Sunday 20 March 2005

Before the Revolution

Every time I read about how the blogging “revolution” will “change the world,” I think of Talleyrand. More exactly, I think of the remark by Talleyrand that Bernardo Bertolucci used as the epigraph to his 1964 film Before the Revolution (Prima della rivoluzione):

He who has not lived in the years before the revolution cannot know what the sweetness of living is.

According to The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, Talleyrand’s remark was recorded by François Guizot, in his Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de mon temps (1858):

M. Talleyrand me disait un jour: “Qui n’a pas vécu dans les années voisines de 1789 ne sait pas ce que c’est que le plaisir de vivre.”
(Monsieur Talleyrand said to me one day: “He who has not lived during the years around 1789 can not know what is meant by the pleasure of life.”)

That Talleyrand’s observation and Bertolucci’s version of it can be interpreted quite differently is, of course, what interests me most.

In the aristocratic system into which Talleyrand was born, it was common for the eldest son in a family to enter the military (and to inherit the property and titles) while the second son made a career in the clergy. However, Talleyrand’s impaired physical mobility (due to a malformed foot, which some attribute to Marfan syndrome) meant that in his case the custom was reversed: his younger brother was named heir while Talleyrand—although a notorious unbeliever—was ordained a priest in 1779 at the age of 25.

The biographical entry at elaborates:

…the club foot was to loom large in Talleyrand’s life. His parents obviously felt that the disability made him unfit to carry on the family lineage, and stripped him of his birth right and inheritance at an early age. He lost the right to pass on the family wealth to any children he might have, as well as most of his inheritance. While he was still technically part of the nobility, Talleyrand was essentially without any class or standing from birth.

Talleyrand’s ordination did little to put a damper on his libido. A son was born of his affair with Countess Adelaide de Flahaut in 1785, and was named for his father…

In 1788, Talleyrand was appointed Bishop of Autun by King Louis XVI (with some reluctance), following a petition by his dying father (the same father that had disinherited him thirty years ago). Talleyrand did not linger long in his diocese ; after three weeks, he departed, having been elected deputy of the clergy (the First Estate) to the Estates General.

In addition to the clergy (the First Estate), the Estates General included representatives of the nobility (Second Estate) and the commoners (Third Estate). The First Estate was divided into “upper” and “lower” clergy: the former being a kind of clerical nobility drawn largely from the aristocratic families of the Second Estate; the latter having more in common with the commoners of the Third Estate.

In the context of a discussion about the “blogging revolution” it’s fascinating (or ironic) that, as Mick Underwood explains, “within the model of a pluralist liberal democracy, the mass media are often seen as fulfilling the vitally important rôle of fourth estate, the guardians of democracy, defenders of the public interest. The term fourth estate is frequently attributed to the nineteenth century historian Carlyle, though he himself seems to have attributed it to Edmund Burke.”

Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important than they all. It is not a figure of speech, or a witty saying; it is a literal fact,…. Printing, which comes necessarily out of Writing, I say often, is equivalent to Democracy: invent Writing, Democracy is inevitable…… Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority. It matters not what rank he has, what revenues or garnitures: the requisite thing is that he have a tongue which others will listen to; this and nothing more is requisite.

The ongoing argument about weblogging and journalism revolves, at the most basic level, around a struggle for power, as webloggers—not content to form a Fifth Estate—seek to wrest control of the Fourth Estate from the current incumbents.

But I digress…

Tallyrand supported the revolutionary cause and was excommunicated by Pope Pius VI for proposing the Civil Constitution of the Clergy that nationalized the Church.

It’s worth noting that despite his status in the Church, Talleyrand had been exposed to revolutionary philosophy during his term at St. Sulpice (and presumably later on as well). He is reported to have celebrated mass on the Champs de Mars in 1790 to commemorate the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. Thus it is perhaps not entirely surprising that he was appointed to the constitutional committee of the National Assembly in 1789, and became a signatory of the constitution that the committee presented to the King. However, one must also keep in mind that Talleyrand had earlier urged the King to dissolve the assembly, and only joined when he felt that the democratic movement was becoming unstoppable. (

As Talleyrand himself explained, “The art of statesmanship is to foresee the inevitable and to expedite its occurrence.”

