Sunshine Recorder

Introduction from Michel Foucault’s Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison

On 1 March 1757 Damiens the regicide was condemned “to make the amende honorable before the main door of the Church of Paris”, where he was to be “taken and conveyed in a cart, wearing nothing but a shirt, holding a torch of burning wax weighing two pounds”; then, “in the said cart, to the Place de Grève, where, on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and claves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds” (Pièces originales…, 372-4).

"Finally, he was quartered," recounts the Gazette d’Amsterdam of 1 April 1757. "This last operation was very long, because the horses used were not accustomed to drawing; consequently, instead of four, six were needed; and when that did not suffice, they were forced, in order to cut off the wretch’s thighs, to sever the sinews and hack at the joints…

"It is said that, though he was always a great swearer, no blashemy escaped his lips; but the excessive pain made him utter horrible cries, and he often repeated: ‘My God, have pity on me! Jesus, help me!’ The spectators were all edified by the solicitude of the parish priest of St Paul’s who despite his great age did not spare himself in offering consolation to the patient."

Bouton, an officer of the watch, left us his account: “The sulphur was lit, but the flame was so poor that only the top skin of the hand was burnt, and that only slightly. Then the executioner, his sleeves rolled up, took the steel pincers, which had been especially made for the occasion, and which were about a foot and a half long, and pulled first at the calf of the right leg, then at the thigh, and from there at the two fleshy parts of the right arm; then at the breasts. Though a strong, sturdy fellow, this executioner found it so difficult to tear away the pieces of flesh that he set about the same spot two or three times, twisting the pincers as he did so, and what he took away formed at each part a wound about the size of a six-pound crown piece.

"After these tearings with the pincers, Damiens, who cried out profusely, though without swearing, raised his head and looked at himself; the same executioner dipped an iron spoon in the pot containing the boiling potion, which he poured liberally over each wound. Then the ropes that were to be harnessed to the horses were attached with cords to the patient’s body; the horses were then harnessed and placed alongside the arms and legs, one at each limb.

"Monsieur Le Breton, the clerk of the court, went up to the patient several times and asked him if he had anything to say. He said he had not; at each torment, he cried out, as the damned in hell are supposed to cry out, ‘Pardon, my God! Pardon, my Lord.’ Despite all this pain, he raised his head from time to time and looked at himself boldly. The cords had been tied so tightly by the men who pulled the ends that they caused him indescribable pain. Monsieur le [sic] Breton went up to him again and asked him if he had anything to say; he said no. Several confessors went up to him and spoke to him at length; he willingly kissed the crucifix that was held out to him; he opened his lips and repeated: ‘Pardon, Lord.’

"The horses tugged hard, each pulling straight on a limb, each horse held by an executioner. After a quarter of an hour, the same ceremony was repeated and finally, after several attempts, the direction of the horses had to be changed, thus: those at the arms were made to pull towards the head, those at the thighs towards the arms, which broke the arms at the joints. This was repeated several times without success. He raised his head and looked at himself. Two more horses had to be added to those harnessed to the thighs, which made six horses in all. Without success.

"Finally, the executioner, Samson, said to Monsieur Le Breton that there was no way or hope of succeeding, and told him to ask their Lordships if they wished him to have the prisoner cut into pieces. Monsieur Le Breton, who had come down from the town, ordered that renewed efforts be made, and this was done; but the horses gave up and one of those harnessed to the thighs fell to the ground. The confessors returned and spoke to him again. He said to them (I heard him): ‘Kiss me, gentlemen.’ The parish priest of St Paul’s did not dare to, so Monsieur de Marsilly slipped under the rope holding the left arm and kissed him on the forehead. The executioners gathered round and Damiens told them not to swear, to carry out their task and that he did not think ill of them; he begged them to pray to God for him, and asked the parish priest of St Paul’s to pray for him at the first mass.

"After two or three attempts, the executioner Samson and he who had used the pincers each drew out a knife from his pocket and cut the body at the thighs instead of severing the legs at the joints; the four horses gave a tug and carried off the two thighs after them, namely, that of the right side first, the other following; then the same was done to the arms, the shoulders, the arm-pits and the four limbs; the flesh had to be cut almost to the bone, the horses pulling hard carried off the right arm first and the other afterwards.

"When the four limbs had been pulled away, the confessors came to speak to him; but his executioner told them that he was dead, though the truth was that I saw the man move, his lower jaw moving from side to side as if he were talking. One of the executioners even said shortly afterwards that when they had lifted the trunk to throw it on the stake, he was still alive. The four limbs were untied from the ropes and thrown on the stake set up in the enclosure in line with the scaffold, then the trunk and the rest were covered with logs and faggots, and fire was put to the straw mixed with this wood.

"…In accordance with the decree, the whole was reduced to ashes. The last piece to be found in the embers was still burning at half-past ten in the evening. The pieces of flesh and the trunk had taken about four hours to burn. The officers of whom I was one, as also was my son, and a detachment of archers remained in the square until nearly eleven o’clock.

