In 1793, France’s smart set checked into a “hospital” on the rue de Charone, where, for a paltry $50,000 a month, they could drink champagne, play cards, and discuss the current theatre.

"That Great Equalizer" During the French Revolution and the Terror that followed, the new government executed tens of thousands of members of the former ruling classes. In 1792 Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin (1738-1814) invented an improved version of an ancient execution machine that was vigorously employed during the rule of the Jacobins from 1793 to 1794. The French government and other governments adopted the method of execution widely through the 19th century. A weighted blade, raised between two upright posts, would be released to descend to sever the head of the victim. Dr. Guillotin had intended the device to provide a more humane and sure form of execution than the sometimes inaccurate blow by an axman, hanging on ...

…The script for the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution was in serious need of a philosopher. And fast. For whatever reason, Nietzsche is the name that seemed to pop up when the script writers needed one. In Good Will Hunting, the therapist Sean (Robin Williams) asks Will (Matt Damon) whether he has a soul mate. Will says he has several, including Shakespeare and Nietzsche. In The Fisher King, Jack (Jeff Bridges), seriously drunk, remarks that “Nietzsche says there’s two kinds of people in the world: people who are destined for greatness like Walt Disney … and Hitler. Then there’s the rest of us, ‘the bungled and the botched.’ We’re the expendable masses.” And so, it was decided that Nietzsche, despite the handicap of being German, would be the poster boy for the French Revolution. …

" His son - who later became King Louis Philippe - insisted that Orléans was never personally ambitious; so was he truly an idealist, or did he fund the revolution in a fit of pique? Was Jacobinism a hobby to him, like his intrepid ballooning or his pornography collection? After the death of the king he became politically isolated. He called himself "the slave of faction". France was at war but, as Danton said, the national convention was a more dangerous place to be than the army. Philippe was guillotined in November 1793, having dined that day on oysters and lamb cutlets. His last words, to the executioner, were "Get on with it."

A visitor searching today’s Paris for the “monuments historique” of the French Revolution is likely to return home disappointed. Gone is the hotel where Charlotte Corday spent the night before she murdered Marat, gone to all intents and purposes Robespierre’s lodgings on the rue Saint-Honoré , gone the Jacobin Club and the Temple Tower.Even the palace of the Tuileries, the rallying point of so much disturbance, has vanished forever. The French, who have raised anecdotal history, “la petite histoire” , to a level approaching art, have been notably unsentimental about preserving the monuments that are so integral a part of that history.

On the rue de Charonne, at the far edge of the unvisited eleventh arrondissement, one more irreplaceable relic of the Revolution was only demolished in the early 1970′s. Its disappearance is to be regretted, for its walls were witness to one of the strangest stories in the repertory of revolutionary anecdote.

"In 1793, in the ultimate show of disloyalty and hypocrisy, Chartres cast his vote in favor of sending Louis XVI to the guillotine. Louis Philippe Joseph d'Orleans, a prince of the blood, one of the most powerful aristocrats in all of France, condoned and supported regicide. His actions deeply wounded his wife, Adélaïde. She did not agree with his political waffling, nor his underhanded, spiteful tactics. In Ghosthunter, Marsden writes that the memories stored in inanimate objects could be replayed if the conditions were right, if the people present were "sensitive to such paranormal emanations." Paranormal emanations? I know. It sounds like a ridiculous heap of stinking crap, doesn't it? Still, I can't help but wonder if the rings of the Duc and Duchesse de Chartres would emanate any particular memories. Would they project the hope and joy the young, naive Adélaïde must have felt when her dashing duke slipped the bands on her finger? Or would they convey the heartbreak she suffered when she first discovered her husband was as faithless as a hound in heat? Or perhaps the slender golden bands would emanate the profound sorrow Adélaïde surely felt upon learning that her gentle, sweet, much beloved sister-in-law, Princess Lamballe, had been raped, mutilated, and decapitated, her head stuck on a pike and marched through the squalid city streets. "

In the opening days of the revolution the building at 70 rue de Charonne housed a small insane asylum owned and administered by one Dr. Jacques Belhomme. Belhomme’s insitution should not be confused with the madhouse of similar address at Charenton where the Marquis de Sade spent his declining years and which was the inspiration for the play “Marat/Sade” . In its own fashion the Maison Belhomme might have offered  the dramatist almost as macabre a setting. But to understand the significance of what Belhomme’s insane asylum was to become during the Reign of Terror, one must first have some picture of the Terror itself.

… Nietzsche is  appealing to the Reign  because his life sounds like a narrative for the event. Certainly the combination of confidence and madness makes him highly pertinent.  He believed he was changing the world and he was right, like a Robespierre. His unrequited love for the exotic Lou Andreas-Salomé, a Russian-born psychoanalyst and friend of Wagner and Freud, promises both excitement and melancholy; it could be the storyline that would fit the passions of Philippe Egalité or Talleyrand.

