The Works of Sydney Fowler Wright 1874 - 1965

S. Fowler Wright's Short Stories


The pursuit of knowledge is its own justification. At this distant day, looking dispassionately upon it, it is difficult to condemn, in its intention at least, the French revolution of 1984, which, unlike that of two centuries earlier which aimed at the elimination of a social caste, and in direct opposition to that of the Russian Bolshevists which aimed at the removal of the intelligentsia, was intended to eradicate the inefficient and the inadequate by the prompt and painless method of the guillotine.

        The inception of the Act by which the French nation, ever supreme in logic and first in political experiment, affirmed its determination to eliminate its own stupidity, was due to the genius of M. Jules Bouchere, as it was due to his sustained and passionate eloquence as Premier that it was first carried and afterwards reaffirmed by two overwhelming votes in the Chamber of Deputies.

        That it should have been necessary to reaffirm a decision the reasonableness of which was so obvious to intelligent people that to oppose it was to assert beyond argument their own unfitness to survive this sane and kindly inquisition, was due solely to the misdirected energy and courage of M. Pierre Duclos, who was perhaps the only man alive in France at that day who could have done it without condemning himself in the first moment of opposition. For how could his country remove for stupidity a man whose dramatic work was admitted throughout the civilised world to have eclipsed both Shakespeare and Molière, and to be equalled only by that of Ben Jonson and G. B. Shaw?

        The first occasion of his opposition concerned the fate of a simple and patriotic Frenchman named Leroux, who had himself applied for condemnation. The man had come to the prison-gates of Rouen, saying: "I am too stupid to see the wisdom of what you are doing. When you eliminated my wife and my two sons I lacked sufficient patriotism to be really pleased, though their stupidity was a fact of which I had often told them. Remove my head for the glory of France."

        The incident would have passed unnoticed, and the body of Leroux would have been disconnected from a head which was unfit to direct it, had it not come to the knowledge of M. Duclos, who moved a resolution in the Chamber of Deputies that the man was not eligible for elimination, on the ground that he had shown unusual intelligence in applying for his own destruction.

        The debate which followed was of exceptional interest, being conspicuous both for the sustained eloquence and the logical subtleties of the two great political protagonists. "How," asked M. Duclos, "if you advocate this appalling massacre, can you condemn for stupidity one who has sufficient wisdom to support your policy, and to approve it even to his own condemnation, which few could be found to do?"

        "How," retorted M. Bouchere, "can you argue that when he offered himself to death he affirmed his wisdom, unless you are yourself prepared to approve the measure which would condemn him? Is Saul also among the prophets?"

        Yet, after three days of such exchanges, M. Bouchere saw that there was sufficient feeling in favour of Leroux among his supporters to render it prudent for him to compromise the direct issue, which he did by proposing that the man should be placed under observation for a period of six months, to which Duclos agreed very readily. "In six months," he was heard to mutter, "in six months you yourself - " His voice died in his beard.

        But having made this concession, M. Bouchere promptly followed it by asking the Chamber for a policy which was steadily removing the inferior elements of the population of France, and this was carried with acclamation, the single vote of M. Duclos being recorded against it.

        The second resolution of confidence in the Government, and in support of the policy with which its name is identified, was moved in a rather different atmosphere.

        Four months of steady deletion had removed most of the more obviously unintelligent members of the community, leaving, however, a large number of dull or doubtful intellects which yet had sufficient intelligence to apprehend the peril in which they stood, as the tide of selective elimination rose toward them. The proportion of such individuals in the civilisation of that day, which had protected their youth, and been tolerant of the inefficiency of maturer years, was very considerable. There were many thousands of secretly apprehensive people who would gladly have agreed that a sufficient reduction had been made already. But there were few who would adventure the perilous prominence that such a declaration would bring upon them, with its almost certain consequence; and there were still a large number who felt sufficiently secure in the reality of their attainments, or the fortress of their conceit, to look with complacency upon the surrounding slaughter.

        There was another element which made it difficult to discontinue the executions. A vested interest is very quickly established. The judges and officials of the special courts which had been set up for the examination of the accused; the lawyers who were profitably occupied in the realisation and distribution of their estates; the painters and repairers of guillotines; all the householders in the execution-squares who benefited by the letting of windows, and the shopkeepers in the neighbouring streets; all the publishers of improving literature, including those who had commenced the issue of incomprehensible periodicals which were very widely bought, because it was considered a form of life-insurance to be seen to read them; all these, and a thousand others, were too directly interested in the campaign of extermination to welcome any word that could be spoken against it.

