Farewell to an Idea

Episodes from a History of Modernism
By T. J. Clark

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2001 T. J. Clark
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0300089104

Chapter One

1 Painting in the Year 2

History has too often been no more than a tale of the actions of wild beasts, among whom from time to time one makes out a hero; we are entitled to hope that we are beginning the history of mankind.

Mirabeau, 1789

       Books about modernism tend to go in for inaugural dates. It all began in the 1820s, they say, or with Courbet setting up his booth outside the Exposition Universelle in 1855, or the year Madame Bovary and Les Fleurs du Mal were put on trial, or in room M of the Salon des Refusés. "An important component in historical sequences of artistic events," writes George Kubler,

is an abrupt change of content and expression at intervals when an entire language of form suddenly falls into disuse, being replaced by a new language of different components and an unfamiliar grammar. An example is the sudden transformation of occidental art and architecture about 1910. The fabric of society manifested no rupture, and the texture of useful inventions continued step by step in closely linked order, but the system of artistic invention was abruptly transformed, as if large numbers of men [sic] had suddenly become aware that the inherited repertory of forms no longer corresponded to the actual meaning of existence ... In art the transformation was as if instantaneous, with the total configuration of what we now recognize as modern art coming all at once into being without many firm links to the preceding system of expression.

    My candidate for the beginning of modernism — which at least has the merit of being obviously far-fetched — is 25 Vendémiaire Year 2 (16 October 1793, as it came to be known). That was the day a hastily completed painting by Jacques-Louis David, of Marat, the martyred hero of the revolution — Marat à son dernier soupir, David called it early on — was released into the public realm (fig. 7).

       A few minutes after midday on 25 Vendémiaire, Marie-Antoinette was guillotined. Michelet tells us that her death, so long demanded by Hébert and the Paris wards (the so-called sections), in the event went off quietly. People's minds were on other things — the scandal of Précy's escape from Lyon, for example, and the news, mostly bad, from the Army of the North. They knew a great battle was brewing. The cart carrying the queen to the scaffold may well have passed directly under the windows of David's apartment in the Palais du Louvre; in any case we have a pen-and-ink drawing in David's hand of the queen in her final regalia, seemingly done on the spot (fig. 8). "Sinister jotting," its first owner called it. The queen died bravely. Her last fear was that her dead body would be torn limb from limb by the crowd. It did not happen.

    A few hours later there was a second ceremony in the streets — some of them the same streets Marie-Antoinette had been wheeled along on her way from the Conciergerie to the place de la Révolution. The printed Ordre de la Marche for the afternoon's events survives, and we have one or two other reminiscences of the day's final setpiece in the Cour du Louvre. Albert Soboul, in his Les Sans-Culottes parisiens en l'an deux, puts together the following description of what happened:

On the afternoon of 16 October, the Museum section marched in procession along the quai de l'École, the rues de la Monnaie, Saint-Honoré, and Saint-Nicaise, then stopped in the place de la Réunion to burn the act of indictment against Marat [that is, a copy of the charges drawn up by the Girondins against Marat the previous April], marched on along the quai du Louvre as far as the rue des Poulies, and went into the great courtyard of the Louvre through the colonnade. At the head of the column were ten ranks of drums and riflemen marching in strict order, then a detachment of the armed forces; after them the popular societies with their standards, the sections "preceded by their banners," and various corporate bodies; a detachment of troops came next, flag and drums in the lead, then the whole Museum section passed by en masse; a "corps of musicians" ahead of a deputation from the Convention, and following them a group of young conscripts, oak branches in their hands, carrying in their midst the busts of Marat and Lepeletier [sic]; behind them the citoyennes of the section dressed all in white, holding their children by the hand and bearing flowers to deck Marat's tomb; and then bringing up the rear a detachment of the section's own armed forces. In the courtyard of the Louvre, sarcophagi had been erected, and on top of them pictures, painted by David, of the two martyrs of liberty [the other picture, of the regicide Michel Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau, killed by a Royalist on the morning of the King's execution, no longer exists]; a funeral service was held in front of them, with hymns and speeches. As in the ceremonies of the Catholic church, all the arts contributed their magic to the exaltation of the faithful; the sans-culottes communed in the memory of their martyrs.

It is not often that we know so much about the circumstances in which a painting was first shown to the public. But then, it is not often that the circumstances are so carefully stage-managed. No one can be sure that it was David himself who decided who went where that day carrying what. The Ordre de la Marche is signed, for form's sake, by the Museum section's president and secretary. But it would not be surprising if David were responsible. He was the Republic's great expert on matters of mass choreography. He was one of the section's most important Jacobins. And two days previously he had gone before the Convention to announce that the picture of Marat was completed, and to ask his colleagues, "before offering it you, to allow me to lend it to my fellow citizens of the Museum section, as well as that of Lepelletier [sic], so that both can be present, in some sense, at the civic honors paid them by their fellow citizens." Naturally the Conventionnels were not to be excluded from this special event. They could come see their pictures if they wanted to. Even march in the procession. "I invite you to be the first to come view them at my quarters in the Louvre, starting next Saturday."

    The Convention seems to have agreed to David's proposal without much discussion. Among other things, it would probably have struck them as no bad thing for the afternoon of Marie-Antoinette's execution — she was appearing before the Revolutionary tribunal on the day David made his request — to have one or two rival attractions on offer.

    I did say "among other things." By which I mean other possible purposes — other meanings and messages that may have been on the organizers' minds, and maybe even on the participants', as they let their pictures out in public or made their way toward the sarcophagi. I believe that David's procession belongs to its moment — to the days and weeks surrounding 25 Vendémiaire — in ways not necessarily written on the surface. And that the picture of Marat only truly makes sense if its belonging to the same moment is taken seriously, even at the risk of setting an empiricist historian's teeth terminally on edge. For of course the Marat was not done with the procession in view. The procession was thrown together in October. It was part of that month's specific politics. The painting had been under way since July. It had been ordered by the Convention, to be seen in situ by Conventionnels. And so it would be in due course — for a while behind the tribune in the Salle des séances, and later, when Marat's fortunes waned, somewhere in an outer office.

