Coffee Grinders

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juveniles

Coffee Grinders[1]

This is what they call the Criminal Court nowadays at the Palace of Justice: the jurisdiction that crushes, that “grinds”, in the blink of an eye, without stopping, in a continual, monotonous movement, the honor and future of the poor.

Whoever comes out of here—except for the very rare acquittals—comes out scarred not on their shoulders but on their criminal record with the mark of suspect. Sometimes just minor offenses, often insignificant in the eyes of philosophers, but mortifying to honest people. In small towns or in the countryside, the man “who has a record” is treated like a pariah and has to starve to death or suffer the most humiliating exploitation.

I know farmers who pretend to be philanthropists and hire only ex-convicts—they cost less! An unblemished citizen who is out of work with a family to feed and happens to knock at these doors and offer his services will be ruthlessly booted out. Because although he is poor, he would have the right to normal pay and could argue over lower wages or accept it only temporarily to go and find work elsewhere. Whereas the others!   They are forced to accept whatever is offered, under any and all conditions: being down and out they can be shaped and worked at will since they have only one choice: submission or death.

Or they might hide their past and manage to get hired. Then, denounced by some friend or recognized by someone from the trial or from prison or maybe wagging their tongue too much some Sunday night at the bar, they are fired on the spot, ruthlessly. The master draws his gun if yesterday’s servant makes a move to come back; the lady of the house, like a frightened hen, gathers the children around her; the maid throws his bag into the dirt and gives it a snide little kick.

He is lower than the dog who comes running up to rub against the man’s leg, the man who never beat him and sometimes gave him scraps of bread. But he is an animal…

Go on, bum, pick up your sack and get back on the road where no one trusts you, Ashaverus[2] of poverty and labor! One day here and one day there, you will find work to earn your living—but calm, steady work is not for you.

When you pass by, the girls will run back inside and lock the doors, the men will look upon you with hostility, the police will threaten… Being the stranger you will be the enemy! For ten leagues around not a single millstone will burn, not a single coin will disappear, not a single chicken will wander off from the henhouse without them blaming you. You will be lucky if no crime gets committed because without proof, without evidence, just by the look of things, Pandora will slap her suede-gloved hand on your ragged collar.

And it will be like this ALWAYS—until the day your carcass, with no more breath in it, rolls into some ditch. Unless you become too exhausted and take off your belt to escape, hanging it from some branch and slipping it around your neck… and take refuge in eternity!

#

But what did this being do to deserve such a destiny? Often nothing—or very little.

Just as the whole fruit is contained in the pip and the whole tree in the seed, so all of existence is contained in its origin, in its unconscious and innocent beginnings. I emphasize this last adjective on purpose because even though the Church has determined maturity to start at seven years of age for the ideal notion of good and evil and the psychological conception of free will, nevertheless we know very well that for social relations, regarding rights and civil duties, we have to triple the age at least. He whom the law does not recognize as fit to vote, get married and be a soldier, has he not yet fully developed his intellect or physical abilities? He could not, therefore, take full responsibility… so why does the independence of a minor only apply to the penal colony and the scaffold?

The current social system creates wild beasts against whom it then has to protect the weak. There are, I admit, 18-year old scoundrels who are hopelessly rotten and whom I wouldn’t trust with a mutt off the street! But they are almost always marked, like an original stain, either by being abandoned by their parents or by being sentenced too heavily for some minor offense. At their first mistake their life falls apart and runs into the gutter.

The terrible thing is that the blasé judges don’t see any malice here. Since the duty of the magistrate is to pass sentence, they pass sentences—very naturally, like an olive tree gives its olives and the medlar tree its medlars. They fulfill an artificial function with the ingenuity of a plant or a bush, very astonished that anyone could dispute their authority… and necessity! They are plainspoken and sincere—they are honorably wicked.

#

More than one of them will jump out of his chair at the sound of these two words so strangely coupled, which I write without anger, without passion, without the slightest hatred; but as an observer who has to pinch herself sometimes in certain courtrooms to make sure that she is really witnessing such a spectacle, that she isn’t the victim of some antiquated nightmare as comical as it is cruel, some vision crawling back from the bygone days of Sesostris or Confucius[3]

This implacable law that they appeal to; these articles of the Penal Code, mumbled out like Our Fathers in an incomprehensible blabber; these men either robed in black or robed in red; these guards with their golden tassels; and these prisoners with gray or brown faces, the color of the earth or of manure, escaped from the slave chains whose fate is decided in the blink of an eye—maybe ten grains of sand through the bottleneck—all this, yes, falls under archeology more than history, dream more than reality, the past more than the present!

A great curiosity, mocking some and pitying others, a profound amazement… that is all that this machinery, this ceremonial, the very principle of which they are the accessory, inspires in the attentive thinker!

And this is confirmed nowhere as much as in the court of misdemeanors. In serious crimes the thought of the victims, of their spilled blood and the suffering they endured, troubles the listener’s indifference. A little primitive savagery, of Talion and Lynch[4], makes the blood boil. Humanity, in showing its least noble aspect, awakens in the heart of the onlooker.