"There were those who made something of the fact that a dog had lain the day before on the grass where the fire had been, had been chased away several times, and had always returned. But it is not difficult to understand that an animal found this place warmer than elsewhere" (quoted in Zevaes, 201-14).

Eighty years later, Léon Faucher drew up his rules “for the House of young prisoners in Paris”:

"Art. 17. The prisoners’ day will begin at six in the morning in winter and at five in summer. They will work for nine hours a day throughout the year. Two hours a day will be devoted to instruction. Work and the day will end at nine o’clock in winter and at eight in summer.

Art. 18. Rising. At the first drum-roll, the prisoners must rise and dress in silence, as the supervisor opens the cell doors. At the second drum-roll, they must be dressed and make their beds. At the third, they must line up and proceed to the chapel for morning prayer. There is a five-minute interval between each drum-roll.

Art. 19. The prayers are conducted by the chaplain and followed by a moral or religious reading. This exercise must not last more than half an hour.

Art. 20. Work. At a quarter to six in the summer, a quarter to seven in winter, the prisoners go down into the courtyard where they must wash their hands and faces, and receive their first ration of bread. Immediately afterwards, they form into work-teams and go off to work, which must begin at six in summer and seven in winter.

Art. 21. Meal. At ten o’clock the prisoners leave their work and go to the refectory; they wash their hands in their courtyards and assemble in divisions. After the dinner, there is recreation until twenty minutes to eleven.

Art. 22. School. At twenty minutes to eleven, at the drum-roll, the prisoners form into ranks, and proceed in divisions to the school. The class lasts two hours and consists alternately of reading, writing, drawing and arithmetic.

Art. 23. At twenty minutes to one, the prisoners leave the school, in divisions, and return to their courtyards for recreation. At five minutes to one, at the drum-roll, they form into workteams.

Art. 24. At one o’clock they must be back in the workshops: they work until four o’clock.

Art. 25. At four o’clock the prisoners leave their workshops and go into the courtyards where they wash their hands and form into divisions for the refectory.

Art. 26. Supper and the recreation that follows it last until five o’clock: the prisoners then return to the workshops.

Art. 27. At seven o’clock in the summer, at eight in winter, work stops; bread is distributed for the last time in the workshops. For a quarter of an hour one of the prisoners or supervisors reads a passage from some instructive or uplifting work. This is followed by evening prayer.

Art. 28. At half-past seven in summer, half-past eight in winter, the prisoners must be back in their cells after the washing of hands and the inspection of clothes in the courtyard; at the first drum-roll, they must undress, and at the second get into bed. The cell doors are closed and the supervisors go the rounds in the corridors, to ensure order and silence” (Faucher, 274, 82).

We have, then, a public execution and a time-table. They do not punish the same crimes or the same type of delinquent. But they each define a certain penal style. Less than a century separates them. It was a time when, in Europe and in the United States, the entire economy of punishment was redistributed. It was a time of great “scandals” for traditional justice, a time of innumerable projects for reform. It saw a new theory of law and crime, a new moral or political justification of the right to punish; old laws were abolished, old customs died out. “Modern” codes were planned or drawn up: Russia, 1769; Prussia, 1780; Pennsylvania and Tuscany, 1786; Austria, 1788; France, 1791, Year IV, 1808 and 1810. It was a new age for penal justice.

Among so many changes, I shall consider one: the disappearance of torture as a public spectacle. Today we are rather inclined to ignore it; perhaps, in its time, it gave rise to too much inflated rhetoric; perhaps it has been attributed too readily and too emphatically to a process of “humanization”, thus dispensing with the need for further analysis. And, in any case, how important is such a change, when compared with the great institutional transformations, the formulation of explicit, general codes and unified rules of procedure; with the almost universal adoption of the jury system, the definition of the essentially corrective character of the penalty and the tendency, which has become increasingly marked since the nineteenth century, to adapt punishment to the individual offender? Punishment of a less immediately physical kind, a certain discretion in the art of inflicting pain, a combination of more subtle, more subdued sufferings, deprived of their visible display, should not all this be treated as a special case, an incidental effect of deeper changes? And yet the fact remains that a few decades saw the disappearance of the tortured, dismembered, amputated body, symbolically branded on face or shoulder, exposed alive or dead to public view. The body as the major target of penal repression disappeared. 

Link: A Dangerous Man in the Pantheon

This October marks 300 years since the birth of French Enlightenment thinker Denis Diderot. Although perhaps best known for co-founding the Encylopédie, Philipp Blom argues for the importance of Diderot’s philosophical writings and how they offer a pertinent alternative to the Enlightenment cult of reason spearheaded by his better remembered contemporaries Voltaire and Rousseau.

It was about time. Three hundred years after his birth Denis Diderot is in line for receiving the highest honour France has to bestow on one of her own. President Francois Hollande announced his intention to have the encyclopedist’s remains transferred to the Panthéon in Paris or, as the French language so deliciously puts it, to have him pantheonisé.

