Three Essays from Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past: Kathryn Nuernberger

Nonfiction: Kathryn Nuernberger

Introduction to the Symbols of the Revolution

My husband is not interested in reading about Marie Antoinette’s hair. “Isn’t this a little girly for you?” he says.

I show this man everything I write because he gives the best advice of anyone I know. He gives it in a way that is harsh, even when complimentary, which I appreciate because it’s the only way I can trust that it’s true, because I’m one of these people who feels every character is a metaphor for something wrong with me. I never saw a witch burn that I didn’t imagine was one of you burning me. I’m also like those villains who don’t realize they might be on the outside of the pyre looking in.

A great many of the women I admired as a child were lit on fire. Based on the books in my library, it seemed being chained naked to a stake and martyred by the Romans for threatening the emperor’s faith and power was the closest a girl could get to being smart about something.

My husband is not intrigued the incongruity of writing about power and gender via metaphors of hair. He also does not like to be called sexist and doesn’t appreciate being lumped in with all the other sexists we know. He doesn’t like it when I talk about tone-policing, micro-aggression, or victim-blaming regarding something as superficial as a despot’s giant, preposterous wig, about which he is tired of reading.

Was the tallest style called the hedgehog? So what?

Was it so high they had to raise the doors to the cathedral like it was some kind of massive middle finger wobbling atop the heads of these ladies? Who cares?

Did the young queen try to make political statements by sticking a model warship of the Belle Poule frigate on top of the thing? Tragic, but boring.

Did some rich white woman tuck miniature figurines of a black slave breastfeeding the young duke into her pouffe alongside a replica of a beloved parrot eating cherries? Of course she did.

I tell him he’s proving my point. He tells me I’m proving his.

Everyone was looking at Marie Antoinette looking at everyone looking at herself. It’s like when I go to the office and he stays home with the kid and he sees no one all day and I try to keep my chin up as I stop and chat with colleague after colleague in our little cinderblock hall of mirrors of a general classroom building. He wants to know if I’d like to trade places. I would, but that Belle Poule frigate has sailed.

In the corridors of windowless geometry I pretend I never think about my hair or worry if it’s the hair of a frumpy woman no one wants to hear speak and also I try not to touch it while we’re talking business around the conference table. Those meetings must never include mention of how I only pretend not to think about my hair or worry how it’s affecting the way I am perceived, because around the conference table we’ve all agreed to pretend everything about us is exactly the same and anyway a man never wonders what I’m thinking about his hair and it’s been agreed I should try to be more like him.

When I pass the other women from this conference table in the hall, we often pause to complement each other’s dresses or shoes or hair, because it is a quick and easy way we know how to be pleasant and though it is boring, it is a relief to be successfully pleasant to someone you are passing in the hallway on the way to going where you wish to be. Like when Marie Antoinette ascended the scaffold, she stepped on the executioner’s toe and then she said, “Pardon me, sir, I did not mean to do it.” To which he replied, “No Madam, pardon me.”

Dear husband, I know a charm we can try that will help you help me brush out this tangle. If you will be my hairdresser, I will be yours and we will make a little circle of braiding like the girls do on the playground, each one saying something she heard about the one in front in a game of gossip telephone until all the metaphors are nothing but notions you can pin for decoration. You can cover your hair in butterflies, swarms of cupids, or marching squadrons. A melancholy person could choose a single crematory urn. Another sort could put a bird in a cage in there to sing from its little swinging perch. Whatever you want to be, now you can be that, within the confines of your hair.

Or, if you prefer, I will be like the princess was when she first arrived at court—the portrait shows her astride a horse, wearing pants, rearing up in emulation of the Sun King. I will not say I am worried about how such a symbol might be received. I will not mention the letters from my mother in Austria, chastising me to keep my figure and conceive an heir. We will never speak a word of my husband the prince, who for seven years has been unable to ejaculate into my body.

