The Opportune Moment, 1855
A novel by Patrik Ourednik
Translated by Alex Zucker
Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press, 2011
Rights one, two, three. Rights! By what right does anyone mean to grant me rights?
Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains, says Rousseau. To be sure. And what next? The enthronement of a new order, the tyranny of the mob. Bloodthirsty fools who grasp hold of any excuse because they lack any reason; cutthroats who claim they intend to dispatch the enemies of the people, and murder the best of their ranks; thieves who plunder public property in the name of the national estates; firebrands who talk of home defense and devastate the land. The only ones of that time who were not hypocrites were the drunkards: they declared that they were thirsty and tapped every keg in sight. Let us respect the drunkards for their forthrightness and arm ourselves against the murderers whose slogan is revolution. Let us respect the drunkards for their unsteady step; he who staggers, murders not.
What else have the reforms brought us? Compulsory school attendance? To what end? So the mob can appropriate the philosophy of the bourgeoisie? Love of property, respect for order, and hatred for everything that transcends them, for everything more true and real? Since when did education ever make a man more human? Better, more perceptive, more insightful? Is not the worst ignorance woven from nonsensical shreds of knowledge filtered by this or that institution, church, state, revolution, monarchy, timocracy, democracy? Compulsory school attendance is the best way there is to multiply the ranks of fools. Do not force anyone to go to school; either he will enroll himself or he will do without it. Do not give people compulsory rights. Do not give them rights or obligations. Give them freedom.
/.../ For several years I attempted to build a new anarchist settlement in Venezuela. However, it quickly became clear that my reputation and name would henceforth be an obstacle to similar projects.
Since then I have eked out a living. Nothing that would interest you.
Oh, yes, I have a son, he lives in Brazil. He, too, longs for a world that is not a prison. Today he, too, has a grown-up son; so he has someone to whom he can pass on his despair. Nothing new under the sun. In our youth we live in expectation of better tomorrows, in old age that time seems to us happier than the tomorrows that never came. We have forgotten how hopeless hope can be, how unbearable the waiting. Disappointment has become commonplace for us. We are accustomed to it. In reality we are better off than our sons.
The world is pure madness. Man is born in chains. Into a world of hatred and evil. Searching his way in the cold toward the rot. Few yearn to become killers, but few refuse to kill. Evil winds through history without end. Wagons along muddied trails. I do not know whether to understand evil makes a man more clairvoyant. I do not know whether it makes him stronger waiting for death. I know only this: I await my own calmly, resigned and without regret.
Fewer people came to the meeting than usual. Zeffirino and Gorand didn’t come. Fifteen or twenty of the French were missing, and even more of the Germans. There were more Italians than anyone else. The Slavs came for the first time, after beginning to speak German all of a sudden out of nowhere when they were helping us fill the casks. The names of the Egalitarians elected were Allegret (Jean and Roland), Penot, Roche, and Dumas. They’re all young and wear their hair long, a little like aristocrats and some of the anarchists. Jean and Roland are twins.
Dumas took the floor and declared that the reason he and his friends had stood for the presidium was to salvage what could still be salvaged. He said that the journey was nearing its end and that it would be a good idea to clarify some matters before we embarked on the second leg of the voyage. That some of the settlers, as had come to light in recent days, didn’t wish to continue in the journey to Fraternitas and intended to settle in Rio de Janeiro or to depart for Argentina or the United States. And that it would be a good idea to question each of the settlers individually and clarify who stood where. Once we knew who didn’t wish to continue on the journey, we would set aside their supplies and the sum to which they were entitled from the shared treasury. The rest of us, on the other hand, would surrender our private funds and belongings to joint administration before we landed, so that it would be clear whom we could actually count on. He and his friends had drawn up a pledge of honor, which each of us had to sign before setting out on the overland journey. Those who didn’t know how to write could authorize someone else to sign on their behalf. All matters would be decided by public vote without regard to whether or not the question had been placed on the agenda in advance. In the case of a tie, the vote would be decided by lots. All settlers aged thirteen years and above were allowed to vote, the votes of those under thirteen would be cast by their parents or, assuming they could speak, an individual chosen by the young settlers. Further they proposed that participation in meetings from now on be truly obligatory, so that no one could say they didn’t know what we had agreed on. If someone missed a meeting and didn’t have a serious reason (illness), the next day he would get nothing to eat. The second time he would be put in isolation from the collective for twenty-four hours, the third time he would be expelled from the settlement.
Dumas said that assuming we agreed to the proposals, tomorrow he and his friends would put together a new list of settlers and then in the evening they would read the pledge of honor. Anyone not present or not wishing to sign would be crossed off the list. At which point we would proceed to the apportioning of shared property. The following day, meaning the day after tomorrow, we would know finally who was in and who was out and could move ahead with settling more important matters.
He said that if this proposal failed to meet with the agreement of those present, he didn’t know what else he could offer our collective, and this evening he would hand in a resignation on behalf of himself and his friends. And he concluded: Long live the free settlement Fraternitas, long live brotherhood among nations, I thank you all.
Dumas’s speech lasted a long time, since I had to translate everything into Italian, followed by Agottani translating into German. When we were finished, there was a moment of silence and no one said a word. Finally Desmarie spoke up to say that he personally found the Egalitarians’ proposals inspiring, albeit with the proviso that they be valid only until such time as we had reached the settlement, at which point the Regulations proposed by Older Brother would take full effect and any eventual alterations or modifications would have to be consulted with him in advance. With that Decio said that he didn’t wish to get ahead of events, but to consult everything with Older Brother was unrealistic, seeing as he had visited the settlement only once so far, and to write him in Europe and wait for an answer about everything was not really possible. We were the ones who were going to live in the settlement, after all, and we needed to be able to agree among ourselves. To which Dumas said that this discussion was truly premature, the point was to impose some sort of order on the collective now, not in a month from now. Decio declared that he didn’t like the way the food had been handled, that denying people food was undignified. Dumas said that of course it could be discussed, but not for too long, since otherwise, as usual, they wouldn’t get anywhere. Domenico suggested that in that case they be expelled straightaway but first they get something to eat. Argia asked whether a woman having her period would be considered an illness. Dumas said they hadn’t considered it in such detail, but it could be addressed on a case-by-case basis. One of the Germans spoke up to say that his wife suffered periods of madness. Dumas said that he didn’t see what that had to do with it. The German replied he thought that’s what the Italian lady had said. Argia said that she was no lady. Agottani said that the German hadn’t said any such thing, he didn’t say dame, but frau, which just meant any woman in general, but he, Agottani, had translated it as signora. Argia said that just because she was no lady didn’t mean she was just any woman in general. And that she had asked her question on behalf of all the women, including the Germans. Dumas said that he had already answered Argia, and Umberto said that women should stay at home when they had their period, everyone was better off that way, not only them. The German said he hadn’t meant to offend the Italian frau, and Cattina said that was a typical male remark. The German said he didn’t see what was so typically male about it, and Umberto told him not to worry. Cattina said she didn’t mean him, she meant Umberto, and Umberto said, What did I tell you, and laughed out loud. By that time I had stopped translating, so Dumas asked what they were talking about and what was so funny, he could use a laugh himself. I said there had been a misunderstanding which led to a comical outcome. Dumas said, Oh I see, but he looked disgruntled, and Roland Allegret said when everyone had had their fill of laughing, maybe we could get back to more important matters.
© Patrik Ourednik