Tuesday, 22 March 2011

"Le Radeau de la Méduse" and the allurements of propaganda

The experience of telling people that you sympathise with the royalists during the French Revolution is usually an unpleasant one. Listeners often react with the same horrified confusion as if you had just casually announced that you enjoy kicking orphans or punching poor people in the face for your own amusement. To declare oneself antipathetic to the goals and aims of the French Revolution is as close to heresy as one can come in the modern intellectual world. It's often difficult to explain in such conversations that it's a bit rich to hear western intellectuals, and pseudo-intellectuals, waxing loquacious in praise of the revolution's agenda towards equality, whilst reflecting that these are often the very same people who walk past beggars on the street, as if they can neither see nor hear them. Occasionally I'm tempted to remind these people who seem to be imagining themselves storming the barricades to a tune lifted right out of Les Misérables (different revolution, same romance) that we have a level of inequality between the west and the slums of Mumbai so grotesque that it would have made the most pampered of Versailles debutantes quail in horror. 

You see, to be blunt, we haven't exactly come a long way in those terms since 1788. Or at least, not as long as we would like to think. Alright, people (of both genders) have the vote now, we happen to have the very useful  and magnificent concept of civil liberties and birth-right is no longer considered an entitlement to a life of endless possibility devoid of responsibility. At least, not legally. But a casual glance at the endowments made to America's Ivy League universities might shake us out of the complacent idea that dynasty is dead or that there is no correlation in a meritocratic modern society between money and unwarranted entitlement. Put simply, we're just a lot better at hiding inequality than the ancien régime was. 

When it comes to female suffrage, the French Revolution was one of the most vituperatively misogynist regimes in European history and the first three countries to grant the right to vote to its female citizens were New Zealand (part of the British Empire), Australia (part of the same empire) and Finland (then part of the Russian Empire, ruled over by Nicholas II.) After that, the next two to extend the suffrage were Norway and Denmark, both monarchies. And so it's very difficult to see how exactly this much-vaunted republic of the 1790s enfranchised are sister-suffragettes. If one is inclined to praise liberal values and the rhetoric of Liberalism and, indeed, there is much to praise there, there is absolutely no need (and indeed many a reason not) to look back to the French Revolution as the progenitor of that creed. Both the Glorious Revolution in Britain and the American Revolution in the United States had created a language of liberal discourse without having to scythe down hundreds of thousands of their own people in the manner of the French Revolution. More than that, in the eighteenth century, many European monarchies were embracing modernity through a dialectic of throne-guided reform. Carlos III in Spain, Catherine II in Russia, Frederich VI in Denmark, Gustav III in Sweden, Josef II in Austria, Leopold I in Tuscany, Joseph the Reformer in Portugal and, lest we forget, Louis XVI in France, were all key proponents of societal evolution, as opposed to revolution. As Louis XVI's youngest brother reflected, "It was the time for reform, not revolution." Most of the benefits of modern society that we take for granted and rightly praise would have happened anyway, even without the revolution's crazed messianic delusions. The French Revolution is far better understood as an aberration in European history, and a hideous one from which warnings should be taken, not inspiration sought. The only way it could possibly be dubbed "the crucible of modernity" is if we follow Professor Michael Burleigh's sobering study of its ideas and conclude that it did not birth egalitarianism but rather vituperative nationalism, the concept of modern genocide, the state suppression of religion by violent means and polarising political ideology. All of which makes it even less attractive, if that were possible.

There are other questions, too, which any modern opponent of the romanticisation of the French Revolution could justifiably ask: why was pornography of the most vilely sexist and often homophobic variety used to annihilate the reputations of the revolution's high-profile opponents? Can genocide like that which was perpetrated by the revolutionary armies in the Vendée between 1790 and 1796 ever be justified - even when carried out in the name of a catchphrase as glib and seductive as "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity"? How is it logically possible to have both Liberty and Equality in a nation? Surely a fundamental requirement of Liberty is to have the ability to overcome the imposition of Equality? Name any country in history which has been vigorously committed to enforcing the concept of equality and it does not make a particularly attractive list - the Soviet Union, Maoist China, Ho Chi Minh's Vietnam, Mengistu's Ethiopia, Pol Pot's Cambodia. And finally, why did the revolution occur under the rule of one of the most benign and liberal monarchs in French history? The myth of royal repression in the years immediately preceding the revolution is exactly that. It's a post-justifying myth to legitimise what was essentially a bourgeoisie coup locked in an abusive marriage with the frankly terrifying spectre of mob mentality and street violence.

