“Philippeau, welch trübe Augen! Hast du dir ein Loch in die rote Mütze gerissen? Hat der heilige Jakob ein böses Gesicht gemacht? Hat es während des Guillotinierens geregnet? Oder hast du einen schlechten Platz bekommen und nichts sehen können?” - Herault in Danton’s Death
“Philippeau, what sad eyes! Did you rip a hole in your red cap? Did St. Jacob give you the evil eye? Did it rain during the guillotining? Or did you get a bad seat and couldn’t see anything?”
In 1939, Georg Lukacs, who was living, I believe, in Moscow at the time, published an essay about Georg Büchner with a typically tendentious Lukacs-ian title, Georg Büchner and his Fascist Misrepresentation. It was another potshot in Lukacs’s shooting war on European irrationalism, of which the leading philosophical figure was, of course, Heidegger – although as we all know, Lukacs, in his Weber days, writing things like Soul and Form, got pretty fuckin close to irrationality – thought that yearns to be appreciated for its yearning to be thought - himself. Like a cuckoo in the nest, the yearning pushes out content – but in reality, according to Lukacs, the vacuum of content reflects a plenitude of class interest.
Lukacs’ attack is on Büchner ’s alleged despair, and he alludes to the evidence for it that has been pondered by all Büchner scholars – the letter he wrote to a friend about the French Revolution, which he researched before writing the play.
“For several days now I have taken every opportunity of taking pen in hand, but have found it impossible to put down so much as a single word. I have been studying the history of the Revolution. I have felt as though crushed beneath the fatalism of History. I find in human nature a terrifying sameness, and in the human condition an inexorable force granted to all and to none. The individual is no more than foam on the wave, greatness mere chance, the mastery of genius a puppet play, a ludicrous struggle aganst a branzen law which to acknowledge is the highest achievement, which to master, impossible. I no longer intend to bow down to the parade horses and bystanders of History. I have grown accustomed to the sight of blood. But I am no guillotine blade. The word must is one of the curses with which Mankind is baptized. The saying: It must needs be that offenses come; but woe to him by whom the offense cometh” is terrifying. What is it in us that lies, murders, steals? I no longer care to pursue this thought.”
Of course, as Lukacs pointed out, to make this letter Büchner’s final statement on the matter is unfair. Buchner wrote it – and his play – when he was twenty two. And he had already been active in revolutionary politics. . Lukacs thought that the despair of the letter was, indeed, laced through the play, but that it was absorbed by a dialectical message that formed the real political intelligence of the play. Now, say what you will about this interpretation – and, in his defense, it must be said that nobody had better reason to feel the full fatalism of history than Lukacs in 1939! so his rejection is, in its own way, a little heroic or mad – it is useful for seeing a pattern in the play, a conflict that shatters the temporary synthesis of wisdom and happiness embodied in the image of Epicurus, the true bourgeois messiah. As Camille Desmoulins puts it in the first scene: “Der göttliche Epikur und die Venus mit dem schönen Hintern müssen statt der Heiligen Marat und Chalier die Türsteher der Republik werden.” (The divine Epicurus and Venus with her beautiful hind end must become the gatekeeper of the Republic, instead of St. Marat and Chalier.”)
Lukacs points out that the epicurean materialism of the philosophes, which is the philosophical perspective broadly represented by Danton, can’t endure, instinctively opposes, the call to class struggle issued by Robespierre. Lukacs has two very useful grafs on this topic, if you are interested in re-reading re-reading history:
“The central dramatic and tragic significance of the figure of Danton resides in the fact that Buchner, showing exceptional depth of poetic insight, not only laid bare the socio-political crisis in eighteenth century revolutionary endeavours at its turning point in the French Revolution but – and the two are inextricably bound up with each other – at the same time portrayed the ideological crisis of this transition, the crisis of the old mechanistic materialism as the ideology of the bourgeois revolution. The figure of Danton, indeed Danton’s fate, is the tragic embodiment of the contradictins generated by historical developments in the period between 1789 and 1848, contradictions which the old materialism was not able to resolve.
The social chacter of epicurean materialism gets lost along the way. As a result of the objective situation, eighteenth century materialists were in a position to believe that their theory of society and history – and both are essentially idealist in philosophical terms – arose from their materialist epistemology; indeed they belived that they could really derive the course their actions should take from their epicurean materialism. Helvetius says: “Un homme est juste, losque toutes ses actions tendent au bien public (sic).” And he judged himself to have derived the substance of such sociality, and its necessary connection with an ethics of the individual, from Epicurean egotism.”
At which point I am reminded of one of the sayings of Epicurus: “don’t engage in politics.” Or in the Vatican sayings: “We must free ourselves from the prison of public education and politics.
When Lukacs uses the phrase,
epicurean materialism, to talk about the nature of the Dantonist resistance to
Robespierre in Büchner’s play, he is following a theme which was taken up in
the 19th century not only by Marx, but by the historians of the French revolution
and of the enlightenment.
Emile Dard’s biography of Herault de Sechelles (1903), for instance, is titled “An epicurean under the terror.” When Büchner’s Robespierre denounces the wealthy and the refers to people who ‘used to live in garrets and now roll around in carriages and sin with former marquesses and baronesses’, he is referring – except for the garret – to hedonists like Herault, who was followed about, as he performed his revolutionary duties, including creating a constitution that gave foreigners the right to vote, by a few aristocratic groupies. And Robespierre’s denunciation of ‘vice” and those who ‘declare war on God and property” as a way of secretly supporting the King – whether they know it or not – he is sounding an old Left theme that has become perennial - the warning against the decadent life style - but that had peculiar resonances in the Revolutionary period, when the carry over from the 1780s was so sexualized. Mirabeau, for instance, was famous for his rather famous erotica before he was famous as the revolution's first great orator. The disabused spirit of the young bucks around Danton was simply an extension of the final moment of the Enlightenment – which, contra the philosophy crowd, was codified not in Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, but in Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Herault moved in the Valois circle, which met in the Palais Royale, and included Laclos as well as Tallyrand, Sieyes, and others. As Dard puts it, Herault, on his sofa, would become enthusiastic for justice, 'the sole passion that could inflame the sceptics, on the condition that it did not disturb their leisure."
O Herault! I identify.