The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 2

La Cabarus.

How, above all, shall a poor National Convention, withstand it? In this poor National Convention, broken, bewildered by long terror, perturbations, and guillotinement, there is no Pilot, there is not now even a Danton, who could undertake to steer you anywhither, in such press of weather. The utmost a bewildered Convention can do, is to veer, and trim, and try to keep itself steady: and rush, undrowned, before the wind. Needless to struggle; to fling helm a-lee, and make ‘bout ship! A bewildered Convention sails not in the teeth of the wind; but is rapidly blown round again. So strong is the wind, we say; and so changed; blowing fresher and fresher, as from the sweet South–West; your devastating North–Easters, and wild tornado-gusts of Terror, blown utterly out! All Sansculottic things are passing away; all things are becoming Culottic.

Do but look at the cut of clothes; that light visible Result, significant of a thousand things which are not so visible. In winter 1793, men went in red nightcaps; Municipals themselves in sabots: the very Citoyennes had to petition against such headgear. But now in this winter 1794, where is the red nightcap? With the thing beyond the Flood. Your monied Citoyen ponders in what elegantest style he shall dress himself: whether he shall not even dress himself as the Free Peoples of Antiquity. The more adventurous Citoyenne has already done it. Behold her, that beautiful adventurous Citoyenne: in costume of the Ancient Greeks, such Greek as Painter David could teach; her sweeping tresses snooded by glittering antique fillet; bright-eyed tunic of the Greek women; her little feet naked, as in Antique Statues, with mere sandals, and winding-strings of riband, — defying the frost!

There is such an effervescence of Luxury. For your Emigrant Ci-devants carried not their mansions and furnitures out of the country with them; but left them standing here: and in the swift changes of property, what with money coined on the Place de la Revolution, what with Army-furnishings, sales of Emigrant Domain and Church Lands and King’s Lands, and then with the Aladdin’s-lamp of Agio in a time of Paper-money, such mansions have found new occupants. Old wine, drawn from Ci-devant bottles, descends new throats. Paris has swept herself, relighted herself; Salons, Soupers not Fraternal, beam once more with suitable effulgence, very singular in colour. The fair Cabarus is come out of Prison; wedded to her red-gloomy Dis, whom they say she treats too loftily: fair Cabarus gives the most brilliant soirees. Round her is gathered a new Republican Army, of Citoyennes in sandals; Ci-devants or other: what remnants soever of the old grace survive, are rallied there. At her right-hand, in this cause, labours fair Josephine the Widow Beauharnais, though in straitened circumstances: intent, both of them, to blandish down the grimness of Republican austerity, and recivilise mankind.

Recivilise, as of old they were civilised: by witchery of the Orphic fiddle-bow, and Euterpean rhythm; by the Graces, by the Smiles! Thermidorian Deputies are there in those soirees; Editor Freron, Orateur du Peuple; Barras, who has known other dances than the Carmagnole. Grim Generals of the Republic are there; in enormous horse-collar neckcloth, good against sabre-cuts; the hair gathered all into one knot, ‘flowing down behind, fixed with a comb.’ Among which latter do we not recognise, once more, the little bronzed-complexioned Artillery–Officer of Toulon, home from the Italian Wars! Grim enough; of lean, almost cruel aspect: for he has been in trouble, in ill health; also in ill favour, as a man promoted, deservingly or not, by the Terrorists and Robespierre Junior. But does not Barras know him? Will not Barras speak a word for him? Yes, — if at any time it will serve Barras so to do. Somewhat forlorn of fortune, for the present, stands that Artillery–Officer; looks, with those deep earnest eyes of his, into a future as waste as the most. Taciturn; yet with the strangest utterances in him, if you awaken him, which smite home, like light or lightning:— on the whole, rather dangerous? A ‘dissociable’ man? Dissociable enough; a natural terror and horror to all Phantasms, being himself of the genus Reality! He stands here, without work or outlook, in this forsaken manner; — glances nevertheless, it would seem, at the kind glance of Josephine Beauharnais; and, for the rest, with severe countenance, with open eyes and closed lips, waits what will betide.

