Centenarians are not as rare as they used to be and one can profit from their memories. In California, I spoke with a woman who had traveled there from Missouri in a covered wagon. I visited another woman in a retirement home who was the first to hear her English professor at Wellesley College, Katherine Lee Bates, read a poem she had written on her summer vacation in Colorado: “America the Beautiful.” These good women were blessed with active minds, and their memories were acute. Because “God is in the details,” what they considered commonplace was most revealing: The Missouri woman’s caravan traveled mostly by night because the weather was cooler and they were less conspicuous to suspicious tribesmen. Professor Bates was somewhat tentative regarding the quality of her verse, and as she hesitatingly unfolded her manuscript, asked the opinion of her students.
While the adage obtains that those who do not know their history are condemned to repeat it, those who do not know their history can also be fooled. “Bastille Day” is the celebration of an inflated myth. Propagandists—and later romanticizers like Alexandre Dumas with his Man in the Iron Mask and the amiably pathetic Doctor Manette of Charles Dickens—made the storming of the prison the first thrust of the liberators. The Bastille was far from a fetid torture chamber. It had a storied history. While at times it must not have been a congenial hospice, the number of prisoners dwindled under benign Louis XVI, making it the equivalent of an American “white collar” place of custody, with tapestries, paintings, a library, and at least one personal chef.
On July 14, 1789, there were only seven inmates, a couple of them mental patients. Ten days earlier, the Marquis de Sade, not a paragon of virtue, ran along the rampart of the prison shouting lies about inmates being murdered. This was too much for the congenial warden, the Marquis René Jourdan de Launay, to handle, and so the aristocratic patron of sadism was remaindered to a lunatic asylum in Charenton, founded by the Catholic Brothers of Charity, who were pioneers in psychotherapy. The Marquis de Sade left behind his unfinished 1785 magnum opus, The 120 Days of Sodom, in the Bastille.
Yet the myth of the dank dungeon persists, and the one-pound-three-ounce key to the Bastille now hangs in Mount Vernon, the proud gift of the Marquis de Lafayette, sent in the summer of 1790 via Thomas Paine to New York where it was displayed as a relic at a presidential levee, and then through Philadelphia to Virginia. As for the Bastille, its remnant prisoners were an afterthought since the revolutionaries had pulled down its gates to get hold of 250 barrels of gunpowder. Indeed the confused inmates seemed reluctant to leave. The kindly, if dour, Marquis de Launay was dragged out and brutally stabbed, and then a butcher named Matthieu Jouve Jourdon sawed his head off. The prison was soon torn down, but bits and pieces are preserved as relics.
It takes a propagandist skilled in shamelessness to airbrush the Reign of Terror, but it has been done many times, not least of all by our own Thomas Jefferson. When the Cathedral of Notre Dame burned this year, there was much misinformation about its history. During the Revolution, it was ransacked by thousands of hysterics and had most of its treasures looted, which included the decapitation of 28 statues of the Kings of Judah along with statues on the other portals. The building was mockingly desecrated as a Temple of Reason with a woman of ill virtue dancing as a goddess on a fabricated “mountain” replacing the altar. Relics, vestments, and furnishings were destroyed, and images of saints were replaced with busts of such benignities as Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin.
Part of the lead roof was pulled down to make bullets and the consequent leakage hastened the weakening of the stone fabric. The sonorous bronze bells were smashed and melted to be cast as cannons. The whole edifice might have been destroyed had not Napoleon attempted some repairs in the whitewashing and neo-classical pastiche theatrical set for his coronation, a triumph of nouveau riche over ancien régime. Only a gothic revival movement, animated in part by Victor Hugo’s story of Quasimodo, prevented the ravaged shrine from being totally demolished.
It was perplexing, then, to read an essay in Figaro by the estimable philosopher, Sir Roger Scruton, at the time of the recent fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. At first he waxed well about that architectural wonder as seen through the eyes of an Englishman: “We have done to London what Le Corbusier wished to do to Paris, and what one of our architects, invited by President Pompidou, did to the Marais. We have replaced built form by childish bubbles of steel and glass. Our churches stand in concrete deserts, and it is hardly surprising if nobody visits them or enters them for a time of prayer.”
But then, astonishingly for a knight of eternal verities, he said of the thousands of hysterics who brutally clawed at the cathedral during the Reign of Terror: “Nobody at the time could bring himself to lay desecrating hands on the cathedral, apart from a few ruffians who beheaded a saint or two, thinking them to be kings.” This was tantamount to saying that the Taliban simply sprayed graffiti on a few large Buddhas in Afghanistan out of theological pique. Horace granted that even Homer nods; however, insouciance about such a notorious clash of cultures, especially from a laureled spokesman of classical perception, is worse than nodding and is more like a coma.
Perhaps a sensibility hopeful about man’s better self could not abide the very idea of desecrating the sacred so blatantly. But if one has experienced the modern age, there is no excuse for thinking of human depravity as a leitmotif. The desecration of Notre Dame of Paris was a coruscating and indelible display of man’s cruelty to himself as a frustrated image of God. Yet it remains poignant that the most cynical thinkers have mourned the terrible fire. In promising to restore it, President Macron made a remark that suggested there might be an opportunity for innovative architects to modernize it. This was fortunate because, given the contrarian spirit that has always be the provocative art of the Gauls, the reaction was fast and hard: to rebuild it just as it had been. On the other hand, if Macron had demanded that the cathedral be restored in perfect detail, there might have been cries for replacing it with a duplicate of the Los Angeles cathedral.
There are many myths fabricated to illustrate truths or attempts at truth. Santayana said that “a myth is an expression; it is not a prophecy.” That is why they are not reliable. If Julius Caesar said anything at all to Brutus in his last difficult moment, it was “Kai su, teknon” and not the quotation found in Shakespeare. Nero did not really fiddle while Rome burned because, to be pedantic, he had a cithara at a time when there were no fiddles. Lady Godiva, wife of Leofric, kept her clothes on. Washington was an honest man, but that does not mean we should believe Parson Weems about the cherry tree. John Adams attested that the Boston Massacre was not a massacre.
Paul Revere did not ride alone through the night shouting the words of Longfellow, and not all who died bravely in the Alamo wanted freedom for everyone, for they had slaves—unlike the Mexican abolitionists. Just days ago in New York, people paraded to commemorate the riot at a Christopher Street tavern in 1969 which became a symbol for the civil acceptance of sexual inversion, neglectful of the facts that it had been owned by the Genovese crime family with no liquor license, had catered to underage youths, given policemen protection from a mob outside, and was subsequently a juice bar, bagel shop, Chinese restaurant, and shoe store, and had transferred its name to a bar nearby.
It is better to take the counsel and share the memories of people who know what they are talking about. There is a special power in such witness that needs no embellishment and gives no harbor to fantasy, for its enchanters are chroniclers and not fabulists. Take, for instance, the father of a man I knew who stopped a conversation about the Gettysburg Address by saying, “I heard it. I was a boy but I still remember it and the reason there was no applause is just that people didn’t know what to do.”
The Gospel is Good News and not Fake News, because it is real and not malleable putty in the hands of theorists looking for a story to illustrate an idea. The story is real, and the challenge ever since has been to figure out, not how to make it fit us, but how we in our mix of doldrums and ecstasy can fit into it. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the word of life” (1 John 1:1).
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Taking of the Bastille” painted by an unknown artist between 1789 to 1791.