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The Convention Is Current

by on October 3, 2011

Authors are best able to write about what they know (non-fiction and fiction), or an extrapolation of what could happen based on what they know (fiction and science fiction).  Only occasionally are authors able to capture the human ideal, which makes their work resonate through ages beyond their own.  Aristotle, K’ung Fu-Tse (Confucius), Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, Thomas Paine, and countless others fall into this category.  So does Victor Hugo, of Notre Dame De Paris fame.  A few paragraphs in his lesser-known work 1793, about the French revolution, encapsulates perfectly likely reaction to at least one of two recent events – the killing of US-born Anwar al-Awlaki by US forces in a foreign country, and the state-ordered execution of Troy Davis, a man probably innocent of his accused crimes.

Hugo writes, in Book Three, Chapter VI,

Among these men [at the Convention who were] full of passions were mingled men filled with dreams. Utopia was there under all its forms, under its warlike form which admitted the scaffold, and under its innocent form which would abolish capital punishment; a spectre as it faced thrones, an angel as it faced the people. Side by side with the spirits that fought, were the spirits that brooded. Some had war in their heads, other had peace; one brain Carnot, brought forth fourteen armies; another intellect, Jean Debry, meditated a universal democratic federation.

Hugo switches in mid-paragraph from talk of peace or war – two drastically different actions that spring from the same impulse – to talk of governing philosophy, which is the subject of peace or war on a domestic level. It continues, unbroken:

Amid this furious eloquence, among these shrieking and growling voices, there were fruitful silences. Lakanal remained voiceless, and combined in his thoughts the system of public education; Lanthenas held his peace, and created the primary schools; Revelliere-Lepeaux kept still, and dreamed of the elevation of Philosophy to the dignity of Religion. Others occupied themselves with questions of detail, smaller and more practical. Guyton-Morveaux studied means for rendering the hospitals healthy; Maire, the abolition of existing servitudes; Jean-Bon-Saint-Andre, the suppression of imprisonment for debt and constraint of the person; Romme, the proposition of Chappe; Duboe, the arrangement of the archives; Coren-Fustier, the creation of the Cabinet of Anatomy and the Museum of Natural History; Guyomard, river navigation and the damming of the Escaut. Art had its fanatics and even its monomaniacs. On the twenty-first of January, while the head of monarchy was falling on the Place de la Revolution, Bezard the representative of the Oise, when to see a picture of Rubens, which had been found in a garret in the Rue Saint-Lazare. Artists, orators, prophets, giant-men like Danton, child-men like Coots, gladiators and philosophers, all had the same goal, Progress.

All had the same goal, Progress. “Nothing Disconcerted them. The grandeur of the Convention was the searching how much reality there is in what men call the impossible.”

The essence of the Convention is that we are all things at once: peace and war, noise and silence, possible and impossible, clinging to the past and progressing toward the future.

From → On the Dole, Politics

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