Here in the “Coffee Grinder” it is completely different. No fury, no frenzy makes their souls quiver. Reason is not impassioned either for or against. The battle instinct lies dormant. We see higher and farther. And the stakes, although they seem less important to superficial people, look far more important to me—like some trivial death next to life!

For, the blade of justice falls as the first sentencing for these hardly guilty opens onto the desolate horizon where they will be penned up forever. The death of a leper leaves me indifferent, sometimes relieved—what fills me with anguish is the moment of contagion, the instant when a healthy being gets the sickness. Now, the hotbed of the epidemic is the Correctional Court. To punish a man for having no bread, for having no home, for holding out his hand, is an abominable act! Just like for some childish thing, swiping some fruit or talking back to a police officer, it is a terrible thing to stigmatize indelibly the future of an adolescent.

They sentence them in a hurry, files flipped through, cases flippantly recited. And other judges, afterwards, armed with this sentence make it the basis for even stricter sentences…

Oh how right Banville[5] was: “For the poor everything is grief and misery!”

 

[1] From En Marche, 1896.

[2] The Wandering Jew.

[3] Sesostris ancient king of Egypt in the second millennium BCE and Confucius (551-479 BCE) the famous Chinese philosopher.

[4] The Lex Talionis and the Lynch Law, i.e. an eye for an eye and hang ‘em high.

[5] Théodore de Banville (1823-1891), French writer.

De Profundis Clamavi Ad Te…

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Ravachol

De Profundis Clamavi Ad Te…

After the Explosion at the Véry Restaurant[1]

With the poor at all times—despite their mistakes, despite their faults…despite their crimes! – Le Cri du peuple, January 30 1887 (“The Responsible Parties”)

 

For the first time in ten years since Vallès taught me—a selfish little bourgeoisie—to think and ponder about and bow before human despair, to picture its breadth and measure its depth, in the seven years since his death that I have had to come out of his shadow in order to continue the good fight, gathering up weapons like the sword of Angantyr[2], too heavy for my weak hands, and marching faithfully down the path of his wishes—for the first time I am hesitant, confused, worried about making a mistake, wavering in tears before the innocent victims whom they found among the ruins and carried out on stretchers and who are bleeding on their hospital beds.

I seem to have come to a crossroads filled with darkness where every light has gone out inside and outside of me and where the smoke from the bombs, settling on women and children and veiling the sun in mourning, has made night fall on all my hopes, all my courage and all my convictions. And I stumble in this dreadful darkness, with my hands out in front of me and my feet trembling in fear of tripping over one of the victims whose cries tear apart my heart. Where is my way? What is my path?

How awful and painful it is to tell yourself, “What if I was wrong! If the cause to which I have given ten years of my life and sacrificed my family’s fortune, for which I have suffered so many insults and received so many wounds, risked and lost my livelihood so many times, what if this cause was not on the side of truth and justice—what if I was wrong!” Ah, the unbearable anguish, the painful torture!

Meanwhile the shrill voice of Guesde cuts through the moaning darkness. He has no doubts at all! Neither his brain nor the metronome ticking in his chest has the slightest fear or even a moment of hesitation and humility. He is sure of what he does—and what he hates. He joins his anathema to the general outcry. His socialist hand throws the first rock at the stoning…

“All anarchists are fools, madmen or snitches.”

Those whom he claims to fight against also support him and cheer him on and turn out to be the surest ally. Later in the day, after he speaks out, on his signal, a crowd of innocent men are arrested.

Five years ago it was the same with regard to the impersonal theft of Duval, but I had the courage then, while not approving of it, to stand up before it and say that the bourgeoisie might condemn these extreme doctrines but they had no right to condemn the revolutionaries; that the chiefs in the army of revolt were always responsible for the acts of its soldiers; and that if they criticized this enraged soldier, they should not choose the moment he was being threatened with the death penalty to tell him this and put the Social finger on the trigger of the guillotine. And God knows how much they sullied my dress when they answered me!

Blood has been spilled today. And I do not dare anymore, I do not know anymore…My master is dead and my conscience wavers. I am without a guide or compass, nothing but my pity, which rises up before that injured little girl, that half-mad woman and that dying man! Who will cast a ray of light into my night? Who will explain to me the reason for this growing, savage anger? Who will help me see beyond this barbarity?

#

Voices from the Shadows

“We are the poor, little souls of Limbo, the children whom love’s work began and who were not born. We would have loved to exist like the others and clung to life with all our atoms’ energy, but there was no substance for us in our poverty-stricken mothers and we fell, withered before blooming, like buds in April. Their blood was so weak and limpid, more watered down than beggar’s wine! Their flesh was so pale and faint, almost dead already from fatigue and hardship!

“In their bellies shivering under their thin skirts in the chilly evenings under the roofs or sweating like beasts of burden in the factory ovens and in their bodies constantly standing behind the counter or ceaselessly bent over their work, we could not grow and develop. Misery, like an abortionist, caught us in its claws and ripped out our anemic guts!

“We are the poor children who could not be born because our mothers were too hungry and cold, were driven like animals without ever any rest. And from this existence that was promised to us, to which we had a right just like rich children, we, the seed of social outcasts, knew only the echo of suffering, the remnants of our mothers’ anguish and an inkling of our future joys.

