The crowd called for Marie Antoinette’s head, they bellowed for it, but in the end the only guillotine victim was a watermelon. The master of ceremonies sentenced the French queen to become Arnold Schwarzenegger’s new housekeeper, not a bad fate for one so used to the trappings of wealth.
This was on Saturday, during Bastille Day festivities at Eastern State Penitentiary, former home of Al Capone and other luminaries. I’d biked to the pen from South Philly, and things were winding down by the time I arrived. The Bastille had been stormed by the angry peasants. The queen — a costumed local restaurant owner — had declared “Let them eat Tastykake!” and Krimpets had rained down from the prison towers.
Thousands of spectators milled around, although the show itself was barely visible unless you were right in front of the stage on Fairmount Avenue. It was ironic, of course — a bunch of restaurateurs in Fairmount drumming up business by re-enacting the beginning of a revolution triggered by widespread hunger.
The parallels between then and now are obvious. The French Revolution (1789-1799) happened partly because the royals remained indifferent to the plight of the peasants, in the same way that American politicians and their corporate masters remain indifferent to the plight of millions of Americans who lost their jobs and/or homes in the worst economic slump since the Great Depression.
Which is not to say a bloodbath looms in the very near future. Most unemployed Americans in the 21st century are much better off than French peasants in the 18th. A minority of Americans aren’t suffering at all. Tell a bored housewife in a place like Narberth, PA, that the country is in deep trouble and she’d think you must mean some banana republic.
Watching the show in Fairmount, I thought of Milan Kundera`s narrator in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:
In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.
Right. Every event, no matter how horrific, eventually seems quaint and harmless, even cartoonish, to those who feel safe. The queen wasn’t executed until the Terror began, years after the Bastille was stormed, but who cares? These things happened a long time ago and they can’t happen again.
In the same vein, re-enacting battles of the American Civil War is an amusing pastime for certain goofballs, largely because the battles took place a century and a half ago. In “the sunset of dissolution,” the war’s horror seems noble. The re-enactors feel nostalgic about it.
But what if the past only seems past? What if it’s possible to learn history but not learn from it? What if we, as a species and as individuals, are fated to repeat the same mistakes again and again, with minor variations involving changes in fashion and technology?
Thinking about these “what ifs” can only lead you to places where crazy novelists and philosophers go. No wonder Fairmount would rather party like it’s 1789.