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Rocío Orsi

Remembering Revolutions: Revolutions of the Imagination

My aim in this paper will be to address the concept of revolution focusing on the peculiar conception of time which is involved in Western imaginary concerned to revolution, specially in some literary post-revolutionary writings emerged in Great Britain and France. In these works we can find a retrospective description of the revolutionary time as being in sharp contrast to the “normal” time. Therefore, out of the picture that issues from these writings we can conceive revolution as a crisis or interruption in the normal drawing of time. In order to make clear this conception I will compare two great collections of writtings: on the one hand, the English Romantic poetry emerged in the years following the French Revolution (between 1790s and 1800s), and on the other hand the writings of a great French Romantinc poet, aristocratic politician and conservative ideologist, François-René de Chateaubriand.

Through the analysis and reflection on the French Revolution itself, as well as on the way the French Revolution was conceptualized in the literature and the historiography following this historial phenomenon, we can observe how our political and ideological legacy was articulated: we can see how the difference between right and left ideologies or between right and left historiographical methods emerged, how nationalism and democratical ideas appeared in the political thinking and, finally, how the idea of progress reached a great political significance as the main motive force oriented to a fairer renewed society. From a historiographical point of view we can make a distintion between two kind of interpretations: those who find the French Revolution as an innecesary or regressive explotion of violence, and here we can find the conservative thinkers as de Maistre or Bonald as well as the contemporary revisionist historians, for instance François Furet; and those who conceive the French Revolution as part of our political history and look at this affirmation of freedom with an enthusiastic gaze, sometimes despite the Reign of Terror and sometimes cause of this. Nevertheless, such polarity is not fully right: we can find how left or progressist writers put into question the violence of the Revolution and how conservative writers make strong efforts in order to recover the valuable principles that inspired Revolution.

The later case is that of François-René de Chateaubriand and the former, to some extent, that of his nephew-in-law, Alexis de Tocqueville. In his works on the “century of revolutions” Chateaubriand shows a deep pesimist view on revolution which anticipates the revisionist historiographical view: he represents the French Revolution as a vicious, bloodthisrty interruption of the normal running of the historical time. As it is stated in his biographical memories, Mémoirs d’outre-tombe, he has observed the advancing of the Terror and he has suffered it himself in the death condemnation of his relatives and in his own exile at London.

Although he belongs to an aristocratic family, he is not a defender of the Ancien Regime neither of the old stamental privileges, but of the cultural legacy of the French high culture. It is because of his aristocratical origin and education that he has cultivated an intense love for freedom and a deep consideration for the human dignity. From his aristocratic, distanciated position, he offers us a sharp criticism of every kind of despotic power, either of revolutionary or republican governement such as that of Robespierre, or of dictatorial administration such as that of Napoleon. Furthermore he foresees, as a new Cassandra, some of the dramatic consequences of the tyrannical governements that afterwards is has been accomplished.

The conception of Revolution sketched by Chateaubriand entails a peculiar conception of time and, narrowly, a particular conception of historical time. By contrast to other writers, Chateaubriand does not consider the French Revolution as a singular, sole phenomenon in the history. In fact, he conceives the French Revolution as a reprint or reissue of the Cromwellian revolt and the decapitation of King Louis XVIth as a parallel episode of the beheading of King Charles the First in 1649. There not being anything essentialy new in the History, revolutions are understood as innecessary moments of uncommon cruelty. Rights and freedom are not reached through revolution but as a result of progressive rational political changes. Indeed, according to Chateaubriand, the natural consequences of revolution are a despotical violent reaction and a tyrannical government, such as the Napoleonic one. Historical time is seen by him as a progessive lineal sucession in which revolutions are crisis which do not accelerate but interrupt the political and cultural improvement of Humanity through history.

By contrast to Chateaubriand’s conception of revolutionary times, we can find the opposite image of revolutions in other poets belonging to the Romantic tradition: the young generation of English Romantic poets, among which Colleridge, Wordsworth, Blake and Shelly excelled, conceived French Revolution as the recovery of the lost paradise. They contemplated it as an early stage in the culmination of history, a culmination from which a new world with a renewed humanity will issue. While Chateaubriand writes and thinks on French Revolution out of his biographical experience, the Romantic poets do it out of their religious education. They have no lived nor suffered the Revolution but observed it with an enthusiasmatic look.

Being a radical interruption in the human history, the French Revolution is conceptualized by this young English poets following the keys provided by de Bible and, particularly, by the Saint John’s Vangel. The apocalyse of Saint John relates a prophetic symbolic vision following which the human history’s course arrives to an abrupt end and the human world is repalced with a new condition, in which human beings are renewed at the same time as Earth it is. In this frame of mind the revolution is seen as parallel to the destruction from which issues the new Kingdom of Christ: revolution is, in the political or historical scenario, equal to the destruction which precedes the arrival of the Christ Kingdom or the new Jerusalme to Earth in the Christian relate. Romantic English poets conceived French Revolution as the restoration of the last paradise in the human world and, in this sense, as the end of the human History.

Nonetheless, the reminding of Revolution performed by the Romantic poetry put the emphasys not in the radical social transformation as in the moral and imaginative conversion that would be brough into being in the new era: finally, the English Romantic conceptualization of the revolution forgets in a great extent the social historial French Revolution and focus on a new kind of revolution: the revolution in the field of the individual consciousness.