Reading the Revolution Nostalgia

Reading the Revolution Nostalgia
The outside reflection of the French Revolution memories in 19th-century works
from two neighbouring countries: Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Georg Büchner’s Dantons Tod

[an essay accompanying my failed application for Oxford ]

This study focuses on the French Revolution as seen through the lenses of the two prominent authors by pointing out the differences and similarities in their portrayal of the event. In this analysis of the works, my view has been heavily influenced by Pierre Bourdieu’s thought on the cultural and historical approach to arts. Thus, the texts examined here are seen and read as products of the past social circumstances which have a hand in constructing the worldview of Dickens and Büchner.

Nostalgia, then, comes to my interest as a powerful force that invisibly shapes the society in which it inhabits. The argument I would like to put forth is that the nostalgia for the great revolution that ran through the minds of 19th-century Britons and the German enabled the authors to create these particular works. The anthropological studies by two noteworthy Russian scholars, Svetlana Boym and Serguei Oushakine, whose definition and classification of nostalgia become the skeleton of this work, help me, with great length, successfully formulate the body of this essay around it.

Dickens and Büchner are oftentimes regarded as the ones making history, but here we will explore their lives and their works as being subjected to it. The French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Dantons Tod (1835) does not only serve as a background of the story, but also encapsulates the zeitgeist, the social obsession, and the authors’ personal fascination with the event. Their works are not merely a tale about the political turbulence happening overseas, but also a reflection of domestic affairs in their respective homelands, namely England and Germany (then, the German states), and above all, the identities of the authors themselves.

Being late to the French Revolution, both Dickens and Büchner did not entirely miss the train running along the memory lane bounding for an exciting past. They were born and raised in a society that was fascinated with the great incident, whose influence would later have a tremendous effect on their works.

In Dickens’ case, according to Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), in his prose work “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (1864), the French Revolution is looked upon as “the greatest, the most animating event in history” (418 Arnold in Richter). His statement, nevertheless, is not without an accompany of senses of disapproval. He insists in his writing that the French Revolution is the triumph of “feeling” over “mind”. It is the movement of “blind love” and “blind hate”, and not actually, an “intellectual and spiritual” movement. However, he concludes his point that “she [France] is the country in Europe where the people is most alive” (418). This reflects the views of his fellow contemporaries at the time; regardless of their political stance whether they were haunted by, or obsessed with the revolution, it did capture the heart and mind of the Victorian people.

More than half a decade after the French Revolution ended, Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is published. It is naturally a product of its time, its social circumstance, and the society fostered by the nostalgia, until it became, for him and many others – secondhand nostalgia. The term secondhand nostalgia is interestingly described by Serguei Oushakine, a professor of anthropology, as “the somewhat melancholic longing for the times past (typical for any nostalgia) while pointing, simultaneously, to a condition of historical disconnect from originary contexts…” (39). He also points out distinctive characteristics of second-hand nostalgia that the history itself is “expressive means rather than encoded messages” (39). The works discussed here are truly works of “nostalgic fascination”. However, it might need to be clarified that nostalgia in this context is not about the desire to be in the event themselves, but to be in the position of a contemporary outlander who experiences the revolution as it happens. It is the yearning to remove the chronological distance between them and history but still retain the original geographical proximity.

Dickens’ version of the event is definitely exciting. Upon the first inspection of the work, He greets us with an overall historical observation of the period. With this greeting, properly titled “The Period”, he welcomes us into his bipolar world – the world where extremity reigns. Here, he establishes the settings of this world, London, and Paris. Though there is not much difference in brutal living conditions, the French one is said to be more fatal, especially for the poor.

“[France] entertained herself, besides, with such humane achievements as sentencing a youth to have his hands cut off, his tongue torn out with pincers, and his body burned alive, because he had not kneeled down to honour to a dirty procession of monks…” (4)

Throughout the story, Dickens keeps repeating the harsh living standard which the unfortunate French must endure.  A father has to watch his child run over by a carriage of Monsieur the Marquis and the criminal walking away free. Likewise, the dwellers in Monsieur’s village are also depicted as living their lives in “the lowest terms”. In this village, everything is described as “poor”. They have to eat “onions”, “leaves”, and “grasses” to sustain their lives, and the very reasons for this excruciating poverty are taxes.

