Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Ends and Beginnings

Hubert Robert, Demolishing the Bastille, 1790

When Parisian crowds stormed the Bastille July 14, 1789, they found only a handful of old men upset at being rudely awakened. The Marquis de Sade was released from the Bastille only days earlier.
The storming of the Bastille was not about liberating prisoners. It was about seizing weapons. The members of the newly formed National Assembly were in Paris. The city was full of rumors that royal troops were marching toward the city. The Bastille was stormed to seize weapons to defend the city and the National Assembly. In that desperate act fueled by rumor, something new began.
The Bastille suddenly acquired a meaning and an importance it never had before. It is likely that before July 14, 1789, Parisians hardly noticed the old medieval fortress on the edge of town. After it was stormed, it became an emblem of tyranny, of rulers at war with their own people. It became emblematic of an ancient feudal order that now seemed arbitrary, rooted in superstition and ignorance. The stone fortress stood for everything that stood in the way of emerging expectations in a brand new world where the human condition of toil, pain, and obedience for the many was no longer immutable. That order was ancient, but it was no longer permanent. It clearly was no longer divinely ordained. Common people could change their lot in life. They could have a say in their own destinies. The new Industrial Revolution harnessed the forces of nature to the needs of production. People now had powers that they once attributed to their gods. "Why should we fear Jupiter's thunderbolt," said Karl Marx, "when we have the lightning rod?"

We are still in the middle of those revolutions unleashed at the end of the 18th century. They remain unfinished, their promises unfulfilled.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt once said that among the greatest privileges of humanity was the capacity to start something new, to begin. All my life, I've heard Greek choruses bewailing the decline of this and that. I've always wondered, if one thing is dying, then it means another is struggling to be born. Civilizations end, not because they fail, but because the people who make them are mortal. Traditions disappear when they no longer have anything to say to new generations. We are living in such a time when new things struggle to be born. Hannah Arendt looked about at the smoking ruins of Europe and Asia at the end of the Second World War. She noted that, for the first time, the thread of historical continuity that joined the past and present together was now irrevocably broken by the catastrophes of the 20th century. However, she saw not despair, but a unique opportunity, the chance of a new start.

Le Sueur, Planting a Liberty Tree, 1790

1 comment:

Davis said...

The image of the tree planting is a fine example of the intentions of some of the revolutionaries to do it right. Sadly the mob lost control.