Christopher Prendergast on Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity. The life, career and death of Robespierre, permeated by tensions between ends and means, terror and virtue; and the polemical furies that have clouded his legacy.
FROM ARRAS TO THERMIDOR
Synthesize the numerous biographies of the leaders of the French Revolution during the high period of radical Jacobinism, and perhaps the first thought to emerge is what an improbable collection of characters they were. Ruth Scurr begins her biography of Robespierre with the masterly understatement: ‘Political turmoil can foster unlikely leaders’—indicating that, at a deeper level of explanation, the sheer contingency of political fortunes at a time when traditional sources of authority and legitimacy were collapsing might be very much to the point. Joseph de Maistre famously described the Revolution as God’s retribution for human folly; if so, His purpose in selecting precisely these individuals as the instruments of His vengeance remains profoundly inscrutable. Nothing here seems remotely foreordained or even moderately predictable. Danton, Marat, Fabre d’Eglantine, Saint-Just came out of nowhere: middle-class provincials with little or nothing in their backgrounds to suggest they were qualified for major parts in a great world-historical drama, and—especially in the cases of Fabre and Saint-Just—much to suggest that they were not. Paradoxically, given his own stress on the Rousseauist ideal of ‘transparency’, the most mysterious of them all was Maximilien Marie Isidore de Robespierre.
’My institution subscribes to NLR, why can't I access this article?’
Also available in:
By the same author:
Evolution and Literary History
A landmark engagement with Franco Moretti’s triptych of essays, Graphs, Maps, Trees. What forms of logic underpin the use of evolutionary models to lay bare the survival strategies of the detective story, or trace the mutations of a border-hopping stylistic technique? And what political implications follow from basing an account of literary history on the outcome of the market?
Reflections on Fredric Jameson’s narratology of modernity, and current attempts to reinstate it as a master category of the time, requiring no suspect prefixes. The political dialectic behind such impulses of restoration, and the artistic practices which prepared them.
In coolly proclaiming itself to be essentially the application of technique to matter, to what further consequences did modern art discover it was committing itself? Christopher Prendergast traces the ‘frightful clockwork of the world-structure’ in the games of Mallarmé, puppets of Flaubert and Kleist, musings of Mann, and the hurdy-gurdy of Cézanne overheard by T. J. Clark.
Negotiating World Literature
Should relations between national literatures be conceived on the model of international competition between states? Christopher Prendergast assesses a bold French attempt to analyse the historical dynamics of the ‘world republic of letters’, from the Renaissance to the present day—with Paris emerging as an unexpectedly durable capital. Were national determinations of literary projects always so predominant, and what of cross-cultural variations in the meaning of literature itself?