The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 7

Flame–Picture.

In this manner, mad-blazing with flame of all imaginable tints, from the red of Tophet to the stellar-bright, blazes off this Consummation of Sansculottism.

But the hundredth part of the things that were done, and the thousandth part of the things that were projected and decreed to be done, would tire the tongue of History. Statue of the Peuple Souverain, high as Strasburg Steeple; which shall fling its shadow from the Pont Neuf over Jardin National and Convention Hall; — enormous, in Painter David’s head! With other the like enormous Statues not a few: realised in paper Decree. For, indeed, the Statue of Liberty herself is still but Plaster in the Place de la Revolution! Then Equalisation of Weights and Measures, with decimal division; Institutions, of Music and of much else; Institute in general; School of Arts, School of Mars, Eleves de la Patrie, Normal Schools: amid such Gun-boring, Altar-burning, Saltpetre-digging, and miraculous improvements in Tannery!

What, for example, is this that Engineer Chappe is doing, in the Park of Vincennes? In the Park of Vincennes; and onwards, they say, in the Park of Lepelletier Saint–Fargeau the assassinated Deputy; and still onwards to the Heights of Ecouen and further, he has scaffolding set up, has posts driven in; wooden arms with elbow joints are jerking and fugling in the air, in the most rapid mysterious manner! Citoyens ran up suspicious. Yes, O Citoyens, we are signaling: it is a device this, worthy of the Republic; a thing for what we will call Far-writing without the aid of postbags; in Greek, it shall be named Telegraph. — Telegraphe sacre! answers Citoyenism: For writing to Traitors, to Austria? — and tears it down. Chappe had to escape, and get a new Legislative Decree. Nevertheless he has accomplished it, the indefatigable Chappe: this Far-writer, with its wooden arms and elbow-joints, can intelligibly signal; and lines of them are set up, to the North Frontiers and elsewhither. On an Autumn evening of the Year Two, Far-writer having just written that Conde Town has surrendered to us, we send from Tuileries Convention Hall this response in the shape of Decree: ‘The name of Conde is changed to Nord–Libre, North–Free. The Army of the North ceases not to merit well of the country.’ — To the admiration of men! For lo, in some half hour, while the Convention yet debates, there arrives this new answer: ‘I inform thee, je t’annonce, Citizen President, that the decree of Convention, ordering change of the name Conde into North–Free; and the other declaring that the Army of the North ceases not to merit well of the country, are transmitted and acknowledged by Telegraph. I have instructed my Officer at Lille to forward them to North–Free by express. Signed, CHAPPE.’ (Choix des Rapports, xv. 378, 384.)

Or see, over Fleurus in the Netherlands, where General Jourdan, having now swept the soil of Liberty, and advanced thus far, is just about to fight, and sweep or be swept, things there not in the Heaven’s Vault, some Prodigy, seen by Austrian eyes and spyglasses: in the similitude of an enormous Windbag, with netting and enormous Saucer depending from it? A Jove’s Balance, O ye Austrian spyglasses? One saucer-hole of a Jove’s Balance; your poor Austrian scale having kicked itself quite aloft, out of sight? By Heaven, answer the spyglasses, it is a Montgolfier, a Balloon, and they are making signals! Austrian cannon-battery barks at this Montgolfier; harmless as dog at the Moon: the Montgolfier makes its signals; detects what Austrian ambuscade there may be, and descends at its ease. (26th June, 1794, see Rapport de Guyton–Morveau sur les aerostats, in Moniteur du 6 Vendemiaire, An 2.) What will not these devils incarnate contrive?

On the whole, is it not, O Reader, one of the strangest Flame–Pictures that ever painted itself; flaming off there, on its ground of Guillotine-black? And the nightly Theatres are Twenty-three; and the Salons de danse are sixty: full of mere Egalite, Fraternite and Carmagnole. And Section Committee-rooms are Forty-eight; redolent of tobacco and brandy: vigorous with twenty-pence a-day, coercing the suspect. And the Houses of Arrest are Twelve for Paris alone; crowded and even crammed. And at all turns, you need your ‘Certificate of Civism;’ be it for going out, or for coming in; nay without it you cannot, for money, get your daily ounces of bread. Dusky red-capped Baker’s-queues; wagging themselves; not in silence! For we still live by Maximum, in all things; waited on by these two, Scarcity and Confusion. The faces of men are darkened with suspicion; with suspecting, or being suspect. The streets lie unswept; the ways unmended. Law has shut her Books; speaks little, save impromptu, through the throat of Tinville. Crimes go unpunished: not crimes against the Revolution. (Mercier, v. 25; Deux Amis, xii. 142–199.) ‘The number of foundling children,’ as some compute, ‘is doubled.’

