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, is effective; it is obviously based on diligent research. But too often his resistance to vulgarity collapses: speculating on the influence of her Norman environment on Charlotte Corday, he notes, “In such a place at such a time the soul of a young and impressionable girl might well begin to tremble and to hear, carried on the fragrance of a blossom-scented breeze, the whispers of another world.” Robespierre gets all the adjectives that his contemporaries (themselves often enamored of vivid writing) or, later, Carlyle bestowed on him: “That myopic, searching glance was to make men’s blood freeze in the three months that preceded his overthrow.” At times, Loomis’s images achieve grotesque ineptitude: Louis XVI “was guillotined on January 21, 1793, and his head defiantly thrown at all the kings of Europe.” That bit will have to be left out of the movie.
More damaging than this is Loomis’s simplistic conception of the events he describes in such fervent language. He greatly overestimates the impact of individuals, especially of a handful of leaders, on events, and he overestimates to an equal degree the influence of ideas on men. “Men make history” and “Ideas have consequences” are two hardy clichés, and they are hardy because they are true. But they are not the whole truth. Between them, they explain a part, but only a part of the Revolution, and Loomis uses almost no other categories of explanation. I say, almost, because he is ready to acknowledge a third force, in addition to leaders and ideas, “the mob.” For him, the history of the Revolution is the history of political struggles among French cliques, led by ambitions, goaded by hatred or ludicrous times used by “the mob.” The mob wanted blood, the leaders wanted power. And the leaders came to be as they were because they were unbalanced, thwarted in their ambitions, goaded by hatred or ludicrous hope, and because they had read Rousseau and Plutarch.
This is the stuff of melodrama, not of serious history. The events of the Revolution are there, dutifully and briefly listed, but they are like painted backdrops on an amateurish stage: they suggest that the actors have an environment, but they do not impinge on the play. The flight of Louis XVI and his Queen to Varennes is mentioned in passing, but its enormous significance for the course of the Revolution is left out. That Prussia and Austria had been at war with the French first appears in the discussion of the September Massacres which, Loomis rightly says, are not justified by the foreign threat to Paris. They aren’t: nothing can justify that inhuman slaughter. But the war itself, both before and after the massacres, played a central part in the conduct of the Revolution, in the genesis and development of the Terror. By concentrating on leading actors, and on Paris, Loomis shears away practically the whole world in which the Terror existed: whatever else it was, the Terror was also a response to draft riots in the West and outright betrayal at Toulon; it was an attempt to stop deserters and centralize the machinery of government, rescuing it not merely from the aristos, but from provincial hotheads as well. Robespierre had read Rousseau, but he also read dispatches. In Loomis’s book, the Terror is the clash of men mad with blood, ideals and ambition, nothing else. There is something in that, and no radical should be allowed to forget it: the Terror was often terrible. But it is a partial truth that, stated as the whole truth, becomes a complete distortion. One would never know from this book that most victims of the Terror were commoners, that most of them were actually executed in the theater of war and for acts which were technically treason: giving aid and comfort to the enemy in time of war. Let me reiterate: the grave and continuing emergency in no way palliates the September Massacres, the execution of Danton, the insane butcheries perpetrated by Carrier in the provinces, or the irrational final outburst of the Great Terror late in the Spring of 1794. The historian’s attempt to understand the past is not equivalent to taking the superior moral attitude that all must be forgiven. It is rather the attempt to imbed events in all their complicated circumstances. Paris in the Terror makes no such attempt; its chain of causes is short: idealistic books make fanatics, fanatics make events. This is history on the level of A Tale of Two Cities.
But Paris in the Terror is Dickens with a difference, for Dickens, with all his venomous portrayal of the hyenas around the guillotine, had real sympathy for the poor, the disinherited, the victims of privilege. Loomis, on the other hand, unconsciously or not, has written a book with deeply reactionary implications. “All who played a role in the drama, even Marat” (so the book ends) “believed themselves motivated by patriotic or altruistic impulses. All in consequence were able to value their good intentions more highly than human life, for there is no crime, no murder, no massacre that cannot be justified, provided it be committed in the name of an Ideal.” This view can only reinforce the popularity of Burke, support widespread attempts to make conservative opposition to social change into a philosophy for our time, and denigrate reformist idealism as at best impractical, at worst a danger to our very civilization.
This is Talmon for the masses. Loomis’s solid bibliography does not list J. L. Talmon’s influential books, but their message and his are the same. According to Talmon’s interpretation of recent history, our world is divided into liberal and totalitarian democracy. The latter turns every question into a political one, believes in an absolute truth, persecutes dissenters as criminals, and kills for the sake of a glorious Messianic vision. This deadly idealism, Talmon argues, had its roots in the “secular religion” of the Enlightenment and came to its first flowering among the Jacobin fanatics. The greatest eighteenth-century villain, the Utopian from whom our most poisonous panaceas derive, was Rousseau.
Loomis does not accept this view without qualifications: he has some admiring words for the philosophes. But his view of Rousseau is largely Talmon’s view, and as such it is wholly out of tune with all the recent scholarship. For all its violent oscillations in the past, Rousseau’s reputation has achieved a good deal of stability in the last quarter of a century, with the writings of Ernst Cassirer and Alfred Cobban, Robert Derathé and Jean Starobinski. None of these writings appear in Loomis’s bibliography, and none of their interpretations appear in his book. Loomis’s analysis is of a piece with his rhetoric at its least rewarding. Rousseau achieved, he writes, unexampled influence by his discovery of sex, but “he ravished not the body but the soul of his reader.” His novels (what novels? he only wrote one) display considerable narrative gifts, but remind the reader of “occasional stories that are to be found in today’s confession magazines.” They are “deficient in style, taste, insight, humor and practically every other quality that might recommend their author.” His Confessions could “be profitably serialized in any popular periodical and be read attentively in the dentist’s office, the hairdresser’s salon or in bed.” As for his political treatises (and who told Loomis that the Contrat social had “the widest imaginable influence on the thinking of his contemporaries”?) they were written on “the assumption that men were what he believed they ought to be.” Such statements are absurd, and, where they have any factual content, false. Loomis occasionally grasps the ramifications of Rousseau’s influence: he records that Charlotte Corday and Robespierre were both avid readers of Rousseau. But he does not draw from this the obvious conclusion: in fact, some disciples of Rousseau were Girondins, others Jacobins, others moderate revolutionaries, and still others Royalists and émigrés. Not all admirers of Rousseau turned into fanatics, not all fanatics admired Rousseau. It is Loomis’s melodramatic vision that vitiates the historical value of his book. The crucial questions surrounding the Terror—accident? self-defense? inevitable consequences of Idealism and change?—remain unanswered. I suggest that the answer is both complicated and plain: the Terror was a mixture of rational policy and sanguinary brutality, of justified defense, humorless egotism, and necessary centralization. That is why sympathetic contemporaries like Bentham and Kant almost instinctively remained faithful to the great Revolution while they repudiated the Terror. Our judgment cannot be as clearcut as theirs—we know too much; more, indeed, than they did—but their position remains the most rational guide available to us today.