The Panthéon is sacred ground in Paris—not because it was built as a place to worship the Almighty, but because the French Revolutionaries turned it into a site for the burial and commemoration of, as the façade proclaims, the grands hommes of the nation. Rising high above the Quartier Latin and illuminated at night by fiery orange lights, the building with its imposing cupola stands also as the memory of the French republic, cast in stone.

The building was constructed originally as the church of Saint Geneviève after Louis XV had sworn to honor the saint should he recover from a grave illness. Because of the exorbitant costs of financing the monarch’s will and whim, construction was finished only in 1791. Meanwhile, the Revolution swept over the country. The church was designated a mausoleum for the nation’s great men, the first of which, the count of Mirabeau, was admitted in 1791, only to be excluded three years later, when political allegiances had changed. History also is subject to changing administrations.

Since then the Panthéon has been the theatre of many ideological battles, the center of consecration of the French sense of self and its many permutations. Félix Éboué, a member of the colonial administration, became the first black Frenchman to enter into the hallowed ground, in 1949; the first woman, Marie Curie, in 1995. The tomb listing reads like the greatest hits of French intellectual history—Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, André Maulraux, Émile Zola. The most famous philosophers interred in the crypt are two stars of Enlightenment thought: Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who were thus honored already during the eighteenth century—despite the fact that the former spent his adult life in exile and the latter was not even French. Tourists often pose for photographs in front of their sarcophagi.

Now it may be Diderot’s turn to receive this secular consecration. This proposed honour that would not only have delighted the passionate unbeliever Diderot who thought of posterity of ‘heaven for atheists’. It is also richly deserved. Diderot, after all, was not only editor of the great Encyclopédie and of several highly influential novels, philosophical works, plays and hundreds of amusing letters, he was also the star of the philosophical salon of Baron Thierry d’Holbach – himself a prolific author – which in its heyday arguably became the intellectual epicenter of Europe.

But things aren’t quite as easy. First of all, Diderot has been denied this honour multiple times, most recently in 1913. He was, still is, thought of as an intellectual troublemaker, someone all too fond of Eros and erotic passion, an implacable enemy of the Church, an incorrigible skeptic when it comes to power and the right of individuals to decide over others. These difficulties could perhaps be overcome in our tolerant and republican age. After all Voltaire, who has preceded him in the sacred site of French national memory, was also not a friend of the Church.

Another difficulty may prove even more intractable, and more indicative of Diderot’s difficult posthumous life. Strictly speaking, we know where Diderot’s bones are. They are in the ossuary of the église Saint-Roch on the rue Saint-Honoré in Paris, directly under the altar, just a mile or so away from their destined final resting place. Holbach, incidentally, is there too, as are a number of other notable Frenchmen. The problem is that we may know where they are, but not which of the bones down there belonged to the philosopher.

During the French revolution the ossuary was vandalized by over-zealous revolutionaries, and the tragic episode of the Paris Commune in 1871 saw a repetition of this posthumous violence. At present the ossuary is closed and it is difficult to know in which state it really is, but it would hardly be appropriate for the body of a convinced materialist if the bones on the sarcophagus bearing his name would in fact be a composite skeleton made up of various denizens of his former place of burial. Perhaps a DNA analysis would solve this problem, but it would hardly be a straight forward task.

In their own day Diderot and his philosophical brothers in arms were revered and reviled in equal measure, much visited and written about. D’Holbach’s famous salon could assemble on a single evening luminaries such as Diderot, David Hume, the economist and anti-colonialist Guillaume Raynal, the novelist Lawrence Sterne, Edward Gibbon, Cesare Beccaria, the Italian legal reformer and opponent of the death penalty. The salon was not a philosophical school with rigid teachings but an ongoing conversation between scientists and poets, atheists and believers, philosophers and practitioners. Called “the personal enemy of God”, d’Holbach invited priests and other critics to his table and even kept a chaplain at his summer house, to say mass for his conventionally minded mother in law.

The radical Enlighteners were well connected but more importantly, their frighteningly uncompromising writings were read and discussed throughout the Western world; The System of Nature, d’Holbach’s materialist masterwork was on the Catholic Index and had to be printed and distributed in secret. It still sold more than a hundred thousand copies during the second half of the eighteenth century.

Condemned by the Church and hated by the Court, d’Holbach and Diderot were beacons of free thinking and directly inspired the America’s Founding Fathers. Franklin is likely to have participated at the dinners and ensuing discussions; Jefferson, whose personal library still testifies to his interests, read and admired Diderot, d’Holbach, Helvétius, and Raynal, as well as their intellectual predecessors. For the Declaration of Independence, he transformed the Lockean formulation for the pursuit of life, health, liberty, and property into the more properly Epicurean and Diderotean “pursuit of Happiness.”

