Thursday, July 14, 2011

Adam François Parcel de Saint Cristau, 19 Floréal Year II

I do not know what immemorial power
Leaves crime in peace, harasses innocence.
Whenever in my life I turn my eyes,
I see misfortunes that condemn the gods.
Let's justify their hate, deserve their wrath. 
Let crime's reward precede its punishment.

.. who had taken a liking to me
who often sent his servant to fetch me
  to eat with him
You were destined to perish
  you  were  rich
My speeches to the assembly
everything I did to win people over
  to your side all came to nought
The decent man pitied you
  but held his tongue

The memoirs of Jacques-Louis Ménétra, born 1738, are especially captivating for taking the form of a lifelong journal, and were historiography's most exciting discovery of the 1980s, 331 folio sheets of unpunctuated witness - and fantasy - found in the Bibliothèque Historique by Daniel Roche of the University of Paris. It is an impress of great liveliness and vital diversity of subject. Ménétra was a working man, a glazier, of the class that would produce the sans-culottes; Paris had about 500 free elementary schools, one for every 1200 inhabitants, in the eighteenth century .. 98 percent of the domestic servants who left wills were literate, two-thirds owned

writing desks complete with inkstands, pens, and papers kept on file. The stuff, in other words, was always there. Only the same presumptions denounced by Cecil in his life of Cowper, had precluded this discovery. It changed our under-standing of France, and invigorated her renown for inquiry.

Saint Cristau, age 44, appears on page 486 in Volume II of the Liste Générale de Toutes les Personnes meticulously maintained by the Revolutionary Tribunal of Paris. He died on May 8th, 1794, with 30 other substantial landholders, scarfed up as jacks for the bouncing blade in a prosecution of identity. 

More and more, historians have come to understand the indispensable rôle of contingency in the saddest pages they survey. That the Terror is not France must come as a disappointment to Thomas Carlyle and Edmund Burke; but to everyone else it comes as an admonition to understand it. I cite again a great teacher under whom I did not study but was influenced, who guided one away from passivity toward tradition, at a place where such things are suspected of flourishing. That the worst that can happen, is reproducible, is constantly voiced to us first by demagogues, who'd only hasten its appearance. Irrationality thrives on historical presumption. And it will always get itself a Party.

To approach France, then, as a teacher, is not to diminish Saint Cristau by the celebration of Ménétra. Rather, we learn from them as structures in thought, each desired - the adamant and the volatile in juxtaposition on a given page of time. We know all hunger, attentive and critical, to be for understanding.  

In order to show you where your desire is, Barthes wrote, it is enough to forbid it to you a little. This would be the structure of the couple: a little prohibition, a good deal of play; to designate desire and then to leave it alone, like those obliging natives who show you the path but do not insist on accompanying you on your way. 

No partisan of fresh-caught trout with a vibrant spätlese on a Summer's day can possibly feel it isn't under-standing, he desires. This day of France coin-cides with monstrosity rampaging in umbrage against reason in the U.S., disinformation as its hook, because it still exists.

Where do we go, to say we're sorry for Saint Cristau; where do we go to learn the path of which we are the native? Except to turn with love to the experience of our Mother, fount of real security, of information needed for immunity from distemper. A reader in France writes in, to celebrate the croissant, another to praise particular hills at home. They are right. She teaches us desire before all else.

Jean Racine
  III, i, 773-778
  Orestes to Pylades
John Cairncross, translation
Penguin, 1967©

Jacques-Louis Ménétra
Journal of My Life
Arthur Goldhammer, translation
Daniel Roche, editor and commentary
Robert Darnton, foreword
Columbia University Press, 1986©

Le Tribunal Révolutionnaire de Paris
La Liste Complète des Personnes
  qui ont comparu devant le tribunal
Paris Plon, 1866
Internet source

Henri Thirion
La vie privée des financiers
  au XVIIIième siècle
Paris Plon, 1895
Internet source

Arno J. Mayer
The Furies: Violence and Terror
  in the French and Russian Revolutions
Princeton University Press, 2000©

Roland Barthes
A Lover's Discourse
Richard Howard, translation
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1978©

Gustave Courbet
The Man with the Leather Belt
  Self-Portrait [detail]
  ca 1845
  Musée d'Orsay, Paris
The Trout
  Kunsthaus, Zurich

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