It Is the Best of Times to Study the French Revolution
The French Revolution and the evolution of Southern California have something in common, according to Alexandre Tolstoi, the French cultural attache in Los Angeles.
“The concept of revolution is linked with the concept you have of the future,” Tolstoi explained. “And in my eyes, the West Coast represents the future of the United States.” And so, he said, people should not be surprised to learn that UCLA, one of the West Coast’s premier universities, is holding the largest and most varied set of events in the United States marking the bicentennial of the French Revolution.
Since last fall, the Westwood campus has been host to lectures, exhibits and new undergraduate courses on such topics as French revolutionary art, political theory, 18th-Century medicine and even Hollywood’s characterization of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. An art show about the guillotine and a symposium about women’s role in the French Revolution are included in the schedule this fall.
Amid all that serious, academic discussion is a Bastille Day Festival of music, dancing and food at UCLA’s Perloff Quad at 8 p.m. July 14, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the storming of the infamous Bastille prison. In Paris that day, the French government is kicking off a summer of partying with an enormous parade and concert.
But, except for the Bastille Day Festival, which is co-sponsored by the French consulate and Franco-American clubs, UCLA is limiting the party mood.
“We never billed this as a commemoration or celebration but as an objective inquiry about a world historical event that has to be understood,” said Robert Maniquis, director of the university’s program on the bicentennial of the French Revolution.
“In many ways, the French Revolution was the beginning of the modern political world.”
The events of 1789-99 in France have lasting reverberations, right through the recent political upheavals and the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in China, Maniquis said. “People want to know what the concept of liberty means in China in 1989 and how does it stretch back and change,” he said. “They want to discuss the question of political violence. Those are real, tough contemporary issues and the debate is helped by looking at the French Revolution.”
An English professor long interested in the effect of the French Revolution on Romantic period literature, Maniquis approached UCLA administrators five years ago with his idea of sponsoring bicentennial events. Campus leaders agreed, despite UCLA’s reputation for having more interest in Asia than in Europe these days because of the school’s location on the Pacific Rim.
For the last few years, Maniquis has been allowed to teach half-time and devote the rest of his energies to rounding up speakers, displays and grants, including substantial help from the French, the U.S. government’s National Endowment for the Humanities and American foundations and corporations. That involved several trips to France each year.
During his travels, he was reminded of how the revolution is still a delicate and divisive topic. An otherwise friendly executive of a French corporation in America refused Maniquis’ request for a donation to the bicentennial program because some of the businessman’s aristocratic ancestors were beheaded during the revolution. “He was very pleasant but he said his family would never forgive him if he gave us any money,” the UCLA professor recalled.
Many Frenchmen are fascinated by California’s pop culture but are not so aware of the serious side of life on the West Coast. So, Maniquis also had to overcome skepticism that UCLA, with few historical links to France, would be the proper place for so ambitious a program. For example, the French newspaper Le Monde, in an otherwise laudatory article, said it strikes some people as odd to hear revolutionary anthems “under the palm trees.”
“When people ask me why I did this here, my first answer sounds perhaps cavalier. And that is ‘Why not?’ ” Maniquis said. “UCLA has immense resources and first-rate programs. I knew we could do it and do it well.”
Others agree. “We were looking for a cerebration, not a celebration of the French Revolution, and that’s what we got. . . . UCLA carried it off beautifully,” NEH official Malcolm Richardson said. Of the many universities in this country sponsoring bicentennial programs, UCLA has the most events, with New York University in second place, said Richardson and Tolstoi, the cultural attache.
The NEH eventually gave UCLA about $550,000--covering about half the cost of the bicentennial programs, campus officials said. That money and private donations helped support, among other things, the mounting of an exhibit of rare French political caricatures from the Bibliotheque Nationale de France and a highly regarded series of films about the revolution, including rare shorts dating back to 1897 and two cinematic versions of “A Tale of Two Cities.”
Organizers hope the program continues to attract a mix of scholarly experts from around the world, UCLA students and the general public. UCLA lecture topics this fall include “The French Revolution and the Caribbean” and “The Guillotine and the Political Imagination.”
“The guillotine was an announcement for the modern world,” Maniquis explained. “It was an extraordinarily brutal machine, a mechanical way to do away with people that was intended as a humane instrument.” It was designed to stop torture and make execution as quick and painless as possible, he said.
In addition to the public programs, UCLA also created new credit courses dealing with various aspects of the French Revolution. Among them is a popular yearlong series called “Europe in the Age of Revolution, 1750-1830,” taught by history professor Geoffrey Symcox.
“The ignorance among California undergraduates about the outside world is rather appalling,” Symcox said. “They live in an insular culture and what they knew (about the French Revolution) tended to be taken from Hollywood and a few things from high school. They thought it was all blood-crazed maniacs running around cutting heads off for no particular reason.” Symcox said he is pleased that his students want to learn more about the ideals and events which swept away the ancien regime.
According to Maniquis, many students like to compare events in France to the American Revolution a decade earlier. After all, the American Declaration of Independence inspired France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, adopted in the summer of 1789.
“One of the nice things for Americans is that the French Revolution was bloody and awful,” he said. “It makes our revolution look relatively neat and clean.” But Maniquis stresses that some issues of the American Revolution weren’t resolved until after the Civil War.