Monday, November 19, 2012

Louise Michel, "Old Abraël" (1888)


[from The Crimes of the Era]

The twentieth century was going to end.
The nations, cramped in cold Europe, had spread widely across the globe.
Everywhere new cities were raised, young peoples grew up and reabsorbed the old races.
The émigrés on the warm continents had recovered, with a climate without winter, the energy of their origin. There was no longer room for the desert.
In Africa, the sands had been replaced by a vast sea, artificially turned back into its original bed, which refreshed the air, and filled with life, instead of spreading drying winds; some canals joined it to the great Ocean.
The isthmus of Panama opened, like the isthmus of Suez, the passage to flights of vessels; the seas were nearly as populated as the land; no island was without inhabitants.
In the Caledonian solitudes, some cities, some villages, raised since the end of the nineteenth century, sent up the sounds of life.
The deep gorges of the mountains sheltered great crops.
The plains overflow with indigenous vegetables, mixed with those that were imported from the south of Europe, Africa, and the warm regions of Asia and the Americas.
The heights were whitened with a snow of cotton, in gaping bolls.
The bunches of rice sway in the marshes.
The castor oil plant spreads its wide leaves and red crests on nearly bare rocks.
Roads opened in the forests for the workers in wood; homes cut into the wilderness; on the banks of the Dumbea some steam-powered mills. Everywhere attempts at machines drive by electricity, in order to give more time and less fatigue.
This was all still primitive, for the beginnings barely dated back a century, not even a drop of water in the ocean of the ages.
In the villages, the popinées[1] still spun at the spindle the cotton from which they have separated the seeds with the aid of two parallel sticks, and which they then handed over to some simple cards.
Those cottons were those that the rural weavers worked for the sturdy materials, destined for the workers in the field. but the largest part was given over to commerce, being of that magnificent quality, long-fibered, delicate and even, superior even to the cotton yellowish of Georgia.
An old man, knowing the indolence that the hot sun brings, the previous century, spread the easy cultivation of the great cotton plant.
Some seeds being received by him from Bordeaux where one had made the attempt with them, he planted them, studied them and made them an element of prosperity for the colony, then almost entirely uncultivated.
He taught the natives how to sow these seeds at a distance of one meter from each other. Having cut a stick of that length, he drew a square with one hundred meters on each side, made them count in this square the ten thousand seeds by recounting as many times as they needed to their highest numbers; explained to them that the tree came without cultivation and was never attacked by grasshoppers.
Soon the driest sites were covered with a green mantle, strewn three times each year with the white snowflakes of the harvest
The old man had also developed the cultivation of castor-old plants; from this a well-being previously unknown to the natives.
Now the small tribes, mixed in great numbers unions with the whites, presented a splendid population, having the height and upright stature of the savage, the easy-going intelligence of the European.
For a long time, no new condemned had arrived from the countries of the whites, ignorance having disappeared everywhere, evil was only committed as an accident and tended to become freakish. Europe had evolved.
Old Abraël, with his head all gray, was still not satisfied: he dreamed of rapid progress. The stories from Europe made him dizzy and the tribes seemed far behind.
He was right, Europe went rapidly, always dragging behind it the late-flowering peoples, with its avant-garde of progress sent out in front.
Abraël was seated before his door at sunset; he told his great-grandson, how, in the last century, they were still primitive in Oceania; how the Caledonian beaches were uncultivated, the tribes ignorant.
Then, after the last racial war, understanding that they could never triumph over the whites, nor get back their liberty until they knew how to manipulate the elements, they were seized with a great sadness and, before the destroyed villages, they sat down on the ground and began to cry.
It is then that great events occurred in Europe; all men became free and the earth belonged to them freely. Each, according to what he could and knew how to do, worked in the common interest and used for his work and his life everything that he needed. Everyone produced more; no one was any longer the pit into which the lives of others fell.
The arts, the sciences belonged to all and as they could take human pleasures, those of the beasts no longer pertained to man. Drunkenness was a tradition more foul and [no?] less cruel that those of the ogres.
That was all.
Huge choruses sang on the beaches, in the basins of the mountains, leaving far behind them the old operas of Europe.
No labor was tiresome; the black, like the whites, made use of the forces of nature, as we use tools.
Electricity, magnetism, all that was used as generally in the world as fire is in our era.
The sun had long since disappeared behind the Pic des Morts[2] but Abraël still spoke.
Already Nahou, the mother of his great-grandsons had called them to put them in their little beds of cotton stuffing, soft as the nests of birds; but they still had many questions to ask him.
“Grandfather, what then was the name of the ancestor who waged the great war for liberty?”
“He was named Ataï,”[3] said Abraël with pride.

