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Discours d'ouverture du Congrès littéraire international

A speech ("On the occasion of the opening of the International Literary Congress"), delivered on June 7, 1878, by this man of letters.  You can read the original here.

Gentlemen, what imbues our memorable year with such lofty greatness, above all rumor and clamor, in a majestic interruption of all surprised hostilities, is how it allows civilization to speak.  We may call it a year heeded.  It is doing what it wants to do.  It is replacing the old agenda, war, with the agenda of a new day, progress.  It has triumphed over its doubters.  Threats persist, but the union of peoples smiles upon them.  The work of the year 1878 is complete and indestructible.  Nothing is pending.  In everything we do, we sense a certain something, something definitive.  With the Expo in Paris, this glorious year proclaims the alliance of industries; with Voltaire’s centenary, the alliance of philosophers; with the congress assembled here, the alliance of literatures; a vast federation of works in every possible form; an august edifice to human brotherhood, whose base is composed of farmers and workers and whose crowning achievement, our minds.

Industry seeks the useful; philosophy, the true; literature, the beautiful.  The useful, the true, and the beautiful – here are the three ends of all human efforts.  And the triumph of this sublime effort, gentlemen, is civilization between peoples and peace between men.

It is to observe this triumph that you have come from all points on our civilized globe and assembled here.  You are the brilliant minds which nations love and venerate; you are the celebrated talents, the generous, well-received voices, the souls whose work is in progress.  You are the peaceful combatants.  You have brought here the most radiant reputations.  You are the ambassadors of the human spirit in this great Paris of ours.  Welcome, writers, orators, poets, philosophers, thinkers, fights – France salutes you!

You and we, we are fellow citizens in a universal city.  Hand in hand, all of us affirm our unity and our alliance.  Let us all go now into this great and serene homeland, into the absolute, which is justice, into the ideal, which is truth.

It is not out of personal interest or restraint that you are gathered here.  It is out of universal interest.  What is literature?  The setting into motion of the human spirit.  What is civilization?  The perpetual discovery made at every step by that same human spirit.  Hence comes the word progress.  One may say that literature and civilization are identical.

A people is measured by its literature.  An army of two million men passes through and an Iliad remains.  Xerxes has an army, but he lacks an epic.  Xerxes vanishes.  Greece is small according to its territory and large according to Aeschylus.  Rome is merely a city; but according to Tacitus, Lucretius, Vergil, Horace, and Juvenal, this city fills the world.  If you refer to Spain, Cervantes emerges; if you speak of Italy, Dante appears; if you say England, then Shakespeare is there.   At certain times France has been summarized in a genius, and the splendor of Paris has been confused with the clarity of Voltaire.

Gentlemen, your mission is a steep one.  You are a kind of constituent assembly of literature.  You have the function, if not of voting for laws, then at least of dictating them.  Say just and fair things, promulgate true ideas, and if, by the impossible, you are not heard, well then, you may fault the legislation.

You are going to make a foundation – literary property.  It is already in our legislation and you will introduce it into our codes.  For, as I have stated, it will be composed of your solutions and advice.

You will enlighten those legislators who would like to reduce literature to nothing more than a local phenomenon, that literature is a universal phenomenon.  Literature is the government of the human race by the human spirit.

Literary property is of general utility.  All the old monarchic legislations have denied and continue to deny literary property.  To what end?  To the end of enslavement.  The writer who is an owner is the writer who is free.  To deprive him of property is to deprive him of independence.  We would hope at least.  Hence comes that singular sophism, which would be puerile if it were not so perfidious: thought belongs to everyone, so it cannot be property, and thus literary property does not exist.  Strange confusion, first of all, of the faculty of thinking, which is general, with thought, which is individual.  I am thought.  Thus a confusion of thought, an abstract thing, with a book, something material.  The thought of a writer, as thought, escapes every hand wishing to catch it, it flies from soul to soul; it possesses this gift and this force (virum volitare per ora).  But a book is distinct from thought; as a book, it is catchable, so cat-chable in fact that it is sometimes impounded.  A book, product of a printing press, belongs to that industry and determines in all its forms a vast commercial movement.  It is bought and sold.  It is a property, one of created and not acquired value, a wealth added by the writer to the national wealth, and certainly, from all points of view, the most incontestable of properties.  This inviolable property is violated by despotic government: they confiscate a book with the hope of thus confiscating a writer.  Hence comes the system of royal pensions.  Take everything and give back a little.  Despoliation and subjection of the writer.  He is sold and then he is bought.  A useless effort, in any case.  The writer escapes.  They make him poor, and he remains free.  Who could purchase the superb consciences of Rabelais, of Moliere, of Pascal?  But attempts are nevertheless made, and the result is depressing.  The monarchy is a terrible suction on the vital forces of a nation.  Historiographers bestow upon kings the titles of “fathers of the nation,” and “fathers of literature.”  All of this is contained in the gloomy monarchic ensemble.  Dangeau, that toady, declares this on the one hand; Vauban, that severe critic, declares this on the other.  And for what we call “The Great Century,” for example the way in which kings are fathers of the nation and of literature, abuts against these two sinister facts: people without food to eat, and Corneille without shoes.

