It is difficult for us in such a short space of time to get together all the reflections which a work of this nature naturally gives birth to; we can only lament here publicly on the kind of frenzy which seems to agitate these turbulent spirits that the love of liberty and independence carries into excesses, and which makes them envision happiness in the subversion of all rules, of all principles, and in the destruction even of those laws that up to now have been the security of the proprieties not only of the family, but of the person and even of the sovereign
--- The warrant [arrêt] for the pamphlet, the Inconveniencies of feudal rights by Pierre Francois Boncerf, which was burned in Paris in 1776. Boncerf was a lawyer, the clerk of the great physiocrat, Turgot, and his pamphlet was directed against serfdom on economic grounds – a small moment in the Great Transformation of the European economy.
LI feels like we have distinctly advanced on this whole subversive festuche and debauch we’ve got going. It is definitely a step forward to look at it in terms of insiders and outsiders, as per our last post on the subject, even though subversion doesn’t originally – that is, when the word starts appearing in the sixteenth century - locate the inverting force it denotes. What we are looking for is the souterrain of history in which a word finds its connotative field. Criticism is a sport like vampire hunting, one has to be willing to get down in the vaults, open up boxes that have been closed for centuries, breathe a miasmatic air.
So we see how subversion is used in a judicial sense by the police in the year Adam Smith wrote the Declaration of Independence. Or something like that. Like the wind that ‘subverted’ John Evelyn’s trees in the late seventeen hundreds, Boncerf’s pamphlet aims at knocking down a system of proprieties. However, if we look at who Boncerf is, we get the picture of the semi-insider, a lawyer, Turgot’s secretary, a made young man. Boncerf, it turns out, is one of the physiocrats who, far from trying to subvert the public order, is a reformer intent on saving it. In his view, serfdom is an economic offense, just as liberty is about property – not the proprieties that bind it in. The insider/outsider is of a type that requires the most delicate handling. A type that the guardians of public order have to be especially vigilant about. Subversion often acts anonymously, it often acts secretly – or at least these are the connotations to which it is destined as it goes down the surveillance track. As it appears in legal documents and reports, as it functions in the courtroom and the newspapers. And as subversion, by being secret, can infiltrate the inside, the public order itself, as it steals the codes, the plans, the blueprints, the information, as it deforms the tramsmission of orders, spreads rumors, gossips, blackmails, then it has to be adapted to staying inside by the various devices used by the covert - becoming invisible, planting bugs, spying through keyholes, etc. The association with secrecy is formed in the police file, but it soon has a natural existence outside of the police file. So the question is: if the spirit of subversion makes the hop into the arts, will it use its history? Will it lay low, will it disguise itself?
Let’s now jump ahead to another subversive scene. This is from the report filed by Billaud-Varennes in 1794 to the Convention, on “the necessity of promoting the love of civic virtue by public celebrations…” Public celebrations – not least, executions – have certainly been promoted by the Jacobins. But 1794 is a reaction to the terror. So Billaud-Varennes looks back:
“We must confess that the delirium that took possession of some actors was shared by the authorities as well.
They had ordered the disappearance from all the old plays of the noble titles, to be replaced by the title of citizen; so well that in the place of duc, marquis, count or baron, one substituted the word citizen without even bothering with whether the change violated the rime or measure of the verse. The actors of the theater of the Republic avoided, as much as they could, these gross inconveniences, in making a little less ridiculous changes; but they were obliged to sacrifice all theatrical illusion for fear of losing an eye or an ear from ignorant sans-culottes, and one saw Greeks and Romans, Venetians, Gaulois appear on the stage with the national colors; the women themselves were not exempt from this absurd subjection, and Phedre did not declare her flame for Hippolyte but with a chest ornamented with a large tricolor cocard. But the spirit of subversion did not limit itself to revolutionizing the theatrical costume; one attacked the masterpieces. Even those tragedies that breathed the most ardent love of liberty and the strongest hatred for despotism were obliged to pass by a purifying scrutiny, and only obtained their certificate of civism after one had taken away some hundreds of lines, which were not apropos. How to suffer, for instance, that the death of Cesear was soiled by the counter-revolutionary discourse of that moderate, Anthony?”
The spirit of subversion in this moment was, indeed, the public order. The opposite of the secret is the bacchanal. The policeman's nightmare. It spreads, it infiltrates, the audience and the stage. One wonders about the aesthetic effect of this on the spectators – surely the prehistory of the absurd, of the revolts of the modernists, the dadaists, surrealists, etc, the whole dwindling tradition, has too much ignored performance? Because theater is live, and dies, the influence of performance on writers and artists before the movies is, LI thinks, probably very underestimated. The idea of putting on, say, Cid, with the substitution of “citizen” for any of the monikers of the nobility in the play, really makes it a wholly other play. The noble spirit of the classic plays is, for the contemporary spectator, wholly theatrical and make believe anyway, but this is the moment, in 1793, that made that presupposition possible – that in a sense cuts us off from classical theater forever.
It is time, I think, to jumpcut to Delacroix, Champfleury, Baudelaire, the Exhibition Universelle, and the phrase, “Le beau est toujours bizarre”.