Steven Blakemore. Burke and the Fall of Language: The French Revolution as Linguistic Event. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1988. 115 pp. $20.
Starting with the basic premise that linguistic interpretations of revolutions are as viable and important as economic, sociopolitical, or ideological ones, Steven Blakemore’s book contributes to revisionist critiques of the French Revolution. Burke and the Fall of Language explores the language of revolutionary and counterrevolutionary discourse. Although Blakemore focuses on Burkean texts and themes, he also analyzes the “special linguistic self-consciousness” (2) that shapes all visions of the revolution. While the author makes no mention of Blake (nor of literary tradition per se), this exploration of the nexus between language and ideology contributes much to a methodology for analyzing Blake’s revolutionary texts. Not only has Blakemore assembled valuable historical material, for instance on the debates over constitution, authority, and patriarchy, but also his contextualizing of the poles of revolutionary and counterrevolutionary texts amidst these themes provides a revealing, albeit narrowly focused, account.
The title, which implies that language is the unified focus of study, is misleading in that only the last half of the slender book deals specifically with the language of revolution. The first three of the six chapters offer background information on what the author considers the significant bases of the arguments and how Burke and Paine exploit various topoi for their respective begin page 103 | political purposes. For example, Burke argues for a constitution that exists “time out of mind” (8) in an unwritten past preserving traditional meanings whereas Paine insists that a constitution’s legitimacy comes from writing, as evidenced by the American colonists’ document. Legitimacy of governmental authority is also “proven” by both sides through an argument from origins. Burke’s authority rests in an “ancient” origin that is “unknowable and hence fruitless to trace” (21). Blakemore points out that Paine strategically emphasizes a Biblical myth of origins that predates Burke’s abstract “ancient” sources. This answer to Burke is very similar to the way in which Blake’s French Revolution emphasizes France’s “ancient” liberties (as Michael Ferber has noted, the word carries a largely Burkean resonance throughout the poem). Finally, Blakemore contrasts how the language of patriarchy is used by both sides. Burke had used this argument in defense of the American revolution, but Blakemore notes this change of heart: “Whereas Burke envisions the American Revolution as the oppressive father denying the American child his constitutional rights, he envisions the French Revolution as a revolt of the child against his natural parents” (38).
Although the historical topics of the first half are rewarding, the last half of the book is even more so as Blakemore delves into the connection between language and ideology by examining Burke’s belief that revolutionary criticism of government, religion, and, above all, language means a fall from innocence; a “stripping of linguistic veils” (70) actually creates chaos. Thus the revolution as a radical linguistic event was one that upset the entire worldview. Blakemore discusses specific historical linguistic arguments over classical versus vernacular language, the establishment of a new “national” language, and the renaming of the French calendar and streets. In fact, the revolutionaries wanted a demystification of language that would change the title French King to “king of the French,” so that common men would not be, as Paine said, “immured in the Bastille of a word.” The final chapter, which is somewhat loosely joined to the rest of the book (perhaps due to its being printed earlier in Eighteenth-Century Studies) explores Burke’s nostalgia for the aristocracy in terms of language and his fear that revolution would create a second Babel or worse.
Throughout the book, Blakemore keeps his eye on Burke’s “majestic presence,” and this not so subtle reverence for Burke may annoy some readers, but the well-written final chapter successfully argues for Burke’s “modern” sensitivity to language. Blakemore’s study, aside from its value as a compendium of important revolutionary arguments of Burke and Paine, employs a rewarding method of interpreting discourse as a dialectic in sociopolitical reality, a strategy especially fruitful in Blake studies, as Blake directly and indirectly reinterprets Locke, Newton, and Burke. Blakemore’s study intends uppermost to remind us how much language alters our perception of reality and, indeed, that any interpretation of history or literature is “bounded by the very language that expresses it” (105).