November 30, 2010

Dumas's Revolution

One of the reasons that I find the Count of Monte Cristo fascinating is its context. Villefort, the corrupt lawyer at the centre of the book, expresses an analysis of the French Revolution which is precise and fascinating in the light of today. He compares Robespierre and Napoleon thus:

The only difference consists in the opposite character of the equality advocated by these two men: one is the equality that elevates, the other is the equality that degrades; one brings a King in reach of the guillotine, the other elevates the people to a level with the throne. Observe... I do not mean to deny that both men were revolutionary scoundrels, and that the 9th Thermidor and 4th of April in the year 1814 were lucky days for France.
Pause there and consider what Villefort says because what he does is express a classical doctrine which has some interest. The French lawyer discusses the roles of Napoleon Bonaparte and Robespierre: he suggests to us that both were advocates of equality. Robespierre took down a King to the level of a criminal and had Louis executed by the Guillotine. That is easy enough to understand. His words about Napoleon though are more confusing, how did Napoleon elevate the people to a level with the throne. Unbundle those words and they become the signature of plebiscitory dictatorship: the reason Bonaparte did that is that his acclamation as Emperor depended upon them. They were elevated to a throne because they created his new title.

This perception on the part of Villefort of the two alternatives- Democracy and Tyranny- comes from a third perspective. Villefort is speaking here as a royalist, to other royalists. Implicit in his remarks therefore is that he likes neither alternative: both are signatures of equality and he seeks to reduce Napoleonic monarchy to Robespierran democracy. Equality though in Villefort's eyes is here opposite: I think what he means here is that Robespierre's equality is a means to execution, whereas Bonaparte's is a means to dictatorship. I think its fascinating to watch Villefort upon this dilemma both because of the interest of what he says and because it exposes how vulnerable he and we are to words. His stress on the difference between the two forms of government is lost in his stress on the same word- equality- that he uses to describe them. It reveals his argument is too clever: interestingly none of his interlocutors understand what he means. Perhaps that shows their stupidity, perhaps it demonstrates that Villefort's cleverness is really sophistry.

November 28, 2010

The Geography of the Count of Monte Cristo

The geography of the Count of Monte Cristo is very instructive for a Northern European. This is a mediterreanean novel. The main action takes place in Marseilles, then in the Chateau d'If just off Marseilles, then in Corsica, in Monte Cristo itself, in Rome and lastly in Paris and the sea itself. This may seem a blase comment but its not. The entire book is suffused with the Meditereanean. The last fourteen hundred years have seen most people in the West think about Europe as an entity that centres around the Rhine valley, with its appendages to the West (Britain), the south (Spain), the East (Poland into Russi) and the north (Scandinavia). Our political imagination sees the capital of Europe as naturally Brussels or Strasbourg and its political centre naturally running between Paris and Bonn or Berlin. There are many political and geopolitical reasons behind that: it is a longstanding political fact as well, Charlemagne's empire still rules our imagination of what Europe is.

It is worth remembering that that does not have to be what Europe is, nor is it what Europe meant in the past. For the Greeks and Romans, Europe was the northern shore of the Meditereanean and that northern shore formed a geographical unit with its southern shore- rather than the barbaric swamps of Germany. Gaul was to the Romans a massive armed camp, Britain a massive cold and wet armed camp. For Monte Cristo France leads into Italy and Spain not into Germany and Britain. The English make an appearance as exoticisms: the Count disguises himself as the English Lord Wilmott and uses the English offices of Thompson and French to bank with. But his imagination is of the East: he has a Greek mistress, he has Greek art and Greek music, oriental custom excites him and his friends rather than anything from Berlin or Bonn. Furthermore in a book which takes its characters to the Papal States, Lombardy, France, Spain, Corsica, Algeria and the East: none ever goes north or crosses the Northern seas. One of the reasons to read the Count of Monte Cristo therefore isn't just that it is amazingly fun (though it is) but because its Europe is not the same as the Europe that we all think about.