The Sublimity of Speech as Action: The Myth of Mirabeau, 1791-1848
Patricia A. Ward
In coming to grips with the Revolution of 1789, historians, memorialists, and literary figures of the nineteenth century early recognized the power of revolutionary discourse. Charles Nodier, writing of the Convention, suggests that the life of great men is exhibited in their speech (parole), implying that speech was action for orators like Vergniaud. 1 More explicitly, Barante comments that "the history of an assembly takes place in large measure at the tribune; speeches are always actions."2 For the romantics, revolutionary oratory, viewed in retrospect, brought into focus their own ambivalence about the changing social order in France and their role in the political arena. Speech as action (verbe as événement) posed in an indirect fashion the question of the relationship of literature to the political world: Does writing make a difference in the social order? Does it reflect that order or does it seek to change it? The fact that Chateaubriand, Lamartine, Hugo, and others carved out for themselves public careers to supplement their roles as men of letters illustrates the depth of this political-literary connection.
The figure of Honoré-Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau, struck a responsive chord among writers, publishers, and readers during the Restoration and July Monarchy, for his support of a constitutional monarchy, and his role as a leader of the masses seemed to correspond with the spirit of the Charter of 1814 and the early years of the July Monarchy. Mirabeau came to symbolize the ambiguous currents at the heart of French political life. A myth of Mirabeau gradually emerged, a myth that constituted a projection onto his life and character of the desires and fears of post-Napoleonic France and of its writers. In a passage dated November 1821, in the Mémoires d'outretombe, Chateaubriand recounts his own encounters with Mirabeau, noting the mythic grandeur that the orator had already achieved, particularly owing to the empty political stage of post-Napoleonic France.
Mirabeau has already undergone the metamorphosis which takes place among individuals of whom the memory must last; dragged from the Pantheon to the gutter and then restored to the Pantheon, he has been elevated the all-time height which serves today as his pedestal. We no longer see the real Mirabeau but the Mirabeau as the painters render him in order to make him the symbol or the myth of the era which he represents; he is thus becoming more false and yet truer. Out of so many