Heinrich Heine: The Cholera in Paris
Excerpt from The Works of Heinrich Heine, Vol. 14. Translated from the German by Charles Godfrey Leland.
French Affairs: The Citizen Kingdom.
Paris, April 19, 1832
I will not borrow from the workshops of political parties their common vulgar rule wherewith to measure men and things; still less will I determine their greatness or value by dreamy private feelings. But I will contribute as much as possible impartially to the intelligence of the present, and seek the solution of the stormy, noisy enigma of the day in the past. Saloons lie, graves speak the truth. But ah! the dead, those cold reciters of history, speak in vain to the raging multitude, who only understand the language of passion.
Yet certainly the saloons do not lie with deliberate intention. The society of those in power really believes in its eternal duration, when the annals of universal history, the fiery Mene tekel of the daily journals, and even the loud voice of the people in the streets, cry aloud their warnings. Nor do the coteries of the Opposition utter predetermined falsehoods. They believe that they are sure to conquer, just as men always believe in what they most desire. They intoxicate themselves with the champagne of their hopes, interpret every mischance as a necessary occurrence which must bring them nearer to their goal. Their confidence flashes most brilliantly on the eve of their downfall.
And the messenger of justice who officially announced to them their defeat generally finds them quarreling as to their share in the bear’s skin. Hence the one-sided errors which we cannot escape when we stand too near to one or the other party; either deceives, yet does it unaware, and we confide most willingly in those who think as we do. But if we are by chance of such indifferent nature that we, without special predilection, keep in continual intercourse with all, then we are bewildered by the perfect self-confidence of either party, and our judgment is neutralized in the most depressing manner.
There are indeed such all-indifferent men who have no true opinions of the time, who only wish to learn what may be going on, to gather all the gossip of saloons, and retail all the chronique scandaleuse of one party to the other. The result of such indifference is that they see everywhere only persons and not principles, or rather that they see in principles only persons, and so prophesy the ruin of the first, because they have perceived the weakness of the latter, and thereby lead their constituents or those who believe in them into most serious errors and mistakes.
I cannot refrain from calling special attention to the false relationship which now exists in France between things (that is, spiritual and material interests) and persons (i.e., the representative of these). This was quite different at the end of the last century, when man towered so colossally to the height of things, so that they form in the history of the Revolution at the same time an heroic age, and as such are now celebrated, worshiped and loved by our Republican youth. Or are we in this respect deceived by the same error which we find in Madame Roland, who bewails so bitterly in her Memoirs that there was not among the men of her time one of importance?
The worthy lady did not know her own greatness, nor did she observe that her contemporaries were indeed great enough when they were in naught inferior to her as regards intellectual stature. The whole French people has today grown so mightily that we are perhaps unjust to its public representatives, who do not rise so markedly from the mob, yet who are not on that account to be considered as small. We cannot see the forest for the trees. In Germany we see the country, a terrible jungle of scraggy thicket and dwarf pines, and here and there a giant oak, whose head rises to the clouds – while down below the worms do gnaw its trunk.
Today is the result of yesterday. We must find out what the former would ere we can find what it is the latter will have. The Revolution is ever one and the same. It is not as the doctrinaires would have us think; it was not for the Charte that they fought in the great week, but for those same Revolutionary interests for which the best blood in France has been spilt for forty years. But that the author of these pages may not be mistaken merely for one these holders-forth who understand by revolution only one overthrow after another, and who see in accidental occurrences that which is the spirit of the Revolution itself, I will here explain the main idea as accurately as I can.
When the intellectual developments or culture of a race are no longer in accord with its old established institutions, there results necessarily a combat in which the latter are overthrown, and which is called a revolution. Until this revolution is complete, until that reformation of institutions does not perfectly agree with the intellectual development and the habits and wants of the people, just so long the national malady is not perfectly cured; and the sickly and excited people will often relapse into the weakness of their exhaustion.
Yet ever and anon be subject to attacks of burning fever, when they tear away the tightest bandages and the most soothing lint from the old wounds; throw the most benevolent, noblest nurses out of the window, and roll about in agony until they finally find them themselves in circumstances. That is, adapt themselves to institutions, which suit them better.
The question whether France is at rest, or whether we are to anticipate new political changes, and finally what end it will all take, amounts to this — What motive had the French in beginning a revolution, and have they obtained what they desired? To aid the reply I will discuss the beginning of the Revolution in my next article. This will be a doubly profitable occupation, since, while endeavoring to explain the present by the past, it will at the same time be shown how the past is made clear and in mutual understanding with the present, and how every day new light is thrown upon it, of which our writers of historical hand-books had no idea.