“We are the children whose mothers were scared, whose mothers preferred to see us dead right away, embryonic, rather than to watch us die slowly for want of blankets or milk.   We are those who died of hunger in front of a dried up breast and died of cold on December streets when our parents wandered homeless. We are those who passed away in some small room at the backstreet abortionist… where they tossed us because it was cheaper, where they killed us because no one could watch over us. We are the poor kids whom they picked up frozen on the roads, in the woods, in the corner of carriage entrances or who groaned in the sickrooms of reformatories. We are infantile humanity, banned, bruised and dispossessed!”

#

“We are the women, the sad women of the common people for whom all is mourning and misery. At eight years old we become mothers of our many brothers and sisters crowded into our lodging. When we can read, there are no more games. At twelve we have to be self-sufficient and contribute to the household expenses. If we are haunted by a dream of routine, we are married at fifteen and we start the sad life of endless pregnancies, continual labor and constant worry, which is the fate of women of our race. And we learn all about unemployment, strikes and the awful catastrophes that carry our men away on stretchers, crushed and massacred, so disfigured by death that they are unrecognizable—even by us!

“Or else at thirteen some foreman rapes us in a corner of the factory. At fourteen we have a baby. At sixteen, by hook or by crook, the police nab us and register us—flesh for pleasure, flesh for work, doomed to all the contempt and filth and sickness!

“Drudgery by day, drudgery by night, a worker bent over the workbench twelve hours a day to earn forty sous or a pitiful streetwalker offering her empty belly and her hungry mouth—the same destiny on the horizon: hospital, dissection room and a pauper’s grave!

“We are the poor women, fading at twenty years old and withered at twenty-five from whom fate takes everything, even the flower of youth and the ray of beauty—such luxuries are not made for us! It is the rose of our cheeks that we sew into the pretty ladies’ dresses. Their make-up is composed of our radiance. Their diamonds are fashioned with our tears—and the poppies that our fingers weave for their garlands are less red than our weary eyes and our tattered hearts!”

#

“We with our hoary heads, our trembling knees and feeble hands are the poor old people worn out by work and thrown out now. For thirty or forty years, we did our social duty, striving in the common labor. As long as our lungs breathed strongly, as long as we could move our arms, as long as we stood up straight, even under the snow of ages, we boldly faced the fight every morning.

“Then when we grew old, they threw us out on the street. We are the shamed old people who kill themselves rather than hold out our hand—our calloused, scarred hands, not made for begging! We are the pitiful elders who drag their half-bare limbs, their worn-out shoes and their quiet, hopeless despair down the boulevards when the night owls go home. Sometimes one of us falls down and the few passers-by gather round. “He’s drunk,” someone says. But a voice replies, “No, he’s hungry!” Unless they say, “He’s dead!”

“We are the old workers without support, without help, without retirement, without a way out, good for the street when we no longer produce, less fortunate than the mangy dogs kept by their pitiful masters, less fortunate than broken down horses—whom they shoot, at least, whom they are kind enough to shoot when they are nothing but useless mouths!”

#

“Court of Miracles[3], more deplorable than in the past, wreckage of humanity, hideous bunch of all the deformities a creature can suffer—we are the crippled, maimed and mutilated in the great industrial battle. All the wheels have taken our skin; the teeth of the machines have chewed up our meat; the ground has drunk our blood. A few of us rest in the earth, above or below ground, in the mouth of the puddling furnace[4] or in the guts of mines, here and there. Every factory, every mill, every mine is a cemetery where we lie in pieces, arms here, legs there, not counting the eyes and teeth and all the skin and bones of our poor bodies.

“While we moan in delirium during the amputation, our wives and children fast. We need savings while waiting for the outcome of the legal process. Savings! We don’t have any. They know it and we have to compromise—because we have to eat!

“One thousand francs per hand or foot, that is to say per tool for eating or walking—that’s well paid. And we accept it, even if it we hold it out to passers-by later on, like a blind man’s spaniel with a begging bowl between its teeth.”

#

“We are the strong young men, full of energy and courage. We ask for nothing but work. So much energy circulates in our veins and so much goodwill swells our breasts that it would serve our employers well. But no one wants us. We have knocked on all the doors in vain. In vain, almost begging, we have asked for work, running around day and night all over the place without ever giving up. They turn us down everywhere.

“Hey! What! Such a thing is possible? That boy in good shape, determined and brave, can’t get hired? And then we starve. It gnaws at our bellies like a wolf. We’re hungry and we have no more place to stay, no more clothes, no more hope! Why were we put on this earth if we have no right to live, when they have everything and we have nothing—not even the right to use our strength? But we are stronger and more numerous—and if we wanted…”

#

The Governments

“Listen, free citizens, it is time for you to be free of the old beliefs that have deluded you for so long. The priests lied to you about the eternal soul. They lied to you when they promised you a better and sweeter life that would amend the iniquities of this one. Lies! Abominable lies! Born out of nothing, Man will return to nothing. He has nothing to hope for except from himself. He will taste no joys except for those he can offer himself here and now…Matter is everything. Matter is God!”

And then?