However, the people have tolerated this cruel fate forced upon them long beyond the point of reasoning. They no longer want fairer taxation; they want something more – revenge, flesh, and blood. Dickens reflects this idea using red wine. Quite early in the book, when a cask of wine “drop[s] and [breaks]”, people on the street, both young and adult “run to the spot and drink the wine”. Then, someone uses the wine to write “BLOOD” on the wall. At this point in the story, blood can still be replaced by spilled wine. It will become quite the contrary as the story develops. The red wine then becomes “unusually thin” and has “no vivacious Bacchanalian Flame”. With this slight change in the condition of a drink, the author has paved the way for the bloody revolution to come.

During this particularly dark time, Monsieur Defarge rises as a saviour of the poor. He inspires people to get revenge. He recruits new Jacques as members of his revolutionary group, which Bloom draws its similarity to the historical “les sans-culottes” (49) who made the revolution possible. However, the limelight is given to the most ominous character in the book, Madame Defarge, the personification of the French Revolution itself.  As a woman, she embodies “la Révolution”, “la Guillotine”, as well as la Terreur herself (Bloom 56). Her tragic backstory symbolised the fate of the French being ravaged by the upper class. She holds the power over her husband, who is the leader of working people, thus holds all the power of the revolution within her grasp. The act of her knitting is almost like a ritual to summon the darkness of the revolution.

“Darkness closed around… as the women sat knitting, knitting, knitting. Darkness encompassed them” (204).

Dickens’ French Revolution reflects his view on the event: gory, chaotic, barbaric. On its own, the revolution is violent enough, but when the author juxtaposes it with the situation in England, the brutality becomes overwhelming. This is represented best by Dickens’ use of the crowd. In England, people come to the old Bailey to see criminals being executed. They are excited and want to see bloodshed. However, no matter how much urge for the gore they have, they stay behind the line as if there was a clear partition separated them from their innate primordial instinct – which suggests the rule of law is fair, thus it earns respect from the people. The same cannot be said for her sister, France. The situation in Paris does remind me of a parallel image envisioned by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) in his description of degenerated government:

“as soon as the government usurps the sovereignty, the social compact is broken, and all the ordinary citizens, rightfully regaining their natural liberty, are forced, but not morally bound, to obey” (216).

We see the governing system abused by those in power themselves. Hence, the contravention of all the rules has, from the beginning, been committed and, deservingly, there are no laws to prevent them from the deadly chaos ensuing after, when the crowd is eventually forced to resort to their bestial nature. Such maelstrom portrayed in Dickens’ work is the extreme illustration of Rousseau’s anarchy: “When the State is broken up, the violation of the government, whatever it may be, takes the common name of anarchy” (216).

Dickens sees the revolution as someone who comes from a superior background. For him, it is merely an inconvenience for his protagonists to overcome. His French revolutionists do not have any other goals than to wreak havoc to the nobility. This manifests itself best when Madame subtly persuades a new Jacques what to do when the revolution comes.

“If you were shown a great heap of dolls, and were set upon them to pluck them to pieces and despoil them for your own advantage, you would pick out the richest and the gayest. Say! Would you not?” (192)

The instruction to this new recruit is not to foster a better living condition or liberty for the oppressed, but to satisfy the bloodlust of the poor and to bring the nobility and the monarchy to its ruin. Freedom is never a goal in Dickens’ French Revolution. Dramatized slaughter is his primary intent. He justifies the reason for the uprising, but still, he only paints it with blood-red colour.

In dickens’ defence, he does give the French people, who have just engaged in a bloody affair, a humane moment. “Full and happy at last, they play with their children, raise a glass of thin wine, and sleep deeply” (Bloom 52). Bloom sees this as the French being generous and capable of love (52). However, considering the way the author positioning this scene, which is right after they storm the Bastille, and decapitate those in power and mutilate their corpses, it does come across rather as a chilling moment than a heart-warming one. I disagree that Dickins succeeds in humanizing the French crowd. They are, still, beasts wanting for more blood to nourish their goodnight sleep.