    But it is never the case that we interest ourselves in the circumstances of a picture's first showing because we believe the picture was done for that showing. That showing could only have been imagined, or perhaps phantasized, by the painter as he or she was at work in the first place. And always inaccurately. David, I guess, never had the idea while he did the painting that eventually his Marat and Le Peletier would be "present, in some sense, at the civic honors paid them by their fellow citizens." But the fact that they were, and that in the end he went to such lengths to dictate the terms of their inclusion in the event, tells us something about the nature of David's presuppositions as an artist — his active imagining of what he was doing painting Marat at all. Something decisive: that is my hunch. For my feeling is that what marks this moment of picture-making off from others (what makes it inaugural) is precisely the fact that contingency rules. Contingency enters the process of picturing. It invades it. There is no other substance out of which paintings can now be made — no givens, no matters and subject-matters, no forms, no usable pasts. Or none that a possible public could be taken to agree on anymore. And in painting — in art in general — disagreement most often means desuetude.

    Modernism, as I have said, is the art of these new circumstances. It can revel in the contingency or mourn the desuetude. Sometimes it does both. But only that art can be called modernist that takes the one or other fact as determinant.

But what contingency, precisely? And entering the picture how?

    Let me go back to the procession on 25 Vendémiaire. The first thing to say about it is that it was, at least on one level, profoundly ordinary. Events much like it had happened elsewhere in Paris in the preceding days, and many more were to come. The Sections de la Halle-au-Bled et de Guillaume Tell Réunies, for example, had gathered on 6 October Pour l'Inauguration des bustes de Brutus, Michel Lepelletier et Paul Marat, martyrs de la liberté, et la déclaration des droits de l'homme, gravée sur une pierre de la Bastille. They published extracts from the speeches made that day. The Section de Piques was equally proud of the address Prononcé à la Fête décernée ... aux mànes de Marat et de Le Pelletier, par Sade, citoyen de cette section, et membre de la société populaire. They brought it out in pamphlet form on 29 September. Citizen Sade, unsurprisingly, had things to say about Marat's murderer, Charlotte Corday:

Soft and timid sex, how can it be that delicate hands like yours have seized the dagger whetted by sedition? ... Ah! your eagerness now to come throw flowers on the tomb of this true friend of the people makes us forget that Crime found a perpetrator among you. Marat's barbarous assassin, like one of those hybrid creatures to whom the very terms male and female are not applicable, vomited from the jaws of hell to the despair of both sexes, belongs directly to neither. Her memory must be forever shrouded in darkness; and above all let no one offer us her effigy, as some dare do, in the enchanting guise of Beauty. O too credulous artists — break this monster in pieces, trample her underfoot, disfigure her features, or only offer her to our revolted gaze pursued by Furies from the underworld.

Presumably the speeches at a similar ceremony the week before, on 23 September, Dans la Section des Gardes-Françoises, pour l'inauguration des bustes de Lepelletier et Marat, had had less of a personal subtext. On 22 September the Section du Panthéon gathered to hear one Gavard — he seems to have made no other mark in history — deliver a funeral oration to Marat alone. And so on. These are only the occasions that left a written record behind them.

    The show put on by the Museum section was ordinary, then, in the sense of being one of a series. (I am not denying that individual items in the series are as far out of the ordinary as you could dream up. They look like figments of Goya's or Baudelaire's imagination. Year 2 is the nightmare from which all later sadists borrow their imagery.) The show was likewise ordinary in its language, its organization. If the procession of 25 Vendémiaire really followed the instructions set out in the Ordre de la Marche — and any militant worth his or her salt knew things were likely to be a bit ragged on the afternoon — then even an unsympathetic spectator would have been impressed, at least by an imagery of force. The People marched through the streets to the Louvre. At the heart of the procession, and by the look of things its single biggest element, was the rank and file of the Museum section, passing by "en masse, unarmed." But the mass was padded and sandwiched by corps constitués of all sorts: delegations from Piques and Panthéon and Guillaume Tell, clubs and popular societies lined up beneath their insignia, representatives of the courts and offices of the Revolutionary government, those Conventionnels who had accepted David's invitation of two days before, women in white leading their children. Conscripts carrying the busts of the martyrs "with the respect inspired by Virtue in those who have vowed to vanquish for the fatherland or die." Marching bands, drums and more drums, and everywhere — at the head of the column, in the middle, making up the rear — détachements de la force armée. Nothing is accidental here. Everything is in its proper political and natural place. When the column stopped in the place de la Réunion to set fire to the Girondins' act of accusation against Marat, the crowds were meant to remember the Girondin deputies then awaiting trial in the Conciergerie, and harden their hearts. The trial began a week later. Brissot, Vergniaud and the rest were executed the week following, on 10 Brumaire.

    It is a pity, given the amount of detail surviving, that more was not said by contemporaries about how the Marat and Le Peletier paintings were set up at the end of the route. On two sarcophagi, this much is certain. Under some kind of temporary covering. One witness from the early nineteenth century recalls it as a "mortuary chapel." Another talks of the paintings being put "in a kind of funeral crypt, where they were admired over the course of six weeks." Perhaps (here historians start extrapolating from other such floats and festival scenery, of which there were many at the time) they were put inside a halfshell of branches and tricolor drapery. That would agree with David's aesthetic.

    Apparently there were four lines of verse by David's friend Gabriel Bouquier pinned to the sarcophagus:

Peuple, Marat est mort; l'amant de la Patrie,
Ton ami, ton soutien, l'espoir de l'affligé
Est tombé sous les coups d'une honte flétrie.
Pleure! Mais souviens-toi qu'il doit être vengé.