 

[1] Pages Rouges, 1893. De Profundis from Psalm 130: “Out of the depths I cry to you…”

[2] Cf. Leconte de Lisle’s L’Épée d’Agantyr from the Old Norse about Hervor getting the magic sword Tyrfing from the ghost of Angantyr, her dead father.

[3] An area with no law and no rights called thus because disabilities and sicknesses would seem to disappear at night as if by a miracle. Most cities had such an area for the poor, unemployed and homeless. Paris had a dozen.

[4] Puddling was an old process for smelting iron and steel.

11-Ravachol

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Séverine by Rodin-1893-mask

While the soldiers were shooting innocent demonstrators in Fourmies on May Day 1891, a group of anarchists marching through the streets of Clichy, a working-class suburb of Paris, also came into conflict with the police. Although shots were fired on both sides, no one was injured. However, three of the demonstrators were arrested. After being “questioned” at the police station they had to be transferred to a hospital before appearing before a judge—the police denied any knowledge of how their wounds had been inflicted. Two of the prisoners were given five and three years hard labor and the third was acquitted. The anarchists were in an uproar over the harsh punishment but almost a year passed before they tried to avenge the “Clichy Martyrs.” Then a wave of anarchist attacks swept over Paris.

On March 11 1892 a bomb exploded at 136 Boulevard Saint Germain in the house where two judges were living, one of whom was the presiding judge of the Clichy trial. Four days later another bomb went off at the Lobau barracks, followed by a third on March 27 at the residence of the prosecutor in the Clichy case. A man by the name of Ravachol was arrested after the third explosion, but the fuse had been lit on both sides. Thus began the Anarchist Terror of 1892-94. The militant anarchists were more driven than ever to destroy the symbols of bourgeois order: the justice system and the military. Out of the rhetoric of propaganda by word, dynamite started talking through propaganda by deed to which the government responded in turn with ever more ruthless laws and practices. The clash culminated in the assassination of President Carnot.

Illegalism had been a hotbed of contention since Clément Duval’s trial in 1887[1], but it was not the first time that propaganda by deed caused a rift in revolutionary currents. As we know, Pierre Joseph Proudhon’s The Philosophy of Misery in 1846 used the epigraph destruam et aedicabo, I will destroy and I will build, meaning that every social constraint must be torn down in order to establish social harmony. In 1873 Mikhail Bakunin bid farewell by saying, “If ideas alone could save the world, I challenge anyone to invent a new one. The time for ideas is over. It is time now for deeds and action.” Then at the International Congress in London in 1881, the militant voices voted to back up their talk by studying and using modern scientific discoveries for their cause. This was the point where the anarchists separated from the socialists. It was this joining of science and politics, of technology and social philosophy that was characteristic of anarchy, but the rather violent eruption of bombs in the early 1890s stained the idea of anarchism for generations to come.

For the anarchists, on the other hand, in their competition with Nobel to create a powerful explosive like nitroglycerine, as a means to political ends, chemistry became a kind of alchemy: chemical transformation for social transformation, explosion for revolution. But these experiments lasted only a short time at the turn of the century. Very soon, at least in France, the calls for dynamite would change into calls for general strikes, “propaganda by deed” would change into “direct action” and the individualists would be eclipsed by the syndicalists. The explosions of 1892 would become legend and Ravachol was the hero.

Ravachol[2] grew up poor, supporting his fatherless family, and remained poor. He worked and struggled and fanned the fires of his revolt. After first turning to counterfeiting he soon committed more serious crimes In May 1891 he heard that a Countess of Rochetaillée had died and been buried with her jewels. Ravachol took the opportunity to expropriate the riches from the grave, but apparently came up empty. Later he heard about the Hermit, an old man living alone in the hills with a hoard of money. Ravachol killed and robbed him. Unfortunately he and his companion were arrested, but they somehow managed to escape.

On the run and more determined than ever, Ravachol decided to avenge the Clichy victims. First he plotted with some partners to steal dynamite. One of his accomplices was a young man of eighteen named Simon, called “Biscuit”. The two of them staked out the house of the judge and on March 11 1892 planted the bomb on the third floor. The property damage was substantial, but no one was injured.

Then on the eve of the anniversary of the Paris Commune, March 15 1892, there was an explosion at the Lobau barracks. This, however, was not the work of Ravachol, but of Théodule Meunier. Again no loss of life, but the government introduced a bill that would demand capital punishment for such crimes. This did not discourage Ravachol. On March 27 he carried a more powerful bomb to the house of the public prosecutor. Besides the even greater property damage, six people were injured this time.

Paris was seized by fear and panic. Despite the bloody battles it had seen in recent war and the growing number of poor dying in the streets, it was these benign but direct attacks that made the government tremble and the bourgeoisie stand aghast with horror, as if the cost of property damage was more valuable than human lives. One discontent worker had brought Paris to her knees.

After the last explosion, Ravachol went to lunch at the restaurant of Monsieur Véry on Boulevard Magenta. When speaking to the waiter, Lhérot, he boasted of his crimes in no uncertain terms while trying to propagandize him. Lhérot informed the police immediately and they arrested Ravachol with a number of friends.

