In the meanwhile, we [Pg 68] multiply the organs through which we hope that it will make itself heard. We lend it human and solemn voices; and when it is silent in others and even in ourselves, we proceed to question it beyond our own conscience, on the uncertain confines of our being, where we become a part of chance and where we believe that justice blends with God and our own destiny. It is this insatiable need which, on those points where human justice remained dumb and declared itself powerless, appealed in former days to the judgment of God.
To-day, when the idea which we have conceived of the divinity has changed its form and nature, the same instinct persists, so deep, so general, that it is perhaps but the half-transparent veil of an approaching truth. If we no longer look to God to approve or condemn that which men are unable to [Pg 69] judge, we now confide that mission to the unconscious, incognizable and, so to speak, future part of ourselves. The duel invokes no longer the judgment of God, but that of our future, our luck or our destiny, composed of all that is indefinite within us. It is called upon, in the name of our good or evil possibilities, to declare whether, from the point of view of inexplicable life, we are wrong or right.
There we have the indelibly human thing that is disengaged from amid all the absurdities and puerilities of our present encounters. However unreasonable it may appear, this sort of supreme interrogation, this question put in the night which is no longer illumined by intelligible justice, can hardly be waived so long as we have not found a less equivocal manner of weighing the rights and wrongs, the essential hopes and inequalities of two destinies that wish to confront each other.
For the rest, to descend to the practical point of view from these regions haunted by more or less dangerous phantoms, it is certain that the duel, that is to say the possibility of securing justice for one's self outside the law and yet according to rule, responds to a need of which we cannot deny the existence. For we live in the midst of a society that does not protect us enough to deprive us, in all circumstances, of the right dearest to man's instinct.
It is unnecessary, I think, to enumerate the cases in which the protection afforded by society is insufficient.
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It would take less long to name those in which it suffices. Doubtless, for men who are lawfully weak and defenceless, it would be desirable that things were different; but for those who are capable of defending themselves it is most salutary that things should be as they are, [Pg 71] for nothing suppresses initiative and personal character so greatly as does a too-zealous and too-constant protection.
Remember that, before all, we are beings of prey and strife; that we must be careful not completely to extinguish within ourselves the qualities of primitive man, for it was not without reason that nature placed them there. If it is wise to restrain their excess, it is prudent to preserve their principle.
We do not know the offensive tricks which the elements or the other forces of the universe have in store for us; and woe be to us, in all likelihood, if one day they find us entirely devoid of the spirit of vengeance, mistrust, anger, brutality, combativeness, and of many other faults, which are all very blameworthy from the human point of view, but which, far more than the most loudly-extolled abstemious virtues, have helped us to conquer the great enemies of our kind.
It behoves us, therefore, in general, to praise those who do not allow themselves to be offended with impunity. They keep up among us an idea of extra-legal justice by which we all profit and which would soon become exhausted without their aid. Let us rather deplore that they are not more numerous. If there were not quite so many good-natured souls, capable of chastising, but too ready to forgive, we should find far fewer evil-doers too ready to do wrong; for three-quarters of the wrong that is committed springs from the certainty of impunity.
In order to maintain the vague fear and respect that allow the unfortunate unarmed to live and breathe almost freely in a society teeming with knaves and dastards, it is the strict duty of all who are able to resist unpunishable injustice by means of an act of violence never fail to [Pg 73] do so. They thus restore the level of immanent justice. Thinking that they are defending only themselves, they defend in the aggregate the most precious heritage of mankind. I do not contend that it would not be better, in the greater number of cases, that the courts should intervene; but, until our laws become simpler, more practical, less costly and more familiar, we have no other remedy than the fist or the sword against a number of iniquities that are very real, although not provided for by our codes.
The fist is quick, immediate; but it is not conclusive enough; when the offence is at all grave, we see that it is really too lenient and ephemeral; and, besides, it has always movements that are a little vulgar and effects that are somewhat repugnant. It brings only a brutal faculty into play. It is [Pg 74] the blindest and most unequal of weapons; and, since it evades all the conditions that adjust the chances of two ill-matched adversaries, it involves exaggerated reprisals on the part of the beaten combatant, which end by arming him with the stick, the knife or the revolver.
