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Eighteenth-Century Studies 37.2 (2004) 285-291
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In Search of a New Paradigm:
Recent Work in Revolutionary History, Literature, and Art
Julia V. Douthwaite
University of Notre Dame
David Garrioch. The Making of Revolutionary Paris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002). Pp. 382. $34.95 cloth.
Joan B. Landes. Visualizing the Nation: Gender, Representation, and Revolution in Eighteenth-Century France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001). Pp. 254. $35.00 cloth. $18.95 paper.
James Livesey. Making Democracy in the French Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001). Pp. 326. $49.95 cloth.
Eric Négrel and Jean-Paul Sermain. Une expérience rhétorique: l'éloquence de la Révolution (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation SVEC, 2002: 02). Pp. 333. $74.00 paper.
The stakes have changed since the revisionists' battles of the 1980s, but revolutionary historiography continues to elicit much spirited investigation, as evidenced by these new books. Let us recall that revisionist historiography (most commonly associated with the work of François Furet, Mona Ozouf, Keith Baker, and Lynn Hunt) is credited with opening up work on the French Revolution in two major ways: 1) it inserted the decade 1789-1799 in a longer temporal continuum, thus challenging hidebound assumptions about the inevitability of revolutionary events and allowing for more voices to be heard; and 2) unlike the Marxist analyses which dominated the earlier years of the twentieth century, these scholars minimized the role of economic and social causality in preference for interpretation focused on culture, ideology, and politics. Although the four books reviewed here arguably build on the foundations set by revisionist work, they also announce an effort to displace the dominance of what has come to be known as the Furet-Baker-Hunt school of cultural history. Before we applaud (or deplore) [End Page 285] this bold paradigm shift, it remains to be seen what forms of historiography will fill the breach.
The Négrel and Sermain collection seeks to fill a lacuna in revolutionary historiography on behalf of oral culture—orators, their speeches, gestures, audiences, and impact on the populace. This field has been neglected, the editors claim, because of the superiority traditionally assigned to textual over oral sources, the lack of reliable editions of revolutionary-era speeches, and the scholarly suspicion of oratory itself. This suspicion, inherited from the Enlightenment's demand for transparent language, has effectively overshadowed an entire body of thought. As the introduction declares:
Un jour viendra peut-être où l'on envisagera de réintégrer dans le panthéon des classes, aux côtés des hommes de lettres, les hommes de parole qui, non moins qu'eux, ont forgé notre société, non pour signifier qu'au temple de la gloire un grand orateur est aussi 'grand' qu'un grand écrivain, mais pour suggérer que dans les usages vitaux du langage en société, la parole purement littéraire n'est pas la seule qui vaille. (16)
This call to action strikes the reader as unnecessary, given the sense we have that all kinds of historical evidence—oral, written, visual, anecdotal—are routine fare in both historical and literary studies. Has French scholarship been so resistant to this kind of eclecticism? Yes, according to Antoine Compagnon's frequent lamentations (see for example his article in Le Débat 110, mars-août 2000). But one must recall the innovative work done by French scholars over the years: the pioneering work of Philippe Ariès, Louis Marin, and Michel Foucault all integrated a variety of sources. Négrel and Sermain's impassioned assertions thus ring hollow.
Nevertheless, the volume includes several interesting articles, especially those by Aurelio Principatio, Isabelle Martin, Sonia Branca-Rosoff, Sophie Wahnich, and Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink. Principatio attempts a quixotic feat, aiming to imaginatively reconstruct the presence of revolutionary orators in situ through attention to their gestures, vocal force, facial expressions, and intonation. More an outline of method than a case study, his article suggests that one must approach this lived experience not only through eyewitness accounts and descriptions...