(People, Marat is dead; the lover of the Fatherland, / Your friend, your supporter, the hope of the afflicted/Has fallen under the blows of blighted infamy./Weep! But remember that he must be avenged.)

We shall find Bouquier's basic moves here — his terms of address and instruction to the viewer, and above all his sense of who the viewer was -- repeated a hundred times in the following months.

       Many of the individual bits and pieces of information about 25 Vendémiaire are vivid, not to say tear-jerking, yet I am still left wondering what the whole occasion was meant to do. Whose occasion was it? Why did David and others think it worth investing their energies in, when so much else demanded their attention? What did they take it to signify?

    Soboul, who had his reasons for wanting to believe that a new actor, the menu peuple of Paris, had stepped onto the world-historical stage in Year 2, treated the procession we have been looking at as one of the year's great moments of class self-discovery. If he had known of the verses stuck to the sarcophagus he would have quoted them with relish. "Les sans-culottes communiaent dans le souvenir de leurs martyrs." The body and blood they partook of in the Cour du Louvre, so Soboul believed, was essentially their own. Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden. David's asking permission to show off the Marat and Le Peletier to his fellow sectionnaires was interpreted in a similarly exalted vein. "Art was no longer reserved for a privileged minority."

    I suppose I am more inclined than most to take Soboul's hypothesis seriously. Something was being played out in summer and fall 1793, in and around the strange cult of Marat, which no one historical actor was able to control completely — not the Jacobins, not the Hébertists, not the followers of poor Jacques Roux and Claire Lacombe, not the militants in the Cordeliers or the sectionnaires with their banners, not David, not Robespierre, not Citizen Sade. I shall speak to this lack of control in a moment. But for the time being, let me just point out that Soboul himself, in his bran-tub of a book, gives us the clue that I think casts doubt on his best-case interpretation.

    The day after the procession, he reports, the Société sectionnaire du Muséum — that is, the hard core of popular activists who ran the section as a political entity — solicited for affiliation to the Jacobin Club. Their spokesman seemed to know what metaphors would do the trick. "The republicans making up the popular society of the Museum section come to ask their mother for the sustenance necessary for their patriotism to grow. Could a tender mother rebuff a virtuous child? You are the mother society of all in the Republic. Add to your family by adopting us." The section's wish was granted; though not, as the Jacobin newspaper assured its readers the next day, until after the membership had undergone "the most rigid examination." For had not the Jacobins decided, three weeks before, that they would recognize as true popular societies "only those where the revolutionary committee, first having purged its ranks, now formed the society's core, and where all members had had to pass a vote of this same committee on their credentials"? Soboul may be right in saying that the very severity of this party diktat produced a backlash from the societies themselves. Certainly we have instances of some of them asking for affiliation, being declared not pure enough, and going their separate ways (for as long as the Terror let them). But not the Museum section: that is the point. They were the purest of the pure. It is my guess that the whole episode of 26 Vendémiaire, in fact — milky metaphors and all — was meant as a kind of template for other such bindings and purgings to come.

    So are we entitled to look back on the procession of 25 Vendémiaire with what happened the next day in mind? Not necessarily. Sometimes in history strings are really not being pulled behind the scenes. Revolutions are untidy. Coincidences do happen. Politicians have more important things to worry about than pictures and hymns.

    But David was a politician. My hunch is that the afternoon's events had been conceived, and orchestrated, as a kind of proof of the Museum section's orthodoxy. Popular festivity — the sans-culottes "communing in the memory of their martyrs" — was under control. It had got itself the requisite stiffening. Especially of armed force.

    Or maybe we should say that the procession was a kind of reward, from the party, for a purge which had already taken place. "Rigid examinations," after all, are not performed on the spur of the moment in the body of the hall. What the Museum section was, or had made itself, was no doubt known to the players that mattered long before anyone turned up at the assembly point on 25 Vendémiaire. Maybe this is why the Conventionnels allowed their pictures out in the first place.

       Historians agree that September 1793 was a turning point in the Jacobins' relations with the sans-culottes. (What is meant by the final, hyphenated word here will emerge gradually, I hope, as the chapter proceeds. For now just take it to indicate, or claim to indicate, the Parisian masses.) Even François Furet, who is more sceptical than most of an account of revolutionary politics impelled by class tension, sees September as "probably the crucial period in the formation of the Revolutionary government." His reasons have a Soboulian ring to them. "The Mountain had needed the sans-culottes to defeat the Gironde in the spring of 1793, and wished to keep them as allies but without giving up any important powers." That proved difficult. A summer of agitation in the streets and clubs culminated, on 5 September, with the sections' armed forces surrounding the Convention, demanding the setting up of an armée révolutionnaire for use against the Republic's enemies at home, a purge of the Committees of Public Safety and General Security, and mass arrests.

    Furet's phrase is a trifle bland: "The Convention gave ground but retained control over events." On 5 September it agreed that Terror was now "the order of the day." On 9 September it set up the armée révolutionnaire. Two days later it fixed maximum prices for grain and flour. Another fortnight and the maximum was extended, at least in theory, to wages and prices for all commodities. (This is one of the reasons why associating the Terror with a not-yet-born socialism is so tempting.) It put the Revolutionary tribunal on a war footing on the fourteenth, passed the Law of Suspects on the seventeenth, told local revolutionary committees to draw up lists of the revolution's enemies. And immediately it turned its new weapons against the most dangerous representatives of those who had asked for them in the first place. The grass-roots activist Jacques Roux, who had made trouble for the Jacobins throughout the year, was finally imprisoned the very day the armed sections ringed the Tuileries. Other so-called enragés followed. Their newspapers sputtered into silence. On 9 September the Convention agreed to pay a small wage to needy citizens for attendance at their assemblées sectionales, but only if the sections gave up their habit of meeting daily (and monitoring the Convention's doings). Twice a week, or better still, twice every ten days, would be sufficient. It was the beginning of a whole series of moves by the Jacobins that hemmed in, and eventually put an end to, the sections as an independent force. This is the context in which the events of 26 Vendémiaire should be understood. September is the month, I think, when David took the key decisions in his painting of Marat.

