Family Romance of the French Revolution

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This latest work from an author known for her contributions to the new cultural history is a daring multidisciplinary investigation of the imaginative foundations of modern politics. "Family romance" was coined by Freud to describe the fantasy of being freed from one's family and belonging to one of higher social standing. In Freud's view, the family romance was a way for individuals to fantasize about their place in the social order. Hunt uses the term more broadly, to describe the images of the familial order ...
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Family Romance of the French Revolution

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This latest work from an author known for her contributions to the new cultural history is a daring multidisciplinary investigation of the imaginative foundations of modern politics. "Family romance" was coined by Freud to describe the fantasy of being freed from one's family and belonging to one of higher social standing. In Freud's view, the family romance was a way for individuals to fantasize about their place in the social order. Hunt uses the term more broadly, to describe the images of the familial order underlying revolutionary politics. She investigates the narratives of family relations that structured the collective political unconscious. Most Europeans in the eighteenth century thought of their rulers as fathers and of their nations as families writ large. The French Revolution violently disrupted that patriarchal model of authority and raised troubling questions about what was to replace it. The king and queen were executed after dramatic separate trials. Prosecutors in the trial of the queen accused her of exerting undue influence on the king and his ministers, engaging in sexual debauchery, and even committing incest with her eight-year-old son. Hunt focuses on the meaning of killing the king-father and the queen-mother and what these ritual sacrifices meant to the establishment of a new model of politics. In a wide-ranging account that uses novels, engravings, paintings, speeches, newspaper editorials, pornographic writing, and revolutionary legislation about the family, Hunt shows that politics were experienced through the grid of the family romance.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Not just for French specialists, this difficult yet fascinating book should also interest psychohistorians, cultural-intellectual scholars and political scientists. Recognizing that absolutism rested on a model of patriarchal authority, cultural historian Hunt ( Politics, Culture and Class in the French Revolution , Univ. of California Pr., 1989) uses Freudian terminology to explore what the killing of the father-king Louis XVI meant to the revolutionaries creating a new political order. Examining contemporary painting, literature, and iconography to see how those meanings are expressed, she uncovers the ``collective unconscious images of the familial order'' underlying revolutionary beliefs. Motivating the political struggle, she demonstrates, were changing cultural notions of what defined a ``good'' mother or father, the republican focus on fraternity rather than patriarchy, and efforts to democratize family life.-- Marie Marmo Mullaney, Caldwell Coll., N.J.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780415082365
  • Publisher: Taylor & Francis
  • Publication date: 9/3/1992
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 228

Meet the Author

Lynn Hunt is Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is the author of several books, including Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution (California, 1984), and the editor of The New Cultural History (California, 1989).

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Read an Excerpt

The Family Romance of the French Revolution

By Lynn Hunt

University of California Press

Copyright © 1992 Lynn Hunt
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-07741-5

Chapter One

The Family Model of Politics

It was a cold and foggy morning in winter when the king of France met his death. At 10:22 A.M. on 21 January 1793, the executioner dropped the guillotine's blade on the neck of Louis Capet, the former Louis XVI (see figure 1). The recently installed guillotine had been designed as the great equalizer; with it, every death would be the same, virtually automatic, presumably painless. The deputies hoped that by killing Louis in this way, they would prove "that great truth which the prejudices of so many centuries had stifled; today we have just convinced ourselves that a king is only a man and that no man is above the laws."

In these few words, the newspaper writer captured the meaning of the event in the most accessible terms: the French killed the king in order to convince themselves that the king was only a man like other men, that the magic of kingship which had been so powerful during so many centuries could be effaced. "Capet is no longer! Peoples of Europe! Peoples of the world! Look carefully at the thrones and you will see that they are nothing but dust!" As if to ensure the return of this particular throne to dust, the severed head and body of the king were immediately deposited in a deep grave in the Madeleine Cemetery and covered with quicklime. All remaining traces of the king's physical presence were effaced.

The newspaper article's tones of hope and tenses of conditionality belie a great anxiety. France has given a great example to the people of the world and a great lesson to kings, the writer proclaims, but will the one and the other profit from it? The day is forever memorable, but will it survive for posterity? "Never let insult come near you. Historians! Be worthy of the time; write the truth, nothing but the truth." The writer writes to reject all semblance of guilt. The 20,000 spectators jammed into the Place de la Révolution had been there to share the experience, and 80,000 armed men had stood guard to make sure that there would be no breaches of security. If guilt was felt, it was presumably widely shared.

The killing of the king was the most important political act of the Revolution and the central drama in the revolutionary family romance. Everyone recognized its symbolic significance, yet the revolutionaries had various and often contradictory views about the meaning of the act. Even though the deputies in the Convention frequently cited the historical precedent of the execution of England's Charles I, for example, they drew no single consistent meaning from it. In any case, everyone knew that kingship had been restored in England and the regicides punished; it was not a particularly encouraging precedent.

