Saturday, July 15, 2017

Julien's Terror as a Psychological Thriller - Between Rationalism and Superstition

Julien's Terror features various facets of the psychological thriller listed by Mecholsky1 including, apparent paranormal danger, a form of prolonged psychological torture, psychological trauma / memory losses and past traumas that revisit in the form of a new danger.

Julien, my main character, experiences a dread towards his wife, Marguerite which has as its origin: family trauma; the internalisation of a misogynistic mentality that would have been common in the 19th century; the internalisation of his own father's jealous paranoia towards Julien's mother; and finally the suppression of his own inner fears which rebound forcibly, manifesting into a terror. This is revealed during his final visit to fortune teller Marie Anne Lenormand, where Julien makes a powerful revelation about a crucial passage in his life.

The only person in the novel who appears fearless in the novel is Marguerite, adding to the aura of mystery and potency around her.

A young Marguerite Lafolye
Painting by Gustave Jean Jacquet (1846-1909)

For all his knowledge, engineering aptitude and cerebral prowess, Julien cannot decipher his own wife. Marguerite appears as an unknown entity. Mid-way into the novel, he considers her a liar, perhaps even a traitor. 

According to Mecholsky, this fear is key to the psychological thriller. He claims that this dread, that dangerous secrets lie beneath once-safe sectors of life is in fact an anxiety about the modern age and its implication. Despite living in an Age of Reason which had presumably enabled the French Revolution, despite having been rigorously schooled by the Ponts et Chausses, the Cartesian Julien is confronted with the limits of his knowledge. He knows nothing about Marguerite. Before him, is an unknowable being, one who reflects the unknowable mind in each and every one of us.

Aptly set in the French Revolution, Julien's Terror illustrates this modern dynamic that Mecholsky describes as having given birth to the psychological thriller - a modern anxiety (about the nature of the mind and the Self) existing through the Enlightenment struggle to subjugate myth and superstition by way of science and rationality. Marguerite is a Catholic royalist. Worse, she is of Breton descent. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Bretons were considered not only filthy by the French, but also savage and backwards. Meanwhile, their 'blind' adherence to religion was seen as evidence of their superstitious minds. Julien's domination and abuse of Marguerite is a metaphor for this symbolic subjugation of the rational over superstition and myth. 

As modern anxiety would have it, Julien does not fare better through his actions - his anxiety only accrues and the enigma of Marguerite appears all the more horrifying.  It is only when Julien takes Marie Anne Lenormand's advice and considers the supernatural as a potential explanation for what is happening - at the cost of his cherished logic, only when he concedes that there may be forces he knows nothing about, and then pragmatically undertakes to confront these occult forces, can he achieve a solution.

Marie Anne Lenormand reading

In its resolution, however, Julien's Terror presents two opposing explanations for the reader that can be listed here briefly to avoid spoilers. The first explanation is grounded in rationalism, informed by a conversation with the physician Franz Anton Mesmer. Mesmer proposes a valid psychological theory, albeit one that had not been fully developed at the time, and which was only starting to be known in limited scientific circles, due to the rising cases observed and reported. 

The second explanation is supernatural. It confirms Marguerite's innate belief that she can see and converse with the dead. It suggests that there is something real about the myths in Breton folklore - they are not mere superstition. This explanation also implies that Marguerite, by way of a certain unique and harrowing childhood experience, now finds herself between two worlds - she lies in-between - and as such, she can channel the dead.

Les Lavendieres de la Nuit - Breton Folklore painting by 
Jean Edouard Yan Dargent (1824-1899)

At the conclusion of the novel, Julien rationalises what he has seen, to himself. He is never truly convinced about one explanation over the other, but he now understands that there is something strong and worthy of esteem in Marguerite. He is also made aware of his own past failings - though that is not to say that he has overcome them (an important point, if one is to understand his last vision in the Temple prison). He comes to cherish, admire and love Marguerite all the more. An ending like this was necessary to reconcile the couple after much conflict and to achieve a satisfying character arc for Julien. 

Despite Julien's own reckoning, I don't want underplay the tone of uncertainty that the final chapter creates - this fine line between the rational and the paranormal interpretations is the hallmark of the psychological thriller. We are not meant to know for certain. Some anxiety remains. 

The horror that Julien's Terror illustrates is both a facet of the period during which it is set (the French Revolution/ the Terror / the Vendée wars) and the repercussions this period had on the French population. 

Mecholsky indicates that the French revolution was a logical cultural goal of the Enlightenment, yet it resulted in horrific terror and murder, casting a pall over rationalism. Julien embodies this contradiction perfectly. He is both the most logically-minded character and the character that undergoes the most destructive and potentially sociopathic psychosis. Incidentally this is the reason the novel is named Julien's Terror.