       I realize I have rubbed my reader's nose in the detail of politics in 1793. And that is as it should be. My claim, you remember, is that the detail of politics is what David's Marat is made out of.

    Politics, I should say, is the form par excellence of the contingency that makes modernism what it is. This is why those who wish modernism had never happened (and not a few who think they are firmly on its side) resist to the death the idea that art, at many of its highest moments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, took the stuff of politics as its material and did not transmute it. I think of Géricault's Raft of the Medusa and Delacroix's Liberty Guiding the People, of Courbet in 1850 and Manet in 1867, of Morris, Ensor, and Menzel, of Pressa and Guernica, of Rude's Marseillaise and Saint-Gaudens's Shaw Memorial, of Medals for Dishonor, Monument to the Third International, Berlin and Vitebsk, Cologne and Guadalajara. No one but a fool, of course, would deny that politics provided the occasion for art in some or all of these cases. The disagreement turns on the words "occasion" and "material," and especially on the claim that in some strong sense modernist art not only is obliged to make form out of politics, but also to leave the accident and tendentiousness of politics in the form it makes — not to transmute it, in other words. (Otherwise the claim is harmless. For we know full well that Rubens and Velázquez operated as a matter of course with materials that had politics grossly inscribed in them. The Surrender at Breda, the Triumphs of Marie de Medici. Painters were providers of political services. But of a special, duly allotted kind — there is the difference from modernism. The service they performed was to transmute the political, to clean it of the dross of contingency, to raise it up to the realm of allegory, or — subtler performance for deeper sophisticates — to make its very everydayness quietly miraculous. Surrender at Breda equals Entry into Jerusalem.)

    I am not saying that an effort at raising and transfiguring simply ceased on or about Vendémiaire Year 2. The effort, we shall see, is still palpable in David's Marat. And in the Raft and the Liberty. I dare say all three artists would have been happy with the idea of themselves as a new Velázquez. But I believe that in practice they were not able to be any such thing, and that their pictures' articulation of that impossibility is what makes them unprecedented in the history of art. Modernism turns on the impossibility of transcendence.

       This last is a simple, not to say obvious, idea which you would have thought anyone interested in the texture of modernity would find it easy to accept. But that would be to underestimate the doubleness of the term "modernism" in the proposition. Modernism is Art. And Art, or a certain cult of Art, is exactly the site (for some) on which the impossibility of transcendence can be denied. Perhaps it is the one site we have left. So defend it by any means necessary.

    Modernism's brokenness and ruthlessness, say its enemies, are willed, forced, and ultimately futile. We may even have escaped from them at last. Modernism's extremity, say its false friends, is just surface appearance, beneath which the real matter of art — not just the delights of manufacture, but what those delights have always given onto, moments of vision, here-and-now totalities, a whole usable past — is kept in being, no doubt against the odds. When I say "false friends" it is not that I doubt the passion of their defense, or even that its rhetoric corresponds to much that modernists said of themselves. But modernism, we shall see, is a process that deeply misrecognizes its own nature for much of the time. How could it not be? It is Art. And for Art to abandon what Art most intensely had been, and nonetheless to proceed, nonetheless to go on imagining the world otherwise — just otherwise, not epitomized or complete — is not likely to happen without all kinds of reaction-formation on the part of artists.

       The case remains to be proven, I know. And the verdict is not meant to apply across the board. I am not saying anything as sweeping as that "modernism — all or any modernism — is political," or trying idiotically to demote the careers of (among others) Corot, Monet, and Matisse. My argument is that the engagement of modernism with politics at certain moments tells us something about its coming to terms with the world's disenchantment in general. Corot, Monet, and Matisse had their own ways of dealing with the same situation. I should say that they recognized the world's disenchantment in terms (with a sense of what was at stake) that put them alongside Courbet, Manet, and Malevich — as opposed to Théodore Rousseau, Renoir, and Derain, for example, to choose difficult points of comparison. The fact that their art had nothing to say about the Dreyfus affair, or that Madame Matisse decided not to disturb her husband's dreamworld by telling him she was working for the Resistance, is not apropos. There are dreamworlds and dreamworlds. Anyone not capable of seeing that Matisse's tells us more than anyone else's in the last hundred years about what dreaming has become had better give up on modernism right away.

    I have to show what I mean, then, by saying that David's Marat "turns on the impossibility of transcendence" and shows us politics as the form of a world.

       On 28 July 1793, a Sunday, there was a ceremony having to do with Marat in the Club des Cordeliers — at that moment the other great center of Jacobin politics besides the société-mère itself. A series of orators stood before a small altar erected to Marat's sacred heart. Marat had used the Cordeliers as a base for his political operations, and the altar contained the very relic, extracted from his body just a fortnight before. The murder had taken place on 13 July.

    Later writers about David's picture have been fond of making the comparison between it and a Pietà. Sometimes they seem to think the comparison disposes of the case. And there is nothing new to the linkage, or to the ideological work the linkage is meant to do: that is, to save Marat from a realm where what he was, and what he meant, remains an open question. The main speechmaker on 28 July had this to say (I have combined two accounts of the occasion, from rather different kinds of witness):

O thou Jesus, o thou Marat! O sacred heart of Jesus, o sacred heart of Marat, you are both equally deserving of our homage ... Let us compare the Son of Mary's works to those of the friend of the People: as I see it, the apostles are the Jacobins and the Cordeliers, the Publicans are the shopkeepers, and the Pharisees are the aristocrats. Jesus, in a word, was a prophet. But Marat is a god.

