Archive for October, 2020

From the annals of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

October 7, 2020

Coincidental, indeed, is the headline of this month’s blog post. It is 171 years old, having been coined in 1849 by French journalist and critic Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in the January 1849 issue of his journal Les Guêpes (“The Wasps”).

I had decided on that title after reading a passage from Alexander Herzen’s memoir, My Past and Thoughts. Herzen, a Russian émigré nobleman who has been called “the father of Russian socialism,” had made his way to Paris during the revolutionary year of 1848. You don’t have to buy his entire outlook and philosophy to appreciate his literary skills and his powers of observation.

The following passage was written after Herzen attended an evening of drinking and scheming at the Café Lamblin. I quote it without further commentary, other than to opine that he could just as well have been writing about a sizable cohort of the denizens who prowl and streets and the Twitterverses of 2020.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. You bet.

“In the café the various habitués of the revolution were sitting at a dozen little tables, looking darkly and consequentially about them from under wide-brimmed felt hats and caps with tiny peaks. These were the perpetual suitors of the revolutionary Penelope, those inescapable actors who take part in every popular demonstration and form its tableau, its background, and are as menacing from afar as the paper dragons with which the Chinese wished to menace the English.

“In the troubled times of social storms and reconstructions in which states forsake their usual grooves for a long time, a new generation of people grow up who may be called the choristers of the revolution; grown on shifting, volcanic soil, nurtured in an atmosphere of alarm when work of every kind is suspended, they become inured from their earliest years to an environment of political ferment – they like the theatrical side of it, its brilliant, pompous mis en scène

“Among them are good, valiant people, sincerely devoted and ready to face a bullet; but for the most part they are limited and extraordinarily pedantic. Immobile conservatives in everything revolutionary, they stop short at some programme and do not advance.

“Dealing all their lives with a small number of political ideas, they only know their rhetorical side, so to speak, their sacerdotal vestments, that is the commonplaces which successively cut the same figure, à tour de rôle, like the ducks in a well-known children’s toy – in newspaper articles, in speeches at banquets and in parliamentary devices.

“In addition to naïve people and revolutionary doctrinaires, the unappreciated artists, literary men, students who did not complete their studies, briefless lawyers, actors without talent, persons of great vanity but small capability, with huge pretensions but no power of work, all naturally drift into this milieu.

“The external authority which guides and pastures the human herd in a lump in ordinary times is weakened in times of revolution; left to themselves people do not know what to do.

“The younger generation is struck by the ease, the apparent ease, with which celebrities float to the top in times or revolution, and rushes into futile agitation; this inures the young people to violent excitements and destroys the habit of work…One must not be left behind, there is no need to work: what is not done to-day may be done to-morrow, or may not even be done at all.”