Paris in the Terror
The Terror still arouses passionate debates. No other historical event so remote in time and shadowy in detail has so much actuality. No wonder: ours is an age suspicious of ideals and sick of violence, and the Terror—at least so we are told over and over again—was the incarnation of both. That is why it has long been an embarrassment to admirers of the French Revolution: the Terror seems to stand like an irrefutable condemnation of drastic experimentation and fanatical idealism; it seems to support Burke, not the philosophes. After all, even one man frivolously killed is one victim too many, and his death taints the cause in whose name he was executed. Professional historians, many of of them pro-Revolutionary, have been aware of this, and, on the defensive, they have sought refuge in detail. They have studied the incidence of the Terror, the precise number, social class, and political activities of its victims, its supposed debt to the subversive philosophy of the Enlightenment, and its many causes. On the whole, they have agreed on their facts, if not on their verdicts, but whatever verdict they have reached, one thing they have made plain: the Terror defeats the Monist. It deserves sober attention to statistics, a close study of the domestic and international events that surrounded it, and cool judgment. It gets none of these in Stanley Loomis’s book.
This is not to say that Paris in the Terror is without value: the Book-of-the-Month Club doubtless chose it for its real merits. Loomis can tell a continuous story, and his characterizations are often felicitous. Whenever he has something really revolting to write about, like the notorious prison massacres of September 1792, Marat’s personality, or Marat’s disgusting physical appearance, Loomis’s style seems almost appropriate to his subject. In addition, he intersperses his narrative with judicious warnings against anachronistic thinking and hasty verdicts against his leading villains. His only failures are large ones: he has skillfully constructed, not so much a history as a three-act melodrama, each act centering around a clash of personalities: act one, Charlotte Corday against Marat; act two, Danton against Robespierre; act three, Robespierre against Fouché. As it stands, the book makes a splendid movie scenario, complete with imaginary dialogue and detailed directions: when Charlotte Corday on her fatal errand sits next to Marat’s bathtub, Simonne Evrard, Marat’s common law wife, interrupts the interview—doubtless jealous of the fashionable visitor, Loomis conjectures—and then leaves: “She darted a few suspicious glances at the intruder and departed, closing the door behind her with a meaningful snap.” For all its narrative coherence and justified indignation at obtuseness and cruelty, Loomis’s version of the Terror is fundamentally in uncertain taste, amateurish and reactionary. Its success is assured.
Paris in the Terror is addicted to vivid writing. The drama it depicts is stark enough without purple patches, and there are many stretches when Loomis sensibly allows the events themselves to carry their own excitement. Much of his reportage, like his account of Danton’s execution,…
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