The Eternal Masculine (1)

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The Eternal Masculine[1]

Part One: Childhood

I am fourteen years old. For two years—since my first communion—they have been telling me, “You’re a little woman now.”

I am none the happier for it!

Since they lengthened my skirts and put up my hair the world does not seem the same to me. The faces of people have not changed, but there is a different look deep down in their eyes. Among old friends I sense the same surprise as when I was a child in front of the cage where they had replaced my warbler, who had died at dawn, with a parakeet. Even though the feathers were prettier, I was not happy. I was sick; I was upset; and I ended up breaking down in tears—I would have preferred an empty cage to this strange animal!

I wanted so much for people to look at me like they did before, with faces full of kindness—how my heart used to be filled with confidence.

Yesterday they joked about my calves, saying that they were too firm for a girl; and I laughed along with them. Today when only the tip of my toe peeks out from under my dress, if anyone happens to glance over, quick! I pull my boot back in and hide it on the highest rung of the chair, while I flush with shame all the way up to the top of my head.

I am glad to have gloves—me who never used to wear them—because they hide my hands. I prefer winter to summer because my body is buried under clothes. And I would really like to have a veil, a big one, and thick, with lots of dots sewn close together!

They examine me; they scrutinize me. They compliment my mother on this; they advise her on that—and I am in agony.

“It’s a ridiculous age… the molting!” a visitor said yesterday on seeing my embarrassment. She could do with a bunch of molting herself, the great big guinea fowl who would have a lot to gain from a change in plumage—she was so ugly and unpleasant! And they were all wrong!

It is not because I felt awkward in my new clothes. It is not even because they treat my as a “young lady” that I feel like this, disconcerted, on the threshold of my new state. No, I feel like I am about to enter something sad, that my happy days are gone, and I remember grandma snipping the thorns, one by one, off the roses they had brought before handing them to me and gracing me with one of her sweet, serious smiles, “Here, my little girl. At least you’ve known something that didn’t make you bleed.”

Grandma! She is dead. I think those eyes of hers would have stayed the same, would never have changed—not like the others did, all the others!

In some, like mama’s, behind the due severity, I could see the pity, which frightened me. So, is life so sad that they already feel sorry for me?

In father’s and in my uncle’s—so nice the day before, like friends just last year—a sudden hardness appears, an expression of authority that distances me from them whom I still love so tenderly. They have a way of unhooking my arms from around their necks and saying, “You’re not a child anymore!” which chills me and kills in me all my energy, all my growth.

For the first time I feel closer to my mother than to them, that I am more like her. And a thousand things that I never noticed before bombard me all at once.

If grandma Louise, the dear thing, had had so much trouble in her life, it was because grandfather—who was, however, as those who knew him say, a bon vivant—was also a wastrel. He left her a widow at forty years old in squalor with two children to raise. She was still as beautiful as can be. She refused to give a stepfather to her children. She lived alone, worked like a mercenary, devoted herself and rebuilt the wrecked home, relit the family hearth.

My other grandma, my father’s mother, was married to a school principle in Lorraine, a diehard Jansenist, savage and brutal. She had six children by him—she fed all of them. And to avoid paying for servants in her house that was threatened with ruin by the rival Jesuits, she waxed the floors at dawn before the children got up, did the washing and cooking, bathed the babies, took care of the sick—and found the time to go down into the parlor in her one and only, old silk dress to play the lady of the house and entertain her relatives.

She got a tumor in her knee… from fatigue, the doctors said. They cut off her leg like they did to Napoleon’s soldiers when they were shattered by cannonballs. I can still hear the thud of her wooden leg on the floor, all over the big house where, even when sick, she took care of the household while her husband, my godfather, took care of his business under the green lampshade.

I was five when she passed away. My father lifted me in his arms to show her to me, lying on her bed with the crucifix on her chest. I was not scared—she looked so content!

Mother is happy; papa is good. They only get upset because of me… as if whoever is lucky in marriage should suffer in some other way.

I would prefer not to “marry into money” like they raised me. I would also prefer not to stuff my head with a bunch of things that will make me stupid, not to chase after those famous diplomas without which (my father assures me) you cannot be anything—and which I will never have, I am sure of it!

