The Confession of a Child of the Century

Produced by Dagny, and by David Widger



Translated by

Kendall Warren



THE life must be lived before the history of a life can be written, hence
it is not my life that I am writing.

Having been attacked in early youth by an abominable moral malady, I
relate what has happened to me during three years. If I were the only
victim of this disease, I would say nothing, but as there are many others
who suffer from the same evil, I write for them, although I am not sure
that they will pay any attention to it; in case my warning is unheeded, I
shall still have derived this benefit from my words in having cured
myself, and, like the fox caught in a trap, I shall have devoured my
captive foot.


DURING the wars of the Empire, while the husbands and brothers were in
Germany, the anxious mothers brought forth an ardent, pale, nervous
generation. Conceived between two battles, educated amidst the noises of
war, thousands of children looked about them with a somber eye while
testing their puny muscles. From time to time their blood-stained fathers
would appear, raise them on their gold-laced bosoms, then place them on
the ground and remount their horses.

The life of Europe was centered in one man; all were trying to fill their
lungs with the air which he had breathed. Every year France presented
that man with three hundred thousand of her youth; it was the tax paid to
Caesar, and, without that troop behind him, he could not follow his
fortune. It was the escort he needed that he might traverse the world,
and then perish in a little valley in a deserted island, under the
weeping willow.

Never had there been so many sleepless nights as in the time of that man;
never had there been seen, hanging over the ramparts of the cities, such
a nation of desolate mothers; never was there such a silence about those
who spoke of death. And yet there was never such joy, such life, such
fanfares of war, in all hearts. Never was there such pure sunlight as
that which dried all this blood. God made the sun for this man, they
said, and they called it the Sun of Austerlitz. But he made this sunlight
himself with his ever-thundering cannons which dispelled all clouds but
those which succeed the day of battle.

It was this air of the spotless sky, where shone so much glory, where
glistened so many swords, that the youth of the time breathed. They well
knew that they were destined to the hecatomb; but they regarded Murat as
invulnerable, and the emperor had been seen to cross a bridge where so
many bullets whistled that they wondered if he could die. And even if one
must die, what did it matter? Death itself was so beautiful, so noble, so
illustrious, in his battle-scarred purple! It borrowed the color of hope,
it reaped so many ripening harvests that it became young, and there was
no more old age. All the cradles of France, as all its tombs, were armed
with shield and buckler; there were no more old men, there were corpses
or demi-gods.

Nevertheless, the immortal emperor stood one day on a hill watching seven
nations engaged in mutual slaughter; as he did not know whether he would
be master of all the world or only half, Azrael passed along, touched him
with the tip of his wing, and pushed him into the Ocean. At the noise of
his fall, the dying powers sat up in their beds of pain; and stealthily
advancing with furtive tread, all the royal spiders made the partition of
Europe, and the purple of Caesar became the frock of Harlequin.

Just as the traveler, sure of his way, hastens night and day through rain
and sunlight, regardless of vigils or of dangers; but when he has reached
his home and seated himself before the fire, he is seized upon by a
feeling of extreme lassitude and can hardly drag himself to his bed: thus
France, the widow of Caesar, suddenly felt her wound. She fell through
sheer exhaustion, and lapsed into a sleep so profound that her old kings,
believing her dead, wrapped about her a white shroud. The old army, its
hair whitened in service, returned exhausted with fatigue, and the
hearths of deserted castles sadly flickered into life.

Then the men of the Empire, who had been through so much, who had lived
in such carnage, kissed their emaciated wives and spoke of their first
love; they looked into the fountains of their natal prairies and found
themselves so old, so mutilated, that they bethought themselves of their
sons, in order that they might close their eyes in peace. They asked
where they were; the children came from the schools, and seeing neither
sabers, nor cuirasses, neither infantry nor cavalry, they asked in turn
where were their fathers. They were told that the war was ended, that
Caesar was dead, and that the portraits of Wellington and of Blucher were
suspended in the antechambers of the consulates and the embassies, with
these two words beneath: Salvatoribus mundi.

Then there seated itself on a world in ruins an anxious youth. All the
children were drops of burning blood which had inundated the earth; they
were born in the bosom of war, for war. For fifteen years they had
dreamed of the snows of Moscow and of the sun of the pyramids. They had
not gone beyond their native towns; but they were told that through each
gate of these towns lay the road to a capital of Europe. They had in
their heads all the world; they beheld the earth, the sky, the streets
and the highways; all these were empty, and the bells of parish churches
resounded faintly in the distance.

Pale fantoms shrouded in black robes, slowly traversed the country;
others knocked at the doors of houses, and when admitted, drew from their
pockets large well-worn documents with which they drove out the tenants.
From every direction came men still trembling with the fear which had
seized them when they fled twenty years before. All began to urge their
claims, disputing loudly and crying for help; it was strange that a
single death should attract so many crows.

