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…

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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!

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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.