The Unseizable

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"Les ramoneurs, avant mai 1852". Photographie : Charles Nègre (1820-1880). Paris, musée Carnavalet.

The Unseizable[1]

Oh, how I saw it coming, that whole succession of bigwigs creeping up to the noblest and boldest of us—until the iron claw clamped down on our gasping freedom, on our wounded thought!

And you others see nothing, you pen and pencil-pushers, artists, thinkers, poets, painters, maybe even musicians because who knows what song they will go after tomorrow, what hymn or couplet they will call subversive and harmful to the security of the State?

It is a pity to see this lethargy, this spinelessness, this degrading I-don’t-give-a-damnism; and that divisions can persist in such a dangerous situation.

Of course, it is the anarchists they are going after—officially! And many journalists, either to coddle their readers or to keep the peace or even (which is their right) because their opinions are diametrically opposed, deny every point of contact with the pariahs.

But look how the circle is shrinking, how the action is closing in, how little by little the real goal is taking shape and their secret obsession appears.

They imprison a bunch of poor devils even though nothing was seized, nothing was found in their homes. And after enduring the search (believe me, a very unpleasant ceremony!), to top it off, they hear the judge impose as harsh a punishment as he wants… not for what they did, since they are cleared, but for what they think!

Do you seriously believe that they care much about these people? Being militants, they are always under the thumb of the justice system, which starves them, hounds them, imprisons them, frees them and snatches them back at will. It plays cat and mouse with them without any voice rising up to defend them: some are silenced by hatred, others by indifference… and those who would like to speak out are strangled!

Therefore, what do the powers that be care about this “vile bunch” of which it believes itself master and whose excessive despair seems, so far, only good for strengthening its hold. It imagines that its fist is strong enough and its sword long enough to mow down the field and scatter the wheat and the chaff. Like Tarquin it aims for the head. And the head is the creative people!

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Now, who are they most of the time?

Its sons—their sons!

It is rare, very rare, that one is born a revolutionary outside the bourgeois environment. You become one.

The people are born and raised for servitude.   Physical anemia resulting from too much work, deplorable hygiene, constant deprivation, all this leads to cerebral anemia. Cerebral anemia engenders resignation…

If, by chance, the parents, being elite creatures, have saved their intellectual patrimony from the wreckage, it can only be with amazing effort because of the constant battle at the risk of their livelihood.

A woman, the weaker being less armored with pride, is hit harder—because she is the oft-abused intermediary between men and material life; because being the helpmate of the former she becomes the direct debtor of the latter; because she assumes all the responsibilities even if she does not bear all the burdens; because she faces all the offenses while the male goes off to earn a living or in search of better, easier, less humbled pastures—the woman, I say, succumbs more quickly, bows her head first… if only to weep!

The militant, hypnotized by his dream, gets irritated, calls her a deserter and a bitter argument follows that the speechless children listen to without understanding. The children are naturally inclined to the woman who feeds them and who speaks in their name; they are also naturally inclined to the realities of existence: hot soup and a refreshing nap, being the naïve little animals that they are. And then the Idea—the Idea with a capital I—becomes for them a kind of evil fairy that clears off the plates, steals from the nest egg, plays all sorts of dirty tricks on the kids, makes mama sad and papa angry. It is why he lost his job, why they are cold and hungry, why the landlord asks them to leave, why mean men come and turn everything inside out before taking father away in handcuffs… like a thief!

Sometimes they never see him again. He sails off, at the State’s expense, to some penal colony from where they seldom return, from where they never recover! Where, if it happens to be a time when brothers are killing each other, he is killed in some riot, thrown on the pile without them knowing exactly where.

So, the mother, the anguished hen, gathers all her chicks and slaves away alone to feed their hungry beaks. She works herself to death, but by the example of her hardship and devotion inspires in them the fear of their father’s “bad ways”. The calm warmth of her tenderness brings them back to life and confidence. Later they want her grandchildren as well to know this sweet affection without having to suffer through the torments.

I repeat, there are few families in which the traditions of resistance, of the fight to the death, of merciless, relentless combat are transmitted intact. In the military (if at all!) they cite a few cases of heredity. In my opinion they are perhaps less an atavism than a heritage: the legacy of reputation that they take pride in or believe must be maintained.

But the great mass of people? If all the sons and daughters of the 30,000 shot dead in the Commune got together on May 28 in front of Père Lachaise, the cemetery would not be big enough to hold them all!

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Recruitment works in a different way: by spontaneous generation, you might say. So many flowers of retaliation blooming in the window boxes where they never expected to see them!

Whereas the child of poverty, born as I said of intellectual atrophy—because overwork wears down their brains just as it does their clear vision and the palms of the hands—or born of rebels (that is, having suffered from rebellion before being able to understand it and so never far from it)—whereas this child will only be a combatant if society forces him to it, there in the wealthy cribs, sown by who knows what turmoil, sprouts the race of rebels.

At this moment, you see, there is happening exactly the same phenomenon as occurred at the end of the last century. It is popular to call oneself socialist today in the salons of the Third Estate[2] just like a hundred years ago any gentleman with good manners and a fine wit, priding himself on his elegance, had to call himself an encyclopedist in the salons of the aristocracy.

The gods blind those they wish to destroy, said old Euripides… Every class takes turns examining the volcano that is bound to engulf it.

And just like the revolution of 1789 was carried out, or rather stirred up, for the bourgeoisie by the clandestine resistance of the nobility, so too at the forefront of the plebeian revolution, forging the way, are none other than bourgeois offspring.

