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Yale French StudiesMyth and Modernity
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Chapter OneReading Revolution
The Face of Disaster
It is said that when Danton mounted the scaffold in the Spring of 1793, he told his executioner: "Executioner, show my head to the people, it's well worth a look!" Danton's formidable face was widely recognized for its rugged features and blunt determination (he had once declared, "Nature gave me the stern face of Liberty"). This explained his last, defiant words, as did the executioner's well-known practice of grasping the decapitated heads of the guillotine's most famous victims by the hair and holding them up before the crowd gathered to witness the executions. The executioner's victorious gesture did not always produce its desired effect: in the case of Louis XVI, the people had been kept too far away from the scaffold to see anything. After Charlotte Corday's beheading, when the executioner's assistant held up her head and slapped her face, the crowd responded with indignation. But the gesture did signal a special kind of victory over certain enemies: whether conspirators or aristocrats, they were all traitors to the Revolution. It was a gesture reserved for the most famous names, an ultimate distinction that restored tothe victims a privilege they had once enjoyed. The guillotine was known as the great "equalizer," but the executioner's gesture reestablished the hierarchy that death had stolen from its victims. Danton, the plebeian who had so dominated the politics of the young Republic, commanded on the scaffold a distinction that had first been accorded to a King.
As scholars and historians have often noted, engravings of the Revolution's executioner displaying his victims' decapitated heads to the people recall the mythic image of Perseus holding the head of Medusa But in images from the Terror, the focus has shifted from the triumphant hero to the defeated monster. The executioner was often left out of the engravings, which showed a quasi-disembodied hand-the victor, after all, was not a single individual but the people-clutching the heads of the various monsters that had attacked or betrayed the Nation (from Louis XVI to Robespierre). [Figures 1,2] For the Revolutionaries, it seems, Medusa never died, could not be slain. Perseus's triumph had to be endlessly repeated to ensure victory.
For Jean Clair, the reappearance of the myth of Medusa during the Revolution is symptomatic: "Medusa reappears every time the normal order of things is upset and chaos threatens.... Her iconography during the upheaval of the Revolution is particularly significant, and more significant still is her connection, from that point on, with the unique machine that would become known as ... the guillotine. Medusa had undoubtedly been associated, from her beginnings, with the theme of decapitation. A beheaded monster herself, she presides over the bloody sacrifice of humans' decapitation, which they rightly call 'capital punishment.'" Clair describes the form of the guillotine as "the perfect arrangement of a rectangle, a trapezoid, and a circle.... In all cosmogonies and traditions, the circle is the perfect, primordial form within which the various hierarchies of creation were written and inflected. But the guillotine reverses the traditional pattern, inscribing the circle within a square that itself is cut off by a trapezoid inscribed within a second rectangle. The guillotine is not only the instrument of a detheologisation of the universe: it is the instrument of a negative cosmology." [Figure 3]
By a strange coincidence-one that would profoundly influence the career of Théodore Géricault-the early nineteenth century's most famous shipwreck was that of the Medusa, a frigate on her way to Senegal carrying 395 passengers, weapons, money, and a bust of King Louis XVIII. In 1818, when Géricault began his monumental painting The Raft of the Medusa, he prepared for the work by collecting body parts from near by hospitals and making several studies of severed heads. One of these now hangs in the Stockholm national museum as Têtes de suppliciés: decapitated heads of executed criminals, lying on a sheet-a post-Revolutionary link between the guillotine and the frigate Medusa [Figure 4]. But Géricault's Étude shows no sign of the executioner's hand. The severed heads are anonymous, no longer representing a national victory against a mythical enemy. Perseus and the Gorgon have both vanished, leaving decapitation as fragmentation without triumph, death without agency. Still, the memory lingers; though hidden, the myth remains, even if disguised. It is as if an invisible Gorgon had triumphed in the end, claiming for herself the sword of Perseus.
Many episodes conspired to weave multiple symbolic threads between the Revolution and its legacy, threads that were as deadly and as terrifying as Medusa's gaze. The story of the disaster that struck the ship Medusa, of the men who survived to tell it, and of Géricault's painting of it (now slowly disintegrating in the Louvre Museum) is one such episode.
