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The Family Romance of the French Revolution.

The Family Romance of the French Revolution analyses the cultural and political dimensions of a widely shared if unconscious belief in an archetypal "family romance" that marked eighteenth-century French society. Hunt uses Freud's notion of family romance from his Totem and Taboo both as "a point of departure" and as a conceptual apparatus to explore imagined visions of the family and public order. She follows key elements of the well-known fable that Freud used to understand the mythic foundations of the social order: a tale of primordial conflict between a band of brothers and their father that resulted in the murder of the father and the freeing of women from his control, the construction of a totemic father substitute and the creation of the incest taboo. Hunt is also interested in the aftermath of what Freud saw as the main action, in particular relations between brothers in the absence of the father, and the nature of subsequent relations of men and women, parents and children. Beyond providing key plot structures for Hunt's story, the main value of Freud's work for the author is that he believed in "the centrality of narratives about the family to the constitution of all forms of authority" (8).

The importance of family romances, Hunt argues, is political as well as cultural. Indeed, Hunt believes that widespread fantasies about the proper ordering of the family underlay and can help explain the progress of the revolution itself. Both artists and the French revolutionaries imagined a new political world through familistic images and plots.

The book consists of essays that are linked thematically, but which can be read and understood separately. After laying out the conceptual argument of the book in chapter 1, Hunt pursues the various players in the family romance in succeeding chapters, including the "good father" (ch. 2), "the band of brothers" (ch. 3), and the "bad mother" (ch.4). Chapter 2 documents the decline of the oppressive father, the brief rise of the "good father" and his rapid disappearance from French novels in the course of the eighteenth century. Hunt identifies the 1760s as the beginning of a period when artists stopped depicting oppressive fathers. Gentle, "modern" fathers were now the order of the day, if indeed they appeared at all. Hunt shows that it was as difficult for playwrights and novelists to capture their audiences' imagination with kindly, well-meaning fathers as it was to make virtuous women interesting. The rise of the archetypal benevolent father gradually helped undermine royal authority and prepare the way for the king's own eventual disappearance. Novelists and painters not only imagined a world without fathers well before the Jacobins and sans-culottes. Their work, Hunt argues, made it possible for political actors to imagine such a world and to be more sanguine about such archetypal acts as the execution of the King. Political actors can be thought to have played out the plots of fictional, and private family stories in the revolutionary public sphere.

In chapter 3, Hunt explores the "fraternal" elements of Freud's model, finding the perdurance, under the Republic, of an even more egalitarian fraternal society than the one posited in Freud's romance. She argues that widespread anxiety about paternal authority, even after the king's execution, largely inhibited revolutionaries' willingness to incorporate a new kind of father into their dreams for the political order. It was not until Bonaparte substituted his own imaginative model of the body social and politic that any substitute for the disappeared father emerged.

Chapter 4 "The Bad Mother" investigates the fate of women freed from patriarchal control after the disappearance of the father using trial documents and political pornography to explore both the queen's torment and the wider expulsion of women from the public political stage. Chapter 5, Hunt's explication de texte of Sade's La philosophie dans le boudoir argues that the author has taken the new republican family romance to its logical erotic conclusions in his creation of an imaginative world with no fathers, homosexual brothers, public women, and children with no parents but the state. Chapter 6, "Rehabilitating the Family," recounts post-Thermidorean legislative as well as artistic efforts to shore up the family, legislatively by dismantling radical legislation of an earlier period, and literarily in the more widespread depictions of a benign domestic sphere inhabited by nice fathers and mothers. Hunt argues that literary and dramatic authors showed increasing interest in the child, often the fatherless child, as a new focus of post-revolutionary family romances. In the post-revolution, a refashioned family began to loom more importantly as a refuge from an alienated social and political life.

Given many historians' antipathy to the application of Freudian concepts to an understanding of historical problems, Hunt rightly takes great care to clarify what she is not arguing. She is not arguing that the French Revolution represented the collective working-out of widespread private neuroses in the public sphere. She is not arguing that public cultural productions led French people to specific political actions. Nor is the book designed to be a discussion of people's views of the family before and during the revolution. Besides some discussion of the rise in age at majority, republican legislation granting illegitimate children the same inheritance rights as legitimate children, and the fundamentals of the Civil Code's conservatism, there is no detailed coverage of ways that various "family romances" were related to the tortuous path of family legislation up to the time of the Civil Code. Rather, Hunt explores the family romance by observing its manifestations in various forms of cultural production: plays, novels, and iconography, arguing that the same kinds of ideas that shaped literature also helped shape the politics.

