laws (nobody at the time was more fascinated by the transfer of the term revolution from physics to society), connects, by one degree of separation, a generation of South Sea exploration, Tahiti, Captain Cook, and the extreme limit of the older form of imperialism to the new order with startling abruptness – it is by their degrees of separation that the poetry of social history is made by its unconscious agents.

In order to breath, however, LI has to periodically refocus. We’ve chosen free love as an ideology in the making, and love and suicide as two expressions of it, in order to bring us close to the conflicts that went into the birth and development of the culture of happiness. Of course, the participants did not think of themselves as particularly contesting happiness. Only in retrospect does one see how they diverged – as though separated by magic, magnetic fingers – from the bourgeois main. But that main itself was certainly involved in the wreck of the ancien regime – or one might say that it came through the fire as a new creature entirely. No salamander – but something more like a phoenix.

Desan rightly points out the conjunction of a seemingly progressive reform coupled with the collateral casualty suffered by a traditional usage – a “superstition”, if you will. Desan found that the implementation of the law, in fact, was rare – she used the Calvados department as her data base – and its terms confusing. LI suspects that the law is not only to be associated with the Terror, but to the strange rise, towards the end of the 18th century, in illegitimate births, coupled with the ‘dechristianization” of death that Paul Veyne has pointed out – orienting points that hint at a largescale collapse of beliefs across Europe.