Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Anarchism's Ungovernability, and What it Means to Be a Mutualist

Some time back I posted an unexpectedly controversial post on "The Ungovernability of Anarchism." My goal was to start to talk about how the things that we are in the process of learning about the early phases of the anarchist movement, together with the struggles we are currently having to determine the limits of the tradition, raise interesting and potentially troubling questions about the ways in which we can lay claim to the various aspects of "anarchism." I fully intended to "raise the bar," but what I said was taken, by a variety of folks with an interest in some sort of "governing," in pretty much the opposite sense. Although I have not returned to the subject directly on the blog, I've hardly left it in my own thinking about anarchist organizing, mutualist school-building, etc.

Let me run through the argument once more: 

The word "Anarchism" marks a variety of things, among them an elusive and contested Ideal, a historical Tradition, and a present Movement. 
  • As an Ideal, Anarchism runs on ahead of us as we chase it, constantly revealing greater freedom and unchallenged forms of authority, provided we pay close attention. The Ideal is ungovernable, and that is a good thing. We can't get too smug, and those who would settle for "liberty on the low bid," and attempt to reduce Anarchism to their level, just make it clear that they're not paying attention at all.
  • As a Tradition, Anarchism has always been more diverse than most of us can easily be comfortable with, as an attentive reading of the most uncontroversial histories of the movement quickly demonstrates. This is a fact that we should probably learn to live with. Sure, it's a little hard to know what to do with the earliest explicit expressions of anarchism, with their wild fantasies (Humanispheres, Cossack invasions, etc.) and their occasional glaring errors (antisemitic and anti-feminist elements, for example), but in attempting to cleanse the tradition of stuff that makes us uneasy, we've neglected some elements that arguably ought to please, or at least amuse us (the fact that Proudhon's feminist adversaries were also mutualist activists, Humanispheres, Cossack invasions, etc.) We can acknowledge that Bellegarrigue, who produced Anarchy: A Journal of Order, was some sort of market anarchist, and it won't be the end of the world. Our denials look too much like opportunistic history to reflect very well on us. We don't have to go there again, and Bellegarrigue probably isn't going to make a modern capitalist any happier than a modern communist. None of us claim the whole Tradition anyway.
  • As a Movement, in the realm of practical struggles and in our ideological struggles about how we will relate to the Ideal going forward, let's try to at least be practical. Internal struggle is part of our Tradition, and is probably dictated by our relentless Ideal. We constantly face new questions, and new threats, among them elements that would just love to govern Anarchism to some narrower end. When we identify with the Movement, we presumably take on a relation to the Ideal and the Tradition (even if the latter may be somewhat antagonistic), and we necessarily enter into some kind of relation of basic solidarity with others who similarly identify. We don't all have to play nice. We don't have to welcome anything that appears in opposition to the Ideal, even if it has some validation from the Tradition, but we should probably have more sense than to squander or wreck what we have inherited and presumably share. Some kinds of sectarian squabbling will arguably drive the project of Anarchism forward. Others obviously don't. Some kinds of toleration on the fringes enrich that project. Others clearly imperil it. So we need to take responsibility for the actions we take on this very field of conflict. We can't hope to govern or rule the movement, without putting ourselves in conflict with our own Tradition and Ideal, but that's not a reason to be indifferent. Quite the contrary.
These concerns have come up again recently in some discussions about defining Mutualism. Because Mutualism is, in essence, in the process of being reintroduced after a period of a relative dormancy, Mutualists find themselves in the midst of a complicated process, where we are simultaneously recovering a Tradition (which was itself in search of its Ideal), distilling our Ideal from that Tradition, and trying to build some sort of Movement. That's a lot to be tackling all at once, and it's complicated by the fact that the differences within the Tradition of Mutualism has been arguably a bit more complicated than those facing the broader anarchist movement, so that what we have in practice are several new Mutualisms, which have different understandings of the Ideal, different identifications within the Tradition, and different relations to other parts of the Anarchist Movement. So people, both inside and outside the circle of self-proclaimed "Mutualists," can find the situation pretty frustrating. Me, too... 

