Richard D. E. Burton. Blood in the City: Violence and Revelation in Paris 1789-1945. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2001. ix + 395 pp. $36.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8014-3868-4.
Reviewed by David Beriss (Department of Anthropology, University of New Orleans)
Published on H-Urban (June, 2002)
In the early 1980s, I lived in Paris for a while, in an apartment on the rue de la Roquette, more or less midway between the Place de la Bastille and Pere-Lachaise cemetery. The neighborhood was still working class at the time and many of the buildings in the area were put to mixed residential and industrial use. My apartment lacked modern amenities (no interior toilet, shower, nor hot water), which allowed me to imagine that I was living in a kind of time warp, surrounded perhaps by nineteenth-century barricade builders. This revolutionary romance was heightened by my more politically engaged Parisian friends, who seemed to take particular pleasure in pointing out places in the area that had been marked by bloody historical events, especially those involving the execution of religious authorities and the heroic resistance of the working class to the domination of the bourgeoisie. From the Mur des Federes, to the cafe where Jean Jaures was assassinated or the metro station where Algerian war demonstrators died at the hands of the police, the city seemed to be defined by an historical geography of battles, assassinations and martyrs.
In his recent book Blood in the City: Violence and Revelation in Paris 1789-1945, Richard D. E. Burton examines the way this rather bloody geography took hold of the Parisian imagination. Not exactly a chronological history of street battles and executions, Burton's book is a sort of historical ethnography of Parisian political violence from the revolution through the end of the Second World War. Burton argues that a particular set of themes--secularization, conspiracy, scapegoating, sacrifice and blood--runs through much of the violence that marked the city during the period under study. Rather than provide an explanation for particular events, Burton's approach is designed to provide insight into the way Parisians have thought about and evaluated this history. Drawing on the work of historians, but also on literature, literary criticism and some original sources, Burton tries to link political violence to the meaning of Parisian places.
While any book reflects the interests of the author, this one seems to have grown out of Burton's very personal experience of Paris. Like others who have written about the city, Burton's experiences there, as well as his questions about political violence and geography, are guided by insights into Parisian life provided by French literature. The influence of Catholicism on French thinking is also central to his views and provides the book's most original insights. While secularization certainly marked French life over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Burton shows how a Catholic worldview continued to shape the imagination of Parisians of both the right and left, focusing especially on the use of Christian metaphors and myths in the construction of heroes and martyrs on both sides of the political spectrum.
Burton's analysis raises useful questions about the meaning of secularization itself and, more broadly, about the way historians and other social scientists should think about what constitutes religion. As Burton points out in the book's first chapter, participation in Church activities, such as mass, fell off considerably among all social classes in Paris during the nineteenth-century. Yet this turning away from the Church did not mean that Parisians left behind religious ways of thinking and behaving. This is especially evident in the use made of historic sites in Paris during the period Burton examines. Over the course of the nineteenth-century both the left and right established systems of sacred places in Paris, each designated to commemorate martyrs and each the site of rituals designed to portray a particular vision of the city, the state and the people. For a city undergoing processes of secularization, the Paris Burton describes is a surprisingly religious place.
The evolution of left and right sacred visions of the city is central to some of the book's more interesting chapters. For example, Burton shows that the taking of the Bastille prison and the gory executions that followed, as well as the beheading of Louis XVI and many others on the Place de la Concorde, have been interpreted as both the original sins of modern French history as well as blood sacrifices in which the public played a role akin to communicants at Mass. The evolution of Napoleon's cult is traced through the rise, fall, and subsequent rise again of the column in the Place Vendome. Burton examines public executions and considers the history of the guillotine, suggesting that the machine itself could be seen as a more rational, secularizing means of execution. Yet he also shows that both the general public and intellectuals continued to see public beheading in religious terms, as a kind of national sacrament. The obsession with beheading, whether of criminals or of political enemies, leads Burton to remark that "French history from the Revolution to the Liberation is indeed a headless history, its emblem the Medusa's head, its muse an acephalous Clio" (p. 62).