The rumour about his incestuous affair with his sister adds perverse interest. And then there’s the horse story, often repeated, not quite authenticated, but certainly cinematic: In 1888, when he saw a man whipping a horse, he ran to the animal and threw his arms around its neck to protect it. Then he fell to the ground, unconscious. ….

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" If you want to understand the historical moment, however, better to read Carlyle's The French Revolution, which describes Robespierre, at the moment of his downfall, as "unhappiest of windbags blown nigh to bursting". Even Anatole France can't beat that."

Until the autumn of 1793, despite more than three years of revolution, the day-by-day life of Paris had continued in a more or less normal course. The acrimonious political disputes that raged within the Convention and the Assembly did not really disturb the average citizen. For most people the principal effect of the Revolution was food shortage; but this had always been a problem in Paris and three years of revolution and the dethornement of the king had not ameliorated matters.

"In September 1793, the "Reign of Terror" spread all over the country. This was a cruel period when France was killing its people by hundreds in a frightening movement of rage and decadence. People were arrested and executed without trial if they were accused of being enemies of the revolution. It is estimated that about 40,000 people died during this 15 month period."

Still, despite severe controls, the price of food continued to rise. By 1792 it had become frightening, and hunger or the fear of it undoubtedly added fuel to the rioting and uprisings that rocked Paris between 1789 and the autumn of 1793. When one reads today of the massacre on the Champ de Mars, of the September massacres, of the June 20 assault on the Tuileries, or of the historic August 10 attack on that palace, one might wonder how life in Paris during those days in Paris during those days could be described as continuing on its normal course. One must try to put oneself back in the city as it was in 1790.

It should be remembered that the wide boulevards that cut through today’s city did not exist then. In its general appearance Paris of the revolution was still a medieval city, a conglomeration of crooked streets and fetid, cobbled alleys, many of which, like a maze, led nowhere. In 1790, for reasons of administrative convenience, the city had been split into forty-eight wards called sections, but this in no way affected the character of the age-old parishes into which Paris had been divided into centuries before. These parishes were distinct in flavor as to form a series of self-sufficient little towns within the larger community of Paris itself. One was baptised and married, one lived and died within the same parish.

Paul Delaroche. "As the terrible year of 1793 unfolded, the Girondins discovered themselves successively overthrown, expelled from the Convention, proscribed, and hunted. Though many more — Girondists and others — were to follow in their steps, the trial of these 21 before the Revolutionary Tribunal and subsequent guillotining, the first notable mass-execution of the Revolution, raised the curtain on the Terror."

…Nietzsche speculated on “eternal recurrence,” the idea that human life endlessly repeats itself in precisely the same form, over and over. He considered that process burdensome, and so probably did the forty thousand souls who had their heads severed. Sort of like Woody Allen’s character, Mickey, in Hannah and Her Sisters: “He said that the life we lived we’re gonna live over again the exact same way. Great. That means I’ll have to sit through the Ice Capades again.” ….

Early in 1793, the atmosphere of Paris suddenly changed and the Revolution entered that phase known as the Reign of Terror. Although the subject has been studied to exhaustion, even tearful boredom; what has been overlooked, is the point of view and perspective of the ordinary Parisians of the time, people who were not of the prescribed nobility, nor part of the mob, not engaged in the factional battles of the Convention. Most of them were ignorant of the various factors that we today, in the safety of time, and academic horsepower, have learned were the factors that were instrumental in the making of the Terror.

"On January 21, 1793, King Louis was guillotined, an episode which created political turmoil; from January to May, Marat fought bitterly with the Girondins, whom he believed to be covert enemies of republicanism. The Girondins won the first round when the Convention ordered that Marat should be tried before the Revolutionary Tribunal. However, their plans were scuppered when Marat was acquitted and returned to the Convention with a greatly enhanced public profile and popular support. Read more:

The Parisian of 1793-94 saw only two of these elements. And very clearly. The first was the Revolutionary Tribunal, whose sentence, with few exceptions was death. And the second was the terrible Law of Suspects which fed the Tribunal its raw material; its victims. The last article on this list that struck at the ordinary people of  Paris, for to obtain a Certificate of Good Citizenship one had to appear before the Vigilance Committee of one,s local section and make application for this paper whose possession would mean life or death. Many section leaders were relatively honest, good men; prototypes of the austere and incorruptible patriots envisioned by Robespierre in the distant sanctum of the Committee of Public Safety.  Others, not surprisingly, were of weaker clay. So there was according to the historian Taine, a fair amount of bribery and sexual favors exchanged in order to have dossiers mislaid. 

