By Sanja Perovic
Le 14 juillet, as Bastille Day is known in France, is the only national festival that commemorates the French Revolution. According to revolutionary gospel, it marks the day when the ‘people’ stormed the state prison that once stood on today’s Place de la Bastille, thereby heralding the end of despotism and an era of freedom. Today it seems like an obvious celebration. France was the European nation that underwent a Great Revolution and the fall of the Bastille is the iconic marker of that event. But commemoration has not always been so straightforward. From 1813-1846 the statue of a giant elephant occupied the site of the former prison. In 1793, a fountain in the shape of bare-breasted Egyptian goddess was temporarily erected on the site (deputies of the Convention were encouraged to drink at her breasts in a symbol of national regeneration). The July column we see today commemorates not the fall of the Bastille but the Three Glorious Days of July 1830, when Charles X was deposed. It was not until the Third Republic that the storming of the Bastille was consolidated as the national celebration par excellence. And it was not given the full support of the French population, in particular the French Left, until after the fall of Vichy.
If Bastille Day is an ‘invented tradition’ so too is the lore surrounding the old prison. The black legend of a state prison constructed from endless cells, torture chambers and infamous oubliettes – dungeons with trapdoors on the ceiling where people were left to die — circulated widely throughout the eighteenth century. Yet by the time of its taking the Bastille had less than seven inmates, all of them kept in style. Its most famous inmate, the Marquis de Sade, (removed a few days prior to the storming for inciting the crowds) kept an extensive wine collection in a purpose-build cellar. A previous inmate, a writer named Beaumelle, had a bespoke bookcase, constructed to house his personal library of over 600 volumes. By the second half of the eighteenth century, a stay in the Bastille or one of the other state prisons had almost become a rite of passage, as Diderot, Voltaire, Mirabeau and countless other writers passed through. The image of virtuous innocence persecuted by a ‘despotic state’ was kept alive in the various media campaigns waged by the philosophes even though some, like Mirabeau and Sade, had been imprisoned at the behest of their own families.
The same ‘media-effect’ characterized the actual events of 14 July 1789. The day began when rumours of an impending occupation of the capital by royal troops led journalists such as Camille Desmoulins to demand the return of gunpowder and arms that had been moved into the Bastille for safe-keeping. It ended with the liberation of the Bastille and the transformation of this gothic symbol into space of freedom, as a jubilant ‘people’ ‘danced upon its ruins’.
But what does it mean to take the destruction of this monument as the beginning of a ‘new era’? Why choose 14 July as the beginning of a new national tradition and not 20 June 1789, when the Tennis Court Oath had been proclaimed, or 4 August, when the nobility and the clergy voluntarily gave up their feudal privileges? How did 14 July 1789 get established as a new ‘zero hour’ when the Revolution’s own ‘official Year I’ marked September 22 1792, when the French Republic was declared, as the new beginning? And what about the deposition of the king on 10 August 1792 hailed in the media as the beginning of Year I of Equality?
As this profusion of potential ‘Year I’s’ make clear, orientation in time, particularly the chronological time of history, remained a challenge throughout the years of the French Revolution. 14 July 1789 eventually prevailed partly because it was an event without heroes (therefore easier to associate with the concept of a ‘sovereign people’) and partly because it allowed the rather embarrassing proliferation of other beginnings to be forgotten. The fact that it took over 150 years for le 14 juillet to be celebrated as the Revolution’s ‘origin’ speaks volumes about how foundational events are validated as such after the fact. It also demonstrates the curious bipolarity of this and other anniversary dates. For many years what made 14 July palatable as a celebration was its coincidence with the Festival of the Federation celebrated a year later, which marked not rupture and the overturning of the despotic state but a final rapprochement between the French nation and their king. Wordsworth famously described 14 July 1790 as the day when the ‘joy of one is joy for tens of millions’, while Michelet likened it to a quasi-mythological ‘collapse of geographical space’. Yet what remains in popular memory is not the (highly scripted) moment of reconciliation but the spontaneous event of the year before. As Charles Péguy noted, the storming of the Bastille was a festival even before it came to be celebrated as such. This is what it means to be a founding event. All foundational events are dated according to an impossible chronology, what Péguy called a ‘zero anniversary’ that is at once an anticipation and a retrospective construction.
Beyond the fireworks and the family fun, then, Bastille Day shows how historical dates are constructed as much out of ‘fictional presents’ as actual events. It also shows how in commemorating beginnings we actually commemorate ends (for the Revolution is truly over once dates and meanings are settled in chronological time, once there is no more debate about ‘before’ and ‘after’). Indeed it is the very ‘emptiness’ of this national holiday that allows it to stand for mythological fullness: a bona fide origin, a foundational event in the history of the French nation, rather than just another countless beginning.
Sanja Perovic teaches in the French Department at King’s College London. Her publications include “Death by Volcano: Revolutionary Theatre and Marie-Antoinette” in French Studies (available to read for free for a limited time); The Calendar in Revolutionary France: Perceptions of Time in Literature, Culture, Politics (CUP 2012); and, as editor, Sacred and Secular Agency in Early Modern France: Fragments of Religion (Continuum 2012).
French Studies is published on behalf of the Society for French Studies. The journal publishes articles and reviews spanning all areas of the subject, including language and linguistics (historical and contemporary), all periods and aspects of literature in France and the French-speaking world, thought and the history of ideas, cultural studies, film, and critical theory.