Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Séverine, Liberty—Equality—Fraternity


Séverine (Caroline Rémy de Guebhard)



That night, on the asphalt beach that dominates the view from my window, some human wreckage, a father, mother, and two babies, had washed up on a bench. From the heights where, much despite myself, I glide, one could distinguish nothing but a pile of gray flesh and soiled rags, from which emerged, here and there, an arm, a leg, with a movement slow and painful as a crushed crab’s leg

They slept, clutching one another, huddled in one pile, from habit, as if they would die of cold — even on this warm summer night!

Some policemen had come who circled around, sniffing and staring at them, with that hostile curiosity of guard dogs and sergeants towards the poorly dressed — not too mean, however. They tapped on the shoulder of the man, who started, rubbed his eyes, and stood up with an effort, shifting the group where the kids, awakened suddenly, had begun to cry.

From his gestures, I understood that he was telling their story; I could sense the silent tears of the woman, wiping her eyes with the corner of her apron, while the other, by recalling them, revived her pains.

Not louts, nor bohemians — but workers! Workers brought to the most extreme limits of distress; having committed everything, sold everything, and lost everything!

Only one consolation could remain for this unfortunate: that of having lived as a free man in a free century; and the flags decorating the inn of La Belle Étoile (his last home!) recalled eloquently how fortunate it was, for him and his, to have been “delivered” a century before!

He was miserable, yes — but a voter and a citizen! How very profitable it is that we have freed plebs and glebes!

When he had finished, the guardians of the peace held a consultation, with great gestures which seemed to say: “What is to be done?”

Nothing, obviously, but to obey the orders, to carry out the law... the equitable law which has replaced the dreadful reign of good pleasure!

In the name of liberty, they have taken the free man and his brood to the station — he, resigned, bending his back; the mother and children, creatures unconscious of the benefits of independence, nearly sportive at the idea that their captivity reserves them a bed and bread...


Again, under my windows, yesterday around two o’clock, suddenly, a stampede of cavalry, a sound of fast-moving wheels, shouts! In his carriage, the President passes...

The enthusiasm is in no way excessive, but nonetheless, people raise their hats, yell, and run along behind, with a great show of domesticity.

How fortunate it is, when you think about it, though, a hundred years ago we beheaded a king; twenty-one years ago, we overthrew an emperor! No more scepters, no more thrones, no more crowns!

Nothing but the currency of the monarchy: kinglets at the l'Hôtel-de-Ville, kinglets at the Palais-Bourbon, kinglets at the Luxembourg, and this specter of a sovereign, costing dear, but not ruling at all. Ah! the nation has truly gained from the change!


On the pavement, still the footfalls of the horses, the rolling of the artillery, a steady tumult from the horde that passes, with the rattle of steel. It is some regiments on their way to be reviewed.

And the hurrahs, the bravos, go less to these brave little soldiers with ruddy faces, all sweaty and breathless under the sharp eye of the brass, than to the formidable butcher’s apparatus that they drag along.

Ah! The fine rifles, borne so straight and so well cared for! Ah! The pretty cannons, worked and finished like clockworks, with their necks like greyhounds, their hollowed flanks, their long muzzles which kill at such a distance!...

Won’t that all make things course, with blood! All that will dice, fine, fine, finer, like mincemeat, the meat of human beings!

And with their regard, with their voices, the multitude flatters these slaughtering beasts who will, however, at the first sign — you know it, proletarians! — will sink their fangs as well in French skin as in that of the Teutons!


. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

And, while the clamors of the passersby mount towards my melancholy dwelling, I think of the cunning ancients, opening Rome for one day to those who were oppressed thought the year; giving them, for twenty-four hours, more than liberty: license; allowing them to treat as equals the highest of the Republic, fraternizing with them among the festivities, — and profiting from the torpor from their drunkenness in order, the following day, at dawn, to increase their chains, augment their tasks, and deny them all justice and every right!

Dance and laugh, good people of France, if such is your fancy; but open your eyes at the same time! The anniversary that you celebrate is not your own; the victory that we fete is not yours; and for you, suckers, like the Golden Calf, the Bastille is always standing!

When will we take it?...

[Translation: Shawn P. Wilbur]

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