Fear of Death

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necrophores-vallotton

Fear of Death[1]

I pity the living. I don’t pity the dead—those who, as Luther well said, are finally at rest.

But why does this rest frighten so many people? Why, just at the thought of this end, maybe far in the future, do they feel the back of their necks grow cold and the blood in their veins freeze?

I will never understand this.

Life seems to me to be a storehouse entrusted to our honor and uprightness. We are forbidden to embezzle from it and we should go to the grave with the entire stock like those ancients whose toll for eternity we still find in their skeletal hands or on their mummified lips.

Fear of death? But it is because you made a mess of your life!

I think it is so simple, this idea of doing good all the time, constantly, unceasingly, as if the Great Ghoul was right about to sweep you up and lay you in the cold ground—lining the final resting place with a rim of clay and rocking to sleep, the final sleep, to the tolling of bells.

Yes, doing good: that is the cure for fear of death. And by “doing good” I do not mean living in that state of grace that is so hard to reach and so fragile to keep, which the Church speaks of. That is reserved for elect souls. Me, I am talking about what is accessible to common mortals, to the indifferent crowd that, not having seen the light, has lost the way to heaven.

And I hope there are some paths crossing it where they can find the way again.

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Every human being has inside a little voice that speaks very loudly at times of horrible doubt; a little light that makes the heart and brain see clearly… as full as they are sometimes with dangers and darkness. This is the conscience.

You only have to listen to it speak, reflect the inner light to act as well as you should. It never hesitates, is never wrong because it preaches self-denial, self-sacrifice and love of others…

Whoever has a conscience has a guide. As for the unfortunate people who do not have one, it is not their fault and they deserve our pity. Mother Nature stamped them with irresponsibility when badly forming their thinking organs. Or being raised by parents who are irresponsible themselves or who are conscious criminals deformed the child’s intellect, making a monster of its soul.

There were Gwynplaine[2] makers in England who sculpted in children’s flesh shocking faces—there are some among us too, except they respect the face and their gruesome work is carried out on the heart and brain of the little creature who is the fruit of their loins. When he escapes them he can no longer tell the difference between good and bad, just like those poor birds who need only a neck wound to destroy their sense of direction.

So, go and ask a child who has been mutilated like this to have a conscience! Who can blame him for not saving his? Who would dare throw the first stone?

His bad luck gives him rights—our good luck gives us duties.

And the first of all is to repair the injustices committed by chance, each of us as much as we can.

Following our conscience is fine, but this leads only to justice—and it is not enough. We must also listen to our hearts, open wide our arms to the miseries of this world, suffer with joy in the good, in the pride, in the flesh, in order for the humble to suffer a little less, to contribute its share in Israel’s redemption.

Practice justice, practice fraternity—you will see if you are scared of death!

#

It is frightening only for those who are left behind, who weep holding a hand whose tenderness seems to fade away with the ever colder embrace.

Alas! Who of us has not felt this awful wrenching of separation? Who of us has not looked for the shiver of awakening on the face asleep forever?

Through tears we eagerly watch over the indecipherable enigma and our mouths stick furiously to the forehead whose icy touch throws us back? It is like we came to kiss some stone statue lying on a tomb, hands crossed and eyes closed, like we see in the back of old abbeys.

And the fingers, those wax fingers, transparent and bloodless like a mother’s who has just given birth, how many times in one hour do we not see them go limp or contract with subtle movements? A play of shadows! The mirage of a tenderness that does not want to retreat before ugly reality!

The next day the men in black come. They follow, swaying the wagon, while the wreaths twitch around them on the pavement as if the heart of the deceased was arousing them with its beats.

A stone falls down… the friends drag you away, going back to an empty home—then nothing.

If… the soul! The invisible and sovereign soul that has cast off its rags buried underground, that soars off far from the stench of the charnel house and that comes back swiftly to its loves like a faithful dove to its nest.

It is here, near the survivors, in the impalpable air around us, and in the hours of distress or desperation we feel that we are not alone.

The poor intelligence that we are so proud of has not yet pierced the mystery of worlds. A whole part of creation remains illegible to us and centuries will pass, perhaps, before we have babbled the first word about it.

But they lie if they claim that we die entirely! You must never have loved another being, never have caught their final breath, never have wept over a grave, never have felt that silent voice of the beloved soul pointing out your duty or soothing your troubles to have uttered such a blasphemy!