During The Terror, while he was in Britain attempting to avert war, a warrant was issued for his arrest. Talleyrand escaped to the United States, returned to France in 1796, and became Foreign Minister in the Directory (the group of five who held executive power in France).

It was in this position that he met Napoleon Bonaparte, and in him recognized the man who would put an end to the many vicissitudes of revolutionary France. Sensing the way the wind was blowing (something at which Talleyrand was exceptionally skilled) he resigned his post with the directory, and began working to prepare the foundation for the coup that would bring Napoleon to power. (

Although Tallyrand resumed his post as Foreign Minister after Napoleon seized power as First Consul, he had little to do since Napoleon preferred to control foreign affairs. The 60 million francs that Talleyrand received for his services provided adequate compensation.

In early 1804, Talleyrand’s involvement in the kidnapping and execution of the Duke of Enghien led to his most famous quip: “That was worse than a crime; it was a mistake.”

Later the same year Napoleon appointed him Grand Chamberlain; in 1807 he resigned as Foreign Minister; in 1808 he betrayed Napoleon by engineering an alliance between Austria and Russia and was then dismissed as Chamberlain when Napoleon, describing Talleyrand as “a piece of shit in a silk stocking”, suspected him of involvement in an assassination plot.

Just as surprisingly, in 1814 Napoleon empowered Talleyrand to negotiate on his behalf with the allied European powers, even as he was criticizing Talleyrand for his private politics. By this time, Talleyrand seems to have once again smelled change on the wind, and hastened to reconcile himself with the vestiges of the Bourbon dynasty, becoming advisor to the future Louis XVIII. (

The assessment of Talleyrand is generous given that his style of diplomacy (which Henry Kissinger emulated) has fallen out of fashion:

The prototype of the witty, cynical diplomat, Talleyrand has been either exalted as the savior of Europe in 1815 or damned as an opportunist or even a traitor. His corruption was undeniable, and his pliability enabled him to hold power under the ancien régime, the Revolution, Napoleon, the Restoration, and the July Monarchy. Yet Talleyrand was a good European, and his policy was aimed consistently—and often courageously—at the peace and stability of Europe as a whole.

Ever since I first saw Before the Revolution in the late sixties, I’ve thought that Talleyrand’s remark about the revolutionary period (or rather Bertolucci’s use of it) was masked by ambiguity—an ambiguity that, I now realize, sprung from my focusing on Talleyrand’s aristocratic background rather than on his diplomatic career.

Having only ever seen the (subtitled) English translation of the Italian translation of Talleyrand’s remark, I wrongly assumed that he was looking back nostalgically at the life he enjoyed in the years before the revolution. Now, knowing a little more about his life—most particularly, his passion for politics and influence—and (despite my shaky grasp of French) having seen the French version of his comment, it seems clear that Talleyrand was celebrating the years immediately before and after 1789 (“dans les années voisines de 1789”), the heady days when the absolute monarchy was overthrown and the influence of the Catholic Church diminished, when everything seemed possible, and—most importantly—when Talleyrand was at the center of events.

This interpretation must be played against Bertolucci’s, which I always took as meaning that life only becomes sweet after the revolution—a belief that accords with both the Marxist sympathies of Fabrizio, the protagonist of the film, and those of Bertolucci himself (he joined the Italian Communist party in 1969, leaving ten years later). I was wrong about that too.

Louis Menand, in a long New Yorker essay that combines a review of Bertolucci’s most recent film, The Dreamers, with a survey of his earlier work, discusses Before the Revolution (the film and its title) at length. About the title, Menand writes:

By 1968, student radicals were citing [Bertolucci’s film] as explanation and inspiration, and the phrase “before the revolution” appeared in accounts of the events of May in the French press.

