Sunday, 13 July 2014

Forgetting Jean-Paul Marat (24 May 1743 - 13 July 1793)

 Jean-Paul Marat

Jean-Paul Marat died 227 years ago today. He is best known for his role as a murderous journalist and inflammatory pamphleteer during the French Revolution. He was linked to the Jacobins, of course, the most extreme and wild-eyed egalitarian groups of this period.

Marat was born in the Principality of Neuchâtel, now a French-speaking canton of Western Switzerland. He was the son of Louise Cabrol, a French Huguenot, and Giovanni Mara, an Italian immigrant from Sardinia, who converted to Calvinism while living in Geneva. The 't' was added later, to make the surname seem more French.

Before Geneva his father had lived in the village of Boudry, where he worked in manufacturing. It seems that while there Louise and even young Jean-Paul created a great deal of enmity, to the point that Giovanni was forced to move the family. The following letter, addressed to Jean-Paul's mother in 1768, is suggestive:
MADAM - As you have the most diabolical tongue that we have ever had in our town, and as you are a notorious liar and slanderer . . . I shall take care to make you known at Geneva. I have already written to different persons, and have painted you in your true colours, as also your children, who resemble you . . . I say once more that you are a notorious liar, a most evil tongue, a slanderess, a woman of no character, whom every one despises, and who is only too despicable. Your husband is no better. He is a downright hypocrite and canting humbug (caffard).[1]
In Geneva Giovanni was turned down for various teaching posts, and the ambitious Marat, finding opportunities for outsiders thus limited, left home aged 16, hoping to make his fortune. Reflecting on his early life in later years, he proclaimed,
[a]t five years of age I wanted to be a schoolmaster; at fifteen a professor; at eighteen an author; and at twenty a creative genius.[2]
His first post was as a tutor to the wealthy family headed by Monsieur Nairac, a slave merchant based in Bordeaux. Marat lasted two years. He then moved Paris to study medicine, but he left without qualifications. Next he moved to London, and set himself up as a 'doctor'. Upon befriending Angelica Kauffman, a Swiss-born Austrian painter of the Royal Academy, he began to mix with artists and architects in the Soho coffee houses. 

Aware that on paper he was nothing, yet consumed by a love of fame, he thought to wriggle his way into intellectual circles by scribbling works of philosophy and political theory. He was inspired by the activities of the radical John Wilkes, a libellous journalist, former outlaw, once pornographer, and ex-convict, who later turned conservative. His first two essays, written while living in Newcastle, foreshadowed what was to come: 'A Philosophical Essay on Man' and the laconically titled,'Chains of Slavery: A work in which the clandestine and villainous attempts of Princes to ruin Liberty are pointed out, and the dreadful scenes of Despotism disclosed'. Published in 1774, the latter proved subsequently one the Trojan Horses by which English republican ideas came to France.[3] 

Despite his lack of credentials, Marat proved an able doctor, and his published essay on curing a friend of gleets (gonorrhea) got him the referees he needed for obtainin an MD from the University of St Andrews. Before long, upon returning to France, he secured royal patronage as physician to Louis XV's youngest brother, a position that paid 2000 livres a year plus allowances—enough to live well.

In demand from the royal household and the aristocracy, he was able to set up a laboratory. He went on to add scientific papers to his resumé of published works on medicine. Years later, Marat's enemies during the revolution would describe him as an itinerant quack, but this was a libel, which Marat's apologists have since been able to disprove. 

Had he stuck to science, Marat could have carried on with a meritorious career in medicine and physics. Unfortunately, in 1788 this fellow decided to bite the hand that fed him, and, infected with the virus of radical politics, threw it all away to consecrate himself to pamphleteering and journalistic agitprop in service of egalitarian doctrines. 

Alas, Marat found himself ignored by the movers and shakers of the revolution, so he took matters into his own hands. He launched a newspaper, Le publiciste parisien, and began publishing daily, using his own printing press. Days later, he changed his mind, and called it, L'Ami du peuple (The People's Friend). Initially, he maintained a restrained tone, but he still found himself ignored. Boiling with resentment, then, he decided to throw caution to the wind and go all the way, spewing incendiary prose filled with invective, insult, wounded pride, suspicion, and incitement to violence. In some cases, he even called for mass murder. Warning against counter-revolutionaries, for example, he intoned,
five or six hundred heads cut off would have assured your repose, freedom, and happiness.
No one was spared. Not Necker, not Bailly, not Mirabeau, not the Paris Commune, not Lafayette, not the National Constituent Assembly, not the Legislative Assembly, not the National Convention, not the émigrés, not the Girondists, and certainly not the King. He summed up his attitude thus:
I have not hesitated to set the Government against me, the princes, the clergy, the nobility, the parlement, the badly-disposed districts, the état-majors of the mercenary guard, the councillors of the courts of judicature, the advocates, the procurators, the financiers, the speculators, the depreciators, the blood-suckers of the State, and the innumerable army of public enemies.[4]
Writing on the evolution of the journal and his own political evolution, Marat, friend of the people, reflected conceitedly that
[a]t the outbreak of the Revolution, wearied by the persecutions that I had experienced for so long a time at the hands of the Academy of Sciences, I eagerly embraced the occasion that presented itself of defeating my oppressors and attaining my proper position. I came to the Revolution with my ideas already formed, and I was so familiar with the principles of high politics that they had become commonplaces for me. Having had greater confidence in the mock patriots of the Constituent Assembly than they deserved, I was surprised at their pettiness, their lack of virtue. Believing that they needed light, I entered into correspondence with the most famous deputies, notably with Chapelier, Mirabeau, and Barnave. Their stubborn silence on all my letters soon proved to me that though they needed light, they cared little to be enlightened. I adopted the course of publishing my ideas by means of the press. I founded the Ami du Peuple. I began it with a severe but honest tone, that of a man who wishes to tell the truth without breaking the conventions of society. I maintained that tone for two whole months. Disappointed in finding that it did not produce the entire effect that I had expected, and indignant that the boldness of the unfaithful representatives of the people and of the lying public officials was steadily increasing, I felt that it was necessary to renounce moderation and to substitute satire and irony for simple censure. The bitterness of the satire increased with the number of mismanagements, the iniquity of their projects and the public misfortunes. Strongly convinced of the absolute perversity of the supporters of the old regime and the enemies of liberty, I felt that nothing could be obtained from them except by force. Revolted by their attempts, by their ever-recurrent plots, I realized that no end would be put to these except by exterminating the ones guilty of them. Outraged at seeing the representatives of the nation in league with its deadliest enemies and the laws serving only to tyrannize over the innocent whom they ought to have protected, I recalled to the sovereign people that since they had nothing more to expect from their representatives, it behooved them to mete out justice for themselves. This was done several times.
Warrants for his arrest were issued on a number of occasions, his illegal rag blacklisted and seized by the authorities more than once, and Marat frequently forced into hiding, which included, for a period and quite appropriately, making a home of the Paris sewers. 

