Paul Lafargue 1890

Darwinism on the French Stage
“To what base uses we may return, Horatio “

Source: Time, February 1890, p.149-156;
At this period (1890-1897) Time was being edited by Belfort Bax
CopyLeft: this text is free of copyright restrictions;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Alas for Darwin! if he were alive, he would experience the drawbacks of popularity. French men are just now fathering on him a “ new race of small carnivora, that avail themselves of the excellent invention of the struggle for life, as a scientific excuse for every sort of villany.” ... “When applied,” says M. Daudet, “these theories of Darwin are wicked, because they resuscitate the brute in man, and cause the quadruped, that has learnt to stand upright, to walk on all fours again.”

The men who utter these enormities, on and off the stage, are by no means fools or persons of little consequence, but men of mark and wit. Neither do they publish these views, by way of airing a paradox, or to amuse themselves at the expense of the Philistines. In sober seriousness, and with all possible gravity, they have for the last few weeks put forth these astonishing truths. Woe to the scientific theory that finds its way into the ignorant and narrow brains of the French novel-writers and journalists of the day!

Our men of letters have not become acquainted with the Darwinian struggle for life, by reading the works of the great naturalist. They are not used to such brain-work. No, their knowledge of it has dawned upon them through the wisdom of a penny horror.

Some ten years ago an old milkwoman was killed. Her murder, from the circumstances attending it, produced so deep an impression, that it is remembered to this hour. The discovery of the murderers was made in a curious way. Barré, the old woman’s broker, offered to assist the judge in his inquiry. Everybody knows that in France the judicial inquiry is not made in public before a jury, but in private, before a single judge. Barré volunteered full particulars as to the habits and circumstances of the victim, and as to the shares and securities in which she had invested her small fortune, £400 scraped together during a life of hard toil. He had several interviews with the judge, who thanked him for his willingness to help in the discovery of the culprit, when it happened, upon a certain occasion, that the judge on conducting him to the door of his room, remarked innocently:-

“You once wore your full beard, M. Barre!”

On hearing this simple observation, Barré trembles, and turns livid; the judge immediately claps his hand on his shoulder, and says:

“I hold the murderer.”

Barré, utterly lost, confessed that he and his friend Lebiez, a medical student, had committed the crime. The two murderers were intelligent and educated young men of four or five and twenty years of age. Lebiez was one of the most distinguished students of the medical school of Paris. His professor, Dr. Vulpian, and his comrades, believed there must be some gross mistake when they heard of his arrest. A few days after the murder, Lebiez had lectured on Darwinism, and had been at great pains to explain the theory of the struggle for life, and the law of the survival of the fittest.

On learning he had been betrayed Lebiez did not deny his crime, but proceeded to explain the theory of it. The milk-woman had deposited £400 in the hands of his friend Barré, who, instead of buying securities with the money, had spent it. This sum of money could at any moment be asked for, and Barré, unable to refund it, would be prosecuted and condemned for breach of trust. He, Lebiez, had therefore to choose between the social ruin of his friend, a man of respectable birth and great promise, and the death of an old woman, very useless and uninteresting. He never for a moment hesitated to devote himself to his school-fellow, killed off the old milkwoman, and scientifically cut up the body, in order to rid himself of it, piecemeal.

This murder was something out of the common. Lebiez was not an impulsive brute, killing in self-defence, when found out, but a cool and calculating man, deliberately planning his action, carrying it out with the utmost determination, and colouring it with a scientific theory. He died bravely. Barré had to he carried up the scaffold, whereas Lebiez ascended the steps with a firm foot. After his head had been passed through the hole of the guillotine, and just as the knife was about to drop, somebody in the crowd cried out – “Bravo, Lebiez!” He raised his head, and turning his eyes in the direction of the voice, said distinctly:- “Adieu.”

There was long and lively debate on the subject of this murder. Here was a chance for the anti-Darwinians! They were numerous and highly respectable, and took care not to lose so good an opportunity of falling foul of the scientific theory of which Lebiez had been an advocate. French freethinkers had been in the habit of charging religion with all the crimes committed by religious people. The religious folk now retaliated, and accused the new theory as a school of crime. They were strongly supported by the men of science that considered Darwin as a scientific revolutionist, deserving of almost as rough handling as the revolutionists of the Commune. An archbishop, Monseigneur Dupanloup, if I remember rightly, went so far as to advocate Lebiez’ pardon, on the ground that he was a victim of the Darwinian theory, and that it was the duty of society to grant him time for repentance and the redemption of his sins.

