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The Dust of Confusion

In his new book, Peter Starr explores the Paris Commune of 1871, its origins in an era of befuddlement and social upheaval, and its legacy in literature and film.

The Dust of Confusion

For decades, ideologues have vilified the Paris Commune of 1871 as a hotbed of madness, anarchy and confusion.

The Communards — who overtook the French government and ruled France for a brief 70 days before dying in a blaze of fire and bloodshed — have been dismissed as barbarians, monsters, animals, bandits, alcoholics, hysterics and even perverts.

In Commemorating Trauma: The Paris Commune & Its Cultural Aftermath (Fordham University Press, 2006), USC College Dean Peter Starr offers a different take.

“What if we read confusion, not as a sign of cognitive weakness, but rather as the metaphor for a generalized malaise characteristic of a traumatic moment in late 19th century France?” says Starr, professor of French and comparative literature, of the premise of his book.

Scouring literary, cinematic and historical works, Starr follows the trope of confusion to gain a deeper understanding of the cultural trauma of 1870-1871, a tumultuous period of French history that included the Franco-Prussian War, the siege of Paris and the Paris Commune.  

“How," he asks, "does confusion define that founding moment we have come to know as the Terrible Year?"

In a book that is already required reading in a French history course at the University of York, Starr explores what the representation of confusion in various works has to tell us about the forces of social upheaval that have effectively shaped modern France — such as democratization, an evolving revolutionism and the development of capitalist logics of commerce.

In French literature, no work explores the origin of confusion in the events of l’année terrible as fully and insightfully as Emile Zola’s La Débâcle, Starr argues.

“Never had there been a greater muddle, nor more anxiety,” Zola writes in this 1892 novel about the Franco-Prussian War and subsequent Paris Commune.  

The Communard insurrection against the French government occurred after the collapse of Louis-Napoleon’s Second Empire and France's defeat to Bismarck's Prussia. Fearing that a conservative majority would restore the monarchy, revolutionaries formed a communal government. After fierce fighting, government forces crushed the Communards, leaving about 20,000 insurrectionists and 750 government troops dead.

In La Débâcle, Zola meticulously details the disarray of a French army ill-provisioned to the point of lacking a map of their own nation and led by a “shadow emperor.”

The novel’s protagonist, Maurice Levasseur, repeatedly addresses the theme of confusion. For example, at the start of the battle of Sedan, which resulted in the emperor’s capture, Levasseur reflects upon “the confusion and final chaos into which the army was falling, with no chief, no plan, pulled in every direction, while the Germans were making straight for their goal with their clear judgment and machine-like precision.”
 
Starr concludes that, of all confusions identified in Zola’s novel, “the melancholic confusion of the reasonable and the feverish, of ‘us’ and ‘them’, is clearly the most significant.”

Commemorating Trauma is Starr’s second book to delve into a key moment in French political and cultural history. His earlier Logics of Failed Revolt: French Theory After May ’68 (Stanford University Press, 1995) examines the cultural effect of the supposed failure of the revolutionary moment of May 1968 in France, when a series of student strikes briefly threatened to overturn the government of Charles de Gaulle.

In his next book, Starr will explore how paranoia continues to define the products of contemporary American culture.