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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Mirabeau
By Hermann Eduard von Holst (1841–1904)
 
From ‘The French Revolution Tested by Mirabeau’s Career’

“DON’T be frightened!” It is said that on March 9th, 1749, these ill-omened words announced to Victor Riquetti, Marquis Mirabeau, that the longed-for son and heir was born to him. The warning was to prepare him to see a twisted foot and an over-sized head of uncommon ugliness, rendered the more impressive by two premature teeth. If a prophet’s hand had lifted for him the curtain concealing the future, he would have seen that there were other and infinitely graver reasons to frighten him. With that ill-shaped baby Providence had committed to his hands a trust of incalculable import to France, and thereby to the world. He knew it no more than the child knew that the very first thing it did in life was to cause deep vexation to its irritable father by its unsightliness. If he had known it, he might have understood his duty towards the child somewhat differently, and some of history’s most awful pages might possibly have a somewhat different tale to tell.  1
  In his last years Mirabeau rather prided himself upon his ugliness. He declared it no mean element in his extraordinary power over men, and there was in fact a strange fascination in its forceful impressiveness. The father, however, was proof against its charm. If I read the character of the eccentric man correctly, the baby acted most unwisely in furnishing good cause for that horrified exclamation. Any father’s child is to be pitied that is bid such a welcome upon its entrance into the world; and if there was a father whose feelings could not with impunity be trifled with, it was the famous author of the ‘Friend of Men.’ Forsooth a proud title. A brighter diadem than a crown, if it had been conferred by others. Bestowed by himself it savored of presumption. Still it was by no means a false, mendacious pretension. A great and warm heart beat with an uncommonly strong pulse in the rugged chest. But when this heart set to reasoning, as it was fearfully prone to do whenever it was hurt, it always did so with the sledge-hammer’s logic. And as to this baby it at once began to reason, because it was deeply wounded in a most tender spot by its extravagant ugliness. From the first dismayed look the father took at his offspring, it was certain that unless the son proved a paragon of all virtues according to the father’s conceptions, fair weather would be the exception rather than the rule in their relations. Ere the child is fairly out of the nursery they begin to take a tragical turn. When Gabriel Honoré is still a lithe-limbed boy, a veritable tragedy is well under way. The beard does not yet sprout on the chin of the youth, and bitter wrangling degenerates into a fierce feud. The same blood flows in their veins, but as to each other every drop of it seems to turn into corrosive poison. No diseased imagination of a sensational novelist has ever invented a wilder romance and used more glaring colors in painting characters and scenes. It is indescribably revolting, but at the same time of overwhelming, heart-rending pathos; not only because it is life and not fiction, but principally because both, father and son, are infinitely more to be pitied than to be blamed, though the guilt of both is great. As to this there can be no difference of opinion. But for more than a century it has been a much-controverted question whether the father or the son was the more culpable. I shall give no doubtful answer to the question as to what I think on this head. By far the greater stress, however, I lay on the assertion that the principal culprit was the ancien régime. If this be not made the basal line in examining the case, it is impossible to do full justice to either of the parties; and in my opinion all the historians of the portentous family tragedy have thus far more or less failed to see, or at least to do, this.  2
  Unless Marquis Victor could exempt himself from the law that causes have effects, his being constantly in hot water in regard to his family affairs was inevitable. The hot sun of the Provence tells upon the temperature of the blood, and with the Mirabeaus it seemed to rise a degree or two with every generation. In this respect nothing was changed by the fact that any ordinary man would have died if he had lost half the quantity of blood that flowed in the wars of Louis XIV. from the wounds of Jean Antoine, Victor’s father. He deemed it his due always to be sent where death was sure to reap the richest harvest, and he was not possessed of any charm rendering him steel-and-bullet-proof. Of one of the battles he used to speak as “the day on which I died.” The soldiers said of him: “He is a Mirabeau: they are all devils.”…  3
  It was an uncommonly ugly baby,—that is all I have thus far said of him who was to render the name Mirabeau immortal; and yet I have said already enough to decide the mooted question, whether the father or the son was more to blame that the story of their relations was written with gall and venom, and the latter’s name became a stench in the nostrils of all decent people. I have said enough to decide this question, unless one is prepared to contend that not parents have to educate their children, but children their parents, and to deny that example is one of the most essential elements in education.  4
