November 21, 2006

The Perils of Events: A review of Fatal Purity, Robespierre and the French Revolution

Maximillian Robespierre has stood for many years as the incarnation of the French Revolution. Dr Scurr in her new biography of the revolutionary attempts to grasp what motivated Robespierre and swept him for a brief yet bloody period to the summit of French politics. As with many revolutionaries what we know about Robespierre's early life is shrouded in mystery and distorted by politically inspired calumny, Dr Scurr attempts to navigate a shrewd course through unpromising sources. It is when Robespierre arrives at the centre of French politics that Dr. Scurr's powers as a biographer become more fully exposed and her ability to see how this uncompromising figure was able to paraphrase a critic of Gladstone not only to have the political ace of trumps up his sleeve but to beleive at the same time that playing that ace was in the public interest.

Robespierre emerges from this biography as a man whose good intentions were unparralelled- Scurr is confident enough to label him by his nickname, the Incorruptible throughout the text. His incorruptability proceeded from a disdain for personal emotions- Danton is supposed to have quipped that he found more enjoyment in bed with his wife than at revolutionary tribunals, Robespierre, Scurr rightly argues, disagreed fundamentally. Unlike many of the other brilliant personalities of the French Revolution, Mirabeau who overshadowed him until dieing through illness, Camille Desmoulins a schoolfriend who perished on the guillotine or Jerome Petion who took pride in being Mayor of Paris before his corpse was located, Robespierre vaunted his incorruptable virtuous nature. Comparing himself at one point to Rousseau's God, an allseeing wise leglislator, Robespierre argued that he and he alone was the guardian and true perceiver of the public interest and that disagreement was evidence of disloyalty to that interest.

The tragedian cites in a character a fatal flaw which brings a man down and destroys him in the end, which perverts his sense of justice and leads him to abandon all the things that he had stood for. In Robespierre's character, as presented by Dr. Scurr, there were many flaws but two things in particular stand out as to explain why this man ended up performing the actions that he performed. The first consists in his situation. Dr. Scurr's biography is at its strongest in presenting to us the maelstrom of the revolution- she rightly perceives that revolution and revolutionary terror was terrifying not merely for its victims but for its perpetrators. Once signed the warrent for the King's execution was a warrent for his executors' execution. Mercy once denied could not be expected. In this atmosphere of increasing paranoia and justified fear, a man like Robespierre who frequently collapsed from psychosomatic illness after taking difficult decisions, was pulled further and further from his own ideas. Fearing the dagger, he pressed it into former friends' backs for fear that they might be traitors. In the end this fear led to prioritising the public business over all else- on the death of friends who were assassinated such as Marat, the Incorruptible one turned back to the public business immediatly. The revolutionary leader's arrogance and talent for self-dramatisation allied itself to his paranoia (were part of his paranoia) and turned him into a prosecutor searching always for victims.

The second of Robespierre's flaws was his idea that rather than policy difference or actual treason, the substance of politics was the intentions of politicians or citizens. Robespierre held an opinion much like that expressed by Ireton or Cromwell that intentions made the good citizen. He beleived that betrayel was a matter of the heart and mind, not a matter of concrete action. Therefore he endorsed execution after execution, refused compromise and argued that nobody once found guilty could again be trusted. This kind of politics based on intention and incorruptibility has its contemporary resonances. Robespierre's alliance of this to an extreme paranoia led to the demise of his political opponents and the deaths of thousands. Robespierre in this sense deviated from his fellow revolutionaries like the Abbe Sieyes, in that he unlike them had no sense of a political system- he had idealised schemes of democracy- but blamed the sins of government not upon the system of government but upon the individuals involved. Thus devoid of empathy and basing politics upon ethics, he largely turned politics into prosecution- a prosecution of the characters of those that opposed him.

Maximilian Robespierre's emotional history remains veiled in mystery- we know little about his early years. What we can say though is that a lack of empathy- a lack of sense of how other men thought and could think about politics in a different way to him- meant that he was an incredibly successful revolutionary. Without a sense of empathy or of scruple about attaining his ends, he was vicious and brutal, cutting gordian knots before other politicians saw them. But without those senses, his political career ended up in sabotaging his own political objectives- destroying the revolution he devoted his career to in an orgy of violence and allowing both the Directory and Bonaparte to suggest that chaos had preceded them.

Dr Scurr does end up being, as she wished to be, a critical friend of the revolutionary leader. She shows both the idealism and incapacity at the root of his character. This is a complicated and well developed portrait of both the revolution and the man.


james higham said...

I have a particular interest in France and have studied its history somewhat. You'll know that I post French pieces on occasions. This is an interesting piece but it's getting late here to read. I'll try again tomorrow.

[...and thanks.]

Gracchi said...

No probs James- I can't wait to learn some stuff- it seemed a good biography to me, but I'm no expert I'm looking forward to your comment.