When the story concludes, we finally know that he devotes his story to glorify one character in particular, Sydney Carton, an Englishman. He is the only character that has a progressive character arc. Though Carton begins as a “fellow of no delicacy” and is deemed inferior to the traditional Victorian hero, Charles Darney, in every aspect, he alone has a cathartic moment and rises a new man as he reaches the scaffold. Unlike the other characters fleeing back to England – pale, dead-like, terrified, he is the only one who is successfully “recalled to life”.

A Tale of Two Cities becomes an expressive mean for the author to execute his vision of period – peaceful England and tumultuous France. Dickens’ condescending view on the French Revolution is not quite different from those of his contemporaries like Matthew Arnold. To him, it is, indeed, a very exciting incident, but it was not a very wise one, and brings about nothing, except desolation and destruction.

In the loosely formed states of Germany, the effect of the French Revolution reverberated throughout the land as it happened in Victorian England. At the governing level, the revolution was an undesirable incident that could inflict instability onto the ruling class. Ernst Brandes (1758-1810), a German (Hannovian) writer, recorded his observation of the event in his book Über einige bisherige Folgen der Französischen Revolution, in Rücksicht auf Deutschland [ On Some of the Consequences of the French Revolution Concerning Germany to Date](1793). He, too, sees the French Revolution as “[die] größte Begebenheit unsers Jahrhunderts” [the greatest incident of our time] (3). However, Brandes looked at the event in an alarming manner. Although he consoles his readers that the effect of the revolution is not of great magnitude, he, then, conspicuously rushes to assures them that “die inneren Unruhen” [the domestic turmoil] happening in some states is not a direct result of the event, and his writing does carry a distinctly cautious tone (4-16).

It would be later proven that Brandes’ unsettling view toward the French Revolution was not just another political hypochondria. When Büchner’s time came, almost 30 years after the revolution, there was already widespread resistance to the current governing system all over the German states, especially in the Grand Duchy Hessen. The backwardness of the German economy, the mass unemployment, excessive taxation, and the poverty plagued the city where Büchner was born (Hauschild 33 – 42). The nobility also tried to grasp the power within their hands by arresting and detaining those who dared agitate people to revolt against the sitting regime (Meewongukote 27). The situation in Hessen-Darmstadt was more or less a reflection of France before the revolution.

Experiencing the misery of the surrounding his fellow citizens since young ages and adopting the French liberal sentiment when he was studying medical in Strasbourg, Büchner became more political and more critical of the inequality caused by the ruling class (Meewongukote 8). This results in his first political work Der Hessische Landbote [The Hessian Peasant Courier] (Hilton 12), whose objects are to publish his political belief to the mass and to arouse them to fight against the unjust ruling elites. As well as his English contemporary, Büchner grew up with the nostalgic memories of his father, Ernst Büchner (1786-1861) who was in Napoleon’s army and experienced the French Revolution first-hand (Hauschild 3). The glorious event struck to Büchner’s heart. In admiration, he wrote in his essay Heldentod der Vierhundert Pforzheimer that “[the French Revolution] allows humanity to move 100 years forward. Though it was destruction and bloodshed, it was for justice and the revenge for such barbarity that the authoritarian regime used to torture humanity for centuries” (Lehmann in Meewongukote 75).

Büchner’s Dantons Tod covers merely twelve days before 5th April 1794, the day Danton was guillotined. Though short in timespan and the length of the work, his French Revolution is provided details enough for us to clearly understand his vision. The play focuses on the political power struggle between politicians during the revolution, the ensuing brutality and bloodshed, and most importantly, the deep contemplation of a nationalist when he stands facing the death, about which he has a hand in bringing himself.

The revolution in Dantons Tod is not particularly hopeful. Poor people are in great hunger; women resort to prostitution to earn a bit of money; the economic situation has not changed much from the previous regime, while the politicians are scrambling for more absolute power. Robespierre executes everyone who has any others ideas of what the republic should be, which does not help improve the living condition of the French people at all, as Danton accuse him in front of the tribunal and the people of France.