  Surely the children of the marquis would have needed a treble set of guardian angels, to come out of the atmosphere of this household uncontaminated. As to Honoré a whole battalion of them would have been of no avail, for against them father and son were from the first the closest allies. All that was out of joint and awry in the father’s way of feeling, thinking, and acting, was brought to bear upon the hapless child systematically, with dogged persistency and the utmost force. Not enough that he was born so ugly that the most mealy-hearted father, intending to make his son the head of one of the great families of France, would have felt justly aggrieved. As if he wanted to try just how much the father’s patience would stand, he became still more disfigured by small-pox. The bailli was informed that his nephew vied in ugliness “with the Devil’s nephew.” Starting from this basis, the marquis soon commenced to discover that he resembled this disreputable personage in many other respects also. Small wonder! The precocious child was a most genuine twig of the old tree, and most people judge those defects of character with the greatest severity which characterize themselves. Upon the hot-tempered father, afflicted with the infallibility delusion and the duty craze, the faithful reproduction of his own unconfessed faults in his son necessarily had the effect that a red cloth has upon the turkey-cock; and the logical consequence was a pedagogical policy necessarily producing results diametrically opposed to those it was intended to have. Dismay grew into chronic anger, baffled anger into provoking passion, thwarted passion into obdurate rigor and obstinacy, defied rigor into systematic injustice and cruelty, breeding revengeful spite and more and more weakening and wrenching out of shape all the springs of moral volition.  5
  The brain in the oversized head of the boy worked with unnatural intensity, and molten iron instead of blood seemed to flow in his veins. What he needed above all was therefore a steady hand to guide him. The hand, however, cannot possibly be steady if the judgment is constantly whirling around like a weathercock. Now the father sees in him “a lofty heart under the jacket of a babe, with a strange but noble instinct of pride”; and only four days later he has changed into “a type of unutterably deep baseness, of absolute platitude, and the quality of an uncouth and dirty caterpillar which will not undergo a transformation.” Then again: “An intelligence, a memory, a capacity, which overpower, exciting astonishment, nay, fright.” And not quite four weeks later: “A nothing, embellished with trivialities that will throw dust into the eyes of chatterboxes, but never be anything but a quarter of a man, if peradventure he should ever be anything at all.”  6
  Unquestionably it was no easy task properly to educate this boy, for there was a great deal of solid foundation for every one of the father’s contradictory judgments: the boy was like the father, as “changeable as the sea.” Still, by conforming the education, with untiring, loving patience, to the strongly pronounced individuality of the child, a good pedagogue would have been sure to achieve excellent results. The application of any cut-and-dried system based upon preconceived notions was certain to work incalculable mischief. This the marquis failed to see, and his system was in all its parts as adapted to the intellectual and moral peculiarities of the boy as a blacksmith’s hammer to the repairing of a chronometer.  7
  Many years later, the Baron von Gleichen wrote to the father: “I told you often that you would make a great rascal of the boy, while he was of a stuff to make a great man of him. He has become both.” So it was; and that he became a rascal was to a great extent due to the treatment he received at his father’s hands, while he became a great man in spite of it. Appeals to reason, pride, honor, noble ambition, and above all affection, always awakened a strong responsive echo in his bosom; the father, however, whenever he was provoked,—and the high-spirited unruly boy constantly provoked him,—had only sternness, stinging sarcasm, sharp rebuke, and severe punishment for him. Instead of educating him by methodically developing his better qualities, he persists in trying to subdue him by fear, although he cannot help confessing that the word fear is not to be found in the boy’s vocabulary. Contradicting himself, he then again proudly asserts that while Honoré is afraid of no one else, he fears him. That was a delusion. He knew that from the father he had to expect nothing but punishment, and that he tried to elude by hook and by crook; having, in spite of his fearlessness, no more a liking for it than any other boy. The father accused him, now and ever afterwards, of being by nature a liar. It was he who had caused the germ of untruthfulness, which is liable to be pretty strong with most very vivacious children, to sprout so vigorously and to cast such deep roots, by systematically watering it every day. From his early childhood to the day of his death, Mirabeau was possessed of a secret charm that in spite of everything, opened him the hearts of almost all people with whom he came into close contact. Even the father was by no means, as he pretended to be, wholly proof against it. But as he was extraordinarily skillful in deceiving himself on this head, he also admirably succeeded in concealing it from the son. The boy learned more and more to look upon his father as his one natural enemy, whom it was a matter of course to oppose by all available means, fair and foul. He did his best to make himself a terror to his son, and he not only deadened natural affection, but also undermined filial respect. To reimpose the punishments remitted by the teacher, to make everybody, from the father confessor down to the comrades, a spy and informant, purposely and confessedly to exaggerate to instructors and superiors his moral shortcomings,—that was a policy to drive an angel to revolt. It would have been nothing less than a miracle if it had not goaded into viciousness an unusually bright and hot-tempered boy, with a superabundance of human nature in his every fibre. There is no surer way utterly to ruin a full-blooded colt than madly to tear and jerk the bridle, while brutally belaboring him with spur and whip.  8
  Honoré was still a child, and the marquis already persuaded himself that he was in the strict sense of the word a criminal. He not only said so, but he also treated him as such, though he admitted that in truth, thus far only boyish pranks could be laid to his charge. As a last attempt to save him from perdition, he was at the age of fifteen years intrusted to the Abbé Choquard. The marquis himself applies to the institution the harsh name “reformatory school.” It was not so bad as that. Among Honoré’s comrades were even some English boys “of family,” who were not at all suspected of being candidates for the hangman’s kind attentions. Not by putting him into this institution did the marquis disgrace his son, but he did brand him by depriving him of his name. As Pierre Buffière he was entered in the lists. Loménie—facile princeps among Mirabeau’s biographers—makes light of this. He is even strongly inclined to suppose that as Buffière was the name of a large estate forming part of the prospective inheritance of his wife, the marquis was largely induced by the desire to gratify his pride to impose this name on the son. A strange way of distributing light and shadow in painting this family tragedy! The marquis states in the plainest words that he intends to burn a mark upon the forehead of the son….  9
