Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Man Who Ate Death (1st part)

Novel published in Serbian as "Čovek koji je jeo smrt", u Novi Jerusalim, Beograd, Nolit, 1988, © Borislav Pekić; English translation © by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić; published in The Man Who Ate Death: An Anthology of Contemporary Serbian Stories; Belgrade, Serbian P.E.N. Centre, 2003, pp. 65-105.

for 2nd part HERE

1793


“En rêvant à la sourdine
J’ai fait une machine,
Tralala, lala, lala la,
Lala, lala la,
Qui met les têtes à bas ! »

(Song of 1793)

There are people whose lives are but a ripple in the water. Invisible, inaudible, unreal, they leave no print in the sandy desert of humankind. We do not know whence they came into our midst, and when they depart, we know not why or where they have gone. While the gods walked the earth, that is how we recognized them. When they left us, of all their powers the only legacy they left behind was the ability to live, but not to be.

Their being is Water. Water is their Element. It is in water that their nature and their fate reside.

French Revolution.jpg
There are two kinds of alpha beings, phasmata, as the ancient Greeks, who lived closer to shades than we do to shadows, would say. The one leaves no trace, the other a trace we do not see. The trajectory of their paths exists, but it is so light, so indistinct, that it cannot be seen by the naked eye on the map of fate, or we do not accept it as a human footprint.

We shall not say which of the two was the type of life followed by the person we shall poetically call “the man who ate death”, who was recorded administratively as citizen Jean-Louis Popier, and whom we shall meet because of my idiosyncrasy for official historiography. Partly because we do not know and partly so that in telling his unusual story we can follow the olden method of investigation which drew its final conclusions about the suspect only after the arrest, as compared to the modern custom of knocking at the door with one’s mind already made up.


Do not expect to find the name of citizen Popier in even the most detailed compendium of the French Revolution. Carlyle makes no mention of him, because he adored heroes and mentioned people only if they had the honor of playing victim to the hero’s Herculean Labors. He is not even to be found in the books of that admirer of the masses, Mathiez, to whom the gods, let alone people, were mere puppets of the Great Mother of Necessity, tied by invisible strings to her supreme will and moved by the needs of the Times, as well as by the aberrations of his own personal doctrine. Finally, he is not in the Goncourt brothers’ “L’histoire de la société française pendant la Révolution”, where he should be, and that for two reasons: because of his unusual fate and because of these writers’ talent for detecting in Carlyle’s heroic Chaos and Mathiez’s inhuman Order a paradox that raises doubts about both Chaos and Order, Chance and Law. There is no sign of him either in the municipal records of Paris, where he lived, or in the registries of Lyon, where he was allegedly born (I say “allegedly” because there is nothing but his own statements to corroborate this). He does not appear under this name in any personal memoirs of the times, in any note, letter, bill, document directly or indirectly connected with him which might reassure me, as his first biographer, that I was not dealing with an illusion. (He is, perhaps, to be found in a sketch of David’s. I say “perhaps” not because there is any doubt that the work is by David – it most certainly is – but because there is no evidence that any of the charcoal figures shown working at their desks in the Records Room of the Revolutionary Tribunal is actually Popier.) He does exist in oral accounts of the times. Mind you, he does and he does not, because certain reports may have been referring to him but it is not a given.

Now if you ask me why I am writing about Jean-Louis Popier as if he existed, and I have no proof that he did, or if I do it is inconclusive, unclear, inconsistent, in short, insufficient, I will tell you that it is because the evidence that he did not exist is equally inconclusive, unclear, inconsistent, in short, insufficient.

If this gives professional historians, those relatives of tracker dogs, reason not to study him but rather to focus all their attention on his more illustrious contemporaries Danton, Robespierre or Jean-Paul Marat, the fathers of the Revolution under which he served, that only makes it all the more important for writers, those desecrators of graves, to save him from oblivion.

The story begins when learned that the man I call Jean-Louis Popier did indeed exist. That was in 1982, almost two hundred years after the fall of the Bastille and the French Revolution, into whose history he was involuntarily drawn because of a rare skill he had. The evidence is not dramatic – nor indeed was his life – but it suffices to assuage any doubt about his existence. It is to be found in the National Archives, in the Section Judiciaire among the “Documents inédits”, and if I were concerned with academic credibility, I might go so far as to say that this biography has been written avec des documents inédits, to wit: 1.The record of the staff employed by the Palais de Justice in the administrative section of the Revolutionary Tribunal, dated 29 Germinal (March-April) 1793, showing that less than a month after the Tribunal had been established, a certain Jean-Louis Popier was working there as a scribe.

2. The list of staff employed there on 9 Thermidor (27 July) 1794, showing that this same Jean-Louis Popier was born in Lyon in 1744 and was registered in the municipal records – which, though duly checked, do not substantiate this – as the third child of the municipal scribe Jean-Paul Popier and his wife Charlotte, neé Moritz.

3. A promissory note for the sum of 125 livres made out to the Office of the Tribunal’s Quartermaster by the seven scribes working there, Popier among them, for rental of the mansard in the Palais de Justice, leased between the two Thermidors of 1793 and 1794.

I have withdrawn David’s sketch from the supporting evidence. Admittedly, in it one can recognize the Records Room of the Revolutionary Tribunal, where Maximilien de Robespierre and Louis Antoine de Saint-Just – both members of the Committee for Public Safety – are shown in animated conversation with State Prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville, but there is nothing in the blurry background that would allow us to identify Popier among the lightly sketched anonymous scribes, or even to know whether he is in the picture at all, because no one knows what he looked like. The few conflicting descriptions preserved by legend stem from popular images of scribes and saints, and can be divided into two main misapprehensions: one, that he was short, had the hunched shoulders of a scribe, watery, expressionless eyes and an inconspicuous manner, in brief, that he had the non-descript look of a clerk, which is what enabled him to do what he did for so long; and the other, that he was big, with the beauty of a saint, conspicuous in both appearance and manner, which, paradoxically, was also what enabled him to do what he did. You must admit that in such circumstances it is wiser to expunge from this chronicle both the big Popier and the small, and leave Popier as indeterminate as his origins and his life.

