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Douglas Oliver
The School of Bedlam
From WHISPER LOUISE, a work-in-progress: a double-memoir inspired by Louise Michel, "Red Virgin" of the 1871 Paris Commune

This piece is 2,600 words or about seven printed pages long. 

Paris Commune, 1871 I'M LIKE a child in frocks trying to understand these things about Louise and about myself, trying to get between the fence of legs and then swept up in her skirts of kindness instead. Why is that so unsatisfactory, so imprisoning?
   The relationship between Louise as a teacher and her libertarian politics seems crucial.
   When she ran a school in Montmartre in 1870, Louise worked with the radical mayor of that arrondissement to help the poor and provide education for their children. This mayor, a young doctor called Georges Clemenceau, became the statesman and war leader who Winston Churchill most admired. Despite political disagreements, Louise was to remain Clemenceau's friend, but he had this judgment on her classroom methods:
   "It was all rather like the school of King Pétaud. The teaching was out of control, the methods unknown, but, when it came down to it, they did teach."
   A King Pétaud (Latin peto, I ask) was elected annually by communities, corporations and guilds in medieval France. In his court everyone was their own sovereign and could do what they liked. A 19th century translation would be: King of Bedlam, or Lord of Misrule.
   Louise dinned into the children's ears: Hugo's poetry, her own poetry, romanticism, republicanism, her social insights worthy of Balzac, her mystical belief that the soul had its sciences, her compassion for anything on Earth that suffered, and the care of animals. Her idea of education was defined by her own excitable personality, as was her politics. She was certain that the mentally handicapped could be taught, and her young girls founded an association for the "education of idiots". The project got nowhere, but she was a precursor and I see her young girls surrounding my deer, my missing dear, my mentally-handicapped son who is behind everything I write.
   Louise did all her work for practically no pay during Paris's bourgeois boom time.
   Away from the classroom, she would become the sentinel, the travestie, the cross-dresser, who would wear a National Guard uniform and feel the gun recoil against her shoulder-bone.
   Again, I'm a little girl in frocks in an airy classroom of the Montmartre school she set up with her ailing friend Mlle Poulin -- shortly to become the ghost who guided Louise in the cemetery. I have no punishments to fear. The all-encompassing, all-enveloping love from Louise fills my little girl universe and creates my freedom, though I'm not truly free because she is not a deity.
   Frocks fill with flesh, with warmth, and the grubby girl faces shine.
   But in my imagination I regret the lack of boys and then shudder to remember a smelly, white-haired boy whom we made fun of in my own schooldays. He baffled my single effort to make friends. In our classroom, we were respectable; he was not. Louise would have done something about that poor nine-year-old with his stressed-out face and knock-kneed, abused walk.
   By the last days of Empire, in 1870, she had at least 60 pupils, and had a contract with the admirable M. Mauté de Fleurville, delegate of her Montmartre canton, to take care of poor children, orphans, and families thrown into the street. The delegate's daughter, Mathilde, was to marry Paul Verlaine and it's odd to think that Louise attended the wedding. Verlaine's partner, Rimbaud, is reputed to have fought on the barricades of May the following year, an almost-certainly false legend mostly based on tendentious readings of such poems as "L'Orgie Parisienne". After that bloody May, when Louise went on trial, M. de Fleureville stayed faithful to his admiration for her and, taking a grave career risk, gave her public support.
   Now I sense something careless in Louise's classroom -- again, because her love is both utopian and incomplete and she is not a deity able to control all her idealism's unthought-of consequences.
   So one of these desks, unidentified as yet, is the desk of death, belonging to the unexpected accidental pupil, the cobwebbed pupil with an ashen face of holes. She is the one whom the Commune's grand ideals will not be able to protect. This girl will be shot by a stray bullet from a barricade, fall from a window, get lost in a parentless city, will be thrown lifeless into a public ditch while someone's back is turned. She is the citizen killed by mistake in the streets just because she looked like one of the Commune leaders. During the years of deportation to New Caledonia, Louise's friend Rochefort made a daring escape; this girl was one of the deportees left behind who suffered because of his escape.
   She is a child making a dreaming noise of sheer mischief, her eyes pushed out like those of an African mask, her face of blackened wood, mouthhole flanged with broken teeth. She is the future child killed after the Commune by Thiers's troops, for many children were piled on the heaps of bodies left in the public squares, or dropped in hasty cemeteries where damaged limbs poked above the earth.
   She is my mentally-handicapped son who died; she is the other face of life without which there is no life.
   At the back of the classroom the tubercular Mlle Poulin coughs harshly.
   This chapter is about those who are respectable in society and those who are not.