I would love to get into the theater, to be the mouthpiece of the great poets, make people’s souls vibrate and sprinkle them with laughter or tears… I really think I could, that I would know how. Anyway, that is my goal, my ideal—I think about it during the day and dream about it at night. Oh, if they would only let me try!

I think that verses would soar radiantly out of my lips, like those birds I love to hold in my hands in order to feel their flight toward freedom, their trembling with joy when I let them go.

But my father is the master; his will prevails. “Married or a teacher!” he said the other day. And when my mother insisted, talking about a calling, he said, “I’d rather see her dead!”

The poor woman had nothing else to say. She came to hug me, for a long time, and I lowered my eyes so she would not see me crying.

That night I woke up and walked barefoot to the armoire where my last doll was locked up. I fell on the floor and with my head against the door I cried all night long. It felt like within those oak planks lay the corpse of my childhood. The heavy piece of furniture was like a tomb where the best part of my life was sealed up forever!
I had not felt so sad since the death of grandma Louise. So, it is always the women who cry. The older women because of their husbands; me because of my father. Ah, how much I wanted—since love is for novels—not ever, ever to marry!

I would live alone and have no children, but maybe I would have less grief!

[1] As Jacqueline in Gil Blas, August 26 1892.

Charenton Bridge

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Paris Commune-night of 23 and 24 May

The Charenton Bridge: May 1871[1]

The cart took the road from Choisy. The spring had come early and little cherry trees lined the whole way, glittering red like they were splattered with drops of blood. The country was in flower, the earth smelled good and the sun crowned the thatched roofs in gold. It was good to be alive.

It had been two months since we left Paris. They said that our “brothers and friends” were going to pillage and massacre everything. My family was scared, so they rented a little cart and crammed it full of all kinds of things. And they wedged me, poor little thing, between two mattresses, holding a parrot’s cage in my right hand and a hatbox in my left, with two shoulder bags and a bunch of umbrellas between my knees.

“As long as the bandits let us through!” my mother said.

Before we got to the roadblock she threw her tartan over my head to make it harder for them to see me. I did not look like a little girl anymore even with my short skirts. She and my uncle hinted at this before bundling me up and they mumbled a lot, but I only caught snatches.

“Capable of anything… In June, remember?… And at Clamecy, right, the prefect’s wife!”

I did not know what had happened at Clamecy, but I knew what was happening in the cart. I was suffocating. I was sweating blood and water.

“Don’t move, poor child! We’re there!”

My parents got down and I heard them talking… it was amazing how nice they were! I sneezed and the shawl shifted.

“So, you’re hiding an animal back there!” someone yelled.

They pulled off the tartan and Cocotte started squawking up a storm. The entire post watched me, laughing so hard I got tears in my eyes seeing how funny Mama looked.

“The kid’s in a good mood,” my liberator said. He was a member of the National Guard[2] who had a big moustache and a red nose but seemed to be the salt of the earth and merry as a starling.

“Move on! There won’t be any trouble, get going! The Guard isn’t mean!” The horse started trotting again and I heard a deep, cheerful voice cry out to me, “Hey, kid, make sure you don’t drop anything!”

We were through and yet my parents were furious. They had called Mama “the mother” as if she were a fishmonger or was hawking slop and they treated my uncle like a “doddering old fool”.

Then they cried out, “Dear Lord, the Prussians! We’re saved!”

#

That is what I was thinking about while we rolled on towards Charenton. The bridge had become the meeting point for high society in the area. It was the place to be: for two days they came to watch Paris burn.

While waiting for the end, to stave off the boredom of the trip, they talked about what was happening over there… Cavalry officers soaked in oil and burned alive like in the times of Nero. Policemen’s wives thrown in the front lines of the battalions to be a screen for the enemy’s bullets. The wounded Communards got drunk on eau-de-vie so they could be sent back to the massacre. In their filthy rage they finished off the wounded from Versailles by sprinkling their open wounds with tobacco and pepper to make their pain sharper and their martyrdom longer.

