Pierre Quillard, "Conversation on the Life and Death of Ravachol" (1892)
From Working Translations
I see only condemnation to death which distinguishes a man, thought Mathilde: it is the only thing which cannot be bought. (de Stendhal — The Red and the Black.)
These voices were heard near the sea, on a peaceful summer evening: half-naked, on the blond beaches, some men were lying lazily beside beautiful young women, and, although they lived today, the dying rays of the sun, the soft caress of the waves, the harmony of the twilight gave to their words and gestures the charm, that we like to attribute, in fantasy perhaps, to the sages and courtesans of the past, seated under marble porticos where rained down, with the virile aroma of the spray, the noble shade of the oleanders. As they did not know that their discourse would be detected, they doubtless did not study to deceive, so much did they appear to have spoken in all sincerity what anyone thought who agreed to reflect and not fool themselves; and when I recall now that unforgettable conversation, I ask myself if it is not, on the contrary, the charm of such syllables which conferred to the landscape the splendor of bygone eras.
Thus we do not die without having known, other than by legend and epic, the man superior even to the idea that we have made for ourselves of the gods, the hero: that one, bereft of the omnipotence that we grand with too much good grace supernatural phantoms, remaining a man like us, capable of failing and, alas! of being defeated, has sanctified some acts that appear coarse and detestable, and he will deserve that in future ages the poets will celebrate him as in the past they sang of the slayers of monsters and fateful righters of wrong.
Certainly, Ravachol was a hero. When he had once felt the iniquity of suffering for causes which were not in him and that the rest of the herd respected foolishly, he accepted the struggle against the triumphant Beast, and each time that he could, at the risk of his life, dedicated ungrudgingly to the certain torture, he performed the necessary murder.
A YOUNG WOMAN
The necessary murder, you said. Who has revealed to you that this man was not a bloody, rapacious brute, some assassin, who understood nothing of the greatness of revolt, only killed in order to steal?
I do not believe it: he understood that he must steal and he must kill, and that it would be contemptible and demeaning to hold out his hand. One had preached to him the traditional resignation: he boldly refused to resign himself and gave the example of liberating anger. Two portraits of him show quite well how a doubt such as yours first imposes itself on some reasonable people: one was taken immediately after his arrest, the other when his normal appearance had reappeared. The first image is that of an exhausted beast: the expression of the face bruised by blows is terrible; the second is of an infinite gentleness, the eye affectionate and splendid with tenderness and love. No phrase has better rendered its individual beauty than a phrase of a police psychologist that was reported to me: “There is no woman’s smile worthy of his.” That is the true Ravachol. Consider that he abandoned his haughty serenity for a moment and cried at seeing come to the witness stand some children that the had played with in the past; recall with what magnanimous commiseration he greeted the wretch who had betrayed him, and especially the passionate goodbye that he addressed before the judges to the woman that he loved, also a prisoner, and sure however that the words spoken would cost him some new rigors. His attitude during the double trial has been admirable for its simplicity and dignity, and those who have condemned him will be obliged despite themselves to recognize him as a generous soul.
That may be, and nonetheless they had to condemn because he had violated the law.
The word law alone makes me shiver with horror and disgust. That a man claims to judge another already appears to me one of the most repugnant follies that could haunt obtuse and bestial brain. But that one has determined in advance that this or that would be, by virtue of a moronic formula, taken for criminal or licit, that is what surpasses every imagining of savagery and inanity. They cannot have a common measure, because never under the sun have two identical acts been accomplished, and no one can foresee the innumerable multiplicity of characters and circumstances.
I will agree willingly that the notion of good and evil is conventional. But it does not seem that the convention is arbitrary: it expresses some necessary relations and transpose into human language some social inevitabilities that science confirms in all certainty.
That’s a very daring speech. Alone the mathematical demonstrations show the certainty, because they derive from the mind which cannot contradict itself. One conceives badly, once one accepts the idea of numbers, that 2 and 2 does not make 4. But its is gratuitously that you call science a system of nature: your science is a momentary conception of life, something like a mnemonics, more or less rational for some time, and as ridiculous, after new discoveries, as the most childish of errors. As for the so-called social science, it is still more vain than the physical and natural sciences, perpetually shifting and ephemeral, and without which, however, by your own admission, it could not exist: these phenomena are too complexes for one to be able to observe them, and at every moment individual wills will clash with experience and contradict the chimerical laws.
But it is still necessary that these wills manifest themselves clearly. I have read the last declarations of Ravachol, and I hardly understand what dream he has formed of the new world.
In order to know exactly what you want, you must only want mediocre things and imagine the world as a banal catalog of a store of novelties. A precise desire finds itself limited by that very thing, while a slightly confused conception lets blossom in their wild and savage liberty the miraculous roses of the unconscious.
I am astonished to hear you discussing so peacefully what other men condemn, you whose very life is a perpetual negation of violence. You are here, poets, philosophers, close to the sparkling sea; the mouths of young women will not refuse your lips; you have never known hunger, never on the winter roads have your teeth chattered: you do not kill, do not steal, and you go proclaiming across the world the gospel of revolution and destruction. But you have some hands that are too timid, I fear, to light dynamite bombs or securely hold the handle of the knife. Others get drunk on the hatred you pour, and those, in the prisons, in the penal colonies and on the scaffolds, suffer miserably from listening to you. Do you act in your turn?
Well! We act according to our nature: you just, without thinking, made our apology. Yes, mean will perhaps let themselves be subjected eternally to the yoke; they hardly notice that they suffer and that monstrous tyrannies crush them. We come to shake them from their sleep and their cowardice; we will bring down the secular idols, and nothing will remain that we cast into the abyss, and with enthusiasm. We have not been hungry, we have not shivered on the winter roads, but when we kiss the mouths of the young women the anguish of universal suffering poisons our pleasure, and we suffer in all those whom we know are crucified around us. From this moment, we will no longer keep quiet and our clamor will go increasingly from the earth up to the stars: then when the hour comes, we will disappear, hearts joyful, struck perhaps by our brothers that we have freed.
We will be struck by our brothers and we disappear, hearts joyful, if our death, we who are called the wise, is as glorious as that of that unlettered sublime, and if we sing during the crowning moments the collapse of every hierarchy and all authority.
A YOUNG WOMAN
I think that you should at least select less cynical poems and a wiser harmony.
What does it matter, as long as we say well what we wanted to say? He marched haughtily to the guillotine, and the more the words were crude and spewed out sewers, the better they reach the stupid old man with a white beard, the prison-warden of eternity, the odious “rewarder-avenger” who has weighed on man for centuries and amazed by his indulgent ignominy Moses, Monsieur Voltaire and the moralist Jules Simon.
Thus, on the white sands, the voices alternate, harsh and insidious by turns, and the red flower of the sun shed its petals in the twilight towards the night and the sea.
Source: Mercure de France, September 1892, 47-52.
[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]