A new colleague joins us at the Revolution Network, and introduces himself below: welcome, Jacob!
Laughter as a Political Strategy in the National Convention
My name is Jacob Zobkiw and I have recently been awarded a PhD for my thesis entitled ‘Political Strategies of Laughter in the National Convention, 1792-1794’ at the University of Hull. Having just discovered this fascinating blog thanks to Marisa Linton, I thought it might be appropriate to introduce my work to the community and offer a few thoughts regarding the motivations behind laughter in the Republic.
With the inception of the National Convention on 21 September 1792, the deputies were presented with an exigent problem: without a constitution or a sovereign ruler acting as a safeguard, how could they legitimise, not only the Republic (a particular challenge, considering France had been ruled by the Capetians since 987), but also their own individual authority? The issue was further complicated by a political culture that placed emphasis on selfless sacrifice while overt demonstrations of ambition were condemned. One possible route for patriots to justify their right to represent the people was the appeal to public opinion, which involved convincing and persuading the political audience of their own integrity. Several strategies were available to deputies to achieve this: historians have identified political rhetoric and styles of speaking, dress, emotional sensibilité, the appropriation of theatrical genres and the cult of antiquity as just a few ways in which deputies could craft an individual identity, engage with the public, and contest the authority of others. To this list we can also add laughter.
Although laughter in the Revolution has been a focus for historians, very few have ventured beyond 1792 in their examinations. I think there is a general belief among scholars that the republicans rarely laughed because they were faced with mounting crises that only a serious and severe demeanour could explain. Certainly, some deputies maintained that vituperative laughter contravened the preferred feeling of sensibilité, and was a relic of the past more applicable to the frivolous and malevolent aristocrat. Yet, considering there were over 700 politicians in the Convention competing to be heard and implement their own vision of the future, it was perhaps inevitable that the ideal parliamentary conditions of harmony and uniformity envisaged by many soon gave way to insults, mocking laughter and accusations, as patriots used any means available to them to get ahead in the factional disputes which dominated the period.
Indeed, laughter played a multifarious role in the Convention and was certainly more ubiquitous than exhibitions of tears and solemnity. In just over 22 months, laughter occurs on 394 separate occasions according to the records of the Archives Parlementaires: this equates to nearly 18 times per month (more than the rate of laughter recorded in the National Assembly). Moreover, while laughter was sometimes represented by deputies as a form of pity so as to assure the public that those who laughed were still in tune with their feelings, its function was rather more oppressive: laughter was often employed to police debates, discredit unwanted opinions, and to denounce others. Initially, the most frequent recipients of laughter were the prominent Montagnards who, frustrated with the barrage of ridicule they suffered in the Convention, represented such laughter as having been artificially orchestrated by their opponents. Some voiced their irritation to the Jacobin club, such as Chabot who was tired of the “rire sardonique” of Brissot, while Marat denounced the “vils folliculaires, tremblants de frayeur de voir déchirer le voile, s’empressent d’aller au-devant l’opinion publique en semant le ridicule à nos dépens”.
Surprisingly, given the serious role the narrative of conspiracy played in revolutionary culture, it was the denunciation that generated the most laughter from the Convention in the first year. “Est-ce amusant!” complained Marat, when his accusation that Brissot was leading a conspiratorial plot from within the Ministry of the Interior was received with mockery. “Oui! Oui!” came the cry from the benches. In his memoirs, the Girondin François Buzot defended himself from accusations that the satirical remarks made by himself and his allies were divisive in light of an ideology that placed emphasis on unity. As he remarked, many denunciations were absolutely ridiculous; consequently all he could do was laugh: “est-ce ma faute si le sarcasme est dans les mots dont je me sers, lorsque tout est atrocement ridicule dans les faits que je décris.”
The Montagnards were not averse to using laughter for their own needs. In the midst of the Terror, laughter was the typical stoic response to failure, such as with the disheartening news that Toulon had opened its gates to the British; at this moment the Convention was overcome by “un rire d’indignation” according to one newspaper. There was, however, satisfaction taken in the retributive violence enacted on the populace when the city had been recaptured, as one deputy reported: “Le moyen était violent. Mais quand il y a urgence, il faut bien s’en servir. (Rires).” Laughter also held a practical purpose in demarcating the rules of a political edifice that was constantly changing. During the Terror, there were certain moments when deputies felt they had to laugh because to refrain from doing so was dangerous; failing to enjoy the plight of the Girondins in prison, for example, could attract the unwanted attention of the sans-culottes.
The personal dimension of politics from September 1792 to July 1794 is for me, one of the most compelling aspects of the French Revolution, and one that has also become a central focus in current debates on the revolutionary trajectory, as historians look to trace attitudes and ideas that developed out of the Revolution itself, and not just those that formed it. The Conventionnels were politicians – as well as ideologues – and operated to outmanoeuvre each other, all the while denying ever having undertaken such unscrupulous actions. Added to this potent mix was the fact that many of the deputies were friends in a former life and knew personal and potentially harmful details about each other. Insider knowledge was a weapon to publicly humiliate a former friend-turned-enemy.
Consequently, unveiling the real or imagined private practices of suspect individuals – especially practices that were alien to, or atypical of, the prevailing culture – was a useful strategy intended to leave unfortunate victims open to the ridicule and mockery of the public. This approach developed from a wider plan of intimidation, and can be initially seen with the treatment of Minister of the Interior Roland, who due to his powerful position became a favourite target for mockery by the Montagnards. They focused on the Minister’s relationship with his wife, Marie-Jeanne, who was represented as the true power within the ministry, while Roland himself was seen as a cuckold lacking the masculine virtue required for a man of his position. These jokes and ridiculous denunciations, inveighed the Minister in 1793, were repeated so often that the weak-minded believed them. His successor, Dominique Joseph Garat, was also ridiculed in the Convention, this time for his friendship with the discredited physiologist Pierre Cabanis, although his reluctance to fully support the Montagnards was the probable motivation behind the laughter. Garat himself believed that his personal friendships were scrutinised to show his ridiculousness: “parce que cela est niais, je suis coupable”. Laughter was a form of denunciation in the Terror and deputies were encouraged to “accueillez la vérité d’un rire dédaigneux” in order to cast suspicion on the claims of others. Conspirators by definition were ridiculous; if a denunciation provoked laughter at the accused then that made it all the more authentic. The enemy was to be treated with the laughter of scorn rather than the tears of pity.
What I have hoped to show in this introduction, therefore, is not just that the Republicans frequently laughed, but that laughter played an important role in the political culture of the Revolution, serving to enforce and contest the legitimacy of the Republic and its proponents. It was a psychological weapon and developed into a prominent tool to keep order, eventually becoming one way in which to justify the ideology of Terror. Laughter, it seems, was a serious business in the Republic.