“Why don’t you say something? Are you so cold-hearted?”

Ah, no, I was not cold-hearted. My eyes were burning and my heart pumping! But if I bottled up the trembling little heart in my young girl’s breast, would you be so surprised or get angry with me—you bourgeoisie who raised me to be like you, to honor the family and the race?

I knew nothing. I understood nothing. But I could not believe what you were telling me! I remembered that the murderers you were talking about were the very ones who let us escape without touching a hair on our heads, without taking a penny from our pockets, without drinking one bottle of our wine—those drunkards!

I also remembered all the poor people whom they housed in the gilded apartments around us. I remembered how sad and gentle they seemed and how proud, too, never asking for a thing; and how uncomfortable they looked in that hostile luxury; and how much they wanted to get back to their crowded slums where they were free, at least, and not humiliated.

But I could not say this and I huddled back up in the cart, closed my eyes and tried to close my ears.

#

The bridge. We arrived.

The whole sky was red, the horizon in flames! We could see nothing, nothing but a sea of fire and a thick fog of gray smoke floating heavily above it.

“Oh, the scoundrels!   In front of the enemy!”

That was the general cry. Indeed, the enemy was there. The bridge was the border between the two armies: French on one side and Germans on the other. The armistice had put both sides in their place. They just sat there looking stonily at each other, especially when they laid down their arms and had nothing to fear but fistfights and brawls.

But for the moment there was no question of brawls. Everyone was friendly and fraternizing. Fried potatoes were selling over here and a barrel organ was set up over there. Some Bavarians had taken our young soldiers around the waist and were teaching them how to waltz. Our men were clumsy and stumbled at every step. Soon two of them took a fall with the German sprawled on top of the French.

“These guys are animals, always on top!” a swaggering soldier yelled.

Big laughs.

On the other hand—not to be lacking good manners—a seasoned officer offered his “fries” to a group of blonde, chubby Germans who dipped their fat fingers in the cone and licked them succulently before drying them on their caps.

A Tilbury carriage arrived. A fat landlord of Saint Maurice, the king of the country, got out with his two majors whom he put in charge of accommodations—and whom he accommodated magnificently. The taller one, they said, would marry his daughter after the peace—a real catch: 500,000 F dowry. While waiting the officer offered his arm to his future father in-law who had gout and heavy legs. And there they were in the middle of the bridge. The German watched in silence and his face clouded over. “Poor Paris,” he murmured. But the other, the Frenchman, the bourgeois, waved his fist toward the city in flames. “In front of the enemy! Ah, the rats!”

 

[1] Séverine, Pages Rouges, 1893.

[2] Defended Paris against the Prussians and during the Commune included anyone able to bear arms.

1-Childhood

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Traditional Drama

Curtains Open

Lights Up

Séverine was born Caroline Rémy on April 27 1855 into a typically middle-class, bourgeois family in Paris. Her father, Onésime Rémy, had worked his way up through the ranks of bureaucracy to become the head of the Wet Nurse Department within the Prefecture of Police. From eight in the morning until six at night he trudged through the muddy suburbs of Paris to check on the women breastfeeding the children of the petite bourgeoisie and of mothers who had to work. Babies often died in unhealthy conditions and it was his job to prevent such tragedies. He was an honest, hard-working man, but at home he was strict and demanding on Line, as she was called.

It was a sad and solitary childhood. Being an only child and educated at home, Line had few friends and had to learn how to get by on her own in the world of adults and at the same time at an early age discovering her precociousness and rebellion. She taught herself to read using her father’s newspaper, Le Siècle, and her favorite books of Comtesse de Ségur. When she asked to have a pet—a dog, a cat, even a bird—to share her solitude in the second-floor apartment, her father came home with a goldfish. “Are you happy? You’ll have fun with it?” Staring at the bowl to hide her disappointment she answered, “Of course. And we won’t make any noise when we argue.”

In her simple but severe upbringing, she had to steer prudently between her father’s thunderous wrath and her mother’s rigorous austerity. She was dressed in dark clothes so as not to show the dirt and her golden red locks were cut short like a boy (or a prisoner) for tidiness.

