Cover image for Traumatic Politics: The Deputies and the King in the Early French Revolution By Barry M. Shapiro

Traumatic Politics

The Deputies and the King in the Early French Revolution

Barry M. Shapiro

BUY

$72.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03542-0

$30.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03557-4

216 pages
6" × 9"
2009

Traumatic Politics

The Deputies and the King in the Early French Revolution

Barry M. Shapiro

“Barry Shapiro addresses in original fashion a classic question about the failure of constitutional monarchy in Revolutionary France. He has mastered the events and debates of the Revolution’s first years, but he replaces traditional political and ideological explanations with insights from trauma research. In a work of creativity and daring, he explores the logic and illogic of political decision making in stressful times.”

 

  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
The opening events of the French Revolution have stood as some of the most familiar in modern European history. Traumatic Politics emerges as a fresh voice from the existing historiography of this widely studied course of events. In applying a psychological lens to the classic problem of why the French Revolution’s first representative assembly was unable to reach a workable accommodation with Louis XVI, Barry Shapiro contends that some of the key political decisions made by the Constituent Assembly were, in large measure, the product of traumatic reactions to the threats to the lives of its members in the summer of 1789. As a result, Assembly policy frequently reflected a preoccupation with what had happened in the past rather than active engagement with present political realities.

In arguing that the manner in which the Assembly dealt with the king bears the imprint of the behavior that typically follows exposure to traumatic events, Shapiro focuses on oscillating periods of traumatic repetition and traumatic denial. Highlighting the historical impact of what could be viewed as a relatively “mild” trauma, he suggests that trauma theory has a much wider field of potential applicability than that previously established by historians, who have generally confined themselves to studying the impact of massively traumatic events such as war and genocide. Moreover, in emphasizing the extent to which monarchical loyalties remained intact on the eve of the Revolution, this book also challenges the widely accepted contention that prerevolutionary cultural and discursive innovations had “desacralized” the king well before 1789.

“Barry Shapiro addresses in original fashion a classic question about the failure of constitutional monarchy in Revolutionary France. He has mastered the events and debates of the Revolution’s first years, but he replaces traditional political and ideological explanations with insights from trauma research. In a work of creativity and daring, he explores the logic and illogic of political decision making in stressful times.”
“Barry Shapiro’s provocative psychological analysis of the ‘trauma’ induced by the French Revolution may not convince every reader. But the analysis itself is both careful and creative. Shapiro is simply too well acquainted with the history of the French Revolution—and too good a historian—to be taken lightly.”
“Shapiro has taken an innovative approach, and his arguments are compelling. His coverage of the important debates in the Assembly is impressive.”
“Shapiro's interdisciplinary analysis opens new perspectives. He notes that the same momentum is observable in modern-day revolutions, this lending credence to his thesis. While most of the material is quoted in English, he has faithfully consulted French sources. His work is readable and persuasive, and hopefully will join the recent scholarship on the French Revolution.”
Traumatic Politics is an important book that expands current understanding of the Constituent Assembly. Shapiro is undoubtedly correct in recognising and attempting to explain the deputies’ ambivalent and constantly shifting attitudes toward Louis XVI. His sophisticated and careful analysis of the representatives’ letters and diaries and the assembly proceedings provides considerable insight into the deputies’ attitudes toward the king. His interpretation of the important political debates regarding monarchical authority is illuminating. . . . He has demonstrated the extent of the deputies’ fear of royal retribution in the early summer of 1789. He makes a convincing case that one cannot discount the memory of this experience in explaining the deputies’ conduct in the Constituent Assembly.”

Barry M. Shapiro is Professor of History at Allegheny College.

Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction

Prologue to Part I

1. Arrival in Versailles

2 .The King and His Evil Advisers

3. Defiance at the Jeu de Paume

4. The Royal Session of 23 June

5. The Réunion of 27 June

6. The July Crisis

7. The Immediate Aftermath of the July Crisis

Prologue to Part II

8. An Incident at the Abbaye

9. The Passage of the Suspensive Veto

10. Mirabeau and the Exclusion of Deputies from the Ministry

11. Royal Military Power and the Lingering Effects of Trauma

Conclusion

Selected Bibliography

Index

Introduction

Few if any occurrences in modern European history are as familiar to those with even a smattering of historical knowledge as the dramatic sequence of events that, stretching from the convening of the Estates-General to the Paris Insurrection of 12–14 July 1789, is commonly thought of as the opening act of the French Revolution. As told and retold countless times over more than two centuries, accounts of these legendary events usually include some reference to the perceived threats to the lives of the members of the newly declared National Assembly posed by Louis XVI’s royal troops. Yet, as well known and as thoroughly incorporated into standard revolutionary narratives as these threats, and the intense fear and anxiety they generated, are, the “trepidations,” as Michelet put it, of the representatives that each moment “would be their last” have generally been treated as little more than fleeting emotions, and there has been little serious effort to consider their possible political ramifications. This study, by contrast, seeks to establish that the high level of emotional stress experienced by many of the deputies during the summer of 1789 had a significant impact upon their subsequent decisions as they worked, in the months following the original revolutionary confrontation with the royal government, to fashion a new constitution for France. More particularly, as the concept of psychic trauma seems to provide the most illuminating available model for explaining how an overwhelmingly stressful event can have a lasting effect upon future behavior, I argue in these pages that some of the key political decisions the Assembly made in the aftermath of the initial revolutionary crisis were significantly influenced by the traumatic reactions of many deputies to a terrifying set of circumstances.

In proposing to view the Constituent Assembly’s decision making through a lens fashioned by psychological theory and clinical practice, this study aims to provide a new perspective on a classic problem in French revolutionary historiography: the question of why the essentially moderate and reformist majority in the Assembly was unable to reach a viable accommodation with the king and his government. Repudiating the long-standing assumptions of two centuries of liberal and republican historians that the deputies of the Constituante made a genuine effort to forge a workable compromise between the Old Regime and the Revolution in which the monarch would retain a meaningful degree of authority, the dominant trend in recent French revolutionary historiography has been to present the Assembly as, in essence, paying lip service to the notion of “constitutional monarchy,” while instituting a system that was actually a republic in all but name. Largely reflecting the influence of the work of the late François Furet and his associates, this line of thinking has, for the most part, attributed the early revolutionary radicalism it emphasizes to prerevolutionary ideological and discursive innovations associated with Enlightenment thought and culture, while taking little notice of the possibility that the emotional experiences of the deputies during the unfolding of the Revolution itself may have served as an important factor in undermining prospects for accommodation with the monarchy. In seeking to counter this tendency, this study attempts to bring to light the degree to which it was the traumatic reactions of the deputies to early revolutionary events that made meaningful compromise difficult. Thus, I suggest that the initial confrontation of June–July 1789 between king and Assembly created a situation in which, regardless of massive efforts by the deputies to deflect conscious blame from Louis XVI himself, many representatives would henceforth regard Louis, on some level of psychic reality, as someone who had been prepared to deprive them of their personal liberty or even have them killed, a blunt piece of psychological truth that would make them exceedingly hesitant to create viable institutional structures that might in any way leave them vulnerable to him again.

But if the poisonous emotional climate spawned by the events of the summer of 1789 indeed played a significant role in generating revolutionary radicalization, the psychological dynamic featured in the chapters to come is far more complicated than this rather straightforward proposition implies. In contrast to recent historical focus on what Furet and Ran Halévi have called the “pre-revolutionary dethronement of the king,” or what other historians have characterized as the prerevolutionary “desacralization of the monarchy,” one of the central objectives of this study is to highlight the extent to which, at the time of their arrival in Versailles in the spring of 1789, the vast majority of the deputies, and in particular the deputies of the Third Estate, retained a strong emotional and ideological attachment to Louis XVI as an individual and to the monarchy as an institution. Given this strong attachment, these deputies were left, in the aftermath of the crisis of the summer of 1789, with deeply ambivalent feelings toward a hitherto largely benign and protective figure who had suddenly emerged as an enormous threat, an ambivalence that, I suggest, was reflected in the Assembly’s tendency to fluctuate, often wildly, between moderation and radicalism, between the enactment of policies in which the representatives seemed to be clinging to an idealized image of a benevolent king and the rendering of decisions in which they seemed to be dealing with the monarch as a dangerous enemy. More particularly, as contemporary trauma researchers have called attention to the tendency of those who have been exposed to overwhelmingly stressful events to oscillate between periods of denial or “forgetting” and periods of intrusive and hypervigilant repetition or “remembering,” I argue that this “dialectic of trauma,” as Judith Herman has called it, was the central psychological mechanism through which the emotional ambivalence of the deputies was organized and expressed.

