The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 8

Printed Paper.

In such a practical France, let the theory of Perfectibility say what it will, discontents cannot be wanting: your promised Reformation is so indispensable; yet it comes not; who will begin it — with himself? Discontent with what is around us, still more with what is above us, goes on increasing; seeking ever new vents.

Of Street Ballads, of Epigrams that from of old tempered Despotism, we need not speak. Nor of Manuscript Newspapers (Nouvelles a la main) do we speak. Bachaumont and his journeymen and followers may close those ‘thirty volumes of scurrilous eaves-dropping,’ and quit that trade; for at length if not liberty of the Press, there is license. Pamphlets can be surreptititiously vended and read in Paris, did they even bear to be ‘Printed at Pekin.’ We have a Courrier de l’Europe in those years, regularly published at London; by a De Morande, whom the guillotine has not yet devoured. There too an unruly Linguet, still unguillotined, when his own country has become too hot for him, and his brother Advocates have cast him out, can emit his hoarse wailings, and Bastille Devoilee (Bastille unveiled). Loquacious Abbe Raynal, at length, has his wish; sees the Histoire Philosophique, with its ‘lubricity,’ unveracity, loose loud eleutheromaniac rant (contributed, they say, by Philosophedom at large, though in the Abbe’s name, and to his glory), burnt by the common hangman; — and sets out on his travels as a martyr. It was the edition of 1781; perhaps the last notable book that had such fire-beatitude, — the hangman discovering now that it did not serve.

Again, in Courts of Law, with their money-quarrels, divorce-cases, wheresoever a glimpse into the household existence can be had, what indications! The Parlements of Besancon and Aix ring, audible to all France, with the amours and destinies of a young Mirabeau. He, under the nurture of a ‘Friend of Men,’ has, in State Prisons, in marching Regiments, Dutch Authors’ garrets, and quite other scenes, ‘been for twenty years learning to resist ‘despotism:’ despotism of men, and alas also of gods. How, beneath this rose-coloured veil of Universal Benevolence and Astraea Redux, is the sanctuary of Home so often a dreary void, or a dark contentious Hell-on-Earth! The old Friend of Men has his own divorce case too; and at times, ‘his whole family but one’ under lock and key: he writes much about reforming and enfranchising the world; and for his own private behoof he has needed sixty Lettres-de-Cachet. A man of insight too, with resolution, even with manful principle: but in such an element, inward and outward; which he could not rule, but only madden. Edacity, rapacity; — quite contrary to the finer sensibilities of the heart! Fools, that expect your verdant Millennium, and nothing but Love and Abundance, brooks running wine, winds whispering music, — with the whole ground and basis of your existence champed into a mud of Sensuality; which, daily growing deeper, will soon have no bottom but the Abyss!

Or consider that unutterable business of the Diamond Necklace. Red-hatted Cardinal Louis de Rohan; Sicilian jail-bird Balsamo Cagliostro; milliner Dame de Lamotte, ‘with a face of some piquancy:’ the highest Church Dignitaries waltzing, in Walpurgis Dance, with quack-prophets, pickpurses and public women; — a whole Satan’s Invisible World displayed; working there continually under the daylight visible one; the smoke of its torment going up for ever! The Throne has been brought into scandalous collision with the Treadmill. Astonished Europe rings with the mystery for ten months; sees only lie unfold itself from lie; corruption among the lofty and the low, gulosity, credulity, imbecility, strength nowhere but in the hunger. Weep, fair Queen, thy first tears of unmixed wretchedness! Thy fair name has been tarnished by foul breath; irremediably while life lasts. No more shalt thou be loved and pitied by living hearts, till a new generation has been born, and thy own heart lies cold, cured of all its sorrows. — The Epigrams henceforth become, not sharp and bitter; but cruel, atrocious, unmentionable. On that 31st of May, 1786, a miserable Cardinal Grand–Almoner Rohan, on issuing from his Bastille, is escorted by hurrahing crowds: unloved he, and worthy of no love; but important since the Court and Queen are his enemies. (Fils Adoptif, Memoires de Mirabeau, iv. 325.)

How is our bright Era of Hope dimmed: and the whole sky growing bleak with signs of hurricane and earthquake! It is a doomed world: gone all ‘obedience that made men free;’ fast going the obedience that made men slaves, — at least to one another. Slaves only of their own lusts they now are, and will be. Slaves of sin; inevitably also of sorrow. Behold the mouldering mass of Sensuality and Falsehood; round which plays foolishly, itself a corrupt phosphorescence, some glimmer of Sentimentalism; — and over all, rising, as Ark of their Covenant, the grim Patibulary Fork ‘forty feet high;’ which also is now nigh rotted. Add only that the French Nation distinguishes itself among Nations by the characteristic of Excitability; with the good, but also with the perilous evil, which belongs to that. Rebellion, explosion, of unknown extent is to be calculated on. There are, as Chesterfield wrote, ‘all the symptoms I have ever met with in History!’