Albeit France was the birth-place of the theory of evolution – Haeckel and the German Darwinians, not to speak of the French, have made good the claims of Buffon, Lamarck, and Geoffroy de Saint-Hilaire, too deliberately ignored by the English Darwinians – it was in France that the recognition thereof encountered the greatest difficulties. French science appeared to be ashamed of its offspring, which had been adopted by, and found a home in, England. The Academy of Science, with the octogenarian Flourens at the head of its old and fusty members, made war against the transformation of species; animals and plants had been created as they were, and as they were, they would continue to be in secu1a seculorum. “This was the law they would maintain until their dying day, sirs.” It was necessary for Haeckel to come from Germany to Paris, for him to group and stimulate the young men who had given in their adhesion to the evolution theory. Since that day, Flourens and many of the old academicians have died, and younger and bolder naturalists have sprung up; but the victory is not yet completely won over official science. Dr. Giard, for instance, a man well known for his numerous scientific discoveries, had to wait a number of years before he was elected professor at the Museum of Paris, because he was notoriously an evolutionist.

Now, although French writers are wont to ridicule the Academy, and to make fun of its antiquated notions, you will never meet people more ready to accommodate themselves to the prejudices of the past, or to bow down before the Academy and the opinions it hall-marks for circulation in the present. I must add that the refined public shares this spirit of officialism and routine with the writers who prepare intellectual food for its digestion.

The murder of the old milkwoman popularised the Darwinian theory among the journalists and romance writers, who, in France, are distinguished by their want of scientific and philosophical culture. M. Daudet was one of those who, on this occasion, became acquainted with the theory of the struggle for life: of course, like the rest of his fellow-novelists, he conceived it after a much clearer and simpler fashion than Darwin. “More individuals are born than can find means to live. Do away with me, or I must do away with you.” Here you have the whole Darwinian theory in a nut-shell, according to the discerning M. Daudet: it is the man of science of his play who expresses this fine formula. In the preface to his Struggle for Life, M. Daudet tells us that he had begun to write a book, half ronrarice and half history, called Lebiez and Barré, two young Frenchmen of the period. He had been working at it for some two months, when there appeared in France, a translation of the admirable Crime and Punishment, of Dostoievsky. The Lebiez of the Russian novelist is Rodion: he reasons out his crime; he assassinates an old hag, a pitiless usurer, baneful to everybody, while her gold would bestow joy and health on his mother and sister, whom he loves tenderly. Instead of delivering a lecture on the struggle for life, like Lebiez, Rodion writes an article for a review on The right to murder, and demonstrates philosophically that it is allowable to deliver the world from persons who stand irr everybody’s way.

M. Daudet understood that it would be impossible for him to rival the morbid genius of Dostoievsky, possessed of an unsurpassable faculty of psychological analysis, and he gave up his historical romance. But the idea of the struggle for life appeared to him too luminous to be abandoned; he seized the first opportunity of turning it into a play, and on the 30th of October last, there was produced at the Gymnase-Dramatique of Paris, a play ill five acts and six tableaux, by Alphonse Daudet, entitled, The struggle for life.

M. Daudet is not a professional playwright. It is only of late that he has turned his attention to the stage, and it is but fair to acknowledge that his play has much to recommend it. Some of the situations are dramatic, and the character of Mari-Anto is delicately drawn.

Paul Astier, the son of an academician, is a rising architect, who, whilst restoring an old historical palace, wins the heart of the owner, the Duchess Padovani, (Mari-Anto) immensely rich, but on the wrong side of fifty, whereas, Astier is young, covetous, and “keeps moving.” “Darwin is his favourite author,” but like M. Daudet he has found in the Origin of Species, only the false law of population of parson Malthus. “More individuals are born than can find the means to live; “ whence it follows that a part of the human race must die of starvation, iii order that the rest may live in comfort. And, logically, Astier decides in favour of comfort; his motto is, “the strong eat up the weak.” The false Tichborne, who was not particularly bright, had a cleverer axiom. “The world,” he wrote in his note-book, in very bad English, here translated, “is composed of two sorts of men, the fools and the sharpers – and the one must prey on the other.”

Astier’s ambition is to become a prime minister. He is already a member of Parliament, and an influential person whose opinion is taken; but in the space of two years, he has squandered the whole of the duchess’s fortune, and is on the verge of ruin. He wants to get divorced from his old wife, and to marry an extremely young Jewess. Marriage is his road to fortune, and women are his stepping stones. He manages matters so well that his jealous Mari-Anto catches him en flagrant délit in her own house. But the duchess, who is a zealous Catholic, considers a divorce as a shame and a sin, contents herself with dismissing Astier’s sweetheart, a girl in her service, and retiring to the country. Astier follows her thither, plays the hypocrite and the lover, obtains her pardon, and brings her back to Paris, where he hopes eventually to get her consent to a divorce. But time presses, for the young Jewess waxes impatient, and threatens to flit with her gold, Astier tries to hasten the dénouement. In the midst of a feast he offers a glass of poisoned water to his wife, but struck with terror, arrests her arm as she carries the glass to her lips. The duchess guesses his intention, and knowing him capable of a crime, she consents to a divorce in order to save him from temptation. The scenes between Astier and Mari-Anto are very fine. In the last scene of all, Astier is shot down by the father of the girl he had seduced, just as he is at the height of happiness and on the eve of his wedding with the Jewess, who is to make him a millionaire.