Though psychic trauma has increasingly come to light in recent years as a subject of historical research, it has generally been the most gruesome and the most catastrophic kinds of traumatic events that have been studied most closely, usually with strong emphasis on the mental disorders observed among survivors of such events, and on the various medical, cultural, and political controversies that ensued regarding the treatment of these disorders. Thus historians and other historically minded researchers, often proceeding within the framework of the history of medicine or psychiatry, have focused their attention on the long-term mental suffering and debilitation generated by military combat, the Holocaust and other genocidal events, and natural disasters and severe accidents. It might therefore, at least at first glance, be thought something of a stretch to apply the concept of trauma to the experiences of the deputies of the Constituent Assembly in the summer of 1789, that is to say, to the experiences of a group of individuals subjected to a threat that never escalated into an actual attack, in that whatever plans the royal government may have had to unleash the troops that had been summoned to the Paris/Versailles area were effectively short-circuited by the Paris Revolution of 12–14 July, thus sparing the representatives from becoming victims of actual violence or survivors of actual violence visited upon colleagues. Moreover, the fact that the Assembly emerged victorious from its epic confrontation with the king ensured that the threats and dangers featured in this study would find a decidedly secondary place in what would quickly take shape as the triumphalist French revolutionary narrative with which we are all familiar. Any possibility that the terror and stress engendered by royal aggression in June and July 1789 would eventually be incorporated into the kind of “master narrative of social suffering” that sociologist Jeffrey Alexander describes as underpinning the development of what he calls a “cultural trauma” was essentially foreclosed when the people of Paris rose to seize the Bastille and found the modern French nation.

The concept of psychic trauma, however, as I suggest in this study, has far wider potential historical applicability than heretofore acknowledged. Indeed, as conceptualized by contemporary trauma researchers, all events that are perceived as life-threatening and that seriously compromise fundamental feelings of safety tend to generate some degree of traumatization in most individuals—particularly if, as was clearly the case for the vast majority of the Third Estate deputies, those individuals have hitherto been totally unaccustomed to and unprepared for the kind of dangers with which they are suddenly confronted, are subjected to a dangerous situation that persists and becomes even more dangerous over an extended period of time (in this case a span of three to four weeks), and face perceived threats from a human source (in this case Louis XVI) in whom strong feelings of trust and affection had previously been invested. Whereas the historical investigation of trauma has generally focused on examples of rather severe traumatization, the pattern of denial and hypervigilant repetition mentioned above often manifests itself in the absence of serious psychiatric disorder, in what Mardi J. Horowitz describes as a relatively short-term “normal response” to an “abnormal situation” or what Jeffrey T. Mitchell has called a “normal reaction to overwhelming stress.” The range of historical contexts, then, in which it might be useful to consider the possible influence of intensely stressful events upon future behavior (and in particular, as in the case of our deputies, upon future political decision making) need not be confined to the study of significantly damaged or disturbed individuals.

