A character in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, which is set in the run-up to the July Revolution in France, says at one point, “Politics…is a stone tied round the neck of literature which submerges it in less than six months. Politics in the midst of imaginative matter is like a pistol shot in the middle of a concert. The noise is racking without being energetic. It does not harmonize with the sound of any instrument.”
Chronicler Jean le Bel wrote that during the Jacquerie, a popular revolt in France in 1358, peasants “killed a knight, put him on a spit, and roasted him while his wife and children looking on. After ten or twelve of them raped the lady, they wished to force-feed them the roasted flesh of their father and husband, and made them then die by a miserable death.”
For a 2005 British TV program, a full-size replica of the House of Lords was built in order to determine what damage would have been done had Guy Fawkes ignited the explosives during the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Everyone in the House, including King James I, and anyone within about three hundred feet, would have died.
In one of the last letters he ever sent, in October 1913, Ambrose Bierce wrote to his niece, “Goodbye—if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags, please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico—ah, that is euthanasia.” His intention was to see the Mexican Revolution, but the circumstances of his death are unknown.
Among those who stayed at the Florida Hotel while reporting on the Spanish Civil War were John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Josephine Herbst, Robert Capa, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and Martha Gellhorn. Gellhorn noted a day when an “influx of shits” came for lunch, one of whom was “a nice handsome dumb named Errol Flynn who looks like white fire on screen but is only very, very average off.”
In 1987 Nike paid both Capitol Records and Michael Jackson, owner of the publication rights to much of the Beatles’ catalog, a licensing fee of $500,000 to use “Revolution” in an advertisement. Lawyers for the Beatles filed a $15-million lawsuit, stating that the band didn’t “endorse or peddle sneakers or pantyhose.” The case was settled out of court.
“I have just had a close escape from the Soviets, and now I’m happy to say I’m back with the fairies (Fascists to you),” Dawn Powell wrote to John Dos Passos in 1937, having attended the American Writers’ Congress along with many avowed communists. “The front part of the speeches was always good, but when the brilliant writer minds summed up, they all spelled bushwa.”
As a London-based correspondent for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, Karl Marx wrote about Abraham Lincoln’s issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, “Up to now we have witnessed only the first act of the Civil War—the constitutional waging of war. The second act, the revolutionary waging of war, is at hand.”
In Guerrilla Warfare, Che Guevara suggested that a well-prepared revolutionary should carry the following items: rifle, ammunition, food, plate, knife, fork, canteen, antibiotics, paper, a compass, nylon cloth, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, a pair of pants, a book (“biographies of past heroes, histories, or economic geographies”), a machete, a small bottle of gasoline, kindling, matches, needles, thread, and buttons.
A winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Paul Krugman wrote in 1998, “The growth of the Internet will slow drastically, as the flaw in ‘Metcalfe’s law’—which states that the number of potential connections in a network is proportional to the square of the number of participants—becomes apparent: most people have nothing to say to each other! By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.”
Lamoignon de Malesherbes chose to defend Louis XVI during his trial of 1792 and 1793; years earlier, as secretary of state, Malesherbes had reported on the corruption in the king’s administration and condemned the imprisonment of French citizens without trial. Both the king and the lawyer were eventually guillotined. “No one is ignorant of the fact that M. de M, after defending the people before King Louis XVI, defended King Louis XVI before the people.
Georges Cuvier, founder of the field of paleontology, wrote in 1812 that examination of the strata of the earth revealed “traces of revolutions.” He surmised, “Innumerable living beings have been the victims of these catastrophes; some have been destroyed by sudden inundations, others have been laid dry in consequence of the bottom of the seas being instantaneously elevated. Their races have become extinct and have left no memorial of them, except some small fragment which the naturalist can scarcely recognize.”
In Britain in 60, Boudicca, queen of the Iceni tribe, led a revolt against the occupying Romans. According to the historian Tacitus, her forces killed seventy thousand people, sacking and burning the cities later known as St. Albans, Colchester, and London. “We must conquer in the line of battle or fall,” she announced before her final charge. “That is the fate of this woman; let men live on as slaves if they wish.”
After receiving a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949, Aldous Huxley wrote to George Orwell, “I need not tell you, yet once more, how fine and how profoundly important the book is. May I speak instead of the thing with which the book deals—the ultimate revolution?” By this he meant “the revolution which lies beyond politics and economics, and which aims at total subversion of the individual’s psychology and physiology.” Thirty-two years earlier, Huxley had taught French to Orwell at Eton College.
On July 13, 1793, a Girondist young woman stabbed to death the Montagnard Jean-Paul Marat, editor of The Friend of the People. The state funeral was arranged by Jacques-Louis David, who soon afterward painted his Death of Marat; every member of the National Convention came, and the Marquis de Sade delivered the eulogy.