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A Revolutionary Romance With Violence : CITIZENS A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama (Alfred A. Knopf: $29.95; 866 pp.)

May 21, 1989|Robert M. Maniquis | Maniquis is the director of " 1789-1989: The French Revolution: A UCLA Bicentennial Program. "

For the bicentennial of the French Revolution, Simon Schama sings no birthday songs, only litanies on the "normalization of evil." Following some recent French historians, and ideas that go back to Alexis de Tocqueville's "The Ancien Regime and the Revolution" (1856), he argues that much of what was progressive in the Revolution was already developing in the 18th Century. The revolution was not, (as many other historians point out) bourgeois, a mere fantasy of Marxists. Rather, it interrupted the bourgeoisifying of France, impeded modernization, and established human rights only to suppress them. The revolution was a bizarre process of demanding human rights only to suppress them. Worst of all, it was a vast spectacle of horror held together from beginning to end by popular savagery and official atrocities--"bloodshed was not the unfortunate by-product of revolution, it was the source of its energy . . . . Violence is what made the revolution revolutionary." Violence of the streets and of the state, then, is Schama's central subject, which he confronts with both high moral seriousness and appalling superficiality.

If during the revolution there was a "brutal competition" between "the power of the state and the effervescence of politics," Schama suggests we analyze the "problematic relationship between patriotism and liberty." If "revolutionary behavior" is what he suggests it is--a kind of madness--then perhaps we shall find a "clue" in the "eighteenth-century belief that citizenship was, in part, the public expression of an idealized family." Patriotism, liberty, the family and revolutionary violence are connected ideas to be analyzed in an explanation of violence, but nowhere does this explanation convincingly materialize. Schama simply yokes these ideas loosely together and leaves us to make the connections. He warns us that his book "may well strike the reader as story rather than history." But the reader should also be warned that Schama's considerable literary gusto dissolves at the end of this huge tome into a few meager ideas.

The Citizen becomes collectivized (Schama often uses 20th-Century concepts in describing 18th-Century France) and is set against the "Uncitizen." The main means of doing this are spectacle, rhetoric, and exterminating violence. Why did this happen in the way it did? Here Schama falls back upon two huge words-- reason and romanticism --which he bounces off each other hoping that their resonances will pass for explanation.

Schama chronicles a good deal in nearly 900 pages. And much can be learned here about the idea of the citizen, France's sophistication in scientific research, and its commercial energy in the late 18th Century. Entertaining chapters lead off with fascinating subjects, events, or things--Napoleon's pompous elephant fountain, the survival strategies of Talleyrand (Schama's intellectual hero), Palloy as demolisher of the Bastille and souvenir promoter, the Bastille in legend and fact, mini-biographies of Mirabeau, Lafayette, Robespierre, Louis XVI and many others. But after Schama has told some very good anecdotes and rounded up the usual historical suspects, these satellite narratives tend to fall away as the rhythm of horror accelerates halfway through the book at the year 1793.

For Schama, the Terror completes the transformation of the idealized citizens of the "Declaration of the Rights of Man" into bloodthirsty brothers of a State Family. He accuses most Anglo-American historians of moral cowardice--for not facing up to the true horrors that begin with the Fall of the Bastille, continue into the September Massacres of 1792, the Vendee massacres, and the mechanization of the "police state" of France, the first example of modern totalitarianism. Schama's sermonizing of other historians is unfair and tendentiously ignores some of the historiography of the French Revolution since the 19th Century.

Others have condemned what Schama condemns, while trying also to avoid the loaded rhetoric common in French sources Schama cites, many of which are implicated in contemporary French political battles. And some historians even use the facile analogies Schama is fond of. Saint-Just's ideas, for instance, he blends metaphorically into Leninism. Robespierre's republican festivals he turns into anticipation of the Nazis. Describing Jacques-Louis David's and Hubert's idea of a national park with "an enormous domed amphitheater at its center crowned by a statue of Liberty, suitable for . . . mass spectacles and patriotic games," Schama says that "Albert Speer was not, then, the first to plan an architectural ideology around this kind of colossal collectivism."

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