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Monday, January 17, 2011

on the image of revolution

In the introduction to the history of the Regent’s reign that forms the 14th volume of his History of France, Michelet writes:

“The regency is a whole century in eight years. It lead to three things at once: a revelation, a revolution, a creation.
I. It is the sudden revelation of a world arranged and masked for fifty years. The death of the King [Louis XIV] is a coup de théâtre. What was underneath becomes what is on top. The roofs are lifted up, and one sees everything. There never was a society so open to the light of day. A rare good fortune for the curious observer of human nature.
II. And it is not only the light that returns; it is movement. The regency is an economic and social revolution, the greatest that we had before 1789.
III. It seems to have aborted, and not less did it remain enormously fecund. The regency is the creation of a thousand things (the great roads, the circulation from province to province, free education, the bank account, etc.). The charming arts were born, all those which make for the easiness and agreement of private life. But, this was even more great, a new spirit began, against the barbarous spirit, the bigoted inquisition of the preceeding reign, a large spirit, soft and humane.”

The trope of the ‘roofs being lifted up’ is used in another, individualistic sense by Emerson in his essay, Experience:

“Every roof is agreeable to the eye, until it is lifted; then we find tragedy and moaning women, and hard-eyed husbands, and deluges of lethe, and the men ask, `What's the news?' as if the old were so bad. How many individuals can we count in society? how many actions? how many opinions? So much of our time is preparation, so much is routine, and so much retrospect, that the pith of each man's genius contracts itself to a very few hours.”

There is something sensational – revolutionary, apocalyptic – that is crystallized in the image of the roof being lifted off the house. It is a disaster, a blind strike by nature that crushes all human intentionality - and yet it has the exhilarating scope of an escape, of the dissolution of the congealed, dead labor of intention that bears down on the living like a nightmare. Louis XIV’s masked world of bigotry and Emerson’s reference to the world of narrowed experience that results from the routine irresistibly enforced by respectability and endless labor, under the system of moneymaking – both are eminently roofed worlds. The mask complements the roof to the extent that both disguise the naked human, face or body. Both conceal secrets. But the roof, unlike the mask, thrusts us back to the forest floor from whence we came, the treetop canopies that sheltered our monkeyness, and in this it seems the most useful of things. The mask is made to be removable – the roof, not.

When both are removed, we see the misery of the world. The deluges of lethe, the slow, grinding torture of the court.

Still, for all the exhilaration when the roof is lifted off, when man becomes earthquake to man, we realize that we can’t live in that moment. We must have roofs. The revolution cannot be permanent. The problem for the revolutionary imagination is that if the revolution finds a stop – if an equilibrium is established around which a new order assembles – if the roofs are generally nailed on again – we necessarily re-establish the conditions that lead, at the very least, to deluge of lethe, to the class system of claustrophobia.

But something changes.

In Michelet’s preface, the change that is brought about by the temporary rooflessness is that France, for the first time, consciously joins the global system. Michelet, like many French historians, conflates France and Europe, ignoring, for instance, the Spanish and Portugese experience. Yet he does point to a social fact – the new sense of the global order that we see in the first wave of the enlightenment. This social fact is, as well, a new sense of the domestic order. The economic experiments of the Regency also penetrate the household of the peasant, Michelet claims.

In a wonderful passage about the ruin of Law’s system, he writes:

“In this misfortune, yet note one thing: the old bankruptcies, the violent reduction of Mazarin or Colbert or Desmarets’ rents was without any consolation, a dead and sterile series of facts. But Law’s catastrophe was of a wholly other type of import. It had the singular effects of a sudden illumination. France knew itself.
Massew who had been immobile and ignorant up to this point, like the bottom of the Ocean, having never known tempests, the class that was not moved by either the Fronde or the Revocation, lifted up their heads this time, inquiring about the public treasure – and thus of the state and the kingdom, of war, of peace, of neighboring kingdoms, of Europe.
The distant enterprises of Law, his colonializations, the razzias that were made for the Mississippi, obliged the coldest among them to dream of the other hemisphere, of unknown lands, as one said, of the isles. In the cafes which opened by the thousands, the talk was only of the Two Indies. The seventeenth century saw Versaille. The eighteenth saw the Earth.”

Michelet is writing after Marx and Engels Communist Manifesto, and he might even have known that paen to the world economy.

This is, of course, the other side of the melancholy of the clerks. Do not think that the ichor in the veins of homo economicus is absolutely cursed – he, too, is a dialectical figure.

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