Revolutionaries and royalists alike considered the king the head of the entire social order, even though the political position of Louis XVI had been undermined in some respects before 1793, perhaps even before 1789. The status of Louis Capet was very much in question at the time of his execution. Had the executioner killed a king or a man long since deprived of his sacred status? Whatever the answer, whether the king was symbolically dead in 1793, 1789, or before, his actual death in 1793 drew attention to a sacred void, marked by the empty pedestal facing Louis during his execution. The pedestal had supported a statue of his grandfather, Louis XV.

The government which ordered the execution of the former king was a republic whose legitimacy rested on popular sovereignty. Establishing a republic on paper took a stroke of the pen; winning the allegiance of the population and establishing an enduring sense of legitimacy required much more. What would make people obey the law in the new social order? The king had been the head of a social body held together by bonds of deference; peasants deferred to their landlords, journeymen to their masters, great magnates to their king, wives to their husbands, and children to their parents. Authority in the state was explicitly modeled on authority in the family. A royal declaration of 1639 had explained, "The natural reverence of children for their parents is linked to the legitimate obedience of subjects to their sovereign." Once the king had been eliminated, what was to be the model that ensured the citizens' obedience?

No one understood better than the English critic of the Revolution, Edmund Burke, the connection between filial devotion and the willingness of a subject to obey. He feared that the whole community would be destroyed by the subversion of "those principles of domestic trust and fidelity which form the discipline of social life." In reviewing the early events of the French Revolution and in particular the demeaning of the royal family during the October Days of 1789, Burke bemoaned the passing of what he called the age of chivalry and its replacement by the age of "sophisters, oeconomists, and calculators":

In the new age, all the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off.

Without that "decent drapery," without "the sentiments which beautify and soften private society," Burke predicted, the revolutionaries would have to rule by the force of terror. "In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows."

My analysis in the following pages is much influenced by Burke's fundamental insight into the interweaving of private sentiments and public politics, even though I have a very different view of the Revolution from his. Burke saw that political obedience rested on something more than rational calculation: "To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely." Political obedience always rests on a set of assumptions about the proper working of the social order, and obedience-in modern terms, consent-is never automatic, even when it most appears to be so, as in so-called traditional societies. It was certainly not automatic in the new republic, as tax collectors and military recruiters discovered every day.

The revolutionaries were ripping the veil of deference off society. Unlike Burke, however, they did not see this as the end of all decency; they wanted to make their government "lovely" too. From 1789 onward, supporters of the Revolution were engaged in the great adventure of the modern Western social contract; they were trying to replace deference and paternal authority with a new basis for political consent. Many of them had read the great theorists of this adventure: Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. But the theorists, with the exception of Rousseau, offered little in the way of advice about the affective relations that might cement a new contract.

In the absence of any clear model for the private sentiments that might make a new order lovable, the revolutionaries fumbled their way through a thicket of interrelated problems. If absolutism had rested on the model of patriarchal authority, then would the destruction of absolutism depend on the destruction of patriarchy, what the French called "la puissance paternelle"? How far should the moderation of paternal authority go? Would the restriction of paternal authority make everyone in the political family equal, brother with brother, brother with sister, and children with parents? In other words, what kind of family romance would replace the one dominated by the patriarchal father? If paternalism was to be replaced by a model of fraternity, what were the implications of that new model? How, for instance, was the idea of the political exclusion of women to be maintained in the absence of the old justifications of "natural" family order? Would the model of the family be thrown out altogether in favor of a model based on isolated, independent, self-possessing, contracting individuals? The attack on absolutism brought in its turbulent wake a necessary reevaluation of the shape of the individual self.

Although these questions might seem to be obvious, they did not present themselves very clearly or even all at once to the leaders of the French Revolution. To a great extent these questions have also dropped out of much modern, contract-based political theory. Contract theory pretends that questions about the family and the relations between men and women belong in a private sphere separate from the public arena. All of the great political theorists from the seventeenth century onward struggled with the question, in particular, of women's place in the new order, and all of them tried to devise solutions that would ensure the continued subordination of women to their husbands after the breakdown of patriarchy. Yet most of these theorists showed little interest in elaborating what Carole Pateman calls the "sexual contract" between men and women that logically accompanied the social contract. The one great exception is Freud. Although hardly known as a political theorist-indeed his forays in this direction are among his most maligned works-Freud tried to imagine a story about the original social contract that would explain the genesis of "the law of male sex-right," the right of men as men to dominate women.

