Letter XII.

From: At Home and Abroad, or Things and Thoughts in Europe (1856)
Author: Margaret Fuller Ossoli
Published: and Company 1856 Boston


Adieu to Paris.—Its Scenes.—The Procession of the Fat Ox.—Destitution of the Poorer Classes.—Need of a Reform.—The Doctrines of Fourier’s making progress.—Review of Fourier’s Life and Character.—The Parisian Press on the Spanish Marriage.—Guizot’s Policy.—Napoleon.—The Manuscripts of Rousseau in the Chamber of Deputies.—His Character.—Speech of M. Berryer in the Chamber.—American and French Oratory.—The Affair of Cracow.—Dull Speakers in the Chamber.—French Vivacity.—Amusing Scene.—Guizot speaking.—International Exchange of Books.—The Evening School of the Fréres Chretiens.—The great good accomplished by them.—Suggestions for the like in America.—The Institution of the Deaconesses.—The New York “Home.”—School for Idiots near Paris.—The Reclamation of Idiots.

  I BADE adieu to Paris the 25th of February, just as we had had one fine day. It was the only one of really delightful weather, from morning till night, that I had to enjoy all the while I was at Paris, from the 13th of November till the 25th of February. Let no one abuse our climate; even in winter it is delightful, compared to the Parisian winter of mud and mist.

  This one fine day brought out the Parisian world in its gayest colors. I never saw anything more animated or prettier, of the kind, than the promenade that day in the Champs Elysées. Such crowds of gay equipages, with cavaliers and their amazons flying through their midst on handsome and swift horses! On the promenade, what groups of passably pretty ladies, with excessively pretty bonnets, announcing in their hues of light green, peach-blossom, and primrose the approach of spring, and charming children, for French children are charming! I cannot speak with equal approbation of the files of men sauntering arm in arm. One sees few fine-looking men in Paris: the air half-military, half-dandy, of self-esteem and savoir-faire, is not particularly interesting; nor are the glassy stare and fumes of bad cigars exactly what one most desires to encounter, when the heart is opened by the breath of spring zephyrs and the hope of buds and blossoms.

  But a French crowd is always gay, full of quick turns and drolleries; most amusing when most petulant, it represents what is so agreeable in the character of the nation. We have now seen it on two good occasions, the festivities of the new year and just after we came was the procession of the Fat Ox, described, if I mistake not, by Eugene Sue. An immense crowd thronged the streets this year to see it, but few figures and little invention followed the emblem of plenty; indeed, few among the people could have had the heart for such a sham, knowing how the poorer classes have suffered from hunger this winter. All signs of this are kept out of sight in Paris. A pamphlet, called “The Voice of Famine,” stating facts, though in the tone of vulgar and exaggerated declamation, unhappily too common to productions on the radical side, was suppressed almost as soon as published; but the fact cannot be suppressed that the people in the Province have suffered most terribly amid the vaunted prosperity of France.

  While Louis Philippe lives, the gases, compressed by his strong grasp, may not burst up to light; but the need of some radical measures of reform is not less strongly felt in France than elsewhere, and the time will come before long when such will be imperatively demanded. The doctrines of Fourier are making considerable progress, and whenever they spread, the necessity of some practical application of the precepts of Christ, in lieu of the mummeries of a worn-out ritual, cannot fail to be felt. The more I see of the terrible ills which infest the body politic of Europe, the more indignation I feel at the selfishness or stupidity of those in my own country who oppose an examination of these subjects,—such as is animated by the hope of prevention. The mind of Fourier was, in many respects, uncongenial to mine. Educated in an age of gross materialism, he was tainted by its faults. In attempts to reorganize society, he commits the error of making soul the result of health of body, instead of body the clothing of soul; but his heart was that of a genuine lover of his kind, of a philanthropist in the sense of Jesus,—his views were large and noble. His life was one devout study on these subjects, and should pity the person who, after the briefest sojourn in Manchester and Lyons,—the most superficial acquaintance with the population of London and Paris,—could seek to hinder a study of his thoughts or be wanting in reverence for his purposes. But always, always, the unthinking mob has found stones on the highway to throw at the prophets.

  Amid so many great causes for thought and anxiety, how childish has seemed the endless gossip of the Parisian press on the subject of the Spanish marriage,—how melancholy the flimsy falsehoods of M. Guizot,—more melancholy the avowal so naïvely made, amid those falsehoods, that to his mind expediency is the best policy! This is the policy, said he, that has made France so prosperous. Indeed, the success is correspondent with the means though in quite another sense than that he meant.

  I went to the Hotel de Invalides, supposing I should be admitted to the spot where repose the ashes of Napoleon, for though I love not pilgrimages to sepulchres, and prefer paying my homage to the living spirit, rather than to the dust it once animated, I should have liked to muse a moment beside his urn; but as yet the visitor is not admitted there. In the library, however, one see the picture of Napoleon crossing the Alps, opposite to that of the present King of the French. Just as they are, these should serve as frontispieces to two chapters of history. In the first the seed was sown in a field of blood indeed, yet it was the seed of all that is vital in the present period. By Napoleon the career was really laid open to talent, and all that is really great in France now consists in the possibility that talent finds of struggling to the light.

