Hands, heads and revolution

As readers of the blog already know, I am at work on a novel about the Paris Commune of 1871. This is not intended as escape literature, to take our minds off present crises, but rather as its opposite: as a way to rethink and interpret conflicts that are occurring around us now. It is also an opportunity to examine how our daily routines — the ways we work and communicate —shape our political and other views.

In the course of research, I discovered that the two most revolutionary groups of workers in Paris were the bronze workers and bookbinders, the latter organized by Eugène Varlin and, for the many women in that trade, Nathalie Le Mel. What a man or woman does with the hands, and the context of one's daily work routines, must explain much about how that person sees the world. So this is what I'm trying to learn now.

I have some idea of how the bronze workers worked in that period, and hope to learn more. These men (and they were all men) molded not only chandeliers, kitchen basins and cookware, bathroom fixtures and (for the bourgeois) ornaments, statuary and pretty clocks like the one at left; they were also the men who fashioned the cannons that defended Paris.

But the bookbinders (both men and women) are especially interesting, both because of the extraordinary personality of Varlin and because, by the very nature of their work, they had contact with the written word. I want to know what it would be like for, say, a young apprentice bookbinder with an 11-hour workday in an atelier of 20 or 30 laborers when a big order came in. What was the order of work, from the time the printed sheets came in to the final ornamentation of the cover? And how difficult was it to operate presses and clamps, knife, guillotine, sewing frames, gluing, etc.? What impressions — of literature, politics or philosophy — might the apprentice retain from glimpses of the pages he was required to bind? Besides consulting library and museum sources in Paris and Madrid, I hope to learn from people living today who are actually doing that sort of work.

This was the first great urban revolt in a modern metropolis (Paris 1871 as opposed to pre-industrial 1789), the first city-wide socialist reform movement ever put into practice (public education and health, labor rights, democratic procedure), and a demonstration of the capacity of ordinary workers with ingenuity and good will to run a city of over a million inhabitants. A close examination of the work lives and home lives of those ordinary workers should help us understand this enormous phenomenon.

The Commune and its defenders were annihilated in street-by-street fighting during the “week of blood” (May 21-28, 1871), demonstrating the precariousness of revolt and the ruthlessness and duplicity of threatened regimes everywhere. But despite that, because of its accomplishments and its declared though unfulfilled programs during its brief life (just over two months), the Commune has continued to serve as a model for aspirations of social justice in  revolutionary movements ever since.

For newcomers to this blog, my previous novel, A Gift for the Sultan, was about a much earlier great urban crisis, in Constantinople just 51 years before its capture by the Ottomans. That book has now also been translated and published in Turkish as Bir cihan, iki sultan (“One world, two sultans”).  I now think of that novel as practice for this one, about the Paris Commune of 1871.


Censor this? No, keep the press free

I just received a call to join a censorship campaign against Richard Cohen: Group Calls for the Washington Post to Fire Columnist Richard Cohen Over Remarks on Interracial Marriage

Outrage After Washington Post Columnist “Represses Gag Reflex” Discussing NYC Mayor de Blasio’s Interracial Marriage

Seems like some people get outraged awfully easily. Maybe they should just take a deep breath and learn to read. The sentences that caused the outrage I quote below.
Richard Cohen: Christie’s tea party problem - The Washington Post: "…People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all."

My response:

 (1) I don't see how de Blasio, Chirlane or anybody else could take offense; Cohen is not saying he gagged, but describing what he imagines (correctly, I fear) to be the reaction of "People with conventional [sic] views". Well, conventions are different in different places. Not the views of New Yorkers, obviously; they voted for him.
(2) And even if a columnist offends me, I'm not going to demand to shut him up, but rather to have an opportunity to reply. I'm with Voltaire on this principle.