Shall we say, then: Wo to Philosophism, that it destroyed Religion, what it called ‘extinguishing the abomination (ecraser ‘l’infame)’? Wo rather to those that made the Holy an abomination, and extinguishable; wo at all men that live in such a time of world-abomination and world-destruction! Nay, answer the Courtiers, it was Turgot, it was Necker, with their mad innovating; it was the Queen’s want of etiquette; it was he, it was she, it was that. Friends! it was every scoundrel that had lived, and quack-like pretended to be doing, and been only eating and misdoing, in all provinces of life, as Shoeblack or as Sovereign Lord, each in his degree, from the time of Charlemagne and earlier. All this (for be sure no falsehood perishes, but is as seed sown out to grow) has been storing itself for thousands of years; and now the account-day has come. And rude will the settlement be: of wrath laid up against the day of wrath. O my Brother, be not thou a Quack! Die rather, if thou wilt take counsel; ’tis but dying once, and thou art quit of it for ever. Cursed is that trade; and bears curses, thou knowest not how, long ages after thou art departed, and the wages thou hadst are all consumed; nay, as the ancient wise have written, — through Eternity itself, and is verily marked in the Doom–Book of a God!

Hope deferred maketh the heart sick. And yet, as we said, Hope is but deferred; not abolished, not abolishable. It is very notable, and touching, how this same Hope does still light onwards the French Nation through all its wild destinies. For we shall still find Hope shining, be it for fond invitation, be it for anger and menace; as a mild heavenly light it shone; as a red conflagration it shines: burning sulphurous blue, through darkest regions of Terror, it still shines; and goes sent out at all, since Desperation itself is a kind of Hope. Thus is our Era still to be named of Hope, though in the saddest sense, — when there is nothing left but Hope.

But if any one would know summarily what a Pandora’s Box lies there for the opening, he may see it in what by its nature is the symptom of all symptoms, the surviving Literature of the Period. Abbe Raynal, with his lubricity and loud loose rant, has spoken his word; and already the fast-hastening generation responds to another. Glance at Beaumarchais’ Mariage de Figaro; which now (in 1784), after difficulty enough, has issued on the stage; and ‘runs its hundred nights,’ to the admiration of all men. By what virtue or internal vigour it so ran, the reader of our day will rather wonder:— and indeed will know so much the better that it flattered some pruriency of the time; that it spoke what all were feeling, and longing to speak. Small substance in that Figaro: thin wiredrawn intrigues, thin wiredrawn sentiments and sarcasms; a thing lean, barren; yet which winds and whisks itself, as through a wholly mad universe, adroitly, with a high-sniffing air: wherein each, as was hinted, which is the grand secret, may see some image of himself, and of his own state and ways. So it runs its hundred nights, and all France runs with it; laughing applause. If the soliloquising Barber ask: “What has your Lordship done to earn all this?” and can only answer: “You took the trouble to be born (Vous vous etes donne la peine de naitre),” all men must laugh: and a gay horse-racing Anglomaniac Noblesse loudest of all. For how can small books have a great danger in them? asks the Sieur Caron; and fancies his thin epigram may be a kind of reason. Conqueror of a golden fleece, by giant smuggling; tamer of hell-dogs, in the Parlement Maupeou; and finally crowned Orpheus in the Theatre Francais, Beaumarchais has now culminated, and unites the attributes of several demigods. We shall meet him once again, in the course of his decline.

Still more significant are two Books produced on the eve of the ever-memorable Explosion itself, and read eagerly by all the world: Saint–Pierre’s Paul et Virginie, and Louvet’s Chevalier de Faublas. Noteworthy Books; which may be considered as the last speech of old Feudal France. In the first there rises melodiously, as it were, the wail of a moribund world: everywhere wholesome Nature in unequal conflict with diseased perfidious Art; cannot escape from it in the lowest hut, in the remotest island of the sea. Ruin and death must strike down the loved one; and, what is most significant of all, death even here not by necessity, but by etiquette. What a world of prurient corruption lies visible in that super-sublime of modesty! Yet, on the whole, our good Saint–Pierre is musical, poetical though most morbid: we will call his Book the swan-song of old dying France.

Louvet’s again, let no man account musical. Truly, if this wretched Faublas is a death-speech, it is one under the gallows, and by a felon that does not repent. Wretched cloaca of a Book; without depth even as a cloaca! What ‘picture of French society’ is here? Picture properly of nothing, if not of the mind that gave it out as some sort of picture. Yet symptom of much; above all, of the world that could nourish itself thereon.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30