It is allowable in certain countries, in England, for instance. There the science of boxing forms part of the elementary education and its general practice tends in a curious way to remove natural inequalities; moreover, a whole organism of clubs, paternal juries and tribunals easy of access confirms or forestalls its exploits. But in France it would be a pity to return to it.
The sword, which has there replaced it since immemorial days, is an incomparably more sensitive, serious, graceful and delicate instrument of justice. It is reproached with being neither equitable nor probative.
But it proves first of all the quality of our [Pg 75] attitude in the face of danger; and that already is a proof which is not without its value. For our attitude in the face of danger is exactly our attitude in the face of the reproaches or encouragements of the various consciences that lie hidden within us, of those which are both below and above our intelligible conscience and which mingle with the essential and, so to speak, universal elements of our being.
Next, it depends only upon ourselves that it should become as equitable as any human instrument, ever subject to chance, error and weakness, can be. Its art is certainly accessible to every healthy man. It demands neither abnormal muscular strength nor exceptional agility. The least gifted of us need devote to it no more than two or three hours of every week.
He will acquire a suppleness and a precision sufficient soon to discover what the astronomers call his "personal equation," to attain his individual average, [Pg 76] which is at the same time a general average that only a few fire-eaters, a few idlers succeed in surpassing, at the cost of long, painful and very ungrateful efforts. Having attained this average, we can entrust our lives to the point of the frail but formidable sword.
It is the magician that at once establishes new relations between two forces which none would have dreamt of comparing. It allows the pigmy who is in the right to confront the colossus who is in the wrong. It gracefully leads enormous violence, horned like the bull, to lighter and brighter summits; and behold, the primitive animal is obliged to stand still before a power that has nothing left in common with the mean, shapeless, tyrannical virtues of earth: I mean weight, mass, quantity, the stupid cohesion of matter.
Between the sword and the fist lie the [Pg 77] breadth of a universe, an ocean of centuries and almost as great a distance as separates beast from man. The sword is iron and wit, steel and intelligence. It makes the muscles subservient to thought and compels thought to respect the muscles that serve it. It is ideal and practical, chimerical and full of good sense.
It is dazzling and clear as lightning, insinuating, elusive and multiform as a ray of the sun or moon. It is faithful and capricious, nobly guileful, loyally false. It decks rancour and hatred with a smile. It transfigures brutality. Thanks to the sword, reason, courage, rightful assurance, patience, contempt of danger, man's sacrifice to love, to an idea, a whole moral world, in short, as by a fairy bridge swung over the abyss of darkness, enters as the master into the original chaos, reduces and organizes it.
The sword is man's pre-eminent weapon, that weapon which, were all the others tried and itself [Pg 78] unknown, would have to be invented, because it best serves his most various, his most purely human faculties and because it is the most direct, the most tractable and the most loyal instrument of his defensive intelligence, strength and justice. But what is most admirable is that its decisions are not mechanical nor mathematically pre-established. In this it resembles those pastimes in which chance and knowledge are marvellously mingled in order to question our fortune: pastimes almost mystical and always enthralling, in which man delights to sound his luck on the confines of his existence.
Bring face to face two adversaries of manifestly unequal powers: it is not inevitable, it is not even certain that the more vigorous and the more skilful will gain the day over the other. Once that we have [Pg 79] conquered our personal mastership, our sword becomes ourself, with our qualities and our defects. It is our firmness, our devotion, our will, our daring, our conviction, our justice, our hesitation, our impatience, our fear. We have cultivated it with care. We have risen to the height of the possibilities which it was able to offer us.
We have given it all that we were able to dispose of; it restores to us integrally all that we entrusted to it. We have nothing wherewith to reproach ourselves; we are in accord with the instinct and duty of self-preservation. But the sword represents something more, and exactly that part of us which we are compelled to risk at the graver moments of existence.