Like Jesus, Marat loves the people and no one but them. Like Jesus, Marat detests the nobles and the priests, the rich and the swindlers. Like Jesus, he never stops fighting those plagues of society. Like Jesus, he led a pure and frugal life [a point, we shall see, which David's picture goes to extraordinary lengths to emphasize]. Like Jesus, Marat was extremely tender-hearted and humane [ditto] ...

Presumably the orator thought he was on safe ground. But he was wrong. Almost immediately he ran into trouble with part of his audience, including some of Marat's most dedicated supporters. A sans-culotte called Brochet for one, who had just reported to the club on his efforts to find a suitable container for the sacred heart (it was eventually hung from the ceiling in a sort of vial), appears as follows in notes taken on the occasion:

Brochet, after paying homage to the orator's great talents, finds fault with the parallel he drew: Marat, he says, is not to be compared with Jesus of Nazareth; that man, turned into God by priests, sowed the seeds of superstition on earth, he defended Kings. Marat on the contrary fought against fanaticism and declared war on the throne. Let's hear no more talk of this Jesus! Brochet shouted. [In another account: There ought never to be any talk of this Jesus — it's all foolishness. The seeds of fanaticism and all such fiddle-faddle have disfigured Liberty ever since she was born (Des germes de fanatisme et toutes ces fadaises ont mutilé la Liberté dès son berceau).] Philosophy — yes, nothing but philosophy! — should be the Republicans' guiding star. They shall have no other God but Liberty!

Supposing David had been in the audience on 28 July (which is not improbable), whose side would he have been on? Or to put it less crudely, to what extent did the disagreement between Brochet and the orator — that is, the possibility of such a disagreement, even among those who thought Marat a good thing — inform the making of Marat's picture in the weeks that followed? Given that everybody agrees that some kind of analogy between Christ and Marat was intended on 25 Vendémiaire — by both the picture and the whole set-up in the Cour du Louvre — then what kind? And could the picture actually make the analogy — I mean make it stick, make it plausible even to viewers like Brochet?

    To begin to answer these kinds of questions we have to try to reconstruct what the exchange in the Cordeliers was about. What was at stake in it? I talked of David possibly ending up on Brochet's or the orator's side. But whose sides were they, ultimately? In what sort of battle?

       Very little in 1793 is simple. Brochet, for example, is typically hard to pin down. We know he was linked to François Vincent, the leading light of the Cordeliers at this moment, and perhaps later to Hébert and his newspaper, the Père Duchesne. He may have paid for the association. Richard Cobb says he was condemned to death on 12 Germinal, as part of the Jacobins' settling of accounts with the Hébertists. Soboul has him surviving into the Year 3, only to be arrested as a "terrorist" on 25 Frimaire.

    Even if we knew for certain how Brochet ended up, that would still not let us assign him any cut-and-dried political position — let alone class-political position — in the chaos of summer and fall 1793. He seems to have been at times a kind of honest broker, or maybe frontman, between the Cordeliers and the Jacobins. It was Brochet I quoted previously as insisting in the Club des Jacobins on 23 September that the popular societies purge themselves before being bound closer to the Party; Brochet who acted as a moderating influence within his own Section Marat, bringing in a better class of artisan and small shopkeeper to sit on the comité révolutionnaire; Brochet who was put up as figurehead president of the Cordeliers once the club had been marginalized. And so on.

    Brochet's is a representative voice, in other words; representative in its very uncertainty about where the revolution was. His being sure in July that Marat — the figure and memory of Marat — had to be at the center of revolutionary self-definition is nothing special. Everyone from Saint-Just to Jacques Roux chimed in with that, at least for a while. Nor is his being so vehement about the precise terms in which the self-definition had to be done — these terms, my terms (Marat's terms), not yours. If Saint-Just and Jacques Roux had been in the room together, they would have fallen to arguing in much the same way.

       Marat was a martyr of liberty. He was the people's friend. "In the state of war we are in, it is only the people — the little people, the people so scorned and so little deserving of scorn — who are capable of imposing [liberty] on the enemies of the revolution. Only the people can make them do their duty, force them into silence, reduce them to that state of salutary terror so indispensable if the great work of the constitution is to be consummated [and] the State organized wisely ..." Marat had been a constant enemy of the accapareurs, the agioteurs, the ouviers de luxe (among whom he numbered artists). That is, of monopolists and speculators, and the culture they spawned. "The people lack everything in their fight against the upper classes who oppress them [Tout manque au peuple contre les classes élevées qui l'oppriment]." Ever since 1789 he had argued that sooner or later the revolution would stand in need of violence to survive. Sometimes he can be found arguing this almost on physical-scientific grounds (before the revolution he had practiced medicine in London and written books against materialism): "It is with our Revolution as with a crystalline solution that is agitated by shaking it violently: at the beginning all the crystals scattered through the liquid are set in motion, dispersing and mingling at random, then they move with less vivacity, by degrees they draw closer together, and in the end they take up their original combination again ..." Only a series of new shocks would prevent the social mixture from hardening once and for all. "It is by violence that liberty must be established, and the moment is come" — this one (of many) is in April 1793 — "to organize momentarily the despotism of liberty so as to crush the despotism of kings." The French here is especially chilling: "C'est par la violence qu'on doit établir la liberté, et le moment est venu d'organiser momentanément le despotisme de la liberté pour écraser le despotisme des rois."

    Of course there is much in this that would likely appeal to the Jacobins as they stood on the verge of Terror. Marat had often been of their party in the disputes of the previous months. When the Girondins had asked for his arrest in early April, David himself had rushed to the tribune shouting: "I demand that you put me to death, I too am a virtuous man ... Liberty will triumph." By the time of his death Marat was largely reconciled with the emerging powers. Michelet has a sardonic subheading for June 1793: "Robespierre and Marat, guardians of order."