One glimmer of light in the middle class gloom was Clementine, the maid. Line admired her pretty brown hair, bright clothes and even brighter laugh. A kind of complicity developed between the two of them. When she ended up leaving to get married it was a bitter tragedy for Line. But she still had her grandmother, cheerful and intelligent, who, being a widow, had come to live with them. She seemed to see more shrewdly than others. “My poor child,” she said, “if you don’t learn how to snuff out your passion, you will be ever so unhappy!” (because Line had slapped a boy who was torturing a bird), which was nicer than what others told her: “You’ll end up on the gallows!”

Yes, she was different. This “wild seed in the family garden” hated her bourgeois upbringing, the hypocrisy and conformity that was meant only to break a child’s will and remold the nascent personality.

Nevertheless, her parents loved her in their way, saving every penny for her dowry and tutoring her in Greek, Latin, music scales and how to act like a lady. Her father took her to the Louvre where he liked to visit the antiquities, the classics—Line preferred Rembrandt. But her mother brought her to the theater, which became a lifelong passion. She dreamed of becoming an actress, one of those grand women in revolt on stage. Her father would have none of that nonsense. He had destined her for teaching. Or a wealthy marriage. As she grew older, marriage looked more and more like her way out. Anything to get away from home.

At fifteen years old in 1870 Line was imprisoned… in a house left emptier by the death of her grandmother and bleaker by the siege of Paris (remember the Prussians). Line went out to help the wounded and dying. She came home with brains and blood on her schoolbooks. War, like the police, she hated from childhood. In the spring the Paris Commune bloomed. Still wearing skirts, she lived through it in a fog. Her parents feared the rebels more than the Prussians; they preferred military discipline to the insecurity of the Communards—those men and women drunk on blood and wine—so they moved out of Paris. Not for long, however, because everyone knew, soon enough, that the end was near. Line heard all kinds of horror stories about the atrocities committed inside the city walls, but she was no longer a little girl; she was already a dazzling beauty and she knew fully well that adults did not always speak the truth.

They spent two months outside Paris, safe from the “Communard Rabble” (as her parents called them) until the end finally came. That last week of May 1871 is graphically and accurately called The Bloody Week. The barricades of the Commune were broken. The rebels were summarily executed or put to flight. The dead and wounded were piled in the streets. The Revolution had dried up, but it watered the seeds of revolt in Line as she watched Paris burn in that surreal fair on the Charenton Bridge.

And the Rémys were safe now to return home.

 

Liberty – Equality – Fraternity

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Liberty – Equality – Fraternity[1]

July 14 [Bastille Day/Independence Day]

Liberty?

Last night on the asphalt beach that my window overlooks, some human wreckage, a father, mother and two children washed up on a bench. From this height, where I hover in spite of myself, I could see nothing but a pile of gray flesh and muddy rags with an arm or a leg sticking out here and there, and then a slow and painful movement like the leg of a squashed crab. They were sleeping, huddled together, curled up into a single heap—a habit of theirs to keep from dying of cold, even on this warm summer night.

Some policemen came, circled them, sniffed them out with their eyes, with that hostile curiosity of guard dogs and cops toward the poorly dressed—and yet not too mean. They tapped the man on the shoulder and he jumped, rubbed his eyes and struggled to his feet, breaking up the group where the kids suddenly woke up and started crying.

I knew that he was telling them his story from his gestures and even more from the woman’s silent tears as she dried them with the edge of her apron while the man, by retelling, revived her suffering. Neither tramps nor bohemians—but workers! Workers in the most dire straits, after pawning everything, selling everything, losing everything.

There could be only one consolation for this hapless man: that he had lived as a free man in a free century; and the flags flying at the inn Under The Stars (their last home!) eloquently reminded him how fortunate it was for him and his family to have been “freed” a century before. Miserable, yes, but a voter and a citizen! It is so very fruitful that they freed the serfs and turfs.

When he had finished, the guardians of the peace discussed the matter privately, spreading out their arms as if to say, “What can we do?” Nothing, of course, but obey orders, carry out the law… the fair and equal law that replaced the dreadful reign of royal decrees.