  Paris is a great intellectual centre, and there is a Chamber of Deputies to represent the people, very different from the poor, limited Assembly politically so called. Their tribune is that of literature, and one needs not to beg tickets to mingle with the audience. To the actually so-called Chamber of Deputies I was indebted for two pleasures. First and greatest, a sight of the manuscripts of Rousseau treasured in their Library. I saw them and touched them,—those manuscripts just as he has celebrated them, written on the fine white paper, tied with ribbon. Yellow and faded age has made them, yet at their touch I seemed to feel the fire of youth, immortally glowing, more and more expansive, with which his soul has pervaded this century. He was the precursor of all we most prize. True, his blood was mixed with madness, and the course of his actual life made some detours through villainous places, but his spirit was intimate with the fundamental truths of human nature, and fraught with prophecy. There is none who has given birth to more life for this age; his gifts are yet untold; they are too present with us; but he who thinks really must often think with Rousseau, and learn him even more and more; such is the method of genius, to ripen fruit for the crowd but those rays of whose heat they complain.

  The second pleasure was in the speech of M. Berryer, when the Chamber was discussing the Address to the King. Those of Thiers and Guizot had been, so far, more interesting, as they stood for more that was important; but M. Berryer is the most eloquent speaker of the House. His oratory is, indeed, very good, not logical, but plausible, full and rapid, with occasional bursts of flame and showers of sparks, though indeed no stone of size and weight enough to crush any man was thrown out by the crater. Although the oratory of our country is very inferior to what might be expected from the perfect freedom and powerful motive for development of genius in this province, it presents several examples of persons superior in both force and scope and equal in polish, to M. Berryer.

  Nothing can be more pitiful than the manner in which the infamous affair of Cracow is treated on all hands. There is not even the affectation of noble feeling about it. La Mennais and his coadjutors published in La Reforme an honorable and manly protest, which the public rushed to devour the moment it was out of the press;—and no wonder! for it was the only crumb of comfort offered to those who have the nobleness to hope that the confederation of nations may yet be conducted on the basis of divine justice and human right. Most men who touched the subject, apparently weary of feigning, appeared in their genuine colors of the calmest, most complacent selfishness. As described by Körner in the prayer of such a man:—

“O God, save me,
Thy wife, child, and hearth,
Then my harvest also;
Then will I bless thee,
Though thy lightning scorch to blackness
All the rest of human kind.”

A sentiment which finds it paraphrase in the following vulgate of our land:—

“O Lord, save me,
My wife, child, and brother Sammy,
Us four, and no more.”

The latter clause, indeed, is not quite frankly avowed as yet by politicians.

  It is very amusing to be in the Chamber of Deputies when some dull person is speaking. The French have a truly Greek vivacity; they cannot endure to be bored. Though their conduct is not very dignified, I should like a corps of the same kind of sharp-shooters in our legislative assemblies when honorable gentlemen are addressing their constituents and not the assembly, repeating in lengthy, windy, clumsy paragraphs what has been the truism of the newspaper press for months previous, wickedly wasting the time that was given us to learn something for ourselves, and help our fellow-creatures. In the French Chamber, if a man who has nothing to say ascends the tribune, the audience-room is filled with the noise of a myriad beehives; the President rises on his feet, and passes the whole time of the speech in taking the most violent exercise, stretching himself to look imposing, ringing his bell every two minutes, shouting to the representatives of the nation to be decorous and attentive. In vain: the more he rings, the more they won’t be still. I saw an orator in this situation, fighting against the desires of the audience, as only a Frenchman could,—certainly a man of any other nation would have died of embarrassment rather,—screaming out his sentences, stretching out both arms with an air of injured dignity, panting, growing red in the face; but the hubbub of voices never stopped an instant. At last he pretended to be exhausted, stopped, and took out his snuff-box. Instantly there was a calm. He seized the occasion, and shouted out a sentence; but it was the only one he was able to make heard. They were not to be trapped so a second time. When any one is speaking that commands interest, as Berryer did, the effect of this vivacity is very pleasing; the murmur of feeling that rushes over the assembly is so quick and electric,—light, too, as the ripple on the lake. I heard Guizot speak one day for a short time. His manner is very deficient in dignity,—has not even the dignity of station; you see the man of cultivated intellect, but without inward strength, nor is even his panoply of proof.

  I saw in the Library of Deputies some books intended to be sent to our country through M. Vattemare. The French have shown great readiness and generosity with regard to his project, and I earnestly hope that our country, if it accept these tokens of good-will, will show both energy and judgment in making a return. I do not speak from myself alone, but from others whose opinion is entitled to the highest respect, when I say it is not by sending a great quantity of documents of merely local interest, that would be esteemed lumber in our garrets at home, that you pay respect to a nation able to look beyond the binding of a book. If anything is to be sent, let persons of ability be deputed to make a selection honorable to us and of value to the French. They would like documents from our Congress,—what is important as to commerce and manufactures; they would also like much what can throw light on the history and character of our aborigines. This project of international exchange could not be carried on to any permanent advantage without accredited agents on either side, but in its present shape it wears an aspect of good feeling that is valuable, and may give a very desirable impulse to thought and knowledge. M. Vattemare has given himself to the plan with indefatigable perseverance, and I hope our country will not be backward to accord him that furtherance he has known how to conquer from his countrymen.