[1] Women.
[2] Peak of the Dead, a mountain in New Caledonia.
[3] A leader in the Kanak rebellion.

[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Louise Michel, "The Clavier of My Over-Dream" (1867)

The Clavier of My Over-Dream

A few days ago, I slept in a lovely dream.
I was free, in a boundless space, where I ascended as easily as one follows the paths of our valleys.

I found myself in a monument, so vast that its edges seemed like a distant horizon.
Silence filled the vaults, but I sensed their incredible resonance.

I sat down at an instrument whose keyboard included so many rising and so many descending notes, that it must include many sounds indistinguishable to the human ear.
When I put my hands on the keyboard, a soft, harmonious sigh escaped from it, as if a soul issued forth, and the vaults vibrated.

My spirit united with the spirit that sang in the instrument.
That prodigious organ had half-tones in place of tones and quarter-tones in place of half-tones.
Little bows adapted to each note were set in motion when one placed ones fingers on the keys: the string moaned like that of a violin, and all of that was carried away in the prodigious pipes.

It was beautiful enough to capture the heart, to ravish the intellect; what one played on that clavier was one’s own soul, Each musical phrase could be translated into a fervent stanza, and the stanza in its turn became living and soared off in a thousand forms unknown to our sphere.

Was that then the last word of harmony?
No, for from the place where I was, would be found another, where no instrument was necessary, where all was sung, or where all vibrated like a lyre.

What a dream! I forgot everything when everything faded.
Some big, hairy paws on my face woke me up. It was Minet, who was playing with my hair, nearly digging in his claws.
It was bright daylight, alas! our day is not the great illumination of the dream.
Opposite my bed was the piano, still open from the night before, on which I case an indignant glance. What could it say to me after that divine clavier?


Source: Le Progrès musical. Journal artistique et littéraire. November 1, 1867, p. 2.
[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]

Monday, November 5, 2012

Louise Michel, "Old Chéchette" (1884)

[This is one of six Tales and Legends, from Louise Michel's 1884 collection of the same name.]

