I was asked to do a short presentation yesterday for "Revolutionary Renditions," the culminating event in a spring-semester series sponsored by the International Studies program at LSU reflecting on the 2011 "Arab Spring." I chose the "duel of anthems" scene from Casablanca and commented on three aspects of La Marseillaise (in itself and as depicted in the movie) with regard to the intertwining of the affective, the semantic, and the pragmatic: 1) collective embodiment in music; 2) the temporality of revolutionary solidarity; 3) the universality of the values of the French Revolution and the “rights of man.” First the clip, then below the fold my (roughly sketched) notes for the discussion:
Let’s go, children of the fatherland!
The day of glory has arrived.
Tyranny is against us, the bloody flag is raised.
Do you hear the roaring of those fierce soldiers in the countryside?
Right into our arms they come, to slit the throats of our sons and wives.
Take up your arms, citizens!
Form your battalions,
Onward we march, onward we march!
Let the impure blood water our fields!
I haven't done a study, but informal discussion tends to the conclusion that on the semantic level this is one of the more warlike of the national anthems. Note also the emotion aroused in the singers (sometimes attributed to the fact that many of the actors were refugees) and the way they gather around and touch Victor Lazlo after the song; note also the solitary march of Major Strasser, as well as the threatening music as he stalks across the scene. [Why do bass tones produce that affect? I would be glad to get pointers to research in comments.] Note as well the sadness shading into tender admiration -- but not really romantic love -- of the non-singing Ilsa as she watches Victor (1:17 to 1:28).
2. TEMPORALITY OF REVOLUTIONARY SOLIDARITY, or, as Ben Franklin said, "we must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately." Aux armes, citoyens! To be “citizens” instead of “subjects,” you have to commit yourself to a revolutionary struggle that will only validate that status retrospectively, after the fact of its success, a success that is only possible on the basis of the solidarity produced by calling yourself “citizens.” To use the future anterior: "we, who will have been citizens." Since winners write the history books, you would be condemned as failed rebels if you don’t win. In other words, the semantic content of "citizen" is only validated by the pragmatic success of the revolution, to which the affective bonding of singing the song contributes.
3. UNIVERSALITY OF THE “RIGHTS OF MAN” PROCLAIMED IN THE FRENCH REVOLUTION: Victor Lazlo was Czech, but he believes in the universal values of the French Revolution (as well as in the affective power of La Marseillaise). "Vive la France! Vive la démocratie!"
But note that Morocco was a “protectorate” of France in 1942. (Remember as well that the film was made in Hollywood; so the movie is a staging of the way Africa is only the stage for an American – European drama of that "theater" of the war.) What was the reaction of the Moroccan worker (see 0:43 of the clip), who stands silently in the background of the scene, to the singing of the Marseillaise? Does he want to take up arms to become a citizen?
So we have the colonial / post-colonial register to consider, and there we can turn to CLR James and The Black Jacobins and his question as to who radicalized whom as the French and Haitian Revolutions unfolded? This in turn brings us to the relation of arms and words and songs in action, to the intertwining of the affective, semantic, and pragmatic.
James reminds us that no one had to tell the slaves of Saint Domingue about liberty, equality, and fraternity; they didn't have to wait until they heard these words uttered by French people to know what they meant. They lived them in their actions, and James's provocative thesis is that it was the actions of the Saint Domingue slaves that brought home what the words meant to the French, in a trans-Atlantic reversal.