The only existing secondary source is an oral legend, dating from the days of the Restoration, which speaks of the man we claim to be Jean-Louis Popier as a “sainte personne”, a saintly person. His name and his deed assume different forms depending on the origin of the legend, but however much the particulars may vary, they never bring into doubt the reason why he was considered a saint.

We have thus paid our debt to history and finished with the source material.

We can now return to Popier’s deed and let the truth speak for itself.

By truth we mean, of course, everything we had to assume in order to extract the story from the impasse it had reached for want of verified facts. Without taking such liberties, the whole of human history would be stalled, halted on the steps of the Tower of Babylon, and so we feel no guilt.

According to oral legend, on which we shall in future have to depend, Jean-Louis Popier came to Paris from his native Lyon during the ancien régime and Necker’s first government, around 1781. Little is known, and little assumed, about his life prior to the Revolution. He lived in one of those crooked, dank little streets in the faubourg Saint-Antoine, on the outskirts of the city.

(I have discounted the claim that his small rented room overlooked the stone archway of the carriage entrance to number 30, rue des Cordeliers, near the old l’Ecole de Médecine building, where Jean-Paul Marat, l’ami du peuple, friend of the people and enemy of all else, lived. Given the antagonistic nature of their Labors, I felt that to place a barely verifiable Jean next to an unquestionably historical and detested Jean, would be an apocryphal intervention by a poetic soul in a biography which, in terms of both its inception and contradictions, was already sufficiently reminiscent of “The Iliad”, if one thinks of this epic as consisting of several homerides rather than a single rhapsody. A fellow poetic soul, then, had installed him in the rue des Cordeliers, across the way from J.-P. Marat. This humanist obviously did not believe that human nature, as J.-J. Rousseau taught us, sufficed in itself for good deeds. He assumed that goodness could be stimulated only by something terribly evil and that this something necessarily lived opposite him.)

Popier is also known to have worked for quite a while for a lawyer who, as a deputy of the Convention, belonged to the lower echelons of the voting machine that was the Gironde.

And then, in Germinal, at the turn of March into April 1793, we find him in the Palais de Justice, sitting at one of the desks in the Revolutionary Tribunal. Legend does not say how he got there. I presume that an officer of the Tribunal, established at the initiative of Danton on 10 Germinal, must have passed through the office of his employer, noticed Popier’s handwriting and suggested to have him moved to the Records Room.

As can be seen from the promissory note attached to Document 3, Popier’s handwriting had what the Revolution required: puritanical sharpness, Roman clarity, patriotic legibility, with none of the flourishes that characterized royalist charters. His penmanship was like a Gothic church, deconstructed down to its spiked stereometric form and reminiscent of the sans culottes’ spear, which, during the nights of the September massacres, bore the head of the Princess de Lamballe, and on the day the Bastille fell, the head of its governor, M. de Launay…

Popier could not have refused even had he wanted to. That would have meant being sent to the Place de la Révolution and “sneezing into the bag” himself. And so our calligrapher from the provinces found himself at the magic crossroads between ideas and reality, Philosophy and History, Draft and Deed, and inevitably, seen with a writer’s hindsight, between Revolution and Counter-Revolution, at a watershed which at the time lay in the luminous stone corridors of the Revolutionary Tribunal, where the paths forked: one leading to J.-J. Rousseau’s “The Social Contract”, “La Nouvelle Heloïse” and from there to heaven; the other descending down to the dark dungeons of the Conciergerie, then, following the rue Saint-Honoré, arriving at the guillotine at the Place de la Révolution and from there disappearing below ground.

At this historical juncture, which was not to become visible until much later, and even then from a different, equally invisible chiasma, Popier’s desk stood at the end of the row, left of the door, far from the window, in the Archives Room, right next to the courtroom.

His job was simple. As the death sentences were pronounced he would enter them in the Protocol and give them to the clerk who compiled the execution list. That same day the list would be handed to the Tribunal’s duty judge who would then take it to the Conciergerie, call out the names of the condemned, supervise preparations for their execution, these boiling down to cutting off long hair and wide collars, climb into a closed carriage and escort the peasant carts that carried the condemned to the execution site. When their heads fell onto the straw strewn under the guillotine, when, as the popular phrase went, they “sneezed into the bag”, his signature would instantly turn their death sentence into a death certificate.

According to Document number 3, by July 1793 there was already so much work that Popier and the six other scribes were moved to the mansard of the Palais de Justice. Except for the few hours given to him to sleep, all of his time was devoted to updating the Protocol. He entered the personal details of the condemned persons without going into the particulars, adhering to the substance of the guilt. It took considerable intellectual effort to summarize the counter-revolutionary crimes which grew in number as the Revolution became more successful. The Protocols were legacies of the ancien régime, and their sparse columns had not been designed for such an epidemic of anti-state sentiment. (I cannot explain this paradox, even with the fulsome collaboration of the learned Mathiez’s dialectics. The oppressed people had fought for their rights for centuries. Finally, with some help from J.-J. Rousseau and the Encyclopedists, they had obtained these rights and were finally sovereign, yet more people were killed in the two years of the Revolution than during centuries of royal absolutism).
for 2nd part HERE