Jean-Paul Marat

On New Year’s morning, for reasons then unknown, I woke up with a mental image of the painting by Jacques-Louis David of Jean Paul Marat, murdered in his bath tub by Charlotte Corday  227 years ago. 

 

You may be familiar with the painting.  Marat droops to one side, a green drape covers most of the tub, a quill dangles in his right hand, and a sheet of paper in his left hand lists Girondin leaders who, he had just promised his assassin, would be sent to the guillotine within the week. 

 

David completed his work four months after the assassination and it was as he imagined or wanted it to have happened. His image, very much in the Classical Romantic style,  is radically different to an etching by Domenico Pellegrini, completed at the same time, but it is the former that is best known, to the point that we accept it as the way it actually occurred, ignoring the license of the artists’ imagination and the  biases that came with the commission. David and Marat knew each other well - both were members of the National Convention -  but there is no hint in the painting of what is described as Marat’s ‘hideous visage’ so as not to detract from his rapidly rising heroic status.   A political martyr was created and the painting stands, in the words of Albert Boime, as "a moving testimony to what can be achieved when an artist's political convictions are directly manifested in his work.”  

 

What was that it persuaded a young woman from the provinces,  physically beautiful by all accounts,  to assassinate him, and does our perception of the painting change when it is placed in a larger context?

 

Jean Paul Marat was born in 1743 in what is now Switzerland, with several physical deformities (he was less than 5’ tall with a head too big for his body) and scrofulosis, a skin disease that causes severe itching. Clearly he was intelligent, well educated in a variety of fields, and attracted attention not least for his fearsome temper - in one case he was rescued by the intervention of none other than Johann Goethe.  

 

Shortly after the outbreak of the French Revolution in May, 1789, Marat published L’Ami du Peuple, a newspaper which quickly became the voice of the revolutionaries. He described real or alleged opponents of the revolution as public enemies and,  by publishing their names, effectively handed them over to the people for revenge. An order was issued for his arrest in October, and after a period of hide and seek with the police, during which he aggravated his scorfulosis by occasionally hiding in the Paris sewers, he was interrogated and released in time to become a member of the Jacobin Club. One year later he was elected to the National Convention, a political body which many see as the culmination of the ideals of the Revolution. 

 

The September Massacres of 1792, sparked by fear as the new revolutionary army suffered a series of defeats against conservative forces, introduced a violent and cruel aspect to the Revolution, for which Marat was held by many, including his future assassin,  to be responsible.  Masses of revolutionaries stormed the prisons and killed not only opponents of the revolution but also many  politically innocent prisoners, including women, priests, and children. 

 

Marie-Anne Charlotte de Corday d’Armont, was born in Caen, Normandy, in 1768. Descended from a minor noble family, educated in a convent and royalist by sentiment, she was familiar with the ideals of the Enlightenment after encountering the writings of Plutarch, Voltaire and Rousseau in the Abbey library attached to the convent. In 1792 Caen had become a haven for the Girondins (the prime opponents of the Jacobins) and in May, 1793, aged 24, Charlotte left for Paris, theoretically to work for the Girondin cause but in practice with only one thing on her mind. 

 

She had given much thought as to how to kill Marat and thus, she hoped, end the  violence. “I killed one man to save a hundred thousand,” she was to say at her trial. She chose July 14th, the fourth anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille, and planned to stab him in front of the National Assembly.  But Marat was confined  to his house by his scrofulosis, and under the pretext that she wanted to denounce some Girondists from her hometown, she talked her way into his apartment.  Marat could write best in a bath, comforted by the warmth of the water, which is where she found him. After a short conversation, she stabbed him in the throat and chest with such force that a large artery ruptured and Marat died almost immediately.   

 

Charlotte was arrested on site without resistance.   She appeared before the Revolutionary Tribunal, serene and composed, and went to the guillotine three days later. 