In the name of liberty they took the free man and his brood to the station. Back bent, he did not complain. The mother and children, creatures unaware of the benefits of independence, were almost happy with the idea that their captivity would provide them with a bed and food…

#

Equality?

Yesterday, also, under my window, around two o’clock, all of a sudden, I heard horses galloping, wheels speeding over the pavement and shouts! It was the President passing by in his carriage…

The people were not overly enthusiastic, but they still took off their hats, yelled and ran behind it with a great display of servility. How wonderful it is, however, when you think about it, that a hundred years ago they cut off the head of a king and twenty years ago they overthrew an emperor! No more scepters, no more thrones, no more crowns!

Nothing but the currency of the monarchy: little kings at the Hôtel de Ville, little kings at the Palais Bourbon, little kings at Luxembourg[2] and the ghost of a sovereign costing dearly, but no longer ruling. Ah, the nation has really benefited from the change!

#

Fraternity?

On the pavement, again, horses are clopping, artillery is rolling, the racket of a horde marching by to the rattle of steel. Some regiments are off to a parade. But the hurrahs and bravos are directed less at these brave little soldiers with ruddy faces, all sweaty and panting under the hard eye of the officers, than at the marvelous tools of butchery that they drag along.

Ah, the fine rifles that are carried so straight and are so well cared for. Ah, the pretty cannons so finely wrought like clockwork with their sleek and slender necks, their hollowed flanks, their long muzzles that kill from so far away!

How all this will make blood run! How it all will hack into tiny, tiny, tiny pieces the human flesh, like mincemeat.

And with their eyes and voices the crowd cheers on these beasts of slaughter that at the first sign—you know this, o proletariats!—will sink their fangs into French as easily as German flesh.

Alas!

#

And while the roar of the passers-by rises into my melancholy room, I think of that ancient cleverness that gave up Rome for a day to those whom they oppressed the rest of the year[3]. Twenty-four hours with more than just liberty—license. They let them treat the highest ranking members of the Republic as equals, fraternize with them in the celebration—and then they took advantage of their drunken stupor the next day to make their chains heavier, their work harder and deny them all justice and rights!

Dance and laugh, good people of France, if that is what you want, but open your eyes at the same time. The anniversary you commemorate is not yours. The victory you celebrate is not yours. And for you, fools, just like the Golden Calf, the Bastille is still standing!

When will you take it?

 

[1] Séverine, Notes d’une frondeuse, 1894.

[2] City Hall, the National Assembly and the Senate, respectively.

[3] The Saturnalia.

0-By Way of Introduction

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Severine by Rodin-1893(Séverine by Rodin, 1893)

The First Republic was ushered in by the French Revolution in 1789 and officially proclaimed in September 1792 when the monarchy was abolished. Louis XVI was beheaded four months later, followed by internal rebellions, war abroad, an economic crisis and, of course, the ruthless suppression of all counter-revolutionary forces during the bloody Reign of Terror that made the guillotine perhaps the only thing in France not starving. The army gained more and more control, thus preparing its most successful general, Napoleon Bonaparte, to stage a coup and eventually declare himself Emperor in 1804.

During the First Empire the royal dogs were kept at bay and the Napoleonic Wars insured that foreign countries would not meddle in domestic affairs, but while preserving some social gains and instituting civil reforms, Napoleon was not a republican nor a democrat and became increasingly autocratic until the European nations finally allied against him. After his disastrous campaign in Russia he was forced to abdicate on April 11 1814. A yearlong exile on the island of Elba, then he returned to revive the Empire for the famous Hundred Days before his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18 1815. While he wallowed in exile—on Saint Helena this time, ultimately dying there in 1821—the monarchy was restored in France under Louis XVIII, the brother of Louis XVI.

Unlike the previous “absolute” monarchy, the Bourbon Restoration under Louis XVIII was a “constitutional” monarchy following the Charter of 1814, the constitution he had allowed before Napoleon rushed back on stage, but it, too, was far from democratic. He died on the throne in 1824 and was succeeded by another younger brother, Charles X, who ended up becoming more and more authoritarian, suspended the constitution and finally dismissed the government, which led to the July Revolution of 1830 and brought to power Louis Philippe, Duke of Orléans, the “bourgeois monarch”. As might be expected, this government, as well, declined into oppression and exploitation that enriched the wealthy until the economic crisis of 1847 exploded in the 1848 Revolution, which sent this last French king into exile in England.