Sacrifice and the cult of the dead are central to Burton's understanding of political violence in Paris. For the right, the executions of the Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were reinterpreted as Christ-like sacrifices, as were the many executions of bishops, priests and generals over succeeding decades. Sacre-Coeur Basilica, constructed in the decades following the French defeat by the Prussians in 1870 and the Paris Commune of 1871, represents the right's cult of the dead. Dedicated to the sacred heart of Jesus, the Church was built as atonement for France's sins since the revolution. The left also had its cult of the dead, established principally around Pere-Lachaise cemetery. Burton pays particular attention to the use of this cemetery for political funerals of opponents to monarchy and empire over the course of the nineteenth-century. Of course, it was the execution of members of the Commune in Pere-Lachaise, at the Mur des Federes, that made it a definitive object of the left's cult of the dead. As Burton remarks, "if Montmartre was the Calvary of the right, the left's combined Gethsemane and Golgotha was Pere-Lachaise" (p. 146).
While much of the book is devoted to exploring the meaning of the right and left's sacred sites, a few chapters examine other aspects of religious life and its association with violence in Paris. In one such chapter, Burton discusses the Marian visions of Catherine Laboure on the Rue du Bac in 1830, placing them in the context of the political and economic upheavals of the time. The popularity of the "miraculous" medal made to commemorate these visions suggests that religious ways of thinking were still common in Paris and raises questions about the meaning of secularization. In chapters on the conversions to Catholicism of the writers Paul Claudel and Joris-Karl Huysmans, Burton explores the attraction of intellectuals to the religious life. The violence in these chapters is mostly not political, but rather spiritual and sexual, especially in the bizarre linking of brothels and churches in Huysman's writing.
Violence, as well as the themes of scapegoating and conspiracy, are more central to the chapters on the round-up and deportation of Jews in occupied Paris and on the liberation of Paris in August of 1944. The deportation and occupation created new sacred sites, especially the Velodrome d'Hiver, where Jewish deportees were gathered before being transported to camps outside Paris or on to Auschwitz. The liberation of Paris was marked, according to Burton, by efforts to make use of sacred sites, such as the Hotel de Ville, and of violent traditions, including the building of barricades. While there were more than a few executions, Burton is also fascinated by the idea of parallels between real beheading, in previous generations, of political opponents by guillotine and the shaving of the heads of women who had sex with Germans during the war. The liberation of Paris and the pursuit of collaborators was the context for the re-enactment of the same themes of scapegoating and conspiracy that characterized Paris before the war, but with the former persecutors now in the role of victims.
In his lengthy conclusion, Burton returns to his previous themes and introduces a great deal of new evidence to lend coherence to his idea of the "structures of meaning" (p.265) that make sense of a century and a half of political violence. Burton connects the Haussmanization of Paris with what he see as the desacralization of the urban environment (p. 269). He traces the history of belief in conspiracies--especially conspiracies to starve the population--back several centuries. He notes along the way the different fears of the right (Freemasons, Jews, Reds, Protestants, immigrants, etc.) and of the left (Jesuits, aristocrats, capitalist financiers, Jews, collaborators, etc.). Burton's broad analysis of paranoias and traditions among French conspiracy theorists should be thought provoking for anyone who has occasion to listen to the Jean Marie Le Pen or to anti-globalization activists in France today. The search for scapegoats, Burton's third theme, provides an extension of the conspiracy theories and leads to his fourth theme, sacrifice. Here he notes the logic involved in sacrificing a person or persons who are thought to pollute the group. This act of "exclusionary violence" can be understood as an effort to purify the group (p. 299). At the same time, of course, the excluded parties may be seen as martyrs by another group and, in the process of their death, serve to unify them as well. This logic, Burton argues, repeats itself over and over in the one hundred fifty years of his study. He also examines the rhetoric of blood that seems to run through French literature of the period, providing the book with pages of graphic violence. A re-reading of the Dreyfus affair furnishes Burton with the opportunity to bring all five themes together at the book's end.