What somber elimination of a great kingdom!

Hither is where leads the confiscation of property born from work, be this confiscation a burden on the people or on the writer.

Gentlemen, let us return to our principle: respect for property.  Let us announce literary property but, at the same time, let us create the public domain.  Let us go even further.  Let us make it larger.  May the law give all publishers the right to publish all books following the death of an author, with the only condition being that they pay his direct heirs some meager compensation, something not to exceed five to ten percent of net profit.  This extremely simple system, which reconciles the writer’s incontestable property with the no less incontestable right of the public domain, has already been indicated in the commission of 1836 by the person speaking to you right now.  You may find this solution, with all its details and discussions, in the minutes of the commission, published at that time by the Ministry of the Interior.

Let us not forget, however, that this is a double principle.  The book as a book belongs to the author, but as thought it belongs – the word is not too vast – to the human race.  All minds have a right to it.  If one of these two laws, the right of the author and the right of the human mind, were to be sacrificed, it would most certainly be the right of the author, because the public interest is our sole preoccupation and everyone, I tell you, everyone must come before us.

But, as I have just said, such a sacrifice is not necessary.

O, light, light always, light everywhere!  Everything needs light.  A book contains light.  Open a book wide.  Let it radiate, let it do this.  Whoever wishes to cultivate, vivify, edify, soften, mollify, put books everywhere; teach, show, demonstrate; multiply the number of schools; schools are the luminous points of civilization.          

You are concerned about your cities.  You would like to be secure in your homes.  You are preoccupied with such perils.  You abandon a darkened road.  You think even more about such perils, and you allow the human spirit likewise to become darkened.  Minds are open roads; they are comings and goings; they have visitors, well or badly intentioned; they may have some gloomy passers-by.  A bad thought is identical to a robber in the night; a bad soul identical to a band of criminals.  Make it day everywhere.  Do not leave a human mind in these dark corners where it may fall prey to superstition, where error may lurk, where it may be ambushed by lies.  Ignorance is a twilight; evil is roaming about.  Dream of the lighting of paths, for sure; but also dream, dream most of all of the lighting of minds.

For this, doubtless, we will need a prodigious amount of light.  It is this amount of light that France has been using for the past three centuries.  Gentlemen, permit me a filial word, which in any case is in your hearts just as it is in mine.  Over France nothing will prevail.  France is of public interest.  France rises upon the horizon of all peoples.  Ah, they say, it is daylight, France is there!

We are surprised that there are those who might have objections to France; nevertheless, there are such people: France has enemies.  They are the same enemies of civilization, the enemies of books, the enemies of free thought, the enemies of emancipation, of examination, of deliverance.  Those who see in their dogma an eternal master and in the human race an eternal minor.  But they waste their efforts, the past is past, nations will not return to their vomiting, the blindness has an end, the dimensions of ignorance and of error are limited.

Take your part, men of the past, we do not fear you!  Go, do what you do as we look at you with curiosity!  Try your efforts, insult 1789, dethrone Paris, speak anathemas to the freedom of conscience, to the freedom of the press, to the freedom of opinion, an anathema to progress!  Do not relent!  Dream up, while you are still there, a syllabus big enough for France and a candle extinguisher large enough for the sun!

I do not wish to conclude on a bitter note.  Let us climb and rest upon the unmovable serenity of thought.  We have begun the affirmation of concord and peace; let us continue this haughty and tranquil affirmation. 

I have said it elsewhere, and I repeat: all human wisdom is contained in two words, conciliation and reconciliation.  The conciliation of ideas, and the reconciliation of men.

Gentlemen, we are among philosophers here, so let us take advantage of such an occasion.  Let us not bother ourselves, let us speak the truth.  And so here is one, terrible truth: the human race has a sickness – hatred.  Hatred is the mother of war; the mother may be despicable, but the daughter is horrific.

Let us return the blows!  Hate against hate!  War against war!

Do you what these words of Christ, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” really are?  They are universal disarmament.  They are the cure for the human race.  They are true redemption.  Love one another.  We disarm our enemy far better by offering him our hand than by showing him our fist.  This advice from Jesus is an order from God.  It is good.  We accept it.  We are with Christ, the rest of us!  The writer is with the apostle: those who think are with those who love.