Now, whether or not the symptoms associated with the so-called normal response to traumatic stress persist and deepen and eventually develop into a psychiatric condition akin to what is today called posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or any other form of mental disturbance that might prevent or impede the carrying out of what is generally considered “basic normal functioning,” depends on some combination of the severity of the stressful event to which a given individual has been exposed and the particular susceptibility of that individual to traumatization. Thus, for example, while the horrors of genocide or the most gruesome aspects of military combat are likely to generate the most debilitating forms of traumatic mental disorder in a relatively high proportion of individuals in a wide range of cultures, trauma-inducing events of lesser magnitude are less likely to provoke reactions that develop into something comparable to full-blown PTSD. Consequently, although it is certainly possible (and perhaps even probable) that a small number of Assembly deputies were sufficiently vulnerable to the terrifying but ultimately less than catastrophic events of the summer of 1789 as to develop PTSD-like conditions, and in the absence of the kind of clinical evidence that would permit a credible judgment on this point, one of the operating assumptions of this study is to regard the traumatic effects analyzed in the following pages as largely the result of “normal responses” to the danger and stress to which the deputies were exposed. In other words, the arguments put forth in this study do not depend in any way on the idea that the events of June and July 1789 spawned a significant degree of what might be characterized as “mental disorder” or “mental illness” among the deputies, who at the very least seem to have maintained the capacity to carry out their official duties on a regular basis.

Indeed, questions about the extent of psychological pain and distress that the deputies may or may not have experienced, and about how they might retrospectively be diagnosed, are not this study’s central concern, although, as we will see, one representative did in fact suffer what seems to have been a complete mental breakdown as a result of an intense fear that he and his colleagues were about to be arrested. Instead, our main concern is with the political and constitutional decisions the deputies made in the months following the events of June–July 1789 as they worked to construct a new political system for France. As such, my interest in their traumatization is less in how it may have affected their mental health or well-being than in how it may have influenced their perceptions and judgment as they made these decisions. How, for example, might a tendency to deny or otherwise push away from conscious awareness the extent to which royal threats and aggression had shaken their habitual sense of being safe in the world have led many deputies to cling, at least intermittently, to the idealized visions of the monarch and the monarchy they had brought with them to Versailles? How, on the contrary, might a hypervigilant tendency to exaggerate the potential for future royal aggression have, at other times, led the very same deputies to refrain from pursuing policies that might have enhanced the possibility for effective cooperation between the Assembly and the king? How, in other words, might the traumatic experience they had undergone have made it emotionally difficult for these deputies to make a realistic appraisal of the potential future danger posed by the monarch? How might the traumatic residues of this experience have clouded their ability to gauge the degree to which it would be possible to treat Louis XVI as a potential collaborative partner, and the degree to which it would be more prudent to treat him as a dangerous antagonist?

As a body of thought, as it has evolved in the past century or so, that has been perpetually preoccupied with what literary critic Cathy Caruth calls “the complex relation between knowing and not knowing,” trauma theory provides a perspective on issues of perception and cognition that is particularly pertinent for addressing these kinds of questions. Noting that the original Greek term “trauma” meant “a piercing of the skin, a breaking of the body envelope,” the psychoanalyst Caroline Garland suggests that a traumatic event can be thought of as an event so stressful that it “overwhelms existing defenses against anxiety,” thus inducing “a breakdown in the smooth running of the machinery of the mind,” a formulation echoed in sociologist Kai Erikson’s description of “a blow to the psyche that breaks through one’s defenses so suddenly and with such brutal force that one cannot react to it effectively.” Similarly, psychohistorian Rudolph Binion regards trauma as “a sudden shake-up that arouses more affect than can be discharged at once,” and psychiatrist Judith Herman refers to events that “overwhelm the ordinary human adaptations to life.”

Understanding a traumatic event, then, as a psychological shock or blow that the mind cannot absorb or “process” in the usual way, it is but a short step to the proposition that what is, on the most fundamental level, not absorbed or assimilated is knowledge about the traumatic event itself. Thus, the idea that trauma disturbs the perceptual and cognitive capacities of those who have been subjected to it has been central to trauma theory since its origins in the late nineteenth century, for, as the historian of science Ruth Leys has written, “from the beginning trauma was understood as an experience that immersed the victim in the traumatic scene so profoundly that it precluded the kind of specular distance necessary for cognitive knowledge of what had happened.” More specifically, the mind’s lack of preparation and general unreadiness for the “shake-up” it is about to experience renders it less capable of fully comprehending and registering the event than it would be if the event in question did not constitute such a shock to the system. Indeed, the notion that the mind does not fully register the event, the notion that, as Caruth puts it, the event is experienced “too unexpectedly to be fully known,” takes us directly to the dialectical relationship between remembering and not remembering that is so critical to an understanding of how traumatic stress can cloud political judgment.

