Today is Bastille Day, July 14, 2011: Vive la liberté! Hourra pour les droits des êtres humains!
Last night, as part of its Film Noir repetoire, the Madison Chamber Orchestra during its weekly Concerts on the Square, played the theme music from Casablanca. I don’t think that it was a accident because today is Bastille Day, marking the storming of that prison castle in the middle of Paris that imprisoned and tortured many (since the 14th century) in the name of the royal regime. Let’s say that the storming and the freeing of the remaining prisoners inside on July 14, 1789 and especially, its demolition until not one stone remained on another would be the equivalent of the storming and/or demolition of Abu Ghraib in Iraq or Lubyanka Prison in Russia or the Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam.
This is the most famous of all the scenes in Casablanca, in which Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), the scars still fresh on his face from his incarceration and torture in a Nazi concentration camp, leads the orchestra and the patrons of Rick’s Cafe in singing “La Marseillaise,” which is the national anthem of France. The whole scene is a picture of defiance against Naziism, and the singing of the German patriotic song, “Die Wacht am Rhein,” a song from the time of the Franco-Prussian War through World War I.
“Die Wacht am Rhein” is replete with references to fighting and defeating the French, which the Prussians did at Sedan in 1870, thus helping to create the first German Empire and Kaiser. That is why this song was so insulting to the dozens of French as well as international political and social refugees and activists, tourists and just plain folks present who had run from the Nazi invaders, and were still waiting to get to the Americas. It is also broadly hinted that Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) was probably on the Loyalist side during the Spanish Civil War, or even a soldier sympathizer in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
I used to know the words by heart, in French, of “La Marseillaise.” In English, however, this song is pretty martial and bloody. It is a song of revenge as well. According to Wikipedia, it was written and composed by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle in 1792. It was dedicated to a French general who commanded the revolutionary armies against those of Germany and Austria. The song has undergone several arrangements over the centuries, and was banned by Napoleon I as well as the restored Bourbons, and by Napoleon III. When the latter was toppled in 1871, the Paris Commune readopted the song as its anthem, after it had acquired international fame in other European uprisings. Eight years later, “La Marsaillaise” regained its status as the French national anthem.
This is the song in French, and with an English translation:
|Allons enfants de la Patrie,||Arise, children of the Fatherland,|
|Le jour de gloire est arrivé !||The day of glory has arrived!|
|Contre nous de la tyrannie,||Against us of the tyranny|
|L’étendard sanglant est levé, (bis)||The bloody banner is raised, (repeat)|
|Entendez-vous dans les campagnes||Do you hear, in the countryside,|
|Mugir ces féroces soldats ?||The roar of those ferocious soldiers?|
|Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras||They’re coming right into your arms|
|Égorger vos fils et vos compagnes !||To slit off the throats your sons and your companions!|
|Aux armes, citoyens,||To arms, citizens,|
|Formez vos bataillons,||Form your battalions,|
|Marchons, marchons !||Let’s march, let’s march!|
|Qu’un sang impur||That a tainted blood|
|Abreuve nos sillons !||Water our furrows!|
I think Americans should ponder what they think about the French, since their Revolution was the first instance of the American Revolution being brought to European shores. (We conveniently forget that we gave the Haitian slaves, and the Spanish and Portuguese criollos as well as the black American enslaved something to strive for in the late 18th century, too.) Additionally, it was the Bourbon King of France, Louis XVI, who gave money, arms and assistance to the Founding Daddies years before, which culminated in a decisive victory for our side, and led to the creation of the United States.
Unfortunately, lending all that help to dig a knife into their enemies the British also led to the deaths of Louis, his wife Marie Antoinette, his little son and heir, and many of their relatives and friends during the French Revolution. This is not to excuse the fact that some of the royals and nobles were corrupt, parasitical, incapable of leadership, cruel and greedy, and hell-bent on squeezing every bit from the masses. But it was a horrible time to be a human being. There were years of violence, anarchy, famine and destruction before the Revolution and the Reign of Terror finally petered out. Napoleon Bonaparte, however, is another discussion entirely.
Today, pieces of the Bastille still remain. Giant stones can be found, half-hidden by shrubbery and trees, on the Boulevard Henri IV in Paris, for example. The Pont de la Concorde, an arch bridge over the Seine, was constructed with its stones. A replica of the castle was carved from one of its stones and can be found at the Carnavalet Museum.
Yet the idea of protecting people from harm, from want, from dehumanization, and from structures of totalitarianism also still survives. That’s what “La Marseillaise” means to me; and that is what Bastille Day means to me as well.
- Op-Ed Contributor: Vive la Similarité (nytimes.com)
- New Statesman – Top 20 Political Songs (mcsotos.wordpress.com)
- 17 French Style Icons In Honor Of Bastille Day (PHOTOS, POLL) (huffingtonpost.com)
- 6 National Anthems That Will Make You Tremble With Fear (chigiaolang.wordpress.com)