Wednesday, July 14, 2010

13 July 1793: Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat by Charlotte Corday (and why he's still relevant to the blogosphere and much else)

On the evening of 13 July 1793, twenty-four-year old Charlotte Corday (more on her in a few days) assassinated radical journalist and politician Jean-Paul Marat, age 50, stabbing him to death in the medicinal bath in which an excruciating skin disease forced him to work.  Distraught over the purging of the moderate Girondins and raging civil war in France, she held him responsible for the increasingly violent direction of the Revolution, and explained to her captors, "I preferred to make the sacrifice of my life in order to serve my country."

{Jacques-Louis David's painting of the dead Marat alone in his bath—portraying him as a martyred secular saint—has become iconic, but most contemporary depictions chose the moment of or immediately before or after the crime itself. Here: an engraving from a Spanish history of the Revolution published in the early nineteenth century.}

Marat is remembered as one of the most popular orators and leaders of the French Revolution, though his reputation in fact fluctuated widely during his own lifetime.  Frequently threatened with arrest or closure of his publication—most famous in its incarnation as l'Ami du Peuple (The People's Friend)—he periodically had to go into hiding.  His increasingly radical calls for violence and dictatorship, conveyed in his speeches and journalism, made him both persecuted and fêted, as the course of the Revolution fluctuated.  He played no small role in shaping that course, particularly by mobilizing the popular classes for direct action, from the largely peaceful Women's March on Versailles in 1789 to the storming of he Tuileries Palace and September Massacres in 1792 (though his role in the latter now seems to have been that of advocate rather than instigator).

As Louis R. Gottschalk put it long ago,
what distinguished Marat from these others [Mounier, Mirabeau, Danton, Robespierre] was not so much his inordinate ambition as his lack of conventional restraint upon it; not so much his political philosophy (like theirs, it was borrowed largely from Rousseau and Montesquieu) as the violence and candor of the language in which it was propounded. To understand the reason for this, it must be remembered that the change of mind that Marat underwent was in itself a severe mental struggle such as few revolutionary figures had been called upon to undergo—a change from perfectly bourgeois notions at the beginning of his career to the ideals of an aspirant for a dictatorship over the Paris populace, brought about through 'despair at seeing the normal plan of the Revolution disrupted by the stupidity of the moderate bourgeoisie.'
[Jean Paul Marat: A Study in Radicalism (1927; rpt. Chicago and London:  University of Chicago Press, 1967), 137]
Marat's summary of his political career, written during his struggle with the Girondins in March 1793, conveys his self-importance, persecution mania, and earnest populism alike:
At the outbreak of the Revolution, wearied by the persecutions that I had experienced for so long a time at the hands of the Academy of Sciences, I eagerly embraced the occasion that presented itself of defeating my oppressors and attaining my proper position. I came to the Revolution with my ideas already formed, and I was so familiar with the principles of high politics that they had become commonplaces for me. Having had greater confidence in the mock patriots of the Constituent Assembly than they deserved, I was surprised at their pettiness, their lack of virtue. Believing that they needed light, I entered into correspondence with the most famous deputies, notably with Chapelier, Mirabeau, and Barnave. Their stubborn silence on all my letters soon proved to me that though they needed light, they cared little to be enlightened. I adopted the course of publishing my ideas by means of the press. I founded the Ami du Peuple. I began it with a severe but honest tone, that of a man who wishes to tell the truth without breaking the conventions of society. I maintained that tone for two whole months. Disappointed in finding that it did not produce the entire effect that I had expected, and indignant that the boldness of the unfaithful representatives of the people and of the lying public officials was steadily increasing, I felt that it was necessary to renounce moderation and to substitute satire and irony for simple censure. The bitterness of the satire increased with the number of mismanagements, the iniquity of their projects and the public misfortunes. Strongly convinced of the absolute perversity of the supporters of the old regime and the enemies of liberty, I felt that nothing could be obtained from them except by force. Revolted by their attempts, by their ever-recurrent plots, I realized that no end would be put to these except by exterminating the ones guilty of them. Outraged at seeing the representatives of the nation in league with its deadliest enemies and the laws serving only to tyrannize over the innocent whom they ought to have protected, I recalled to the sovereign people that since they had nothing more to expect from their representatives, it behooved them to mete out justice for themselves. This was done several times. (cited in Gottschalk, 52-53)
The document is invaluable in several regards.  Most generally, it illustrates the rise of a "public sphere" of criticism, debate, and accountability between citizenry and government.  More specifically, it also vividly gives voice to the resentments of the frustrated intellectuals of what Robert Darnton famously described as the "Grub Street" style of literary and political journalism in eighteenth-century France.  Viewed from today's perspective, however, it nonetheless appears strikingly modern:  it could as well summarize the complaints and ambitions, strengths and foibles of the modern blogosphere, above all in its radical populism, its belief that all authority requires constant scrutiny, and its skepticism and resentment toward what we would nowadays call "the mainstream media."

One is almost tempted to say that Marat's assassination was the best thing that ever happened to him.  By that time he was politically as well as physically in sharp decline.  Far from stopping the radical drift of the Revolution, as the naive Corday had hoped, the murder helped to accelerate it—though numerous other factors played a larger role in the general movement toward the "Terror" that began at this time.  As for Marat himself, his death in effect gave him a second life.

The state sponsored a grand public funeral.

He was idolized by the increasingly dominant radical forces, who instantly created a veritable cult of secular sainthood.  Montmartre became Montmarat. His heart was embalmed and placed in a former church.  At times, the cult verged on the blasphemous as citizens spoke of the "sacre coeur de Marat." His image appeared in popular prints and on medals.  His statue graced the chamber of the National Convention, and busts were displayed in numerous public places.

At the rather late date of September 1794—that is, well after the fall of Robespierre and the onset of the Thermidorean Reaction—Marat was interred in the Pantheon, moreover replacing the corrupt early revolutionary Mirabeau.

Inauguration of Monument to Marat at the Louvre, Year II

Less than half a year later, however, when the political pendulum remained stuck on the right, he was removed from the Pantheon and reinterred in Cemetery of the Clercs de Sainte Genéviève.

What is fascinating is that the Marat cult eerily recapitulated the pattern of his own life, going underground and then flaring up in rhythm with the outbursts of radicalism and revolution throughout the next century.

Unfortunately, Marat's complex political legacy is largely forgotten outside the realm of academe.  To the extent that he is seen as more than en emblem of bloodthirstiness, he is known to the average person only at several removes, and via the arts:  David's iconic painting and Peter Weiss's pathbreaking play, Die Verfolgung und Ermordung Jean Paul Marats dargestellt durch die Schauspielgruppe des Hospizes zu Charenton unter Anleitung des Herrn de Sade (The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade), the latter in turn as mediated by Peter Brook's 1967 film.


• Marat Archive (from

[updated images]

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