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Terror and Its Discontents: Suspect Words in Revolutionary France

Caroline Weber
Copyright Date: 2003
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Terror and Its Discontents
    Book Description:

    Terror and Its Discontents is a revealing look into the paradoxical embargo on free expression that underpinned the Robespierrists’s self-proclaimed “despotism of liberty” during the French Revolution. Caroline Weber provides a highly original—and timely—exposition of the political uses of rhetoric and of the links between language and power.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-9333-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. PROLOGUE: The Revolution Is Frozen
    (pp. xiii-xxii)

    What does it mean to be frozen with terror? Camille Desmoulins, a journalist writing under the Montagnard regime of 1793–94, once remarked that France’s new order had replaced “the language of democracy” with “the cold poison of fear, which paralyze[d] thought in the bottom of people’s souls, and prevent[ed] it from pouring forth at the tribunal, or in writing.”¹ This formulation is a suggestive one, in that it links the constrictive policies of the Montagnard government, collectively known as the Reign of Terror, to a paralysis of thought and language. Desmoulins knew what he was talking about: under the...

  5. CHAPTER ONE Rousseau’s “Contradiction of Words”: Sublime Totality and the Social Pact
    (pp. 1-54)

    At the core ofThe Social Contractlies the tenet that civic virtue derives from categorical obedience to the general will. The constitution of a truly egalitarian society, Jean-Jacques Rousseau maintains throughout his 1762 treatise, requires each citizen to submit willingly and utterly to the dictates of communal harmony. Such conformity often demands the suppression of personal interests and instincts that could undermine the greater good—interests and instincts that Immanuel Kant, envisioning a categorical imperative of his own some twenty years after the publication of Rousseau’s tract, would term, provocatively linking nongeneralizable pathos with moral sickness, “pathological.” Similarly, Rousseau...

  6. CHAPTER TWO The Terror That Speaks: The Unspeakable Politics of Robespierre and Saint-Just
    (pp. 55-114)

    On March 31, 1794,¹ when Maximilien Robespierre sent his oldest friend and one-time political ally, Camille Desmoulins, to the guillotine as a counterrevolutionary suspect, he did so without explanation or comment. As Jules Michelet explains in his account of the incident: “A god who discusses things is lost.”² This quotation suggests that for Robespierre, at the height of his powers in revolutionary France as the leader of the then near-omnipotent Montagnard party,³ linguistic engagement was tantamount to vulnerability, weakness, a loss of control. In implying as much about the politician’s silence, Michelet’s observation speaks volumes about the precarious position of...

  7. CHAPTER THREE The Bridle and the Spur: Collusion and Contestation in Desmoulins’s Vieux Cordelier
    (pp. 115-170)

    Shortly after her brother’s death, Charlotte Robespierre discovered a stack of Maximilien’s private papers, which included a note scribbled in the spring of 1794 in response to the publication of Camille Desmoulins’s controversial journal,Le Vieux Cordelier(The Old Cordelier). Infuriated by his former best friend’s traitorous reflections on the political value of compassion, the Montagnard leader had scrawled: “The people need to be enlightened, but what are the obstacles to their instruction? Those mercenary writers who lead [the people] astray through their daily, impudent impostures. What should we conclude from this? That writers must be eliminated as the nation’s...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR The Second Time as Farce: Sade Says It All, Ironically
    (pp. 171-227)

    InA Place of Greater Safety, a novelized account of political life during the Terror, Hilary Mantel imagines a brief but suggestive encounter between two republican writers. One of them, Camille Desmoulins, sits in his home one afternoon in late November 1793, poring over Tacitus and muttering to himself about the parallels between modern Paris and ancient Rome. The other, one former Marquis de Sade, appears uninvited on Desmoulins’s doorstep, introduces himself, and requests an audience. Both men have already achieved some degree of notoriety in their respective fields—political journalism and libertine fiction—but on the surface they could...

  9. EPILOGUE: The Revolution Eats Its Children
    (pp. 228-232)

    On March 16, 1793, aghast at the increasing violence of his Montagnard rivals’ policy recommendations, the Girondin politician Pierre Vergniaud sounded a note of alarm on the Convention floor: “Citizens, we now have cause to fear that the Revolution, like Saturn successively devouring his children, has finally given way to despotism and all the calamities that despotism implies.”¹ Like the contemporary image of the Terror’s executioner guillotining himself (Figure 4), this memorable figure of speech emphasizes the self-destructive turn taken by revolutionary politics under Robespierre’s rule. In addition to highlighting the internecine nature of the purges, Vergniaud’s image aptly evokes...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 233-276)
  11. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 277-286)
  12. Index
    (pp. 287-296)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 297-297)