Rinsing the revolution is therefore just about possible, if you are given time to explain your thoughts. You often don't because people start to appear embarrassed that you could be so cluelessly heartless as to hate the liberation of mankind like that. Or they look confused - as if you're about to leap out of the shadows in a Marie-Antoinette ballgown and start handing everyone pastries from Ladurée. Defending the monarchy, as opposed to criticising the revolution, is much more difficult. In part that's because articulating why you support a system that is, logically, nonsensical, is always going to be tricky because it comes down to praising what the journalist Charles Fenyvesi called "an argument favouring decadent caprice over ruthless efficiency."

With the argument that monarchy is a logical absurdity, I have no quarrel. If the world operated according to logic and people voted responsibly and with their heads for sober individuals who had no personal ambition, no debilitating prejudices or sentiments; if there was no such thing as patriotism and class and sentiment, then I would agree that there is no good argument for the system of monarchy. But the fact is that logic is not how the world works. Politicians' ambitions should be curbed. There should be one office in the land which no amount of ambition, no amount of money, no amount of votes, can ever propel you into. There should be, at the top, something totally and completely illogical, something entirely sentimental, divorced from party loyalty, because in moments of crisis and in moments of uncertainty, it's illogical sentiment that most of us will reach for. Above all else, if the French Revolution teaches us anything, it is that change should be gradual and legal, and a monarchy, by virtue of its traditions, can mitigate against too-rapid change. (I should point out that I am not dismissing the claims of those monarchists, or impartial observers, who articulate very valid pragmatic arguments for the continuation of monarchy into the modern day. My friend Tom, by no means a universal monarchist, recently put forward a very good case for why the institution of monarchy would be of great benefit to present day Italy; my friend Theodore has argued that there are sound reasons for monarchy's use in Russia, Germany, Austria and France, as well, as of course, Spain, Britain, Luxembourg, etc. The blog The Cross of Laeken is a passionate and cogent supporter of the Belgian monarchy. Nor am I saying that republics can never work. Far from it. There is something intrinsically inspiring about an American presidential election and although even there one can see the damaging affect on national unity which a particularly polarising president can have when it comes to a time of war or national crisis, America is today undoubtedly the example of a republic par excellence and one which I have nothing but the greatest respect for. Republics work in some places and monarchy in others.)

Sadly, it is the vogue for most modern armchair historians to see monarchy as an embarrassing hangover from the Middle Ages and no monarchy has been more casually dismissed than France's - the generous see it as bizarre; the critical as offensive. In the popular stereotype, the monarchy of the Bourbons managed to be both frivolous and repressive, self-centred yet all-controlling and clueless whilst fiendish.  Apparently, it wasn't just illogical but practically schizophrenic. Of all the many historical canards aimed at discrediting the French monarchy, none is more persistent than the absurd myth of a bubble-brained Marie-Antoinette joking for starving peasants to eat cake when there was a bread shortage. The myth that France was egregiously over-taxed under the Bourbons is also trotted out, as is the idea that everyone and anyone was occasionally incarcerated under the infamous lettres de cachet. Yet, discounting Marie-Antoinette's cake moment, no myth is more potent amongst semi-well read historical enthusiasts than the all-too believable idea that the ancien régime was the ultimate pork barrel buffet for the privileged. To paraphrase Lincoln, it was government for snobs, by snobs.

And nowhere is this idea more powerfully captured than in the epic Le Radeau de la Méduse by Théodore Géricault (1791 - 1824.) It is an arresting, fascinating, gut-retching painting and a real tribute to Géricault's troubled genius. It was painted following a horrific shipwreck off the coast of Africa in 1816, one year following the full Restoration of the French monarchy. The ship which had been lost was a naval frigate, called the Méduse, which had been en route to the French colony in Senegal, with the governor and his family on board. The frigate had been under the command of its new captain, the vicomte de Chaumareys, with a combined total of two hundred and forty passengers and about one hundred and sixty crew. Like the captain of the Titanic a century later, the vicomte ignored various warnings that the ship might be heading too close to the shallows. 

Sixty miles off the coast of Mauritania, the Méduse ran aground and plans were made to ferry the passengers to the coast. A raft was constructed to try and save the ship's cargo, but when the frigate began to break-up under the pressure of the stormy weather, de Chaumareys panicked and ordered the evacuation of one hundred and forty-six of the Méduse's remaining assembly onto the raft itself. The lifeboats towing the raft panicked and cut the ropes, leaving the poor souls to their fate. Over the course of the first night adrift, twenty people on that raft committed suicide. By the fourth day, only sixty-seven were left alive and some, allegedly, resorted to cannibalism to survive. On the eighth day, the stronger members took it upon themselves to keep the raft buoyant by tossing their weaker crew-mates overboard. Only seventeen were left alive when the British navy ship, Argus, picked them up on July 17th 1816.

