The French Revolution of 1789 and Its Impact

By Gail M. Schwab; John R. Jeanneney | Go to book overview

Introduction

Gail M. Schwaband John R. Jeanneney

All discourse is an attempt to impose a certain politicized order on the chaos of the universe. That particular discourse known as history, which makes sense out of the nonsense of the past, is no exception, and can only theoretically be differentiated from more obviously literary, or artistic, forms of discourse. The following essays from The French Revolution of 1789 and Its Impact, a conference held in October of 1989, attempt to come to terms, often from conflicting points of view, with the complex relationship between events past and present and their representations.

How did the lived experience that eventually became known as the French Revolution come to be organized? In the permanent and necessary absence of any monolithic narrative explanation, we are left with the efforts of different individuals to piece together a legible text. Where did the pieces come from? We might compare them to a patchwork, where old swatches of discourse, previously serving an entirely different ideological purpose, are appropriated for the new quilt, all taking on new qualities of texture, tone and color in relation to surrounding patches.

Erica Joy Mannucci shows masterfully in her "Providence for the Revolutionary People" how old Christian concepts, which had been systematically voided by the critical work of the Enlightenment, came to be recharged with a new revolutionary content. The term providence came to signify, not the working of God's will through time, but the inevitable secular triumph of the Revolution. Professor Mannucci also shows in great detail how the traditional Christian concepts of Hell, the Last Judgment, and martyrdom, secularized and carnivalized, helped the "Revolutionary People" come to terms with their situation.

Tom Conner "Writing Revolution: Michelet's History of the French Revolution" deals with a similar theme, revealing Michelet's struggles to "rewrite and replace the sacred masterplot of Providential Christian history," with a different masterplot--that of "the progressive triumph of freedom." The old theological-monarchical concepts of grace and justice are rendered meaningless and then reendowed with significance through Michelet's efforts to "render strange the familiar" and "familiar the strange"--an operation which is, as Professor Conner shows, metaphorical, that is, literary and rhetorical.

-xi-

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