Vol. 7

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.”

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