    But look again at the phrases from L'Ami du Peuple quoted above. Their content, and above all their rhetorical temperature, are typical of Marat's journalism. And these are enough to suggest that, reconciled or not, Marat promised to go on being a mixed blessing for Revolutionary government — certainly for governors of Robespierre's vision and personal style. It was not just Marat's habit of adopting the wildest and bloodiest form of words, even when what he was recommending was a fairly ordinary extension of the state's monopoly of force. (Let us not call it a War Cabinet or an Emergency Powers Act, let us call it a despotism of liberty.) Nor was it merely that he stood in the minds of the Jacobins' enemies as a symbol of everything the Jacobins were but did not dare declare themselves. (The Girondins had far from given up on Marat after the failure of their April campaign against him. He was the monster who had given the signal for the September Massacres. Blood was still on his head. Charlotte Corday was part of a Girondin circle in Caen where such talk was commonplace.) It was also that Marat's unswerving identification with the petit peuple of Paris — one-sided as the identification may have been, since his links with the popular clubs and societies were tenuous — led him time and again to give voice to positions on the "social question" that all other parties agreed were beyond the pale.

    In 1791, for example, he had been more or less alone in opposing the lois Le Chapelier which put an end to workers' associations; not that he disapproved of removing obstacles to free trade — that would have been to reimagine his whole philosophe inheritance from the ground up, which certainly he was incapable of doing — but that he thought preventing workers from gathering to discuss their interests was, in a time of trouble, one more way of depriving the revolution of support. And this is the typical trajectory of Marat's politics. A terrible determination to forge or preserve those weapons that (in his opinion) the revolution might need combines with a wish to speak for the despised and rejected. No one is claiming that the combination led to a specific or consistent politics, or to one that put him usually at odds with the Jacobins. A lot of the time in 1793 it is more a question of his seeming to push the Jacobins to do what was necessary to annihilate their enemies, even if — maybe in Marat's case, especially if — the enemies also claimed to be speaking in the petit peuple's name. Marat called early on for an end to Jacques Roux and the enragés. But here too the logic of Terror led back to the same set of insoluble class paradoxes. The enragés must be destroyed because they are a faction. The revolution has no room for factions because it is one and indivisible. Because its great terms are Nation and People, singular and sovereign. But if the People is singular and sovereign, then does that mean that those who actually make up the majority of its members are the People — for some reason as yet not properly represented? And could there be such a representation without the whole current panoply of the state — the necessary armor of the revolution in difficulties — being thrown into the melting pot? No answers to these questions emerged in Year 2. The questions themselves were raised only dimly and fitfully. But at least Marat's writing seems to have impelled him toward the point where, in however garbled and pseudo-ferocious a form, the questions came up.

       Marat was close to the Jacobins, then. In my view he was distinct from them — the image of politics he stood for exceeded Robespierre's and David's in crucial ways — and it should not come as a surprise that after his murder, plenty of people thought the time had come to make the distinction absolute. The enragés, for a start: three days after Marat's assassination, on 16 July, Jacques Roux published issue 243 of Marat's newspaper, Le Publiciste de la république française par l'ombre de Marat, l'ami du Peuple. What gave him the right to do so, he claimed, was the hatred he had earned "of the royalists, the federalists, the egoists, the moderates, the hoarders, the monopolists, the speculators, the intriguers, the traitors and bloodsuckers of the people" — the more comprehensive the list, the better his title to Marat's legacy. (Unlike the people in power, was the implication, who had discovered that moderates and monopolists have their uses.) Another enragé, Théophile Leclerc, followed suit with a new run of L'Ami du Peuple in summer and early fall. Hébert, in the Père Duchesne, rushed to assure his readers that no change of masthead was necessary: the mantle of Marat fell on him.

    These signs need not necessarily have amounted to much. They could have been a version of the usual jockeying for position after a leader dies, especially if he or she dies in harness — part of the spume of politics, in other words, with no very deep or permanent interests in play. But I do not think they were. Two things argue otherwise. First, there is the elaborateness of the Jacobins' efforts to counter the enragés’ bid for ownership, and make Marat their totem. And second, the fact that Marat's shadow kept spreading and transmuting in late summer, in ways that clearly exceeded any one party's or interest's doing. There was a cult of Marat in Year 2. Soboul is not alone in thinking it had, for a while, the first glimmerings of true religiosity about it. It was a cult in the strong sense, then — the French (or Durkheimian) sense. People gathering, that is, to give form to their collective will. And investing their fears and hopes in a single figure, like and unlike themselves.

       Let me begin my description of this process with what the Jacobins did. Obviously no very clear line can be drawn between Party instigation (or effort at containment) and pressure from below. I think the Jacobins were often trying to draw some such line, and failing. Maybe they were on 25 Vendémiaire. Equally, the scene at the end of July in the Cordeliers had some of the hallmarks of an official occasion. The orator may well have thought he was speaking a Jacobin script, or one they would approve of. But that does not mean we are entitled to take Brochet as delivering the enragés’ lines, or Hébert's. Maybe he was. More likely he thought he was right at the revolution's center. It was one thing to go shopping, as he had done the day before, for an urn to contain Marat's sacred heart, and another to glory in the analogy between the new cults and those they were supposed to displace. "Philosophy — yes, nothing but philosophy! — should be the Republican's guide." What would Robespierre find to disagree with in that?

    The Jacobins found themselves negotiating with too many things — too many interests and energies — calling themselves Marat. This is part of the tension that makes David's picture so spellbinding. But it does not follow that anyone's Marat was grist to the Jacobin mill. Lines got drawn, quickly and brutally. Robespierre brought Marat's widow, Simone Evrard, before the bar of the Convention on 8 August, and had her specifically denounce Jacques Roux and Théophile Leclerc — "scoundrelly writers ... who claim to continue his journals and make his spirit speak, in order to outrage his memory and lead the people astray." "Now that he is dead, they are trying to perpetuate the parricidal calumny which made him out to be a crazed apostle of disorder and anarchy." On 22 August Jacques Roux was arrested for the first time. On 5 September he was jailed for good. Leclerc disappears from the historical record as the fall proceeds. He had seen the writing on the wall. Hébert was soon fighting unsuccessfully for his life.

