Sunday, January 12, 2014

Revolution ("Marie Antoinette's Head" by Will Bashor)

As someone who is predisposed to hating hair as the focus of any scholarship, simply because I myself am genetically predisposed to having very little of it within the next few years, reading a book not only about hair but the most famous dresser of hair in history seemed like an interesting challenge. After all, Will Bashor has written 250 pages almost entirely about the relationship between Marie Antoinette and her hairdresser, a long-forgotten Frenchman by the name of Leonard Autie; the next challenge--the obvious challenge--would be to see how long a reader not especially interested in hair or its history would be willing to go before giving up.

Thankfully--surprisingly--Bashor's book reads less like archaic history and more like a Harlequin romance novel with academic citations. The historical figures featured in its pages are brash, haughty, vicious, pitiful, jealous, and sexually unquenchable. The circle of attendants who looked after Marie Antoinette was populated by what we'd today refer to as drama queens, ass-kissers, and backstabbers; more often than not, they saw their position in the palace in terms of their own futures, and any outsiders were a threat to their standing in the realm of wealth and power. Marie Antoinette herself is presented as a impulsive teenage girl who spurns queenly etiquette in favor of romping with young children, riding horses, and seducing her attractive and similarly-aged brother-in-law. (Though Bashor goes to great lengths to present this information only as it was recorded--that is, with great vagueness and couchings--the suggestions are clear.)

When we think of centuries-old France, especially the years leading up to its revolution--the years depicted herein--we like to think cinematically:  powdered hair and faces, dainty movements, overblown fashions and lush architecture, and social customs so rigid that any lascivious behavior would seem almost impossible. (After all, conducting an affair of any kind would require quite a bit of clever manuevering,  with bodies wrapped as they were in ridiculous layers of clothing.)  As Bashor enjoys disproving, often through the pages of Autie's own journal, pre-revolution France--at least for those lucky enough to be upper-class--was a realm of wealth and debauchery more befitting Caligula-era Rome or 1970s New York City than the Paris of artistic fantasy and literary illusion. Had there been television in the 18th century, there certainly would've been cameras at Versailles, and the ensuing show would've been a resounding and entertaining success.

What gives Bashor's book its edge is how utterly unbelievable Autie's life seems, and the fact that such an unimpressive man holding such an unimpressive position--hairdresser to the queen--could scale to such heights, earning enough money and trust to build his own massive theatre and becoming recognized throughout France's upper class as a sort of social mark, speaks to just how illogical and other-worldly pre-revolution France actually was. We like to think of that era in terms of Marie Antoinette's "Let them eat cake" quote--a fallacious offhand comment that speaks to the royals' detachment from their starving, impoverished population--and Bashor's book proves their detachment was no historical distortion. But it also supports the cliche about never forgetting history lest we be doomed to repeat it. Autie survives the revolution--though Bashor is forced to reconcile with some accounts that say otherwise--but his attachment to the crown ruins him in France, and he never regains the status or wealth he possessed before the revolution, dying virtually anonymous and having spent the last few years of his life in an unnecessary  government eyewitness to one of history's most important events, dead and all but forgotten.

We live in an era much like the one depicted in Bashor's book, not so much for ridiculous fashion and hair, but for the gulf that is widening between the Marie Antoinettes and her hungry citizens. What Autie's skills represented all those years ago--status, wealth, prestige, connections--remains to this day, transformed over the centuries into material items that announce our class with much more permanence than a hairstyle:  expensive foreign cars, McMansions, million-dollar works of art, lavish parties, expensive--even illegal--foods, boats, planes, political influence, wide tracts of land, and so on. It's the same sort of social preening and wasteful materialism that dominated the American landscape one hundred years ago, before the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and the Muckrakers were forced to reign in the ever-powerful industrialists, just as it did in 18th-century France.

These moments in history--not just American history, but world history--appear like the tide, covering the same ground as the last wave before receding back into the wide waters. And if we're not careful, if we let these waves reach too far into shore, we'll face a wave like the one that eventually brought France to revolution. Because once the gulf begins to widen between rich and poor--the haves and have-nots, the Marie Antoinettes and their citizens--it doesn't close back up on its own accord, only when outside influences step in. Usually those influences are public figures with enough clout and power to get legislation moved; sometimes, though, the responsibility for reversing the seemingly irreversible falls on the shoulders of the people themselves, whether or not they're unwilling. In those situations, the only unknown is what will serve as the catalyst for change. We'd like to think it's an outrageous overstepping of boundaries, an incredible violation of the law, a callousness that threatens thousands. However, it could just as well be the hair of a young and foolish girl.