They believed that the acts of the Revolution had come to an end, and they had uttered their last judgment over men and things, when all at once there thundered the cannons of the great week, and the faculty of Goettingen remarked that there had been an appeal from the academic senate to a higher jurisdiction, and that not only the French special revolution was not finished, but that the far more comprehensive universal revolution had begun.
How terrified must these peaceable people have been when they, one fine morning, put their heads out of the window and beheld the overthrow of states and of their compendia, and the tones of the “Marseillaise” forced themselves into their ears despite their nightcaps. In fact, that in 1830 the tri-coloured flag fluttered for several days on the towers of Goettingen was a student’s joke which universal history played on the eminently erudite Philistia of Georgia Augusta. In this all too serious age, we have need of a few such cheerful incidents.
So much for preface to an article which will busy itself with clearing up the past. The present is at this moment the most important, and the theme which it offers for discussion is of such a kind that further writing thereon especially depends upon it.
I was very much disturbed while writing this article, chiefly by the agonizing cries of a neighbor who died of cholera, and I must here lay stress on the fact that the events of that time had a sad influence on the following pages. I am not indeed conscious that I was in the least troubled, but it is very disturbing when the whetting of the scythe of Death rings distinctly in our ears. A disorder or discomfort which was more physical than mental, for which nothing could be done, would have driven me from Paris, but then my best friend would have been left here alone, and seriously ill. I note this that my remaining in Paris may not be considered as a mere bravado.
Only a fool would have found pleasure in braving the cholera. It was a reign of terror far more dreadful than the first, because the executions took place so rapidly and mysteriously. It was a masked executioner who passed through Paris with an invisible guillotine ambulante. “We shall all be stuck into the sack, one after the other,” said my servant, with a sigh every morning, when he announced how many had died or the loss of some one known. The expression “stuck into the sack” was no mere figure of speech, for coffins were soon wanting, and greater part of the dead were buried in bags.
When I, a week ago, passed a great open public building, and saw in the roomy halls the merry people, the gaily springing Franzoeschen, the dainty little gossiping Frenchwomen, who did their shopping laughing and joking, I remembered that here, during the time of the cholera, there were ranged high piled, one on the other, many hundreds of white sacks containing every one a corpse, and that there were then heard here very few, but all the more terrible voices. Or those of the watchers of the dead, who with a grim indifference counted out the sacks to the men who buried them; and how the latter, as they piled them on their cars, repeated the numbers in lower tones, or complained harshly that they had received one corpse too few, over which there often arose a strange dispute.
And I remember how two small boys with sorrowful faces stood by, and that one asked me if I could tell him in which sack his father was.
That which follows has perhaps the merit that it is at once a bulletin written on the field of battle during the fight, and thus bears the impress and colour of the moment… I shall, in the following pages, remain true to the principle which I have followed from the beginning of the book, which is to change nothing and to let it be printed as it was originally written… they belong to the history of the time. The events themselves afford their own and the best corroboration.
I speak of the cholera which has raged here till now without limit, and which, regardless, of rank and opinion, fells its victims by the thousand.
The pestilence had been regarded with less apprehension, because it was reported that there had been in London comparatively few deaths. People had seemed at first inclined to really make fun of it, and it was thought that the cholera, as happens to so many other great characters, would have its reputation mightily diminished when it should come to Paris. One must not blame the good honest cholera for having, out of fear of ridicule, had recourse to means which Robespierre and Napoleon had found efficacious — that is, in order to secure respect they decimated the people.
Owing to the vast misery prevailing here, to the incredible filth, which is by no means limited to the lower classes, to the excitability of the people and their unrestrained frivolity, and to utter want of all preparation and precaution whatsoever, the cholera laid hold here more rapidly and terribly than elsewhere.
Its arrival was officially announced on the 29th of March, and as this was the day of MiCareme, and there was bright sunshine and beautiful weather, the Parisians hustled and fluttered the more merrily on the Boulevards, where one could even see maskers, who, in caricatures of the livid colour and sickly mien, mocked the fear of the cholera and the disease itself.
That night the balls were more crowded than usual; excessive laughter almost drowned the roar of music; people grew hot in the chahut; a dance of anything but equivocal character; all kinds of ices and cold beverages were in great demand — when all at once the merriest of the harlequins felt that his legs were becoming much too cold, and took off his mask, when, to the amazement of all, a violent-blue face became visible.
It was at once seen that there was no jest in this; the laughter died away, and at once several carriages conveyed men and women from the ball to the Hotel Dieu, the Central Hospital, where they, still arrayed in mask attire, soon died. As in the first shock of terror people believed the cholera was contagious, and as those who were already patients in the hospital raised cruel screams of fear, it is said that these dead were buried so promptly that even their fantastic fools’ garments were left on them, so that as they lived they now lie merrily in the grave.
To be continued…
The Masked Ball