       Marat was too important and volatile a political sign, then, to share with one's enemies; especially those who wanted his ghost to do little more than repeat the question he had asked in June, and by implication often before: "What have they gained from the Revolution?" — "they" being the People, naturally. But the question would not be robbed of its edge simply by pretending Marat had never asked it, or exterminating those who said he had. Marat must go on asking the question, with his characteristic vehemence, but giving it a Jacobin answer. The category "People" had to have something be its sign. Among the signifying possibilities on offer in 1793, "Marat" seemed one of the best. At least in him the category was personified. That might mean that the welter of claims, identifications, and resentments wrapped up in the word could at least be concentrated into a single figure — and therefore shaped and contained. It would take some doing.

       Of course I am not saying that Robespierre and his henchmen sat down one day in August and worked all this out. "— Job for you, Citizen David." Nobody knew what was going to happen next in the summer of 1793. Forward planning was a mug's game. But equally, I do think that David's painting a picture of Marat in August and September was steeped in — informed by — the battle over Marat's legacy. Otherwise I would not have bothered to describe it in such detail. What marks my account off from conspiracy theory is not so much an a priori judgement that history does not work like that — too much of the time it does — as a feeling that in this case, with these materials, no such computing of advantage was possible. I make a distinction, in other words, between the sort of manipulation I think was behind the procession on 25 Vendémiaire (and its connection with the purge of the section next day) and the more extended, more intuitive Jacobin effort to have Marat signify in their terms. It is David's effort in particular that concerns me, but also the wider Jacobin negotiation with the Marat cult. And most of all, the implication of David's painting in the negotiation. Soboul is right. The situation is out of control. Surely never before had the powers-that-be in a state been obliged to improvise a sign language whose very effectiveness depended on its seeming to the People a language they had made up, and that therefore represented their interests. (It is the combination of democracy and headlong improvisation, and the pretense by leaders that they are truly ventriloquizing their subjects' thoughts and desires, that mark Robespierre's Paris off from Pericles's Athens.) No doubt it is easy to say in retrospect that the new language did nothing of the sort. But that is not the point. What matters to the historical imagination, at least in the first instance, is how the actors — especially the Jacobins -- saw things. I conceive them as wavering hopelessly between conspiracy and self-deception, between calculus of effects and belief in their own symbols. No one more hopelessly (therefore productively) than David.

       The question I posed a few pages back was: Supposing David had been present in the Cordeliers, would he have been on Brochet's or the orator's side? And what would he have taken the argument between them to be about, essentially? Representing whose interests?

    At least by now we have established what stands in the way of a cut-and-dried answer to any of the above. But the David I imagine is not discouraged by his inability to give an answer — more likely galvanized by the fact. It is the uncertainty of level in the debate that is its chief fascination, and makes him most want to join in. He knew that picturing Marat was a political matter, part of a process of "freezing" the revolution (Saint-Just's unforgettable metaphor) and making it Jacobin property. He was aware of the steps Robespierre had taken to hurry the process on, and why the steps had been necessary. He would be on the lookout for danger signals. But of course he took the evening's rhetoric at face value. He believed that a new world was under construction. No doubt he saw in the cult of Marat the first forms of a liturgy and ritual in which the truths of the revolution itself would be made flesh — People, Nation, Virtue, Reason, Liberty. How could he not have thrilled, as the summer and fall went on, to the glamorous details of Marat's deification? News of twenty-nine towns and villages calling themselves after the martyred saint. Of Marat becoming a favorite anti-Christian name for newborn babies. Of church after church, in Brumaire and Frimaire especially, taking down the crucifix and Virgin and putting up Marat and Le Peletier in their place — one historian counts fifty such ceremonies in Paris alone. "That the building previously serving as a church become a hall for sessions of the société populaire, and in consequence, that busts of Marat and Le Peletier be put in place of statues of Saint Peter and Saint Denis, its one-time patron saints, and that the village of Mennecy-Villeroy henceforth be named Mennecy-Marat." Of processions and speeches and apotheoses, many of them — particularly in August — with much less of a stage-managed look than the one David would be involved in. Of women going in for "hairdos à la Marat." Of Montmarat replacing Montmartre. Of déchristianisateurs perfecting a suitably modernized sign of the cross, to be accompanied by the impeccable murmur, "Le Peletier, Marat, la Liberté ou la Mort." Of prints and broadsides and terra-cotta shrines for sans-culottes' mantelpieces (figs. 9 and 10). Of militants on 11 October, just five days before the Museum procession, dragging the portraits of kings and princes out of the Palais du Fontainebleau and burning them in front of Marat's image (figs. 11 and 12). Smoke from the portrait of Louis XIII by Philippe de Champaigne, it was said, "was wafted toward the bust. It was the most agreeable incense we could offer."

    These details, as I say, are glamorous; and perhaps for that reason misleading. There is a quality of farce or factitiousness to many of them, and time and again one is on the verge of dismissing the lot (as Richard Cobb did, for instance) as a series of ludicrous or vengeful stunts, which cut no ice with ordinary men and women. And then one comes across the report of a ceremony, or a petition from a village, or a phrase or two from a sectionnaire's speech, which is suddenly free of the standard forms or the activists' overkill, and in which one thinks one overhears the struggles — maybe the ludicrous struggles — of a new religion being born. There are many other Brochets taking part in the process. Even the crowd outside the Palais du Fontainebleau deserves to figure in the record as more than a mob of peasant dupes egged on by a handful of vandal/professionals. Who are we to say what it must have been like to see the pompous encampment in the forest at last getting its come-uppance? What group of men and women had more of a right to pre-echo Walter Benjamin's: "There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism." Barbarism had been their daily bread. Maybe it took a burning Philippe de Champaigne to convince them it need not be any longer.

