Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Terror

I have subscribed to many magazines over the years and eventually dropped them all, but we still get the New Yorker. As irritating as I find its politics, I still get a thrill out of it when I find articles like this one.

Adam Gopnik reviews two new books on the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution, including one I've read, David Andress' “The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France.”

I almost didn't read it; I got through the introduction and almost threw it aside. It wasn't the revisionism of the work that repulsed me, but the historian's unfortunate choice to try to relate his topic to modern times. On the one hand, Andress drifted into a tone-deaf and pompous warning to modern America that it is in danger of going the way of Revolutionary France and -- what? He doesn't say, exactly. Are there guillotines in our future?

Really, though, he's not addressing America at all; Andress is a lecturer in history at Portsmouth University, and as far as I can determine he hasn't spent much time over here. His "America" is the America of the pages of the Guardian and the Independent and other left-wing British newspapers, a violent, fascist theocracy.

At the same time, Andress has fallen into a trap that tempts every historian of a controversial topic. In working to understand the minds of people who do horrible things -- which is a necessary aspect of the historian's craft -- he's come to understand these people in a degree that makes him truly sympathetic to them, and he's forgotten that the rest of us haven't made that mental effort and don't share his sympathies.

So his introduction had a headache-inducing quality, and what he wrote seemed to boil down to: "Beware, America! Of falling into the ways of the Reign of Terror -- which really was an understandable and justified reaction to political realities." Aspirin, please.

But the book as a whole is full of good history and good stories. Just, if you're going to read it, skip the intro and the conclusion (often, with history books, the opposite approach will give you all you need).

Andress' book was worth writing, if for no other reason than to inspire Gopnik's essay. Which considers the Terror and the context it gets as a historical event now safely buried in time. And he reminds me that part of the purpose of a historian is to push past the statistics and dig up the corpses and show us the blood again:

Even if we accept that the revolutionaries were not the only bloody-minded madmen in Europe, do we end our reading with a new sense of proportion? Whatever academic scholarship may insist, surely a sense of proportion is the last thing we want from history—perspective, certainly, but not proportion. Anything, after all, can be seen in proportion, shown to be no worse a crime than some other thing. Time and distance can’t help but give us a sense of proportion: it was long ago and far away and so what? What the great historians give us, instead, is a renewed sense of sorrow and anger and pity for history’s victims—for some luckless middle-aged Frenchman standing in the cold gray, shivering as he watches the members of his family being tied up and having their heads cut off. Read Gibbon on the destruction of the Alexandria library by the Christians, or E. P. Thompson on the Luddites—not to mention Robert Conquest on the Gulag—and suddenly old murders matter again; the glory of the work of these historians is that the right of the dead to have their pain and suffering taken seriously is being honored. It is not for history to supply us with a sense of history. Life always supplies us with a sense of history. It is for history to supply us with a sense of life.

As for lessons for the present generation, here's one that Andress should have written in place of the conclusion he published:

The bloodlust of the time makes the attempt to trace the Terror to any single intellectual source, or peculiar circumstance—to Enlightenment rationalism gone mad, or to the paranoia of the encircled Republicans—feel inadequate to the Terror’s essential nature, which was that it didn’t matter what the ideology was. The argument that a taste for the ideal and the tabula rasa leads to terror, after all, would be more convincing if its opposite—a desire for an organic, authentic, traditional society—didn’t lead to terror, too. The Red Terror led to a White Terror; Robespierre’s head had hardly fallen before the Gilded Youth were attacking the now helpless Jacobins. It sometimes seems as if history had deliberately placed Hitler and Stalin side by side at the climax of the horror of modern history simply to demonstrate that the road to Hell is paved with any intention you like; a planned, pseudo-rationalist utopianism and an organic, racial, backward-looking Romanticism ended up with the same camps and the same carnage. The historical lesson of the first Terror is not that reason devours its own but that reason cannot stop us from devouring each other.

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