“Ihr wollt Brot, und sie werfen euch Köpfe hin! Ihr durstet, und sie machen euch das Blut von den Stufen der Guillotine lecken!” (Büchner 3.9.69)

[You want bread, and they throw you heads! You thirst, and they make you lick the blood from the steps of the guillotine.]

            Similarly, Danton is not proactively trying to use his power to lift the poor out of poverty either. He is a burnt-out politician and becomes passive in this political game, though not without a compelling reason. He carries the weight of guilt causing by his hand in the September Massacre. It results in him does not want to inflict any more pains onto his fellow French men.

“Ich will lieber guillotiniert werden als guillotinieren lassen. Ich hab es satt; wozu sollen wir Menschen miteinander kämpfen?” (2.1.32)

 [I would rather be guillotined than be the one doing the guillotine. It is enough for me; why do we humans have to fight each other?]

It is worth mentioning that with this passive attitude alone, it is not impossible to sympathize with the character. However, when we take into account that it is not just him who is going to be executed but his whole political group, his resigned manner then becomes an irresponsible action toward his crews.

            One particular element that makes Danton and his friends standing out is their pleasure lifestyle. While the rest of the country is in despair of economic crisis, they spend their time in a café drinking with women entertaining them. They become the “new aristocrats” (Knapp in Meewongukote 112), which is, in Robespierre’s eyes, the enemy of the state.

             Büchner’s French Revolution is the event of extremity. It is the fight between the radical moralists and the debauched politicians. It is the story where those used to be on top has risen to the scaffold. It is the struggle of the poor when the only thing that could alleviate their hunger is the blood of the rich. Here, the author’s use of the crowd is interestingly similar to those of Dickens. They represent everything terrible about the revolution: poverty, bloodlust, and brutality. They are superficial and have no mind of their own. During the tribunal scene, they always cheer for the one who is in control of the conversation. First, they support Danton rhetorical speech. However, just a few moments after when Robespierre emerges triumphant in the trial, the crowd condemns Danton to death.

            Dantons Tod is not only a historical play, but an expressive mean for the author to express their political idea. Although the weight of the story is given to Danton, it cannot hastily be concluded that Büchner writes this piece to glorify this particular historic figure (Hauschild in Meewongukote 110). It is true that, with the work alone, one could read it as a historical play; Danton is the central figure who shows us his wants, his flaws, and his fears, ergo the author would like us to sympathise with this particular character. However, if one takes the authorial intent into account, one will find that the original text has transcended its own self and gained a whole new meaning. In many writings of Büchner, he has always shown disdain toward the wealthy upper class for which Danton and his crews stand. Meewongukote suggests that the author uses this work to criticize certain traits of Danton, Robespierre, and the French Revolution in general (110). However, I beg to differ. My reading of the play is that it is a cautionary tale of a failed revolutionist. Büchner, who was a revolutionist himself, despises materialism, and he explicitly attacks not just the nobility, but also the rich in the Hessian Peasant Courier. Therefore, the downfall of Danton is a warning to the profligate and uncommitted politicians. To Büchner, the revolution is for equality, but if one profits from the revolution but is unable to foster a fairer condition for the people who gave one support in the first place, perhaps one does not really deserve to be in the position. He also uses the antagonist, Robespierre, as a direct warning toward the German oppressive establishment; blood cannot erase the hunger of the poor; those who wield the blade of the guillotine, are not immune to it. Büchner purposefully inserts a hint in the discontentment toward the extremely brutal policy within the group of Robespierre’s own followers. The play, when read by those who are familiar with French history, will know that Robespierre would soon after suffer the same fate as Danton.

Both author’s visions of the French Revolution contain some similitudes in their depiction – a perfect storm of carnage raining in death and blood – but different in their functions. Here, it can clearly be seen how distinct domestic situations shape the worldviews of both authors. With the use of juxtaposition between two lands, one familiar and one totally foreign, Dickens alienates France as being other. The suffering and bestial nature of people in France stand out as an exotic specimen for Englishmen to enjoy. This is a result of the long celebrating tranquillity in England contrast to her chaotic neighbour which give Dickens sense of superiority. He looks at the event from outside, safely on the untroubled British Isle.

