Bonfires of sentiments

The emotions that drive revolutions are usually consumed in the act, obliterating all trace of their existence. Consider the ‘cult of sensibility’ or ‘sentimentalism’ and the French Revolution.

‘Sensibility’ was a way of understanding and expressing emotions prevalent among the elite in Europe, during the late 17th and 18th centuries, especially in France. Sentiments or sensibility are best understood in the light of Reddy’s ’emotives’. How do I know what I feel for you until I hear what I say to you? It was a way of accessing inner feelings or sensations, believed to be innate, natural things, beyond conscious understanding. Sentiments are moral sensations, natural feelings. It was like tapping in to a well of virtue.

We see traces of sentimentalism in private (especially, love) letters of the day. Indeed, is this not the entire point of all love letters? The more intense the sentiment in the letter, the better the chance its recipient will conclude that it is natural and good and respond in kind. As letters are exchanged, emotives intertwine in an upward spiral of intensity.

We find traces of sentimentalism in novels too. The best selling English novel of the 18th century was Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or, Virtue Rewarded. To continue its full title: ‘In a series of Familiar Letters from a Beautiful Young Damsel, to her Parents’. ‘Letters’, that is, containing sentimental emotives. The Marquis de Sade’s wickedly perceptive Justine (or the Misfortune of Virtue) and Juliette (or Enlightenment and Morality) can be read as parodies of Richardson’s trade in ‘goodness’. Sade’s threat to ‘public morality’ is just one reason he spent the best years of his life in prison on the order of Louis XV, where, of course, he continued to write.

It is this same sentimentalism that Jane Austen chronicled in Sense and Sensibility (1811). (In today’s terms, we might call it Reason and Emotion.) One’s social success depended on one’s skill in knowing a person’s real sentiments from false displays. But one example:

But Marianne abhorred all concealment where no real disgrace could attend unreserve ; and to aim at the restraint of sentiments which were not in themselves illaudable, appeared to her not merely an unnecessary effort, but a disgraceful subjection of reason to common- place and mistaken notions. 

In France, more so than in England, sentimentalism was a potent force in political thinking. Dressed up as ‘virtue’, it was the emotional energy of the breakdown of the Old Regime and the first years of the Revolution. As Reddy explains, this period began with gestures of benevolence and ended in terror. Breaking down in tears under the intensity of one’s virtue was common. Mere friendships could bring on a fainting spell. The nearer the end came, the more intense the effusion of feelings, the better to impress with their sincerity. Those who failed died.

Pity and benevolence towards the downtrodden, gratitude for what one had and love for who knows what, were much in favour. August 4, 1789, the night the new National Assembly voted to dismantle the system of privileges that constituted the Old Regime, was a bonfire of sentiments. The rioting peasants (the ‘Great Fear’) concentrated their attention.  

The procedure followed during the session was to favor reform proposals that came from a delegate who enjoyed the very privileges he proposed to abolish. Nobles offered to give up their tax exemptions, clergy their tithes, provincial delegates the privileges of their provinces, and so on. The night’s work was widely described as a kind of sentimental cascade of reforms. (Reddy)

It was, as they say, a ‘patriotic delirium’.

Sentimentalism was consumed during the Revolution itself and confined to the private, feminine sphere of the household (to which President Hollande now retreats). Henceforth, the Revolution was known as a product of Reason (a largely male preserve) and we like to think that reason, through public deliberation, debate and voting, continues to rule us all.

And yet ’emotives’ suggests that every society has its own style of experiencing emotions. We know about ‘sentimentalism’, but what of our own way of experiencing emotions?


William M. Reddy. The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions, 2001.

Featured image: a firefighter and a fire, one of many in Paris, during the riots of November, 2005.

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