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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.3 (2001) 447-450
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Unsettled Idealism: The French Revolution's Ambiguous Legacy
Robert T. Denommé and Roland H. Simon, eds. Unfinished Revolutions: Legacies of Upheaval in Modern French Culture (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1998). Pp. 192. $45.00 cloth, $18.95 paper.
Marie-Hélène Huet. Mourning Glory: The Will of the French Revolution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997). Pp. 232. $45.00 cloth, $19.95 paper.
Few would question the proposition that the French Revolution has been one of history's great polarizing events. The sheer scope of the revolutionary project and the means employed to transform abstract concepts into tangible ideals and institutions divided the Revolution's most ardent supporters from its most fervent detractors. The ambiguous tenure of the Revolution continued to cast a long shadow over the unsettled political culture of nineteenth-century France. However, as the Third Republic achieved the stability denied its two predecessors, so too, the Revolution was less the guiding force of the political left and more a national legacy. On a different level, though, the Revolution continued to generate conflict. The passions that once dominated French politics have, for the past three decades, reverberated in intellectual circles. The two studies explored in this review highlight, to varying degrees, the meaning of the French Revolution for both its participants and for subsequent generations. Whereas the collection of articles in Unfinished Revolutions examine the cultural idea of revolution in France (as opposed to the French Revolution, in particular), Marie-Hélène Huet's Mourning Glory considers both the French revolutionaries' views of the opportunities presented them as well as how posterity has treated the revolutionaries' efforts.
In the context of Huet's presentation, Mourning Glory is a double entendre. On one level, it refers to the morning glory flower, whose radiance only [End Page 447] remains for the first few hours of sunlight; so too, for Huet, the French Revolution originally flourished under the illumination provided by enlightened principles, but closed up once the utopian nature of those principles could no longer sustain it. On another level, though, Mourning Glory is also a reference to the grief that settled in when the moment of great sublimity represented by the Revolution went unfulfilled. For Huet, those mourning the Revolution (and for whom posterity should mourn) extend to all idealists whose dreams were kindled by the revolutionary project. From Maximilien Robespierre and Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just, whose dreams of a regenerated society went unrequited, to the nineteenth-century historian Jules Michelet, for whom the Revolution's ambiguities and near total effacement was a source of intense conflict, Huet conceptualizes the French Revolution as an emotional construct, larger than any of its intended reforms.
Ostensibly a monograph, Huet's work also functions as a collection of self-contained essays (one of which appears in a nearly unaltered form in Unfinished Revolutions) on the theme of the revolutionary sublime. In both Mourning Glory and a previous work, Rehearsing the Revolution, Huet skillfully and persuasively highlights the Revolution's theatrical nature. Mourning Glory turns the proverbial spotlight on the Revolution's legacy as a tragedy of lost idealism and suggests Maximilien Robespierre as its tragic hero. His ubiquity to the drama situates him as both the embodiment of enlightened idealism and a monstrous incarnation of revolutionary excess. As more and more authority became consolidated in the Robespierre-dominated Committee of Public Safety, a Robespierrist vision of the Revolution, premised on Rousseauist notions of virtue, sublimity and the general will, became the Revolution's defining aspirations. Faced with very little opposition, Robespierre's more quixotic and visionary revolutionary ideal nonetheless faced substantial obstacles. Chief amongst those obstacles was the daunting task of rationalizing Rousseau's immaculate democracy to the more practical problem of the Year II, including two very formidable obstacles--the absence of anything approaching a general will and an untrained electorate. For Robespierre, political representation was a chimera, susceptible to political sophistry; consequently, the larger goal of creating a virtuous republican citizenry required the imposition...