Old Chéchette

There are some beings so disgraced by nature, so strange to look at or hear, that their aspect alone is a subject for sad studies for some, of wild mockeries for others.
Some have not always been this way: some of them have had some accident, whether moral or physical, while others, by letting themselves idly go from fatigue or laziness, are brought low to some degree and, on that slope, there is no reason for them to stop.
Others still (and this is dreadful for humanity) become thus under the pressure of persecutions.—The majority have not been afflicted from their birth.
Chéchette was a poor woman who had always been seen as old and always seen as mad. Two poor recommendations for the little rascals who are far from respecting either.
The house of Chéchette was the woods; her store was the woods; the nest of her childhood and the sanctuary of her old age, were always the woods.
Where did she come from? Nobody knew anything about it, nor did she. The first time she had been seen, already old, she came from another wood where her mother and raised her, and had just died.
Chéchette loved her mother in her way. She went to another village and settle there in the middle of the forest.
She was a strange creature, no doubt the last offspring of some nomadic race.
As long as they lasted, she nourished herself with wild fruit; and, during winter, she had her storehouse, where the red berries of the rowan trees, the oily beechnuts, acorns, and all the riches of the forest were heaped up.
Sometimes the squirrels, boars and rats visited her storehouse, for the rock that served her as a shelter was generously covered… If, on her return from some long promenade, she no longer found anything there, Chéchette began her provisioning again. When the accident happened in winter, she went as far as the village and asked for bread.
Some pitied the poor madwoman and generously filled the rages that served her as an apron or gave her other clothing; to those she wished, in her own language, a multitude of good things.
The others mocked her. Then Chéchette let our a very expressive grunt; it was her way, perhaps, of wishing evil.
The food that was given to her, a bit less coarse than her own, seemed to her a series of feasts as long as they lasted. Sometimes, having taken too much in the beginning, she slept for a long time, after the manner of snakes and lizards.
The shape of the clothing was of no concern to her; male or female, it mattered little; but she loved trimmings very much, especially when they had things that shone.
Malicious children sometimes offered her clothes adorned with bells and other ridiculous things; but if they had the misfortune to laugh, Chéchette threw their present in their face; often she even divined their bad intentions without them needing to laugh, for she had a well-developed instinct.
Those who have seen the grimacing statuettes of the middle ages may perhaps get an idea of Chéchette.
She was horribly lame and so one-eyed that her left eye had nearly disappeared.
Her mouth, open wide, showed all her teeth, in the manner of an orangutan—or a gorilla.
Her hands, enormous, gnarled and hairy, her big feet, the thick mane of red hair that hung down almost to her eyebrows, everything about her recalled the ugliest gnomes, the most hideous apes.
This being clung, she loved like a dog; it is true that she would have bitten in the same manner.
She never turned back from her sympathies or antipathies.
As for the wild animals, they never attacked Chéchette, doubtless taking her for a member of their own family.
The person to whom she had shown the most affection was a poor widow, the mother of three children.
When Madeleine Germain went to gather dead wood, Chéchette always found way there to help make up the bundles, or rather to make some enormous ones, which she carried to her house with an incredible ease.
The woods were her domain; there she had an entirely different air than in the village. Chéchette seemed a supernatural being, rather that a grotesque one.
The bad sorts in the village teased Madeleine a great deal about that friendship; they laughed especially when she allowed the horrible old woman to cradle the little children in her long arms, who played with her as with a faithful dog.
The children laughed no less joyfully, and Madeleine worried very little about the bad sorts.
One summer night, when everyone slept deeply, after the fatigues of a hot day spent working in the fields, they heard ring out the only cry that roused everyone in the countryside: Fire! Fire!
Why do all the other perils that can affect their peers leave the inhabitants of the countryside unmoved?
It would be horrible to think that is it a feeling of selfishness, because in a fire each fears for their own home. But the fact is that often the unfortunate have cried out for help for a long time and have died without help.
That night, as someone shouted “Fire!” everyone was up immediately.
Madeleine’s house blazed like a torch;—one of the children had, while playing, lit a small fire near a door, and, during the night, the poor cabin of wood and thatch had caught fire.
Although they lined up to man the pumps, the fire did not slacken.
Madeleine held two of her children in her arms and struggle, in desperation, against those who wanted to prevent her from seeking the third in the flames.
Where he was believed lost.
Suddenly they saw someone enter resolutely into the middle of the fire; it was Chéchette. She had seen that one of the children was missing. The charred roof collapsed with a crash, the flame swirled splendid and triumphant, beaming its thousand tongues toward the heavens.
Some moments passed. Chéchette reappeared, the child in her arms, and set him down before his mother.
She was beautiful thus, the poor madwoman, in that act of devotion that had cost her life.
Her hair, her face, her whole body was covered with large burns; her eyes shone with an infinite joy.
Chéchette, exhausted, fell to rise no more. As for the child, he recovered easily from his swoon.
Even today, Madeleine and her children often carry to the cemetery, and lay on the grass that covers the poor madwoman, flowers from the forest that she loved so much.

Never mock the mad or the old.

[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]