Hunt's essays raise key questions about issues of human agency and causality of interest to social and cultural historians alike. First, some readers will be concerned that models of "collective unconscious," like models of "collective mentalities" are often blunt instruments of analysis, better suited to understanding long-term world views than a short-term set of political events. Second, it is very difficult to identify exactly who, or what part of the French people actually shared in the collective view posited by the "family romance" model. The popularity of the novels, plays, or engravings Hunt uses as her sources provides evidence that authors and audiences could imagine the world in similar terms. Indeed, Hunt states her desire to study "the unifying features of the political imagination" (197). Yet one wonders whether subgroups of French society of special interest to Hunt for example women--actually partook of the same kinds of unconscious family models of politics as men or imagined their political dimensions in the same way.

The author herself provides an extremely interesting example of how the configuration of the "family romance" in women's minds may have differed strongly from that imagined by men. Citing several works on eighteenth-century France, Hunt shows that for many French women, the "patriarchal" oppression of the family stemmed more from their husbands than from their fathers (21-2), a fact that is in entire agreement with her emphasis on the rise of the kindly father at the end of the Old Regime. This might suggest that the struggle of bands of brothers against an oppressive father may not have figured very largely in women's family romances of the social and political order. Yet the liberal "family" legislation of the early years of the revolution mainly addressed sources of paternal oppression that arguably weighted more heavily on men such as the lettres de cachet or the high age of majority. While one can see clear parallels between the struggles of Freud's family romance and those of mainstream revolutionaries, the issue of how women may have brought their own family romances into public life remains to be explored in greater depth.

The task of identifying more specifically which French people held to or "believed in" the kind of unconscious family romances Hunt hypothesizes does not appear to be radically different methodologically from understanding the belief systems of people in any society. For even though Hunt believes that the basic plots of the family romance lie in the "collective unconscious," her historical evidence seems to reflect these themes in very straightforward ways that require little decoding or deconstruction. Fathers, for example, literally disappeared from novels and plays.

The way that Lynn Hunt's work differs from a work of social history is in her articulation of fantasies and belief in systems in the absence of analysis linking them closely to material conditions or to social trends. There is no discussion, for example, of the massive amount of research in family history that has had a great deal to say about the evolution of family life in the period under study. Such anchoring of collective fantasies in the social order would lead Hunt away from her own primary methodological concern, however, which is to bring back shared ideas, beliefs, and imaginings to an understanding of the political order.

Like many social historians, the author seems to believe that human beings are not entirely free to choose the conditions, either material or imaginative, that structure the worlds into which they are born. They can imagine and even try to invent new worlds, but it often seems that those new worlds contain a great deal of the old, especially in the realm of family and gender relations.

At the beginning of her work Hunt sets out a point of view that is more an assumption than a proven point, arguing that "most Europeans in the eighteenth century thought of their rulers as fathers and of their nations as families writ large" (xiv). There is, of course, excellent evidence that kings liked to think of themselves and their kingdoms in this fashion and that wise courtiers and other subjects would adopt the kind of metaphorical language his Majesty liked to hear. Hunt's work, as well as other recent research on the Revolution, has shown how language addressed to the king as benevolent father changed in tone in the pre-revolutionary period. What is less clear is Hunt's main point--that subjects held these beliefs, and that in the eighteenth century they actually saw their nations as larger families.

Despite this contentious point, it is certainly not difficult to accept the salience of the kinds of archetypes that Hunt analyzes. Which of us who has lived in the twentieth century can doubt the importance of collective fantasies for an understanding of public life? Like many other historians of the French Revolution, Crane Brinton, in his small but insightful study of legislation on bastardy during the revolution, found it extremely hard to fathom why bourgeois revolutionaries voted such outlandish policies as the extinction of differences between legitimate and illegitimate children; why they overthrew a family-property link they all believed so fundamental to the social order. Brinton's solution to the puzzle and Hunt's solution are rather similar. Brinton referred to the power of ideas, while Hunt emphasizes the power of family authority models rooted deep in unconscious fantasy.

Predicting the exact conditions under which such ideas or fantasies are apt to arise with great force in the public sphere was not the purpose of either Brinton's or Hunt's work. But it is worthy of pursuit by social and cultural as well as political historians. Linking together the private and public, the empirical and the imagined dimensions of the family promises to stimulate a greater dialogue between various approaches to history. Indeed, Lynn Hunt's work--that succeeds so well in exploring how family romances sometimes get played out in very public places--challenges social historians of the family to re-integrate questions of ideology, public life, and politics into their work.

Katherine A. Lynch Carnegie Mellon University
COPYRIGHT 1994 Journal of Social History
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Author:Lynch, Katherine A.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1994
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