Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A Toast to the Fall of the Bastille in the Manner of G. W. F. Hegel

"This glass is for the 14th of July, 1789 -- to the storming of the Bastille"


I often like to celebrate holidays with an eye to old historical practices.

One of my favorite traditions was that of the great German idealist philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). As a student at the famed Stift in Tübingen, he was a passionate admirer of the French Revolution, more interested in political philosophy than epistemology (or the theology that he was supposed to be studying). According to a well-established but less well-proven tradition, Hegel, along with the likewise soon to be famous poet Friedrich Hölderlin and philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, erected and danced around a liberty tree on the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille in the early 1790s.

But it is absolutely established that, every year, on the anniversary of the outbreak of the Revolution, the older Hegel--even though he had seemingly become more conservative--celebrated with a bottle of fine wine. I've known the story for years, but if I stop to think about it, I must have encountered it as a college or grad student, probably via the memoirs of the Prussian diplomat Karl August Varnhagen von Ense, while I was doing research on his friend, the poet and journalist Heinrich Heine.

In 1820, as Terry Pinkard's recent biography of Hegel tells it:
At the inn called the Blue Star (where Hegel thereafter always stayed when going to Dresden), various friends and compatriots from other universities gathered for dinner  . . . when the usual local Meißner wine was offered to Hegel, he rejected it, ordering instead some bottles of Champagne Sillery, the most distinguished champagne of its day. Having sent the expensive bottles of Sillery around the table, he then entreated his companions to empty their glasses in the memory of the day on which they were drinking. Everyone happily downed the Sillery, but when it became clear that nobody at the table knew exactly why they should be drinking to that particular day, Hegel turned in mock astonishment and with raised voice declared, 'This is for the 14th of July, 1789 -- to the storming of the Bastille.' Needless to say, those around Hegel were astonished; the old man had not only bought them the finest champagne available, he was drinking to the Revolution at the height of the reaction and at a time when he himself might have been in danger. (But maybe this was not so odd; in 1826, Hegel, once again in the company of young people, again drank at toast to the storming of the Bastille, telling Varnhagen von Ense at the time that he in fact always drank a toast to the storming of the Bastille on July 14.)
Hegel at that time wasn't really an "old man": only 50 (!); admittedly, he died at the age of 61. But I hope that, when I am a truly "old" scholar, I will continue to associate with "young people" and exhort them to remember the Revolution even as I listen to the particular reforming or revolutionary concerns of their own generation.

Print ephemera

Depicted above, two very rare pamphlets from the outbreak of the Revolution:

Paris Sauvé . . .  recounts the events from 12 to 15 July. The anonymous author notes that it is impossible to produce a definitive history at this early point, but offers a preliminary sketch, dedicated to "you courageous Parisians, brave fellow citizens, liberators of all France."

The Récit of the statement by the King on 15 July, by contrast, is an official document on the monarch's report to the Estates General following the storming of the Bastille. He here assures them that, having come before them to consult on the "horrible disorders taking place in the capital," he is one with the nation. He guarantees the personal security of the representatives of the nation and asks them to join him in working for the common welfare.

The wine

Unlike the famous Hegel, I wasn't about to spring for top-of-the-line French champagne (even for myself, much less for a bunch of students) so I chose a much more modest beverage closer to what the typical Frenchman might have drunk back then: in this case, a Pied-de-Perdrix ("partridge foot"). It's one of the old "black wines," a recently rediscovered relative of the Malbec--what one critic calls an "earthy, rustic wine."

I did, however, use a fine hand-blown and -cut eighteenth-century glass appropriate to the occasion. (It's English rather than French, but you have to make do with what you have lying around the house.)

Vive la révolution. Cheers.

No comments: