the talking royal heads -1

In September, 1783, the visitor in search of virtuoso curiosa could go to see the two bronze talking heads designed by Abbè Mical on display at Rue de Temple, Marais, in Paris. Mical had been working on his design for thirty years, or so we are told by Antoine de Rivarol, who wrote an enthusiastic report about the heads in the Journal de Paris that evidently benefited from some inside information. “These two bronze heads speak and pronounce clearly entire phrases.” According to Rivarol, Mical had designed a kind of keyboard (clavier) which responded to pins attached to a cylinder in the same way you turn a crank to get a sound out of music box.

And what did the two heads say? “The king has just brought peace to Europe.” “The peace crowns the king with glory.” “Peace makes for the happiness of the people.” [Memoires de la Societe de Linguistique de Paris, 1878 3:5 259]

Mircal had apparently made a previous head or two, but, as they weren’t good enough, he destroyed them. He presented his heads to the Academie in the hope that he could sell them to the court. They were, after all, eminently royal heads. Unfortunately, Mical did not find a buyer, and destroyed them. Then he died, of a fabulously broken heart, in 1789. Or so goes one version of history. In another version, another branch of events that could have happened, he did find a buyer and they disappeared into that buyer’s cabinet of curiosities. And his deathdate, along this branch, is more uncertain.

It is said that Mical was shy, yet he seemed to find a way into the newspapers well enough. In 1783, his hand might have been forced, as there were two other automaton makers in Paris at the time, also promoting talking machines – a Dane named Kratzenstein and the famous Kempelen, who displayed the Turk, the chess playing automaton, at the Café de las Régence that year. The Turk was a mystery to two generations, defeated in chess both Frederick the Great and Napoleon, and ended up, in the 1830s, in America, where the solution to its human-like mastery was deduced by one E.A. Poe, who witnessed the machine in an exhibit in Richmond, Virginia.

To read the signs and portents of carnival shows and curiosity cabinets is no mean feat, but surely Rivarol must have felt some kind of prognostic shiver. These two royal talking heads pointed to more than the future of phonetics.

In the 19th century, Rivarol was considered to be the equal and opposite of Chamfort. In the 20th century, the French fascist Bardeche named a magazine for him – a magazine that became a favorite of Le Pen’s circle, apparently. But though the candle is still lit for him on the extreme right, few would consider him on the level of Chamfort today. Even before the revolution, they were a curious pair, a duo of talking heads who dominated conversation with their talent for hit and run epigrams. Chamfort, of course, went to the left (“Peace makes for the happiness of the people”) and Rivarol eventually emigrated to become a great propagandist for reaction, an unhesitating liar. Chamfort, when he was young, was considered strikingly handsome; Rivarol, when he was eighteen and studying for the priesthood – for which his father intended him – in Avignon, was known to the ladies as la belle abbé. [Lescure 37]

Rivarol derived from Italian nobility who had transplanted themselves into France. One of his first books was a prose translation of Dante into French. Like so many ambitious minds from the provinces, Rivarol came to Paris to make a name as a writer, a philosophe, and, not least, to escape his father’s plan for him. “Rivarol est né grand seigneur dans un cabaret,’ as Houssaye said – to paraphrase which we can say that his nobility was a sort of stand-up comic’s routine. He had a cutting tongue, and odd tastes for an enlightenment figure – not only Dante, but Pascal. However, his first real fame came in a very eighteenth century way. An academy in Berlin asked for essays responding to the question, why had French become the predominant language in Europe? The question was asked in 1785, but already German was being spoken at the Prussian court again, as Frederick the Great’s influence waned. Frederick, famously, thought German was for swine. Rivarol wrote an essay on the universality of French – you didn’t think we were giving up the universal thread, did you? that won the prize and marked, although Rivarol didn’t know it, the end of a certain ancien regime tone.