The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 2

Petition in Hieroglyphs.

With the working people, again it is not so well. Unlucky! For there are twenty to twenty-five millions of them. Whom, however, we lump together into a kind of dim compendious unity, monstrous but dim, far off, as the canaille; or, more humanely, as ‘the masses.’ Masses, indeed: and yet, singular to say, if, with an effort of imagination, thou follow them, over broad France, into their clay hovels, into their garrets and hutches, the masses consist all of units. Every unit of whom has his own heart and sorrows; stands covered there with his own skin, and if you prick him he will bleed. O purple Sovereignty, Holiness, Reverence; thou, for example, Cardinal Grand–Almoner, with thy plush covering of honour, who hast thy hands strengthened with dignities and moneys, and art set on thy world watch-tower solemnly, in sight of God, for such ends, — what a thought: that every unit of these masses is a miraculous Man, even as thyself art; struggling, with vision, or with blindness, for his infinite Kingdom (this life which he has got, once only, in the middle of Eternities); with a spark of the Divinity, what thou callest an immortal soul, in him!

Dreary, languid do these struggle in their obscure remoteness; their hearth cheerless, their diet thin. For them, in this world, rises no Era of Hope; hardly now in the other, — if it be not hope in the gloomy rest of Death, for their faith too is failing. Untaught, uncomforted, unfed! A dumb generation; their voice only an inarticulate cry: spokesman, in the King’s Council, in the world’s forum, they have none that finds credence. At rare intervals (as now, in 1775), they will fling down their hoes and hammers; and, to the astonishment of thinking mankind, (Lacretelle, France pendant le 18me Siecle, ii. 455. Biographie Universelle, para Turgot (by Durozoir).) flock hither and thither, dangerous, aimless; get the length even of Versailles. Turgot is altering the Corn-trade, abrogating the absurdest Corn-laws; there is dearth, real, or were it even ‘factitious;’ an indubitable scarcity of bread. And so, on the second day of May 1775, these waste multitudes do here, at Versailles Chateau, in wide-spread wretchedness, in sallow faces, squalor, winged raggedness, present, as in legible hieroglyphic writing, their Petition of Grievances. The Chateau gates have to be shut; but the King will appear on the balcony, and speak to them. They have seen the King’s face; their Petition of Grievances has been, if not read, looked at. For answer, two of them are hanged, ‘on a new gallows forty feet high;’ and the rest driven back to their dens, — for a time.

Clearly a difficult ‘point’ for Government, that of dealing with these masses; — if indeed it be not rather the sole point and problem of Government, and all other points mere accidental crotchets, superficialities, and beatings of the wind! For let Charter–Chests, Use and Wont, Law common and special say what they will, the masses count to so many millions of units; made, to all appearance, by God, — whose Earth this is declared to be. Besides, the people are not without ferocity; they have sinews and indignation. Do but look what holiday old Marquis Mirabeau, the crabbed old friend of Men, looked on, in these same years, from his lodging, at the Baths of Mont d’Or: ‘The savages descending in torrents from the mountains; our people ordered not to go out. The Curate in surplice and stole; Justice in its peruke; Marechausee sabre in hand, guarding the place, till the bagpipes can begin. The dance interrupted, in a quarter of an hour, by battle; the cries, the squealings of children, of infirm persons, and other assistants, tarring them on, as the rabble does when dogs fight: frightful men, or rather frightful wild animals, clad in jupes of coarse woollen, with large girdles of leather studded with copper nails; of gigantic stature, heightened by high wooden-clogs (sabots); rising on tiptoe to see the fight; tramping time to it; rubbing their sides with their elbows: their faces haggard (figures haves), and covered with their long greasy hair; the upper part of the visage waxing pale, the lower distorting itself into the attempt at a cruel laugh and a sort of ferocious impatience. And these people pay the taille! And you want further to take their salt from them! And you know not what it is you are stripping barer, or as you call it, governing; what by the spurt of your pen, in its cold dastard indifference, you will fancy you can starve always with impunity; always till the catastrophe come! — Ah Madame, such Government by Blindman’s-buff, stumbling along too far, will end in the General Overturn (culbute generale). (Memoires de Mirabeau, ecrits par Lui-meme, par son Pere, son Oncle et son Fils Adoptif (Paris, 34–5), ii.186.)

Undoubtedly a dark feature this in an Age of Gold, — Age, at least, of Paper and Hope! Meanwhile, trouble us not with thy prophecies, O croaking Friend of Men: ’tis long that we have heard such; and still the old world keeps wagging, in its old way.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/carlyle/thomas/french_revolution/v1.2.2.html

Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30