And yet the radical enlighteners have been pushed into the margins of memory and the footnotes of the history of thought. The Enlightenment is, in our common school understanding at least, the history of a cult of reason whose high priests were Immanuel Kant and Voltaire, not the huge intellectual revolution of Diderot and his friends. Their relative obscurity is not an unsolvable mystery if one compares their thinking to that of Voltaire and Rousseau, who criticized absolutist excess but not the authoritarian rule of the few over the many; they attacked the Church but sung the praises of the “highest being”; their views were solidly deist and authoritarian and lent themselves to justifying the power of a new, post-Revolutionary politics. Robespierre made Rousseau the patron saint of the new state, heaped him with praise and had a bust of him carved from a stone taken from the Bastille.

D’Holbach and Diderot had a very different vision of human nature. Enthusiastic followers of their century’s tidal wave of new scientific discoveries, they concluded that nature was evolved, not created; that it was all material and had no place for immortal souls; that it consisted of nothing but matter and that we are animals within it, a universe empty of sense and without God. In the oppressively clerical environment of their day this last point took a good deal of their attention. In sharp polemics they attacked Christianity and religious faith in general, arguing that it was nothing but a primitive fiction designed to keep the poor in their place, a conspiracy of magistrates and priests.

Diderot saw the truest and the highest goal of human nature not in reason, but in lust. Humanity’s existence is driven by Eros, by the search for pleasure. This sensualist approach had an important metaphysical consequence: in a world without sin, a world in which no wrathful God has condemned all lust and demands suffering from his creatures on this earth in order to soften the blow of eternal punishment, the goal of life becomes the best possible realization of pleasure, the education of desire in accordance with natural laws. In a society without transcendental interference, this chance, the chance of the pursuit of happiness, must be given to all.

Link: Empire's Wasteland

Algerian Chronicles by Albert Camus; Alice Kaplan (ed.), Arthur Goldhammer (trans.). Harvard Belknap, $21.95.

Sixty years ago, in the decade following the Second World War, the French-Algerian writer Albert Camus was an international cultural hero. The Nazis and the atomic bomb had destroyed the historic illusion that there were limits to the damage civilized human beings could or would inflict on one another. Humanity, as an enterprise, had never seemed a more desolating proposition than at this moment. Postwar Europe produced a multitude of writers who reflected the mood of the times, but none spoke more directly to it than Camus.

He was born into an uneducated, working-class family in French Algeria in 1913 and grew up in near-poverty. Due to the efforts of a perceptive grade school teacher, the young Albert made it to the lycée and went on to study at the University of Algiers, from which he emerged a man of the left, intent on the dismaying conditions of life that the colonial regime had visited upon his native land. He joined the Communist Party in 1935, was associated with a number of revolutionary groups, and for a few years wrote for left-wing newspapers. At 25, having been blacklisted because of his anti-colonial journalism, Camus left Algeria for France against his will, and all the years he lived there felt himself to be in exile. Yet when the Germans marched into Paris, he joined the Resistance and soon became the editor of Combat, one of its clandestine newspapers. 

Camus’s editorials, both before and after the liberation, revealed a man who, as the conflict wore on, had become more and more sobered by the great paradox of life: namely, that human beings are compelled to seek meaning in a world where meaning is not to be found. For Camus the situation was absurd. After all, what could be more absurd than a war that daily was destroying every belief—moral, spiritual, philosophical—that anyone had ever held about the ability of human beings to see themselves mirrored in one another? For a nihilist, mass suicide might have seemed a reasonable response. But Camus was not a nihilist. It was not suicide that was wanted, he said, it was struggle.

In the middle of the war he published two of his most important works, The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus. Both books exemplify what was by then being called the principle of the absurd. Both books were motivated by a philosophical concern with revolt against the dilemma of the absurd. And the message that each delivered was this: it is our obligation as individuals to value the life within us for its very own sake; in fact, it is our obligation as individuals to embody that value. The essay on Sisyphus—who is destined to roll up a mountain a stone that, no sooner than it reaches the top, rolls right down again—concludes, “The struggle itself … is enough to fill a man’s heart.” 

This high-mindedness was politically neutralizing and in 1945 was anathema to many European intellectuals, especially those in France who were actively on the left. In the ’50s, as various countries in the Eastern Bloc mounted nationalist uprisings, Camus stood with the rebels in opposition to Soviet domination; famously, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who had remained communists, fell out with him.

Camus could not accept that between the Arabs and the French colonials there could be no rapprochement.

When the Algerian independence movement became serious in 1954, Camus drew fire from everyone involved—the freedom fighters, the right-wing colonists, the French government itself—because he once again seemed to stand above the fray. Horrified by the barbarism being practiced on all sides in Algeria—both the French and the Arabs were steadily dealing death to the civilian population—Camus pleaded daily for a civil truce before Algeria became a social wasteland. “We know nothing of the human heart,” he said at the time, “if we imagine that the Algerian French can now forget the [Arab] massacres. And it is another form of madness to imagine that repression can make the Arab masses feel confidence and esteem for France.”

Neither group, he went on, could hope to eliminate the other. The “dream of a sudden disappearance of France [in Algeria],” he said, “is childish.” On the other hand, the hope of French Algerians that they could “cancel out, silence and subjugate” nine million Muslims was, realistically speaking, gone with the wind. Camus wanted a confederation of sorts that would permit all the peoples of Algeria to live together in an arrangement that honored coexistence. 