The ill-fated voyage of the Medusa is well-known, and has been recounted with striking regularity by historians, critics, and novelists. I will briefly review the facts. In June 1816, four ships left France bound for Senegal, on a mission to reinstate authority over territorial outposts first established by the French, briefly occupied by British troops, then returned to their first colonizers as part of the 1815 treaty that, among other things, restored the monarchy in France. The ship's passengers strongly reflected post-Revolutionary society, with its conflicting political loyalties and ever-widening social divisions. Among the passengers were eight cartographers, described as "explorers," who had been sent out to map the Cape Verde peninsula. There were also some 160 soldiers on board, many of whom had dubious pasts. The soldiers chose their own officers, and formed a group solidly apart from the sailors, who deeply mistrusted them. First on board, and "maître après Dieu" ("master after God"), was the ship's captain, Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, who had served honorably in the King's Navy before the Revolution, distinguishing himself in battle at sea off America in 1780. Chaumareys had joined the Army of the Princes in 1790 to fight against the revolution in France. The Restoration gave him back his career, as well as the command of the Medusa.
At 3:15 on the afternoon of July 2, the Medusa ran aground in shallow waters near the Bank of Arguin, off the coast of Africa. Chaumareys had opted for a route dangerously close to the shore, parting company with the expedition's other ships, the Loire, the Echo, and the Argus. The Medusa carried only six lifeboats, which were promptly filled by most of the ship's officers, the captain, the territorial governor and all their families. They set off toward the coast (where they would eventually be rescued), leaving another 148 men, one woman, and a 12-year old child to fend for themselves on a hastily-built raft. The larger lifeboats were supposed to tow the raft, but the ropes were cut, and the raft set adrift with little food or water-and none of the navigational tools needed to steer toward land. [Figure 5]
During the next 13 days storms, mutiny, thirst, and hunger decimated the raft's passengers, who sat in water up to their waists. Twenty of them died the first night, drowning or being crushed between the raft's boards, to which they had been tied. Fever, fighting, and riots erupted into a murderous rage during the following nights: what Norbert Elias calls a breakdown of civilization, a systematic undoing of social restraint. When the Medusa's companion ship Argus finally spotted the raft, only 15 survivors were left on board. An officer of the Argus later wrote, "These unfortunate men had been obliged to fight and kill a large number of their comrades ... others had been swept into the sea, had died of hunger, or had gone mad. Those I saved had eaten human flesh for several days, and when I found them, the ropes that served as stays were covered with pieces of the meat they had hung up to dry." Of the 15 delirious survivors, five would die a few days later in a Saint-Louis hospital.
One of the raft's survivors, a surgeon named Henri Savigny, wrote an account of the Medusa's fateful trip during his return voyage to France. He showed it to the captain of the Echo, who asked for a copy, which he then turned over to the Ministry of Naval Affairs. Savigny's account was soon leaked to the press, and on September 8, 1816, the Journal des débats published the first official report that the Medusa had been lost along with 135 people. Five days later, the newspaper published Savigny's horrifying tale of his 13 days on the raft.
Publication of the two articles set off a political storm. Members of the opposition, along with the liberal press, were quick to point out that the Medusa's captain was an aristocrat who had spent the Revolutionary years in England, had not sailed for 20 years, and had only been given command of the Medusa (over more experienced and better-qualified officers) because of his status as émigré. Moreover, Chaumareys, violating the first rule of a ship's commander, had abandoned his ship before all her passengers had left. Within a year, in 1817, survivor Savigny joined with Alexandre Corréard, one of the cartographers who had been on the raft, to publish a full account of the voyage to Africa: the wreck, their ordeal at sea, and their days of despair in Saint-Louis, where they had received little care or sympathy from their French compatriots.