In the course of his clandestine escapades, Marat met Simmone Evrard, the young and idealistic daughter of a carpenter. She generously sheltered him, scuttling him into a cellar and deflecting the police when they came looking for this scoundrel. Despite his short stature, repulsive appearance, and a body covered in blisters from a chronic, herpes-like inflamation of the skin, she fell in love with the fugitive. He gratefully took was was offered to him. 

The marriage lasted about a year, however, because for this rascal the chickens finally came home to roost. A young Girondist sympathiser, Charlotte Corday, who had come from an impoverished royalist family, knocked on the door to his flat and got herself admitted under false pretenses, waved in by Marat despite objections from his wife. Marat, friend of the people, was in his bathtub and within fifteen minutes a kitchen knife had found its way into his chest. His life was claimed by death, and the short but evil career of this homicidal maniac was thus ended at last. Yet by this time he had already created the conditions for the Terror, so it would be a while before the French could breathe again in peace. 

Death of Marat

In Biographical Anecdotes of the Founders of the French Republic, Aldolphus John described him as "short in stature, deformed in person, and hideous in face". In The French Revolution, Thomas Carlyle described Marat as "one squalidest horse-leech, redolent of soot". In Paris in the Terror, Stanley Loomis described him as a man with "arms flailing about in all directions . . . with the reckless rage of a lunatic". In her history of the French Revolution, Nesta Webster described him as
not unlike the malignant dwarfs one encounters in the villages of his native Switzerland. Under five feet high, with a monstrous head, the broken nose of the degenerate, a skin of yellowed parchment, the aspect of "the Friend of the People" was more than hideous, it was supernatural. His portrait in the Camavalet Museum is not the portrait of a human being but of an " elemental," a materialization of pure evil emanating from the realms of outer darkness. " Physically," says one who knew him, " Marat had a burning and haggard eye like a hyena; like a hyena his glance was always anxious and in motion; his movements were short, rapid, and jerky; a continual mobility gave to his muscles and his features a convulsive contraction, which even affected his way of walking—he did not walk, he hopped. Such was the individual called Marat."[5]
All the same, news of his demise elicited a wave of lachrymose grief, not unlike the death of Princes Diana some two centuries later. His heart was embalmed separately and placed in an urn on an altar built in his memory. Jacques-Louis David immortalised him in an highly idealised painting, The Death of Marat, in which he beautified his hero's scabbed skin. David also organised a funeral, in which the Marquis de Sade gave a eulogy. On his tomb, the inscription on a plaque read: "Unité, Indivisibilité de la République, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité ou la mort". He was made a quasi-saint, and busts of him replaced crosses in former churches of Paris.

Yet, alas, the enthusiasm was short-lived. By 1795 his reputation was in ruins, and his remains were removed from the pantheon and the busts and sculptures destroyed. But he was popular in Soviet Russia—why not?—and the Bolsheviks renamed a battleship after him, though the enthusiasm soon wore off even there, and Marat's name was scrubbed off its hull, the ship reverting to its more original name in 1943.


[1] Ernest Belfort Bax, "Marat's Early Years," Jean-Paul Marat: The People's Friend. Accessed 30 July, 2009, available from; Internet
[2] Jean-Paul Marat, Journal de la Republique française 98.
[3] Rachel Hammersley, 'Jean-Paul Marat's The Chains of Slavery in Britain and France, 1774-1833', Historical Journal 48, 3 (2005).
[4] Bax, "Marat as Revolutionary Pamphleteer and Journalist," Jean-Paul Marat.
[5] Nesta Webster, The French Revolution (London: Constable, 1919)

Further Reading:
  • Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution (London: Chapman Hall, 1837)
  • Stanley Loomis, Paris in the Terror: June 1793 - July 1794 (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1964)
  • Nesta Webster, The French Revolution (London: Constable, 1919)

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