Michelet's plunge into the crowd

Michelet published his translation of Vico’s New Science, which gave him a key to the meaning of revolution, in 1827, three years before the revolution of 1830. Recall this was the year, as well, that Raphael made his pact with the wild ass’s skin. In his introductory discourse to Vico’s work, Michelet gave his own interpretation of the long cycles that organize Viconian universal history, and in so doing foretold his own work as a historian and mythographer. The great and self-conscious mythographies, like The Sea, or The People, or Woman, or most famously, The Witch, are cast in the heroic mode on the modern scale. Vico, Michelet explains, took it that in the infancy of the world – the world of the Cyclops, the pre-homeric world - a name such as Hercules and the concept of the hero are not completely separated. Vico, in Michelet’s reading, is doing something like what we see in Plato’s Cratylus, where the divine root of the word is a key to the crowd of generalizations to which it falls heir, a crowd that, like Dionysian bacchantes, tear out bits of meaning for themselves. In Michelet’s mythographic work, the crowd is oceanic, and the word of some general class – women, the people – will stand in for a type of giant. A new type of giant, the modern giant.

The discovery of Vico was Michelet’s key to escaping the imprisoning notion of the positivists that history is simply a mechanical progress, a view that allowed the positivists to take a deflationary view of revolution. For the positivists, there are always roundabouts, benevolent and rational policies, that render revolution obsolete. Taking Vico as his guide allowed Michelet to upset the equivalence between revolution and some benevolent set of alternative rational policies. Rather, in the heart of revolution is a force that no mechanical progress would predict or could divert. It is the force of the great cycles of history, breaking through the dead level of the mental tone of a civilization. For, in Michelet’s words, barbarism does not only apply to the commencement of society, but to its end. The second barbarism marks the fall of a social order, which is always in the service of the “two natural laws” of history that Michelet claims to pull out of Vico: “those who can’t govern themselves, will have to obey” and “the empire of the world is to the best”. The best – the meilleur – are not the morally best, but those who understand how to govern. Thus, the last period of a civilization is marked by the paradoxical application of those laws: “One hundred times more barbarian in the last period of civilization than they were in their infancy! The first barbarism was natural, the second is made of reflection. The former was ferocious, but generous; an enemy could flee or defend himself; the latter, not less cruel, is more perfidious and cowardly: it is in embracing that they love to strike. Thus don’t fool yourself: you see a crowd of bodies, but if you are searching for human souls, the solitude is profound; these are nothing but savage beasts.” (XL)

In 1842, when Michelet published The People, he had begun to give up the Christian belief that some God operated above history, insuring that the great cycles play themselves out. Barthes, in his book on Michelet, contrasts two modes of representation in Michelet: the survol, that is, the overflight, and the plunge. The plunge is both a method and a physical exercise – the water cure, or the plunge into a mudbath, where Michelet cured himself of his political and hypochronical complaints in 1854. Barthes too quickly, I think, identifies the survol with Michelet, connecting the men, the events, nature and history, when I believe the movement is not only towards the hypertrophy of Michelet’s egotism, but towards a populist politics. The plunge – as in plunging into the ocean – is the experiential mode of The People, as Michelet makes clear in the introductory letter to Quinet. Barthes is right to capture the moment of egotistic identification, for Michelet’s People are, as it were, emblematized in Michelet’s life – one in which, as he says, he worked with his hands, not only in ‘making books’, but in “composing them materially” – “I assembled letters before assembling ideas, I am not ignorant of the melancholy of the atelier, the boredom of long hours.” (58) Michelet was the son of a typesetter and worked in the family printshop. However, this plunge into the self’s history is the double of another plunge, which is also associated with the book: “When the progress of my History led me to occupy myself with contemporary questions, and I cast my eyes upon the books in which these questions were treated, I confess that I was surprised to discover them almost all in contradiction with my memories. Then I closed my books and I re-placed myself among the people as much as was possible; the solitary writer replunged into the crowd, he heard the noises, noted the voices.” (58)

And what did he note? The People is a sort of mixture of fieldwork, philosophy and historical insights, and bears some relationship with the journalistic sociology of those who explored the popular sectors for the new newspapers, or who wrote from the heart of those sectors. In many respects it is like Engels The Situation of the Laboring Class in England, although Michelet was never as ‘cool’ as Engels – Engels would not have written a chapter entitled : Du servage et de la haine.