The conclusion does not, however, entirely succeed in tying together all this book's disparate parts. Of course, as Burton himself points out (p. 265), the topic he has chosen hardly lends itself to coherent analysis. At its best, the book provides insight into the links between the rhetoric of violence and religious thinking in Parisian history. Many of the sites, events and interpretations Burton discusses will be familiar to scholars of Paris. However, Burton does a good job of connecting events with the literary imagination. He also has an eye for unusual details, adding the odd anecdote here and there, so that anyone looking for new information on old stories is likely to be rewarded. However, when Burton ventures into explanation he is less convincing. For instance, he confuses dechristianization with secularization, as if leaving the Catholic Church meant necessarily that people would think like rational modernists. But much of the evidence of his own book points to the replacement of Catholic practices of pilgrimage and worship with similar, non-Catholic, practices on the right and left. Indeed, as Burton shows, Paris remained a place full of sacred sites during the entire period he examines. Sacred, but not Catholic.
Burton also develops some unusual--and unconvincing--explanations for patterns he finds in Parisian violence. To explain violent episodes of scapegoating, he turns to the work of Ren Girard who, according the Burton, claims that all human societies have their origin in foundational acts of violence, usually involving the sacrifice of a human victim (p. 291). It was this kind of foundational violence, Burton claims (p. 292), that began with the executions after the fall of the Bastille and that Parisians have been repeating ever since. According to Burton, Girard's theories about the violent origins of society are based on studies of Greek tragedy and the nineteenth-century novel (p. 291). Anthropologists, however, have found little evidence to support the idea that societies have their origin in violence or that violence is necessary for social cohesion. More importantly, such an explanation is too abstract to explain much. After all, if it applies to all societies and explains all political violence, why spend any time looking at the details of what people did and said? A better explanation could be built on the cultural data from Paris itself, which was not founded (despite revolutionary desires) with the fall of the Bastille.
Burton also favors psychological explanations, most often involving the killing of the father, for a great deal of Parisian political violence, whether the beheading of the King, the toppling of Napoleon's statue or the execution of an archbishop. Like foundational violence, this theory is also too abstract to explain much. It is not at all clear why the more obvious meaning of events, usually the overthrow of an authority or the symbols of authority for a specific end, is not sufficient. Why not take seriously the explanations provided by participants, rather than reaching for a difficult-to-demonstrate mass psychology?
Burton engages in an odd kind of evaluation of events, casting moral judgements on the Paris crowd and on political leaders. It is sometimes difficult to tell if his analysis reflects the rhetoric of the time or his own feeling about what happened. He is particularly harsh with former president Francois Mitterrand, whose terms in office are largely outside the framework of this book, but who is criticized for gestures that Burton thinks illegitimately transformed the meaning of historic events and sites (see pp. 40, 203 and 228). Such criticism is peculiar for a book focused on the uses of history for political ends. At the same time, Burton is sympathetic with Georges Bataille and Michel Leiris in their search for spiritual fulfillment in the brothels of a city "bereft of its earlier spiritual density and increasingly limited to a monosemantic dimension of being" (pp. 271-272). Further, he seems to revel in recounting the bloodiest and most disturbing passages of violent sex and cannibalism he can find in French literature, but nearly all of it is fiction (pp. 309-333). It is not clear how much of this material is relevant to our understanding of the cultural of Parisian political violence.
Blood in the City makes for a fascinating, if at times difficult, read. While scholars of France will find much to intrigue and disturb them, those not familiar with the characters and events of French history since 1789 may find themselves lost in a jumble of unexplained names and references. Burton's assertions are worth debating, and the reader will be captivated by the myriad details about famous events and sites that he has tracked down. In addition, Burton reminds us that Paris, even in our own rational age, contains many bloody mysteries and sacred places.
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David Beriss. Review of Burton, Richard D. E., Blood in the City: Violence and Revelation in Paris 1789-1945.
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