14 July: La fête nationale
On this day in 1789, a bunch of disaffected Parisians gathered at Number 232 rue Sainte-Antoine, address of that pygmy-monolith, the Bastille, formerly a fort, now a prison for marginal types. They wanted a symbolic victory and eventually, the Governor, M. de Launay, would hand it over: a paper surrendering control, on the basis of clemency.
This mercy was promised, and then ratted-on, in a piece of barbarity that would sum up the French Revolution in general. De Launay’s head was soon off his neck and sat atop a pike. As Carlyle recounts in his superb work on the affair: “Unhappy old De Launay, it is the death-agony of thy Bastille and thee! Jail, Jailoring and Jailor, all three, such as they may have been, must finish.”
The taking of the Bastille was merely symbolic. But the symbolism was a potent portent. As Dickens records in his novel A Tale of Two Cities, “Seven prisoners released, seven gory heads on pikes, the keys of the accursed fortress of the eight strong towers, some discovered letters and other memorials of prisoners of old time, long dead of broken hearts,-such, and such-like, the loudly echoing footsteps of Saint Antoine escort through the Paris streets in mid-July, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine.”
Edmund Burke had a few things to say about the revolution in France, and social upheavals in general: “with or without right, a revolution will be the very last resource of the thinking and the good….[the National] Assembly, since the destruction of the orders, has no fundamental law, no strict convention, no respected usage to restrain it. Instead of finding themselves obliged to conform to a fixed constitution, they have a power to make a constitution which shall conform to their designs. Nothing in heaven or upon earth can serve as a control on them…If civil society be the offspring of convention, that convention must be its law.” (Reflections that ought to have been considered by the Soviet Sovnarkom in the wake of a later social upheaval.)
So by all means join us and savour that glass of Dom Pérignon for the Big Day, in a toast to liberty, equality and fraternity, but The Varnished Culture will follow that up with a rich, dark, Australian shiraz to bethink ourselves of blood down the drains of social reform.