Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Eggs and omelettes

It's Bastille Day today, a celebration that marks the date from which Britain and France began to use the same words but with quite different connotations (for instance, it would be difficult to ban the burqa over here under the banner of Liberty).

I shall mark the day by relating my favourite anecdote of the French Revolution. It concerns the fate of one notable aristocratic intellectual during the Terror and is from Simon Schama's Citizens:
The great exponent of a state in which science and virtue would be mutually reinforcing, the Marquis de Condorcet, died in abject defeat, escaping from house arrest in Paris in May 1794 and walking all the way to Clamart only to arouse suspicion at an inn when he ordered an omelette. "How many eggs?" asked the patronne. "Twelve," replied Condorcet, suggesting a damaging unfamiliarity with the cuisine of the common man. He was locked up for the Revolutionary Tribunal but was found dead in his cell before he could be transported to Paris.

Now that really is irony. Extra helpings, in fact.

By the way, I've plugged it before somewhere but I recommend Hilary Mantel's novel about the French Revolution 'A Place of Greater Safety'. It's fascinating, accomplished, stylish, educative, epic and credible. I wonder why it isn't a film yet?


malty said...

Read No1, No2 just gone on the wish list, I can see it all now, Citizen Camembert lambasting Citizen Bidet while Sir Rodney Efing hides behind the curtain, only in the Carry on movies is history so accurately portrayed.
Those Frenchies were miffed today, the Gap stage of the TDF not having been won by one of theirs, one more dent in the vainglorious bodywork.

Brit said...

The omelette question was obviously the 18th Century equivalent of the celeb-tester "How much is a pint of milk?"

Hey Skipper said...

(for instance, it would be difficult to ban the burqa over here under the banner of Liberty)

Thinking of what the burqa represents, should it be difficult to ban?

Gaw said...

Malty: Good old Carry On - the definitive text, of course. I wish someone would make a film of A Place of Greater Safety. The French Revolution isn't a very fashionable topic nowadays. We need an anniversary.

Brit: Yes! Which would also provide the opportunity to use the word 'shibboleth' correctly. What a treat.

I've been calculating the number of genuine, 100% ironies there are in that anecdote. I think there are three.

Skipper: I'd like to see the burqa disappear but I couldn't stomach a legal ban, partly as I think it might have perverse results and partly because I think it's a move too far for the state.

The latter point would be one that the French wouldn't have as much problem with - for them the state is the guarantor of laïcité and all the rest.

Norman Geras has posted some good discussions on this topic. His latest post, which links to his others is here:

Hey Skipper said...

I'd like to see the burqa disappear but I couldn't stomach a legal ban

I’m divided. Taken purely as a matter of religious expression, I agree. But certainly there are limits that speak directly to equality before the law. There is no obligation for any Western society to allow women to wear burqas for, say, driver’s license photographs. Or, drive with a burqa on, or enter a bank, anymore than we would allow non-Muslims to do such things or enter such places with masks on.

But what I was getting to above was considering precisely what wearing a burqa represents: sincere belief in absolutist claims that hope for the complete destruction of Western society and the global triumph of Islam.

If the French were to approach this honestly, they would deport all Islamists.

That said, politics is not a matter of honesty, and I happen to think Western society is strong enough to survive a couple thousand Islamists.

So, on balance, I wouldn’t advocate such a ban in the US. But taking a close look at what wearing a burqa entails makes the argument much less clear cut: why should we tolerate the supremely intolerant?