04 February 2013

United States of Montparnasse

Is this the future of our country...our children? Will we raise useless Americans? Can we do no better?

"He was repaid for his conscientious anxiety in the character of a
spectator. He was able to catch on the wing a dialogue which borrowed
from the darkness an indescribably tragic accent. The goodman
questioned, Montparnasse replied.

"How old are you?"


"You are strong and healthy. Why do you not work?"

"It bores me."

"What is your trade?"

"An idler."

"Speak seriously. Can anything be done for you? What would you like to

"A thief."

A pause ensued. The old man seemed absorbed in profound thought. He
stood motionless, and did not relax his hold on Montparnasse.

Every moment the vigorous and agile young ruffian indulged in the
twitchings of a wild beast caught in a snare. He gave a jerk, tried a
crook of the knee, twisted his limbs desperately, and made efforts to

The old man did not appear to notice it, and held both his arms with one
hand, with the sovereign indifference of absolute force.

The old man's revery lasted for some time, then, looking steadily at
Montparnasse, he addressed to him in a gentle voice, in the midst of the
darkness where they stood, a solemn harangue, of which Gavroche did not
lose a single syllable:--

"My child, you are entering, through indolence, on one of the most
laborious of lives. Ah! You declare yourself to be an idler! prepare to
toil. There is a certain formidable machine, have you seen it? It is
the rolling-mill. You must be on your guard against it, it is crafty
and ferocious; if it catches hold of the skirt of your coat, you will be
drawn in bodily. That machine is laziness. Stop while there is yet time,
and save yourself! Otherwise, it is all over with you; in a short time
you will be among the gearing. Once entangled, hope for nothing more.
Toil, lazybones! there is no more repose for you! The iron hand of
implacable toil has seized you. You do not wish to earn your living, to
have a task, to fulfil a duty! It bores you to be like other men? Well!
You will be different. Labor is the law; he who rejects it will find
ennui his torment. You do not wish to be a workingman, you will be a
slave. Toil lets go of you on one side only to grasp you again on the
other. You do not desire to be its friend, you shall be its negro slave.
Ah! You would have none of the honest weariness of men, you shall have
the sweat of the damned. Where others sing, you will rattle in your
throat. You will see afar off, from below, other men at work; it will
seem to you that they are resting. The laborer, the harvester, the
sailor, the blacksmith, will appear to you in glory like the blessed
spirits in paradise. What radiance surrounds the forge! To guide the
plough, to bind the sheaves, is joy. The bark at liberty in the wind,
what delight! Do you, lazy idler, delve, drag on, roll, march! Drag your
halter. You are a beast of burden in the team of hell! Ah! To do nothing
is your object. Well, not a week, not a day, not an hour shall you have
free from oppression. You will be able to lift nothing without anguish.
Every minute that passes will make your muscles crack. What is a feather
to others will be a rock to you. The simplest things will become steep
acclivities. Life will become monstrous all about you. To go, to come,
to breathe, will be just so many terrible labors. Your lungs will
produce on you the effect of weighing a hundred pounds. Whether you
shall walk here rather than there, will become a problem that must be
solved. Any one who wants to go out simply gives his door a push, and
there he is in the open air. If you wish to go out, you will be obliged
to pierce your wall. What does every one who wants to step into the
street do? He goes down stairs; you will tear up your sheets, little
by little you will make of them a rope, then you will climb out of your
window, and you will suspend yourself by that thread over an abyss, and
it will be night, amid storm, rain, and the hurricane, and if the rope
is too short, but one way of descending will remain to you, to fall. To
drop hap-hazard into the gulf, from an unknown height, on what? On what
is beneath, on the unknown. Or you will crawl up a chimney-flue, at the
risk of burning; or you will creep through a sewer-pipe, at the risk of
drowning; I do not speak of the holes that you will be obliged to mask,
of the stones which you will have to take up and replace twenty times a
day, of the plaster that you will have to hide in your straw pallet. A
lock presents itself; the bourgeois has in his pocket a key made by a
locksmith. If you wish to pass out, you will be condemned to execute a
terrible work of art; you will take a large sou, you will cut it in
two plates; with what tools? You will have to invent them. That is your
business. Then you will hollow out the interior of these plates, taking
great care of the outside, and you will make on the edges a thread, so
that they can be adjusted one upon the other like a box and its cover.
The top and bottom thus screwed together, nothing will be suspected. To
the overseers it will be only a sou; to you it will be a box. What will
you put in this box? A small bit of steel. A watch-spring, in which you
will have cut teeth, and which will form a saw. With this saw, as long
as a pin, and concealed in a sou, you will cut the bolt of the lock, you
will sever bolts, the padlock of your chain, and the bar at your window,
and the fetter on your leg. This masterpiece finished, this prodigy
accomplished, all these miracles of art, address, skill, and patience
executed, what will be your recompense if it becomes known that you
are the author? The dungeon. There is your future. What precipices are
idleness and pleasure! Do you know that to do nothing is a melancholy
resolution? To live in idleness on the property of society! to be
useless, that is to say, pernicious! This leads straight to the depth
of wretchedness. Woe to the man who desires to be a parasite! He will
become vermin! Ah! So it does not please you to work? Ah! You have but
one thought, to drink well, to eat well, to sleep well. You will drink
water, you will eat black bread, you will sleep on a plank with a fetter
whose cold touch you will feel on your flesh all night long, riveted to
your limbs. You will break those fetters, you will flee. That is well.
You will crawl on your belly through the brushwood, and you will eat
grass like the beasts of the forest. And you will be recaptured. And
then you will pass years in a dungeon, riveted to a wall, groping for
your jug that you may drink, gnawing at a horrible loaf of darkness
which dogs would not touch, eating beans that the worms have eaten
before you. You will be a wood-louse in a cellar. Ah! Have pity on
yourself, you miserable young child, who were sucking at nurse less
than twenty years ago, and who have, no doubt, a mother still alive! I
conjure you, listen to me, I entreat you. You desire fine black cloth,
varnished shoes, to have your hair curled and sweet-smelling oils on
your locks, to please low women, to be handsome. You will be shaven
clean, and you will wear a red blouse and wooden shoes. You want rings
on your fingers, you will have an iron necklet on your neck. If you
glance at a woman, you will receive a blow. And you will enter there at
the age of twenty. And you will come out at fifty! You will enter young,
rosy, fresh, with brilliant eyes, and all your white teeth, and your
handsome, youthful hair; you will come out broken, bent, wrinkled,
toothless, horrible, with white locks! Ah! my poor child, you are on the
wrong road; idleness is counselling you badly; the hardest of all work
is thieving. Believe me, do not undertake that painful profession of
an idle man. It is not comfortable to become a rascal. It is less
disagreeable to be an honest man. Now go, and ponder on what I have said
to you. By the way, what did you want of me? My purse? Here it is."

Advice from an Old Man (Jean Valjean) to Montparnasse, a young thief from Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.