This was talk that filled everyone’s head with blood. Both the rebels and the colonists felt their noses being rubbed in the irritating intervention of a holy fool. Fifty years after the war ended in independence for the Algerian Arabs, the French have forgiven Camus for a conciliatory stance that had proved inflammatory, but the Algerians have not. In Algeria today, his books are not read, much less is he claimed with pride as a native writer who won the Nobel Prize. For the most part he is considered an enemy in the country from which he once said he had never “recovered.”

Algerian Chronicles, the only work of Camus’s never before translated into English,is a collection of articles, speeches, and letters to the editor that comprises everything Camus wrote on Algeria. It begins in 1939, at a time, as he says in the preface, “when almost no one in France was interested in the country” and ends in 1958, at a time “when everyone is talking about it.

The first section of the book is composed of a series of articles Camus wrote in 1939 on Kabylia, a mountainous region in the north of Algeria inhabited for centuries by the Kabyle people, a subset of the Berbers. They had fought French colonization long and hard in the late 19th century. By the 1930s they were a defeated population living in ignorance, unemployment, and near starvation. “In a country where sky and land are invitations to happiness,” Camus wrote, “millions of people are suffering from hunger[.] On every road one sees haggard people in rags.” Not only were they in rags, they lived on a diet of bread and thistles: children died regularly of eating poisonous roots they mistook for edible ones. Those few who went to school, arrived “naked and covered with lice” having walked miles from their villages, eating a fig, an onion, a rare barley cake. 

Early on in the series, Camus writes:

I would like to dispose of certain arguments often heard in Algeria, arguments that use the supposed Kabyle ‘mentality’ to excuse the current situation. These arguments are beneath contempt. It is despicable, for example, to say that these people can adapt to anything… . When it comes to clinging to life, there is something in a man capable of overcoming the most abject miseries. It is despicable to say that these people don’t have the same needs we do.

A discovery that really shocked him was the inequality of the government’s distribution of grain, vital in a country such as Algeria, between the natives and the Europeans. In approximation, the grain distributed to a family of five natives for two weeks would have fed a French family of three for two days.

A handout of 12 liters of grain every two or three months to families [of natives] with four or five children is the equivalent of spitting in the ocean. Millions are spent every year, and those millions do no good… . in some cases the results of charity are useless.

What was needed was a constructive social policy. That policy would have to consist of state-supported projects that would put people to work. As it was, there were none, and people picked up work that brought in starvation wages. “I had been alerted to the fact that wages in Kabylia were insufficient,” Camus writes, “I did not know that they were insulting. I had been told that the working day exceeded the legal limit. I did not know that it was close to twice that long.” In short: life here was slavery.

The hopelessness of the situation turned on the question of education. The natives knew that education was the road to emancipation—the Kabyle “thirst for learning and taste for study have become legendary,” we are told—but the region boasted only a tiny number of schools. “A shortage of schools is the educational issue in Kabylia today.”

“When I look at my notes,” Camus goes on, “I see twice as many equally revolting realities, and I despair of ever being able to convey them all.” But mark them well, he urges his readers. “Imagine the lives of hopelessness and desperation that lie behind them. If you find this normal, then say so. But if you find it repellent, take action. And if you find it unbelievable, then please, go and see for yourself.”

Less than twenty years after Camus wrote these words the Algerian freedom movement would pluck from among the Kabyle people some of its most steadfast leaders.

Camus’s writing on Kabylia is a marvel of eloquence. His sympathy for the people, his critique of the colonial regime, his pain over the injustices that he witnesses—all thrilling. Seventy years after he wrote these pieces the reader is still penetrated by their literary beauty.

But at no time in Algerian Chronicles are we listening to the speaking voice of a revolutionary. It is the voice of a despairing citizen who does not want his country’s government overthrown; he wants it to do better by its people. He wants France to remain in Algeria, but to honor its own founding myths of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

The pieces in Algerian Chronicles that were written years later in France, during the war for independence, are repetitive pleas for each side to stop demonizing the other, for human decency to prevail:

Not all the French in Algeria are bloodthirsty brutes, and not all Arabs are fanatical mass killers.

And:

Bloodshed has driven people apart. Let us not make things worse through stupidity and blindness.

And:

Reparations must be made to eight million Arabs who have hitherto lived under a particular form of repression.

At the same time it must be understood that “some 1,200,000 French natives of Algeria have a right to live in their homeland.”

These pieces read as though a white southern liberal in 1960s America is urging his fellow citizens to bring segregation to an end. But the comparison between more than a hundred years of French rule in Algeria and Jim Crow in Alabama is only mildly applicable.