  Here again Mirabeau soon gained the vivid affection, not only of his comrades, but also of his teachers. A touching demonstration of the former induced his father to refrain from carrying out the intention of punishing him for the crime of accepting some money presents from his mother, by taking him out of the school and casting him adrift on the sea of life in a way which would have burned an indelible mark on his, the father’s, forehead.  10
  In 1767 Pierre Buffière was put into the army. From this time the feud between father and son rapidly sinks into darker and darker depths. The son now comes in for a steadily and fast increasing share of real guilt; but his guilt is always outrun by his father’s unreasonable, unjust, and despotic paternalism….  11
  Debts, contracted at the gambling-table and in all sorts of other indulgences of a more or less reprehensible character, and an indiscreet and impure love affair, caused his father to resume the idea I just alluded to. He thought of sending the son to the Dutch colonies, because their mephitic climate would render it rather more than likely that he would never return from them. Many a year later Mirabeau wrote from his terrible dungeon in Vincennes to his father:—“You have confessed to me in one of your letters, that from the time of my imprisonment on the Isle of Rhé you have been on the point of sending me to the Dutch colonies. The word has made a deep impression upon me, and influenced in a high degree my after life…. What had I done at the age of eighteen years, that you could conceive such an idea, which makes me tremble even now, when I am buried alive?… I had made love.” Why do Loménie and Stern not quote this letter? It seems to me that it must be quoted, if one is to judge fairly.  12
  The project was abandoned in favor of a milder means, which the ancien régime offered to persons of high standing and influence to rid themselves of people who were in their way,—the so-called lettres de cachet. The person whose name a complacent minister entered upon the formulary was arrested in the name of the king, and disappeared without trial or judgment in some State prison, for as long a time as his persecutor chose to keep him caged. By this handy means the marquis now began to drag his son from prison to prison, in his “quality of natural tribunal,” as he said.  13
  Loménie lays considerable stress upon the fact that once or twice Mirabeau seems to have been rather satisfied with thus being taken care of, because he was thereby protected from his creditors. The marquis however gains but little by that. As to his son, he appears in regard to this particular instance in a better light than before this fact was unearthed, but from the other side a new shadow falls upon him. Where did this fanatic of duty find the moral justification to prevent the creditors from getting their due, by thus putting their debtor “under the hand of the king,” as the phrase ran? It certainly could not be derived from any paragraph in his catechism. It is a most genuine piece of the code of the ancien régime.  14
  For a number of years Mirabeau’s debts constituted his principal wrong. He was one of those men who would somehow manage to get into debt even on a desert island, and with Robinson’s lump of gold for a pillow. But he would have had no opportunity to run up in the briefest time an account of over 200,000 francs, if he had not closely followed the father’s bad example in choosing a wife. Miss Marignane was also an heiress, but—though bearing no resemblance to the née Miss Vassan—in almost every other respect pretty much the reverse of what a sensible man must wish his wife to be. Mirabeau would certainly never have thought of offering her his hand, if she had not been an heiress. His main reasons for wooing her seem, however, to have been the longing to become more independent of his father, and a freak of petty vanity: he was tickled by the sensation it would cause, that in spite of his ugliness the much-coveted prize was carried off by him. He did not even scruple to force the hand of the girl by gravely compromising her. But when she was his wife, he was only too gallant a knight. She was one of those women whose whole existence is comprised in sipping the cup of pleasure. She is, so to speak, all outside without any inside at all. If you want to get at her intellectual life, you must listen to her merry laugh about nothing at the picnic parties, and the animated recitation of her part on the amateur stage, on which she is quite a star; and to find her heart, you must go to the milliner’s and jeweler’s shop. To them and to the caterers Mirabeau carried the bulk of the money he borrowed from the usurers. She had eaten up with her frivolities most of the money, for the squandering of which he had to pine his youth away in prison. And that was not all she had to answer for. She too had enjoyed all the advantages of good example, and she profited as much by it as Mirabeau. Her grandmother and her mother were separated from their husbands, and very soon she gave Mirabeau the right to bid her leave his house forever. He forgave her the adultery, of which she stood convicted by her own confession; and he never told any one of her shame, until he thought that by revealing his magnanimity he could induce the courts to compel her to rejoin him. She thanked him for his generosity by telling him that he was a fool, when he implored and commanded her to join him in his place of detention, in order to stand between him and the temptation which threatened to close the gulf over him by pushing him from guilt into crime. Aye, Mirabeau sinned much, but he was infinitely more sinned against.  15
 
 
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