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Close Looking Series presents on French Revolution pamphlets

Published: April 25, 2014
Section: Arts, Etc.

Professors Sue Lanser (ENG/WMGS/CL) and Martine Voiret (FREN) presented “French Revolution Pamphlets,” part of the Close Looking Series at Rapaporte Treasure Hall.

Close Looking is a series of events that gives a platform for two faculty members to present on some of the university’s greatest gems, from the library’s Special Collections to The Rose Art Museum.

According to the faculty members, the French Revolution Collection “involves 94 items at the very least” (the pamphlets are very thin so it is easy for them to get lost). Nine of the items are in English, and Thomas Paine wrote at least six, who is famous for writing the pamphlet “Common Sense.” The pamphlets range from just three to four pages to 40-60 pages; most of the pamphlets are from the 1790s and are cataloged alphabetically. As Voiret explained, this is the time period of “journée” where something new every day was happening and the collection reflects the historical atmosphere. As both explained, “there is a déluge of cheap print, and this is the age of the pamphlet,” which set the foundation to allow people to have access to these vast materials even centuries later.

Just because we can access to these pamphlets does not mean that we fully understand them. Lanser explained how one of the most fascinating things about the collection is that “there is a problem of interpreting anything,” describing how some of the pamphlets contain parody citing “La Lanterne Magique Nationale” as “very comical, like a circus.” Who is speaking and for what purpose are they speaking? These are questions that Lanser posed concerning the pamphlets and for the most part, the questions remain unanswered. “They are written only during the moment and don’t leave much context about the situation and time they are from,” she said.

Another problem they cited was how the writers frequently use rhetorical strategies. Also unknown is how much impact the pamphlets actually had during the time period. “One challenge is to flesh out the world when pamphlets were written,” Lanser said. The mystery of the pamphlets and how little we actually understand the context they were from is a point that was often mentioned.

Lanser and Voiret also discussed the three reports on vandalism that Grégoire wrote. The members in the audience heard a short etymology lesson. The word vandalism was actually invented by Grégoire. Featured was a quote from Grégoire: “J’ai créé le mot pour tier la chose” (“I created the word to avoid the thing”). He believed that destroying art in his time was vandalism. In 1794, he wrote three famous reports that detail the destruction of the art that was carried out. There was something missing because there was no national outcry. There was a lack of care and concern. “Castles were left to decay without second thoughts.” Nobody was worried that the art might form a country’s culture and heritage. He encouraged authorities to protect the art, while also “providing a rationale for preservation rather than than for the items to be destroyed or sold” in his reports. As studying history is important to avoid the mistakes of the past, Grégoire argued that ignorance leads to tyranny. The reports contributed to showcasing the importance of preserving the art of the country.

Some of the pamphlets involve matters besides politics and art. The “Confession générale de Son Altesse Sérénissime Mgr. le Comte d’Artois” pamphlets say very little about his politics, and instead focus more on the sexual actions that he admits to. They mention that Mgr. le Comte d’Artois contracted syphilis and passed it onto his wife. There are dozens of pamphlets about him accusing Marie Antoinette of “selling France and appropriating power.”

After both faculty members finished presenting on the subject, they opened the floor up for questions. A question was asked about how the pamphlets got to Brandeis, but they didn’t have an exact answer. The collection was probably not donated as a single entity. Lanser said that given the depth and breadth of the collection, it was probably “not an intentional but an accidental collection.”

It was a pleasure to attend this event and learn some history, while hearing two faculty members show off their expertise on a little-known subject. The pamphlets discussed in the presentation were also on display for people to see. I was amazed by how thin and flimsy they are, while at the same time in awe of how much history was created between the pages.