THE GUILLOTINE AND THE TERROR by Daniel Arasse

THE GUILLOTINE AND THE TERROR

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KIRKUS REVIEW

As France's revolutionary bicentenary--and its outpouring of related books--winds down, Arasse, a staffer of the French Institute in Florence, offers a detailed examination of the role of the guillotine during the five years after the Revolution. Called by Victor Hugo a ""kind of monster created by the judge and the craftsman,"" the human chopping block has inspired fear and loathing through the ages. After mutating over a period of centuries in places as diverse as Spain, Scotland, and Rome, the deadly machine became a French institution (ironically bearing the name of a medical man--Joseph Ignace Guillotin--who adapted old designs into a humanitarian alternative to the wheel and other grisly forms of torture), achieving infamy during the Jacobin Terror. Here, Arasse analyzes the guillotine in its various aspects: philosophical (""fearful machinery/easy death. . .a retention of the deterrent value of capital punishment while mitigating the suffering caused""); theatrical (in the literature of the instrument, the spectacle that it caused has often been compared to a morality play; Arasse follows its flight into traditional theater, even in childish puppet shows, such as Punchinello's guillotining); medical (great controversy erupted during the Terror as to whether the separated head was, indeed, dead--or whether it could actually observe its own tragedy, or even speak); mechanical (the speed of its dispatch: ""the 'instant of the guillotine' spared the victim suffering and the spectator a horrific spectacle""); and, of course, political (especially its ultimate use as an instrument of regicide in the death of Louis XVI, as well as its canonization by revolutionists: ""Saint Guillotine, protectress of patriots, pray for us/Saint Guillotine, terror of the aristocrats, protect us""). Sixteen pages of b&w illustrations round out Arasse's well-researched, sanguinary account of the form of capital punishment that, above any other, impressed citizenry with the utter finality of the law.

Pub Date: Jan. 15th, 1989
Publisher: Allen Lane--dist. by Viking