Friday, August 14, 2009

La Revolution

Why is it that when anyone writes about the French Revolution, they only write about Marie Antoinette? And if not about Marie Antoinette, they write about some silly, vapid, courtesan who spends her days wishing she was Marie Antoinette and her nights sleeping with whichever Count or Marquis it takes to keep her at court?

How is it that after rewriting how Western government views itself, all we remember is: Marie Antoinette -- she had really nice clothes -- she had wild parties -- and then they killed her. Sad.

But it's not the France I know.

The day Coldplay came out with Viva La Vida, I broke out in goosebumps. The colors are glaring and loud with the French symbol of Revolution, a woman brazenly storming the Bastille, half clothed: of course. Ah. The good old days of half naked women on money, telephone ads and art, when the number one rule was LOOK DOWN because you never knew what kind of billboard awaited you on main street or in the middle of centre ville. You know -- BEFORE the Euro?? I lived in France for two years when I was 21. Every week there was a protest, a march, demonstration, a strike. Sometimes they were over the salaries of the postal workers (which they protested by blowing up the local post office at Christmas) and sometimes it was a demonstration by those dissatified with their welfare benefits. Once, I saw the entire Cananbiere lined in Marseilles by Muslims, standing behind miles of machine gun holding troops while a group of French Nationalists marched solemnly up the street holding only a French flag. It was silence as I've never experienced before. Any false move, the wrong insult hurled at the wrong protester or demonstrator and the whole of Marseilles would have gone up in -- dare I say it -- revolution.

It was in those moments that I remembered the revolution, we all did. That it took place in those streets, with ancestors of the people we saw now and left the king probably singing something very similar to Viva La Vida: "I used to rule the world, seas would rise when I gave the word. Now in the morning I sleep alone, sweep the streets I used to own." These days the massive romantic, stone baroque buildings are used as banks, city halls, or community centers. No one speaks of the crowds surging through the streets, the taking over of the ancien regime, the terror that blanketed "Liberite, Egalite, Fraternite." In fact, a French friend of mine was asked to stop singing "Les Marseilles" on Bastille Day as it was offensive to the French people.

Ah well.

No one speaks of LaFayette, Marat, Dantes, or Rousseau, but nobody can seem to erase them entirely either. Even in Viva la Vida, a rock and roll song by a bunch of British lads who probably despise the French as all British lads do, Louis XVI, Robspierre and Bonoparte are still with us. It's even in Broadway musicals like Phantom of the Opera. Christine wanders through the Paris graveyard, a sublimely chilling moment of the Belle Epoque. But what was the Belle Epoque except the time AFTER the revolutions (yes, there were two), AFTER the dust had settled, AFTER we were allowed to associate France with beautiful scenery, clothes, art and not with blood, betrayl, revolution. And let's not forget the Phantom. Older, damaged, scarred... one of les pauvres still taking his vengeance out on the beautiful, privileged upper class.

Who knows what other stories there are of that wildly terrible but essential moment in history? All we ever get are "let them eat cake" stories of whores and buffoons who just happened to be well-dressed enough to matter. Maybe they were the only ones who did matter. But I kind of like to think of the children of the revolution as the ghosts in the Ramalama Bang Bang dance number on So You Think You Can Dance; all heated up, thirsty for revenge and by God, not going to take it anymore. This is the France I lived in. This is the France where I grew up.

Viva la Vida.

Vive La France!


  1. Wow! I like your blog. Great idea! Ramalama Bang Bang rocks! Look forward to hearing more.

  2. Jeez, don't even get me started about the "Let them eat cake thing." Whalen talked about that for a couple of days, about how it was closer to "let them eat bread" and how some other woman much, much earlier. That always annoys me to hear.

    I think the French Rev. is my favorite part of Euro History--or any history. France in general, historically, literarily, gastronomically just has such an amazing ability to impose a strong atmosphere on a person. It just seems like France as a whole is a living being. Can't wait to go there. Probably will next summer.