Just as it opposes rationalism to superstition, Julien's Terror also highlights the ever present conflict between those French who embraced the Republic and were loyal to its tenets, and those French who pined for the Ancien Regime and espoused the royalist cause. This opposition is embodied by Julien and his wife Marguerite.

Julien is an upcoming bourgeois who has thrived in the new Republican order and accepted the Napoleonic age. He considers Napoleon his benefactor and the benefactor of France. Marguerite is a staunch royalist with a great disdain for the 'Corsican upstart' who has come to rule post-revolutionary France.

When I conceived a marriage between two unlike souls, I was partly cautious about its probability. I decided, among other character motivations, to employ a 'marriage of convenience' disclaimer - Julien marries the first woman offered to him to avoid serving in Napoleon's army so that he can instead become the engineer he had always dreamed of becoming. With this mindset, he spends no time evaluating her personality, background or values. By way of this disclaimer, I hoped no one would question such an unmatched pair. Still, I wondered how likely an alliance of this nature could have been. Could a republican at soul marry a royalist? 

I had no idea that this unlikely combination was in fact common. So common, that it existed in none other than author Victor Hugo's family2. The similarity struck me and I simply have to share it here.

Like Marguerite, Victor Hugo's mother was from Nantes. Like Marguerite, Sophie Hugo née Trébuchet, was from a royalist Breton family. And like Marguerite, Sophie did not share her husband's Napoleonic sentiments. Madame Hugo went so far as to shelter those who plotted against Napoleon's life. Meanwhile, Hugo's father, Joseph Léopold Sigisbert Hugo distinguished himself as a soldier in Napoleon's army, rising to a high position, notably at the battle of Marengo in 1800, acquiring the Legion of Honour in 1804. He also fought against guerillas in Spain from 1808 to 1810 a period during which the young Victor Hugo became acquainted with the Spanish language and learned to love the country.
Sadly, and unlike Marguerite and Julien, the Hugo couple's differences could not be resolved.

A final word about Julien's Terror. Mecholsky explains that novels like the psychological thriller and its early Gothic form have helped us disguise sources of anxiety, throughout the history of western culture since the 18th century. Quoting Fiedler, Mecholsky alludes to one of the tensions that such novels help us deal with: "a fear that in destroying the old ego-ideals of Church and State, the West has opened a way for the inruption of darkness..." I think this is perfect.  You see, as a psychological thriller, Julien's Terror happens to be set during and soon after the French revolution, that is to say a period where the power of the Monarchy and Church were toppled, leading perhaps to much anxiety and guilt...   Here then, Julien's Terror provides a coping mechanism for a fear that has presumably surged during the very period in which the novel is set.


1. Kristopher Mecholsky, The Psychological Thriller, Accessed on 12 June, 2017.

2. Albert.W. Halsall, Victor Hugo and the Romantic Drama, University of Toronto Press, 1998.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Celebrating Bastille Day

Romantic literature's portrayal of the French Revolution as a bloody affair enraptures the imagination. Certainly blood flowed wherever Madame La Guillotine made her appearance, and she seemed to move around enough to indicate that the sight of her was unpleasant and evidently not good for local business. But was there blood everywhere? No. That is a romantic fancy. Or is it?

Perhaps if you ventured in Western France, in the Vendée of 1794, then you might see otherwise.

Were there massacres? Oh, yes. Again, not in Paris. But if you travelled to Lyon or else in Nantes, well - let's just say the word, terror, is rather an understatement. How does the word 'genocide' sound? Some would argue against the likes of historian Reynald Secher who advocates for this stance. Many, including the French philosopher Luc Ferry, support him. But that there exists controversy about this word, 'genocide', and whether or not it should be applied for what happened in the Vendée between January and July 1794, is enough to stir attention.

But enough of the romance. It is Bastille Day after all - time to reflect on those raw figures from the French Revolution.

So then, how many people were executed in Paris during the Revolution?
There were 2918 executions, including sadly the mathematician Lavoisier because...he had once been involved in tax collection. Well, that's the official story. The truth is that he made an enemy of Marat and Marat destroyed him.

How many were massacred during that fated event of September 1792?
3400, including the tragic mauling of la Princesse de Lamballe

How many people were guillotined in total, throughout France, during the Revolution?

But let's not stop here. You'll wish for romance, I promise.

How many were murdered by firing squad, shot or drowned?
18500, including 2000 children and 764 women in Nantes.

How many counter-revolutionaries died?
180000 - actually this could be anything between 200000 and 300000 according to research by the likes of Reynald Secher.
These were not soldiers. They were civilians, including women and children and the aged - mostly peasants from above or below the Loire River. Those originating from the north of the Loire were called Chouans. Those to the South were usually Vendeeins.

How many died of famine, cold, misery?

Now when the Terror ended in late July 1794, a new terror of a different nature began. Those 'Jacobins' who had embodied the most radical tenets of the Republic and were strictly intransigent found themselves the victims of violent reprisals.
How many Jacobins died during this so called "White Terror"?

Note that 70% of the executions listed above took place between October 1793 and May 1794 - coinciding with the unleashing of the infernal columns into the Vendée during the Terror. Refer to the genocidal term earlier. It suddenly acquires more color.

One thing is for certain. Even beyond the official Terror months of Sept 1793 to July 1794, there was fear. At the minimum, fear would have been a natural consequence of changes and it turns out that the French Revolution did change many things. One did not need to be an aristocrat to have one's life turned upside down -  schools and monasteries were closed, churches were pillaged and/or destroyed, church property was seized by the state, noble property was seized by the state, street names were changed dramatically, the names of towns were changed, the religious order was secularized, the calendar was transformed so that even the weekdays were no more, the forms of address changed - saying "Monsieur" was frowned upon, one had to use the term "Citizen" to express equality - the manner of dressing, or of expressing oneself changed, the metric system was introduced, government structure and reporting changed, judicial laws changed.

In the patriotic hunt to weed out counter-revolutionaries and traitors, pettiness was rife. And if you were hungry or envious of someone who had enough to eat, then you might accuse them of hoarding food. In the same way, if you were Marat and felt ugly or disadvantaged in some way, you might turn all your party against someone who had once humiliated your beliefs and was part of the Academy of Science...oh, I don't know, someone like Lavoisier for example. In modern day parlance, those who are good at TED talks and have an axe to grind can really do some damage.
The knowledge of human pettiness, the fear of being accused of treason - all this was also part of the Terror.

In Nantes, when the Loire river became infested with the corpses of the thousands drowned, one had to stop eating the fish. Madame La Guillotine pales in comparison to the reality of the French Revolution.

More on this fear for which the best example lies in the Chinese Cultural Revolution. This fear even permeated the new government - National Convention members became protective of their stance to the detriment of one another. Robespierre's increasing paranoia embodies the very spirit of the Terror. Even in his powerful position, he was wary. His acute fear rippled through the psyche of France.

The number of people incarcerated into asylums grew. People were terrified of losing their heads. Literally.

Even the butcher of Nantes, Jean-Baptiste Carrier, in his desire to serve the National Convention (while enriching his pockets) suffered this terror as much as he embodied it. When promising to purge Nantes of counter-revolutionaries he managed to gorge the prisons of the city until it was evident that they could take no more without the risk of a massive typhoid epidemic. What to do with all those prisoners and the threat of disease? What to do? Why, shoot them by the hundreds of course. No, wait. Drown them. Yes. Drown them by the hundreds. The children too. That will do it. Panic. Sheer terror. Fix this problem and report to the Committee of Public Safety that, yes, Nantes has been purged. I, Carrier, have done my duty.

And then there was the economy, just to make things worse.
Due to severe grain shortages in the years before the revolution, bread was already expensive at the time when the Bastille was taken. Guess what? It became even more expensive afterwards. If you thought chopping the king's head and calling everyone equal would mean more bread, unfortunately that wasn't the case. There were some real problems out there and no activism was going to fix things.
The index of Inflation from 1790 to 1795 was as follows:
1790 - 100
July 1795 - 180
Nov 1795 - 340

In early 1790, the government had issued a new paper currency called "assignat". In the next year, they pumped more assignats into circulation so that by late 1791, the currency's purchasing power had dropped by 14%. The fall of the assignat continued  well into 1795, so that by November 1795, purchasing power had decreased by 99%. Fun times. How does one plan when everything is chaos?

Then Napoleon happened. But that is another story.

In Rennes, there is a bronze statue of a man tearing a piece of paper. It receives a lot of attention. It was erected there to commemorate a brave figure. His name is Jean Leperdit. He was mayor of Rennes for several months during the Terror. The statue is amazing. It symbolizes defiance, courage and humanity. See, during the Terror, when Jean-Baptiste Carrier was on a killing rampage sending out letters and lists all over Western France asking for the execution of counter-revolutionaries, this Jean Leperdit reportedly stood up against Carrier and tore up a list of 23 names, refusing to execute these people. It is difficult to know if the story is true but it embodies for me the courage of all those moderating agents during the French revolution - people who were not swept up by terror or fear and managed to preserve their humanity in the face of chaos. These are the people I celebrate when I celebrate Bastille Day.

It could have been worse.

So then, Happy Bastille Day!