Home > Uncategorized > The More Things Change….

The More Things Change….

Having recently had a few dollars of expendable cash for the first time in quite a while, I indulged in my favorite habit – going to the bookstore and buying books which I could check out for free from the public library, were I responsible enough to return them on time or organized enough to get myself to said library during operating hours.  The library is only a mile away…but the bookstore is a mere five blocks from home, so it inevitably wins out every time, thanks not only to proximity but to the quirky way in which I choose my reading material, which is by browsing.  In the bookstore, things are arranged by what’s new, then by categories such as fiction, non-fiction, history, biography, natural sciences, etc.  Much easier to browse than stacks organized according to the Dewey decimal system.

Anyway, one of my selections this time was Passionate Minds by David Bodanis, about Voltaire and his long-time aristocratic mistress Emilie du Chatelet – a love affair animated by shared intellectual passions.  du Chatelet was an anomaly for the time – a woman motivated more by intellectual pursuits than fashion or court gossip, in an era where most women of the French aristocracy were uneducated, sometimes to the point of not even being able to write their own names.

Much of du Chatelet’s energy went into finding an appropriate male promoter or sponsor for her intellectual pursuits, which she finally found in Voltaire.  He was not her husband, of course, but adultery was the norm for the French aristocracy of the time and du Chatelet’s husband, having his own dalliances on the side, raised no objections. 

Her confidence boosted by her association with a man who truly respected her intellect, du Chatelet delved into explorations of Sir Issac Newton’s theory of gravity.  du Chatelet translated Newton’s calculations from the geometry he used as mathematical proofs for his theory into the new calculus, both verifying Newton and making his work more accessible to future generations of scientists.  She was also the first to theorize, correctly, that different colors of light in the spectrum had different temperatures, and among the first to recognize that light, as a substance, was composed of something other than mass.

What I found most interesting about the account, however, was not du Chatelet’s story, nor Voltaire’s, but the mise en scene in which their relationship played itself out.  This was the France of the last Louis’ – XIV, the Sun King; XV, who came to the throne at 5 years of age; and XVI, who left the throne a good foot shorter than when he assumed it.

I learned a few things I never knew, such as how different the aristocratic system was in France than it was in England.  This should have been long evident to me, since looking back on it now I was aware that France never had a Magna Carta.  As a result, the French aristocracy had both less power and more privilege in some ways than their English counterparts.  The king alone had the power to raise someone to the nobility.  Working was one of the quickest ways to lose a title; aristocrats were expected to do little or nothing.  Dabbling was acceptable, as was high military command, but working for a living was not.  Members of the aristocracy were not taxed – at all.  Taxes were quite literally, as Leona Helmsley once put it, “for the little people.”  Considering that France was during the period almost perpetually at war with other European powers, one can only imagine the tax burden that must have devolved upon those who actually did the work of the nation, and wonder that it took them so long to revolt.  Justice was similarly two-tiered; an aristocrat could – and often did – inflict violence upon a commoner without fear of reprisal.  The system was set up to make sure the privileged remained so, and the rest kept to their proper place.  Fairness entered into the scenario not at all.

If any of that sounds familiar, it’s probably because it’s more or less the platform for one of our two major political parties.  We already know they’re down with the idea that the privileged shouldn’t be burdened with taxation, that those who actually do the work that produces wealth should also shoulder the burdens of funding government, including the cost of the world’s largest military, and that we have a similar two-tiered system of justice, in which the man who steals billions or sickens thousands escapes punishment, while the man who steals the contents of a cash register serves decades behind bars.

The great irony here is that the party that proposes to restore this old order is the same one that makes a big deal out of disdain for France.  Remember “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” and “freedom fries”?  It turns out that, contrary to Donald Rumsfeld’s dissing of “old Europe,” that’s the version they preferred.  It’s not “old Europe” or old France they have a problem with – it’s the new version, the post-revolutionary one, in which ordinary people no longer know and keep to their place as drudges whose only value is generating wealth for a bunch of layabouts.

In an interesting parallel, time-share billionaire David Siegal, who is building a replica of Versailles as his personal residence, just last week sent out a letter to his employees warning of the dire consequences to their future employment prospects should Barack Obama be re-elected.  This week, the billionaire Koch brothers followed suit.  Just reminding the ordinary folks to remember their place – as drudges whose only value is in making sure that billionaires remain billionaires.

Which leaves me thinking that maybe they should stop exclusively focusing on the France of the ancien regime, and perhaps pay just a bit more attention to what immediately followed it and brought it to an end.  As Louis XVI would no doubt tell them, the loss of a bit of your financial stature is nothing compared to the loss of a bit of your physical stature.

  1. Bitter Scribe
    October 31, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    What I’ve always found fascinating about the French Revolution is that it got started when Louis XIV loosened his grip on power to the extent of allowing the Estates-General to form and express popular grievances. This spiraled out of control.

    It’s one of the classic ways tyranny gets overthrown. The tyrant becomes slightly less ruthless, and instead of being grateful for a tiny taste of freedom, the masses become addicted and start demanding more. (See: Soviets and glasnost)

    Also, I hear you about the joys of buying books as opposed to checking them out. I just got done with “Joseph Anton,” Salman Rushdie’s memoir of life under the fatwa. Good book, but at 600+ pages, I’m glad I didn’t have to worry about finishing it on time.

  2. jennofark
    November 7, 2012 at 1:59 pm

    Damn, I wanted to buy that one too – but with it being out only in hardcover so far, I could better feed my reading addiction by selecting several paperbacks. I’m a HUGE Rushdie fan, so I will be reading it before too long – in hardcover, if I come into a windfall – or in paperback if I do not and have to wait to purchase it.

  3. BDay
    November 21, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    Don’t buy it! Santa may be bringing it.He hangs out in the ATL now, you know. (Sir Salman, not the fatman.)

  4. bughunter
    November 28, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    That sounds fascinating, for both the story and the setting. After reading Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle (set in large part in France during the reign of Louis XIV), I am lead to wonder if du Chatalet wasn’t [at least part of] the inspiration for his character Eliza, Duchess of [the fictional English island of] Qwghlm. She, like du Chatalet, is depicted as a mathematical savant, a Newton correspondent, a member of the Sun King’s court and an anachronism. The fictional character is far different from Mme du Chatalet but the similarities, where they exist, are striking.

    If you’re interested in an epic mashup of history, philosophy, SF, and picaresque, the Baroque Cycle is the only example I know of.

  5. Rodney Mestayer
    December 4, 2012 at 1:56 pm

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    • Bitter Scribe
      January 5, 2013 at 1:43 am

      Rodney’s endorsement could be a huge factor in the future success of this blog, Jennifer. When I saw it, I did a double-take and exclaimed, “THE Rodney Mestayer????”

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