Revolutionary Afterlives, by Mary McAlpin

I’ll briefly address the two books under discussion today, then turn to the question of raised by the title of this panel: Why do we continue to care about the Revolution?

First to the books. Julia and Kate’s studies come together by virtue of a shared interest in “politically inflected” literary texts from the post-Revolutionary period. I have borrowed the term “politically inflected” from the introduction to The Frankenstein of 1790, because I find it so very useful in describing the texts at the heart of these two studies. As both Julia and Kate emphasize in their introductions, the fiction produced during and immediately after the Revolution has some claim to the status of “most neglected literary corpus in French history.” And yet, it is eminently reasonable to assume that this body of literature has something important to tell us about the Revolution; for how could an event of this magnitude, incorporating so many reversals, and so much violence, NOT be omnipresent in the cultural imagination of the time, and thus in the fiction of the period? And so both Kate and Julia argue for an “inflection” in these texts toward the Revolution, in the etymological sense of “bending toward,” with all this implies of a certain plant-like tropism, as if the Revolution were exerting an inexorable pull on the authorial imagination of the time.

The manner in which Kate and Julia argue for the revelatory power of this inflection makes these two studies very much deserving of the attention we are giving them at this panel. Nevertheless, to the extent that these works are problematic for me, these concerns grow out of the need that each author feels to convince her readers that the literature of this period has something, and something important, to say about the Revolution. I’ll start with Julia’s book, which I had the pleasure of reviewing.

One of the most striking aspects of Julia’s study is the variety of the material she addresses. Julia mentions in her introduction that in preparing to write this study, she examined some 300 works of fiction, and in a sense, the very volume of texts taken into consideration negates the question of their literary value—they act as a data set, rather than as individual works of art. But Julia of course does offer interpretations of some of these obscure works, using a theoretical framework she labels “new positivism.” This interpretive philosophy can be summarized as follows: One must posit a literal meaning for a text; but one must simultaneously accept that this “literal” meaning is subject to change over time.

It would be easy to dismiss this approach as an attempt to have one’s cake and eat it too—that is, to keep one’s postmodernist credentials intact, while simultaneously ignoring the greater claims to skepticism implied by postmodernism’s openness to undecidability. I however very much appreciate Julia’s willingness to make interpretive claims, based on textual evidence, within a particular historical context. As is always the case, the more unexpected the interpretive claims, the greater the satisfaction when the reader accepts their validity, and in this respect The Frankenstein of 1790 most certainly does not disappoint. In particular, Julia demonstrates a breathtaking openness to arguments of influence. She traces, that is to say, intertextual connections over time based on what might seem at first glance to be very tenuous similarities. I’m referring here to the coda to each chapter, in which Julia links the quite obscure texts she has discovered to later works. The most striking claim to parentage, at least in my eyes, comes in chapter three, in which Julia argues that Louis XVI morphs, over time, into le Père Goriot.

But what I like most about these codas is that, in accordance with the interpretive openness she values, Julia makes no attempt to erase or gloss over the occasional fragility of the connections she makes. And although I was in each case quite convinced by the links Julia made, I am nevertheless interested in her argument for the interpretive validity of her codas, beyond the test of reader response. I’m thinking in particular of the work she references in her title, François-Félix Nogaret’s Le Miroir des événements actuels. One of the characters in this text, an inventor of automatons named Wak-wik-vauk-on-son-frankénsteïn, is of course read in Julia’s coda as an ancestor of the famous scientist from Mary Shelley’s novel of 1818—but  Julia acknowledges that she has found no direct parentage between the two Frankensteins. And so my questions for Julia are the following: To what extent would the discovery that Shelley had read Nogaret reinforce the validity of her claims concerning the link between the two texts? And secondly, to what extent does the Frankenstein of 1790 deserve to be resuscitated, independently of Shelley’s masterpiece?

On to Kate, who begins with a methodological nod to Robert Darnton, who in the Forbidden Bestsellers of Revolutionary France advised critics interested in the relationship between Revolutionary life and literature to look for disparities, rather than continuities. This method proves quite fruitful for Kate, who notes that some of the works she considers achieved best-selling status in the post-Revolutionary period, and therefore MUST have been speaking, in some significant way, to the cultural consciousness of the day, despite what previous critics have argued. I especially like Kate defense of fiction as a privileged mode, even in, or rather especially in, periods of great political and cultural upheaval. Chaos compels us, she argues, to seek to make sense of our world-turned-upside-down and of our personal experiences with this reversal, or revolution. The often horrific experiences associated with the Revolution leads us into trauma theory, although Kate is interested not as much in individual trauma as she is in communal trauma—a fascinating concept in and of itself.

Kate observes evidence in the body of literary texts she has examined of a process of return and delay. Return, in the sense that, in the initial period of the Revolutionary aftermath, Ancien Régime tropes, settings, and characters dominate, to a surprising degree, in the works of both proponents and opponents of the Revolution. Kate interprets this return to the known—to stability—not as an absence, but rather as an active response to trauma. In this way, she pushes back the date at which literary treatments of the Revolution can be said to begin. But Kate also insists on the presence of a delay, namely in writing about personal experiences of Revolutionary events, as in the émigré novels that would be become so popular. This theory of coping with trauma by means of an initial sentimental return to the relatively stable past, followed by a subsequent movement toward a horror that is, by that time, already receding into the past, is fascinating. But my question for Kate involves esthetic value in relation to trauma theory : a difficult, perhaps impossible question, but on to which I returned several times in reading her study. My question is : Given the inflection of this body of literature toward the trauma of the Revolution, does this compulsion imply an esthetic wound as well as a psychic wound? Put more simply, are these works “bad” for the most interesting of reasons?

Finally, I’ll turn to the vast, somewhat frightening question posed by our panel’s title : Why do we continue to care about the Revolution? In answering this question, I decided to take the cowardly scholar’s way out, that is, to turn, once again, to etymology. The first entry in the OED for “care, noun,” is : Mental suffering, sorrow, grief, trouble. This obsolete sense of the word is certainly associated with the study of the French Revolution, but I imagine that the meaning intended by the organizers of this panel is rather number 3.a of the OED entry : Serious or grave mental attention; the charging of the mind with anything; concern; heed, heedfulness, attention, regard; caution, pains. Entry 4 also seems appropriate in this context: oversight with a view to protection, preservation, or guidance. Hence to have the care of , etc. to take care of : to look after.

One of the most admirable traits of the two studies under discussion today is that they do “care” very much—that is, take seriously, look after, seek to preserve—a much neglected body of literature, at a time when literary studies, like the humanities in general, is itself much neglected, or at least underappreciated. But it is important to note that for both Kate and Julia, what makes this literature of critical value is its relationship to the Revolution. It is the Revolution that returns these texts to readability—brings them back to life, if you will, à la Shelley’s monster. In a certain sense, then, one can argue that the Revolution takes care of us, with “us”—or rather the “we” of the panel’s title—understood to be scholars of eighteenth-century French literature. The Revolution gives a continuing relevance, a sense of analytical urgency, to our field, a relevance that might otherwise be difficult to evoke, especially in the eyes of our students. In any case—and I’ll end here—we have no choice but to “care” about the Revolution, if only in the diluted sense of “to take heed of.” We inflect toward this event, so to speak, to the extent that resisting the teleological pull of 1789 is one of the principal challenges of working on Ancien Régime France. We are in a state of mutual care and dependence with the Revolution, and we benefit greatly from this relationship, as these two excellent monographs demonstrate.­