So, under these circumstances, what does it mean to "be a Mutualist"? Let me propose some potential criteria, based on my observations about Anarchism more generally:
  1. Our Ideal is Reciprocity of the highest order. References to the Golden Rule are a good place to start, but let's be clear: There's no treating others as we would be treated that falls much short of treating others as the unique individuals that they are. And there is nothing easy about that sort of standard. We will fail, as often as not. Hopefully, we will also learn, pick ourselves up, and do better the next time. We will try our best to approach our ideal in all sorts of practical circumstances, knowing that, as Proudhon put it, we progress "by approximations." We will build with the understanding that someday soon we'll probably be building again, better, on firmer foundations. At least we're unlikely to be bored...
  2. Our Tradition is a rich source of examples of how to apply, and how not to apply, our Ideal. And there's lots of that Tradition still to be unearthed. To "be a Mutualist" is not just to adhere some abstract ideal, but also to identify with the Tradition, diverse as it is, and to make the best possible use of what has been bequeathed to us by the individuals who struggled before us. It's a Tradition which has been appropriated and used by other traditions, often in ways which obscure or misrepresent it, and it is not always the sort of tradition that will inspire comfort for those associating with it, particularly in an era dominated by more-or-less fundamentalist politics. But it is a rich tradition, full of unexplored and unexploited resources. Those who attempt to claim the name, but obscure that wealth, should not necessarily expect to be welcomed.
  3. After all, our Movement is, in many important ways, still to come. Because of the multiple labors facing Mutualists at the moment, and because sometimes these labors feel more than a bit Herculean, it would be nice if they did not also feel Sisyphean. One of the most difficult aspect of the reluctant school-building I've taken on with regard to Mutualism has been the balancing act between making clarifying the Tradition, suggesting a somewhat different relation to the Ideal, and maintaining a sort of general solidarity with those who approach those things differently. It probably isn't obvious to many of the folks embracing the Mutualist label at this point what combination of brute force and restraint has been deployed to keep open a rhetorical space in which "Mutualism" could mean not just something fairly specific, but several fairly specific somethings, but these things don't just happen. All of these elements—including Ideals, Traditions, definitions, rhetorical gestures, gestures of inclusion or exclusion—amount to a kind of shared means of production for continuing to produce Mutualism, and if there is going to continue to be such a thing we need to practice a bit of careful stewardship with regard to our available resources. Sometimes that means nothing more than being careful when we speak for "The Movement," when we say "we" instead of "I," or "is" instead of "could be."
More—or perhaps just more explicitly—than other Anarchist schools, Mutualism is probably always going to be a little bit stuck between an Ideal that constantly outruns us and a series of practical Approximations about which we can never be too smug. While our critics think of Mutualism as the milquetoast version of Anarchism, I would challenge would-be Mutualists to think of it as a particularly demanding, high-risk approach, a very anarchistic Anarchism, refusing the archies of the community and of the market. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Louise Michel, "The Claque-Dents" (IV-VI)



There are two little-known islands on the coast of Morbihan.
From a distance, Hœdik has the appearance of a seahorse; some bits of land, one having the appearance of bagpipes, the others stamped in the shape of the tail, surround it. Houat is a double star; reefs, where the waves and wind roar, border Hœdik and Houat.
On these islands, and on their constellations of islets, live a population of fisher-folk who only know the sea.
On the horizon, eating into the coasts of Quiberon and Penmarch, is the sea; between the two harbors, a first foundation of granite from the times before history, the rocks of Morbihan.
Opposite, Belle-Isle.
Houat was one of the first human stations, the Siata of the ancients; the customs have hardly changed since then.
The armor braz (as the Bretons call the great sea), is everything for the boys who live there.
Little Louïk, that day, going in the morning to gather periwinkles for the owner of his boat, found, under a tuft of broom, a tiny infant, so well wrapped that it did not cry.
Louïk his song, which had not been translated from the old language of the Kernevotes of the coast into our own.

Monte, monte, monte en chantant,
Monte, allouette de Gaule !
Chantel voici fleurir le saule.
Monte, allouette au firmament.

[Rise, rise, rise up shinging,
Rise, skylark of Gaul!
Sing, her the willow flowers.
Rise, skylark, in the firmament.]

