Terror and Its Discontents: Suspect Words in Revolutionary France

Terror and Its Discontents: Suspect Words in Revolutionary France

Terror and Its Discontents: Suspect Words in Revolutionary France

Terror and Its Discontents: Suspect Words in Revolutionary France

Synopsis

Camille Desmoulins, a journalist writing under the Montagnard regime of 1793-94, remarked that France's government had replaced "the language of democracy" with "the cold poison of fear, which paralyzed thought in the bottom of people's souls, and prevented it from pouring forth at the tribunal, or in writing." How this happened, how the Reign of Terror reached even into the realms of thought and language, is the subject of Caroline Weber's book, a revealing look into the paradoxical embargo on free expression that underpinned the Robespierrists' self-proclaimed "despotism of liberty" during the French Revolution. Weber examines Jean-Jacques Rousseau's and the Robespierrists' articulation of a series of initiatives designed to curtail and control the dissemination of alternative political and philosophical messages in the republic. Here Weber underscores the internal contradictions and limitations of an enterprise that promised universal freedom while oppressing particularism, and that railed against the very language that it was compelled to adopt as a principal political tool. The book then focuses on two eloquent contemporary critics of this phenomenon, Desmoulins and the Marquis de Sade, the infamous libertine author. Weber demonstrates how Desmoulins reconfigured the Montagnard regime's rhetoric to conjure up a political system based on tolerance, not terror, and how Sade deftly parodied the Robespierrists' brutality and hypocrisy, proposing a republic based on the ruthless elimination of dissident voices and on the unabashed celebration of despotism and bloodshed. A balanced account of how the "discourse of totality" actually restricted particular freedoms in the wake of the French Revolution, this book provides a highly original--and timely--exposition of the political uses of rhetoric and of the links between language and power.

Excerpt

The Revolution is frozen…. That which brings about the general
good is always terrible.

—Louis-Antoine Saint-Just, Fragments d’institutions républicaines

Only the writer was supposed to be executed, but it is the man
whose head has been cut off.

—Jean Paulhan, Les Fleurs de Tarbes ou la Terreur dans les lettres

What does it mean to be frozen with terror? Camille Desmoulins, a journalist writing under the Montagnard regime of 1793–94, once remarked that France’s new order had replaced “the language of democracy” with “the cold poison of fear, which paralyze[d] thought in the bottom of people’s souls, and prevent[ed] it from pouring forth at the tribunal, or in writing.” This formulation is a suggestive one, in that it links the constrictive policies of the Montagnard government, collectively known as the Reign of Terror, to a paralysis of thought and language. Desmoulins knew what he was talking about: under the leadership of his one-time friend Maximilien Robespierre, the grand ideals of the Revolution had transmuted into a rigid and unforgiving “despotism of liberty.” At the dawn of the French republic, when formidable destabilizing forces threatened the nation from within and without, the politicians who governed the country were concerned above all with rallying their constituents uniformly around the revolutionary cause. in this context, individual liberties, including the freedom of expression, were construed as subordinate to and even at odds with the all-important general will.

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