In Totem and Taboo (1913), in particular, Freud offered his own version of the origins of the social contract, or what might be called the original family romance. He located those origins in a kind of prehistoric fall from life in the primal horde, the first amorphous gathering of humans. In "the first great act of sacrifice," as he called it, the sons banded together to kill the father and eat him. They killed the father because he had kept all the females for himself and driven away the growing sons. By eating him, they accomplished their identification with the father. The deed once accomplished, the brothers felt a sense of guilt, so they undid their deed by creating two taboos: a taboo against killing the totem animal that was substituted for the father; and the incest taboo, which denied the liberated women to the brothers. These taboos gave rise to religion and social organization (kinship) respectively, and they effectively repressed for the future the two main wishes of the Oedipus complex: the desire to kill the father and to sleep with the mother.

By instituting the taboos, moreover, the brothers solved the major problem facing them after the killing of the father: their feelings of competition with each other for the women. "Sexual desires do not unite men," claimed Freud, "but divide them." If the brothers were to live together in peace, they had to deny themselves the women previously controlled by the father. Freud suggests that the brothers' social organization had a homosexual tinge that was worth preserving. By creating the incest taboo, the brothers "rescued the organization which had made them strong-and which may have been based upon the homosexual feelings and acts, originating perhaps during the period of their expulsion from the horde." Through their new social organization, the brothers were able to reconcile themselves with the dead father, whom they also loved and admired, maintain their feelings for each other, and at the same time enforce a heterosexual system of marriage to ensure the survival of the group.

An inevitable "longing" for the father led to a recreation of him in the form of gods and social organization itself. Because of the pressure of competition within the band of brothers, no one could be allowed to gain "the father's supreme power," but the desire to mimic the father could be acccommodated in new systems of rank and status. "The original democratic equality" of each member of the tribe was relinquished, and individuals who distinguished themselves above the rest were venerated. Thus the social contract as envisaged by Freud was not only based on a concomitant sexual contract, in which women were subject to men's power; it also implied complementary bonds between men. Social organization sublimated an underlying, highly charged, male bonding. Women had no place in the new political and social order except as markers of social relations between men.

Freud's own inability to work himself out of a patriarchal model of psychopolitical organization was revealed in one of the throwaway lines of Totem and Taboo. Speaking of the move toward deification of the murdered father, Freud inserts: "I cannot suggest at what point in this process of development a place is to be found for the great mother-goddesses, who may perhaps in general have preceded the father-gods." Freud's vision was so patriarchal that the only contests he could imagine were between fathers and sons; women were merely the objects of these conflicts. In a telling passage, he asserted: "The psychoanalysis of individual human beings, however, teaches us with quite special insistence that the god of each of them is formed in the likeness of his father, that his personal relation to God depends on his relation to his father in the flesh and oscillates and changes along with that relation, and that at bottom God is nothing other than an exalted father." The same might be said of the law and of social organization generally.

In the essays in this book, I do not intend to apply Freud or Freudianism to the French Revolution, as if Freud's theories of human development could be simply superimposed as a grid on the raw data of the revolutionary experience. Indeed, many of the central Freudian concepts such as penis envy, castration fears, or even the Oedipal complex will appear infrequently or not at all in these pages. I find Freud's analysis in Totem and Taboo suggestive because it sees a set of relationships as being critical to the founding of social and political authority: relationships between fathers and sons, between men, and between men and women. In addition, Freud's own need to write a myth of human origins demonstrates the centrality of narratives about the family to the constitution of all forms of authority, even though Freud's account cannot fruitfully be read as an analysis of an actual event in prehistory or as a rigid model for social and political relationships. I will be arguing that the experience of the French Revolution can be interpreted to put pressure on the Freudian account, even though that account provides an important point of departure.

The very mention of the name Freud by a historian is for some a red flag of danger. Among historians, psychoanalytic interpretation has been largely confined to the analysis of individual biographies or, more rarely, to the analysis of group psychology in times of crisis.


Excerpted from The Family Romance of the French Revolution by Lynn Hunt Copyright © 1992 by Lynn Hunt. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1 The Family Model of Politics 1
2 The Rise and Fall of the Good Father 17
3 The Band of Brothers 53
4 The Bad Mother 89
5 Sade's Family Politics 124
6 Rehabilitating the Family 151
Epilogue: Patriarchy in the Past Tense? 193
Index 205
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 30, 2014


    Hi&#8589 8589)&#8590 8590)&#8591 8591)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 22, 2014



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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2014


    Pi is here

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    Posted November 17, 2013


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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 15, 2013

    Did the coin work?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 26, 2013


    He desided not to hunt the father bird and moves on.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 23, 2013


    *before you know it the bird is dead with the head missing and the eggs stolen*

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 23, 2013


    Looked at the bird. Moved past it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 23, 2013


    Climbed the tree on the opposite side of the nest, then used the branches to get to the other side, pouncing on the bird, bitin its neck, balancing o the edg of a branch. She jumpe down from branch to branch, burying the prey.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 23, 2013


    *she crept silently to the next result.*

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 23, 2013


    Walked past it to next result

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