By 1958, when Algerian Chronicles was published, Camus had exhausted French interest in his call for a civil truce in a conflict that had daily grown more intransigent. Indeed the book received almost no attention. Today, however, it is peculiarly moving to read these pieces because, while they register Camus’s abiding emotional connection to Algeria and his mounting despair as the war raged on, they also reveal the pathos of his position. Namely, his inability to grasp the deepest meaning of empire; namely, the unyielding murder in the hearts of all concerned—oppressed and oppressor alike—once the rebellion begins. Yes, it is freedom and justice that are being called for, but it is murder that is wanted. It isn’t even revenge; it is simply murder. An unholy alliance has prevailed for too long; too many people have done too many unspeakable things to one another. No one, absolutely no one, can any longer believe that those on the other side are human. 

In his celebrated essay “Shooting an Elephant,” George Orwell laid out the penalties of empire with remarkable clarity. Orwell, the decent truth speaker in the piece, tells us that when he worked as a policeman in Burma in the 1930s, he saw the horrors of empire up close and came to hate the British regime viscerally. At the same time, living among a people who hated and mocked and subverted him daily, he came to feel (also daily) that his greatest satisfaction would come from sticking a knife into the belly of the nearest Buddhist priest. 

Humiliation, said Chekhov, is the worst thing that one human can inflict on another. It ruins the souls of those who act and those who are acted upon. The native peoples of Algeria had lived for a hundred years under the rule of the French, who despised, tormented, and, above all, humiliated them. Generations of natives were born into an inherited fear and hatred of those who had thus undone not only them but their parents and grandparents as well. For that accumulated insult: the fire next time. 

In a way the tragedy of empire is to be found here, in Camus himself. With all the psychological intelligence at his disposal, he still could not permit himself to realize that between the Arabs and the French colonials there could be no rapprochement. Unlike Orwell, a loyal Englishman able to assume the undivided position of the honest dissenter, Camus was akin to the Anglo-Indian who is torn apart by his divided loyalties: on the one hand, the cause of his native countrymen moved him; on the other, he yearned helplessly toward the European culture that had formed him.

It was precisely this internal division in millions of people who grew up under colonial rule that empire was most guilty of fomenting and most adept at exploiting. It induced the kind of emotional paralysis that inevitably makes the successful revolt against foreign oppression take forever to cohere. Somewhere within himself, I am certain, Camus knew this to be the case with him. Nothing else can account for the longing and sorrow with which Algerian Chronicles is written.

Maximilien Robespierre’s Last Speech to the Convention on July 26, 1794

The enemies of the Republic call me tyrant! Were I such they would grovel at my feet. I should gorge them with gold, I should grant them impunity for their crimes, and they would be grateful. Were I such, the kings we have vanquished, far from denouncing Robespierre, would lend me their guilty support. There would be a covenant between them and me. Tyranny must have tools. But the enemies of tyranny—whither does their path tend? To the tomb, and to immortality! What tyrant is my protector? To what faction do I belong? Yourselves! What faction, since the beginning of the Revolution, has crushed and annihilated so many detected traitors? You, the people—our principles—are that faction! A faction to which I am devoted, and against which all the scoundrelism of the day is banded!

The confirmation of the Republic has been my object; and I know that the Republic can be established only on the eternal basis of morality. Against me, and against those who hold kindred principles, the league is formed. My life? Oh, my life I abandon without a regret! I have seen the Past; and I foresee the Future. What friend of his country would wish to survive the moment when he could no longer serve it—when he could no longer defend innocence against oppression? Wherefore should I continue in an order of things, where intrigue eternally triumphs over truth; where justice is mocked; where passions the most abject, or fears the most absurd, override the sacred interests of humanity? In witnessing the multitude of vices which the torrent of the Revolution has rolled in turbid communion with its civic virtues, I confess that I have sometimes feared that I should be sullied, in the eyes of posterity, by the impure neighborhood of unprincipled men, who had thrust themselves into association with the sincere friends of humanity; and I rejoice that these conspirators against my country have now, by their reckless rage, traced deep the line of demarcation between themselves and all true men.

Question history, and learn how all the defenders of liberty, in all times, have been overwhelmed by calumny. But their traducers died also. The good and the bad disappear alike from the earth; but in very different conditions. O Frenchmen! O my countrymen! Let not your enemies, with their desolating doctrines, degrade your souls, and enervate your virtues! No, Chaumette, no! Death is not “an eternal sleep!” Citizens! efface from the tomb that motto, graven by sacrilegious hands, which spreads over all nature a funereal crape, takes from oppressed innocence its support, and affronts the beneficent dispensation of death! Inscribe rather thereon these words: “Death is the commencement of immortality!” I leave to the oppressors of the people a terrible testament, which I proclaim with the independence befitting one whose career is so nearly ended; it is the awful truth: “Thou shalt die!”

Vitalic - Your Disco Song (from Flashmob)

Link: Naughty Medieval French Tales

Largely unavailable for centuries, a new collection of bawdy, naughty, and vivid medieval French tales reminds us that our ancestors were a dirty bunch. Yunte Huang on what they reveal about human nature. 