The birds in the thickets who kept time with the sound of the waves, did not interrupt their own—it was for want of the maternal song the harmony of nature cradling with the other nests that of the little abandoned being. In the  rustic basket that contained the child, Louïk saw nothing extraordinary. Can’t one be born beneath the broom like the little flowers that sprout from the earth?
Louïk was not astonished by all this. He did not have a little sister, and this was unquestionably one;—he had no doubt that his mother would happily adopt the child, she had been a widow for two years already, raising the child would distract her, and he would help with the expenses: wasn’t he employed by the owner of the great barque Nidelek? What one is eight years old and earns one’s living, one is a man.
Rolling his ideas around in his big blond head, Louïk rocked gently in his arms the child, who, being awakened, cried horribly. Delicately, to sooth her, Louïk offered her a hunk of brown bread, when the two old women, Margareth and Guilleke, their big black scarves flapping in the wind like the wings of ospreys, rushed toward the desperate cries of the little abandoned one.
“What is it, Jésus Dieu?”
“What are you doing to that child, Louïk?”
“It is mine. It is my little sister.” His little sister! The two old women exchanged a look that Louïk did not even see.
“You lie,” Louïk, “you have taken that little one somewhere to amuse yourself, among the Mariennik perhaps.
He protested indignantly: “It is mine! It is my little sister!” And as the old women advanced to take the child, he drew back, hugging her so tightly that she started to cry again.
Louïk, desperate, between the cries of the child and the old women who besieged him, held out one hand to defend himself, and the basket fell.
The old women swooped down on the little one, and, followed by Louïk, who did not want to give up the little sister he had so fortunately found, made off towards the hamlet of fishers where they had their shelter.
The whole island, or everyone who was not at sea, came to see the infant that the old women, to defend her from the bad sort, had brought to the chapel.
Wasn’t the main thing to insure against the surprises of the goblins and poulpiquets, which a daughter of the night could be.[1]