In keeping with the alternating pattern of denial and repetition that tends to emerge in the aftermath of exposure to a traumatic event, those who have been traumatized are prone to fluctuate between periods in which their efforts to ward off or otherwise avoid the painful recollections of what has happened are more or less successful and periods in which such recollections return with a vengeance and intrude relentlessly into consciousness. But regardless of whether forgetting or remembering is prevalent at a given moment, traumatized individuals seem to be unable to adequately integrate or assimilate their memories into a coherent, ongoing narrative. Thus, as trauma researchers Bessel van der Kolk and Omno van der Hart note, whereas one of the central functions of memory is to “make sense” of what has occurred, “frightening or novel experiences may not fit into existing cognitive schemes,” thereby making it unlikely that memories of such experiences will be processed effectively. Instead of being “integrated into the memory system” or “translated into a personal narrative,” “memory traces” of these experiences are “split off from conscious awareness and voluntary control,” forming what psychiatric pioneer Pierre Janet called “subconscious fixed ideas.” Along similar lines, Herman describes what she calls “ordinary memories” as being encoded in “a verbal, linear narrative that is assimilated into an ongoing life story.” Whereas ordinary memories are “fluid,” “traumatic memories” are “frozen” and are “encoded in the form of vivid sensations and images,” sensations and images that are on the one hand so painful that one tries to escape them, but on the other hand so powerful that they cannot be escaped. As Linda Belau writes, the overall effect of this dynamic is “the impossibility of integrating the event into a knowledgeable network,” an impossibility that is perhaps best captured in Caruth’s statement that “it is only in and through its inherent forgetting that it [the traumatic event] is first experienced at all.”

Believing as they made their way to Versailles in the spring of 1789 that, as Colin Jones recently put it, “they were entering into a dialogue with their monarch over the future of France,” the eminently respectable legal professionals and other “establishment types” who were elected to represent the Third Estate were totally unprepared for the life-and-death confrontation with the royal government in which they would soon be involved. That there would be tension and spirited conflict with the privileged orders over the question of how the Estates-General would operate was certainly taken for granted, but that this tension and conflict would escalate to the point where the authorities, essentially treating them as political criminals who needed to be subjected to the coercive mechanisms of the state, would take action that seemed to put their very lives at risk was scarcely conceivable to these law-abiding pillars of society. Thus, as this study seeks to establish, it was in the huge gap between the sense that these deputies brought with them to Versailles of living in a fundamentally safe and protected environment, and the sense of being suddenly caught in a desperate and terrifying world, that a traumatic dialectic between “remembering” and “not remembering” was set in motion.

As many of the deputies struggled to ward off recollections of the helplessness and terror they had felt while waiting to be arrested or even killed by the minions of the supposedly benevolent Louis XVI, the intermittent support they provided for policies conducive to the establishment of collaborative relations with the monarchy can be seen as a way of attempting to “undo” the trauma they had experienced and thereby return to a state of emotional comfort and safety, much as Caruth describes trauma survivors making “a belated attempt to return to the moment before” the trauma strikes. As we will see in chapter 9, this desire to undo or forget the traumatic event was perhaps most significantly manifested in the granting, in September 1789, of the royal suspensive veto. In providing Louis with what I contend was a formidable instrument that could potentially have allowed him to retain a major role in the legislative process, the granting of the veto appears to have been strongly rooted in the desire of many deputies to reopen lines of communication with the monarch and to facilitate the development of a working relationship with him.

