CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY in the late 1960s was a deceptively peaceful place. Cascading willows caressed the ashen waters of the Cam as it slid almost imperceptibly between the manicured lawns and gardens of "the Backs." The students, overwhelmingly masculine in the days before coed colleges, threw their energies into rugger and rowing, the anxieties of the Vietnam War troubling only the most militant. From time to time, an essay inopportunely disturbed what appeared to be a routine of parties, pub crawls and weekends in London.
From the high table at one end of a splendid mid-Victorian gothic hall, the dons, as the faculty were collectively called, presided over our evening meals. Gowned, graying and distant, their eccentricities were legend and much discussed among the students -- my best friend's supervisor, for instance, a distinguished philosopher, frequently napped through tutorials and once had even been discovered by his class sitting under a table lost in thought.
However, the eccentricities of our lot paled by comparison with those of Professor Richard Cobb. Cobb came from what was commonly referred to as "the other place," which was located in the city of Oxford. He belonged to the "deconstructionist" school of French Revolutionary studies, and it was rumored that his dinner parties also drew their inspiration from this tradition. Varsity lore maintained that on warm evenings in the summer term Cobb would appear on a college balcony at pub closing time to announce that the monarchy had been overthrown and the republic declared. When the police arrived to break up the by now substantial crowd of jolly students who had gathered to listen to the harangue, the professor told them to ignore these agents of a fallen regime who no longer possessed any legal authority.
I suspect also that it was Cobb's reputation for eccentricity, rather than the title of his talk which, to the best of my memory was something like "French Prefectural Reports," that drew us in fairly respectable numbers to hear him speak. After all, it would have been difficult for graduate students in history to pass up an occasion to hear a man who, in a review, had compared a very serious book on communism and French intellectuals to Alice's letter to the fish.
In the event, the talk was brilliant, although it got off to a fairly rocky start. Cobb sat on a gray folding chair at one end of a stark room in the Seeley History Library, thin to the point of emaciation, his hands on his knees and two eyes staring out of thick glasses like the eyes of fish in a bowl. For an hour, without notes (apparently he had misplaced them), he recounted the events of the French Revolution and Empire through the eyes of the prefects, men dispatched by Paris to the provinces to keep an eye on things, quoting whole reports from memory, occasionally lapsing into French for minutes at a time.
His point was that the more astute prefects quickly realized that they must convince Paris that the "departments" smoldered with discontent, that only the vigilance of the prefects prevented catastrophe in the face of conspiracies of all sorts which were connived at by craven police and incompetent local officials. To do this they must write -- long screeds exaggerating the most banal incidents. So an excitable drunk, for instance, who said the wrong things in an altercation with the local gendarmes could be arrested for high treason: "Il a dit merde a` la Republique! Il a crache' sur le nom de L'Empereur!, and so on. In this way, they moved up the invisible prefectural ladder, from the rural backwaters of the Loze`re or the Ardeche, through the more stately prefectures of the Co~te d'Or or the Indre-et-Loire, perhaps even to Paris itself.
AFTER COBB'S TALK, the door to the French Revolution stood ajar. With the publication of his The Police and the People a few years later, it was flung open. His approach was one which the French might categorize, even dismiss, as "Anglo-Saxon." Cobb was at war in his quiet way with those who imposed too much logic upon the past, forced it to conform to their notions of historical order. Cobb demystified the Revolution, personalized it, humanized it. In his French Revolution, politicians who for centuries had been regarded as agents of ideology, took decisions which might not be motivated by intellectual choice -- something which upset intellectual historians -- while Cobb's heroes -- "the people" -- behaved in ways altogether understandable and even sympathetic, not as marionettes jerked about by cords of class prejudice a` la Soboul, or pulverized between the Braudelian millstones of structures and infrastructures. Cobb's Revolution was not a minuet in which each class -- aristocracy, bourgeoisie, peasantry and "working class" -- danced its round and then gave over the floor to its successor. The Revolution was not the result of the ponderous, inevitable and unstoppable "March of History," but an "event," almost a "happening," fortuitous, exuberant and fragile.
I NEVER felt tempted to follow Richard Cobb into a career of French Revolutionary studies -- I knew early on that my "people" were soldiers, and my revolutions would be military ones. Nor had Cobb, for all his brilliance and sheer genius as a stylist, blazed a trail which could easily be followed. His was no graduate-school "Sermon on the Mount," no model approach to be stamped out on the assembly lines of doctoral dissertations. Cobb's French Revolution was a spontaneous event. His atomization of the historical experience led to the police archives, and from there to the margins of French society. The lives of the ordinary, the unobtrusive, the unambitious -- even of thieves, murderers and prostitutes -- are the elusive subjects of his books. His is a clochardization of the Revolution, the fragmentation of the past, a voyeurism through time which is a marvel of the historical imagination. But the importance -- and it is important -- of the political event is often lost.
Secondly, Cobb defies summarization, eschews it, rejects it. He is convincing when he tells us what the Revolution, in its bewildering confusion of attitudes and prejudices, was not. And in doing this, he has provided a substantial service. He serves up a powerful anecdote to those -- especially Marxists -- who see history as a weave of neat, explicable patterns tending toward some grand design. Cobb's Revolution is far too complex, too disordered, too human to fall in behind some choreographed March of History.
Cobb, of course, is inimitable, but, even if I had his talent, I would not care to engage in mimicry. Cobb is destructive, often impishly so. But in the end, he offers us little more than a catalogue -- amusingly crafted as it may be -- of passions, emotions, attitudes, a series of grotesques like something out of a Dickens novel. But most historians feel that they must be able to make some sense of the past, impose some order, draw some conclusions, even if they lack Cobb's ability to recreate it so vividly.
Social history is especially interesting and useful when it can be related to the political event, when it can show how society shapes politics and vice versa. But Cobb stops short of this depth of analysis. It was almost as if the eccentricity of Oxbridge, always a serious art form, had been raised by Cobb to the status of an academic discipline. But most of the rest of us in our plodding, pedestrian, pedantic way felt obliged to sift the past for meaning in a more traditional fashion. We left Cobb on his balcony, haranguing the evening crowds, while we sought to pick up the pieces of the history which he so brilliantly destroyed.
Douglas Porch, professor of history at The Citadel, is the author of "The Conquest of Morocco" and "The Conquest of the Sahara." This essay continues a series of occasional memoirs of teachers in The Education Review.