Lynn Hunt’s “The Family Romance of the French Revolution” is a fascinating book. The author makes a series of fascinating observations, but I feel her approach undermines the work, to an extent.
Now, I’m not one of those historians who see Freud’s name and read it as a red flag , but at the same time, I find myself uncertain what specific advantage was had by using Freudian terminology—especially when one uses them so loosely.
The family romance is, in Freud, an ideation of another, better family in childhood, one that also can be understood to give permission to Oedipal conflict—these are not your real parents, you are absolved from guilt for lusting for your mother or wanting to kill/displace the father. Yet Hunt does not focus on individual subjects, but instead looks primarily at broad public political discourse. With this sort of strange synecdoche, Hunt has to radically alter the meaning of the phrase to adapt it to the broader “political unconscious.” Despite the terminology, Freud’s work is very quickly relegated to the status of a jumping-off point of sorts. Much of the depth of the phrase’s meaning is sapped, and with that depth, the level to which this writing-large of a personal mindstate is lost. The comparison can’t really go into other parts of Freudian theory—and she admittedly avoids most Freudian theory (7-8).
Moreover, the key elements of her thesis—that there are strong parallels and connectivities between ideas of regicide and patricide, republicanism and being orphaned brothers, that the revolution represented a moment where ideas of femininity and motherhood had to be re-thought and re-cast, and that pornography represented at that time a liminal space for both politics and social mores—all can be demonstrated by looking at the texts she considers. If the terms, connectivities, parallels, and conflations that make up her argument can all be proven by analyzing the rhetoric of the times, why introduce the muddled Freudian theory? What does it really add?
Hunt wrote this book in the 1990s, looking at the 1790s, and to me, doing so through the filter of a book written in 1913 seems a sort of double-anachronism. Freud had already fallen largely out of favor by the time of this writing—even in France, analysis hasn’t fallen by the wayside to pills and counseling as it has in the US, most traditional analysts had moved past Freud to Lacan. When the methods of cultural theory and textual analysis would suffice—and one might argue, would give more room for the voices of the historical subject to speak their own truths—why insert this bastardization of Freudian theory?
(I don’t feel like going into this in any depth at the moment, but another trend in the academy that was rising at the time this was written that could have greatly strengthened this book would be reader-response. While Hunt acknowledges certain factors that could make this difficult—namely the paucity of information regarding circulation, publishing numbers, etc, looking a bit more closely at what groups the key texts seem to have interpolated could have given a richness to the analysis that would have been interesting.)