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Compte Rendu of 'An Anarchist Voyage Through Antiquity: Narrating Revolutionary Failure in Sylvain Maréchal' (Sanja Perovic)

posted 24 Nov 2015, 07:55 by Cambridge EMS   [ updated 24 Nov 2015, 08:16 ]
'Gardes-toi des trois P: le Peuple, le Prince, le Prêtre.' 
Sylvain Maréchal, Le Voyage de Pythagore (1798-99), vol.6, p.279

Paying us a visit from King's College, London last Friday, Sanja Perovic did a brilliant job at putting Sylvain Maréchal back on the map of a 'modern early modern' temporal crossroad. The representation of revolutionary time was the focus of her presentation, which she opened with Maréchal's 1788 Almanach des honnêtes gens: a revolutionary almanach in which he promoted an entirely secular scansion of time by replacing the calendar saints with historical figures ranging from Henri IV to Ninon de Lenclos.
    Maréchal in himself was a paradox worthy of attention. Erudite librarian of the Mazarine for sometimes, adept at writing in the learned and (Perovic argues) abstruse genres of numismatics and antiquarian dictionaries, he was also one of the instigators of the Conspiration des égaux alongside Babeuf, and contributed to its manifesto, which advocated a cultural tabula rasa and called for the destruction of all the arts. His 1798 Dictionnaire des athées anciens et modernes epitomises this heady mix of humanist learning and revolutionary claims, as the dictionary is also a polemical plea in favour of the rationalist athées put under increased pressure by the Catholic revival at the eve of the 19th century -- a cultural war which, ultimately, the Catholic side headed by Chateaubriand won by associating themselves with a renewed efflorescence of good literature.
The pièce de résistance of the paper, however, was the uses of antiquity in Marechal's  1798-1799 Voyage de Pythagore, a serial publication which captures Maréchal's pessimistic take on the revolutionary rapture, and instantiates the clear slowing down of the revolutionary impetus in France under the Directory -- a slowing down which contrast with its explosive spread in the the rest of Europe at the same period. Like his Italian counterpart Vincenzo Cuoco, who wrote in 1806 a Platone in Italia while exiled after the failure of the Neapolitan revolution, Maréchal turns to the figure of Pythagoras and to the lapidary genre of the maxim (the Pyhagorean sayings) to express his political views. Thus the sixth volume of his Voyage de Pythagore is a collection of his own maxims, in the Pythagorean style.
The esotericism of the Pythagorean sayings, a genre which caught the early modern interest and imagination, and the ideal of small, secret societies of elects they stand for, fitted these political views well. In 1798-99, Marechal is looking for a state of manageable political stasis. He argues indeed that the revolution needs to become covert to carry on, and that the revolutionary state needs to be radically scaled down to remain true to its origins. These political demands determine the shape of his historical perspective. Not unlike humanist 'universal histories' -- only, devoid of their theological outlook -- and prefacing the Hegelian dialectic, Marechal's Antiquity in the Voyage de Pythagore is never past: it is always there, incessantly reenacted and striving towards its own realisation in revolutionary upheavals. Antiquity thus stands for the ideal, pre-historical moment in which human political organisation happens 'naturally', around the only viable political unit, the nuclear family. Small, self-organising federations of such families is Maréchal's solution and answer to the huge scale of the revolutionary state and its unredeemable and unavoidable evils of oppression of the minority by the majority, with its trail of ideological lies: 'Dis la vérité aux hommes, et des fables aux peuples'.