Ravachol was praised in the anarchist press. Emile Pouget in Le Père Peinard, Jean Grave in La Révolte and Zo d’Axa in L’En-Dehors along with the likes of Sébastien Faure, Octave Mirbeau and Bernard Lazare, to one extent or another, supported and justified his militant actions. Some of these outspoken supporters who saw a general revolt of the poor on the horizon went to jail for expressing their opinions; others would later change their opinions when faced with more serious consequences of anarchist strikes. But no one could sit idly by and not voice an opinion.

The authorities were worried about more attacks, but they did not address any of the issues that were at stake. Séverine responded by saying that in 1789 they cut off heads, so it was only natural that the people would start blowing up the bourgeoisie. But, “Come on, they only blow up once!” And whose turn will it be tomorrow?

The more serious consequences followed quickly when Ravachol’s trial opened. Théodule Meunier took revenge on Véry’s restaurant by planting a bomb that killed two people, including the owner. Thus the anarchists could talk about “Verification.” But the explosion also wounded a little girl, which pulled the public’s heartstrings. Séverine had a dilemma with these fatalities.   Who was really responsible? Did his supporters in the press now have blood on their hands? How deeply were they entangled in the struggle? And how deep did they want to go? As with Duval, however, she looked beyond the mere act and addressed the real causes: the social injustices that pushed people into the pit of despair. As long as the exploitation continued, the violence would never stop.

In the trial, only Ravachol and young Simon were found guilty of the bombs and thus sentenced to hard labor for life. However, as result of the investigation, Ravachol was sent off to answer for his crimes committed in other parts of France. When he was sentenced to death for murder, he cried, “Vive l’Anarchie!” He refused to appeal, refused to ask for a reprieve and refused the priest who was sent on execution day. He was publicly guillotined on July 11 1892 in Montbrison.

He would become a martyr, a cult figure, a thing of legend over time. But immediately, perhaps the most surprising response was how quickly things went back to normal, how easily people forgot. No changes. Case closed. Move on. People could breathe more easily now because Ravachol was gone. What they did not know was that the threat of dynamite was just beginning.

 

[1] See 4-Propaganda by Deed.

[2] His real name was François Auguste Koenigstein—he used his mother’s name.

 

Apartments For Rent

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explosion

 Apartments for Rent[1]

As I told you here the other day, Séverine is my comrade, my confidant, my close friend. We are from the same “region”, both born right in the heart of the 9th, Rue du Helder, in an old house that Baron Haussmann tore down around 1868 and that has since been replaced by the office of the Taitbout-La Muette tramway.

We grew up together. We played with the same dolls, wore out our seats on the same school benches, shared the punishments and rewards, the wallops and the candy. In brief, we almost never left each other’s side.

Likewise professionally. When we had to choose a career, destiny held out a pair of blue stockings[2]—always fraternal we each took one. She matched it with a black stocking and red garters, battle colors. Me, being more frivolous, was satisfied with pastel pink frilled with pale pink ribbons. And while I worked on the society columns, smiling a little at everything, rarely getting angry, mostly discreet and proper, that good, nutty Séverine went running off, running wild, starting controversies, fending off attacks… the kin of Louise Michel for her sincerity and the cousin of Déroulède[3] for her windmills!

I call her good?… hmm. I do not want to belittle her, but that is a legend that needs to be cut down to size. She is good, of course, but often with such lack of tact! Look, we could never make her understand that when an abuse is commmitted by the rich, the right people, or the people in government keeping silent about it is proof of a good upbringing, good taste and good manners; and in betraying the unspoken freemasonry that binds people of the same social status you have everything to lose and nothing to gain; and finally that it is bad form and degrading to look too low. Seriously, she is doing herself a disservice!

But when you tell her these things she gives you that cocky, I-don’t-give-a-damn-what-anybody-thinks look—and, like the marshal’s negro, continue!

In truth she is very mean. So, when I see this usually gloomy girl laughing, I am suspicious. Surely, while pretending to defend the weak she just ran into some distinguished person again. And I never fail to greet her by asking, “Well, what did you do this time, you scamp?”

#

Now, this morning she was laughing so loudly and so cheerfully, with tears in her eyes, that she could not answer right away. She slumped down in the cushions and wiped her eyes. As I was getting impatient she said, “Wait a minute. It’s so funny.”

“Well, what?”
“I’m going to move.”

“Oh, great.” And here comes the best part. “Where are you going to move?”

“The left bank.”

“Why? It’s been barely a year since you got your new apartment and you’re set up so nicely there.”

“Yes, but I’m paying for it.”

“And over there?”
“Not a sous, my dear! No matter how much I insist, the landlord will keep my rent very low and the other tenants will provide me with soap, sugar and coffee.”

“Give me the address, I’ll be there in a heartbeat.”

“Oh, there’s nothing there for you, sweetie.”

“Well, are you going to tell me everything?”
“Here you go. Thirteen months ago, you remember (right after the Padlewski affair), I was looking for an apartment. I needed something not very expensive for reasons that I’ll let you guess, but very spacious because of my books and papers, my collection of newspapers, my birds and what the good old master Cladel[4] would call my litany of dogs: Rip, Tiote and Mégot.

“I scoured the districts, went up one street and down another, up one flight of stairs and down another, without finding that pearl of a nice landlady and that other pearl that is no less precious: a smiling, helpful concierge!”