On the contrary, Büchner draws the struggling conditions of the French people during the Revolution closer to those of his fellow German. The revolution, though happening on foreign soil, is retold to the German audiences. Except for the names of the characters and settings, but for the plot, the diction, the characteristic of each character, none of these can be labelled distinctly as French or German. Especially, when we consider the poor living standard of German people at the time of Büchner, the maelstrom shown is an eerie mirroring image, not a disparity. He points out the failures of the government, both in Hessen and in Paris. Dantons Tod offers a counterargument to the already established political grounds of the state which bears the resemblance of Robespierre’s Reign of Terror.

Interestingly, the differences in the functions of the French Revolution can be further explored in term of nostalgia. According to her book The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym divides nostalgia into two broad categories, namely restorative and reflective. Restorative nostalgia offers the view of the past as “a perfect snapshot”. The past is looked at through a filter which can mean a personal prejudice toward or against that particular event, and “has to be freshly painted in its original image and remain eternally young” (ch. 5). The provided description of restorative nostalgia seems to fit Dickens’ depiction of revolution very well. His French Revolution is static, unchanging and has no future prospect. It is an exemplary “snapshot” – a perfect archetype that encapsulates the whole revolution. To him, France is always a country drowned in her own blood whether by the upper class or lower class’ hands, and the only way to escape it is to travel across the land and sea to the safe haven in England where her tranquillity reigns supreme.

On the other hand, Büchner’s Dantons Tod is on the reflective side of the spectrum. Reflective nostalgia lays its importance in “new possibility, not the reestablishment of stasis” (Boym ch. 5). Although Dantons Tod might look like a remaking of history whose plot is not different from the recorded biography of Danton and, as a result, should fall into the category of restorative nostalgia, with the authorial intent and small, nuances carefully inserted, it gains a whole new meaning and purpose from the historical text it used to be based upon. Through this political work, Büchner shows a new perspective of perceiving the French Revolution. His revolution might not be that different from Dickens’, but as both Danton and Robespierre remind us twice in the play “die Revolution ist noch nicht fertig” [the revolution is not yet finished.] (1.5.24, 1.6.25), it can be steered back into a more humane course. His revolution is not meant to forever stick in the perpetual bloody quagmire but offers a way out of it in his cautious undertone. It provides the “new possibility” for the intended German audiences who have not yet experienced liberty, equality, and fraternity for which the French have died fighting. As nostalgia shapes the worldviews of both authors and their works, the distance between us and history has shaped ours. It has been more than 200 years since the end of the French Revolution. The terrible memories have already been washed away from public consciousness. A glorious event, it has become. The uprising has been looked upon as a great historical hallmark of humanity. Still, by reading the works of nostalgia written down centuries ago, it reminds us of the price of liberty, however, not at all in a discouraging way. It was, indeed, exorbitant, but the people – le peuple – das Volk – were willing to pay. Both Dickens and Büchner have agreed on one thing in particular. Although they depict the people with every negative trait imaginable, the revolution could not ever happen without them. Monsieur and Madame Defarge, alone, could not alter the course of the country. They are very much in need of new recruits. Danton and Robespierre, without the support from working men and women, could not dismantle the status quo. They need the crowd’s approval, the cheer, the shout of agreement in order to survive on the political stage.  Even now, their messages still resonate with the spirit of 2020 where many are well reminded that the utmost authority lies in the hand of the people.

 Works Cited
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Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. London, William Collins. 2017.
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Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The social contract; and, The first and second discourses. Yale University Press. 2002.
Oushakine, Serguei Alex. “Second-Hand Nostalgia: On Charms and Spells of the Soviet Trukhliashechka.” Post-Soviet Nostalgia: Confronting the Empire's Legacies. Edited by Otto Boele, Boris Noordenbos, Ksenia Robbe. New York, Routledge, 2020, pp. 38-69.        

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