        M. Bouchere saw that the time had come when he must ask once more for the confidence of the Chamber, while he could yet do it in the expectation that none but M. Duclos would have the temerity to vote against him.

        Ascending the tribune, he spoke for over two hours without the interruption of dissent, in passionate defence and exaltation of the policy which was raising France to an intellectual level without precedent in the history of humanity - a level which must make its people pre-eminent among the races of mankind. The only thing which could cloud the issue, or diminish the triumph of the land they loved, would be that other nations should attempt to imitate a practice which they had lacked the courage or the imagination to be the first to institute. With a full knowledge of his responsibility, with a sense of the gravity of the words he uttered, he warned the world that the very suggestion of such a policy would be regarded as an unfriendly act, bringing war upon themselves - instant war, while yet the more stupid elements of their populations remained alive, to hamper their operations and confound their counsels. The intellectual eminence of France, which she had bought with the blood of millions, was a crown of glory which should be hers till the stars fell. . . . At this point, his words were lost in the deafening applause of a Chamber which had leapt to its feet in a delirium of patriotic fervour. Only M. Duclos remained seated, silent and sardonic, meeting his opponent's eyes even at that moment with a smile of contemptuous derision.

        M. Bouchere looked and saw. Was it not at this climax of triumph that he should strike, if ever, and annihilate his enemy? As the storm of applause died, he commenced again, addressing himself, as all might observe, directly to his solitary adversary, who continued to regard him silently with that expression of unchanged contempt, until he made some passing allusion to the speedy and painless exit which was allowed, by the mercy of France, to the citizens whose stupidity would otherwise have obscured her fame. Then there came from his lips one incredible word, clear and unmistakable. Looking full at the Premier, he ejaculated the unforgivable word Fool.

        When the President's bell had done something to subdue the resultant hubbub, he addressed the delinquent with his usual dignity. He was sure that M. Duclos would wish to express his regret, and to withdraw an expression which it would not be customary to hear in such an Assembly.

        M. Duclos replied that he hoped that he could never fail in respect to the Chamber, or in obedience to the President's ruling. But his difficulty was that he had not used the word as a vulgar expletive, or in any offensive or abusive way. It was a considered opinion which he had long held, and which was convincingly illustrated by the remark which he had interrupted. He was of opinion that M. Bouchere was a stupid man.

        The Chamber sat for one silent moment, as though stunned by the audacity of that attack not merely upon the political position, but upon the life of its leader. The next was pandemonium. But the President had seized that moment of silence with his customary coolness and promptitude, and had adjourned the Assembly.

        At the next meeting of the Chamber, after the Premier's vote of confidence had been carried with the usual single dissident, M. Bouchere rose confidently to submit a further motion to the Assembly that M. Duclos should be directed to withdraw the offensive expression which he had used against him, with a suitable apology for its use, and should then be required to absent himself from the House while his position would be considered by his fellow-members.

        "But," M. Duclos interjected cheerfully, "I do not propose to withdraw. I propose to justify it."

        The President intervened. Did M. Duclos appreciate the gravity of the position which he was taking up?

        M. Duclos said that he did. He asserted with confidence that M. Bouchere was a stupid man. If he could not prove it, they could call him by the same name.

        M. Bouchere, always quick and accurate in gauging the temper of the Assembly, saw that it would be useless to attempt to avoid the issue, which promised members a much superior entertainment to anything which could be gained from the rebuke or expulsion of one of their number for an unseemly word. He replied confidently that he repudiated the charge, and challenged his accuser to justify it.

        M. Duclos asked if it would not demonstrate his stupidity if it could be shown that he had instituted a revolution so terrible and so bloody without having sufficient intelligence to understand its consequences?

        M. Bouchere, without committing himself to this general proposition, denied that he had failed to do so. Let M. Duclos be specific in accusation, and he would know how to reply.

        M. Duclos was quite willing to be specific. Had not M. Bouchere committed himself to the random and proofless statement that the form of execution to which he was subjecting all the obtuser members of the community resulted in a particularly speedy and painless death? Might not such an assertion, made without proof, and in defiance of probability, be accurately described as the words of a stupid man?

        The Premier answered in genuine surprise at the weakness of the accusation which had been made against him. There was no doubt that decapitation involved an instantaneous and probably quite painless dissolution. It was too obvious for detailed argument among intelligent men.

        But his opponent held to his point. How did M. Bouchere know, or why should he suppose, that consciousness was discontinued in the severed head, which remained uninjured, with its organs of sight and hearing unimpaired, though the means of producing sound or motion might be no longer available?