…Long before the French Revolution and Vigilance Committees,  the best-known Nietzsche readers anywhere were two college students in Chicago, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. In the 1920s they saw themselves as supermen whose exceptional intelligence put them beyond good and evil. As Leopold wrote to Loeb, a superman’s superior qualities exempt him from “the ordinary laws which govern men. He is not liable for anything he may do.”

They decided to demonstrate that theory by committing, for thrill and satisfaction, a perfect murder, the kidnapping and killing of a 14-year-old. When they were caught their parents hired America’s greatest lawyer, Clarence Darrow, who argued against the death penalty on the grounds that the killers “took Nietzsche’s philosophy seriously” and it’s not fair to hang boys for philosophy taught to them at university. Leopold and Loeb received life sentences. The story became the basis of a play, Rope, which Alfred Hitchcock adapted in 1948 with James Stewart as the teacher who taught Nietzsche to the murderers. In 1956 Meyer Levin wrote a novel, Compulsion, later adapted as a film with Orson Welles in the Darrow part. ….

Death of Marat. Jacques-Louis David

Every description of the day indicates that what made these local Vigilance Committees particularly odious was the power their members had to score off old rancors. Neighborhood enmities, including street squabbles between women, were undoubtedly at rthe origin of many arrests effected by the section leaders. When one realizes that these arrests were equivalent to death, one can then understand why this phase of the Revolution has been called the Reign of Terror.

The executions were few at first, but after the learning curve, they picked up speed at a startling rate. Belhomme, in the Popincourt section of Paris, had always been a popular figure, and an enthusiastic partisan of the “new ideas” expected of a solid patriot. It was only natural that he be given a position of responsibility on his local committee. In this capacity, he came upon the inspired idea of converting his insane asylum into a prison. Even before the Law of Suspects, the jails of paris were at standing room only.

Madame Tussauds started her trade by making death masks from the victims of the guillotine. These faces are remodelled from those originals.

The authorities had been obliged to find new places of incarceration for suspects awaiting trial. Belhomme’s asylum would not only answer a civic, it would also respond to a special need.His prison was not to be like the others; as a man of medecine he proposed his facility be put at the disposal of those who were too sick or infirm to be brought to immediate trial.

It seems odd that in the midst of the French Revolution special consideration might be given to anyone, let alone the sick. But the Reign of Terror is, in fact, filled with such incongruities. Even the pitifil creatures at the Conciergerie were able, if they could afford it, to rent a less verminous mattress on which to spend their last few nights of life. Not far from the gates of the Conciergerie there was even a catering service and one could send out for a bottle of champagne and the wing of a chicken. At the Luxembourg one or two dowagers were still attended by their faithful maids.

"Who now reads Anatole France? Clearly Glyn Maxwell, who has boldly turned France's once-celebrated 1912 novel about the reign of terror, Les Dieux Ont Soif, into a play. It is a decent, honourable work that raises the expected questions about the bloody price of revolution. But you feel the drama is overshadowed both by the momentous public events and an infinitely greater play about the period in question, Büchner's Danton's Death."

It was in this spirit that Belhomme’s prison was conceived. There was not enough room for all the sick and infirm scattered in the prisons of paris. the line would have to be drawn somewhere. Revolution or no revolution, the realities of the world went on: the larks don’t fall from the skies already roasted… In short, Dr. Belhomme’s clients would be expected to pay their board and keep. And pay they did. The initial fee, once one had established contact with those empowered to make the negotiations, could be as high as six thousand livres. Upon payment of this sum, one was pronounced too “sick” to stand trial, transferred out of whatever disagreeable prison one happened to be in, and committed to Jacques Belhomme’s remarkable “maison de santé”.

… One of the best examples of how to survive and prosper during a Reign of Terror, regardless of time and locale, can be found in the film  Baby Face (1933), starring the young Barbara Stanwyck. its advice is err… quite explicit. Stanwyck’s character is a small-town waitress forced into prostitution by her father.  An old man who comes into the restaurant tells her she should make something of herself and gives her a copy of The Will to Power, the posthumous collection of Nietzsche’s essays.

The next time he comes in she acknowledges that she found the book hard going. “You read it!” he says. “That’s the best book ever. Nietzsche was a great man.” She studies it and decides that sex is the way to get better jobs. She methodically sleeps her way up the ranks of a New York bank, from a clerk in the personnel office to the executive suite. During one crisis she pulls out her copy of Nietzsche and we watch her read an underlined paragraph about asserting herself. In the end she falls convincingly in love — but her new love just happens to be a major executive in the bank, played by George Brent. She’s become a practical philosopher, turning Nietzsche into a how-to book for gold-diggers.

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