I will not foresee that after waiting so long for a child I could lose the love of the people by giving birth to a daughter and then baptizing her with all the pomp and expense they would have seen given a son. The Duc D’Orleans has been hording grain to foment the revolution, but I will not worry my pretty little head over this. Because it was forbidden by the King, I will not have read Diderot’s Encylopedia, including George Danton’s entry about wigs and why we need them – “All borders are dangerous. If left unguarded, our categories could collapse, and our world dissolve into chaos.” When the mob storms the palace, they will have loaves of bread on pikes. When the mob returns to Paris, they will have the heads of men on pikes and they will stop at the wigmaker’s on the way to have those heads powdered with flour.

We will step back a few feet in the gallery, my husband and I, holding hands and admiring the stallion’s wild eyes, my fearless bold gambit of a modest bun tucked beneath a jaunty and masculine costume, how it’s going to change everything. He will say, “Now that. That is interesting.”

Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of Virtue and Failing

When Charlotte Corday left for Paris after the September massacres, she was carrying a copy of Plutarch’s Lives and a kitchen knife with a six-inch blade.

Plagued by a chronic and debilitating skin condition that is never depicted in portraits, Jean-Paul Marat was known for conducting much of his business from his bath. There were rumors he bathed in the blood of his enemies. Jacques-Louis David’s 1793 painting, “The Death of Marat,” shows only his own reddening the tub. The picture is described as the first modernist painting for how it “took the stuff of politics as its material and did not transmute it.” To be sure, this is a painting with some journalistic integrity, although the artist moved the knife from Marat’s chest, where Charlotte Corday left it, to the floor. And he moved Charlotte Corday, who waited in a corner to be arrested, from the scene entirely. In Marat’s hand rests the note he had been reading: “Citizen, my extreme misery gives me a right to your benevolence.”

So ended the summer of 1793, when, fearful of what would happen if the invading armies of neighboring monarchs freed the prisoners of France, who would no doubt turn on the people in a murderous rage, Marat of the Mountain, as he was known, called on the draftees to kill the prisoners before they marched to the front lines. By September half the prison population of Paris was dead.

At her trial, Charlotte Corday said, “I killed 1 man to save 100,000.” Everyone in the room understood she was echoing Robespierre who said, “With regret I pronounce the fatal truth: Louis must die so that the nation may live,” and who would soon replace Marat at the head of the Terror.

Harper’s Weekly, covering the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 observed that Corday is the only assassin history has forgiven. And even she was a fool and a tool of her enemies. “The heart recoils, whatever the excuse, the instinct of mankind curses the assassin.” In the famous painting, Marat’s arm is draped over the lip of the tub like a mother whispering pieta. No one in the room of David’s portrait suffers except Marat.

When the executioner brought the red shirt and scissors, she cut her own hair and handed a lock to the court room artist who had been completing her portrait, begun at the trial only hours before.

There was much debate after her death about the color of her hair. Her passport says chestnut, but people wanted to believe it had been lightened by powder. In the portrait it is brown and covered with a bonnet.

After her decapitation, a carpenter who made repairs to the guillotine lifted her head from the basket and slapped her on the cheek. Witnesses reported an expression of “unequivocal indignation” came over her face. This man was imprisoned for three months for his actions by order of the Jacobin councils, which also called for her body to be autopsied for the purpose of determining if Charlotte Corday had been a virgin.

Reports indicate she was intact, which is one more fact that tells us nothing about whether she was virtuous or whether she failed.

On Horseback

As an exercise in empathy and imagination, I like to walk through portrait galleries and try to know each oil painting. I do this alone. In the Brun de Versoix of 1783, Marie Antoinette is riding in trousers.

If I were the kind of person who could stand going to the outlet mall with the ladies, I might appreciate the fashion statement in and of itself and I wouldn’t be rambling in the car to bored yawns about the political gambit at stake here. The stallion is drawn up into a bold rearing stance, in imitation of the heroic and mythologizing depictions of the Sun King. Would his grandson, Louis XV, notice the homage? Would he notice it just barely and be charmed or would he really notice and be outraged?

Young Marie Antoinette loved to ride because the court could not keep up with her and because what else did she have to do with her day after day? She rode astride because she was under the impression a queen could do as she wished.

Her mother, the empress of Austria, begged her to give it up. She sent a letter every week: “Riding spoils the complexion, and in the end your waistline will suffer from it. Furthermore, if you are riding like a man, dressed like a man, as I suspect you are, I have to tell you that I find it dangerous as well as bad for bearing children—and that is what you have been called upon to do; that will be the measure of your success.”

