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  • The Crocodile Strikes Back:Saint Martin’s Interpretation of the French Revolution
  • Fabienne Moore (bio)

Les guerres humaines où on a le plus parlé de religion sont celles où la religion était le plus étrangère; aussi les guerres et les massacres innombrables de l'Islamisme, quoiqu'étant une esquisse des guerres religieuses, se bornoient à détruire et ne bâtissaient point; aussi nos guerres des croisades et de la ligue, celles du luthéranisme et celles du schisme d'Angleterre, quoique se faisant toutes au nom de la religion, n'étaient que des guerres d'hypocrisie; et en fait de religion, elles ne détruisaient ni ne bâtissaient: au lieu que la guerre actuelle, toute matérielle et humaine qu'elle puisse paraître aux yeux ordinaires, ne se borne point à des démolitions, et elle ne fait pas un pas qu'elle ne bâtisse.—Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin, Lettre à un ami ... sur la Révolution française.1

A few weeks after 11 September 2001, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote in Le Monde that terrorism was forcing people to understand evil differently. He blamed our misapprehension of evil on "le contresens total de la philosophie occidentale, celle des Lumières." According to Baudrillard, the optimism inherited from the Enlightenment has skewed our perception of evil as a mere accident, a contingency. Therefore, "nous croyons naïvement que le progrès du Bien, sa montée en puissance dans tous les domaines (sciences, techniques, démocraties, droits de l'homme) correspond [End Page 71] à une défaite du Mal. Personne ne semble avoir compris que le Bien et le Mal monte en puissance en même temps, et selon un même mouvement."2 I think Baudrillard downplays the complexities of the Enlightenment by equating its advocacy of progress and reason with uncritical and unflinching triumphalism. An examination of how Voltaire agonized about the question of evil in the wake of the Lisbon earthquake, and went on to confront his optimist contemporaries with Candide's travails, reveals that the philosophes did not all forsake their esprit critique for a metaphysics of optimism when they faced the question of evil. Yet Baudrillard's generalization rings true as a common, global perception of the Enlightenment as a positive and positivist philosophy. This perception was shared by the thinkers, writers, and readers of the eighteenth century—keeping at bay Rousseau's pessimism—as well as the revolutionaries who acted as agents of progress and change. The critique of evil was enfolded into a discourse of rationality, establishing differences between natural catastrophes and manmade disasters (slavery, the Inquisition, wars), deeming the latter curable evils. In this article I introduce a (self-described) "philosophe inconnu," Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin (1743–1803),3 who, though an optimist by faith, offered his contemporaries an allegory on the battle between Good and Evil that was and remains a prescient warning on their intertwining. Poised at the junction between the Revolution and the Terror, as the shift had not quite yet shocked pro-revolutionaries like himself, the author struggles to invent a genre—an allegorical prose poem—to represent and interpret one of the most drastic turns in French history.

Saint-Martin's choice of form—allegory—reflects a solidarity with the historical period that the allegory evokes and during which it was written (at the turn of the 1789 Revolution into the 1793–94 Terror). To understand what might have motivated this allegory, we need to look both at the role and meaning of allegory as a rhetorical figure, and at the role and meaning of the Revolution according to Saint-Martin. The characteristics unique to allegory (soon to be disparaged by the Romantics in favour of the symbol) made it the most suitable expression of reason's struggle to make sense of this overwhelming historical moment. Saint-Martin's text promotes the relevance and usefulness of allegory to represent events such as wars and uprisings. [End Page 72] This valorization runs counter to our still Romantic preference for symbols and metaphors, yet it might offer a solution germane to the "writing of disaster" examined by critics such as Maurice Blanchot. Saint-Martin...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1911-0243
Print ISSN
0840-6286
Pages
pp. 71-97
Launched on MUSE
2006-11-21
Open Access
No
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