It personifies an unknown portion of our being and personifies it in the most favourable and solemn conjuncture that man can imagine wherein to call upon his destiny, that is to say, in circumstances in which the mysterious entity [Pg 80] that lives within him is directly seconded by all the faculties subjected to his consciousness. It thus brings face to face not only two forces, two intelligences and two liberties, but also two chances, two fortunes, two mysteries, two destinies, which, over and above the rest, like the gods of Homer, preside over the combat, run, flash, dart and meet upon its blade.
When it seems to be striking before us in space, it is really knocking at the doors of our fate; and, while death hovers around it, he who handles it feels that it is escaping from its previous bondage and suddenly obeying other laws than those which used to guide it in the fencing-school.
It fulfils a secret mission; before pronouncing sentence, it judges us; or rather, by the mere fact that we are wielding it distractedly in the presence of the great and formidable enigma, it forces our destiny to judge ourselves. The months of June and July of the year set for the meditation of men one of those tragic spectacles which, to speak truly, we encounter every day in the little life that surrounds us, although, like so many great things, they there pass unperceived. They do not assume their full significance, nor finally capture our gaze, except when performed on one of those enormous stages on which are heaped, so to speak, all the thoughts of a people and on which the latter loves to behold its own existence made greater and more solemn by royal actors.
As is said in a modern play, "We must add something to ordinary life before we [Pg 84] can understand it. Thanks to the resplendency of that pomp and that power, we saw exactly what a man is in himself and what he remains when the imposing laws of nature strip him cruelly naked before their tribunal. We learnt also—the force of love, pity, religion and science having been suddenly exerted to the utmost—we learnt also to know better the value of the aid which all that we have acquired since we inhabited this planet can give in our distress. We assisted at a struggle, ever confused, but as fierce as though it were doomed to be supreme, between the different powers, physical and moral, visible and invisible, that to-day guide mankind.
Edward VII. King of England, the illustrious victim of a whim of fate, lay [Pg 85] pitifully hovering between the crown and death. This fate, with one hand, held to his brow one of the most magnificent diadems that the revolutions have spared; and, with the other, it forced that same brow, moist with the sweat of the death-agony, to bend down towards a wide-open tomb. In sinister fashion, it prolonged this game for more than two months. If we contemplate the event from a point a little higher than the elevation of the humble hills on which life's numberless anecdotes unfold themselves, it is here not only a question of the tragedy of an opulent monarch stricken by nature at the very moment when thousands of men are aspiring to place some small portion of their hopes and of their fairest dreams in his person, beyond the reach of destiny and above humanity.
Neither is it a question of appreciating the irony of that moment in which they would assert and establish [Pg 86] something supernatural that declined upon something most normally natural; something that should be contradictory to the pitiless levelling laws of the indifferent planet which we all inhabit with a sort of heedless tolerance; something that should reassure them and console them as an admirable exception to their misery and frailty.
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No, it is here a question of the essential tragedy of man, of the universal and perpetual drama enacted between his feeble will and the enormous unknown force that encompasses him, between the little flame of his mind or soul, that inexplicable phenomenon of nature, and vast matter, that other, equally inexplicable, phenomenon of the same nature. This drama, with its thousand undetermined catastrophes, has not ceased to unfold itself for a single day since a portion of blind and colossal life conceived the somewhat strange idea of taking in us a sort of consciousness of itself.
Slowly, then, it unfolded itself up there; and we were able to compute our resources.
We had the opportunity to weigh in luminous scales our illusions and our realities. All the confidence and all the wretchedness of our kind were symbolically concentrated in a single hour and in a single being. Would it be proved once more that the longings, the most ardent wishes, the will and the most imperious love of a prodigious [Pg 88] assembly of men are powerless to cause the most insignificant of physical laws to swerve by one line's breadth? Would it be established once more that, when standing in the face of nature, we must seek our defensive laws not in the moral or sentimental, but in another world?
It is salutary therefore to look at that which happened upon that summit firmly and with an eye that no longer attributes things to spells. Some beheld in it the mighty manifestation of a jealous and all-powerful God, Who holds us in His hand and laughs at our poor glory; the scornful gesture of a Providence too long neglected and incensed because man does not recognize with greater docility Its hidden existence nor fathom more easily Its enigmatic will.
Were they mistaken?