This two part blog post (Part 2 available here) by myself is the next in our Romanticism Now series, which hosts discussions of the resonance of Romanticism and the Romantic era in contemporary pop culture. Please approach us with your takes on film and television, music, theatre, video games, memes, or any other aspects of pop culture which reflect a Romantic sensibility. If you would like to submit a piece for the Romanticism Now series, or any of the other BARS Blog series’ please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me, Jack Orchard, here.
I am the Communications Assistant for the British Association of Romantic Studies and the Content Editor for Electronic Enlightenment, my research focuses on reading practices in eighteenth-century correspondence, women’s writing, and the relationship between eighteenth-century texts and contemporary video games.
PART ONE – The Spirit of the Age
We. The Revolution is a stylish visual melodrama/court room simulator/resource management PC game released in2019 by the Polish developer Polyslash. It traces the career of a fictional Parisian judge, Alexis Fidele through (roughly) the flight of Louis XIV to Varennes, to the Reign of Terror and the Fall of Robespierre, before concluding with a fictional rendering of the Thermidorian reaction. In the following two-part blog, I would like to explore the ways in which its representation of the French Revolution not only asks some of the same questions which the Romantic poets had about the meaning of the event, but uses the genre of the video game to answer them in new and creative ways.
From the first speculations by conservative thinkers like Edmund Burke, through to the present day, the French Revolution has been translated into public consciousness as a battleground for defining human nature. Its legacy stages a conflict between an idealistic vision of human nature – the perfection of human reason articulated by Rousseau and championed by early revolutionary ideologues, against the cynicism of the conservative tradition arguing for the necessity of tradition and structure to ward against humanity’s baser instincts.
The French Revolution as providing a ‘unique…conjuncture of historical and personal factors’ (Dawson, p.52-3) is epitomised by the two lines of poetry which constitute the apparent high-water mark of Romantic revolutionary idealism, William Wordsworth’s famous declaration in The Prelude (1805) that ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/ But to be young was very heaven!’ (The Prelude, , X.692-4). However, as P.M.S Dawson has noted ‘this is a retrospective view’ in 1805, heavy with the knowledge that ‘the extravagant promises [of the Revolution] had not been kept’. (Dawson, p.52) For Wordsworth, the first generation of Romantic poets in which he participated, and even more so for the second, epitomised by the more overt politics of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, the Revolution provided an inescapable provocation to consider the relationship between political identity, poetic creativity, and emotion.
It is Shelley who provides the fullest account of the Romantic reading of the Revolution in his Laon and Cynthia (1817), a symbolic epic in Spenserian stanzas which documents, in his words, the ‘beau ideal’ of Revolution as a triumph of ‘individual genius’, figured as the transcendence of the individual over ‘antient notions’ (Shelley to [Longman & Co.], 13 October 1817, Oxford Scholarly Editions Online). In the poem’s preface, Shelley encapsulates the question provoked by his subject:
‘Can he who the day before was a trampled slave suddenly become liberal-minded, forbearing, and independent? This is the consequence of the habits of a state of society to be produced by resolute perseverance and indefatigable hope, and long-suffering and long-believing courage, and the systematic efforts of generations of men of intellect and virtue. Such is the lesson which experience teaches now. But, on the first reverses of hope in the progress of French liberty, the sanguine eagerness for good overleapt the solution of these questions, and for a time extinguished itself in the unexpectedness of their result.’(Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Preface’ to Laon and Cynthia , p.132)
Like Wordsworth, with his blending of the joy of youth with the spirit of revolution, Shelley moves between the socio-political and the personal – answering the questions of citizenship by deferring to individual feeling. Marshall Brown has identified the Romantic period in general, and Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1820) specifically, with the imagined ‘dawning of a new age and the awakening of a new humanity’ (‘Romanticism and Enlightenment, p.41), with the French Revolution as one of its apexes. Shelley gives this ‘new humanity’ its most utopian articulation in A Defence of Poetry (1821), which argues for the inherent ‘virtue, love, patriotism [and] friendship’ of the poetic vocation. This essay not only contains his famous statement of the political role of the poet, that ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World’, but also asserts the essential resonance between individual genius and political consciousness:
[Poets] measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations; for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age.(Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry, 1821, p.701)
For Shelley, the Revolution’s failure is merely a testament to human despair in the face of historical setbacks, not a reflection of a deeper corruption in human nature which the Revolution merely exemplified. For the other side of the debate, following Edmund Burke, however, this is exactly what the Revolution shows us:
We do not draw the moral lessons we might from history…You would not secure men from tyranny and sedition by rooting out of the mind the principles to which these fraudulent pretexts apply? If you did, you would root out everything that is valuable in the human breast… Wise men will apply their remedies to vices, not to names; to the causes of evil which are permanent, not to the occasional organs by which they act, and the transitory modes in which they appear. Otherwise you will be wise historically, a fool in practice…It is thus with all those who, attending only to the shell and husk of history, think they are waging war with intolerance, pride, and cruelty, whilst, under colour of abhorring the ill principles of antiquated parties, they are authorizing and feeding the same odious vices in different factions, and perhaps in worse.(Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France , p.141-2)
Like Shelley, Burke, writing in response to the nascent evolution, sees the course of events in France as a reflection of human nature but, not only is this nature ultimately corrupt unless constrained by society, but any attempts to mediate its baser aspects will fall into meaningless cycles of violence. The Burkean conservative reading has been carried into the 20th century as the deep existential horror of the ‘Frankfurt school’, epitomised by Hannah Arendt and Albert Camus, who drew a line from the French Revolution directly to the Holocaust, arguing that it ‘unleashed new possibilities for terror by relocating all human meaning and purpose in historic necessity, in a supposedly inexorable law of historic logic’ (Elshtain, p.205). It is this reading which, I believe, informs the reading of the French Revolution offered by We. The Revolution and, in the second part of this blog, to be shared tomorrow, I will give an outline of the game, and explore the way in which it offers a Burkean refutation to the Romantic reading of Revolution in a means unique to the narrative possibilities of the game genre.
For Part 2 of this post – click here