Re-edit (13/10/2017): I had the fortune to meet Ms. Rhonda Garelick, the writer of the book Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History, which inspired me to write these two pieces about partial French fashion. Ms. Garelick and I met at the Regards Croises, A Discussion on French & American Fashion event, where we enjoyed the intense and professional debates from some French-American fashion heavy-weights, put up by the French bookstore in New York, Albertine. Very grateful for the encounter shortly after I finished these two articles a few months ago. God’s will may it say.
I finished Histoire Passionee de la France midnight in Paris. Upon closing the book, I lied down into my bed as if history had just thrown hundreds pounds on my shoulder.
France, the country that pioneered citizen rights and legal rights as memorised eternally in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Montesquieu, only came to democracy through a series of troubles. The Reign of Terror, shortly embarked after the French Revolution, was only an onset of the tag of wars between the “people” and the ruler. During the aristocrats-manourvered revolution, the General Assembly began a coup d’etat and chopped the head of the innocent king. Shortly after, Queen Marie-Antoinette was charged of her crimes: high treason, squandering taxes, and mistreatment of her son – the young Louis XVII. The last accusation led the queen in tears. Louis XVII was forcibly taken from her. She had spent countless sleepless nights lingering beside the room of Louis XVII to just see his face. When the judges demanded her to respond on the last crime, she answered, “if I do not respond on this crime, it is because of the nature of a mother.” Queen Marie-Antoinette was sentenced to the guillotine anyways as the “enemy of the people”. She died in dignity without flinching.
Horrors are more than numerous. Madame Lambert, the close friend of Queen Marie-Antoinette, was hastily and brutally killed. Her head was tied to an extended stick and showed off around the city of Paris. Madame Bovary, the favourite concubine of King Louis XV, begged the executor to not kill her while she was on the guillotine. Aristocrats, citizens, the accused, the accusing, became the plain numbers on history books. 200,000? 100,000? The agony and horror of each individual when he or she faces the sharp blades disappeared in between the lines.
200 years later, Place de Concorde is a buzzy traffic circle where drivers are always jammed and complaining about the jam. Far sight situated the epitome of romancised beauty – Tour Eiffel. Concorde, as the name suggested, shows the peace, concord, and a unification by will.
By will, easy to say than to do. When I took my family on a tour in Paris, I partook the role of the tour guide. As I reiterated how bloody the revolution was, my mother reminded me, “think about the Long March of Mao, the civil war before 1959 – or even Cultural Revolution, how many people have died?”
When one reads about the deaths, wars, killings in books, one could immediately relate to the misfortune of history even if one is born and raised in peacetime in stable countries. Whatever names we give to the activities, revolution, evolution, reforms, or conquest as in Napoleon’s Grand Army conquest, termination of lives in mass should always be filled with solace and solemnness. Some times, a life is terminated because of his or her own wrongdoing. However, most of the time, when the pulse of history made an unfavourable turn, the current of momentum crushed innocents. Will you say it is the pure irrationality of crowds, the manipulations of ego, or just the wrong timing for certain people to be given birth to?
I returned to my bed with the intricacies of pondering. Midnight in Grenelle, rue de Suffren was lighted with modern traffic – one can easily hear the honking and chattering next to the window. A few hundred years ago, during the Reign of Terror, who had passed by under the same window?