“Our only truth is our sorrow”
-Alphonse de Lamartine.
Many people, after having conversed with me on this subject or that, find me frustrating. It is a sad fact of studying history that you come to despise most figures which are supposed to be great or majestic. You come to fully realize how pathetic, scared and pointless a lot of them were. In short, you learn to see, whether you wish to learn such ravaging lessons or not, that all great men and women were, after all, just that: men and women. Now, some of us students of history accept this fact and are still able to appreciate, look up to, admire, and sometimes even worship, such men and women of example. I, however, find that I cannot. It is a sad flaw or advantage of my psyche that I choose to focus on the breaking of the myth, the false beat in the march of narrative, the hair-thin cracks that soon appear on the shiny reflections of great, past personages. I chose to deepen my derision of them, to combat the established fact and to see how I can think differently about them. This is not good or bad. It’s just the way I think.
Now, as I said, many people find me frustrating. “We get it! You despise these people (I don’t, but fine, I’ll let that one slide)! But who do you like? If you insist on beggaring us of these noble characters, isn’t it fair that we should task you with replacing them?”. I don’t want to be that man, to be that form of historian, that decries the evils of one person, only to then erect a pedestal for another. The truth is that I think that no person really deserves our worship or admiration. We’re a miserable lot.
However, I understand that this answer is unsatisfactory. For one, my conversation partners are of course frustrated with it, believing it to be an easy way for me to escape an answer. After all, angsty remarks like the one above are all the rage these days (and ever since the first post-modernist had the courage to tear down some of the walls surrounding our past) and so, I score some easy social points while still evading a difficult reply. For the other, and much more importantly, this answer fails to satisfy myself. Yes, I can choose to focus on that part of me, which exists just like all the other parts of me, that really does believe that none of us are deserving of admiration. That we truly are a miserable lot, fools lost on a road that doesn’t exist, crying for a map that can only lie. But it just doesn’t…chime. It doesn’t have the ring to it of truth, of a whole thing that I can deal with.
And so, for both reasons, I started to think of an answer. Think might not be the right word here for it came to me while playing a game and listening to music. Those of you who are familiar with my ideas on shaping the self will understand the importance of that fact but we shall not linger on it right now. Another time perhaps. And so, a sort of quest was formed in me, to find some man or woman that I can honestly say I admire, some figure from our past (whichever “our” I might choose) that I can reward with the dubious honor of being a good person. To be sure, there might be many. But today, I shall present you with the one that sprang to mind: Alphonse de Lamartine.
Alphonse was the son of a provincial noble family of Burgundy in October, 1790, the cusp of the Revolution. They were rich, but not too rich. Like all noble families of that tumultuous time, they were on edge and guarded, retreated in their own chateaus and countryside manors. And thus, Alphonse was raised a poet. His first distinguished act then, is his most famous poem, “The Lake”. Alphonse was the first of the Romantic poets in France. I hate the Romantics. They are so full of bluster and their times calcified forms of writing. But the first, and first amongst them Alphonse, were truly great. He is deceptive. The poem is supposedly about love, but that’s only if you read it at face value. The real crux of the poem, the real stanza that makes it mean something more than just a love lost, is this one:
“Let’s love, then! Love, and feel while feel we can
The moment on its run.
There is no shore of Time, no port of Man.
It flows, and we go on. “
Look closely. What does Alphonse tell us to love? “The moment on its run”. A thousand times more meaningful than the foolish “Carpe Diem” that is on the lips of everyone today, the hollow statement “live in the now”. There is no living in the now for Alphonse. The “now”, the moment, is on its run. It has its own agenda, its own timing and it cares not for you. “It flows, and we go on”. You can try and stay, try and live in it, but that’s stupid. It’s gone. All you can do, is love it.
A mild man. Lamartine, 1865 (age 75), Albumin photograph by Nadar.
The poet then became a politician. 1848 was a tumultuous (I love that word) time for Europe and for France especially. Still in the throes of revolution and then Empire, France was a hot bed of sedition, political conflict and rebellions. The Paris Commune would be born from this, one of the most unique governments in history. But first, there was Alphonse. Into this ring of social battle, of a country torn apart by industry and an impoverished working class, he entered. Now, you expect the trumpets, the marches, the glorious hand of a wonderful leader, forging a stronger France and battling the odds. No. That is for Napoleon, the bloated bastard. That is for your blood drenched Bismarks, your despicable Robespierres.
Alphonse’s true trait was mildness. Did he understand that mildness was an answer, a way to escape the social impasse that his times had thrust him into? It’s unclear, so he never wrote anything about it. What is clear however, is that it worked. He was a superior man in talking to people, a brilliant middle ground that everybody could feel good with. Because he was already famous then, because he already had a reputation as a mild man and a thoughtful one, enemies could meet around him. It was thought that if he sided with something, it must have some merit. And thus, he himself, not some general or soldier or hero, walked into the Hotel de Ville and talked with the Republicans besieged there. And he came out with the Second Republic, the first political form in nearly a hundred years to grant France some stability, some measure of sanity between her own borders.
And then he really got to work. Swimming between the political currents of the new regime, he never took office. But he led to the abolition of slavery. Read that again. Now, he also led the fight against the death penalty. Yep. He didn’t stop there, forging capitalist interests and workers rights into the first legislation to recognize the right to work and a nation program of workshops, giving the multitude of France’s unemployed, work. And much more. In short, he was not all talk. He was not characterized by swooping gestures of victory and then a swift disappearance, like so many of your “mighty” persons who are very good at acting but quite poor at sustaining.
Forging a compromise. Lamartine in front of the Town Hall of Paris rejects the red flag on 25 February 1848 by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux .
And, of course, he failed. He finally decided to run for office. He got 19,000 votes. His mildness, his neutral stance on almost any issue, in short his belief that a middle ground must prevail, didn’t buy him many allies. After his defeat, he resigned, turning once again to poetry. But this was an old man and convention had left him behind. The Symbolists, which later cite him as one of their major influences, were still unborn. And so, his poems went unread. So much so, that he ended his life in poverty, publishing a meager and worthless weekly collection of poetry and stories.
That’s what ties the knot, for I can now turn Lamartine into a weapon. This mild man, this Knight of the Middle Ground, was discarded in the path of the march. The march of the great persons. The Second Republic would of course fail and give way, under the usurpers boots of Napoleon the Third, another great person. The carefully wrought compromise would give way to a foolish reign that would end in defeat by the Prussians. It is ironic that the great man himself would become prisoner, the victim of his own harsh and grand gestures.
And so, a weapon. “Your” great persons, these men and women you wish me to admire, have been discarding people like Lamartine, or Catherine of Siena or John Dee, at their path since the march of humanity began, that cursed affair of blood and suffering. And all that remains of them is some poetry. That poetry, the forgotten words of persons who choose to look differently, truly differently at what it is to shape themselves, is the strongest admonishment to your narratives and tales of great persons. There remains no need for me to deconstruct each one of your icons, each one of your great persons. They have done it themselves, by fearing those who looked inwards, differently. Feared those who dared to say “this could be otherwise than what it is”.
In the end, dear reader, I remain myself: I will continue to scoff and laugh and destroy your great persons. For the formembered that you and they had cast aside.
“Limited in his nature, infinite in his desires, man is a fallen god who remembers the heavens”.
-Alphonse de Lamartine.