- La Révolution française et le monde d’aujourd’hui: mythologies contemporaines by Martial Poirson
The bicentenary of the French Revolution in 1989 witnessed a profound examination of the persistence and relevance of values and ideologies deriving from the Revolutionary decade in the late twentieth-century world. It also stimulated an intense engagement with the Revolution in many of the creative arts. Now, a quarter of a century after that event, Martial Poison’s edited collection of essays offers a fascinating overview of the place of the Revolution across contemporary culture. Most of the essays concern France, but there are interesting international forays (notably into the USA, Japan, and the francophone world). Poirson’s team of contributors includes excellent historians (such as Antoine de Baecque, Serge Bianchi, Michel Biard, Philippe Bourdin, Pascal Dupuy, and Jean-Clément Martin) as well as eminent literary historians (including Jean-Claude Bonnet, Michel Delon, Julia Douthwaite, Gérard Gengembre, and Catriona Seth). But the focus of the collection is less on ideology, history, and canonical high culture than on more variegated forms of cultural production, and the team also includes sociologists, political theorists, cultural theorists, and specialists in popular culture. In terms of general orientation, the essays owe less to Michel Vovelle and François Furet, protagonists in the bicentenary’s most notorious historiographical duel, than to Roland Barthes [End Page 398] (whose Mythologies is evoked in the volume’s title, and whose spirit pervades the whole of the volume), and to some extent Pierre Nora (the Revolution as lieu de mémoire). Probably the most ideologically focused essays are three contributions on the presence of the Revolution in the Arab Spring in North Africa; amusing and insightful essays on the deployment of Revolutionary references in debates in the Assemblée nationale in the 2000s and in the left-wing daily L’Humanité; and, intriguingly, essays on the persistent spirit of the Counter-Revolution in museum culture and in Catholic hagiography. Although some essays are focused on particular personages — unsurprisingly, Robespierre, Napoleon, and, especially, Marie-Antoinette have pride of place here — the editor has worked hard to achieve breadth of coverage. Essays on film, theatre, and fiction thus jostle alongside work on newspapers, detective thrillers, comic books, graphic novels (notably the Lady Oscar manga), advertisements, high-school history projects, and popular song. Joël Mak dit Mack’s well-informed essay laments the near-absence of the Revolution in videogaming — but he seems to have spoken too soon, in the light of the recent political furore over the Assassin’s Creed Unity video-game. All in all, the essays testify to the breadth and vitality of the Revolution’s presence in contemporary culture. Equally importantly, they also offer scholars tools for analysing and to some extent demythologizing that presence. Particularly helpful in this respect is the excellent, long Introduction to the volume (‘Il était une fois la Révolution …’) by Poirson. This stands as an attractive vade mecum for scholars of all disciplines working on the French Revolution and interested in analysing developing methodologies in the area where the politics of memory meet cultural studies.