That the Balls, therefore, have a new figure this winter, we can see. Not Carmagnoles, rude ‘whirlblasts of rags,’ as Mercier called them ‘precursors of storm and destruction:’ no, soft Ionic motions; fit for the light sandal, and antique Grecian tunic! Efflorescence of Luxury has come out: for men have wealth; nay new-got wealth; and under the Terror you durst not dance except in rags. Among the innumerable kinds of Balls, let the hasty reader mark only this single one: the kind they call Victim Balls, Bals a Victime. The dancers, in choice costume, have all crape round the left arm: to be admitted, it needs that you be a Victime; that you have lost a relative under the Terror. Peace to the Dead; let us dance to their memory! For in all ways one must dance.

It is very remarkable, according to Mercier, under what varieties of figure this great business of dancing goes on. ‘The women,’ says he, ‘are Nymphs, Sultanas; sometimes Minervas, Junos, even Dianas. In light-unerring gyrations they swim there; with such earnestness of purpose; with perfect silence, so absorbed are they. What is singular,’ continues he, ‘the onlookers are as it were mingled with the dancers; form as it were a circumambient element round the different contre-dances, yet without deranging them. It is rare, in fact, that a Sultana in such circumstances experience the smallest collision. Her pretty foot darts down, an inch from mine; she is off again; she is as a flash of light: but soon the measure recalls her to the point she set out from. Like a glittering comet she travels her eclipse, revolving on herself, as by a double effect of gravitation and attraction.’ (Mercier, Nouveau Paris, iii. 138, 153.) Looking forward a little way, into Time, the same Mercier discerns Merveilleuses in ‘flesh-coloured drawers’ with gold circlets; mere dancing Houris of an artificial Mahomet’s-Paradise: much too Mahometan. Montgaillard, with his splenetic eye, notes a no less strange thing; that every fashionable Citoyenne you meet is in an interesting situation. Good Heavens, every! Mere pillows and stuffing! adds the acrid man; — such, in a time of depopulation by war and guillotine, being the fashion. (Montgaillard, iv. 436–42.) No further seek its merits to disclose.

Behold also instead of the old grim Tappe-durs of Robespierre, what new street-groups are these? Young men habited not in black-shag Carmagnole spencer, but in superfine habit carre or spencer with rectangular tail appended to it; ‘square-tailed coat,’ with elegant antiguillotinish specialty of collar; ‘the hair plaited at the temples,’ and knotted back, long-flowing, in military wise: young men of what they call the Muscadin or Dandy species! Freron, in his fondness names them Jeunesse doree, Golden, or Gilt Youth. They have come out, these Gilt Youths, in a kind of resuscitated state; they wear crape round the left arm, such of them as were Victims. More they carry clubs loaded with lead; in an angry manner: any Tappe-dur or remnant of Jacobinism they may fall in with, shall fare the worse. They have suffered much: their friends guillotined; their pleasures, frolics, superfine collars ruthlessly repressed: ‘ware now the base Red Nightcaps who did it! Fair Cabarus and the Army of Greek sandals smile approval. In the Theatre Feydeau, young Valour in square-tailed coat eyes Beauty in Greek sandals, and kindles by her glances: Down with Jacobinism! No Jacobin hymn or demonstration, only Thermidorian ones, shall be permitted here: we beat down Jacobinism with clubs loaded with lead.

But let any one who has examined the Dandy nature, how petulant it is, especially in the gregarious state, think what an element, in sacred right of insurrection, this Gilt Youth was! Broils and battery; war without truce or measure! Hateful is Sansculottism, as Death and Night. For indeed is not the Dandy culottic, habilatory, by law of existence; ‘a cloth-animal: one that lives, moves, and has his being in cloth?’ —

So goes it, waltzing, bickering; fair Cabarus, by Orphic witchery, struggling to recivilise mankind. Not unsuccessfully, we hear. What utmost Republican grimness can resist Greek sandals, in Ionic motion, the very toes covered with gold rings? (Ibid. Mercier, ubi supra.) By degrees the indisputablest new-politeness rises; grows, with vigour. And yet, whether, even to this day, that inexpressible tone of society known under the old Kings, when Sin had ‘lost all its deformity’ (with or without advantage to us), and airy Nothing had obtained such a local habitation and establishment as she never had, — be recovered? Or even, whether it be not lost beyond recovery? (De Stael, Considerations iii. c. 10, &c.) — Either way, the world must contrive to struggle on.

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