Because traumatic memories can never be entirely pushed away, however, our traumatized deputies would also be subjected to insistent reminders, in the form of the “vivid images and sensations” described by Herman, of their terrifying experience. At such moments, it might be said that these representatives, stuck or “frozen” in time, were back in their meeting hall at Versailles, waiting for the king’s soldiers to attack, “vigilantly waiting,” that is, “for the proverbial other shoe to drop, so as to never be caught unprepared when it does hit,” a stance that left them prone to overestimate the potential for renewed royal aggression and hence disposed them to support policies that would counteract the cooperative policies they had enacted when denial was prevalent. As we will see in chapter 10, the decision in early November 1789 to forbid deputies from becoming ministers in the royal government, which was far more politically consequential than is usually recognized, seems to have been dialectically linked to the granting of the suspensive veto in just such a manner in that it served to make it extremely unlikely that the veto would be used, as it seems to have been intended to be used, as a kind of bargaining chip in an ongoing process of political negotiation. For in forbidding deputies to join the government, this edict eliminated the most immediately practical and obvious structural arrangement for maintaining effective communication between the Assembly and the king, and therefore called into question the degree to which the Assembly was really committed to a process of communication and negotiation.

Now, the initial revolutionary confrontation between the Assembly and the monarchy was, of course, only the first of a long series of crises that the representatives would experience, and each subsequent crisis would certainly generate its own share of stress and anxiety. During the October Days Insurrection, for example, less than three months after the events of June–July 1789, the deputies were caught between the specter of violence from the Right and from the Left, as an uprising of the Parisian popular movement was triggered, at least in part, by Louis XVI’s summoning of the elite Flanders regiment to Versailles. The arrival of this one regiment, however, was a far cry from the much larger and much more immediately threatening military buildup of June and July. Though it may have played some role in reinforcing earlier fears, the representatives clearly viewed the summoning of the Flanders regiment, the commander of which was generally regarded as a liberal, with considerably more equanimity than did Parisian radicals. As for the popular violence of the October Days, apart from a few patriotic clergymen who seem to have run afoul of a general hostility to the clergy, the only deputies who appear to have been physically threatened were members of the Assembly’s conservative minority. While many mainstream patriotic deputies were clearly, to use Timothy Tackett’s words, “shocked and repelled” by the violence of the October Days, a reaction that seems to have produced some political distancing from the popular movement, this largely metaphorical “shock” to their bourgeois sensibilities would not seem to be at all comparable in terms of lasting psychological and political impact to the intense psychic shock that these same deputies experienced during the original revolutionary crisis, when, as we will see in the pages to come, death itself seemed imminent. Indeed, although any number of incidents during the more than two years in which the Constituent Assembly sat may well have induced some degree of what might be regarded as clinical traumatization in some of the deputies, there was obviously nothing remotely parallel in terms of the extensiveness and magnitude of its impact to the initial revolutionary confrontation, when the entire Assembly was exposed to a situation in which there were reasonable grounds for fearing that a considerable number of its members were about to be killed.

Moreover, as traumatizing as the fear of imminent death in the summer of 1789 was in and of itself, its status as a key factor in explaining the future decisions of the Assembly lies also in its novelty. For the original revolutionary confrontation of June–July 1789 was a situation in which a massive chasm suddenly opened up in the emotional life of many of the deputies, a chasm between the tranquil and predictable life, at least in terms of their relationship with the authorities, that they had led until then, and the dangerous and anxiety-laden and yet exciting new world in which they now found themselves. Once washed ashore in this new world, the initial revolutionary crisis probably provided some degree of inoculation against the most intense traumatic effects of subsequent events, even though their lives as revolutionaries would, of course, always entail living with and adjusting to an inescapable measure of tension and uncertainty.

But there had been no inoculation against the traumatic events of the initial crisis. As a result, it can be said that, at least in terms of achieving the emotional detachment necessary to adequately process or make sense of these events, our traumatized deputies would act in the months following the events of June–July 1789 as if they did not really know what had hit them. Rather than, for example, operating in accordance with a modulated and nuanced appreciation of the strategic and psychological factors that may have fueled the belligerent actions of the king and his agents, these deputies would fluctuate between idealized and demonized visions of the monarchy, as they alternatively tried to forget what had happened and were bombarded by the vivid sensations and images that made forgetting impossible.

