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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Les murs de la Bastille pour mémoire

by Michel Biard, historian

The Walls of the Bastille, Lest We Forget

Translated Saturday 14 October 2006

Reprint of the text of Simon-Henri-Nicola Linguet, who, just before the Revolution, made the fortress of the Bastille a symbol of the "Ancien Régime". Mémoires sur la Bastille, de Simon-Henri-Nicolas Linguet, presented by O.Boura. Editions Arléa 2006. 22 euros (1)

Simon-Henri-Nicola Linguet was one of the founders of political journalism in France, before the Revolution of 1789. Linguet stirred up controversy with philosophers, with the Academy, with ministers and with many other powerful people. No doubt, his criticisms were too acerbic for some of them and, in 1780, he was imprisoned in the Bastille. He spent two years in the fortress, and when freed, went to live abroad until the Revolution. Whether he sided with the Revolution or not (which is not clear), he became a suspect and was arrested in September l793, and guillotined in June 1794, because “he incensed the despots of Vienna and London”.

The memoirs he wrote about the Bastille in 1783 are an essential work for anyone who wants to understand how the myth of this institution became inflated in the years 1770-1780, at very the same time that the prison was actually becoming less used.

The frontispiece of the 1783 edition of his book is illustrated with an engraving representing a castle in ruins, struck by lightning … quite a symbol for Linguet whose book ends with a direct appeal to Louis XVI, while Linguet was careful to distance the good and innocent king from his “bad ministers”: “You seem very far from suspecting that, in your Kingdom, in your capital, under your very eyes there exists a square especially devoted to the perpetration of a torture of the innocents a thousand times more cruel than all the minor tortures prohibited by you ... Speak out! At the sound of your voice, we will see the collapse of the walls of this modern Jericho, a thousand times more merited than the thunder-and-lightning of the heavens that destroyed the Jericho of ancient times, and the anathema of humankind.” Linguet was using classical rhetoric, which supposes that the powerful of the world ignore what their subordinates are doing …

One should not waste much time reading the first and second parts of this work, which describe first and foremost, Linguet’s personal case. Most important is the third and last part. We have to avoid the trap of seeing his writing as a literary venture, revelling in describing torture: it is mostly the psychological violence that Linguet accentuates, and certain passages of his narrative evoke a sinister modernity. All assault is to torment the “soul”, and he insists that these torments can be much worse than those imposed on the human body. By and large, it is less important that historians have denied the severity of the conditions of detention at the Bastille; what is fundamental in Linguet’s writing is, on one hand, his capacity to strike the imagination, and on the other, the de facto universal character of his denunciation of what the captors were doing to their victims.

In reading his memoirs, one cannot help but think of other periods of time in different locations, the prisoners walled in Tazmamart in Morocco (2) Or again the common practice of “secret prisons” which are used presently by the United States for so-called terrorists. On reading Linguet’s memoirs, one will understand how the 14th of July 1789 became a key date in that summer of 1789 and a symbol in the collective imagination of the French for more than two centuries.

The contemporary Paris newspaper “Révolutions”, in its first issue on July 19, 1789, ended its reporting of the taking of the Bastille with this sentence: “Tonight, the sky is illuminated.” (« Ce soir, il y a illumination. ») In spite of the numerous mistakes in the preface of this reprint, it is worthy, at the beginning of Fall 2006, not to wait for the next July 14 firework-display to read the Memoires of Linguet.

Translator’s notes :

(1) An English translation of this work has been published as Memoirs of the Bastille, notes and introduction by Jim Chevallier: ISBN: 1-4116-4697-5 (in pdf) http://my.lulu.com/content/149432. Interesting excerpts available in this site, although the availability of the full text is unclear.

(2) the secret prison in south-eastern Morocco at the Atlas Mountains, holding political prisoners, built in 1972. The prison became a monument of oppression in the political history of contemporary Morocco.


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