Louïk, weeping, demanded his sister so furiously that the old women retained one last doubt whether that the little one did belong to the widow, although this one came like the others, in the most natural of ways.
After having said the prayers of Saint-Goulvent over the infant, someone thought to give it a little milk.
Louïk’s discovery was a real event. After having considered the strangest hypotheses, the Madonna of the chapel making no unfavorable manifestation, they decided to raise it.
As Louïk had still not stopped howling and demanding his sister, the widow asked that she be entrusted to him, which inspired a new exchange of defiant glances between Margareth and Guilleke.
That little one must go to her; for if they had known anything outside the island, the riddle would have given up its mystery, for at Groix, the Isle of Witches, among the wreckage of a ship, was an empty cradle.
‘How many sailors? How many captains,” said Victor Hugo.[2] And how many of the poor people of the coast who go out in their frail boats to aid the shipwrecks and like them never return!
The old beggar Joël had, before Louïk, found the child attached to a board found on the shore, had taken off its wet diapers, had laid it in an old basket well wrapped in a warm bit of wool and, believing that one would think of him as the wrong hands and that coming from him the little one would not be adopted by anyone, he had left it for others to find.
The ship, which was wrecked by the black night, thought it was in the harbor of Quiberon; it was the Pointe du Raz.
The old women had their idea, and old Joël had his own in putting in the basket two branches of broom, good luck, he believed.
She was named Fleur de Genêts. The sound of the waves and the wind, the rough language of nature, was all that the little foundling learned between Louïk, who adored her, and her adoptive mother, a bit harsh; one gave him so little in the hamlet to help with the needs of the child, and the old women darting their forked tongues at her, loaded with bad words, because of the demand they had made to take charge of her—as they did every time that they had nothing to do.
About fifteen years after this event there was a Pardon[3] on the island of Houat. Among the foreigners who attended, a lady of respectable age and demeanor came to seek, on the coasts of Brittany, a young girl piously raised, in order to make her a servant. Louïk was a soldier; her mother, tired of the wicked remarks, overcome by poverty and illness, consented to the departure of her adoptive daughter, as she had consented to the departure of Louïk, who had enlisted so that she could have bread.
Could she feel anxiety about giving her to such a holy person as Hélène Saint-Madulphe?
Thus the little one came to Paris, where Louïk was with his regiment, a day when one had fetched as reinforcements some gendarmes from Versailles and some companies of Breton soldiers. Mme Hélène de Saint-Madulphe had been for several weeks an object of reverence for the little Mariennik, often she very nearly showed it by bowing to her; but despite her profound ignorance, or rather because of that ignorance, the child was gripped by an unreasoning fear before the preparations for a reception given by Madame de Saint-Madulphe for some friends, doubtless as respectable as she, but whose manners had frightened the little girl.
That is why, hastily putting on again the coarse clothes that her boss had made her give up for more modern ones, she fled through the deep night in the big city that she did not know, and which she feared, though less than Madame de Saint-Madulphe.
Fleur de Genêts first ran straight before her—one moment the railroad passing over an arched bridge gave the illusion of the sea, she breathed full into her lungs the handfuls of dust raised by the wind, thinking she smelled the fresh and powerful scent of the tides.
The idea of reality returned to her quickly, because behind her, following in her footsteps, his words resonating in her ears, a drunk for whom the road was not wide enough said to her: “Hey! beautiful, will you have a drink with me?” the child took flight so rapidly that, deflected, he went heavily to ground under an arch of the railway bridge.
It was near Montrouge. Without knowing it the child had left Paris.
No longer feeling under the control of Mme de Saint-Madulphe, delivered from the drunk who snored under his pillar, Fleur de Genêts asked herself where she was.
She had no idea!
A few flakes of snow, swirling in the air, had made the noxious dust disappear. It was fresh and seemed pure. Fleur de Genêts had not breathed so freely in a long time.