Initially, the French government attempted to hush the matter up. The colonisation of Senegal was at a critical stage and the attempt to stablise the navy following the necessity of expelling so many Bonapartists was not going well. De Chaumareys was summoned back to France, where he was immediately court-martialled for his handling of the shipwreck, stripped of his position and sentenced to three years imprisonment without the possibility of parole or early release. There were some within the ministries of Defence and the Navy who thought he should be executed for desertion - the Minister of the Navy and the Colonies, the vicomte du Bouchage, was livid that a captain had abandoned his ship, rather than stay to sink with it, as naval protocol demanded. However, there were others who felt enough people had died because of the Méduse and that putting Du Chaumareys before a firing squad would only focus attention on an issue which many in the French government were keen to forget.

Yet, as always, news leaked out to the press and an explosive series of articles ran, spawning several bestselling grit memoirs from survivors of the Méduse, in which the restored monarchy itself was blamed for the disaster. It was well-known in left-wing circles that the monarchy wanted to staff the military with blue-blooded aristocrats, rather than making any attempt to make the appointments based on merit. One of the most persistent rumours that arose from the 1816 disaster was that King Louis XVIII himself had appointed the vicomte de Chaumareys to the post of captain. Why exactly the King of France would concern himself with who got to be captain of a naval frigate has never been adequately explained to me. Surely, given that he was overseeing one of the most difficult transitions of power in one of the most politically-damaged countries in Europe after twenty years of unparalleled domestic and international unrest, Louis XVIII probably had bigger things on his desk than who got to ferry colonial officials on a small ship to Senegal? The legend that Louis XVIII approved de Chaumareys for his command is not really about that heartbreaking humanitarian tragedy on the raft. But then neither is the painting.

Trussed up in glowing sentiment, the claim that Louis XVIII personally appointed the man whose incompetence sank the Méduse, is really all about politics. Louis XVIII, old, fat, bloated and reactionary, hand-selects a bumbling aristocrat who last stood on the deck of a naval frigate two decades earlier when Louis XVI was still ensconced at Versailles and Marie-Antoinette was running around playing at being a shepherdess. (Another myth, for another blog post.) That this aristocrat is egregiously unprepared to captain anything more challenging than a gondola is ignored by the restored monarch, who seeks only to cram pampered, privileged buffoons like himself into every major public position in the kingdom. He aims to eradicate the meritocracy of the revolution and Bonapartism and caper back to the class-conscious lunacy of the ancien régime.

It's an arresting image and one which is likely to grip the imagination - again, just like Géricault's painting. However, there are several glaring holes in this version of events. The first, as was mentioned, is that no monarch in Europe was personally involved in the captaincy appointments to naval frigates. Monarchs happened to be pretty busy in the 1810s. Secondly, whilst it is undoubtedly and lamentably true that de Chaumareys' aristocratic title helped him when it came to the appointments procedure, it is also worth noting that prior to the revolution the vicomte had extensive experience in Louis XVI's navy. It was not as if the Ministry of the Navy and the Colonies suddenly took it upon themselves to appoint a complete landlubber to oversee the difficult Senegal run in 1816 just because he was entitled to be addressed as "Monsieur le vicomte." Thirdly, there was a genuine staffing problem in the navy in 1816, since many of those who had held jobs there for the last decade had proven themselves to be singularly unreliable to national interests. Many of them had been appointed by Napoleon, who had attempted to re-seize the throne of France only a year before the Méduse went down. They quite simply could not be trusted and many had shown that in 1815. It was by no means certain in 1816 that Bonaparte wouldn't try the same thing again. Fourthly, it is important to realise that rather than regard the survivors of the Méduse as an irritating irrelevancy and de Chaumareys as their priority, King Louis XVIII's government did a lot in the aftermath of the sinking to try and learn from the disaster. Undoubtedly, much of this was as a public relations strategy to stave off the backlash amongst many honest members of the French public who were rightly horrified by what had happened. Yet, decisive steps were still taken, whatever the motivation. Along with de Chaumareys being imprisoned, the Governor of Senegal, who had also left in one of the first lifeboats, was asked for his resignation by the King, and the King personally signed into law a piece of legislation written by an ex-Bonapartist, Laurent de Gouvion Saint-Cyr, which stated definitively that ancestry and connections were not to play any part in future army or military appointments. In this, France was far ahead of most other countries in Europe and the Americas at the time.

