Beware the Modern Jacobins: a Warning From Balzac
Pop culture often makes references to the tendencies of radical zeal. Recall the words of John Lennon: “You say you want a revolution, / Well, you know, we all want to change the world. / But if you talk about destruction, / Don’t you know that you can count me out!” Revolutionary rhetoric has returned, and we need to watch ourselves.
Many pundits have observed that the Democratic Party is moving sharply to the left. Candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and newly elected Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unveil radical proposals almost daily regarding issues as varied as college tuition, the legacy of slavery, and the perceived environmental crisis. So far, none of the publicly-formulated proposals explicitly or implicitly call for murdering those perceived to be part of the problem. But the radicalism of these candidates and their followers is arguably both cause and symptom of the increasing polarization of our politics, of a growing disdain for finding common ground and accommodating the other side.
Passionate, utopian, millenarian, or gnostic movements and organizations need to take care to avoid shedding their decency and their respect for others’ views and rights as they go about trying to build a better world. Twentieth-century dystopian literature, in particular novels by George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Godfrey Blunden, Sinclair Lewis, and Eugene Zamyatin, to name just a few, is full of searing and harrowing accounts of revolutionary zealots acting like monsters, imprisoning, torturing, and slaughtering others in the name of supposedly glorious and ennobling ideals.
French history contains some of the most direct personal experience of revolutionary horror. It influenced the great Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), and in particular, his short story “Un Episode Sous La Terreur,” usually translated as “An Incident During the Reign of Terror.” In Balzac’s story, set in 1793, the victorious Jacobin revolutionaries have been sending so many men and women to the guillotine, exhibiting such horrifying bloodlust, that growing numbers of people are turning against them. They’re soon going to get a taste of what they’ve been dishing out.
At the beginning of the story, an elderly woman flees a strange man she believes has been following her through the streets of Paris on a wintry night. She tries to find refuge in a little bakery, but the proprietors and staff, fearful of what the revolutionaries might think, do not want this ci-devant in their midst. She leaves the shop and makes her way to an apartment where she’s been living in near-total seclusion with a few other people.
It turns out that they’re deeply religious and have been running a small secret convent in the hidden apartment. The man who has been following the woman through the streets is in all likelihood a spy for the regime, or at least connected with it in some official capacity. Naturally, everyone fears what will happen if he finds an apartment where conservative religious activities and rites that directly contravene Jacobin dogma are going on.
But find it he does. The man makes his way into the apartment, and it emerges that he’s not only a member of the regime, but an executioner. Then Balzac astonishes the reader with a twist. Though the people who’ve been hiding out there expect the worst, it turns out that this stranger doesn’t mean them any harm. On the contrary, he respects their right to maintain a convent in the apartment. To everyone’s surprise, he wants the people there to carry out funerary rites for someone who has died during the Terror and who cannot otherwise receive a proper service in current circumstances.
Balzac shares a few critically important facts with the reader. It is January 1793. Louis XVI has just gone to the guillotine, and his executioner is none other than the stranger who has pursued the elderly woman and discovered the convent. Given the timing, many readers will quite understandably assume that the dead person whom the stranger wants rites to take place for is the executed king. You’ll find that interpretation in certain of the critical texts available online.
Balzac perhaps makes an obvious point here, but he is such an artful writer that you don’t think about that as you read the story. Of course the king hypothesis is possible, plausible, and even likely. But it seems equally possible that the stranger believes his own humanity has vanished as he’s turned into a Jacobin killing machine. He wants rites performed for himself in this secret place. No longer existing in any form he can respect or appreciate, or even recognize, he asks members of the social and political order he’s been persecuting to give a proper funeral for the self that has died.
The tale points to the perennial danger of letting oneself become subsumed and overwhelmed in the course of the “march of events.” Some fictional characters, like Ezra Pound’s poetical protagonist, Mr. Nixon, may be above it all. But too many of us are entirely susceptible to the political winds. If only more people recognized and appreciated Balzac’s implication that the ci-devants, nobles, and royalists whose heads rolled into baskets under guillotines were not the only casualties of the Terror, not the only ones to mourn.
The story hasn’t aged a day.