Undergraduate Ruminations

Friday, March 2, 2018 3:39 AM

Anywhere you can dream is good, providing the place is obscure, and the horizon is vast.—Victor Hugo

One afternoon a decade ago I was on my way to the vegetable market at the corner of 111th street and Amsterdam Avenue. It was a stone's throw away from Columbia University at 114th street, where I was attending college during the final, riotous year of the war in Viet-Nam. 

Having just come from Butler Library, my head was spinning. I was mulling over that murderous, chaotic era in France just prior to the advent of modern times. It seemed oddly significant that only the Marquis de Sade's remarkable antithesis, Count Joseph de Maistre, had turned his back on the siren songs of liberty and pleasure, and remained an incorruptible.

The indefatigable Marquis had brilliantly out-thought the Philosophes and did them one better. He hijacked their half-baked ideas and brought those ideas to their logical conclusion, and then glorified the outrageous results. De Sade wholeheartedly embraced the two-sided god of Reason and Nature, thereby turned the entire 18th Century--that is, the Enlightenment--on its head

Contrariwise, De Maistre--the fanatic civilizer, the vigilant alarm sounder--in another room in Paris, was engaged in a sacred war against Nature. Although De Maistre was sincerely in awe of God, he nevertheless held God's image, Man, in contempt.

The resultant inner conflict of love and disgust had gelded for De Maistre into a strange compost of blood and holy water, torture and Te Deums, all intended to uplift Man's gaze, sublimate the beast, decimate criminal elements, and enforce the divinely-ordained, monarchical and ultramontane order of things. To top it off, De Maistre identified the executioner as the keystone of civilization, the sine qua non, a little god in his own right. In fine, Man is evil and must be terrorized.

Meanwhile, I had passed the gigantic, unfinished Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine and arrived at the vegetable market. Just then it occurred to me that an important footnote to the Revolution was missing.

Napoleon Bonaparte, then an unheralded captain of artillery, was wandering in the Tuileries gardens in Paris, when he observed some of Louis XVI's Swiss Guards being defenestrated head-first from the second story of the Palace. This event marked the start of the real revolution. 

It meant that the Mob was going berserk inside the Palace, not just hurling insults from the street. Next recorded incident: Napoleon is shocked to see "well-dressed women committing the worst kind of indecencies on the bodies of the dead Swiss."

De Sade records that during the course of one nerve-wracking day--September 3rd, 1792--ten thousand prisoners were dispatched under the most horrible of circumstances. "The former Princess de Lamballe was one of the victims. Her head, stuck on a pike, was shown to the King and Queen, and her poor body was dragged through the streets for eight hours after being subjected to the most savage debauchery."

Several months later, De Sade is confined in a lunatic asylum while awaiting execution. A guillotine is set up outside his window. He is an eyewitness to eighteen hundred decapitations in little more than a month, and is kept busy burying the dead in the courtyard.

The Reign of Terror validates both De Sade and De Maistre. Both philosophically concur: at the end of the day, Man remains or reverts to a savage. What can be concluded from this? What is implied? 

Thanks to pent-up energies and resentments, the sans culottes and bourgeoisie exploded in an extended blow-up which was the Revolution. De Sade, the progenitor of an elegant, depraved universe, complete with its own laws and contradictions, would never have created it on paper, if he had not been under lock and key for most of his adult life.  On the other hand, the Mob was free to act out in real life it's own version of the bizarre, black drama about which De Sade fantasized in his cell. 

The apogee of the British Empire was achieved under Queen Victoria. And to what can we ascribe Napoleon's astounding successes in the aftermath of the Revolution? In 1688, La Bruyère proclaimed, "Everything has been said, and we have arrived too late, now that men have been living and thinking for seven thousand years and more."

He spoke too soon. In the nineteenth century, Rimbaud did not speculate. His historical vision was clear. "Plus de vagabonds, plus de guerres vagues!" About forty lustra since the French Revolution, are we finally living out the horror of the final days?

--Copyright 1979 Patrick Foy--