by Phyllis Chesler
After reading something I quoted from Peter Weiss’s MARAT/SADE, a friend called this passage from Mark Twain to my attention. It is worth sharing.
THERE were two “Reigns of Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror—that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.
Twain has a point. However, the remedy is absolutely unknown. Violent mobs, right-wing tyrants, left-wing governments have all traded in blood and terror which has led to a vast number of deaths and to even greater human suffering.
Umm... Twain does have a point - only to a point, for he fails to notice that the two terrors are part of the same chain - the longer, systemic terror causing the shorter, revolutionary one that promises to liberate from that longer, grueling terror -- only introducing it again, in a "revolutionary" form. Bolsheviks getting rid of the Czar to plunge Russia into Communism, or ayatollahs dethroning the Shah to get Iran into the current misery of mullah-ocracy are good examples. There may be no solution -- but there is definitely a pattern. In fact, the solution may consist of honest governance -- but it is unattainable without the rule of law -- which all rulers absolutely abhor. Hence, the problem. Makes sense?
Well, the revolutionary terror was discrete in time and space right enough, but I'm not sure that works to its advantage. It was discrete in time and space not least because it was a specific program to kill people to reshape society and had no intention of actually stopping at Thermidor of that one year had it not been stopped. Minds vary as to whether the alleged end would have been worth it. If Twain means to compare it to specific institution of the Inquisition, on the one hand that body may have wracked up more victims, but only over a much longer time, with tribunals easier to get a fair hearing from than most courts of its era, and much easier than the Revolutionary Tribunal of France, easier yet than its intellectual heirs [who have also exceeded in the 20th century the total body count of the Inquisition or all equivalent bodies by a wide margin]. Looking at Twain's comment more broadly, as perhaps a criticism of all pre-revolutionary society, maybe. The Inquisition commanded an absurd amount of headspace among 19th century men of letters [poe too], and his comment taken that way would far overextend the scope and period of its influence. Looking at it as all society, perhaps he's more right, but then that's not realistic or fair. A few men killing tens of thousands in barely more than a year is pretty impressive if you need to compare it to all killed for all reasons in an entire civilization over a millennium. Plus, it's not immediately clear that most people at most times in the preceding millennium of Europe imagined themselves in immediate peril of life from their lord's enforcers in that 'knock on the door' way that the Terror had. Nor yet was every European peasant starving all the time or in hiding all his life the way one might have had to be in Paris under the terror. Or in the Vendee. There are plenty of criticisms to make of ancien regime Europe, but taking every ill of every cause in every context over a millennium of history and comparing it to deliberate murder without judicial recourse is the same sleight of hand that made people claim the radiant future would be worth it. Every so often I encounter a Twain reference that makes me think of him as either an intellectual con man worthy of our own time, or a useful idiot avant la lettre. But I remain fascinated by the enormous imaginative power the Inquisition had over Gothic literary minds.