English 174

Literature and History: The French Revolution

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
1 Fall 2014 Langan, Celeste
MWF 12-1 110 Wheeler


“The French Revolution did not take place.”

“The French Revolution is not yet over.”

These two sentences might seem not only counterfactual, but also contradictory.  Yet both statements underscore the difficulty of conceptualizing revolution as an event.  Emphasizing its radical novelty, Edmund Burke declared the French Revolution “the most astonishing thing that has hitherto happened in the world,” whereas William Hazlitt described it as “the remote but inevitable result of the invention of the art of printing.”  Is revolution a consequence or a cause--or a rupture of causality? What is the relation between the revolutionary event and liberation, between acts or episodes of violent unmaking and the unleashing of a discourse and praxis of human rights that continues to reverberate?

This course is designed to consider that literature of and about the French Revolution is peculiarly adapted to illuminate the problem of historical eventfulness (and human freedom) insofar as it yokes the temporality of revolution to fictive (dramatic, poetic, and novelistic) utterance.  Texts will include “eye-witness” accounts and documents of the French Revolution; its representation in poetry, drama, novel, letters, painting, film, and “history”; philosophies of history (Rousseau, Marx, Arendt) and theories of writing (Derrida, Barthes) in which the French Revolution operates as a central (if absent) figure.  Because the discourse of civil rights will figure prominently in our discussion, it's a course of particular relevance to students considering a human rights minor.

Partial book list:  Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France; Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man; Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman; Helen Maria Williams, Letters from France; W. Wordsworth, The Prelude; Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution (selections); Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities;  Peter Weiss, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat.  Films:  Marat/Sade; Danton.

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