The History of a Crime, by Victor Hugo

Chapter xviii.

The Verification of Moral Laws

The carnage of the Boulevard Montmartre constitutes the originality of the coup d’état. Without this butchery the 2d of December would only be an 18th Brumaire. Owing to the massacre Louis Bonaparte escapes the charge of plagiarism.

Up to that time he had only been an imitator. The little hat at Boulogne, the gray overcoat, the tame eagle appeared grotesque. What did this parody mean? people asked. He made them laugh; suddenly he made them tremble.

He who becomes detestable ceases to be ridiculous.

Louis Bonaparte was more than detestable, he was execrable.

He envied the hugeness of great crimes; he wished to equal the worst. This striving after the horrible has given him a special place to himself in the menagerie of tyrants. Petty rascality trying to emulate deep villainy, a little Nero swelling himself to a huge Lacénaire; such is this phenomenon. Art for art, assassination for assassination.

Louis Bonaparte has created a special genus.

It was in this manner that Louis Bonaparte made his entry into the Unexpected. This revealed him.

Certain brains are abysses. Manifestly for a long time past Bonaparte had harbored the design of assassinating in order to reign. Premeditation haunts criminals, and it is in this manner that treason begins. The crime is a long time present in them, but shapeless and shadowy, they are scarcely conscious of it; souls only blacken gradually. Such abominable deeds are not invented in a moment; they do not attain perfection at once and at a single bound; they increase and ripen, shapeless and indecisive, and the centre of the ideas in which they exist keeps them living, ready for the appointed day, and vaguely terrible. This design, the massacre for a throne, we feel sure, existed for a long time in Louis Bonaparte’s mind. It was classed among the possible events of this soul. It darted hither and thither like a larva in an aquarium, mingled with shadows, with doubts, with desires, with expedients, with dreams of one knows not what Caesarian socialism, like a Hydra dimly visible in a transparency of chaos. Hardly was he aware that he was fostering this hideous idea. When he needed it, he found it, armed and ready to serve him. His unfathomable brain had darkly nourished it. Abysses are the nurseries of monsters.

Up to this formidable day of the 4th December, Louis Bonaparte did not perhaps quite know himself. Those who studied this curious Imperial animal did not believe him capable of such pure and simple ferocity. They saw in him an indescribable mongrel, applying the talents of a swindler to the dreams of an Empire, who, even when crowned, would be a thief, who would say of a parricide, What roguery! Incapable of gaining a footing on any height, even of infamy, always remaining half-way uphill, a little above petty rascals, a little below great malefactors. They believed him clever at effecting all that is done in gambling-hells and in robbers’ caves, but with this transposition, that he would cheat in the caves, and that he would assassinate in the gambling-hells.

The massacre of the Boulevards suddenly unveiled this spirit. They saw it such as it really was: the ridiculous nicknames “Big-beak,” “Badinguet,” vanished; they saw the bandit, they saw the true contraffatto hidden under the false Bonaparte.

There was a shudder! It was this then which this man held in reserve!

Apologies have been attempted, they could but fail. It is easy to praise Bonaparte, for people have praised Dupin; but it is an exceedingly complicated operation to cleanse him. What is to be done with the 4th of December? How will that difficulty be surmounted? It is far more troublesome to justify than to glorify; the sponge works with greater difficulty than the censer; the panegyrists of the coup d’état have lost their labor. Madame Sand herself, although a woman of lofty intellect, has failed miserably in her attempt to rehabilitate Bonaparte, for the simple reason that whatever one may do, the death-roll reappears through this whitewashing.

No! no! no extenuation whatever is possible. Unfortunate Bonaparte. The blood is drawn. It must be drunk.

The deed of the 4th of December is the most colossal dagger-thrust that a brigand let loose upon civilization has ever effected, we will not say upon a people, but upon the entire human race. The stroke was most monstrous, and struck Paris to the ground. Paris on the ground is Conscience, is Reason, is all human liberty on the ground; it is the progress of centuries lying on the pavement; it is the torch of Justice, of Truth, and of Life reversed and extinguished. This is what Louis Bonaparte effected the day when he effected this.

The success of the wretch was complete. The 2d of December was lost; the 4th of December saved the 2d of December. It was something like Erostratus saving Judas. Paris understood that all had not yet been told as regards deeds of horror, and that beneath the oppressor there was the garbage-picker. It was the case of a swindler stealing César’s mantle. This man was little, it is true, but terrifying. Paris consented to this terror, renounced the right to have the last word, went to bed and simulated death. Suffocation had its share in the matter. This crime resembled, too, no previous achievements. Even after centuries have passed, and though he should be an Aeschylus or a Tacitus, any one raising the cover would smell the stench. Paris resigned herself, Paris abdicated, Paris surrendered; the novelty of the treason proved its chief strength; Paris almost ceased to be Paris; on the next day the chattering of this terrified Titan’s teeth could be heard in the shadows.

Let us lay a stress upon this, for we must verify the laws of morality. Louis Bonaparte remained, even after the 4th of December, Napoleon the Little. This enormity still left him a dwarf. The size of the crime does not change the stature of the criminal, and the pettiness of the assassin withstands the immensity of the assassination.

Be that as it may, the Pigmy had the better of the Colossus. This avowal, humiliating as it is, cannot be evaded.

Such are the blushes to which History, that greatly dishonored one, is condemned.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38