Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Blood in the City: Violence and Revelation in Paris, 1789-1945

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Blood in the City: Violence and Revelation in Paris, 1789-1945

Article excerpt

Blood in the City. Violence and Revelation in Paris, 1789-1945. By Richard D. E. Burton. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. 2001. Pp. xviii, 395. $36.50.)

Richard D. E. Burton has woven an intricate cultural and political history of Paris in his book, Blood in the City. His argument that Paris can only be explained adequately by examining its violent past places his study in the forefront of revisionist historiography, which, although started shortly after World War II, has witnessed considerable discourse since the end of the Cold War. According to revisionist historians, the rational, whether under the guise of ideology or conspiratorial plots, played a limited role in revolution. Its adherents include such notable scholars as Crane Brinton, Robert R. Palmer, Alfred Cobban, George V Taylor, Isser Woloch, Lynn Hunt, Timothy Tackett, William Doyle, Colin Lucas, Keith Baker, Simon Schama, Franqois Furet, and most recently, Arno Mayer. Burton clearly is on the side of the revisionists in his portrayal of the irrational as the primary instrument of societal change in Paris from 1789 to 1945.

For him, political violence is sacred, and blood spilled under the banner of a cause, no matter where it falls on the political spectrum, becomes a ritualistic blood sacrifice. Remnants of the Bastille are consumed as if the Communion Host; the execution of Louis XVI is transposed into a sacrificial slaughter in imitation of Christ; the guillotine is the new cross; and Parisian landmarks such as Sacre Coeur and the Eiffel Tower are pilgrimage destinations. Revolution confronted counter-revolution in an endless cycle of violence, with citizen sons slaying political fathers in Freudian fashion, only to turn to fratricidal warfare. Later, when political revolutions subsided and public executions were carried out beyond city walls, the public's blood lust remained unsated. The cult of the dead, exemplified by the popularity of cemeteries and satanic cults, serviced the continuing need for the spilling of blood, no matter how vicariously.

In order for this schema to operate, however, bipolarization is necessary. A Manichean/Hegelian world fuels violence and provides the energy to bring about change. Burton's argument works well with individuals like Joris-Karl Huysmans, who alternated between the religio-erotic worlds of Marian devotion and satanic ritual to generate creative energy and offered, in the process, an interesting contrast to Paul Claudel's religious conversion. …

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