How did they get there? Who pushed them there? At the breast of what poor woman did they taste tears… and the bitter bile, all the bitter poisons that hollow out the cheeks and pale the skin of these “well-born” children? No one knows. Without knowing why, they have renounced their privileges and prerogatives—strange youths who all seem to have hatched on the night of August 4[3]! Nature appears to have given them a shadow quite different from their gestures and an echo in their ears quite different from their voice. Laughter is answered with a sob and the playful expression on the wall breaks down into a series of sorrowful movements, revealing fatigue and despair.

They saw things very young (visible to their eyes only) and they became grave, imagining as they ate that others were hungry. Then the surrounding contentment, the joie de vivre exploding around them, all this well-being became abominable to them. Whoever did not share their pain they accused of unthinking selfishness. They despised their father, being ungrateful in spite of themselves—and they took off to the lower realms where they felt the duty to act.

The caste that they abandoned did nothing to bring them back or temper their action. It did not understand that these deserters were carrying their array of daring to the poor along with all their weapons of education, all the strength and the entire arsenal it had given them for an opposite goal. It treated them as enemies at once, from the first disobedience. And the paternal authority (in the legal sense of the term), all by itself, made them more anarchist than all the propaganda put together!

Those who were not of the same blood, the bourgeoisie treated the same, equally harsh, equally irrational, equally preparing its own destruction. Concerning the indifferent whom I mentioned above, for a little thing, a trifle, a nothing, a kid’s quarrel with a police officer, it hit so hard that it stopped hitting the mark. It made enemies of the neutral—it created troops out of its sons!

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And the rage is clearly growing… which seems to be “treason”, parricide against the class that these deformed children came from!

That’s why they were looking for letters more than for explosives, why they accused the Reclus family, why on the heels of [Jean] Grave’s arrest the judges are now worried about [Octave] Mirbeau.

Certainly they don’t dare! But look at them licking their chops, leaning over the court counter. How they want it! How they would willingly take a stab at the independent—not even a theoretician. But they have discovered surprising things, a real conspiracy, stitched in black, woven with wickedness… And then again, as always, the form, the “writing” bothers them: they are much more offended by the author of Le Calvaire than the editor of Le Père Peinard[4]!

A man who wears gloves and a top hat and has the manners and life of a gentleman. A man who has come up through the ranks and met with success in the right-thinking, proper papers. A man on whom they should be able to rely… but who wrote the preface for Grave’s Sociéte mourante et l’Anarchie [1893] and who says (rightfully so) that this book is one of the most beautiful books of the century! That was ten months ago. Since then the volume has sold liberally, under the indulgent eye of the authorities. What does it matter! They have just figured it out. And they seized the book wherever they found it and now Mirbeau is under suspicion!

He is not the only one! I can tell you that they are on the trail of really dreadful revelations.

Those drawings, those abominable—and superb!—drawings in Le Père Peinard, sketched out in thick lines like posters and with such powerful tones despite the lack of color, do you know who did them? Some bums, no doubt, bohemians, deadbeats, old scoundrels who drowned their bygone talent in absinthe… or cobblers with no sense of aesthetics?

Yeah, our masters, can you believe it? They are the work of Ibels, Pizarro, Luce and that whole band of brave, young artists, ranked and already acclaimed, who are following in the footsteps of the illustrator of Paris, the master Chéret. And there was no need for Steinlen to sign the inaugural drawing for Le Chambard because we all recognize his reverent, tender figures of the starving!

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So let’s seize this! Let us, a generation in full force, we who have a brain and a heart, let us seize the wind that is driving us to the hell of the impoverished! Let’s seize our soul—which once, in other bodies, escaped the bite of the shears and the flames of the stake!

We have as much faith as the first Christians, as the Jews in Spain, as the Protestants in Cévennes, and the Chouans of old Vendeé[5]. We believe that the world is poorly made when it allows such or such son of an exploiter to have 3,000 F a day to spend or when it allows the late General Maltzeff[6] to own 29 mines and keep 55,000 workers busy… while the people are dying of hunger!

We are not cruel, seeing that even in the face of these contrasts we do not desire as much. Only a fairer distribution of goods.

We are, for the most part, beggars like Job, living off our salary, whom fear or hatred can eliminate tomorrow—not even free!   And maybe it is in being akin to the serfs of the workshops and factories that begat, for many of us, this zeal for them.

But our soul is our own! Where the Caesars, Torquemada and his torturers, Louis XIV and his blackguards, the Convention and its guillotine, where they all failed, o pygmy ministers, do you think you will succeed?

Arène[7] asked the other day how it happened that the agitators never came from the herd of the resigned, without realizing that the former were representing the latter.

Well, we others who are not hungry, who are not cold, to whom society has gladly given, not so tamed by the nice little cuddles and nice little smiles, but whom others’ suffering grips and disturbs, we, the advocates and witnesses and upholders of human Sorrow intend to stay around, whatever happens, whatever the risk!

Open your law books and your jails, receive your orders, write your verdicts—we are ready! Our thought will stay free and will march forward…

 

Next:  Tired of Living

[1] In En Marche, 1896.

[2] In traditional social structure, anyone not nobility or clergy.

[3] In 1789 the Constituent Assembly officially abolished the old feudal system.

[4] Le Calvaire was a novel written by Octave Mirbeau, bourgeoisie; Le Père Peinard a virulent, satirical anarchist paper edited by Emile Pouget from the working class.

[5] A royalist rebellion during the French revolution.

[6] In Russia, exceeded only by the properties of Elim Demidoff it was said.

[7] Paul Arène (1843-1896), French writer, friend of Octave Mirbeau.