Too bad for those who say this sincerely, but how illogical, then, to fear the tranquility of nothingness! Fear of death and the negation of the soul—how can they be compatible?

In truth, I tell you, there is only one way not to fear Death: it is to prepare yourself for it justly, to think about it with a smile and to go down with your hands full of good deeds…

 

[1] Signed Renée, Le Gaulois, January 11 1890.

[2] From Victor Hugo’s L’Homme qui rit; his mouth is deformed into a perpetual grin.

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The Defenders

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felix-vallotton-lanarchiste-1892

The Defenders[1]

There was just held in Paris a kind of International Congress where the rights of women were eloquently and energetically defended by women. Some of the participants wanted to ask me why I, usually so full of fight and in the front lines, systematically stayed outside, seeming to distance myself from such interesting demonstrations.

The fact is true—or rather the appearance of the fact. But I guarantee, it is not for lack of solidarity, which would be bad, not out of disdain, which would be extremely ludicrous toward women of rare value and real talent such as were sitting in that assembly, nor through a hostility that is unlikely for my sex with respect to anyone who fights in its favor. Moreover, in this context, I expressed my respect and echoed no protest, no complaint, no feminine prayer.

So, my distance comes not from desertion or from antipathy. It has at heart a bunch of basic instincts that I cannot get rid of and which, I admit, I do not want to get rid of. I admire the speakers and applaud their generous heart… but I have no desire to imitate them.

I think that I know how, as much as they do—perhaps I am wrong—to pursue an argument and embellish a speech. But my physical being is too shy to show it off. I can offer my words but not my voice; my energy but not my gestures; my thoughts but not my look.

Although I have never spoken in public, I did not always think like this. When I was younger, very young, less knowledgeable about human infamy, I was less pervaded by this fear—I was about to say this modesty. Illusions at that age make you confident and ignorant!

But now, the actress hiding behind make-up, recognized as a fiction, speaking words written by another for another and separated by the audience by a bright curtain of footlights, seems to me to reveal less of herself, even if she bares her arms and shoulders, than the conference speaker or the ranter in a gown or a skirt. The former is an instrument who sings thanks to a musician and thrills thanks to a poet; the other is herself, i.e. a woman, nothing but a woman who with her feeble voice and child-like hands throws herself to the curiosity and hostility of the public, like a Christian in the past was thrown to the lions.

I salute those who have this spunk—I admit that I do not. It is a leftover from an old-fashioned upbringing, a relic of outmoded prejudices. It is what they want, but my entire femininity revolts against the idea of climbing onto the rostrum; and I hardly think that one can ever get over these scruples. To conquer them there needs to be—which fate does not like—such tragic events that no one can foresee them: a country in flames or a street on fire! Then, Isaiah’s burning coal[2] falls like lightning onto the crowd! And if the lips of women are set ablaze, like inspired prophetesses they have to repeat the word that the Invisible dictates, to revive the bold, to give hope to the weak and courage to the strong!

In that case yes, but only in that case. With the madness of heroism, the vertigo of devotion as a motive and an excuse!

But this an opinion, or rather an impression, that is totally personal. And, I’m repeating on purpose—for, I would be sorry if they saw the shadow of malice in the expression of a strictly personal feeling—this confession implies no kind of blame on those who consider or feel differently. Their preeminence—aside from the hoarseness—even seems obvious to me: they are better armed, taste the physical joy of combat, and having been in difficulties, they have the right before anyone else to be held in favor… in honor!

However, let’s be clear. There is firewood and there is firewood. Just so there are defenders and there are defenders. A few, a very few stand out and we should be grateful to our masculine colleagues for having introduced them—even those who are the least aware—with undeniable tact.

Except for the obligatory jokes, the usual, somewhat worn-out wisecracks that the subject entails—for, every good reporter would rather swallow his penholder than not take part in this good old pastime—we have in general joked a lot less (notice this) about the meeting of women who have come from all over the world to discuss the sinful situation of their sex and the ways to improve it.

So we do not find ourselves among eccentrics whose name, for Paris, is a synonym of disorder and has a dodgy reputation. The flashy girls and the whip-girls, the league members and the wags, the “offensive” ladies, with their hair too short and their tongues too long, all the Mademoiselles de Maupin[3] of the socialist republic—heaven protect the socialist republic from their compromising allies—were noticeable there only by their absence; or if a few of them had slipped in, they were out of their element, destroyed by the ambient honesty and reason.