The words are taken from a remark of Talleyrand’s: “He who did not live in the years before the revolution cannot understand what the sweetness of living is.” Bertolucci insisted that he meant the title ironically, that life “before the revolution” is agony; he has his protagonist mutter, despairingly, “It’s always ‘before the revolution’ if you’re like me.” But with movies you believe the camera—what the camera loves cannot be all bad—and the camera tells us that although Talleyrand was undoubtedly on the wrong side, he was not wrong. “At first my story was a modern ‘Charterhouse,’” Bertolucci explained in an interview in the Cahiers in 1965, “but then it gradually developed into ‘Sentimental Education.’” Fabrizio is not a revolutionary; he is playing at being a revolutionary, because that is what young people in the postwar middle class do. His kind of revolution is just a chapter in the bourgeois family romance (thus the incest: it violates the norms of the nuclear family). If “Before the Revolution” is a prophecy of the rebellion of May ’68, in which students from the Sorbonne marched in solidarity with workers from the Renault auto plants, it is also a prophecy of its failure.

If Bertolucci “meant the title ironically,” then it’s clear that he interpreted Talleyrand’s remark as I originally did: that Talleyrand was a reactionary who yearned for the good old days before the revolution destroyed the aristocratic way of life. In 1965, when Bertolucci offered his explanation, it was still possible for the idea of revolution to inspire hope: the Chinese Cultural Revolution would begin in the same year and continue until October 1968, when Mao’s rival, Liu Shao-chi, was expelled from the Party (and the “revolution” had to be brought back under control). Ironically, during the same period that Jean-Luc Godard was making films extolling the virtue of the Red Guards, Chen Kiage (who would eventually direct films such as Farewell My Concubine and The Emperor and the Assassin), had joined the Red Guards in attacking his own father.

But events in Soviet Russia, China, North Korea, Cambodia, and elsewhere confirm that life “after the revolution” is agony too—and not just for the displaced ruling class—since one dictatorial regime has simply been replaced by another. As Samora Machel observed, “The revolution eats its children.”

Menand suggests that “although Talleyrand was undoubtedly on the wrong side, he was not wrong.” I assume Menand means that Talleyrand was on the “wrong” side in the sense that, although he played a crucial role in dismantling the monarchy and the Church, his primary concern was to ensure the stable transfer of power whilst staying close to the center of power himself—he had little interest in changing how power was exercised.

Talleyrand was right in that he understood that each revolution contains within itself the seeds of its own eventual destruction, whilst being sufficiently adroit to ensure for himself both a successful career and a long life. By the time Talleyrand died in 1838, at the age of 84, he had accumulated a 30,000 acre property, a 10,000 volume private library, a hotel in Paris, and a huge personal fortune.

My intuition says that the blogging revolution will turn out in much the same way: rather than supplanting mainstream media, weblogs will become an integral part of the Fourth Estate. The ongoing argument that bloggers be recognized as “citizen journalists” and the rush to put advertising on weblogs are only the first signs. Jim Kloss at Whole Wheat Radio put my own thoughts into words in a post titled Tsunami (Thought for the Day):

It feels like the web has 3 tiers now:

  1. Commercial/Corporate sites where the entire motivation is traditional advertising.
  2. Everyday people who are now including traditional ads with their content.
  3. Everyday people who create content with no traditional ads.

#2 is the tsunami. I’m running to higher ground so fast I don’t have time to look back and see how high the water is on the beach. Occasionally I look to the side and see others running too…

I’ve unsubscribed from 98% of the feeds I was following. I’m no longer even attempting to keep up with webgeist. I’ve become super selective. I am choosing ignorance; to bury my head in the sand. No more scanning of or bloglines searches to see the direction things are going. I don’t like the vast majority of what the web stands for anymore, with a few glaring exceptions—the same ones that have been on the radar screen all along.

I want to continue making ‘content’ but I want to do it in a vacuum. I don’t want to debate, I don’t want to justify, I don’t want to predict, I don’t want to answer the critics.

Nor do I. This morning, following a link from Phil Ringnalda’s Three Days Worth post, I found and installed the Hide AdSense script for GreaseMonkey. That’s made browsing a little more tolerable. All the same, I can hardly bear to watch as the Talleyrands corrupt something that was, for a while, magical. I’m tempted to say this, though:

Those who did not blog in the years before the revolution cannot know what the sweetness of blogging was.