The letters do not address the problem that the dauphin would not deflower the dauphine because something was mysteriously amiss with his penis or his mind. Nor does the letter address the war Austria fought against France when the Empress Marie-Teresa, a woman, ascended the throne. She hardly speaks of the dozen cobbled-together marriages she arranged to make grandchildren of her enemies.

The Versoix is one of a great many portraits of Marie Antoinette. There is Marie with a book and Marie beneath a tower of her own hair. Marie with her children, Marie in a peasant dress. Marie as a cartoon of a fornicating ostrich, Marie riding a dildo over Paris, Marie looking haggard in the white shift that was the last dress she ever wore.

Fewer likenesses of Theroigne de Mericourt can be found, though even now for £14.58 you can buy a print of Ambrose Tardieu’s pencil sketch from Des Maladies Mentales. There were a great many portraits of women made across the decades at Saltpetriere, the asylum for women where mental maladies were considered scientifically; the collection only begins with Tardieu’s sketches. I’ve studied most closely the photographs from a century later, which they took of hysterics, trying to understand the physiognomy of lunacy. Not me, them. I am trying to understand indifference and cruelty.

When I pull the book of these photographs out of my bag to ask if it seems like the women might be pretending these faces to give the doctors what they want, it is clear I do not understand the purpose of a ladies’ day out. I’ve been alone in a house with a baby day after day for several months now, so I don’t know how else I could determine whether the faces of hysterical madness are really madness or just compliance, but I learn once more that I am too eager with my questions.

Theroigne de Mericourt is better known as the beautiful Amazon who led a band of starving women to the assault on Versailles. She went on horseback, astride, dressed as a man, to demand an audience of the king. She was so eager people whispered she was practically St. Joan, hysterical voices and all.

Before she had been Anne-Joseph Theroigne, a child who was hungry, then later, a housemaid who was bored. She added de Mericourt as an artifice when she followed a nobleman to England and began her serious studies of etiquette and coquetry and taste. When everyone was whispering about the dauphine’s refusal to wear the corset royal, Anne-Joseph knew enough to spit in the dirt of a queen who didn’t want to be queen.

After securing her financial future and her father’s and her brother’s through arrangements with former lovers, she went to Italy to perform opera, but when the revolution came “her insolent and rebellious character responded to and incarnated the revolt and protest of the masses. The frivolous courtesan was gone never to return.” Which is to say, she made her way to the front of the crowd.

She said when she broke into the apartments of “that Austrian woman,” Princess Lamballe looked like a lampshade running in those skirts, while Marie Antoinette shed powder from her falling-down hair as she fled.

As the revolution went on it became hard to choose the right side. Theroigne went with the Brisotins against the Jacobins. The Brisotins were moderate on the subject of executions and anarchy. Of course my sentiments lean towards the Brisotins too, but isn’t it naïve to think there could be half-measures when the wealth and power of the landed gentry was at stake? We’re eating soup and salads at the Olive Garden, shopping bags in a little pile around the legs of our chairs. No one can understand why I’m still going on about this.

Once Anne had helped a mob trample a nobleman and he died under her feet. She called the women of the revolution from their homes to organize and march, to form battalions, to fight as the men fight. The women came, which caused problems with the men who wanted equality and liberty but also meant brotherhood when they said brotherhood. Anne, the traitorous Brisotin woman was only a temporary problem, though, because it was women who soon stripped her in the square and women who flogged her. When she died, it was in the Saltpetriere, where women surrounded her and it is said their cacophony of wild screams is more than anyone could bear.

Kathryn Nuernberger’s third poetry collection, Rue, is forthcoming in Spring 2020 (BOA). The End of Pink (BOA, 2016), won the 2015 James Laughlin prize from the Academy of American Poets, and Rag & Bone (Elixir, 2011), won the 2010 Antivenom Prize. A collection of lyric essays, Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past (Ohio State University Press, 2017), won the Non/Fiction Prize from The Journal. She teaches in the MFA Program at University of Minnesota, and has received grants from the NEA, American Antiquarian Society and the Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life.


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