Besides, what figure would they cut among the elite: Maria Deraisme [1828-1894], eloquent, learned and unapologetic; Clémence Royer [1830-1902], doctor and philosopher in the old way; Léonie Rouzade [1839-1916], with her lively, energetic, acclaimed voice; Louise Koppe [1846-1891], the admirable founder of the Maison Maternelle of Belleville[4] where so many young children have been saved; Madame [Marie de Vienne] Léon Bequet [1854-1913], also an apostle, president of the shelters for pregnant women; Madame [Eugenie] Potonié-Pierre [1844-1898], so good to people and so good to animals that she is known all over Montmartre as much for her actions as her principles; Madame Popelin [1846-1913], the distinguished lawyer, Doctor of Law if you like; Madame Blanche Edwards [1858-1941], an academic among academics, a doctor and the daughter of the late-lamented master; Madame [Marie] de Morsier [1844-1896] and Mademoiselle de Komar and Madame Maria Martin [1839-1910] and delegates from Europe, America and even Australia, each bringing her own dose of integrity and renowned prestige to the work of redemption.

They did not, I affirm, discuss wearing pants or other nonsense like that. There was even very little talk of political rights and if it could not be helped, while defending the weaker sex, only slightly abusing the stronger sex, the matter was carried out simply, discreetly, without ridicule and in good taste. It was a sign of strength, you know, this alarming moderation. And right away the discussion, far from getting sidetracked, from soaring off into pointless skies, plunged into the heart of social ills, into the heart of the feminine hell. They talked about the women’s access to liberal careers; about the equality of the sexes from the point of view of scientific and artistic studies; about their solidarity in reforms; about the role of a mother, sister and wife with respect to peace, both internal and international; about the protection owed by law to vulnerable beings; about the situation of pregnant women in business and workshops; about the research of paternity; about prostitution; etc., etc. The agenda was very practical, very useful and very daring in its conclusions; and it was followed point by point.

It was beautiful and praiseworthy work.

Only, this uncommon benevolence of the masculine to the feminine, as justified as it may be, says nothing to me. I feel like there is something treacherous there and it is not without anxiety that I criticize the wish that has been expressed about the “eligibility of woman”. There, I follow my intuition, is the secret cause, unconscious maybe, of this unexpected urbanity.

As long as man believed universal suffrage was a good thing, he wanted it for himself alone, he did not pull away from his egoism, he did not loosen his notch; considering the woman as an adversary, bearing his teeth like a dog fighting over a bone, battling with her using irony, insult, need and slander!

Today, sated, he sees that the bone is down to the marrow, that the worm is in the fruit, rotten apple to the core. And, being generous, he invites us to bite into it—it is Adam’s revenge! Yesterday we were the competition; today we are the way!

#

Are we going to be caught in this trap? Aren’t we going to follow the holy task of legitimate reclamations, of just defense, or will vanity, ambition, love of trifles ruin everything for us as it has done for them? After the male puppets of the parliamentary regime, will we have their twins in petticoats: Madame Counsellor, Madame Deputy, Madame Senator? On the pretext of sharing, oh Sisters who fight for progress, are you going to taste the drop of sour wine that sits at the bottom of their glass and revel in their leftovers? Bon appétit, in that case!

Eat, but I prefer

Your black bread, Freedom![5]

 

[1] L’Éclair, May 20, 1892. Séverine’s early refusal to speak in public and her distrust of certain aspects of the feminist cause.

[2] Isaiah 6:6-7

[3] I.e., who dress like men.

[4] Founded in 1891 for women and children in distress.

[5] Victor Hugo

The Ricochets

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Felix Vallotton-jour de boire

The Ricochets[1]

Yesterday while I was watching the boulangist demonstration from my sixth floor window, the cops were agitating the bystanders by hitting and kicking them. Someone said to me, “Bah! Let it go! You’re wrong to be upset. It’s just boulangists that they’re hitting after all.”

I know very well that they are boulangists being hit, but I have, like with many other things, very particular ideas about it.

When the police bash a crowd, I do not care what the crowd is. My Parisienne rebel blood starts to boil. I clap my hands and shout Bravo—if the roles are reversed for one minute; if the bonapartists, royalists, anarchists or boulangists get to dish some out to the officers who have such heavy hands and ready feet.

Then I look a little farther.

In the old Gospel that they make us learn when we are little children, there is a pretty sentence that can be translated thus: “Do not do unto another what you do not want them to do unto you.” That is very fair… and very crafty.

For, there are some cops—with all due respect to them!—who are like all animals trained for the hunt: they take a liking to it.

There is training for bashing heads like there is training for battle. Whoever likes drumming on a voter’s skull will love “knocking” on a socialist noggin. And when an officer’s boot makes direct contact with a citizen’s seat, the impact is always felt before the citizen has had time to voice his opinion.

That is why I am wary whenever I see the guardians of the peace in a warlike mood. That is why I consider every police intervention in the streets as a threat to us others… even when it is directed against adversaries or the apathetic.

And that brutality of April 9 is quite simply—unless the government is kneading the Revolution out of fear of the Baking[2]—the appetizer of our May 28[3].

#

But that is not all.

My outrage is struck, frequently, by what they call, in government style, the national interest; and what they call, in revolutionary style, the Party gossip.

Now, it is precisely this gossip that I would like to lay aside. Every time a bad or vile deed is committed I would like the Social Republic to take the floor and denounce the infamy—let it take a direct interest in this infamy!

We others are not politicians and it is because we are not politicians that we do not have to hem and haw or cheat and con. We do not have two moralities like the academics; we have only honesty, which is made half of logic and half of integrity. Integrity rarely goes wrong for us—logic often does. However, it is logic that I hear calling.

We are witnessing right now a curious duel between the opportunists and the boulangists: the former have force on their side, the latter the crowd. In my humble opinion, there was no need to ally yourselves with Ferry [the President] or to indenture yourselves to Boulanger; the socialist party could have crossed its arms, remained bystanders and waited for the outcome of the fight to play its role as the third thief[4].

Others thought otherwise—and the Supreme Being keeps me from discussing the slogans of leadership!   I am giving my personal opinion here, which I never tried to impose on anyone else and I give it for what it is worth without sitting around defending it.

But what I strive to support for example, with all the energy of my conviction, is our duty to protest against certain acts: first because they are hateful, and then because they are a threat to us and our ideas.

In the battle that I just mentioned, there was police intervention and awful things were done that we have to raise our voice against without worrying if they were done to this one or that one.

To get a letter of General Boulanger the police faked a robbery, rifled the desks and broke the locks—let’s call it an infamy!

To get a case either before the Board of Inquiry or the Chamber, the postal service reinstituted the black chamber, stealing letters and holding onto telegrams—let’s call it an infamy!

To fight a candidacy that we, too, fight, but in good faith, the Secret Fund bribed the reptilian press, bought newspapers, acquired consciences—let’s call it an infamy!

That is our role, a role full of grandeur and that the people alone can play, to tell the whole truth, plainly and openly. It is when you stand up that you learn how tall your enemy is… and woe unto those who do not feel the supreme force of justice!

#

In these smear-worthy actions there is, I said, a threat to us. It is that, in fact, no measure has been taken against such or such person without it turning into heavier, darker practices.

The fake robbery of this person by the police is the brother of the bomb planted by an officer in searching someone else’s room. The black chamber reinstituted means the letters of Kropotkin stolen just like Boulanger’s mail. The Press being sold means the life of any socialist can be dragged through the mud like the general.

Let’s defend our security! Let’s defend our secrets! Let’s defend our honor!

I went to the school of a man who said, “The deputies who voted for Article 7 likewise voted to banish Lawroff[5]. Every law or every revolutionary action has its ricochet against us.”

Think about that, you who are clapping!

 

[1] Included in Notes d’une frondeuse, 1894.

[2] Play on “boulanger”, a baker, like boulangerie, a bakery.

[3] The fall of the Paris Commune.

[4] Like in La Fontaine’s fable where two thieves argue about a stolen donkey while the third thief comes to ride off with it.

[5] Piotr Lavrov (1823-1900), Russian philosopher in exile in Paris, was expelled in 1882 for helping Russian political prisoners and exiles. Article 7 states: The exercise of civil rights is unrelated to the exercise of political rights which are acquired and kept in accordance with constitutional and electoral statutes.