Jules Vallès 1867
Written: October 26, 1867;
Source: Les enfants du Peuple. Paris, La Lanterne, 1879;
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor, 2011.
I hate war, war that attaches nations by the knot of a flag, whether victorious or vanquished; that attaches nations to the tail of a horse spurred on by a passing general or a captain of the engineering corps. I hate that sinister glory that lives above battlefields like a vulture on the flesh of men and gulps down the blood of men.
And yet the other day, when I heard that we were going to lay siege to Rome and I saw the cannons doing their morning toilet there was hope mixed in with my sorrow. I hoped that the cannonballs would lose their way and, passing over the heads of the living, would continue on their way and blow holes in masterpieces, chip tombstones, and kill the dead; those dead for whom immortality was invented. Great men long dead but who hold the world chained to their tombs. No one dares break that marble chain or erase with bold fingers their deeds of conquest, conquests which, it is true, cost no lives, but cost entire generations of artists and citizens their freedom.
Rome gave birth and asylum to a mass of monsters whose thumbprint has marked history; monsters of audacity and talent, of ferocity and virtue. At the point of their tools, of sculpting knives, brushes, pens, and daggers, they constructed a glory that imposed itself when they were alive and which was considered divine after their death. Raised to divine status to such an extent that there is not only a pope named Pius IX, there are ten named Michelangelo, Raphael, Brutus, Cato the Elder, Cicero Chickpea: popes of the daub and the sculptor’s blade, of chatter and assassination.
The Garibaldians spoke of going to Rome. They won’t go. But even had they entered the city and driven out the pope, do these irregulars believe that for all that they would have saved the world, these adventurous disbelievers, impious smugglers who, after mutilating the saints in the churches would have kneeled before the providential men in museums?
If they would, with the points of their sabers, have destroyed paintings or smashed busts with their rifle butts we would have covered our eyes, but we wouldn’t have stopped the massacre. It is a question here of freeing human intelligence.
The past enslaves the present. Four or five men of genius hold the entire world enslaved. They had the right to the admiration of their era when, in their superb works, they formulated the vague ideas and the pious passions of their contemporaries. Their glory survived their century, but admiration should not be servile and cowardly. Because Phidias, Michelangelo, and Raphael were great, does that mean we will be forever condemned to being small? Will there henceforth only be midgets because there were once a few giants?
Midgets. Yes, the profession of midgets: that is what lazy critics, color grinders, and clay kneaders have been chained to for centuries in accordance with the ancient faith and glorious tradition.
Outside of Phidias, Michelangelo and Raphael, and in literature, outside old Homer, old Dante, old this one and old that one, there is no glory, no work, no bread.
Yes, Redshirts, throw out the windows and onto the streets and into the Tiber the statues, the paintings, the books: throw them all!
Cast their very ashes to the wind.
For years we have offered sacrifices on graves, and just as in the Odyssey they threw steaming blood on tombs, we sacrifice ideas and souls. Everywhere they rule the streets, the walls. In their name we underestimate, forget, and disdain the new rights of a new society and we sacrifice to the genius of the schools the genius of the individual. These men dead for three hundred or two thousand years rule over us.
It makes me angry when I think that just because they sculpted and painted saints, prophets, muses, and angels we are served up angels, muses, saints, and prophets. Poor working man: when he is able to steal a moment from labor and strife and when, on Sunday, he wanders the museums they show him, painted on slabs on the walls, the stories from the Bible he doesn’t believe in and the Antiquity he doesn’t know. In the public gardens they put up a row of men in marble, men of Athens and Crotone, stupidly planted there on this soil watered with the blood of struggles heroically fought against the past. It is Jupiter Philipoemon who heard, in history’s dark days, the cries of rage of the vanquished and the cries of pain of the wounded.
History stuck Rome in the heart, but its head has remained upright on the shoulders of the world.
Brutus, Cato the Elder, Cicero Chickpea, the Scipios, the Gracchi!
Admit it: doesn’t France still have in its veins, spoiling its young blood, the curdled blood of these corpses?
Don’t the ideas of unity, patriotism, leveling communism, doesn’t all this flow directly from Rome, and isn’t it the pedantry of our collegiate Romans, Latinists of the court or the kitchen that clip France’s wings and the provisions of the poor?
Is it not a repercussion of the reading of Tacitus and Lucan that military ideas ferment in people’s heads, lead hearts astray?
Is not the heroism of the Selectae the father of foolish chauvinism and blind Jacobinism?
This is the enemy!
Even if you were to kill all the pope’s soldiers there would escape from the depths of the missals and the “De Viris” the seed of the solider and the beadle, the terrorist and the inquisitor.
And it wouldn’t be worthwhile to smash the tabernacles in the temples, to take apart the pulpit, and shout “a plague on those who defend papal infallibility” if, when I speak of watching genius’s entire heritage go up in the flames of bombardments you were to find me mad or sacrilegious. Mad or sacrilegious! Aren’t you more so than I, you who insult a religion that has also had, as we admit, its geniuses and its martyrs.
But there’s no middle path! Either one has to be Catholic and prostrate oneself before the altar, or one must, as I said, demand of cannonballs that they decapitate genius. You speak of killing their saints. Begin by killing your own.