“But you have them where you are, ingrate, and you want to leave!”

“Hold on, I’m not finished. In brief, I’d run all over Paris from east to west, from north to the Midi, without finding the nest of my dreams when I noticed on Rue d’Assas (you’ll understand in a minute why I’m not giving you the number) a lovely apartment. Huge and on the first floor—with a little garden where roses could grow and where all the animals, including myself, could lie in the bright sun.

“I told him timidly that I had birds but the doorman remained calm. I confessed my four-footed friends… and with a smile that looked beatific he said he loved them. ‘Animals are good’ he even deigned to add. You understand now my enthusiasm and the down payment I handed to this fellow beastiomaniac. I got him to arrange a meeting with the manager for the next day and I went dancing back home, happy as a lark.

“The next day I showed up with mama because we had to rent in her name. We settled everything with the manager, a nice man who was the spitting image of Hector Malot. I pointed out the wall partitions that needed to be taken down and the ceiling in need of repair. We agreed so marvelously on every point that there were no misunderstandings and no discussion. We decided on what the owner would pay for and what would be my responsibility. I saw the cellar and the maid’s room and was already arranging the furniture. We parted. Everyone was delighted.

“The day after that, mama came home and broke down in tears. ‘My poor child, they don’t want to rent to us!’ I was startled, ‘Why?’ And she explained that they gave full credit to me as a renter and that even my character as far as being a woman was in no way questionable, but that the house was full of judges and that they were disturbed by the idea of having as a neighbor the former editor-in-chief of Le Cri du Peuple, a ‘petroleuse’, a hell-raiser, a Communard, a journalist imbued with the most ‘subversive’ attitudes toward their association. And my dear mother finished with this predictable comment: Your father and I told you that by choosing that position you would have nothing but trouble! If you were with the government, they would rent to you right away!

“So, I went elsewhere and I’m fine. But now…”

“Now?”

“Take a guess.”

“No, go on!”

“Well… so… the guys on Rue d’Assas got a real scare put in them by the explosion on Boulevard Saint Germain[5]. And all of a sudden they feel terribly guilty and passionately sympathetic toward me. They thought it wasn’t good that their occupational prejudice prevented a poor little woman from living wherever she pleased and that they had lost a unique opportunity to bond with friendly ‘companions’, those young anarchists who are so interesting and admired and slandered! Nothing but positive could come of us getting to know each other, right? And so much incrimination and hatred and reciprocal danger might be avoided that way…”

“You’re joking, come on!”
“I swear it’s the truth. They figured that the anarchists might think twice about blowing to bits a woman who has always defended them and…”

“And?”

“THEY CAME LOOKING FOR ME! A envoy who was ‘subtle and sensible’, as they say in Lazare le Pâtre[6], came on behalf of the tenants to know if I would accept being the fireshield for this tribe of magistrates.”

“And you accepted?”
“No worries, my dear. I love quiet houses with nice people. So, I’m not going there. There are judges in that house!”
[1] Writing as Jacqueline in Gil Blas, March 18 1892.

[2] For intellectual women interested in the literary world.

[3] Paul Déroulède (1846-1914), nationalist founder of the League of Patriots and supporter of General Boulanger.

[4] Léon Cladel (1834-1892) was a French novelist.

[5] In March 1892 a bomb planted by Ravachol exploded in a judge’s house. See 11-Ravachol.

[6] A play by Joseph Bouchardy that was first staged in 1840.

Sort the Dead

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Fourmies Massacre

Sort the Dead[1]

I do not want to upset anyone, but really, I wonder where that editor’s head is who was ill-advised enough to offer the following consolation to the good people who were saddened by the shooting in Fourmies: “In the front rows among the dead there were, we can say now, women of very loose morals.”

One point and that is all. The charming conclusion is self-evident: the tragedy is not so awful, the catastrophe not so distressing and the sub-prefect Isaac should not be booed because the victims were not virgins!

The 145th regiment, which did the shooting, was a morality regiment, a vice squad. Commandant Chapus was a Public Health leader, even though he went a little overboard in his practices. And shelling out lead to the young people was simply a prelude to the distribution of pretty little cards with first and last names, age and complete civil status—the signs pinned to the murdered victims’ shrouds as their mothers had to spell out their names while tearing out their hair!

In fact it was just a roundup that was just a little more radical than the others. The hearse replaced the paddy wagon—which was more preferable for respectability and public health—the great Saint Lazare becoming the patron saint of the French regiment!

I have rarely read anything more detestable, including the famous saying of Monsieur Dumas fils about the tragic, random shootings during the repression in 1871. He tactfully called them “Females” because he did not want to talk about them “out of respect for the honest women whom they looked like…when they were dead”![2]

#

At least he recognized that the Grim Reaper, an ironic equalizer of prejudices like it is of situations, makes all the scraps that have left life behind the same and the good, ignorant earth accepts all manure, not caring about where the flesh we give it to rot came from.

The pure have no more right to maggots than the perverse—and the mocking wind sows the abortive Rue[3] on the sepulcher of the fertile—it makes the orange tree spring up on bellies that knew nothing about uprightness.