   There's a story about Louise's platonic love, Théophile Ferré, who, just before the Commune was declared, went to an actor friend and asked what he could do for him when he, Ferré, was at the top of the tree. The actor, Gil-Pérès, told him people would make fun of him if he pretended to political ambitions. Ferré, fanatical, was aghast and asked why.
   "Because, because -- "
   Ferré interrupted: "Because you are a small man. Well, I am a small man, too, and an ugly one into the bargain. I can assure you that that the world will hear as much of me before long as if I had been an Adonis and a Hercules."
   During the Commune, the sycophantic Press in Versailles excoriated the Commune leaders simply for being unknown: they couldn't stand it that such "nonentities" should gain power.
Paris Commune, 1871   Thiers, head of the pro-monarchist, bourgeois National Assembly, surrounded respectability with brutality. After the Versailles troops entered Paris and resumed summarily shooting prisoners of war, the Commune, encouraged by their police chief Raoul Rigault, retaliated by executing hostages, including the Archbishop of Paris, Mgr. Darboy. As Rigault's right hand man, Ferré reluctantly took on responsibility for some of the executions. Thiers's press thrilled with the horror of it. And it was horrific to shoot down unarmed victims, whatever the provocation.
   Far more horrific was the massacre of the Parisian working classes during and after the Commune by Versailles troops. Historians don’t agree how many died: a figure under 6,000 from a conservative like Maxime du Camp, 17,000 assumed by the left-wing Lissagaray, up to 30,000 from the hot red-blooded like Pelletan or Louise herself willing for more yet, and down to 10,000 from a cautious modern analyst, Robert Tombs. With records poorly kept, it depends what you call a victim -- someone shot in street conflict, on the ramparts, summarily upon capture, after drumhead court martial, after more formal sentence from post-war military tribunals, or the death from ill-treatment of deportees to New Caledonia. I shall return to this question.
   This was not the war rage of maddened soldiery. The cruellest generals deliberately orchestrated the slaughter – Cissey, Vinoy, Gallifet (let their names keep their tarnish) – while the more humane officers kept mum. With insufficient protest, Thiers and defence minister MacMahon bear heavy responsibility too.
   The notorious beau sabreur General Gallifet would draw up prisoners in a rank and tell them: "You people of Montmartre may think me cruel, but I am even crueller than you imagine." He would pull out victims who hadn't taken off their military boots or were too short, too ugly, too coarse, too old, or who wore watches. A preening, moustacheod hero, Gallifet had saved French honour in defeat by leading suicidal cavalry charges against the Prussians outside Sedan. Here, the ugly offended him; the elderly -- obviously ancient 1848 revolutionaries -- were doubly guilty; and the watch-bearers must be Commune officials.
Paris Commune, 1871
Paris Commune, 1871 - iconoclasm under the provisional socialist government. This statue of Napoleon had been on top of the Column Vendôme
The respectable press hailed such murders. The Journal des Débats wrote: "What honour! Our army has revenged its disasters by an inestimable victory." And Figaro: "What an admirable attitude our officers and soldiers have displayed! Only a French soldier could react so quickly and so well."
N MY CHILDHOOD, the most respected family figure was our Bournemouth Conservative M.P., Brendan Bracken. Churchill's protégé, rich, he had master- minded war-time propaganda and assured the independence of the BBC. I remember him at some political meeting, taciturn, eminence grise, bespectacled, crinkley reddish-grey hair wigging off to one side, rubber mouth, curiously anonymous dry voice. A shoo-in for re-election in our Tory stronghold. At this time, the upper classes saw him as Mr. Fixer, generosity itself, always ready to do a favour for some unfortunate -- of the right background -- a phone call here, a hidden gift there, an old-boys' campaign for his school library.
   Andrew Boyle's 1974 biography -- my sole authority here for the story of this elusive politician -- tells of Bracken's schoolboy career, set in motion by flattery, an extraordinary memory, and a fertile intellect. To get into the renowned British public school, Sedberg, he edited his parents out of his life and claimed to be an orphan with a romantic, Australian past. At Sedbergh, a contemporary reported: "he was on the side of law and order because, being the headmaster's most privileged boy, law and order [sic] were always on Bracken's side."
   He manoeuvred his way into journalism, publishing, and usable friendships, crept among the aristocracy, and clung to the Churchill family like an octopus. Despite Clementine's disapproval, Churchill, recognising his brilliance, brought him on. His career rose and sank according to Churchill's tide. Admittedly, he was intensely loyal.
   But to begin with, he was a teacher. We may compare him with Louise. At the prestigious Bishops' Stortford College, like many teachers who take little interest in the weaker pupils, he substituted his cane for encouragement. Boyle writes that a boy named David Green, whom Bracken persecuted, remembers that at times the queue for cross-questionings and thrashings stretched from Bracken's door along the passage and half way down the stairs. One boy shouted his nickname up to his window: "Come down, Mephisto, come down, for the night is far spent and the day is drawing nigh." That challenge, being courageous, met no reply, of course.