De Chaumareys was the wrong man for the job. There is no question of that. He was reckless in command and criminal in crisis. He almost certainly warranted a much harsher sentence than the one handed down to him by the military court at Porte de Rochefort and public outcry at the government's handling of the Méduse disaster was justified. It is also edifying to see that in the aftermath of the disaster Louis XVIII's government were prepared to enter into a dialogue with their one-time political opponents, like Laurent de Saint-Cyr, in order to build a better France. It obviously did not best serve the nation's interest for the government  to only make appointments from amongst its own supporters. A salient lesson which we could do well to learn from today.

Yet, one cannot help but feel that the main point of le radeau de la Méduse has been missed, not just by historians but also by Géricault. It was a human tragedy, not a political one. De Chaumareys was a weak and reprehensible figure, who happened to be an aristocrat. He was not weak and reprehensible because he was one and there was no way that the French Crown could have been expected to know that prior to 1816. The French government should not have tried to downplay the tragedy of the sinking, but governments then and now take those decisions, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes for bad, regardless of whether their leader wears a crown or a business suit. What the sinking of the Méduse really shows us is a spectacularly unedifying portrait of humanity.

And yet, Théodore Géricault chose to unveil his masterpiece in the Paris Salon of 1819 not because he was especially moved by the story of human frailty, but because he wanted to indict Louis XVIII's government for what he saw as its corruption and deceitfulness. The painting isn't really about the men lying in various extremities across a sea-tossed raft; it's about the government that put them there. The figure looming largest in Géricault's fevered imagination are not the sailors who cut the ropes binding the raft to the other lifeboats or the men who tossed their weaker colleagues into the swell. It's not even really about de Chaumareys. What Le Radeau de la Méduse is about is the restored monarchy. It's about Louis XVIII and the culpability of corruption which allegedly flowed inexorably from his ci-devant hands. And that's basically what the French Revolution is. The first time you look at it, like Le Radeau de la Méduse, it seems to be about people. It seems to be about human suffering and outrage that such conditions should exist. But look at it closer and you'll see that what it's actually about are ideas, cleverly masked behind the misery of the people it claims to be representing.


  1. Louis XVIII didn't directly appoint Chaumareys, but his appointment was very much tied up with the privileges enjoyed by the aristocracy under the Ancien Regime. From History Today (http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-9725315.html):

    "In the minds of Savigny and Correard (and posterity), responsibility for the catastrophe that claimed over 150 lives lay with the Medusa's captain, Hugues Deroys de Chaumareys, an aristocrat recently returned from exile, and by extension the Minister of the Marine, vicomte Dubouchage, who appointed him. Determined to exclude naval officers who had served under Napoleon, Dubouchage made his selection on the basis of de Chaumareys' aristocratic pedigree and pro-Bourbon sympathies, and not on his merits as a sea captain. At the time the Medusa set sail in June 1816, de Chaumareys had not served on board a French ship for twenty years."

  2. Louis XVIII didn't directly appoint Chaumareys, but his appointment was very much tied up with the privileges enjoyed by the aristocracy under the Ancien Regime. From History Today (http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-9725315.html):

    "In the minds of Savigny and Correard (and posterity), responsibility for the catastrophe that claimed over 150 lives lay with the Medusa's captain, Hugues Deroys de Chaumareys, an aristocrat recently returned from exile, and by extension the Minister of the Marine, vicomte Dubouchage, who appointed him. Determined to exclude naval officers who had served under Napoleon, Dubouchage made his selection on the basis of de Chaumareys' aristocratic pedigree and pro-Bourbon sympathies, and not on his merits as a sea captain. At the time the Medusa set sail in June 1816, de Chaumareys had not served on board a French ship for twenty years."

  3. I think you're mistaken that there is no connection between Chaumareys's aristocratic birth and the tragedy he was responsible for. The fact that his aristocratic position was one of the major reasons for his appointment is only part of the story. He also made the conscious decision to cut the raft carrying the rank-and-file soldiers and other lower-class passengers loose instead of towing them to safety, as he had promised. The preferential treatment enjoyed by aristocrats up to and including matters of life and death was a major part of the impetus behind the French Revolution and opposition to the Bourbon Restoration, and Chaumareys's total lack of concern for the lower-class survivors of the crash (which he had caused) was not unreasonably seen as symptomatic of the aristocracy's inhumanity towards the common people.

    From History Today (http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-97253215.html): "Approximately 250 people made their disorganised way onto six lifeboats leaving the rest, the vast majority of whom were ordinary soldiers with a handful of low-ranking officers and civilians, to a makeshift raft. This, it was agreed, would be towed to safety. In the haste to get to shore, the tow-ropes were (according to Savigny and Correard) deliberately untied, leaving 149 men and one woman stranded."

  4. It's a bit late,but do you think that this painting is a kind of parody of"Liberty leading the People" by Eugène Delacroix-quite similar structure,as an indictment of the French Revolution.


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