        M. Bouchere replied, with more patience than could have been expected, that the fact that the head was severed from the supply of blood on which it depended would alone be sufficient to produce an instantaneous oblivion. Was it not common knowledge that the mere slackening of the heart's supply to the brain would produce unconsciousness, as in the common experience of a faint or swoon? How much more -?

        "There are few things more painful," M. Duclos replied, "than to hear a man of reputed intelligence asserting that of which he has no knowledge, and discussing that of which he is ignorant, with an assumption of his own finality." Would M. Bouchere reconcile this convenient theory with the vociferations of the domestic hog, when subjected to the familiar surgical operation which introduced it to its violent - he would not say to its untimely - end? Vociferations which were continued (though in a scale which descended with some rapidity) for a sufficient time to demonstrate to any intelligent and impartial mind that the diversion of the stream of life from its accustomed channel did not produce the unconsciousness which had been assumed by the facile stupidity - yes, he would not shirk the word, the only adequate word - of the man who had misguided France. He, at least, did not make random assertion. He did not mislead the assembly with the temerity of a proofless word. The demonstration was at the door.

        As he spoke these words, his voice was drowned by the shrill discordant protests of a quadruped whose unwilling rotundity was dragged forward to the central floor of the chamber, beneath the eyes of members too astonished, or, it may be, too interested to protest against this unprecedented invasion.

        We may consider the scene which followed with averted eyes. It is enough to say that the pig died at the hands of its attendant butcher, as so many of its ancestors had done before it, though in obscurer surroundings. Enough to record that it emphasised its objection in the usual manner, and, to the inward consternation of M. Bouchere, that it continued its protests, though with a descending liveliness, even when the stream of life had slackened from its deflated body. In a final demonstration, and with a cruelty which must be justified, if at all, by the gravity of the dependant issue, the deputies witnessed the butcher's weapon driven once again into the neck of an animal that was squealing faintly, as in a dream, and observed the note to rise again in a re-animated though momentary protest against this final indignity.

        The pig died, and the originator of this astonishing demonstration looked at his opponent with a smile of sardonic satisfaction. But M. Bouchere had now had time to consider his position. He ascended the tribune to denounce with real or simulated indignation the indecent folly which would expose that Assembly to the contempt or derision of an hilarious world. He touched a note that stirred an approving murmur when he asked with passionate scorn if M. Duclos considered it a seemly thing to make comparison between his countrymen - and his countrywomen - even the more stupid among them, and the domestic hog? But, he was obviously disconcerted, though for a moment only, by the sharp interjection of his opponent: "Then you shouldn't serve them in the same way."

        But he went on, when he felt that he had secured the ear of the Assembly, to ridicule the absurdity, as he condemned the indecency, of the demonstration which had been thrust upon them. Was not every schoolchild familiar with the theory of reflex actions? Was there consciousness in the words of delirium? In the antics of which some people were guilty in the dentist's chair?

        What might have resulted had it been left to M. Duclos to reply can be a matter of conjecture only, for M. Pardieu, a deputy who had been recently disappointed in a well-founded expectation of office, succeeded in gaining the President's eye as the Premier descended from the tribune, and was the next to address the Assembly. He said briefly that the question which M. Duclos had raised was too serious to be dismissed while its answer was a matter of conjecture only. The thought that the baskets of Frenchman's heads that were removed at the end of the daily operations in the marketplaces of a hundred cities might include those who were still retaining a horrified consciousness of the fate which had fallen upon them - might even be suffering a physical agony of severed nerves which they were powerless to express or communicate - was not one which could be left unanswered, however stupid these persons might have been shown to be. . . . He suggested a simple experiment by which the question could be finally settled, and he proposed the judgement upon the conduct of M. Duclos, and of the accusation which he had made against the Premier should alike be suspended in the meantime, and this solution was accepted unanimously.

        Jacques Moulins was a man of an exceptional stupidity, who could not have escaped the inquisition for so many months had he not possessed a substantial fortune, which he used as freely as was possible to one of his avaricious and parsimonious nature to secure his safety. When he was selected, after exhaustive inquiry, as a particularly suitable subject for the proposed experiment, his fate was certain, for the evidences of his stupidity were abundant, and there were few, if any, in his native village, who were not able and willing to bear witness against him.

        Convicted of a dense and somewhat mulish stupidity, he was informed, during the few hours which intervened between the inevitable sentence and its execution upon him, that his wealth would be handed over to a brother who had a reputation for shrewdness which would justify such an allocation (but with whom he was known to have had a bitter quarrel) unless he should succeed in winking with his right eye when asked to do so, three minutes after his head had been detached in the usual manner. Should he do this, however, his money would be distributed among his children in accordance with his dispositions, and the French laws of inheritance.

