Fatal Purity (Book Review)

Portrait of RobespierreWhen I was a junior in high school I took a quarter-long course in psychology. One of our assignments required that we write an essay on someone who we admire. My initial choice was Maximilian Robespierre, the French Revolutionist and incorruptible Jacobin so widely reviled for the Reign of Terror, but my father expressed concern that my earnest admiration for Robespierre’s steadfast virtues might be misunderstood, and so I settled on Ed Wood.

My fascination with Robespierre has never died and upon recalling this little anecdote a few months ago, I searched out and discovered a 2006 biography about the man, appropriately titled Fatal Purity. Ruth Scurr, the author, is a journalist and because of this infamously dubious occupation one might suspect her loyalty to the facts but she abundantly demonstrates her allegiance and a mature understanding of history. In the introduction she explains the difficulties that befall the biographer and informs the reader throughout the book where and from whom information was obtained, whether the information is consistent with other accounts and reliable or if it came from Robespierre’s sister Charlotte. In some instances she offers multiple versions of an event if neither account can be fully substantiated, such as the two different stories explaining how Robespierre injured his jaw.

When I was younger I was attracted to Robespierre because his virtuous character inspired me towards an ideal morality free from doubt but as Ronespierre’s life certainly proves he was more than merely certain, he was uncompromisingly so, and misinterpreted disagreement as disloyalty and responded to it first with condemnation and eventually with execution. So far as we know, he was indeed incorruptible (in the height of his political power people did indeed try to scandalize his reputation but to no avail) but his purity definitely proved to be fatal. He was not quite the villain I was led to believe he was; the violence he later condoned (despite years of pacifism and opposition to the death penalty) was all at one with the violent turbulence of the revolution but what most impresses me about his life is the astonishing strength of the social forces that shape history and the actions of it actors.

They say history is written by the winners (now it is written by Hollywood) but, at least in this case, it is more accurate to say that it is written by whoever survives the guillotine.