After sixty years of various changes under different forms of government, the condition of the people had not changed.   To solve the problem in this Second Republic, rival schools of thought inevitably came into conflict. Between capitalism and socialism, between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, between the rich and the poor were irreconcilable differences out of which imperialist sympathies resurfaced. The conservatives came out on top but on December 10 1848 it was Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew and heir of Napoleon I, who won the presidential election. Over the next three years he consolidated his power and influence by suppressing the opposition, playing the monarchists against the republicans, all the while fostering his own personal ambitions that culminated in a coup d’état, an illegal maneuver that dissolved the National Assembly in December 1851 and paved the way, a year later, for the Second French Empire, which lasted eighteen years.

Napoleon III, Emperor of the French, ruled until 1870, developing from an “authoritarian” empire into a “parliamentary” empire during those volatile times on the international scene: wars in Europe along with an economic crisis brought on by the American Civil War that resulted in free trade agreements with Britain, for example. As he continued to estrange his former supporters and fuel his enemies what other result was to be expected but his downfall? And Prussia was the instrument. France declared war on Prussia in 1870, but after a series of defeats culminating in the disastrous Battle of Sedan on September 1, Napoleon III surrendered. It was the loss of more than just his war. On September 4 the National Assembly was mobbed, a new government formed and the Third Republic officially declared, dominated by the “three Jules”, Jules Ferry, Jules Simon and Jules Favre.

The Third Republic ended in 1940 when the Nazis defeated France and the Vichy government was installed. As it ended in war, so it had begun. After Sedan the Prussians continued their march and laid siege to Paris for more than five months. Bombarded, starved, and finally vanquished and sold, the French surrendered to the Prussians in 1871 and set up a provisional, conservative government in Versailles with Adolphe Thiers at its head. The resulting treaty and financial laws, especially for those eternal reparations, were so untenable that the workers, socialists of all stripes and the National Guard rebelled and established the Paris Commune of 1871. This radical left-wing government lasted over two months before it was repressed during the “Semaine Sanglante”, the Bloody Week, between May 21 and 28 1871.

The times were uncertain. Still feeling the wounds from the defeat of Sedan and traumatized by the Commune, France hesitated between a conservative monarchy and a moderate republic. After almost a century of passion and fury, from revolution to restoration, from fleeting republics to authoritarian empires, from coup d’états to unstable monarchies, the country was hoping for a rest, but it did not know which way to turn. Nevertheless, after a failed attempt to reestablish the monarchy, the republicans took control of France, wrote its new constitution in 1875 (voted through with only one vote of majority) and ruled for the next sixty years.

During the 1850s and 1860s the French had lived under an authoritarian government, but they were relatively prosperous times. Unfortunately, the failed war of 1870 plunged it into an economic depression that it would not really crawl out of until World War I. In many people’s eyes those responsible for this deplorable situation were the members of parliament whose self-interest took precedence over any concern for their electors. The growing poverty through this era was phenomenal and the struggle against it monumental. At the start it fell to the Paris Commune of 1871. Even if it is hard to imagine today, it was a time when people of different political ideologies fought together—socialists, communists and anarchists alike—to establish a revolutionary government, flying the socialist red flag instead of the republican tricolor (blue, white and red), and eventually become a model for future generations throughout the world. The Communards, however, paid dearly for their experiment. During the Bloody Week in May 1871 the number of casualties (more Parisians than Communards, of course) in the slaughter was anywhere from 17,000 to 40,000. Officially there were 43,522 arrests that took six years to try in court and resulted in a couple of dozen executions and thousands sent to the penal colony in New Caledonia. Many Communards managed to flee to Belgium or Britain or elsewhere; many others escaped from the colonies to live in exile. When the general amnesty was declared in 1880, they returned to face the Third Republic. By then, Séverine had a role to play.