Sep 19, 2006

Back and bigger than ever

Camille Paglia on the resurgence of interest in Marie Antoinette.
In this period of bland, gender-neutral ideology in the workplace, the Marie Antoinette milieu may offer the archaic fantasy of sophisticated womanly wiles and the alluring arts of seduction. At times, the novels about Marie Antoinette seem to recall Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, with its epic panorama of the destruction of a pleasure-driven, heedlessly exploitative civilization. But Scarlett O'Hara, of course, survived through spunk and grit. The picture of an innocent Marie Antoinette as scapegoat, facing down her accusers and led to the slaughter, is reminiscent of plays and films about Joan of Arc, which used to be much more in circulation. There are also resemblances to Princess Diana, who was similarly recruited for royal procreation and found herself lost in a cunning, deceptive courtly maze. And like Marie Antoinette, Diana came to a violent end in Paris.

After 9/11 — when great towers fell, like the Bastille, in a day — coping for the professional class has required cognitive dissonance. Life's routine goes on amid a surreal bombardment of bulletins about mutilations and massacres. When since the Reign of Terror has ritual decapitation become such a constant? The fury and cruelty of the French mob were strangely mixed with laughter — as when the severed head of Marie Antoinette's friend, the Princesse de Lamballe, was spruced up by a hairdresser and waved on a pike outside the royal family's window. These are the grisly surprises that now greet us every day through our own windows — the glass monitors of TV's and PC's. The return of Marie Antoinette suggests that there are political forces at work in the world that Western humanism does not fully understand and that it may not be able to control.

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