Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Revolutionary euphoria

This pompous painting by Jacques-Louis David [1748-1825] provides us with an absurdly kitsch depiction of Leonidas the Spartan who defeated the huge army of Xerxes the Persian at Thermopylae in Central Greece. In David's time, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the memory of Leonidas was celebrated in France in much the same way that young people now worship, rightly or wrongly, intelligently or mindlessly, the theme of Che Guevara.

I insist upon this comparison, because we often tend to think of the French revolutionaries as crazy impassioned dreamers, many of whom were destined to soon lose literally their heads. During their brief period of glory, they transformed provincial churches into so-called Temples of Reason, and planted Trees of Liberty.

This morning, at the archives in Grenoble, I was amused to find that births in Year 2 (around 1793) were recorded on thick lumpy and crackly paper (a sensual pleasure for my fingers, not to mention the delicious old inky smell) marked District des Thermopyles.


Bloody hell ! as the local ladies used to say in my uncouth Australia... and still say, I fear. Did the little town of Saint-Marcellin really liken itself to the scene of the great battle of Antiquity between the Greeks and the Persians? Did my humble village of Choranche once become an authentic outpost of a latter-day Thermopylae?

A year later, the revolutionary crackpots of Saint-Marcellin had descended from their ridiculous pedestal, and they got back to labeling their district in the ordinary old way.

In colloquial French (a truly colorful language, largely more inventive and sparkling than any variety of English), a lovely expression can be applied to the citizens of a small French town who suddenly see themselves as reincarnated warriors on mythological battlefields of Antiquity. This kind of pretentious behavior is decried (pardon my Latin) as farting higher than your asshole.

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