M. Daudet kills Astier, he writes in his preface, because he, M. Daudet, is a good man, and cannot bear wicked people – ever since he ceased to be private secretary to the Duke of Morny, one of the foulest scoundrels of the Bonapartist clique. And his play is written with the purpose of showing his abhorrence of the strug lifeurs, as he calls them in his beautiful English “who being Darwinians to the back bone .... are devoid of superstitions and of scruples, do not believe in God, and do not fear the policeman.”

This pooh-poohing of the police, that last stronghold of morality, is another grand discovery of M. Daudet. He traces it back to Berkeley, the Scotch philosopher, who, doubtful of the correctness with which our senses represent the external world to our minds, and considering the mind as something immaterial, that is incapable of forming a conception of material objects, declared that the external world did not exist, and M. Daudet, consequently, concludes that the policeman is to Darwinians a mere fiction.

What to us appears incredible is that writers, like M. Daudet and others, should seriously make Darwin and his theory responsible for the Lebiez’, Barré’s, and other beasts of prey let loose in our society. Prior to the publication of the Origin of Species, we lived in a world wherein theft and murder were unknown, and had it never been published we should have continued to live in a society in which people thrive on the good and not on the evil fortune of their fellow-creatures. Doctors and chemists would cease to pray for consumptions and fevers, boils and broken hones, for their daily bread; heirs would no longer impatiently await the opening of the wills of their dearly beloved relations; financiers would not fill their money-bags with the spoils of their brethren of the stock-exchange; trades-men and manufacturers would not undersell and ruin one another; employers would not flourish by starving their hands – if Darwin had not produced his book of evil omen!

Let us have the courage to acknowledge that we live in a wolfish society. Civil war rages from door to door, in the very hearts of our families, alike in town and in country. This savage war of commercial and industrial interests is the very condition of existence of our social organization. The Giffens and Levys of the day, the Seniors and Smiths of the past have sung this civil war to all sorts of airs, as the cause of Progress and the motive power of Civilisation: they have given it the true name, they have called it industrial and commercial Competition.

The struggle for life is, after all, but an application to vegetal and animal life of the economical competition: Darwin himself has stated that his theory had been first suggested to him by Malthus’ law of population.

We shiver as we read of crimes like these of Lebiez and other murderers, but we walk unmoved in the midst of the atrocities committed, daily and hourly, by competition. How insignificant would the crimes tried in the law-courts appear if we took into account the wholesale poisoning caused by the adulteration of food: At about the same time that Barré and Lebiez were murdering the old milk-woman, a London manufacturer was tried for mixing violet powder with arsenic and other dangerous substances. Packets of powder containing arsenic were produced, cases of baby-poisoning as consequences were proved, and yet a jury of British Philistines was found willing to discharge the manufacturer. To adulterate all industrial products, and turn what should be wholesome food into deadly poison is only to obey the law of competition.

The misery and suffering engendered by economical forces are more endless than the pebbles on the shore. In this terrible game of competition the factories and workshops devour each other, the bigger capital swallows the smaller; in the blind struggle of wild and uncontrollable forces, men are whirled like bits of straw. Some few, a very few, are carried to the pinnacle of fortune, but the great mass are brutally thrown down and trampled underfoot. The vanquished in the economical struggle, more terrible than the fury of war, are condemned to mercenary labour, to wage-slavery, to misery and starvation. And in this battle of interests it is to no purpose to appeal to the sentiments of religion, justice, humanity, love or friendship. The one thing recognised is the right of the strongest; Vae Victis, the weakest to the wall! Capital, for all the blood and filth from which it is built up, is sacred; it is the sovereign power that opens the gate of every earthly paradise.

From the cradle to the grave we are enveloped by this atmosphere of a pitiless battle of conflicting interests. This sad and stern reality, it is, and not scientific theories or religious creeds, that moulds human clay, that sharpens and exacerbates egotism. Every man for himself is our law. Implanted in man’s heart and brain, this impels him to succeed by all means, to conquer or to die; to crush others so as not to be crushed himself. Given these conditions of environment, one is justified in wondering that the increase of crime in France, since 1840, (and the same fact is true of other countries) – is not more considerable than it is.

But modern life tends to break men’s animal spirits, to impoverish their blood: it transforms impulsive brutes into reflecting and calculating beings. In capitalistic societies it is generally the very young who furnish the contingent of the murderers. Civilisation puts into the hands of the more experienced an infinite variety of legal, if not less cruel, means of acquiring fortune, the one aim in life of civilised nations. Baudelaire, the mystic poet of realism, is right when he says:

“If rape and fire, the knife and poisoned dart
Have with their pleasant patterns broidered not
The colourless canvas of our piteous lot,
’tis that we're craven-souled and lack the heart!”

Paul Lafargue