“By trade I am a fucker, miss
so may your heart be filled with bliss”

Scandalous at the time of their creation in the Middle Ages, the old French comic tales in verse, commonly known as the fabliaux, can still shock you today with their outrageous obscenity, salacious humor, and carnivalesque laughter. Equally scandalous, if not more so, is the fact that these lyrical tales, as provocative as The Plum in the Golden Vase, the Kama Sutra, or Ovid’s The Art of Love, have remained virtually inaccessible for so long due to censorship by cultural and religious orthodoxy. Over the centuries, general readers have only been able to savor a whiff of the fabliaux’s scatological aesthetics and erotic trickery filtered through bowdlerized versions or watered down by canonical authors. Chaucer, Boccaccio, Rabelais, and Molière, to name just a few, were all indebted to those itinerant minstrels wandering the countries and marketplaces of medieval France, those quixotic jongleurs who composed, performed, and passed down these quaint literary jewels. Now thanks to Nathaniel Dubin, a professor of modern classical languages at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in Minnesota, we finally can read for ourselves these almost-millennium-old tales that once titillated some of the best literary minds in the West.

Literary history aside (or be damned), these anti-establishment, anti-ecclesiastical fabliaux are pure, unadulterated fun. Naughtily sporting 69 stories in total, Dubin’s volume is a golden bough of erotic imagination and folk humor, peopled by randy wives, cuckolded husbands, fornicating priests, and priapic knights. Breaking down rigid social hierarchy so characteristic of the Middle Ages, these riotous tales poke fun at everyone. In “The Three Estates,” two knights ride along and find a shady spot in the woods, “decked with flowers and herbs.” They imagine this to be a nice place for a picnic, a party of wine, pasties and other niceties “as gay as/in a great hall on the high dais.” Along come two clerics, who have a different idea for the use of the sylvan enclave: bring their lady friends here and have a quality time. At last, two peasants barge into the scene, with spades and threshers on their backs. Seeing the enticing spot,

they started speaking just like peasants:
“Hey, Fouchier, from the looks of it
this is the perfect place to shit.
Let’s take a dump right now, old pal.”
“Upon my soul, we may as well.”
Then each of them squats down and strains.

In contrast with the well-mannered noblemen on high horses and clerics with not-so-clerical minds, the peasants, in the parlance of everyone’s native town, just don’t give a shit.

Very often a fabliau is a comedy of situation: a rendezvous between a married woman and a priest is interrupted by the unexpected return of the cuckolded husband. All parties must think on their feet or risk exposure and shame. It’s a survival of the wittiest. In “The Crucified Priest,” the wife of a master carver and her cleric paramour are caught on a tight spot. She tells him to hide inside her husband’s studio and pose as a naked statue. As in all of the fabliaux, the table can be turned as easily as changing positions in bed. A trickster can be tricked, a duper duped. The husband, seeing through the ruse as clearly as he sees the “hanging balls and cock” of the priest, does not let on and comes up a clever scheme of revenge:

“Lady,” he says, “I’ve made a shock-
ing image here by not omitting
those virile members. How unfitting!
I must have had too much to drink.
Some light! I’ll fix it in a wink.”

He goes on to nip off the priest’s genitalia.

In spite of the exaggeration, hyperbolism, and excessiveness, the fabliaux embody an authentic, deep sense of realism. In the words of R. Howard Bloch, a Sterling Professor at Yale who writes a truly inspiring introduction to the volume, “the fabliaux make the body speak.” To be more precise, they make the lower body speak: cocks, cunts, butt holes, farts, shit, and urine. “The Blacksmith of Greil” sings a super-phallic panegyric, rendered superbly into colloquial English:

he was endowed with a prick,
the most colossal slab of meat
that’s served to women as a treat,
God’s honest truth—one shaped so fair
that Nature must have lavished care
to make it, and surpassed her craft,
around the bottom of the shaft
two palms in length, wide as a fist.
A hole, though shaped like an ellipse,
in which this well-hung stud had placed it
would look as if a compass traced it.

Or, in “Trial by Cunt,” three sisters fight for the same man by trying to outwit each other in reply to a Jeopardy!-style question: “Who was born first, your cunt or you?” The first sister replies that her cunt is older because it has a beard and she does not. The second thinks otherwise, because she has grown teeth, whereas her cunt has not. The third sister believes her answer hits the jackpot: “my cunt’s younger than I,/and I’ll tell you the reason why./While I have been weaned from the breast,/the mouth of my cunt gapes from thirst/and, at its young age, needs to suck.” Or, in “The Two Peasants,” the hostess’s gassy butt hole is mistaken for the hungry mouth of the peasant’s companion. Chaucer, it is said, borrowed the rim-job motif for “The Miller’s Tale” in his magnum opus.

Link: Slavoj Zizek: Robespierre or the "Divine Violence" of Terror

When, in 1953, Chou En Lai, the Chinese Prime Minister, was in Geneva for the peace negotiations to end the Korean war, a French journalist asked him what does he think about the French Revolution; Chou replied: “It is still too early to tell.” In a way, he was right: with the disintegration of the “people’s democracies” in the late 1990s, the struggle for the historical place of the French Revolution flared up again. The liberal revisionists tried to impose the notion that the demise of Communism in 1989 occurred at exactly the right moment: it marked the end of the era which began in 1789, the final failure of the statist-revolutionary model which first entered the scene with the Jacobins.

