Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for May 3rd, 2018


Madame Roland, from her last year of life

Friends,

For quite a while I’ve been considering giving a course on “The Enlightenment: at risk?” at one of the two Oscher Institutes of Lifelong Learning I teach at, and finally I bit the bullet and wrote this proposal for an 11 week course at the American University OLLI:

It’s been suggested the ideas associated with the European Enlightenment, a belief in people’s ability to act rationally, ideals of social justice, human rights, toleration, education for all, in scientific method, are more at risk than any time since the 1930s. In this course we’ll ask what was & is meant by the term, how & why did this movement spread, against what obstacles, what were the realities of the era and what were the new genres & forms of art that emerged. We’ll read Voltaire’s Candide, Diderot’s The Nun, Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands, and excerpts from Madame [Jeanne-Marie] Roland’s Memoirs.

I originally thought to repeat my work on Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover, the novel of Naples in the 18th century, but decided it was too long, top heavy, and obviously tendentiousnessly pessimistic.

Then I discovered an English translation and good paperback edition of Madame Roland’s Memoirs as A Heroine of the French Revolution, translated and edited by Evelyn Shuckburgh. New York: Moyer Bell/Rizzoli, 1989. I first read Roland’s Memoirs in an Elibron facsimile of the 19th century original French edition published by her daughter, and at that time had just read a great biography by Francois Kermina (not well-known among English readers), Madame Roland ou La Passion Revolutionaire (Paris, 1976). In type Kermina’s biographies are like Amanda Vickery’s marvelous books, or Amanda Foreman’s biography of the Duchess of Devonshire. Beautifully well done scholarship meant to be read by the serious common reader, and written from a woman’s point of view. Not worshipful: she sees the ambitious conflicted woman who had an affair with Brissot. I enjoyed Gita May’s biography less because it seemed more superficial even if factually full. Gita does show what a reading girl Roland was. Now I look upon May as a conventional biographer with Kermina writing a modernist biography. Also Charles A. Dauban, Etude sur Madame Roland et son temps, another Elibron reprint, a perceptive study in the thorough 19th mode.

The value of Dauban is about 1/3 is made up of her letters. Though all my notes on a review I wrote of Eighteenth-Century Women: Studies in Their Lives, Work, and Culture, ed. Linda V. Troost, an anthology of mostly excellent essays on 18th century women writers seems to have vanished, I have the review itself on my website. I’ll transfer it to the academia.edu page (where such papers get more attention).

One exception was of Madame Roland by Mary Cisar (“Madame Roland and the Grammar of Female Sainthood”). Cisar erases what Marie-Jeanne (Manon) Phlippon (born 1754, guillotined 1793) turned to in order to lead a life at odds with her era’s mores and customs: the power of an intensely rebellious and non-religious private spiritual life. Cisar argues that Roland was an unconsciously religious anorexic recluse through a chart which correlates a generalized life pattern of a typical saint with Roland’s unsocial habits and, emptied of its political content, the record Roland left of her sexual and literary experiences; and through an insistence that a subset of religious books meant far more to Roland than all others. Cisar denigrates Roland: Roland’s memoir is “a somewhat self-indulgent reminiscence,” her “intellectual journey [is] hardly original;” she was reluctant to marry because she “considered all of [her suitors] inferior to herself”; her life was “flight from social obligation.” (How terrible.) Roland’s preference for communing with her books and thoughts and overt claims to “exceptionality” are treated with resentment.

Cisar cites and then ignores Caroline Bynum Walker’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast and “Women’s Stories, Women’s Symbols” (in Anthropology and the Study of Religion, ed, R. L. Moore and F. E. Reynolds [Chicago: Center for the Scientific Study of Relgion, 1984], 105-25) whose study of female saints, women’s symbols and individual women differentiates actual life patterns and those of women from men. Cisar also dismisses Edith Bernardin’s Les Idées Religieuses de Madame Roland (Paris, 1933), which does persuasively show Roland’s faith to have been theoretically optimistic, secular, and Rousseauistic. Roland’s references to Francis of Sales’s “La Philothée” (which Cisar makes much of), consist of one ironic reference to its sensuality and one anxious one to its injunction to repress unprocreative sex (Mémoires de Madame Roland, ed. C. A. Dauban [Paris: Elibron Facsimile edition, 2002], 50, 67).

Cisar reads Roland’s texts at face value. As has been shown by a number of scholars (e.g., Dorina Outram, The Body and the French Revolution, and Nicole Trèves, “Madame Roland ou le parcours d’une intellectuelle à la grande âme,” Femmes savantes et femmes d’esprit, ed. R. Bonnel and C. Rubinger [New York: Peter Lang, 1994], 321-40]), Roland’s writings are defensive, guarded, often disingenous to protect her, and contain a multiplicity of intellectual journeys, each fascinating and on the level of an original genius. Cisar does not cite Françoise Kermina’s Madame Roland ou la passion révolutionnaire (1957; rpt. Perrin: Librairie Académique, 1976), which is meant to reach a wide audience and based on thorough archival research of her subject’s life. Kermina shows Roland to have been intensely ambitious: Roland’s writings hide from view her frustration, two years of intense politicking, and “une amertume terrible” (the phrase is Trèves, 322).

I would add that, like many another woman, Roland’s writings reveal a woman who valued the friendships she managed to sustain. There is a set of touching letters between her and a good friend, Sophie Canet; she was close to her mother and meant to be devoted to her daughter, who remained loyal. I think Roland was throughout her life profoundly depressed. When she and her husband fell from power and she was anathematized (with salacious slander very like that directed at so many other ambitious intelligent women), a barely controlled hysteria and paralyzing trauma actuated her decision not to flee death. She kept herself sane and explored this trauma by writing the famous memoir.


I discovered an excellent Norton

The course will of course be but one quarter on Roland. If it goes well, perhaps another time I can try Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters from Sweden, and replace Johnson’s travel book with one of the era’s new biographies.

For the other three: I have not read Voltaire’s Candide in many years. When I did, I thought it was the 18th century equivalent of Primo Levi’s If this be Man and The Truce for the 20th century, a sina qua non of the 18th century.


We hear her shouting and then muffled

I read Diderot’s The Nun in French (La Religieuse) and watched the extraordinary 1966 film directed by Jean Rivette, screenplay Jean Gruault, produced by George de Beuregard, starring Anna Karina as Suzanne when I wrote my paper on rape in Richardson’s Clarissa. A study which illuminates much of the process Clarissa and Suzanne go through is Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The aftermath of violence – from domestic violence to political terror (New York: Basic Books, 1992). For my study of Johnson and Woolf I’ve begun listening to Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands (blended with Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides) on Recorded Books. The two readers do it very well.

Documents from the era in one of its new genres would make the point of what was the actuality of the era against its ideals more convincingly. I may add just snippets or excerpts on-line from the most famous books, Tom Paine’s Rights of Man, Rousseau’s Social Contract, Hume’s famous chapter on the argument for a belief in God based on miracles (in the Dialogues), and Beccaria’s against torture from his Crimes and Punishments.

I can Sontag’e Volcano Lover, an important philosophical book for our time rooted in the 18th century — with Daphne DuMaurier’s King’s General, in the spring. A reprise of the summer course I did at OLLI at Mason last summer.


An 18th century painting of “the Pont Neuf and pump house” (painter unnamed)

Ellen

Read Full Post »