She stopped for a moment and like an untied spray scattered around her the dark flowers of her life, already long with sorrows. A rising tide of memories cast up, in strange groups, all that she had encountered along her way.
The soft, cold face of the widow, pale under her white cap, he brother Louïk constantly protecting her, so well that she believed him an occult power.
At the thought of those years gone by, there rose like ghosts all the misunderstood sorrows, all the mysterious shame that clung to the lost child.
The world seemed large to her, and she felt alone in it. Between her and the adoptive brother who had been so good to her, she seemed to see an abyss. Poor little Fleur-de-Genêts!
Where was she? She had not idea. What would become of her? She knew still less.
She was so cold, that she thought of the pretty white sheet, that the year before little Annie had taken under the ground.
The snow fell thick;—unconscious of the hour, or the place, Fleur de Genêts set off walking again.
From time to time a shout passing through the air stopped her short, a cry of distress or of madness, which passed unanswered.
Thus roars the beast at the slaughterhouse; thus beat the wings of the bird who will be caught in the trap. Suddenly, a frightened flight of shadows, scattering before some hunters, filled the silent street.
The dream, a dream that was a horrible nightmare enveloped the poor child.
Without knowing, borne by the current of fear which carried the beings in flight, she ran with them.
The nets were spread, so well that among the girls arrested for she knew not what, Fleur de Genêts was taken to the station, fluttering like a wounded dove.
At the station, there was the section from men and that for women. The two heaps were equally sinister.
Sometimes, in the midst of the poignant miseries that are found amassed there, some strange commercial affairs take shape.
Such with the combinations destined to put into the hands of a respectable old man and a charming young man—the first named Saint-Léger, the second known by his familiar name Mr. Alphonse—the wealth of the world. Both arrested by chance, they said, made such eloquent and worthy complaints that the administration, afraid of having incurred the resentment of these illustrious personages offered to let them pass the rest of the night in a cell for two where they could finish in entire safety the conversation commenced by words prudently veiled.
Saint-Léger and Alphonse knew each other; they belonged to the same world, and they had reason to expect to be promptly released since they took part in a business rather foreign to their character.
The [police] had, to spice up the talk of plots against the security of the State, arrested all the orators at the rostrum of the Salle Octobre—Saint-Léger and Alphonse had just gone up to argue—the dragnet was too quick to allow them to explain.
That situated them well, besides, but they were afraid, by loudly denying their solidarity, of attracting some future danger to themselves.
“There are some brave men!” said the student Pierre Christophe to his friend Cristel, “they do not think like the speakers, but they support the struggle alongside them. It is good!”
“Yes,” said the tall blond, Cristel, who was said to be very accomplished in the art of knowing men, “we must judge people on their acts and not their words.”
It was an act indeed; many lasting judgments do not have a more solid basis. But plans were laid in the cell where Saint-Léger and the young Alphonse awaited freedom which could not delay after the inquest demanded by them on their social position! Sketch of a constitution for a distant island, of which they would traffic the lands which did not belong to them—which would bring them millions easy to secure, while the colonists, poor devils, would await, to plant it and live, help from the Company which would never be sent, and later to return, ships which would never come.
Projects for the hoarding of grain, coal, and metals, allowing them to borrow double what they would put out to discount. The bold idea of a single bank coming to the forthcoming fall of all the banks, preventing them from sinking with paper-money based, as capital, on the wealth of their colony.
Never were they so well understood. Never had they had so vivid an imagination. The nights appeared short to them, hardly had they had time to begin a light sleep, when the chief of the station revoked their arrest. By the same information which set the two rastaquouères at liberty, the examining judge assigned to the plot linked to it the case of Fleur de Genêts.
That child, who could reveal nothing, for the simple reason that she knew nothing, seemed to the magistrates precociously and abominably depraved.