   Bracken made the boys learn by heart the names of all known hen and cow varieties and came down hard on those with poor memories. One day Bracken stopped a teacher friend in the corridor and grinned, "Come and listen at my door. I'm about to teach one of my boys a real lesson." The teacher declined but heard the anguish of the caning from a distance.
   To compare his teaching methods to Louise's is to compare the ruthless with the hapless. On the small, relatively harmless classroom scale, it is like comparing the "law and order" of the slaughterous Thiers administration with the "lawlessness" of the Commune.
   Once you have become respectable, of course, no one powerless can touch you. And Bracken's Second World War career was truly distinguished: his great talents undeniable. That is why the later Bracken could afford to be so generous and kindly -- to his own, moneyed circles.
   I heard the last election speech by his mentor, Churchill, in the great warlord's Woodford constituency, north-east London. This was about 1960, the period when I met my first wife, Jan, a Woodford schoolteacher.
   In the Sir James Hawkey Hall, the Tory Party women wore apparently identical weather-vane hats. Churchill, in recovery from strokes, rarely left Majorca at that time: his voters took problems to a neigbouring M.P. When Churchill was helped on stage he looked like his Graham Sutherland portrait, which the Churchill family hated: an angry, almost evil face above lawyer's stripes. Once midstage, he glowered, one hand on his cane the other clutching his speech. The local Tory party chairman said how honoured we all were. I suppose we were. The most famous man in my lifetime propped his spectacles on his forehead, peered at his notes, and began dredging up the famous voice from his damaged body.
   At one point he drawled: "The Labour Paaaty . . . has made a great fush . . . about penshions. Aaaand --" He adjusted his spectacles.
   "Labour Paaaty" + "Penshions" signalled a joke coming, and the audience started chuckling, a loud laugh somewhere.
   "Aaaaaaand -- they're quite right!"
   The chuckles changed into discreet coughs.
   At the end, the chairman invited questions. The local Labour Party hadn't wanted to seem virtually unpatriotic by sending hecklers to confront this unbeatable candidate. So the audience began rustling their belongings.
   Back of the hall: "Yeah! I'd Like to Ask Sir Winston a Question, If You Don't Mind".
   The weather vanes swivelled round as the Tory women glared at the intruder. I recall him as ginger-haired and ginger-jacketed; anyway, he was refreshingly "of the people".
   "I'd like to ask Sir Winston what's he goin' to do about the rents in the flats down Snakes Lane."
   Churchill sat unchanged, a portrait unmoved. I doubt he'd ever heard of these council flats.
   The chairman whispered in his ear: "What are you going to do about the rents in the flats in Snakes Lane?"
   Without deigning to glance, Churchill flapped a dismissal at the chairman, clasped both hands back on his cane, and grumped as before. The chairman went back to the lectern and said into the microphone:
   "Would you sit down, please. That is not a proper question."
   The questioner seems in my memory like a child trying to get through the forest of adult legs. Churchill had by then burst through the top of respectability into deity status. Sheer bravery, aristocratic self-conviction, that best kind of intellect which is practical, a humane understanding which sorted badly with a rigid class consciousness, utter patriotism, calculated loyalty, the capacity for great cruelty and ruthlessness, this man had placed even me at service of a mighty debt to him. But had we not, to save ourselves as a nation, depended on his worst qualities -- the canny brutality, the warmongering?
   That is not a proper question. During my childhood it was not even a respectable question. The Czechoslovakian, the Polish, the Jewish issues strike it out of court. There are deaths here on a scale that overshadow the Commune's executions and even the massacres imposed by Thiers.
   But if you ask who is the better person -- poor Louise, or the Bracken-Churchill pairing -- I think back to her classroom, to her quality of love.
   But I also think of that accidental desk, the one threatened by Louise's political carelessness: for if we put pure idealism straight into politics without mediation it becomes a principle of death. So I also think of her friendship with the coldly-abstract Ferré.
Douglas Oliver and Alice Notley
Douglas Oliver
    and Alice Notley
Douglas Oliver's latest volumes are Penguin Modern Poets 10 and his Selected Poems, Talisman House, both in 1996. A Salvo for Africa (poems/prose) is forthcoming from Bloodaxe, who republished his New York satire, Penniless Politics, in 1994. His project Arrondissements, a series of books about modern Paris, is to be sampled in an Etruscan Reader. He and Alice Notley edit Gare du Nord magazine from their Paris home.


Copyright © Douglas Oliver and Jacket magazine 1998
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