Revolutionary Pomp and Circumstance : FESTIVALS AND THE FRENCH REVOLUTION <i> by Mona Ozouf; translated by Alan Sheridan (Harvard University Press: $37.50; 378 pp., illustrated) </i>
Thanks to Harvard University Press and to the veteran translator, Alan Sheridan, American readers now have access to one of the most brilliant books about the French Revolution written in recent years. In this dazzling analysis of revolutionary festivals, Mona Ozouf, a research director at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, takes up the question of why revolutionaries of all stripes seemed so obsessed with public celebration.
The French Revolution, Ozouf writes, produced hundreds, perhaps thousands of festivals. Only a few are as well-known as the Festival of the Supreme Being, Robespierre’s paradoxical effort to worship brotherhood during the Reign of Terror, or the bizarre Festivals of Reason and Liberty that feature real women dressed as goddesses of reason and living statues of liberty. But Ozouf makes it clear that, well-known or not, these festivals tell us more about what the revolutionaries hoped to accomplish and about the meaning of revolution itself than almost any other source.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. March 6, 1988 IN ERRATA
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 6, 1988 Home Edition Book Review Page 7 Book Review Desk 5 inches; 160 words Type of Material: Correction; Transcript
In Ed Berenson’s review of “Festivals and the French Revolution” (Book Review, Feb. 28) incorrect transcription from dictation changed the meaning of what the reviewer originally wrote. Berenson’s actual words are:
-- “Above all, the Parisian leaders (not league) , whether moderate or radical, used these civic celebrations to convince potential opponents that the revolution had gone far enough, that it had reached its perfect stage and ought to end with them.”
-- “Unlike Parisian rituals, which commemorated the triumph of Republicanism through the pallid imagery of royal sceptors (not sectors) and busts of Rousseau, village festivals were rowdy, hostile, and graphically down to earth.”
-- “They mounted an effigy of the king or bishop backwards on a donkey and paraded it through town, mimicking the treatment of cuckolds (not cockles) in longstanding rustic ritual. “
-- “It seems clear (not queer) that the Liberty Tree owes it origins to the Maypole, as both symbolized the conquest of freedom and a community’s act of leaving an old world and embracing the new.”
In one of her most perceptive passages, Ozouf suggests that the festival enabled revolutionaries to bathe the new regime in the quasi religious aura of national unity while staging an idealized version of the troubled new reality they had created. The festival, she says, represented the perfectly ordered utopia that the victors of 1789 would have liked their revolution to be. By commemorating peaceful events and not violent ones, and by ignoring the disorder that would not go away, festivals smoothed the rough edges of revolutionary change. In doing so, they served as ritualized moments of liberty, equality, and fraternity in the midst of a society seemingly unable to settle down.
Above all, the Parisian league, whether moderate or radical, used these civic celebrations to convince potential opponents that the revolution had gone far enough, that it had reached its perfect stage and ought to end with them. To achieve such a symbolic ending, revolutionaries suffused their festivals with an air of utopian calm, with the vision of unity and oneness that aimed to divest conflict of all meaning.
Even Robespierre, master of the guillotine, forbid images of violence from his productions to create the illusion of a world beyond the need for further change. But he enjoyed no more success in this effort to end the revolution symbolically than did other revolutionary leaders. Ozouf shows that no festival, no matter how elaborate, could conjure away all those who remained dissatisfied, who believed the revolution had gone too far or not far enough.
For this reason, people around the country countered the official celebrations with rebellious festivals of their own. Some of these counter-festivals turned into anti-government demonstrations pure and simple, but most dissented only at the symbolic level. They aimed to shatter the revolution’s facade of perfection by depriving its leaders of the stability and calm they sought.
Unlike Parisian rituals, which commemorated the triumph of Republicanism through the pallid imagery of royal sectors and busts of Rousseau, village festivals were rowdy, hostile, and graphically down to earth. They drew on traditions of the carnival, traditions that “enlightened” officials abhored, to mock the very order and decorum so ardently desired in Paris.
Peasants dressed a prized pig in royal robes, leaving it to wallow in the mud with Bibles, crucifixes, and gospel books tied to its tail. They mounted an effigy of the king or bishop backwards on a donkey and paraded it through town, mimicking the treatment of cockles in longstanding rustic ritual. And most graphic of all, one group of peasants recalled the violence that Parisian leaders sought to forget by guillotining an effigy that spurted real blood from a bladder attached to its neck.
Throughout the book, Ozouf draws inspiration from anthropologists whose symbolic analysis has unraveled the meaning of cultures distant from our own. She looks, for example, at the ties between the Maypole of ancient village custom and the Liberty Tree of the French Revolution. It seems queer that the Liberty Tree owes its origins to the Maypole, as both symbolized the conquest of freedom and a community’s act of leaving an old world and embracing the new. But during the revolution’s early months, the Liberty Tree took on meanings the Maypole never had. By 1792, the Liberty Tree came to express not just freedom but the militant egalitarianism of the revolution’s radical phase. And later on, it became significant enough to replace the crosses so closely identified with a Catholicism under attack. During festivals associated with the nationwide campaign of de-Christianization, Liberty Trees became the sacred emblems of a new civic religion.
In another brilliant section, Ozouf extends her symbolic analysis to the realm of architecture and urban space. Festivals, she shows, tended to be held on open land, as if to demonstrate the revolutionaries’ belief that 1789 marked the beginning of a new life, of a fresh and pristine world untainted by the errors of a corrupt past. And when festival processions did snake their way through the city center, they avoided the architectural symbols of the Old Regime: cathedrals, palaces, and aristocratic dwellings. They stopped instead before the embodiments of a liberal, secular, modern world: city hall, a Liberty Tree, a new Hall of Justice built in the revolution’s neoclassical style.
This summary only scratches the surface of an unusually powerful and readable work of serious history. Beyond what has already been mentioned, Ozouf considers the meaning of the revolutionary calendar and of the new festivals designed to punctuate it at regular, “rational” intervals. She discusses the widespread resistance to these innovations as well as the unwillingness of the peasant population to disown Catholic ritual for a new Republican religion.
The book’s only drawback is the familiarity with revolutionary events it assumes. But as the bicentennial of the French Revolution approaches next year, readers will be hearing more and more of these events, events whose festive commemoration during the revolution itself aimed to forge allegiance to a secular and liberal republic. That such an allegiance remained incomplete speaks to the limitations not just of the French Revolution, but of all revolutions. In France, the dream of a democratic society independent of the church would take nearly a century to come true.