The French Revolution of 1789 and Its Impact

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

4
Cazotte and the Counterrevolution or the Art of Losing One's Head

Claudine Hunting

In a critical letter--first published in 1989 to commemorate the French Revolution Bicentennial in France--the Marquis de Sade, ostensibly an active revolutionary, summed up the political and human situation in December 1793, on the very eve of his arrest and imprisonment, in the following terms: "Liberty? No one has ever been less free; they all look like droves of somnambulists. Equality? There is only equality of those beheaded. Fraternity? Informers have never been so busy." 1 Now thoroughly disenchanted with the Revolution and its empty slogans, Sade lamented: "O Lights, Lights of the Enlightenment were you but a prelude for this Age of Darkness?" ( Sade 1989: 20). If revolutionaries themselves were reduced to hiding and were struck by the Terror, what fate could counterrevolutionaries reasonably expect? And what would their own writings express at a time of turmoil and violence, in which they were the primary targets?

Indeed, a year earlier, only two months before his own death on the guillotine, in September 1792, French writer Jacques Cazotte, the object of this study and Sade's contemporary, but on the opposite side of the political and ideological spectrum, had, in his own correspondence, already reached a similar conclusion. He had announced ironically that "Philosophy" and the human progress it had championed would be short-lived in the bloodbath of the French Revolution: "The lights of this century, which have dazzled us, are fading out." 2

In point of fact, the utopian world of peace, justice, freedom, equality, and fraternal solidarity, of which the French philosophers had dreamed, and the "enlightened" society, which they had envisioned throughout the Enlightenment, did not materialize in the last decade of the eighteenth century that saw the rise and fall of the French Revolution. Events quickly went out of control. Political ideals long advocated by the philosophes were soon dismissed during the Revolution. Instead, another kind of despotism replaced that of the ancien régime, equally intolerant, but more cruel and barbaric, as the "September Massacres" in French prisons and the scaffold, that year, and henceforth, claimed ever-increasing numbers of victims.

Within such a grim historical context, Jacques Cazotte's case is particularly significant. On the one hand, his personal experience during those

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