Nowhere is the dictum “every history is a history of the present” more true than in the case of the French Revolution: its historiographic reception always closely mirrored the twists and turns of political struggles. The identifying mark of all kinds of conservatives is its flat rejection: the French Revolution was a catastrophe from its very beginning, the product of the godless modern mind, it is to be interpreted as God’s punishment for the humanity’s wicked ways, so its traces should be undone as thoroughly as possible. The typical liberal attitude is a differentiated one: its formula is “1789 without 1793.” In short, what the sensitive liberals want is a decaffeinated revolution, a revolution which doesn’t smell of a revolution. Francois Furet and others thus try to deprive the French Revolution of its status as the founding event of modern democracy, relegating it to a historical anomaly: there was a historical necessity to assert the modern principles of personal freedom, etc., but, as the English example demonstrates, the same could have been much more efficiently achieved in a more peaceful way… Radicals are, on the contrary, possessed by what Alain Badiou called the “passion of the Real”: if you say A - equality, human rights and freedoms - you should not shirk from its consequences and gather the courage to say B - the terror needed to really defend and assert the A.

However, it is all too easy to say that today’s Left should simply continue along this path. Something, some kind of historical cut, effectively took place in 1990: everyone, today’s “radical Left” included, is somehow ashamed of the Jacobin legacy of revolutionary terror with its state-centralized character, so that the commonly accepted motto is that the Left, if it is to regain political efficiency, should thoroughly reinvent itself, finally abandoning the so-called “Jacobin paradigm.” In our post-modern era of “emerging properties,” chaotic interaction of multiple subjectivities, of free interaction instead of centralized hierarchy, of a multitude of opinions instead of one Truth, the Jacobin dictatorship is fundamentally “not for our taste” (free the term “taste” should be given all its historical weight, as the name for a basic ideological disposition). Can one imagine something more foreign to our universe of the freedom of opinions, of market competition, of nomadic pluralist interaction, etc., than Robespierre’s politics of Truth (with a capital T, of course), whose proclaimed goal is “to return the destiny of liberty into the hands of the truth”? Such a Truth can only be enforced in a terrorist way:

If the mainspring of popular government in peacetime is virtue, amid revolution it is at the same time virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is nothing but prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue. It is less a special principle than a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most pressing needs.

This Robespierre’s line of argumentation reaches its climax in the paradoxical identification of the opposites: revolutionary terror “sublates” the opposition between punishment and clemency - the just and severe punishment of the enemies IS the highest form of clemency, so that, in it, rigor and charity coincide:

To punish the oppressors of humanity is clemency; to pardon them is barbarity. The rigor of tyrants has only rigor for a principle; the rigor of the republican government comes from charity.

What, then, should those who remain faithful to the legacy of the radical Left do with all these? Two things, at least. First, the terrorist past has to be accepted as OURS, even - or precisely because - it is critically rejected. The only alternative to the half-hearted defensive position of feeling guilty in front of our liberal or Rightist critics is: we have to do the critical job better than our opponents. This, however, is not the entire story: one should also not allow our opponents to determine the field and topic of the struggle. What this means is that the ruthless self-critique should go hand in hand with a fearless admission of what, to paraphrase Marx’s judgment on Hegel’s dialectics, one is tempted to call the “rational kernel” of the Jacobin Terror: “Materialist dialectics assumes, without particular joy, that, till now, no political subject was able to arrive at the eternity of the truth it was deploying without moments of terror. Since, as Saint-Just asked: “What do those who want neither Virtue nor Terror want?” His answer is well-known: they want corruption - another name for the subject’s defeat.

Or, as Saint-Just put it succinctly: “That which produces the general good is always terrible.” These words should not be interpreted as a warning against the temptation to impose violently the general good onto a society, but, on the contrary, as a bitter truth to be fully endorsed. - The further crucial point to bear in mind is that, for Robespierre, revolutionary terror is the very opposite of war: Robespierre was a pacifist, not out of hypocrisy or humanitarian sensitivity, but because he was well aware that war among nations as a rule serves as the means to obfuscate revolutionary struggle within each nation. Robespierre’s speech “On war” is of special importance today: it shows him as a true pacifist who ruthlessly denounces the patriotic call to war, even if the war is formulated as the defense of the Revolution, as the attempt of those who want “revolution without revolution” to divert the radicalization of the revolutionary process. His stance is thus the exact opposite of those who need war to militarize social life and take dictatorial control over it. Which is why Robespierre also denounced the temptation to export revolution to other countries, forcefully “liberating” them: “The French are not afflicted with a mania for rendering any nation happy and free against its will. All the kings could have vegetated or died unpunished on their blood-spattered thrones, if they had been able to respect the French people’s independence.”