‘Qu’ils mangent de la brioche’
The phrase “Let them eat cake” has long been attributed to the “great princess” Marie Antoinette, who when confronted with the fact that the poorer populace had little to eat, reputedly uttered those famous words.
Only that may not be true. In fact, the story of her insouciant nature may have been fabricated to fit the narrative of the French Revolution. Here’s one explanation:
“Marie-Antoinette arrived at Versailles from her native Austria in 1770, two or three years after Rousseau had written the above passage. Whoever the ‘great princess’ was – possibly Marie-Thérèse, it wasn’t Marie-Antoinette.
Her reputation as an indulgent socialite is difficult to shake, but it appears to be unwarranted and is a reminder that history is written by the victors. She was known to have said, “It is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness”. Nevertheless, the French revolutionaries thought even less of her than we do today and she was guillotined to death in 1793 for the crime of treason.”
As it turns out, the phrase “Let them eat cake” has symbolic potency even in modern times. The theory of “trickle down economics” so long favored by laissez-faire capitalists is a direct equivalent to the philosophy of “Let them eat cake.” It’s a dismissive “I’ve got mine, you go get yours” response to the ever-present reality of human need.That aggressive ideology is fused at the hip with patriotism and Christian religiosity in American politics.
Yet this Darwinistic approach to economic parity contradicts the entire meaning of the Easter story, if you study it closely enough. The call to help others is incumbent in the ministry and life sacrifice of Christ. Jesus would never have said, “Let them eat cake.” Nor did he advocate a laissez-faire brand of economics that amounts to “I’ve got mine. I’ve earned it. Go fuck yourself.”
So we see that the figures and lessons of history and religion are often misappropriated, and put to use for purposes that have little to do with their original source or meaning. It is thus quite ironic that the very people who advocate trickle-down economic theories are often the same people who claim to be on the same side of Christian morals. “Let them eat cake…”
Men such as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan come to mind. An ardent believer in the philosophies of Ayn Rand, he also claims to be a devout Catholic. The struggle within him is evidenced in these words uttered at a Benedictine University commencement address: “I’ve gathered from our conversations that you know quite a bit on this topic. You know very well that faith isn’t a Christmas ornament. It’s not something you save for a special occasion. It’s something you live with — and struggle with — every day. That’s why it’s so frustrating — and so comforting.”
The very symbol Ryan chooses for his analogy, a Christmas ornament, is evidence of the very challenge he faces in public life. Frankly, his policies do not align at all well with the ministry of Jesus and the call to care for the poor. So Paul Ryan is forced to lie to himself when it is convenient to his political purposes. In fact, he does this quite a bit. Significant to the subject of this blog, Paul Ryan lied about his best marathon time to make himself appear better than he really is at running. Among those of us who earn our times and represent them honestly as possible, this is a crime ranking up there with treason.
Thus, Paul Ryan is a man that cannot be trusted to his word. He’s a “let them eat cake” politician and a Christian in name only, more ornament than he wishes to admit. There are many, many like him. One could argue that for thousands of years the Catholic Church itself could not break out of that mode of thinking. Only the Protestant Reformation could force them to stop saying “Let them eat cake.”
More sad examples of confused ideologies can be found in politicians who choose rock songs meant to represent their campaigns whose lyrics actually mean the opposite of everything for which they stand. Case in point: the Bruce Springsteen song “Born In the USA” was once trotted out as an anthem for conservative causes, and Ronald Reagan tried to claim Springsteen’s legacy for his own at one point. Yet the actual lyrics indict the fact that jobs were shipped out of the country by capitalistic forces that cared not for the Blue Collar Americans left behind with nowhere to work and no place to hide.
Born down in a dead mans town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
End up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up
Born in the U.S.A., I was born in the U.S.A.
Not only did the “Let them Eat Cake” death knell of the failing Rust Belt economy suck the life out of the working class, it also shipped them off as soldiers to fight wars of choice in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says “son if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said “son don’t you understand now”
There is no cake where there is no justice. And cake remains the perfect symbol for the privilege of the upper class. It also symbolizes all the things we eat that we don’t really need. Cake is supposed to be about having a treat. But men like King Herod in Jesus’ day were having cake every day while the people suffered. And Jesus called him to account for that. One could argue that the biggest piece of cake now vexing the planet is the burning of fossil fuels. We’ve had our fossil-fuel cake for more than a hundred years now. The world’s atmosphere is fat with smoke and carbon from all that indulgence. Yet the ideologues cannot admit the earth’s atmosphere is out of balance, and warming fast. The oceans are acidifying. Yet the Koch Brothers want their profits, their privilege. “Let the rest of the world eat cake,” they say.