How silent now sits Royalism; sits all Aristocratism; Respectability that kept its Gig! The honour now, and the safety, is to Poverty, not to Wealth. Your Citizen, who would be fashionable, walks abroad, with his Wife on his arm, in red wool nightcap, black shag spencer, and carmagnole complete. Aristocratism crouches low, in what shelter is still left; submitting to all requisitions, vexations; too happy to escape with life. Ghastly chateaus stare on you by the wayside; disroofed, diswindowed; which the National House-broker is peeling for the lead and ashlar. The old tenants hover disconsolate, over the Rhine with Conde; a spectacle to men. Ci-devant Seigneur, exquisite in palate, will become an exquisite Restaurateur Cook in Hamburg; Ci-devant Madame, exquisite in dress, a successful Marchande des Modes in London. In Newgate–Street, you meet M. le Marquis, with a rough deal on his shoulder, adze and jack-plane under arm; he has taken to the joiner trade; it being necessary to live (faut vivre). (See Deux Amis, xv. 189–192; Memoires de Genlis; Founders of the French Republic, &c. &c.) — Higher than all Frenchmen the domestic Stock-jobber flourishes, — in a day of Paper-money. The Farmer also flourishes: ‘Farmers’ houses,’ says Mercier, ‘have become like Pawn-brokers’ shops;’ all manner of furniture, apparel, vessels of gold and silver accumulate themselves there: bread is precious. The Farmer’s rent is Paper-money, and he alone of men has bread: Farmer is better than Landlord, and will himself become Landlord.

And daily, we say, like a black Spectre, silently through that Life-tumult, passes the Revolution Cart; writing on the walls its MENE, MENE, Thou art weighed, and found wanting! A Spectre with which one has grown familiar. Men have adjusted themselves: complaint issues not from that Death-tumbril. Weak women and ci-devants, their plumage and finery all tarnished, sit there; with a silent gaze, as if looking into the Infinite Black. The once light lip wears a curl of irony, uttering no word; and the Tumbril fares along. They may be guilty before Heaven, or not; they are guilty, we suppose, before the Revolution. Then, does not the Republic ‘coin money’ of them, with its great axe? Red Nightcaps howl dire approval: the rest of Paris looks on; if with a sigh, that is much; Fellow-creatures whom sighing cannot help; whom black Necessity and Tinville have clutched.

One other thing, or rather two other things, we will still mention; and no more: The Blond Perukes; the Tannery at Meudon. Great talk is of these Perruques blondes: O Reader, they are made from the Heads of Guillotined women! The locks of a Duchess, in this way, may come to cover the scalp of a Cordwainer: her blond German Frankism his black Gaelic poll, if it be bald. Or they may be worn affectionately, as relics; rendering one suspect? (Mercier, ii. 134.) Citizens use them, not without mockery; of a rather cannibal sort.

Still deeper into one’s heart goes that Tannery at Meudon; not mentioned among the other miracles of tanning! ‘At Meudon,’ says Montgaillard with considerable calmness, ‘there was a Tannery of Human Skins; such of the Guillotined as seemed worth flaying: of which perfectly good wash-leather was made:’ for breeches, and other uses. The skin of the men, he remarks, was superior in toughness (consistance) and quality to shamoy; that of women was good for almost nothing, being so soft in texture! (Montgaillard, iv. 290.) — History looking back over Cannibalism, through Purchas’s Pilgrims and all early and late Records, will perhaps find no terrestrial Cannibalism of a sort on the whole so detestable. It is a manufactured, soft-feeling, quietly elegant sort; a sort perfide! Alas then, is man’s civilisation only a wrappage, through which the savage nature of him can still burst, infernal as ever? Nature still makes him; and has an Infernal in her as well as a Celestial.

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