Postage stamp with a portrait of Talleyrand

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This is a very good and insightful article Jonathon. (Forgive the first name familiarity). Not that I am particularily more astute than most, but upon reading the Bertolucci quote I immediately thought of how sweet life must have been before the revolution. I was reminded of something I read somewhere about WWI where someone said that before the war Europe was beautiful with distinct cultures and regions, but something was lost after the war. A certain innocence was gone.

As someone new to blogging I feel I can never know the innocence and excitement I felt as a reader back in late 2001 and 2002.

Posted by Keith Fox on 21 March 2005 (Comment Permalink)

Like others, I've thought about adding AdSense to my site in order to pay the costs of the site, but when I saw what kinds of ads were being added at Technocrati, like ads for New Age solutions for cancer when I was discussing my prostate cancer, I knew I'd have to quit blogging before going down that road.

Still, I'm sympathetic to those who need the money to keep blogging, so I haven't tuned out sites I've previously enjoyed reading because of the ads.

Still, there's no doubt I'm a little nostalgic about the days when I first started blogging and felt closer to those who linked to me.

Posted by loren on 21 March 2005 (Comment Permalink)

Outstanding post, Jonathon. As I expressed in my blog today, you've managed to give language to some of the vague, disquieting sense of loss I've felt since returning to blogging about a month ago--which is highly ironic since it was a nagging sense of loss that precipitated my return. I'm beginning to wonder if the prior experience of loss was the lesser of the two.

Posted by Tom Shugart on 21 March 2005 (Comment Permalink)

been blogging almost two years now
and consistently reading
about 50 blogs
through bloglines
and not mine
nor any I read
has even the faintest whisp
of ad age junk

and while I have posted
almost every day
and sometimes more than once
a day

I have not experienced
any of the fatigue
or listless lethargy
you all are mentioning

Posted by suzanne on 21 March 2005 (Comment Permalink)

Like suzanne (though with fewer line breaks), I haven't experienced any discontent or fatigue, but then I've never tried to keep up with the larger world of blogs -- I'm reading, as I always have, a handful of blogs that keep me amused and informed, and I don't really notice whether they have ads or not, having learned from an early age to tune out ads without even thinking about it. I have to say that I find the whole conceit of a "blogging revolution" somewhat unlikely; what reason is there to think bloggers "seek to wrest control of the Fourth Estate from the current incumbents"? Why is Blog X sniping at the New York Times any more revolutionary than the New York Post doing the same thing? Yes, bloggers with extreme views rail at the press as being in the pocket of [insert appropriate overlord here]; so do talk-radio hosts and the guy on the next barstool, and so it has been since the beginning of time (or at least Gutenberg). People like to bitch; some of those people now have blogs. Where's the revolution? If there is one, it's surely in the growing web of instant interconnections, not in some overblown competition with the news media.

A couple of points:

1) Samora Michel may well have said "the revolution eats its children"; so have I, but neither of us invented the phrase, which goes back to the French Revolution itself, specifically to Pierre Vergniaud (1753 - 1793):

2) The correct translation of "n’a pas vécu" is "did not live"; seductive though the superficial similarity is, the French passé composé is not the same as the English present perfect (which must of necessity extend to the present). My personal equivalent of Talleyrand's famous saying is "Whoever wasn't alive in the years around 1968 doesn't know what the pleasure of living is." Eheu fugaces labuntur anni [Alas, the fleeting years slip by -- Horace]!

Posted by language hat on 22 March 2005 (Comment Permalink)

I would say the issue is the divide between people interested in writing for themselves, as self-expressive diarists, or as a connection with friends, chatters, and those who desire to reach many, in terms of general punditry.

Some evangelists have peddled the idea that general punditry will be replaced by self-expressive diary and chat. This concept has proved to be a fantasy. All that's happened to punditry is yet another medium. There's slightly different conventions, but very much the same structures and hence power imbalances.

Using "blogging" to mean all of diary, chat, punditry, causes much confusion.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein on 24 March 2005 (Comment Permalink)

Excellent, quite a pleasure to read such a subtle post. Blogs as journalism, why not as art? Or essay? Blogs as bagatelle?

Posted by The Happy Tutor on 24 March 2005 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour