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].

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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!

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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.

Letter to Boulanger

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General Boulanger:Tunis

Letter to Boulanger[1]

Dear General,

Three days ago now the word hatred was printed next to your name. In this newspaper everyone is free to feel what he wants and so interpret as he sees fit. I acknowledge no right to revise their writing, just like I do not acknowledge their right to modify mine. But seeing that they have expressed their opinions, I am going to say what I think, without beating around the bush, in all simplicity.

I do not hate you. I feel worried about your young popularity and I feel a little of that anxiety that mothers feel as they watch over their threatened brood. I love my poor like others love their children; they are my soul, the flesh of my flesh, and (keep this in mind) whoever might think of attacking them better watch out!

They are distrustful of the sword—however much it is tolerated! The people are like a faithful but proud dog. Because they have been beaten they stop, arch their backs, growl and snarl at the sight of the whip. There was no intention of whipping them? It does not matter! They were not threatening, they were remembering!

The people remember. Every time the pages of history are printed with the pommel of the sword, these pages are illuminated in red like the pages of a gothic missal.

It knows the legend of the gladiator’s sword by heart—the sword that was hard on the poor in antiquity just like it is today.

They told people in school about the words of Brennus[2] as he threw his heavy blade into the scales crying out, “Woe to the vanquished!” whereas he, the pariah, had respect and love for the vanquished—who were always his own people. And they taught them about the harsh words of the great knight in white armor who leaned on Charlemagne’s mighty sword, looked out over the Vosges at France and proclaimed, “Might makes right.”

They know by experience in our working suburbs (go on and see) that might makes right!

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That is why, general, you have the population with you, the indecisive, fickle mass that shouts Long Live this one and Long Live that one; that goes everywhere a racket is being made; that is headed by a sorry cook in a chef’s hat, a grocer in a brown smock; that at tragic times, once in a while, out of its childishness turns ferocious and can both shoot Lecomte and stone Varlin on the Rue des Rosiers[3].

You, however—for, I do not wish to be unjust—you have all those who are tired of the present state of things: the small shopkeepers threatened with bankruptcy, the politicians threatened with elimination, the women who love the unexpected, and also the fanatics of patriotism who see in you, I would swear to it, with your blue eyes, red hair and white skin… a living French flag!

All of them follow you because you speak well, you look good, your gilding blazes in the sun—you incarnate, my general, the heroic follies of warrior France.

But this is the crowd, not the people! While the one is awed by your scabbard, the other thinks of the sharp, cutting sword that sleeps inside it—and that this blade was brandished against it in 1871…

Oh, I know what your people may say: that you were thirty years old, which is just a kid for a man of state; that whoever belongs to the army has to choose between obedience and death whereas because of his education and the barracks he has no choice—the brain, barely developed, received that dreadful helping hand of discipline.

I know all this and do not say that these arguments are insignificant. I come from a family of soldiers and only have to remember the words that enraged me as a child to know what, from the philosophical point of view, an officer’s baggage weighs.

There is more.

My teacher in literature and politics, Vallès the citizen who knew how to write and the gentleman who knew how to think, Vallès had more hatred for the vile bourgeoisie sweating fear and cowardice in the aisles of Versailles than for the soldiers launched against him who risked their lives in the streets of Paris. His only exception was for the one who was not content with waging a civil war like they wage a foreign war, an inroad here, some headway there, but who was the virtuoso of slaughter, the champion of massacre, applying his incomparable expertise in cutting the throats of women, children and old men.

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However, the logic is simple and inescapable. They see the deed: the commander’s cross[4] received after 1871—go on and tell them that they only rewarded your service record abroad and that it was much more for blood spilled before the Prussians than for the two bullets caught in Paris.

Here I am slandering my people by treating them as implacable. No one is less so than they are; and the good people believe in all the conversions—that is what defines their glory and their saintly goodness. On reproaching you for your past, I forgot about Cluseret[5] who after having been decorated for his part in the repression of the rebels of June ’48 became one of the most ardent generals of the Commune. I forgot about that young orator of the socialist party, a former noncommissioned officer in the Versailles army who today is defending his adversaries of seventeen years ago.

That is the proof that they are certainly not implacable! And what you said during the strike in Decazeville[6] did more for your popularity than the song of Paulus[7] and the articles of your bootlickers! It was human, that idea of making the soldiers share their slop with the striking miners, of ameliorating the insurrection of hunger by putting them in the mess line.

They said more to me. Everyone knows that you are penniless; maybe that is what makes your glory good and cheerful.   They told me that the big stockholders down there [in Decazeville] would have liked to rinse the black throats with lead and they would have willingly shod a horse in gold for whoever gave them this pleasure. They missed their shot—and you your fortune! If this is true, it is good… you started paying the debt of 1871.

But I am dawdling and I want to tell you this:

If ever, my general, you get the crazy idea to tear down the Chamber, do not bother about the socialists—they will not bother you. I even think that the people will laugh hard and the League of Anti-Patriots will give you a hand… if you are really so inclined.

They will justify themselves afterward, that’s all.

For, I have a strange theory that you might not like at first, but on reflection is really quite nice. In the shooting galleries at the fairs I prefer the one, big, plaster rabbit—the pride and joy of the place—that is easier to shoot down because it is more “substantial”; more flattering, too, because the spectators get more excited. I prefer this big fat object to the hundreds of wretched little targets that are hard to get in your sights and less glorious to hit.

At the Palais-Bourbon[8] there are five hundred glairy heads that stick to your fingers and would be hell to unglue. Whereas only one man…

Be the rabbit, my general!

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

[2] A 4th century Gaul who defeated the Romans. When they tried to ransom back occupied Rome with gold, they disputed about the weights.

[3] General Claude Lecomte (1817-1871), shot by the Communards. Eugène Varlin (1839-1871), lynched, blinded and finally shot by a mob during the Bloody Week.

[4] The Legion of Honor.

[5] Gustave Cluseret (1823-1900), ex-military officer who joined the Paris Commune but was arrested there and then freed by the Republican army which then sentenced him to death. He returned from exile in 1884 and was elected a deputy in 1888.

[6] “Don’t worry because maybe right now every soldier is sharing his soup and ration of bread with a miner.” And see 6—Martyrs of the Mines.

[7] Jean-Paul Habans (1845-1908) was famous for his song about Boulanger, “En revenant de la revue.”

[8] The seat of the French National Assembly.

9-General Boulanger

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Séverine3

Séverine was not one to mince words and was always ready to give her opinion on the most controversial subjects of her time, but there was one matter in which she remained undecided and ambiguous, largely avoiding taking sides: General Boulanger.

A decorated military man, General Ernest Boulanger started to rock the national boat when he was appointed War Minister in 1886 under the aegis of the radicals who considered him the only republican among the monarchists and bonapartists of the army. He was fifty-years old, seductive, elegant, and the press loved him. He also had a loud voice that served him well when he shouted out for revenge against the Germans and introduced measures that provoked the Empire. He was so vociferous, in fact, that he earned the nickname General Revenge as he defied Bismark to a point just short of war.

Men and women, rich and poor alike fell victim to his charms when he rode his gleaming black horse, Tunis, down the Champs Elysées. Still hurting after the defeat of 1870 and the Paris Siege, not to mention the loss of Alsace and Lorraine, the French people were easily impressed and attracted to a swashbuckling figure defending their national honor. Of course he had fought against the Communards, but he was wounded early, which kept him from participating in the Bloody Week. And although he had no real political convictions he was extremely ambitious and was able to lure support from both sides of the political spectrum by criticizing the slow progress made for workers’ rights, the insolence of wealthy owners, the corruption of politicians and businessmen, the neglect of social reform and even the colonial misadventures paid for in soldiers’ blood. In fact, he was trying to straddle all sides of the political fence, but it was not seen like that at the time. Some royalists thought he might be used to restore the king. Republicans saw him as the best guarantee of democracy. Nationalists listened to his anti-German rhetoric. Everyone fabricated a Boulanger to fit their needs. And Boulanger flattered them all.

The men in power started getting worried and when just over a year after he took office a new government was elected in May 1887 and it saw the general as a real threat to its stability. He was so powerful, indeed, that he could organize its fall—so they fired him. Huge crowds stormed the train to bid him farewell as he left for Clermont-Ferrand as the new Commandant of 13th army corps. Exit Boulanger. Yesterday’s idol, today’s demon. But it was not so easy to get rid of him.

Suspected of being in league with the royalists the army expelled him in May 1888. But his political career continued to gain momentum. Henri de Rochefort, ex-Communard, future anti-Semite and nationalist, enemy of Séverine, with the help of bonapartists, nationalists, radical republicans and all those dissatisfied and frustrated with the parliament, beat the general’s drum during next parliamentary elections. Along with a number of his supporters in seven different departments he was elected into office. With his electoral triumph in Paris in January 1889, rumors of a coup d’état were being bandied about, but under the influence of his mistress Madame de Bonnemains he missed the boat. In the end he proved an abler horseman than politician.

Where was Séverine in all this? She was still at Le Cri du Peuple for one. Georges de Labruyère, her lover, was a boulangist at the start in 1887. He quit Le Cri to found his own paper, La Cocarde, a thoroughly pro-boulangist paper—the general, too, needed publicity. Georges would later abandon it all for a new anti-boulangist paper, La Jeune République, which was rumored to be financed by the minister of the Interior. Well, Georges was never the bulwark of honest consistency. But in the meetings of La Cocarde Séverine made the acquaintance of George Laguerre and his ravishing new wife, the ex-actress Marguerite Durand. With her feminist and socialist ideas, she and Séverine hit it off right away. Their lifelong friendship and collaboration began in her salon where Séverine met General Boulanger in person with all kinds of his supporters. She could not appreciate his nationalism or his military bearing in all things, but she was attracted to his anti-parlementarism, his hostility to the hypocritical republic that was rife with corruption and was slowly strangling the poor to death.

At Le Cri, however, the socialists attacked Boulanger. Not only could they never forgive him for fighting against the Commune, but they saw in him the menace of dictatorship. Séverine answered them with her “Letter to Boulanger” in the name of freedom of thought and expression. Her “rabbit” made all Paris laugh, including Boulanger, but her stance was unclear. Was Boulanger any better or worse than other politicians? At least he spoke in support of the workers. And the people were behind him, if only for one simple reason: they were all fed up with the Republic. She supported the people.

Séverine was fully aware that her relationship with de Labruyère along with her ambiguous attitude toward Boulanger would cause problems, but she could not be dishonest and bridle her thoughts. Although suspected of boulangism, she kept her distance and her independence of thought. She remained skeptical, but like the people she had a weakness for the underdog, for the victims of power, whoever they might be, and Boulanger was being beaten down.

The government had decided it was time to end the threat once and for all and accused Boulanger of conspiracy to overthrow the government with the royalists. He fled into exile first to Brussels, then to London, later to Jersey and then back to Brussels while being sentenced to death in absentia in Paris. In the face of this and the general’s sluggish reactions, Boulangism was dying out in France. In the general elections later in 1889 most of the boulangist candidates were defeated. By this time Séverine had left her editorial position at Le Cri and was publishing her habitually libertarian opinions in other papers. With Boulanger hiding in England the movement seemed dead and buried. But in 1890 a series of anonymously written articles entitled “Behind the Scenes of Boulangism”[1] was published in Le Figaro, which revealed the intrigues and secret negotiations that Boulanger had with the royalists on one side and the bonapartists on the other, right under the nose of his republican staff. Financed by the bankers as well, Boulanger was manipulating everyone for his personal ambition. Séverine wrote a slanderous jeremiad against the author, revealing Mermeix[2] as Boulanger’s Judas. Georges de Labruyère backed her up and since he and Mermeix had fought an undecided duel once before after the Lissagary affair[3], now again witnesses were sent to demand satisfaction. The outcome of the duel was disputed and Labruyère accused his adversary of perfidy resulting in Mermeix being blasted by the press and losing his credibility. Séverine came out the winner in this round, but she would be haunted by boulangism for years to come.

The Boulanger romance finally ended in tragedy. Marguerite de Bonnemains, his mistress, died of tuberculosis on July 15 1891 in Brussels. Two and a half months later, on September 30, abandoned by his faithful partisans and now forsaken by his beloved, George Boulanger stood over her grave in the Ixelles cemetery and shot himself in the head. A picture of her and a lock of hair were plastered to his bloody shirt. He was buried in the same grave.

[1] Les Coulisses du Boulangisme.

[2] Nom de plume of Gabriel Terrail.

[3] See 5—The End of Le Cri.