This study of the political effects of trauma in the early French Revolution unfolds in two distinct sections. In Part I, the deputies of the Constituent Assembly are monitored carefully, from their arrival in Versailles in the spring of 1789 to the immediate aftermath of the Paris Revolution of 12–14 July, in order to demonstrate that their initial revolutionary confrontation with Louis XVI induced a significant degree of traumatization among those who would become part of the Assembly’s patriotic majority. In making this case I rely heavily on published and unpublished letters and diaries composed at the time by the deputies themselves, letters and diaries that clearly document the high level of stress and anxiety generated by the actions and maneuvers of the royal government during this period. Thus, at least to the extent that the sentiments expressed in the letters (especially those written to close friends and family members) and diaries that I have examined can be regarded as generally reflective of their authors’ “inner reality,” and as roughly representative of the sentiments of the Assembly’s patriotic mainstream, it can be said that the assertion that a significant portion of the Assembly was indeed traumatized by the events of the summer of 1789 is strongly rooted in empirical historical evidence.

In Part II, the focus shifts to an analysis of how the traumatic stress produced by these events seems to have influenced the deputies as they worked to fashion a new political system. Though many other factors, highlighted in countless other studies, obviously played an important role in shaping the decisions of the Assembly as it settled into its newfound dual role as constitution maker and de facto governing authority, this section seeks to establish that some of the deputies’ key political decisions in the aftermath of June and July echoed the oscillating rhythm of psychic avoidance and hypervigilant repetition that we frequently see in trauma survivors. But, whereas the letters and diaries of June and July furnish a great deal of direct information about the thoughts and feelings of their authors as they awaited the proverbial knock on the door by the police or the attack by royal soldiers that many felt was imminent, direct access to the inner experiences of the representatives in the succeeding months is much scarcer. For one thing, as noted by Timothy Tackett, who has conducted the most comprehensive study of the Assembly’s correspondence and diaries, the letters and journal entries that contain the most revealing glimpses of the deputies’ feelings and experiences were almost all written during the dramatic summer of 1789. In the succeeding months, as the novelty and intensity of these early days were replaced by the “oppressive routine of the task at hand,” the deputies were less and less likely to pen the kind of “long, probing, introspective” reflections that many had composed in June and July. For another, regardless of how introspective and revealing a given deputy was in his correspondence, the lingering effects of psychic trauma are by their very nature much less transparent and much less accessible to consciousness than are the immediate emotional reactions to traumatic events, especially for a group of individuals who lived almost a century before the language of trauma theory began to enter public discourse. In particular, given the central role that denial and dissociation play in the reaction to trauma, it is only to be expected that the deputies would have been much less aware of the workings of these coping mechanisms than they were of the immediate fear and terror thrust upon them in the summer of 1789.

The argument in Part II thus rests on far less direct empirical evidence than does the argument of Part I, and the claims made in Part II thus depend more heavily on deduction. Given the relative lack of direct evidence on the deputies’ inner emotions after the summer of 1789 (in particular information on the nightmares, sleep patterns, “flashbacks,” and random associations to which a historian of trauma would ideally like to have access), the argument in Part II ultimately rests on what seems to me a compelling juxtaposition of what the deputies actually did with a psychological analysis, largely rooted in evidence in the clinical literature concerning the reactions of ordinary human beings to comparable situations of extreme danger, of how individuals who had experienced what they had experienced were likely to behave. For, as already indicated, the pattern of Assembly behavior that can be detected in the historical record, a pattern of fluctuating between policies that seemed to reflect an urge to push aside memories of what had occurred in June and July 1789 and policies that seemed to reflect a hypervigilant impulse to guard against a reoccurrence of what had happened, is exactly the kind of behavioral pattern that we would expect to see displayed by individuals who have lived through the kind of terrifying situation that the members of the Assembly had lived through.

Also of Interest

Mailing List

Subscribe to our mailing list and be notified about new titles, journals and catalogs.