But Le Temps is harsher than Monsieur Dumas fils and puts nature to shame for its disgraceful indulgence. It wants none of that troubling confusion, even after death. It gathers the corpses of the deceased on the field of massacre and before mourning them it sends them for a visit to the health clinic to determine what their moral standing was.

“Was this one a virgin? Ah, what a shame! And was this one a sinner? Good riddance!”

And they sort them in two: the bodies of the respectable dead and the bodies of those we should not respect. Le Temps mourns the first and I prefer not to say what it does to the others!

Then it counts them up and since the pile of “loose” women is much bigger than the other, its grief vanishes right away. Obviously the Fourmies affair is unfortunate, but not too unfortunate since we have learned about the behavior of these little hussies against whom the soldiers, after all, were probably just defending their virtue.

The girls were getting too close… poor lads!

Ah, if a monarchist newspaper or a religious newspaper had delivered this unprecedented sentence, Le Temps would be screaming about it at the top of their lungs! They would be protesting in outrage against the obscurantism of certain opinions, the intolerance of the Church and the lack of humanity of its reaction.

They would bring up ’89[4] and the immortal principles: equality before the law, the Rights of Man and all the wonderful things that make the Republicans today declare that it is certainly upsetting that the Lebel has made its debut on women and French women at that, but it is, after all, less upsetting than we might believe at first—since these women were not so well behaved!

#

Poor girls! I was curious enough to reread the list of the dead and see again how old these inveterate sinners were.

Maria Blondeau, who held the “May” decorated with ribbons and flowers that was, along with the tricolor flag that the young man Giloteaux held, the banner of this rowdy demonstration of young girls—Maria Blondeau was fifteen years old. According to a witness, a bullet took the top of her skull off like the lid of a teakettle. But she was suspected of being a little more than just engaged to Giloteaux (reread the delightful story of Miette’s death in La Fortune des Rougon[5]), so Le Temps’ pity could not be given to her. Yet at fifteen, if you have done wrong, you have hardly had the time to do much wrong.

Ernestine Diot was shot four times, part of her head was also blown off and one of her eyes was plucked out. She was nineteen years old. Out of decency our colleague could not have any compassion for her either…she left behind a young child.

Louise Hublet, two bullets, twenty-one years old; Félicie Pennelier, one bullet, seventeen years old. They were both shot down at the same time as the first two. Should we feel sorry for them or not, according to the austere theory of Le Temps? I do not know.

As for young Bastain, seventeen years old, shot six times in the thigh and Elisa Dupont, twenty-five, shot in the knee and Elisa Lecomte, twenty-four, three bullets in her foot—I am also not informed. But for the last young woman, a question is raised. She was with a child, her child, who was two and a half years old. Was this child legitimate or not? If it was conceived in sin, the wounds and suffering of the mother do not matter much. But if it was the fruit of a legal marriage, ah!—the reporter from Le Temps would find this unlucky wound very regrettable and mourn the poor victim!

The same sorting needs to be done, of course, for the poor eleven, twelve and thirteen year old kids that they piled up in the Church Square like drowned cats on the riverbank. Did they or did they not have the stain of original sin? Had the mayor presided over the unions that gave birth to these children or not?

#

I am dumbfounded at this reasoning. And all the common sense of the human race, all the feminine pity, all the bruised tolerance that my heart is full of is outraged and protests against this monstrous theory!

Life is a battlefield like any other where especially the people who claim to be representatives of the republican tradition should remove the wounded from the battlefield without distinction, without worrying about their past before they fell victim to their wounds.

Society makes prostitutes so that lucky women, called honest women, can enjoy virtue and cross the street without suffering the attacks of men. Society makes the poor so that the fortunate can have more than they need: excess, more than excess—luxury.

Every paving stone on our roads is a pauper’s heart that the dashing, pretty, gussied up herds of rich walk on!

If the dead at Fourmies were debauched—which they were not!—they would deserve even more pity since they had been sacrificed even before the shooting threw them on the only bed where they were allowed to sleep alone!

But they were poor girls who worked hard to earn a little money and who barely knew any other joy in their brief existence than the few caresses and embraces that the puritans of the Republic call a crime; and that they are using as a pretext to stop people’s grieving.

It is funny. The Mother Superior of the Sisters of Compassion at Fourmies did not think of this. The seventy-six year old nun washed and dressed the corpses with her own hands, closed their eyes (forever dead) leaned over them and with the sign of the cross gave them a motherly, contrite kiss on the forehead!

 

[1] Gil Blas, May 15 1891, and in Pages Rouges, 1893.

[2] Alexandre Dumas fils (1824-1895), the son of Alexandre Dumas père (1802-1870), writing about the Paris Commune.

[3] Also known as Herb-of-Grace, it was used to induce abortions.

[4] 1789.

[5] Novel of Emile Zola published in 1871.

10-Soldiers and Spies

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Séverine4

The world of labor was in turmoil. Unions were forming and strikes were multiplying, but workers’ rights were slow to improve. So, the demonstrations organized for Labor Day on May 1 1891, the first such celebration of International Workers’ Day after the Haymarket Riot[1], were bigger and bolder. In Lyon they marched with red and black flags—red for the socialists, adopted during the 1848 Revolution, and black for the anarchists, which had been introduced by Louise Michel back in 1883. As the procession went to put wreaths on the graves of bygone revolutionaries there was a clash with police, shots were fired and casualties were numbered on both sides. Other disruptions occurred in Marseille, Toulouse and Bordeaux. Dynamite exploded in Nantes and Charleville doing little damage. But in a number of towns the workers did not even take to the streets; they just signed petitions. In Fourmies, however, tragedy struck.

