“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

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

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Sunday, June 21, 2009

of what is the statue guilty, your honor?

It's a wicked life, but what the hell
Everybody's got to eat




Around March 4, 1848, Alexandre Dumas wrote a public letter Emile de Girardin, the editor of the newspaper, The Press:

‘Yesterday, I walked across the court of the Louvre and I saw, with astonishment, that the statue of the duc D’Orleans was no longer on his pedestal.

I asked if it was the people who had knocked him over; they told me that it was the governor of the Louvre that had had him taken off.

Why this? From whence comes this prescription that digs into the graveyard?”

The Prince - the Duc D'Orleans - was a famously liberal patron of the arts. Among the artists he supported was Delacroix. He was a friend of Hugo and Dumas. And he'd fled with the rest of the royal court in February.

After recounting an anecdote about the disagreement between the Duc and the King, Dumas continues:

“The people, this people who are always just and intelligent, knew this like us, and, like us, understood it. You can go to the Tuilleries and see that the only rooms respected by the people are those of M. le duc d’Orleans; why thus be more severe than the people towards that poor prince, who has the happiness to no longer belong anywhere except to history?

The future is that block of marble that the events can chisel as they will; the past is that bronze statue tossed into the mould of eternity.

You cannot do anything against the man who no longer exists.”

Dumas ended with a flourish:
“The republic of 1848 is strong enough, I believe, to consecrate that sublime anomaly of a prince remaining standing on his pedestal in face of a royalty falling from the heights of its throne.” (Mes betes, p. 238 – my translation)

Freud supposedly said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But a statue is never just a statue – as is easily shown in world history. One easy way to tell if a revolution has arrived in a given place is: what is the casualty count of the statuary?

Dumas was a violent republican who tried to raise a troupe to go to Paris to support the workers. But, as he explains in My animals, his was a politics of temperament:

“Composed of a double element, aristocratic and popular - the former by my father, the latter by my mother – nobody other than me unites in such a high degree in a single heart the respectful admiration for all that is great, and the tender and profound sympathy for all who are badly off… I have a cult for those I have known and loved in misfortune, and I don’t forget them, unless they have since become powerful and happy; thus, no fallen grandeur passes before me that I don’t salute, and no merit extends its hand to me that I don’t shake it. It is when the whole world seems to have forgotten those who are no longer there that, like an importunate echo of the past, I cry their name outloud.” (239)

Modern political theory warns about nothing so consistently as it does against adventurism. According to the adventure-ist theory, one must be logical – and logic has no worse enemy than mercy, which is whimsical, and points to a whimsical attitude - an aristocratic attitude - towards the world. The political system can, according to this view, encounter and integrate chance - which is what an election is - but not whimsy. Chance, it should be said, is not pure chance, but chance as it has been determined by parties. Of course, the question that hovers over the whole political system is - where did the judges come from? the men of affairs? the ranks? the institutions? Track their courses, and - the adventurer might reply - one finds not an evolution from logical principles, but a concantination of chance pathways. Adventure is at the root of it.

From the adventurers point of view, it is not that the new governor's are finally condemning old vices in the symbolic personage of statues. Rather, they can't stand the cold, measured gaze of the past.

Herzen catches this dichotomy too – it is what makes From the Other Shore such a torn and tearing text. His analysis of what happened in 1848 is, as well, an analysis of the revolutionary consciousness – it is as if he is tracking the interior history of the spirit, and the exterior history of events. Dumas, traversing the court of the Louvre, sees immediately the horror that befalls a culture in which a bureaucrat, with a flick of a pen, can condemn a statue to death. Herzen sees the horror that can befall a person who cannot sign that death warrant:

“I shall make my way, a spiritual beggar, through the world, my childish hopes and adolescent aspirations uprooted. Let them all appear before the court of incorruptible reason.

Man houses a permanent revolutionary tribunal within himself, an implacable Fouquier-Tinville, and even a guillotine. Sometimes judges fall asleep, the guillotine rusts, the fals notions, outdated romantic and feeble, come to life and make themselves at home, when all of a sudden some terrific blow rouses the heedless judge and the dozing executioner, and then comes the savage retribution for the slightest concession, the slightest mercy or pity shown leads back to the past and leaves the chains intact.” (373)

No comments: