Liz Smith: The Revolutionary Memoirs

“I THINK that the mass of people are the same, but that they are differently influenced by a small nucleus of leading figures who change and are carried in different directions. The same crowd, however, is fully convinced of the honesty of its applause, to whatever object it might be directed …. It is only right that people should know how far natural good feeling can be destroyed by partisan passion.”

This is the royalist daughter of a French diplomat, the Comtesse de Boigne, who lived through the French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon, his victories and his failed march to Moscow, then, Napoleon again after Elba when he met his Waterloo. After that, the “royals”got back in power and installed Louis XVIII and after that, his brother, Charles X. (While Europeans thought France was finished; the country actually blossomed under revolution, wars, despotism and many acrobatic changes of government.)

The Comtesse wrote her memoir candidly, full of gossip and disgust and disdain for — alternately — the revolutionaries, the English, the French, the Italians, the Austrians and the Russians. People madly fluctuated in the Europe of the 1800s when they had to constantly change their loyalties to survive. (Many of them did not live to tell the tale!)

The Memoirs of the Comtesse de Boigne, edited by Anka Muhlstein and Olivier Bernier, is a dazzling read — and there is another volume to come after this. But you have to keep the chronology straight and the who’s who. (It is disconcerting not to always know when the Comtesse refers to “the Emperor” whether she means Napoleon or Alexander of Russia.)

The Comtesse keeps on writing in a second volume I haven’t read yet. She covers the gossip of Victoria becoming Queen of England, the rise and fall of King Louis-Philippe, the death of Chateaubriand, the rise of Louis-Napoleon who became Napoleon III. This beguiling, beautiful diarist dies in 1866.

She endeared herself to me for extolling the virtues of ordinary Frenchmen who serve as soldiers in war after war, conflict after conflict, citing their hulmanity, gentleness, suffering, discipline and pain.

Oh yes, I am a Johnny-come-lately to extol the Comtesse but I have just realized that she was a great favorite of Marcel Proust. He couldn’t resist her gossipy, student-of-human nature memoirs.

HARKING BACK to “partisan politics,” I spent the Labor Day weekend with a gang of devout, vociferous Republicans, nice men and women, college-educated, usually well-mannered folks I love as friends. But discussion wasn’t possible because these persons literally loathe Barack Obama with an all-consuming hatred that has taken them over. They say things like “Obama is stupid!”

I would never say, for instance, that Mitt Romney is “stupid” or a “bad manager” or “out to sink the country.” But I guess they are the counterpoint to FDR’s hatred by those who felt he was “betraying his class.” (We aren’t supposed to talk about “class” anymore if we are politically correct. We just speak of “the middle class,” who we intend to save, or “the poor,” who are taking advantage of the system, or “the wealthy,” who can save us with astute business methods.)

I felt some of my friends were literally deaf to their own GOP party platform and what the same says about abortion, unions, Medicare, Social Security, immigration and going to war. You-name-it.

Maybe as one observer who refused to take sides noted: “It doesn’t matter which one gets in the White House. Nothing will change.” (Hmmm, shades of Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush. I believe it does matter.)

And what if some important things do change. Then it matters what these “things” are. How about more of a conservative Supreme Court … how about states rights superceding Uncle Sam … how about all this harking back to yesterday’s performances, super religion and so-called family values?

My friends in Connecticut seem deaf to any opinion that favors Obama. They won’t countenance that any Democrat agrees that Medicare has to be changed. But their solution — vouchers for older people who already struggle with their simple bank balances and income tax?

As the Comtesse writes: “Natural good feelings can be destroyed by partisan passions.”

AND HERE is a final thought from the late Gore Vidal:

“I had a friend who became ambassador to Chile at the time when we overthrew the government of President Allende and he and I argued about whether the United States has a right to intervene in the politics of another country.

“I, of course, said no. ‘America’s business is business, to deal with everybody in a fair way and make money out of them. I’m perfectly willing to be crass but not military.

“And then — apropos of this question about presidents acting in good faith, my friend said, ‘It would be interesting if any nation or person could ever act from a point of innocence. In other words, act without all of the history, all the accumulation of resentments — simply act in good faith. Do you?’ And I said yes — if we acted as though we had indeed dismissed this history and did what is perhaps the right thing to do. It might pay off.”

This column originally appeared on NYSocialDiary.com on 9/6/12

One comment so far.

  1. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    Gore Vidal was dismissed by so many as an elitist. In fact he was constantly railing about the problem of elitism in our society.  Eventually we will have leaders who do the right thing. Just because it is the right thing to do.