Ah, we scream for civilization!  No, no, no, we do not want warring barbarians or murderous assassins!  We do not want war of people against people, or of man against man.  All murder is not only ferocious and savage, it is also senseless.  The sword is absurd and the dagger is imbecile.  We are the combatants of the spirit, and our task is to prevent material combat.  Our function is always to throw ourselves between the two armies.  The right to life is inviolable.  We do not see crowns, and if there are any, we only see heads.  Showing mercy is what makes peace.  When the gloomy hours sound, we ask kings to spare the lives of peoples, and we ask republics to spare the lives of emperors.    

It is a fine day for the outcast when he begs a nation for a prince and when he tries to use, in the favor of an emperor, this right to mercy which is the right of an exile.

Yes, conciliation and reconciliation.  Such is our mission, the mission for us philosophers.  O, my brothers of science, of poetry, and of art, let us declare the civilizing omnipotence of thought.  For every step that the human race takes towards peace, let us feel the profound joy of truth increase within us.  Let us proudly consent to useful work.  Truth is one and has no divergent rays.  It only has a synonym: justice.  There are no two lights, there is only one: reason.  There are no two ways of being honest, sensible, and true.  The ray that is in the Iliad is identical to the clarity found in the Dictionnaire philosophique.  This incorruptible ray traverses centuries with the straightness of an arrow and the purity of dawn.  This ray will triumph over night, that is to say, over antagonism and hatred.  Here we find the great literary wonder.  There is nothing more beautiful.  Disconcerted and stupefied force before the law, the stopping of war by the mind, this is, O, Voltaire, violence tamed by wisdom!  This is, O, Homer, Achilles taken by the hair by Minerva!

And now as I am going to end, allow me a promise, a promise addressed at the heart of everyone and at no one in particular.

Gentlemen, there is a Roman who is celebrated because of an obsession: Let us destroy Carthage!  I, too, have a thought that obsesses me, and here it is: Let us destroy hate.  If humanities have an aim, it is that: humaniores litterae.  Gentlemen, the best destruction of hatred is done by forgiving.  O, may this great year not end without sustainable peace!  May it end in wisdom and in cordiality, and after it has put out the foreign war, may it have the same effect on our civil conflict.  This is the profound desire of our souls!  France is now showing the world its hospitality; but may it also demonstrate its clemency.  Clemency!  Let us place this crown upon France’s head!  Every celebration is fraternal; a celebration which does not pardon someone is not a celebration.  The logic of public joy is amnesty.  May here be the closure of this admirable solemnity, the universal Expo!  Reconciliation!  Reconciliation!  Certainly, this gathering of all common efforts for the human race, this meeting of marvels of industry and work, this salutation to the masterpieces among them, seeing them and comparing is an august spectacle.  But an even more august spectacle is the exile standing against the horizon and his homeland opening its arms!      

Reader Comments (7)

Hugo's thoughts on the public domain are quite fascinating, to think that the pd debate was active and evoked heated opinions "already" in the 19th century! It is interesting to read some scholars who claim that the copyright industry has had a devastative effect on artistic expression and freedom, i just yesterday finished a book on adaption and appropriation that on a few occasions touched upon this issue. Voll geil!

May 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Freiburger

Mikke! Wie geht's dir? Very nice to hear from you, as always. Wie heisst das Buch, das du erwaehnst?

May 18, 2013 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

Adaptation and appropriation von Julie Sanders. Sogar Schakespeare hat sich damit beschäftigt was ich spannend fand! Ich versuche mit diesem verfluchten iPad zu schreiben, was reinste hölle ist... Er Will alle meine wörter umschreiben... Ich kann nicht mehr weiter!

May 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Freiburger

Na ja, diese IPads machen bloed ... aber wenn ich mich nicht ganz vertue, sollte ich dir zu deinem Geburtstag gratulieren (a day early)! Schoen, dass du dabei bist!

May 18, 2013 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

Ja stimmt schon, vielen dank! Ist jetzt der neunzehnte wenn ich deinen text lese so das war allés ganz total spot on! Nächste woche werde ich mich mit dem kulturellen gedächtnis von Jan und Aleida Assmann beschäftigen, schön was wiener auf deutsch zu lesen! Sonst entartet allés zu diesem verflutchten Hollywood englisch hehe!

May 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Freiburger

Ich lese gerade dass Jan und Aleida fuenf (!) Kinder zusammen haben. Wie man sich mit der Aegyptologie beschaeftigen kann und zur gleichen Zeit fuenf kleine Monster erzieht, bleibt fuer mich immer und ewig ein Geheimnis. Wir Einzelkinder wissen, was richtig ist, gell?

May 18, 2013 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

Mensch! Ja die Assmanns haben es ein bisschen Anders gemacht als unsere eltern! Herr A ist vielleicht nicht nur zum namen ein Assmann... Sozusagen ;) der name wird immer so schön in einem englischsprachigen zusammenhang! Zum geburtstag sind allé gedanken erlaubt!

May 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Freiburger

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