So odd to listen to the nostalgic strains of Leonard Cohen’s “Alexandra Leaving,” and at the same time read Hilary Mantel on the dreary end to the French revolution. Anne Théroigne has just been to Camille Desmoulins asking him to denounce her as a traitor so she will die by the guillotine instead of beaten to death on the streets of Paris. He has refused. This follows:
Once the executioner had a special Mass said for the soul of the condemned; but you couldn’t do that now. They’re numbers on a list now. You feel that before this, death had distinction; for your clients it was a special, individual end. For them you had risen early and prayed and dressed in scarlet, composed a marmoreal face and cut a flower for your coat. But now they come in carts like calves, mouths sagging like calves’ and their eyes dull, stunned into passivity by the speech with which they’ve been herded from their judgement to their deaths; it is not an art any longer, it is more like working in a slaughterhouse.
It’s a novel about dogmatism, really, to what depths of inhumanity it can take you in your righteousness. It’s like reading about Stalinists, as in this stanza from “The Prisoner’s Dream” by Eugenio Montale:
The purge goes on as before, no reason given.
They say that he who recants and enlists
can survive this slaughtering of the geese;
that he who upbraids himself, but betrays and sells
his fellow’s hide grabs the ladle by the handle
instead of ending up in the paté
destined for the
And yet, and yet…both started with such a yearning for a better world. How does it come to this?
I’ve known people like Robespierre, or at least like Mantel’s portrayal of him–rational to the point of ghastly absurdity, afraid of emotion, willing to sacrifice his closest friends and relations for the cause, carried along by the implacable and insane logic of it all. I’ve listened to it in political meetings, heard it as a rationale for political purity completely isolating the group from the people it claims to represent, seen it carried out with baseball bats and tire irons. Merciless and unimpeachable and inhuman. As is capitalism, which sheds far more blood.
You will ask: why does your poetry
not speak to us of sleep, of the leaves,
of the great volcanoes of your native land?
Come and see the blood in the streets,
come and see
the blood in the streets,
come and see the blood
in the streets!
–from “I Explain a Few Things” by Pablo Neruda