Pierre Leroux on Joseph Déjacque

 “… one day Déjacque harangued the crowd in the Faubourg Saint-Honore, where he lived, claiming to be a new reincarnation of Christ…” from an account of Déjacque last days, before he died “mad from poverty.”

The biographical details on Joseph Déjacque are scattered, though slowly but surely they’re coming together. And they have surfaced in some interesting places. One of the most interesting, especially for me, is Pierre Leroux’s The Beach at Samarez: A Philosophical Poem, a two-volume work combining a philosophical poem with reminiscences of life among the French exiles in the colony on the isle of Jersey. Victor Hugo and Déjacque were both among that group, and both are featured in Leroux’s work. I had actually paid very little attention to this particular work by Leroux—nothing about a two-volume poem is particularly inviting as a translation project, but once I realized the Déjacque connection I decided to give it a closer look. The work is both fascinating, and a particular nice bit of writing for Leroux, so perhaps I’ll give it even more attention at some point, but for now, here is a working translation of two chapters from the final section of the work, “The Phantoms,” which begins with an account of the funeral Louise Julien, at which both Hugo and Déjacque gave funeral orations. The selection picks up in the midst of a conversation between Leroux and Hugo.

from Pierre Leroux, The Beach at Samarez 
I was going to continue, but the Phantoms had reappeared.
— “Oh! Do you imagine that you are alone! You thought we did not hear you! We heard it all…”
Then there came a confusion of words, laughter and shouts, mixed with some whistles and cat-calls. In the midst of the brouhaha, I distinguished two interlocutors:
— “I too am a painter,” said one, in a hushed voice.
— “Dr. Lelut has just proven that Socrates was mad,” cried the other, in a loud voice.
It was Déjacques and Seigneuret again: I had ample time to consider them.
Why does Déjacques always remind me of André Chénier? Is it because he is also a poet… it is certain that his verse could sometimes make the greatest poets jealous. There is something reminiscent of Burns in the work.
But it is also because he reminds me of perhaps the most beautiful piece by André Chénier, his Mendicant:
All pale, half-naked, with beard a-bristling,
He barely moved one frozen lip,
Implored the aid of men and Gods,
And in the forest wandered for two days.
Except that he invoke neither gods nor men. The other day, Seigneuret found him close to expiring. He had condemned himself to die of hunger. It was forty-eight hours since he had eaten. He was lying fully clothed on a chest, for he had no bed, and he remained there cold and stiff, resolved to watch himself die. This was when Seigneuret happened upon him.
With what zeal, with what ardor, with what tenderness that atheist Seigneuret rescued him, and forced him to live!
There he is! How sad he looks! He is elegant and noble in this person. His voice is soft, his speech calm, and his tone penetrating; he seems to have taken as a model, physically, Christ on the cross; seeing him, you would thing about the times
When on the holy altar the ivory crucifixes
Opened their spotless, milk-white arms.
But what bitterness in his word, and what disorder in his ideas!
How did the proletarian poet come to this black misanthropy, to this savage despair
Ah! Perhaps, as a child, he read, in that same piece of which he reminded me:
……..The indigent waits in vain for fate,
By waiting always, he arrives at death.
Devoured by needs, projects, insomnia,
He grows old in disgrace and ignominy.
Disgusted with humans, hard, envious, ungrateful,
He turns to the Gods, who do not hear him.
Why turn to the Gods, if they do not hear us? he would say to himself, and why be an object of contempt among men, if they are so hard?
This his how he would have absorbed the poison which gave him life, for poison, as Byron said, also has its vitality: the vitality of poison.
And today, when someone says to him:
Man is born to suffer
He responds, with André Chénier:
He is born to change.
To change! He apparently believed that everything would change, at the Revolution; but he found that men were the same after it as they had been before: hard, envious, and ungrateful. He became hard, envious, and ungrateful himself. The flood carried him to England, and then onto this rock. He apparently thought he would find equality in exile. He found some rich and some poor, and there he is, bearing his wretchedness with a threat on his lips.
Oh, the spleen of the Renés and the Obermanns, I pity you, when I think of that despair! I take from Obermann the wealth that permits him, in exile, to breathe his calm and melancholy lament on the shores from which the ships depart and to which the wreckage returns. I take from René his name, the memory of his family and his chateau, and his traditional Christianity, and the hope of seeing return a regime [ ] possible since it had already lasted so long. I put the ambition of the one, the daydreams of the others, in a man who dies of hunger, and I have absolute impotence and hell. I cannot even console myself by saying with Gray, in his Country Churchyard:
“Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast… some mute inglorious Milton here may rest, some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.”
No! For those Gray spoke of did not awake!
The noise that the Phantoms made continued always.
I say again, what a contrast between Déjacques and Seigneuret, and yet what similarities! At base it is the same torment. We must reverse the thought of Gray, and say:
“Science unrolled before their eyes its vast archives, rich with the spoils of time: the breath of indigence froze their nobles transports, and dried for them the sources of genius.”
Seigneuret is, as a savant, what Déjacques is as an artist. What is the use of having studied law and medicine! The ruses of legal quibbling, the prostituted eloquence of the lawyers, have made him a sophist; the science of the chemists, the lessons of the physiologists, have made him an ally. He has heard Auguste Comte say: “Today it is a question of organizing without God.” That formula has become his own. He is possessed by a rage for atheism which resembles fanaticism.
What war they often made on the other Phantoms! They are demons, you say: see if you yourselves are not demons!
What ingenuity, what flexibility in that man! He works every trade: he sews his own clothes, and makes his own shoes; he is physician, mechanic, printer, author. Ask him his profession, and he will tell you: I am a revolutionary.
Déjacques lives without family. He probably did not say to Ophelia: “Get thee to a nunnery;” I don’t know what he said to her. Seigneuret is married, and loves his children tenderly. I saw him, the other day, rock his charming little girl in a garden. How he beamed at her!
Go on! They would both go to wander in America. One would be lost in the desert of nature, the other in the desert of Civilization. While the question of negro slavery was debated, he, the white maroon slave, would pass through the streets of New York! He will perhaps not even leave the “Adieux à la Vie” of a Gilbert
[Working translations by Shawn P. Wilbur]
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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.