 

How Charlotte Corday was viewed at the time  depended on party affiliation. The Jacobins were appalled and sought to denigrate her name. Royalists looked upon Corday as a naive martyr, an innocent caught up in the intense emotions of the times, while the Girondins found her deed heroic but also deprecated what they called “the useless crime.” The more immediate impact was that the Reign of Terror intensified, Marat became a martyr, his bust replaced a religious statue in Paris and a number of place names were changed to honor him.

 

So, how does this relate to honey bees?   First, just as David’s Romantic-style painting created the lens through which many still view the event of July 14, 1793, what is the equivalent lens through which each of us views honey bees?   How are our earliest impressions formed, how pervasive and how accurate are they?  Are they idealized and fanciful with an element of truth woven into the poetic license, or are they sober, practical and faithful to reality?  Perhaps they are as fanciful as the writings and illustrations of A.A.Milne, of Winnie the Pooh and a pot labeled “Hunny,” but I suspect that today they are from the media and that they are of dubious accuracy (the Seinfeld Bee Movie, for example.)   I am struck by how afraid my 4 year old grandson is of ‘bugs’ - all bugs - which he is convinced will hurt him; his tow older siblings do not have this anxiety.   Or of the mother who pulled her young son away from an observation hive saying that he would get stung if he went close.   Certainly some caution is necessary in the interests of survival, but what will it take to nullify such early messages of unbounded fear?

 

Secondly, the names Corday and Marat are frequent occurrences in crossword puzzles, and there might be some understanding of their historical roles from various history classes, but what changes when one expands the context, even in a summary as cursory as the one above?  

 

Sometimes it takes a tragedy to attract attention. Because of  the publicity surrounding Colony Collapse Disorder, there has been an increased awareness of terms like bees (often in an alarmist sense, such as the quote misattributed to Einstein,)  pollination and honey.  A realization of the distance bees need to fly to collect the nectar to make one pound of honey, or the number of flowers visited, instigates an appreciation not only of the industry of the honey bee but also of the monetary value of the produce (not least if one adds that should the bees charge us minimum wage for their efforts, that same jar of honey would cost in excess of one million dollars! )  Knowledge of the ingredients of honey increase the awareness of its value as a food source and a medicinal resource rather than simply as a sweetener.  A sensitivity towards the role and relative value of pollination in terms of what we eat, never mind the susceptibility of bees of all kinds to monocultures, chemicals and pathogens, helps us appreciate those things that we do not witness first-hand and which can so easily be taken for granted. 

 

The awareness that honey bees are defensive, compared to wasps and hornets, can lead to the tolerance and appreciation that comes with understanding, never mind the ability to distinguish say between a honey bee and a yellow jacket and to respond appropriately.  

 

But most importantly the more one delves into the world of the honey bee the more one becomes environmentally sensitive and can thus make opportune decisions as to where and how one spends one’s money, which is the real power each of us has. 

 

Like Charlotte Corday, those who were passionate about the state of the environment were initially  denigrated with terms like ‘tree huggers.’  Some viewed them as naive idealists, even trouble-mongers, and others as heroic but impractical. Meanwhile climate change (or what  the late writer, Nadine Gordimer, called ‘an environmental holocaust’) has continued, with horrific results dramatically illustrated by the Australian bush fires (a billion animals are estimated to have died in those fires, and the habitat and food sources for many more have been destroyed,) while one young woman, seven years younger than was Charlotte, was named 2019 Person of the Year by Times Magazine - Greta Thurnberg.   Both women are characterized as audacious and confident, both feature a personal crusade, and Greta’s words are as pointed as was Charlotte’s knife. 

 

No Virginia, apples don’t come from aisle 8 in the supermarket.  You and I are here because of a few inches of vulnerable top soil that are threatened as never before by  monocultures, the agri-chemical industries, and a rather selfish life style. Life - all life - is the result of a delicate balance  that has taken millions of years to create, and we destroy it at our peril.  Beekeepers have witnessed these threats first hand for several decades; like a romantic painting, a small insect  can encapsulate something so much more comprehensive than itself. I understand a little better the message of that mental image on January 1 :  the challenge is to keep searching for the bigger context, which means peeling  away the layers that others, with their own agendas and partisanship, use to distract us from the core issues. 

 

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