ON WHAT CONDITIONS ONE CAN RESPECT THE PAST
Monasticism, such as it existed in Spain, and such as it still
exists in Thibet, is a sort of phthisis for civilization. It stops
life short. It simply depopulates. Claustration, castration.
It has been the scourge of Europe. Add to this the violence so often
done to the conscience, the forced vocations, feudalism bolstered
up by the cloister, the right of the first-born pouring the excess
of the family into monasticism, the ferocities of which we have
just spoken, the in pace, the closed mouths, the walled-up brains,
so many unfortunate minds placed in the dungeon of eternal vows,
the taking of the habit, the interment of living souls.
Add individual tortures to national degradations, and, whoever you
may be, you will shudder before the frock and the veil,--those two
winding-sheets of human devising. Nevertheless, at certain points
and in certain places, in spite of philosophy, in spite of progress,
the spirit of the cloister persists in the midst of the nineteenth
century, and a singular ascetic recrudescence is, at this moment,
astonishing the civilized world. The obstinacy of antiquated
institutions in perpetuating themselves resembles the stubbornness
of the rancid perfume which should claim our hair, the pretensions
of the spoiled fish which should persist in being eaten, the persecution
of the child's garment which should insist on clothing the man,
the tenderness of corpses which should return to embrace the living.
"Ingrates!" says the garment, "I protected you in inclement weather.
Why will you have nothing to do with me?" "I have just come from the
deep sea," says the fish. "I have been a rose," says the perfume.
"I have loved you," says the corpse. "I have civilized you,"
says the convent.
To this there is but one reply: "In former days."
To dream of the indefinite prolongation of defunct things, and of the
government of men by embalming, to restore dogmas in a bad condition,
to regild shrines, to patch up cloisters, to rebless reliquaries,
to refurnish superstitions, to revictual fanaticisms, to put
new handles on holy water brushes and militarism, to reconstitute
monasticism and militarism, to believe in the salvation of society
by the multiplication of parasites, to force the past on the present,--
this seems strange. Still, there are theorists who hold such theories.
These theorists, who are in other respects people of intelligence,
have a very simple process; they apply to the past a glazing which
they call social order, divine right, morality, family, the respect
of elders, antique authority, sacred tradition, legitimacy, religion;
and they go about shouting, "Look! take this, honest people."
This logic was known to the ancients. The soothsayers practise it.
They rubbed a black heifer over with chalk, and said, "She is white,
As for us, we respect the past here and there, and we spare it,
above all, provided that it consents to be dead. If it insists on
being alive, we attack it, and we try to kill it.
Superstitions, bigotries, affected devotion, prejudices, those forms
all forms as they are, are tenacious of life; they have teeth and
nails in their smoke, and they must be clasped close, body to body,
and war must be made on them, and that without truce; for it is one
of the fatalities of humanity to be condemned to eternal combat
with phantoms. It is difficult to seize darkness by the throat,
and to hurl it to the earth.
A convent in France, in the broad daylight of the nineteenth century,
is a college of owls facing the light. A cloister, caught in the
very act of asceticism, in the very heart of the city of '89 and of
1830 and of 1848, Rome blossoming out in Paris, is an anachronism.
In ordinary times, in order to dissolve an anachronism and to
cause it to vanish, one has only to make it spell out the date.
But we are not in ordinary times.
Let us fight.
Let us fight, but let us make a distinction. The peculiar
property of truth is never to commit excesses. What need has it
of exaggeration? There is that which it is necessary to destroy,
and there is that which it is simply necessary to elucidate
and examine. What a force is kindly and serious examination!
Let us not apply a flame where only a light is required.
So, given the nineteenth century, we are opposed, as a general
proposition, and among all peoples, in Asia as well as in Europe,
in India as well as in Turkey, to ascetic claustration.
Whoever says cloister, says marsh. Their putrescence is evident,
their stagnation is unhealthy, their fermentation infects people
with fever, and etiolates them; their multiplication becomes a
plague of Egypt. We cannot think without affright of those lands
where fakirs, bonzes, santons, Greek monks, marabouts, talapoins,
and dervishes multiply even like swarms of vermin.
This said, the religious question remains. This question has
certain mysterious, almost formidable sides; may we be permitted
to look at it fixedly.