Published around the same time as the collection of essays edited by Sara Melzer and Kathryn Norberg (From the Royal to the Republican Body), The Body Politic by Antoine de Baecque joined the trend since the late 1990s of interpreting history, especially French history, through the lens of the body and corporeal metaphors. One of the most important contributions of this book is de Baecque’s painstaking archival research. Indeed, the book is based on his careful reading of over two thousand pamphlets, political treaties (by Emmanuel Sieyès and other great figures), and journals, as well as other types of materials from diplomatic correspondence to the proceedings of the National Assembly. (However, it should be noted that the titles of the pamphlets cited in the footnotes are translated, quite strangely, into English, making it difficult for the reader to track the sources; the often unreliable call numbers of Bibliothè nationale de France remain the only hope for the reader.)
De Baecque starts his work by explaining why and how metaphors about the body can be a useful historical tool in understanding late eighteenth-century France. In the late eighteenth century, de Baecque writes, ‘body’ was a term that ‘says everything’; during this time, its ‘range of meaning was never so extensive’ and 'was taken to its extreme not just by the social and professional structure of old France but also by the legacy of a political order ensuring from a religious interpretation of the universe, by philosophical and political debates, and by scientific research' (p. 3). Simply put, both the Old Regime and the French Revolution were heavily based upon bodily metaphors. The use of those metaphors or topoi, de Baecque further contends, worked not only as a narrative form of history (i. e. to describe past and current events and figures) but also as a way of making sense of that history (i. e. to know, to interpret, to think about the history of France through the imaginary body).
Specifically, de Baecque divides bodily metaphors used in the last decades of the Old Regime and the Revolution into three groups.
1) The state-body: it refers to the metaphorical representations of ‘the body as an anthropomorphic symbol of the political system’, and this bodily perspective, de Baecque suggests, sheds new light on the transition of sovereignty from the body of the king to the citizen body.
2) The narrative body: it means metaphorical representations of the body used as a tool of discourse and helped justify the Revolution mainly through the metaphors of ‘regeneration’ (e. g. France was cured as the ‘New Man’ was then created by the Revolution) and ‘monstrosity’ (e. g. the Old Regime was evil and, in particular, the aristocratic plot, either true or imagined, aimed to devour the Revolution and its followers).
3) The body as spectacle: it stands for the revolutionaries’ attempts to break with the beliefs of the old society by creating and promoting a new set of revolutionary symbols and rituals based on the concept of transparency.
It is puzzling, however, that with his large amount of sources, grouped into three analytical categories, de Baecque intentionally refuses to make an elaborate, overarching argument. Instead, taking inspiration from Walter Benjamin and Jean-Luc Goddard, de Baecque aims to refashion the art of historical inquiry, revealing the past, if not the ‘truth’, through ‘the art of montage’. He believes that by better classifying and comparing those numerous texts the past will automatically emerge. In other words, the sources will and should be allowed to speak for themselves. While de Baecque hopes that such an approach can ‘bring these particular series of events closer’, more often he seems to get lost in the considerable quantity of his sources and can therefore offer nothing more than pure classifications.
Another problem of de Baecque’s book is that it fails to explore the contemporaries' reception of those corporeal metaphors. Indeed, as Lynn Hunt and other scholars have suggested, the revolutionaries compared almost everything to the human body, in particular when they referred to politics. However, this does not mean that their bodily metaphors would just work as the revolutionaries expected; by contrast, their political discourses based on corporeal metaphors were constantly negotiated and contested. Therefore, it is necessary to ask how those metaphors were understood. Moreover, as the 2,000 pamphlets examined in the book were produced between 1789 to 1791, something that de Baecque does not point out, one may want to know how the corporeal metaphors found in the pamphlets may change over time in terms of their patterns and contents.
Last, in the part of the state-body, de Baecque suggests that the king's body was a metaphor for the state. Yet, as Ernst Kantorowicz has shown, the king’s body was not only a metaphor but, at least according to the doctrine, the physical embodiment of the nation (‘L’É’tat, c’est moi’, said Louis XIV). It is because of this that the potency of the king had assumed such political significance and that the birth of a prince would be celebrated by the whole population. To be sure, Kantorowicz’s work focuses on the Tudors in mediaeval England, but one may want to know how de Baecque understands this more nuanced relationship between the king’s body and the state/nation, especially given that he references Kantorowicz several times in his book.