So it’s a struggle for balance that remains with us to this day. But it doesn’t have to be all bad news. We use cakes for celebrations because they are sweet and full of things that make our heads spin, our stomachs full and our occasions colorful. And in context, there is nothing wrong with that.
Just yesterday we broke our a combination birthday/Easter cake all bright and thick with icing. I refused a slice of that one, but happily indulged in a chunk of delicious cheesecake slathered in caramel coating and an indulgent rip-rap of shredded dark chocolate on top. And it was wonderful.
It actually doesn’t pay to be guilty about such treats. Well sure: if you eat them so often you can’t stay ahead in terms of exercise and calories, that’s not good. You’ll either have to change your ways or double your workout load. Neither choice is easy to make.
The connection between sweets and guilt seems is manifest in many of our holidays. It is no coincidence that Easter is a Christian holiday wrapped in chocolate, sugary jelly beans and malted eggs. Christmas too. Is religion just a candy-coated belief system for our fears and hopes? It would appear that way.
I’ll admit that for some reason I’m frequently famished after attending church. I walk out into the sunshine wanting nothing more than a cinnamon roll or some other desperate conflict between appetite and chemical dependency. The human brain throws strange hormones at our cravings and is not freaking satisfied until we shove some chunk of empty calories down our throat. What is that about?
Every child learns the penalties of such sins. Eating too much candy on Halloween or Easter (again, sweets are the substitute for sins and forgiveness) can make you literally sick. Yet we can so often go from a replenishing experience like church into a fit of self-indulgence. Pancakes. Sausage. Bacon.
I’ve written about the time I spent a dollar on a huge bag of those orange marshmallow peanuts. It was a hot day while walking home from the Fruit Market on Willow Street Pike south of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I was popping those orange marshmallows in my mouth all the way home and started to get queasy. I found a tree in our yard laid in the shade for an hour trying to make that sick feeling go away. I felt guilty and stupid as hell for doing that.
Perhaps we need sweets and cake to force us to confront the sweet guilt we feel over our privileged, indulgent positions in this world. Those who can barely afford to feed themselves never touch the wonders of cake. And some people can’t help the temptation to deny these simple pleasures to others. They hate in others most what they hate in themselves. It happens with sex and politics. We see politicians who embark on a campaign to ban homosexuality and then turn out to be gay themselves. Their denial fuels a repression that becomes their entire public personality.
Likewise, we see “family values” politicians exposed for sexual affairs and supposedly devout (and wealthy) televangelists busted for their secret lives using drugs, having sex or stealing from the offering plate. They cannot be honest with themselves, so they concoct aggressive public lies to obscure their own false ministries.
Some suggest that even the Apostle Paul might have been gay. That “thorn of the flesh” he mentions might well have been nothing more than sexual desire for other men. Paul’s rather repressive personality and bold conversion from a persecuting Jew to Christian proselytizer surely represent a stark inner conflict. He fought with Jesus’ brother James all his life, and was not immune to his own sense of pride and claim to virtue. The cake of salvation was his prime temptation and his massive indulgence.
We feel for those experiencing struggles with temptation and need. Consider that unfortunate character Milton, in the movie Office Space. The poor dude lived in a world where nothing in the normal work world was offered to him. His anticipation in simply wanting a piece of cake was palpable. Yet it didn’t happen. His favorite brand of stapler, even his desk were taken from him by the boss.
But of course, Milton ultimately got his promised revenge, burning down the entire office building as retribution for his mistreatment. Then he scooped up the guilty check that his co-workers generated from an incremental money-laundering scheme and retired to some tropical haven. Where the wait staff never got his drink orders right. Such is life, because even when Milton got his cake and ate it too, he was still not satisfied.
That is the warning all of us should take away from our obsessive-compulsive relationship with the exercise of our physical indulgences in balance with our equally indulgent appetites. We must not fall in the trap of ‘Qu’ils mangent de la brioche’. Let them eat cake.
There may be satisfaction with an indulgent piece of cake in the short term, but there is no substitute for self-discipline and concern for others in the long run.