‘The Guillotine and the Terror’ by Daniel Arasse

Published by Penguin in 1989.


The guillotine is the ultimate expression of Law, and its flame is vengeance; it is not neutral, nor does it allow us to remain neutral. He who sees it shudders with an inexplicable dismay. All social questions achieve their finality around that blade. The scaffold is an image. It is not merely a lifeless mechanism of wood, iron and rope. It is as though it were a being having its own dark purpose, as though the framework saw, the machine listened, the mechanism understood; as though that arrangement of wood and iron and rope expressed a will. In the hideous picture which its presence evokes it seems to be most terribly a part of what it does. It is a kind of monster created by the judge and the craftsman; a spectre seeming to live an awful life born of the death it deals.

—Victor Hugo

This book sets out to answer an apparently simple question: Why does the guillotine inspire such fear? What makes it so abhorrent?

This fascinating essay takes us directly into the historical moment when the guillotine asserted its theatrical hold on the revolutionary stage: the Jacobin Terror of the 1790s. In addition to the story of the guillotine’s progress – from Joseph Ignace Guillotin’s modest proposal for a medically efficient, humanitarian execution machine to its democratic consecration in January 1793 as the instrument for killing a king – The Guillotine and the Terror offers a tour de force of the issues that conspired to transform this most rational of machines into a production-line of peremptory justice.

A mirror of the Revolution and its contradictions the guillotine can be seen as the begetter of a new philosophy of the headless body politic, and its rich iconography as the source for a new kind of criminal portraiture. The final invention of the industrious Enlightenment, the guillotine was above all a spectacular perversion of the medical art, revealing its true nature as an art – and industry – of dying.

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