Maximilien Robespierre, known as l’Incorruptible, is at the summit of his glory. Rivers of blood, flowing from the guillotines of France, have washed away the Girondins and anyone who had pactised with them; the Jacobins, even though they were close to him; certain Montagnards and, curiously, some of his friends who had too openly supported the theses of the atheists…
In this 1794 Spring, all the great names which had embodied, one after the other, the revolutionary ideals have disappeared in the torment: Verniaud, Brissot and twenty-one of their friends; Petion whom he called his brother and Roland, known as le Vertueux; his wife, the fascinating Madame Roland, Condorcet, the great scholar, President of the Convention, whom he had obliged to commit suicide.
The Corrompus, the Indulgents and, for good measure, the Exageres; Hebert and his band of lynchers; the superb Danton and all his companions; Camille Desmoulins, his former fellow-disciple at Louis-le-Grand, whose best man he had been at his wedding, had all been cut in two.
So great is his power now, that to have any opinion at all is a crime of lese-Revolution. Since obtaining the head of Louis XVI, he seems to be invested with a sort of absolute power, a divine right.
Without a debate, with no interrogation, no discussion and without anyone to defend him, he had wanted to throw the King into the common grave. When, after having voted for death, the Convention came to its senses, terrified at what it had just decided, he demanded an immediate execution. To succeed in this, he had the public tribunals of the Assembly invaded by his friends the sans-culottes. The redoubtable Commune de Paris lays seige to the King’s prison, the armed sections, the clubs who are devoted to him, get ready for a fight…
Of course, no-one likes him. There are those who hate him because he has made them vile through the fear that he inspires. There are those who admire him fearfully, like the Ancients who bowed down before the omnipotent demiurge. There is the People whom he loves more than he understands, and who idolises him for the absolute rigour of his life. But without really liking him. When he, himself, will follow the tragic path of the King, in a cart, an immense cry of joy will rise from the little people of Paris.
He has always been alone, since childhood, and the sceptre of death that he brandishes always higher, isolates him more every day. Two men only can still enter as they like the door of the living god. Two exterminating angels. The handsome Saint-Just, whose principles sharpen every day the blade of the guillotine, and the frightful Couthon, the paraplegic, the blue shadow of the machine, when a gendarme carries him to the tribunal to designate the next victims…
It is April 1794 and, in Paris, it is more oppressing than in the heart of Summer. Everyone is waiting to see how the High Priest is going to organize the next part of the sacrifice. For a whole month, a great silence settles on Paris, troubled only by the cries of the executed. The Convention, the clubs, the army, the Commune and even the revolutionary tribunal, remain quiet…
At last, on 6 May, l’Incorruptible climbs up to the tribunal. He is wearing his sacerdotal clothes, a sky blue riding-coat and white stockings. In the deathly silence which greets all of his appearances now, he straightens up and stares for a long time without speaking at the faces of several Deputies. In particular, that of Fouche, who feels his stony heart starting to liquefy…
Then, he begins in a strange voice, both exalted and monochord… He starts by establishing that the people of France are at the height of happiness.
“It is in prosperity that the people must meditate to listen to the voice of wisdom…”
Prosperity: that must be the explosive inflation, with its cortege of misery. As for wisdom: that must be the definitive one via the guillotine, with twenty-four heads the day before, and twenty-six today.
Robespierre is more nervous than usual. His pale, graceless face is agitated with tics. His eyes with their moist gaze blink frequently while his fingers drum on the edge of the tribunal.
Now, his voice swells, and he climbs over the cadavers, toward the high metaphysical regions, where the Assembly has trouble following him, at first. By degrees, he asks the Deputies to recognize the existence of a
“Supreme Being and immortality as the directing power of the Universe”.
Then to the stupefaction of some, and the enthusiasm of others, he wants to give his vibrant profession of faith the form of a decree, with immediate effect.
His speech, which at the end rises in a passionate plea for a regenerated Humanity, is welcomed by unending applause. Couthon spurs his gendarme mount and proclaims that this great piece of literature must be displayed throughout the whole country. That it should be translated into all languages, too, and diffused throughout the whole universe.
The fabulous decree which institutes in France a new religion and proposes a festival in the style of the celebrations of Antiquity, is voted with enthusiasm and without any discussion. In the corridors, when the euphoria has died down, the least terrorised start to murmur that, when they had voted the King’s death, they thought that they had also voted that of God.
The French people welcome back a divinity. For months, the churches had been profaned. Mountain decors peopled with mythological characters symbolising Reason had been built in them. In a lot of places, prostitutes, “living marbles of public flesh” had draped themselves, completely naked, on the altars. God was now being re-installed under the name of Supreme Being.
In Paris, it is not yet known that this Being will soon take on the profile of l’Incorruptible. But perhaps this will eclipse in a brilliant manner the red reflects of the guillotine, of which everybody is secretly very tired.
To be continued.