    The more one looks at the cult of Marat, the less clear it becomes what kind of phenomenon one is studying. Which history is it part of? Of popular religion or state-formation? Of improvisation by the menu peuple or manipulation by elites? The question applies to the episode of de-Christianization as a whole. And the answer obviously is both. The cult of Marat exists at the intersection between short-term political contingency and long-term disenchantment of the world. Maybe in its latter guise it often looks like a rear-guard action against the loss of the sacred. But here too its forms were unstable and ambivalent. We know of orators staging the Jesus-Marat comparison in 1793 so as to prove that the priests had captured and neutralized "Jesus the sans-culotte" by pretending he was something more than a man. Or others (besides Brochet) making the comparison to Jesus Christ's disadvantage. We know that even in the best-managed section — even in August — things could happen which reminded all concerned that the cult's basic premise was far from secure:

It is only too true that there were discovered, in the general assembly of the Butte-des-Moulins section [the voice here is that of the sectionnaires themselves, responding to an accusation from their neighbors at Arcis], citizens so villainous and perverse as to applaud the murder of Marat, incorruptible Friend of the People. Much the greater part of the assembly was seized with indignation at the occurrence and, to do it justice, decided that the appalling fact should be recorded in the minutes, and ... reported to the public prosecutor of the revolutionary Tribunal so that he could uncover the perpetrators and punish them ... Many citizens who had been led astray by intrigue — real anarchists, as you say — now acknowledge their errors. That testifies to the purity of our intentions.

Is it any wonder that Robespierre finally drew back from the whole farrago with a shiver of disgust? Was not trying to make a saint out of Marat, of all people, ultimately playing into one's enemies' hands? Had not the process led — I mean the whole mad, exalted search for a religion of the revolution — to the bishop of Paris, no less, being brought to the bar of the Convention on 17 Brumaire and solemnly abjuring his faith? And three days later to the scandalous (marvelous) Fête de la Raison in Notre-Dame? News was coming in of the armées révolutionnaires in the countryside, making bonfires of statues and riding priests out of town on a rail.

By what right did men who till now had counted for nothing in the course of the Revolution look round, in the midst of these events, for ways ... to lure even good patriots into false measures, and sow confusion and discord in our ranks? By what right did they threaten freedom of worship in the name of freedom, and battle fanaticism with fanaticism of a new kind! What gave them the right to pervert the solemn homage paid to Truth in all its purity, and make it an everlasting laughing-stock! Why did we let them dally in this way with the people's dignity, and tie jester's bells onto the very scepter of philosophy?

Atheism is aristocratic, says Robespierre. Even that argument was not enough to put an end to de-Christianization straight away. Still less to the cult of Marat. As late as 25 Floreal (14 May 1794, two months or so before Robespierre's fall) the Section Marat can be found asking the Committees of Public Safety and General Security's permission to march through Paris in honor of its patron, drums playing, choirs singing, three of its daughters dressed as Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. The committees were unimpressed.

They are far from considering this project worthy of so great an object, or likely to realize it satisfactorily. They consider the idea of the three divinities represented by three women as contrary to the principles that the French people have just proclaimed by way of the Convention [that is, Robespierre's Cult of the Supreme Being], and against all notions of good sense.

An order banning the procession was issued on 3 Prairial. A month or so before, a police spy had picked up the whisper: "If Marat was still alive at this moment, he would have been indicted and maybe guillotined."

       This is to leap forward too far. For the purpose of understanding David's picture, what matters is August and September, and the relation of the Jacobins in those months to the popular movement they had helped bring into being. Outright suppression of the cult of Marat — and of many other demands and images dear to the militants and the menu peuple — was not possible, and doubtless not wanted (yet) by Robespierre and co. They thought they could ride the whirlwind. And part of the riding would be to take the demands and images, even those (particularly those) most open to day-to-day political distortion, and give them Jacobin form. If that could be done with the maximum price, for example (which had its origins in pure workshop resentment), then certainly it could be done with Marat. For Marat was their own man, essentially. He needed only be rid of the veils and shadows cast on him by the revolution's enemies. "Give us back Marat whole [Redonne-nous Marat tout entier]," as Audouin shouted to David in the Convention.

       On one level I think Audouin and David would have understood that request quite literally. We know that David had originally planned, in the wild days following Marat's assassination, to stage a kind of tableau vivant using the martyr's embalmed body, showing him in the attitude struck at the moment of death. What had stood in the way of doing so was the body. It was not entire in the first place.

On the evening of Marat's death, the Jacobin Society sent us, Maure and myself [the speaker is David, to the Convention on 15 July], to gather news about him. I found him in an attitude that struck me deeply. He had a block of wood next to him, on which were placed paper and ink, and his hand, sticking out of the bathtub, was writing his last thoughts for the salvation of the people. Yesterday, the surgeon who embalmed his corpse sent to ask me how we should display it to the people in the church of the Cordeliers. Some parts of his body could not be uncovered, for you know he suffered from leprosy and his blood was inflamed. But I thought it would be interesting to offer him in the attitude I first found him in, "writing for the happiness of the people."

I get the feeling the embalmer was already trying to talk David down from his first idea of a scene straight out of the morgue; but David was nothing if not stubborn (as well as impressionable) and it was not till next day, after consulting with sectionnaires from Théâtre-Français, that he admitted defeat. "It has been decided that his body be put on show covered with a damp sheet, which will represent the bathtub, and which, sprinkled with water from time to time, will prevent the effects of putrefaction."

    Surely one main thing the painting of Marat was meant to do was make up for the disappointment in July. It would restore what had been missing. It would be imperishable. Instead of metaphor and stage business, it would be transparent to the facts.


Excerpted from Farewell to an Idea by T. J. Clark Copyright © 2001 by T. J. Clark. Excerpted by permission.
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