        The experiment was conducted in the sight of many thousands of people, and with a scrupulous fairness. M. Moulins was enjoined to fix his thoughts upon the wink which he would be required to perpetrate under such unusual disadvantages. When, with a characteristic stupidity, he began to struggle as he was being fastened to the board which would enable his neck to be presented to the guillotine at the appropriate angle, he was put on one side for a few moments to enable him to compose his mind, and, when the knife descended, his head was not allowed to fall into the usual receptacle, but the executioner had it grasped by the hair, so that he could place it as once upon a tureen or dish which had been provided in readiness, and which was of such a shape that it would remain upright upon it, almost as though it were rising from a natural collar.

        The three minutes passed in a breathless silence. The executions were suspended. Even the seven stupid persons who were awaiting their own decapitations may not have been entirely indifferent to the result of an experiment which was intended to demonstrate the nature of the experience which they were also to undergo. A hundred binoculars were directed upon that passive, bloodless head. The kinematographic operators stood in readiness. The appointed official said in a slow, clear voice, of a suitable gravity: "Jacques Moulins, if you desire that your property should be distributed according to your dispositions, and the laws of inheritance, I adjure you to wink with your right eye."

        There were five seconds of tense expectancy, while every gaze was concentrated upon that ghastly visage, and then, slowly, steadily, completely, the left eye closed.

        There was no doubt of that. Closed it remained. In that condition, with the right eye opened, and the left closed, it was subjected to the snapping of a hundred cameras. With a stupidity which persisted in death, Jacques Moulins had closed the wrong eye.

        In doing this, he had given his hoarded wealth to be the lawyers' sport. He had started litigation which still persists, though his brother and children have gone to their destined ends, and of the money itself there is little - but that is another story.

        The next day came, and the revolution of 1984 was an ended thing. Without change of law, without administrative order, it had ceased to function. The force which destroyed it was a common instinct of revulsion at which M. Duclos may have aimed when he led the attention of the nation to be concentrated upon the end of its victims, rather than upon the benefits which their deaths were supposed to bring. Before it ceased, it had been responsible for the deaths of 1,777,230 men, 1,183,026 women, and 11,314 children. Its influence upon the average intelligence of the people of France is a matter of history. But there was to be one more dramatic episode in the Chamber of Deputies before the curtain fell.

        M. Bouchere might have been well content to forget the challenge which had been thrust upon him, but his opponent held to his point with an unswerving determination. Speaking with a deliberate obtuseness, as though the administration of the law were being continued with its past severity, he claimed that the Premier should submit himself to its decision on the accusation of stupidity which he had brought against him - a motion which M. Pardieu was very quick to second.

        So accused, and on the issue of the experiment which had been agreed between them, M. Bouchere was unable to avoid the trial. Nor, in the changed temper of France, in its moment of sharp reaction, could there be any doubt of the verdict. The jury were unanimous in their decision that M. Bouchere had shown himself to be a stupid man.

        So there was to be one more demonstration of the efficiency of the guillotine in raising the intellectual standard of the race - an unavoidable demonstration, for how could M. Bouchere ask for himself a mercy which he had denied to almost three millions of his fellow-citizens? And it was at this point that M. Duclos intervened again - not to obstruct the doom which he may have felt it to be particularly fitting that the man should himself experience who had caused it to fall upon so many, but to offer the problematic advantage of a further experiment.

        It appeared that a chemist of his acquaintance had invented a certain glutinous substance of which he asserted that, if it were smeared upon the knife of the guillotine immediately before it descended, it would prevent effusion of the blood both from the head and trunk of the separated individual, and protect them also from any septic atmospheric contagion. He suggested that, under such conditions, it should not be beyond the resources of the surgical science of the day (as much in advance of that of fifty years earlier as that had been in advance of the practice of the previous century) to reunite the severed body, and M. Bouchere might survive both to relate his experience, and to acquire the wisdom which he now lacked.

        As the drowning man will clutch at the useless straw, so did M. Bouchere at this unexpected glue-pot, though it was offered by the hand of him who had contrived his downfall.

*        *        *        *        *

        The man could be seen for many years selling boot-laces at a street-corner in the Rue de la Paix. There was a scar round his neck. He did a good trade with the foreign tourists. He was undoubtedly of weak or disordered intellect. It was supposed to have been the result of an unusual shock. He is said to have died in the epidemic of 2002.

        . . . He always said that the experience had been like a pleasant dream, beyond which he had no memory to recall. It would be of interest, if he could be regarded as a reliable witness - but suppose that he said it only that he might annoy M. Duclos?

*        *        *        *        *

End of this file.