De Profundis Clamavi Ad Te…



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.


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