Fourmies was a small town in Northern France at the height of its industrial development whose population consisted mainly of workers in the textile and glass factories. A strike was organized for an eight-hour workday and higher wages, which the owners of the factories had adamantly opposed. At the bequest of the mayor two infantry companies from the 145th regiment were brought in from nearby Avesnes. Armed with their brand new Lebel rifles (8mm bolt-action rifles that could shoot through walls, an innovation of General Boulanger when he was War Minister) three hundred soldiers faced off against fewer than two hundred unarmed strikers. Some stones were thrown at the uniforms and in retaliation they opened fire. Nine workers were killed at the front of the march—two men, four women and three children—and around forty wounded in less than a minute.

A few days after the massacre Le Temps published an article that tried to console its readers about the shooting: “In the front rows among the dead there were, we can say now, women of very loose morals.” Did they fire on a crowd of morals? Séverine vented her anger in “Sort the Dead”. For these men, every women who was not a housewife was a whore. And by leaving behind the traditional roles assigned to females, they left behind any protection or consideration that might be offered by society. But who was really at fault for this?

The public was certainly indignant and disillusioned once again about their security forces. Their peacekeeping brothers ceased for the moment to be brothers. But no one of the troop was ever found guilty of any misconduct. They were just following orders after all. On the other hand, the instigators of the strike, Hippolyte Culine the director of Guesde’s French Workers’ Party, and Paul Lafargue, the son-in-law of Karl Marx, were sentenced to prison for six years and one year respectively for “provocation to murder” or inciting the crowd to violence. Lafargue, however, skillfully used the tragedy to get elected deputy in Lille in November of that year and was thereupon released. He was the first Guesdist in the Chamber. Séverine, a long-time antagonist of Guesde since Le Cri, denounced his exploitation of the carnage—another source of her beautiful anger.

Séverine wrote these articles for L’Eclair because she was no longer collaborating with Le Gaulois. Her participation in the Padlewski affair six months earlier was unacceptable and they had cut her off. Padlewski? Of course. It was the talk of town at the end of 1890, a real cloak and dagger story right out of a spy novel.

On November 18 1890 in a Paris hotel room Stanislas Padlewski, a Polish nihilist, assassinated General Seliverstoff, the former chief of Russian secret police who was responsible for the repression of Polish revolutionaries fighting to free their country from Tsar Alexander III’s barbarous occupation. Padlewski fled and hid with friends in the city. It was the Russian socialist poet Procope Bazilisk who showed up at Séverine’s door one evening early in December; she did not know him, but they had friends in common. He asked her to help him find some money and get Padlewski out of France. She agreed, but how, seeing that he was wanted all over France? She thought of Georges.

Georges de Labruyère’s reputation as a duelist came in handy. Under the pretext of fighting a duel in Italy with Padlewski disguised as his second, they could sneak him over the border. To assuage his misgivings, Séverine convinced Georges that, besides helping a righteous cause, if he wrote about the adventure he would have all the publicity he dreamed of: the escape of a political criminal right under the nose of the French police and the Tsarist agents—what a report. He accepted and got a 2,000 F advance for the article to finance the expedition. For Séverine it was the first time she had done such a thing and far from being motivated by self-promotion she was compelled by justice—it was a political attack in a war of liberation.

It was a success. With Padlewski traveling as Dr. Wolf, they got to the Lyon train station where one of the chiefs recognized Georges. They joked about his upcoming duel and to make it easier for him to get his swords across the Italian border the chief wrote a letter to his colleague in Modane. Padlewski arrived safely in Italy and boarded a ship for the USA. Georges returned to Paris and published his “extraordinary report the likes of which have never been seen before”: “How I Helped Padlewski Escape” in L’Eclair on December 15 1890. It was a sensation.

It did not last. On December 24 Georges de Labruyère was summoned before the 9th correctional court of Paris and found guilty of aiding and abetting the escape of a murderer. Thirteen months in prison. Merry Christmas. Séverine was implicated as an accomplice, but no criminal charges were brought against her. However, since France was trying to woo Russia as an ally in the face of deteriorating Franco-Germanic relations, it was a very sensitive issue. To be an outspoken rebel was one thing, but to help a red terrorist against Holy Russia was quite another. With her lover in prison and her reputation now more vitriolic than ever, she was no longer a reliable profit and Le Gaulois let her go. Luckily Charles Cazet at L’Eclair welcomed her—she would never forget him for this favor.

Meanwhile, Georges did not have to rot in Mazas Prison for long. After one month the court of appeals acquitted him. He had got his publicity, but he did not get much work after that. And Padlewski? He lived in Texas under the name of Otto Hauser before committing suicide on October 4 in San Antonio. It was said the gun he used to shoot himself in the head had been given to him by Georges de Labruyère.

 

[1] See 4-Propaganda by Deed and “The Chicago Anarchists”.