  To his complaisance I was indebted for opportunity of a leisurely survey of the Imprimeri Royale, which gave me several suggestions I shall impart at a more favorable time, and of the operations of the Mint also. It was at his request that the Librarian of the Chamber showed me the manuscripts of Rousseau, which are not always seen by the traveller. He also introduced me to one of the Evening Schools of the Fréres Chretiens, where I saw, with pleasure, how much can be done for the working classes only by evening lessons. In reading and writing, adults had made surprising progress, and still more so in drawing. I saw with the highest pleasure, excellent copies of good models made by hard-handed porters and errand-boys with their brass badges on their breasts. The benefits of such an accomplishment are, in my eyes, of the highest value, giving them, by insensible degrees, their part in the glories of art and science, in the tranquil refinements of home. Visions rose in my mind of all that might be done in our country by associations of men and women who have received the benefits of literary culture giving such evening lessons throughout our cities and villages. Should I ever return, I shall propose to some of the like-minded an association for such a purpose, and try the experiment of one of these schools of Christian brothers, with the vow of disinterestedness, but without the robe and the subdued priestly manner, which even in these men, some of whom seemed to me truly good, I could not away with.

  I visited also a Protestant institution, called that of the Deaconesses, which pleased me in some respects. Beside the regular Créche, they take the sick children of the poor, and nurse them till they are well. They have also a refuge like that of the Home which the ladies of New York have provided, through which members of the most unjustly treated class of society may return to peace and usefulness. There are institutions of the kind in Paris, but too formal,—and the treatment shows ignorance of human nature. I see nothing that shows so enlightened a spirit as the Home, a little germ of good which I hope flourishes and finds active aid in the community. I have collected many facts with regard to this suffering class of women, both in England and in France. I have seen them under the veil of gayety, and in the horrible tatters of utter degradation. I have seen the feelings of men with regard to their condition, and a general heartlessness in women of more favored and protected lives, which I can only ascribe to utter ignorance of the facts. If a proclamation of some of these can remove it, I hope to make such a one in the hour of riper judgment, and after a more extensive survey.

  Sad as are many of the features of the time, we have at least the satisfaction of feeling that if something true can be revealed, if something wise and kind shall be perseveringly tried, it stands a chance of nearer success than ever before; for much light has been let in at the windows of the world, and many dark nooks have been touched by a consoling ray. The influence of such a ray I felt in visiting the School for Idiots, near Paris,—idiots, so called long time by the impatience of the crowd; yet there are really none such, but only beings so below the average standard, so partially organized that it is difficult for them to learn or to sustain themselves. I wept the whole time I was in this place a shower of sweet and bitter tears; of joy at what had been done, of grief for all that I and others possess and cannot impart to these little ones. But patience, and the Father of All will give them all yet. A good angel of these Paris have in their master. I have seen no man that seemed to me more worthy of envy, if one could envy happiness so pure and tender. He is a man of seven or eight and twenty, who formerly came there only to give lessons in writing, but became so interested in his charge that he came at last to live among them and to serve them. They sing the hymns he writes for them, and as I saw his fine countenance looking in love on those distorted and opaque vases of humanity, where he had succeeded in waking up a faint flame, I though his heart could never fail to be well warmed and buoyant. They sang well, both in parts and in chorus, went through gymnastic exercises with order and pleasure, then stood in a circle and kept time, while several danced extremely well. One little fellow, with whom the difficulty seemed to be that an excess of nervous sensibility paralyzed instead of exciting the powers, recited poems with a touching, childish grace and perfect memory. They write well, draw well, make shoes and do carpenters’ work. One of the cases most interesting to the metaphysician is that of a boy, brought there about two years and a half ago, at the age of thirteen, in a state of brutality, and of ferocious brutality. I read the physician’s report of him at that period. He discovered no ray of decency or reason; entirely beneath the animals in the exercise of the senses, he discovered a restless fury beyond that of beasts of prey, breaking and throwing down whatever came in his way; was a voracious glutton, and every way grossly sensual. Many trials and vast patience were necessary before an inlet could be obtained to his mind; then it was through the means of mathematics. He delights in the figures, can draw and name them all, detects them by the touch when blindfolded. Each mental effort of the kind he still follows up with an imbecile chuckle, as indeed his face and whole manner are still that of an idiot; but he has been raised from his sensual state, and can now discriminate and name colors and perfumes which before were all alike to him. He is partially redeemed; earlier, no doubt, far more might have been done for him, but the degree of success is an earnest which must encourage to perseverance in the most seemingly hopeless cases. I thought sorrowfully of the persons of this class whom I have known in our country, who might have been so raised and solaced by similar care. I hope ample provision may erelong be made for these Pariahs of the human race; every case of the kind brings its blessings with it, and observation on these subjects would be as rich in suggestion for the thought, as such acts of love are balmy for the heart.

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