Before he worked with gold, the Jew Eléazar had worked with the pen; his fingers, now crooked, bent inward like talons, had feverishly taken possession or the keyboards or strings from which he drew plaints or songs of love.
Now that he had an immense fortune, Baron Eléazar left in the mists of dreams these aspirations of the past, without however being able to forget them completely; this was the period when he had married for the first time. The Bride of the Canticles advancing from the desert, leaning on her beloved, was no more beautiful than the first wife of Eléazar. Dying, she had taken with her the heart of her spouse.
She died, and Eléazar became somber for a long time, seeing no one but his son and daughter.
He signed without reading the commercial documents which he cashier presented to him, and went with his children without knowing where, following their whims.
For him, the beloved lived forever; he was the ghost. One day, however, he had to enter into communication with the world again, his son was old enough to enter college, his daughter to have a primary school teacher.
Wild as young fawns, Esther et Marius resisted at first, then the reason dawned, the brother entered the Lycee Charlemagne where Eléazar had been educated; the sister was confided to the care of Gertrude Nathan, a tall woman, with dry, hard features, who scared her.
How, little by little, the teacher gained an empire over the mind of Eléazar was more astonishing as he saw her very little, it is one of those events when reasoning fails.
At the moment when we encounter the banker, he had just married in second nuptials this strange creature.
Charged with electricity like a torpedo, implacable, haughty, coldly cruel, Gertrude stripped the unfortunate Jew of all he had that was human; it was she who galvanized him, and from the poet David made the money-lender Shylock.
It was she who presided over the destinies of the family, is such a manner as to promptly free herself from the son and daughter of her husband. She wanted to be along to manage the fortune and to squeeze it like a bunch of grapes.
In that end of an era, when the rottenness of society was so deep, she sowed, sowed without ceasing; for her, it was the germinal of gold, she hoped, before Frimaire whitened her hair, to have brought prodigious harvests to shelter.
Sometimes Baroness Eléazar is anxious, her thick eyebrows contract, her face is covered with shadows. It is because she thinks of her first husband, the old rogue that we have met at the station, in the company of the young scoundrel Alphonse.
M. de Saint-Léger, who was called more simply Nathan, looked forward to seeing his wife again, and making her pay so dearly for his silence about her first marriage, that he would have the means to equip the first ship for the New Atlantis, which was the name of the island, situated in the credulity of the suckers, but for which it was necessary to depart regardless.
The baroness, that evening, passing her narrow, white hand thought the tawny gold of her hair, chatted in her salon with some personal guests, the young Wilhelm, from Vienna in Austria, and his mother, much older, but just as full of life as the baroness Eleaza.
It was necessary not to rely on hopes from that side. But one could count them; no matter, as long as the marriage of Esther was not delayed.
To give her time for reflection was dangerous in these circumstances. She had quickly realized that the young Wilhelm was a perfect imbecile, and that little Esther had some stupid obstinacies.
Making nice, giving to her sweet words a serpent’s fascination, she was in the process of mastering Wilhelm, and perhaps his mother. Have you seen the blue fly, with savage eyes, which places itself before the cockroach and magnetizes it, and, marching in reverse, attracts it to its hole, where it devours it?
That’s how Madame Gertrude worked.
The mother was recalcitrant.—These two powerful organizations struggled inevitably as the elements collide, shattering with their tremendous spark all that surrounded them.
As for the young Wilhelm, he felt an even more complete heaviness than usual.
There was something terrible in that silent battle of unknown forces—to each of these women, finding the world cramped for her, the other seemed a thief who sought to steal her treasure, with that difference that Wilhelm’s mother wanted to make a nest for her family, the other, her own nest.
As for the young man, beardless, pomaded, frizzy, gloved in costly fashion who felt himself in this atmosphere completely atrophied, he stood motionless, even more stupid than usual.
Suddenly, deep in thought, Wilhelm's mother remembered a terrible scene from her previous life of poverty.
She had, for her young son, sold her long, black hair to a woman trading in second-hand goods, half lady of charity, half negotiator of all sort of things.—That woman, whose hard conditions saved for a moment, was the baroness.
How many characters in this story, more horribly true than one could imagine, trailing thus a past more sinister than the corpses attached to the croup of the Valkyries’ chargers.
The private soirée followed the evening gathering, when a murmur in the hive, crossing the courtyard, reached the salon of the baroness. Marguerite’s maid, returning at a late hour of the morning, found herself facing the corpse, lying in her blood-soaked gown on the bed, of which the stained lace had not been raised.
She fled from it, shouting so loud that a whole crowd rushed in before the police superintendent made the first findings.
A bit pale, under his elegant grey hat, Sylvestre, his appearance as impeccable his life, was one of the first to enter.
He gallantly presented his respects to the baroness, and casting under his lowered eyelids a venomous glance at Wilhelm, he took his usual place.
An incident which had the proportions of an enormous danger for the baroness occurred at that apparently peaceful soirée.
The young Alphonse, one of the most constant regular at the soirées of Madame Eléazar, thinking the he should not lose the brilliant idea that he had worked out with Saint-Léger, enlisted him to confide it to the baroness—they thought that they would find, in the person of Madame Gertrude, an eager backer for the excellent plan of monopolization elaborated the night before in their cell. They were not at her level—this plan was for her only hackneyed and even trichinous; for ten years she had been recognized for her dowry, a complete system of capitalist royalty in the same sense, but contrived with more genius, a true work of art in this genre, a spider web for the sons of silver and gold in which even the wasps could be taken. Here first husband, the Jew Nathan, could claim a part in this grandiose project, for he had initiated his young wife into roguery, but the student had long since surpassed the master.
In a painting, in a stanza, in a pattern, those who have an artistic nature often find that they vaguely glimpse in these moments where one does not know if one thinks with sounds, with a rhythm, with words or with colors; thus in the monstrous plan of the earth given over to famine to gorge a few financial ghouls, the baroness Eléazar encountered the two scoundrels whose entry struck her a massive blow inside. Saint-Léger was the Jew Nathan, the first husband of Madame Gertrude, of whom she had had no news for the fifteen years that she had been separating, both being so afraid of being slain or poisoned, that they had taken flight, hiding their tracks with the skill of Redskins.
Because of changing names and trails, they had never met, and suddenly there they were, face to face.
One could not harm the other by informing, without attracting the dangers on themselves; but there were other means of security.
Those who sleep with the fishes or underground are no longer to be feared, they knew it by experience, and it was this experience that each in particular had to dread.
Neither the baroness nor Saint-Léger let a gesture, or a word escape them. Neither even knew if the other had recognized them.
Their conversation, banal at first, was filled with those thousand trifles that the world of the salons always finds.
Mountains, says a proverb, do not meet.—But they had just met and many destinies should collapse in the gulf hollowed by their impact.
It was good policy to come to some agreement; that is why, among the shady matters that were discussed in the salon of the Baroness Eléazar, the hungry network where she worked so well, received two new members.
However, two fancies expressed delicately by Saint-Léger would cause a disagreeable surprise to the baroness; he asked her to kindly to contribute to the fund the negligible sum of one hundred thousand francs, and to make for him, she who was all-powerful, a place as attaché to the embassy for Brazil, where he needed, in the interest of the expedition, to make a reconnaissance.
The first move of the baroness, to that second proposition, was not favorable to Saint-Léger; the affability of his manners, like clear water, showed so many things! But she thought that it would not do to play with the memory of Saint-Léger, that, moreover, the reefs were profound, the waters unhearing, and that the finger of God always shows itself in these occasions.

