Monday, July 14, 2008

July 14

By all accounts, the Bastille was a godforsaken chasm before an assembly of Parisians smashed its gates and burnt it to the ground on this date in 1789. Originally cast as a stone fortress for the protection of the city, the 15th century towers had evolved over time into a symbol of the monarchy’s immense despotism toward its own people. Throughout the 17th and 18th century, the Bastille served as the temporary home for rebellious aristocrats, religious dissenters, petty thieves, spies, as well as anyone who offended royal ministers or other representatives of an increasingly despotic state.

In the century before its destruction, the Bastille was the subject of dozens of accounts written by former inmates who detailed its horrors to audiences throughout Europe. The most famous of these, Simon-Nicolas-Henri Linguet’s Memoirs of the Bastille (1783), is widely though erroneously celebrated as the book responsible for the prison’s demise. The Bastille, while loathed by ordinary French citizens, would not have been worth the efforts of its vainqueurs had it not been for the 15 tons of gunpowder it contained. Still, Linguet’s narrative remains a fascinating, if frequently bathetic account of daily life in one of the most notorious detention facilities in human history.
It is in this total silence, I must again repeat it, in this general desolation, in this void of a silence more cruel than death, since it does not exclude grief, but rather engenders every kind of grief; it is in this universal abomination, it cannot be repeated too often, that what is called a Prisoner of State in the Bastille, that is, a man who has displeased a Minister, a Clerk in office or a Valet, is given up without resource, without any other diversion but his own thoughts or his alarms, to the most bitter sentiment that can agitate a heart yet undegraded by criminality,; that of oppressed innocence, which foresees its destruction without the possibility of a vindication; it is thence that he may fruitlessly implore the succor of the laws, the communication of what he is accused of, the interference of his friends; his prayers, his supplications, his groans are not only uttered in vain; but even acknowledged by his tyrants to be useless; and this is the only information they vouchsafe him. Abandoned to all the horror of listlessness, of inaction, he is daily sensible of the approaching close to his existence; and he is at the same time sensible, that they prolong it only to prolong his punishment.

Only seven prisoners remained in the Bastille by the time hundreds of laborers and merchants –- shopkeepers, cabinet-makers, cobblers, locksmiths and joiners –- captured the facility and dismembered its governor, Bernard-René de Launay. The victorious forces then attached de Launay’s head to a pike and hoisted it through the streets of Paris along with the keys to the main gate. They added six other heads to the procession, matching the number of prisoners liberated in the event. (It is uncertain where the other heads came from. Aside from de Launay, only one other garrison soldier perished in the fight for the Bastille.)

Over the next few months, Parisians dismantled the prison stone by stone, leaving a single cell behind as a reminder.