The king of France was on his throne, looking here and there to see if he
could perchance find a bee in the royal tapestry. Some held out their
hats, and he gave them money; others showed him a crucifix, and he kissed
it; others contented themselves with pronouncing in his ear great names
of powerful families, and he replied to these by inviting them into his
grand’ salle, where the echoes were more sonorous; still others showed
him their old cloaks, when they had carefully effaced the bees, and to
these he gave new apparel.

The children saw all this, thinking that the spirit of Caesar would soon
land at Cannes and breathe upon this larva; but the silence was unbroken
and they saw floating in the sky only the paleness of the lily. When
these children spoke of glory, they were answered: “Become priests;” when
they spoke of hope, of love, of power, of life: “Become priests.”

And yet there mounted the rostrum a man who held in his hand a contract
between the king and the people; he began by saying that glory was a
beautiful thing, and ambition and war as well; but there was something
still more beautiful, and it was called liberty.

The children raised their heads and remembered that their grandfathers
had spoken thus. They remembered having seen in certain obscure corners
of the paternal home mysterious marble busts with long hair and a Latin
inscription; they remembered seeing their grandsires shake their heads
and speak of a stream of blood more terrible than that of the emperor.
There was something in that word liberty that made their hearts beat with
the memory of a terrible past and the hope of a glorious future.

They trembled at the word; but returning to their homes they encountered
on the street three panniers which were being borne to Clamart; there
were, within, three young men who had pronounced that word liberty too

A strange smile hovered on their lips at that sad sight; but other
speakers, mounted on the rostrum, began to publicly estimate what
ambition had cost and how very dear was glory; they pointed out the
horror of war and called the hecatombs butcheries. And they spoke so
often and so long that all human illusions, like the trees in autumn,
fell leaf by leaf about them, and those who listened passed their hands
over their foreheads as though awakened from a feverish dream.

Some said: “The emperor has fallen because the people wished no more of
him;” others added: “The people wished the king; no, liberty; no, reason;
no, religion; no, the English constitution; no, absolutism;” and the last
one said: “No, none of these things, but repose.”

Three elements entered into the life which offered itself to these
children: behind them a past forever destroyed, moving uneasily on its
ruins with all the fossils of centuries of absolutism; before them the
aurora of an immense horizon, the first gleams of the future; and between
these two worlds—something like the Ocean which separates the old world
from Young America, something vague and floating, a troubled sea filled
with wreckage, traversed from time to time by some distant sail or some
ship breathing out a heavy vapor; the present, in a word, which separates
the past from the future, which is neither the one nor the other, which
resemble both, and where one can not know whether, at each step, one is
treading on a seed or a piece of refuse.

It was in this chaos that choice must be made; this was the aspect
presented to children full of spirit and of audacity, sons of the Empire
and grandsons of the Revolution.

As for the past, they would none of it, they had no faith in it; the
future, they loved it, but how? As Pygmalion loved Galatea: it was for
them a lover in marble and they waited for the breath of life to animate
that breast, for the blood to color those veins.

There remained then, the present, the spirit of the time, angel of the
dawn who is neither night nor day; they found him seated on a lime sack
filled with bones, clad in the mantle of egoism, and shivering in
terrible cold. The anguish of death entered into the soul at the sight of
that specter, half mummy and half fetus; they approached it as the
traveler who is shown at Strasburg the daughter of an old count of
Sarvenden, embalmed in her bride’s dress: that childish skeleton makes
one shudder, for her slender and livid hand wears the wedding-ring and
her head falls into dust in the midst of orange blossoms.

As upon the approach of a tempest there passes through the forests a
terrible sound which makes all the trees shudder, to which profound
silence succeeds, thus had Napoleon, in passing, shaken the world; kings
felt their crowns vacillate in the storm and, raising their hands to
steady them, they found only their hair, bristling with terror. The pope
had traveled three hundred leagues to bless him in the name of God and to
crown him with the diadem; but Napoleon had taken it from his hands. Thus
everything trembled in that dismal forest of old Europe; then silence

It is said that when you meet a mad dog if you keep quietly on your way
without turning, the dog will merely follow you a short distance growling
and showing his teeth; but if you allow yourself to be frightened into a
movement of terror, if you but make a sudden step, he will leap at your
throat and devour you; when the first bite has been taken there is no
escaping him.

In European history it has often happened that a sovereign has made that
movement of terror and his people have devoured him; but if one had done
it, all had not done it at the same time, that is to say, one king had
disappeared, but not all royal majesty. Before the sword of Napoleon
majesty made this movement, this gesture which loses everything, and not
only majesty, but religion, nobility, all power both human and divine.

Napoleon dead, human and divine power were re-established, but belief in
them no longer existed. A terrible danger lurks in the knowledge of what
is possible, for the mind always goes farther. It is one thing to say:
“That may be” and another thing to say: “That has been;” it is the first
bite of the dog.

The deposition of Napoleon was the last flicker of the lamp of despotism;

Pages: First | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | Next → | Last | Single Page