It is in that first chapter that Michelet shows his ability to absorb the actual tendencies at work around him. Here he is on the factory system:

“Everyone who does not know how to do anything comes to offer himself to the manufacturer to serve the machines. The more they come, the more wages drop, the more they are miserable. On the other side, the merchandise, fabricated thus at a low price, descends to the reach of the poor, in such a way that the misery of the worker-machine diminishes somewhat the misery of workers and peasants, who are probably seventy times more numerous.” (96)

As in Engels, the privileged example is the manufacture of clothing. Michelet goes further than the facts of the price system, noticing that the changes in the clothing of the people are a moral fact, with which the economic fact is intrinsically interwoven. “One sees then what an immense and powerful consumer the people are, when they participate. The shops were emptied at one blow.” (97)

This economic and moral fact necessarily imposes politically on everyday life: :The machine, which seems to be an aristocratic force by the centralization of capital, is actually a powerful agent of democratic progress.” How? Michelet is not talking in quantitative terms, as an economist, but in qualitative terms, as an ethnographer. For what is the use value of a dress? One of its uses, instilled for millennia by way of sumptuary laws, was to distinguish between classes. What is happening is that this difference of appearance can no longer simply be assumed: “These are not simply physical ameliorations, it is a progress of the populace in the exterior and in appearance, on which people judge each other; it is, so to speak, visible equality.”

But there are counter-tendencies in tendencies, currents in currents. There are maelstroms. The change here comes at the price of subjecting the worker-machine to a systematic abasement. “The head turns and the heart contracts when, for the first time, one entes one of these feerique houses where the iron and the brass, polished, blinding, seem to go of themselves, have the air of things that think and will, while man, pale and feeble, is the humble servant of these steel giants.” (98)

Here is laid out a peculiarly Cartesian nightmare, one which constricted more than one heart in the nineteenth century. When Ruskin makes this his cause, his red-white objection to industrialization, he runs his objection in the opposite way than Michelet – he moves from the abjection produced by the machines to the abjection produced by their products. For Ruskin, the embourgeoisification of the people is a huge loss, not a gain. It is a loss of, for instance, the system that once put together cottage made clothing and fairs, traded for a false equality that will, inevitably, bleed to death the traditional society of the vast majority.

The issues here are confused who look for clear lines between the reactionary and the revolutionary, or the backwards looking and the progressive.

However, to return to the Michelet and Engels – there is one point in which they compliment each other as, so to speak, anthropologists of the great transformation. That is in the world of discipline enforced in the ‘fairy houses” where the steel giants do the thinking. In one section of The Position of the Working Class in England, Engels reproduces the rules in force at one of the factories in Manchester (which no doubt are reflected in other factories). Among them is this one: “Every worker who speaks to another or who is found singing or whistling will be fined six shillings.” (Engels 1892, 399)

Light is cast on the meaning of this prohibition by Michelet, who takes up the history of the machine-worker with the example of the tisserand – the weaver. The condition of the two are distinguished because the latter has the time to dream: It happens in manual work that follows our impulsion that our intimate thought, identifying with the work, sets it to the thought’s steps, and that the inert instrument to which one gives movement, far from being an obstacle to spiritual movement, becomes the aid and the companion. The mystical weavers of the middle ages were celebrated under the name Lollards beause, in fact, in working they lullabied, sant in a low voice, or at least mentally, some nurse’s song. The rhythm of the shuttle, pushed down and pulled up in four four time, is associated with the rhythm of the heart. In the evening there was often found that with the weaving of the cloth there was also woven, in the same numbers, a hymn, a complaint.” (99)