The first edition of this work rapidly sold out. Public indignation grew as readers learned of the chaos that had followed the shipwreck, and of the treason of the officers who, to save themselves, had cut the ropes securing the raft to the lifeboats. The public was fascinated by the horrible acts of cannibalism that had ultimately saved the last few men on the raft. Corréard's and Savigny's book was soon translated, and talked about all across Europe. Pirated copies were hastily printed, if one can judge by the one in the library of the Warburg Institute: an abridged text on cheap paper, with a fake publisher's name and address, but a beautiful illustration. [Figure 6]
In September 1818 the Edinburgh Review published an extensive piece comparing two narratives of recent shipwrecks, that of the British ship Alceste off the coast of Korea, and that of the Medusa. To the author of the article, the two narratives formed a solid basis for assessing the behavior of the two nations in comparably trying circumstances: "Never was there a contrast so striking, as in the conduct of the English and French sailors. On the one side, all is great, and calm, and dignified. On the other, page rises over page, event towers above event, in horror and depravity.... The panic terror of the French crew, as soon as the ship was stranded, was the more striking, as contrasted with their preceding levity and disregard to every prudent warning; with their rejecting every precaution, and refusing to listen to the voice which told them that destruction was inevitable.... All legitimate discipline was lost." Still reeling, perhaps, from the devastating years of the Napoleonic wars, the author added for good measure:
The pusillanimity of the French exposed them to unheard-of calamities, and excited among them the most demoniacal feelings. It caused the death of nine-tenths of the wretches who had embarked upon the raft.... The resources of the two frigates, immediately after they were stranded, were much alike; but the sentiments that governed the Frenchmen deprived them of the advantages of their united efforts; while the minds of the English were wholly directed to the general good, and bent upon the means of saving one and all.... The very impulses which act attractively among other men, and make their hearts expand with kindness and benevolence, are repulsive to [the nature of the French]. In the day of sympathy, affection is changed to hatred, and pity is converted to envy. They prefer their own destruction to the safety of their fellow-sufferers, and crush to atoms, under their own feet, the plank which divides them from eternity.
The wreck of the Medusa became both a political cause célèbre and a best-seller, and was reenacted, with many special effects, on stages from Paris to Dublin. A later account, published in the years following the Second Republic, describes the wreck as one of the legends that shaped the political consciousness of post-Revolutionary France; the author writes that the story "had an immense impact; it broke all hearts, and everyone wept over the unfortunate victims of this unprecedented catastrophe; public opinion turned furiously against M. De Chaumareys, responsible for this horrifying tragedy; it demanded satisfaction."
The trial of Chaumareys was also described, in strongly political terms, as a clash between the legacy of the Revolution and the reemergence of the Old Regime. "On March 3rd, 1817, eight months after the frigate Medusa was cravenly abandoned, M. Le Vicomte Hugues Duroys de Chaumareys was brought before a military court, an appearance he contemptuously considered as a simple formality. 'The revolutionaries,' he said, 'caused it all; almost all the officers placed under my command were jacobins, terrorists, bonapartists; they conspired against me, and I could not but fail.'" "Fortunately," the author concludes, "the vicomte Hughes Duroys de Chaumareys was unanimously found guilty of causing the frigate la Méduse to go aground, and a majority of five votes out of eight condemned him to be struck from the roll of Officers, never to serve again.... The wreck of the frigate la Méduse is among the recent events that created the greatest uproar in the world."
A year or so later, Géricault set out to paint the large canvas he would exhibit at the Salon of 1819 in the category of History Painting, and he, too, became unusually engrossed in the tale of disaster. Art historians have discussed at length Géricault's long preparation for the painting, his meeting with the two survivor-authors, Corréard and Savigny (who also served as models), and his request that the Medusa's carpenter build him a miniature replica of the raft. Géricault made a series of preliminary sketches for The Raft, showing the Medusa going aground, the passengers boarding the boats, the first mutiny on the raft, and scenes of cannibalism, to mention just a few. These sketches are usually seen as evidence of Géricault's exploration of the various dramatic possibilities of the story, and expressions of his hesitation over which specific scene to choose for his painting for the Salon. But they also form a kind of ghost narrative, as if the painter needed to immerse himself in all the chapters of the story before he could convincingly show, in depicting its culmination, the tragic unfolding of the events that led to the disaster. Géricault's absorption with the tragedy was reflected not only in his careful reconstitution, in graphic terms, of the Medusa's wreck, but also in the way he transformed his own life during the work: he thought of shaving his head, and for several months abandoned all social interactions, seeing only the friends and models who came to his studio.
The process by which Géricault conceived The Raft has been exhaustively documented, but there is more to be said about questions that lie in the margins of the disaster's two main narratives: the written account by the two Medusa survivors, and the images that Géricault created, in canvases and sketches, to preserve the memory of the wreck. How do these tales and representations tell the story of the disaster that struck the Medusa? How do myth, history, and mimesis conspire to produce a narrative that immediately appealed to, and horrified, the nineteenth-century public?
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