[to be continued…]

[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]

[1] A “fille de la nuit” is a foundling, and the concern is that the child might be a changling left by goblins.
[2] From his poem “Oceano Nox.”
[3] A type of religious pilgrimage practiced in Brittany.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Louise Michel and "the birds of the coming storm"

Here is a literal translation of Louise Michel's "Les Corbeaux", from Before the Commune, a posthumous collection of poems published in 1905. 


Up there, on the fir trees, are some soft birds’ nests;
In the dark trees the are black crows.

From Germany to the Ukraine,
They open their wings to the wind;
And they fly, casting over the plains
Their raucous rattle of their voices.
For them the harvest is superb;
The dead are there, sown in the grass,
O black bird, like wheat.

Go, and from eyes full of shadow,
As if from cups, drink;
Go on, crows, go without number,
You will all be refreshed;
Then, taking wing again
Carry the new flesh to the nest;
Your sweet little ones are starving.

Go on, crows, take without fear
These awful and sacred scraps;
No one will complain against you;
You are pure, O black birds.
Go to the peoples in slavery,
Go, sowing the blood of the brave,
That it may geminate for the new times!

Up there, in the fir trees, are some soft birds’ nests;
In the dark trees there are black crows.

April 1861

[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Here he comes, to save the day...

I've been reading bits and pieces of Louise Michel's novels, as part of a larger project to get a general sense of what's out there, and naturally with some eye to what might be worth translating in the future. One of the titles I've been looking at today is a massive work, Le Bâtard Impérial, co-written with Jean Winter and published in 1883. One of the major plot-lines of the novel involves Yvan, who has been an executioner in Russian prisoners, and who, through a plot twist that seems to involve mistaken identities and one of Michel's favorite plot devices, the topsy-turvy logic of the legal and prison systems, ends up on the run. At one point, he is close to being dragged down and eaten by by rats, while trying to manage his escape through the sewers. And then a familiar figure appears:
The final victory, with a cadaver for prize, would remain inevitably with the rats.
Suddenly the cover of the sewer lifted, a human head appeared at the edge of the opening and shouted to Yvan:
— Hold on, I am with you!
At the same time the unknown discharged two pistols in the sewer whose vaults repeated the detonations with an appalling din.
Dazzled and blinded by the light, panicked by the noise, the rats, except for some brave sorts, let go, and plunged into the refuse.
It was time!
Yvan felt himself failing, his blood flowing from a hundred wounds.
The struggle had become unequal.
— Give me your hand, said the stranger to Yvan.
— Here it is, said the executioner.
— Come on, you are saved!
— I wouldn’t hope.
— Wretch! Don’t you know that the sewers are inaccessible at this moment?
— I was there quite against my will.
— You just escaped from the underground prisons of the Kremlin.
— Not at all.
Well, if you do not want to admit, it does not matter. Besides, I do not ask you for your secrets and only ask you to believe that I am not the Moscow police.
— So much the better.
— You see that you are one of the prisoners of the castle.
— I don’t understand.
— You are the fifth that have escaped in a month.
— Despite the rats?
— Despite the rats.
— It is not possible.
— But if, if, with much courage for example.
Get me out of here, my head is spinning.
Poor wretch, you faint! cried the unknown. Yvan responded with a deep sigh.
— Well, he added, we will understand each other better soon. For the moment it is enough to have saved a man.
And seizing Yvan’s wrist with a herculean strength, he pulled him from the ladder and deposited him on the ground.
Some rats, surprised to see themselves brought into the light outside, let themselves fall back into the muck. The others, the starving hung tight.
Arriving in daylight, Yvan fell on his knees and rolled in a heap on the pavement.
He no longer had a human face.
His face covered in blood and mud, cut by the cruel bites, was unrecognizable, one of his eyes, pierced, formed a great black cavity under his left eyebrow and his torn and punctured ears hung in shreds on his shoulders dripping with blood.
Some rats still gnawed away at that human creature. The stranger grasped them and crushed them one after another.
Yvan had just paid cruelly for the murder of the innocent Paula and the theft of little Paul Vladimir.
And without the stranger he would be dead like the general.
That stranger was named Bakunin. Tall, robust, with a splendid, that young man presented the Russian type in all is purity and all its force.
He did not know what to do with regard to Yvan.
The giant lay on the ground like an inert mass, defeated by a brutal force similar to that which had struck down another helpless creature, poor Paula.
The rats had been as cowardly towards Yvan as his accomplices had been towards Paula.
Bakunin contemplated him with a questioning look.
— He did not come from the prisons of the castle, he said to himself, so he is with the Sophia!
This is perhaps one of our most relentless enemies. I have a good mind to give him to the rats.
Yvan uttered a cry of pain.
Bakunin, absorbed by his thoughts, continued his monologue aloud without paying any attention to him.

[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]