Thursday, September 22, 2005

Live not by Lies

A few weeks ago, a new school was opened in the Vendée, France, called the Alexander Solzhenitsyn school. As far as I know, this is the first school named after this forgotten hero of the Christian struggle against revolutionary tyranny. And why in the Vendée, an area along the western coast of France, just south of Britttany? Well because the people in the Vendée have some memories about Christians suffering under revolutionary tyranny. The title of a recent book on the Vendee during the French Revolution (1789-1799) says it all: A French Genocide: The Vendee. During the years of the Revolution, initially supportive Catholics were driven into opposition and rebellion by the Jacobins' increasingly open attacks on the Christian religion. By 1793, when a new church and a new calendar replaced the old, the people of the Vendée rose up. In response, (from a review of Reynald Secher's study here),

Secher quotes one [Jacobin] as saying "We must crush the internal enemies of the Republic or perish along with it." The Vendéans were labeled as brigands who "must be exterminated." A call went out to "depopulate the Vendee." The Vendéans were spoken of as a race apart, and a call was made to "purge the soil of freedom of that cursed race."

Of the Vendéans, Secher writes that "At least 117,257 people disappeared between 1792 and 1802," that more than 14 percent of the Vendéans were exterminated.

In this context, the comments of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's son, Ignat, the conductor of the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra, are all the more significant. (I will gratefully crib Jay Nordlinger's translation here):

Standing here, in front of this new school bearing the name of my father (who has a special affection for France), I think back to the words he spoke here, twelve Septembers ago, and, in my turn, reflect upon the lessons of the Vendée. History is woven not solely out of actual events, but also out of myths, and the Vendée has become a universal myth, for she symbolizes resistance to oppression and the uprising of conscience. Its message is still current in our world today, where there rises a new mortal menace, the feral delusion of possessed madmen seeking to drag humanity into yet another form of that "radiant future" into which we were pushed by Robespierre, Lenin, Hitler, and Pol Pot. . . .

. . .

A collège is a cradle of culture, enlightenment, and, most of all, thirst for knowledge. To any school one would wish successes, flourishing, the calm concerted work of dedicated pedagogues and assiduous students. All of this, I (the son of two teachers — something that is not widely known) wish you with all my heart. But may the collège that bears the name of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn become something greater, something more profound. May it come to embody my father's call to all, even us citizens of the rich free world, to throw off our habitual cloak of intellectual duplicity, and to live not by lies. . . .

A universal myth? My mother, a Ph.D. and an educated woman, had never heard of the Vendée and had no idea that the guillotine was used on more than a handful of recalcitrant royalists. Obviously, the crimes of the Left, particularly those parts of the Left that we identify with, are not part of the educated person's curriculum. Pol Pot, Mao, we can recognize their crimes, because after all, as I've been told, that's completely irrelevant to the history of the Left in the United States. But the French Revolution: that is the Left of the Atlantic world.

Live not by lies.

UPDATE: Persecution of Catholics under the French Revolution is perhaps best known through Poulenc's opera, "Dialogue of the Carmelites," based largely on Georges Bernanos's version of this story (only available in French). William Bush, a Protestant convert to Orthodoxy, has written a devotionally oriented, yet historically grounded English account of this famous guillotining of sixteen Carmelite sisters in 1794.