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Octave Mirbeau on Voting

1,578 words

mirbeauTranslated by Ann Sterzinger

One thing amazes me prodigiously—I’d say it stuns me: that even during the scientific era in which I write, after umpteen examples, after all the newspaper scandals, there can still exist, in our dear France (as they say in the budget committee), a voter, one single voter—that irrational creature, unnatural and hallucinatory—who consents to interrupting his affairs, his dreams, or his pleasures, to go vote in favor or anything or anyone. 

If you think for one second, isn’t this surprising phenomenon the perfect way to derail the most subtle philosophies and muddle our reason? Where is the new Balzac who will describe for us the physiognomy of the modern voter? Or the Charcot who will explain the anatomy and the mentality of this incurable nutjob?

We’re waiting!

I understand that a scammer always finds investors, the censor his defenders; the comic opera has its fans, Le Constitutionnel its subscribers, and Mr. Carnot will always find painters to celebrate his triumphal and rigid entry into any town in Languedoc. I understand why Mr. Chantavoine continues to insist upon seeking for rhymes; I understand it all.

But that a member of Parliament, or a senator, or a president of the republic, or any one of these bizarre clowns who seek any sort of elected office, can find a voter—that is, that he can find that dreamed-of creature, that improbable martyr, who feeds you with his bread, clothes you with his wool, fattens you with his flesh, enriches you with his money, hoping only to receive, in exchange for these prodigalities, to be cudgeled about the neck and kicked in the behind, when he isn’t being shot in the chest with a pistol—truly, this tops the already rather pessimistic notions I already held about human stupidity in general, and the French brand of idiocy in particular, our dear and immortal nationalistic idiocy!

Of course, I’m speaking here of the informed and convicted voter, the sort who has theories, the type who—poor bugger—imagines himself to be performing the act of a free citizen, to be expanding his sovereignty, expressing his ideas, and imposing—oh, admirable and troubling folly!—political policies and social statements. I don’t speak of the voter who’s sussed it, who makes fun of what he’s doing, who only sees in the “results of his total power” but a taste of the butchery of monarchy, or a tipple at the wine of republicanism.

This fellow’s “sovereignty” consists of copping a bit of a buzz off universal suffrage. He clings to truth, because that’s all that matters to him, and he doesn’t care about the rest.

But the others?

Ah, those others! The serious, the austere, the sovereign commoners, those who feel an intoxication overcome them when they look in the mirror and say: “I’m a voter! They can’t do anything without me. I’m the foundation of modern society. At my will, Floque makes laws which force the hands of thirty-six million men, and Baudry d’Asson and Pierre Alype as well.” How can these characters still exist? However stubborn as they are, however proud and paradoxical, still, how is it possible that they didn’t long ago become discouraged and ashamed by what they do?

How did it happen that you still can find, even on the desolate heaths of Brittany—even in the inaccessible caverns of Cevennes or the Pyrenees—a fellow so stupid, so unreasonable, so blind to what’s in front of his noise, so deaf to all he hears that he’ll vote blue, white, or red, voluntarily, without being paid a cent or given booze?

To what baroque sentiment, to what mysterious influence could this thinking biped be obeying? They say he’s equipped with free will, and yet off he goes, proud of his rights, assured that if he waddles off to drop some ballot in some box, no matter what he’s written on it, then he’s carrying out his duty. What can he possibly be saying to himself that justifies or even explains this ridiculous act? What can he be hoping for?

Because in the end, in order to consent to give himself over to these greedy masters who cheat him and bash him, he must be telling himself something extraordinary that we can’t even guess at. It must be that, via some pretty powerful mental contortions, that to him the ideas of his senators come to resemble ideas of science, of justice, of devotion, of work and integrity; it must be that in the very names of Barbe and Baihaut, no less than in those of Rouvier and Wilson, he finds a special magic, and that in Vergoin and Hubbard he sees, through some mirage, promises of future happiness and immediate relief flower and expand.

And this is what’s truly frightening.

Nothing can teach him, neither the most raunchy comedies nor the most ominous tragedies. And yet look how, over all the long centuries which the world has endured, as societies unfurl and succeed each other, each the same as the last, one unique fact dominates all their histories: protection for the great, and oppression for the small. He never can manage to comprehend that he has only one historical reason to exist, and that’s to pay for a heap of things he will never enjoy, and to die for political machinations that have nothing to do with him.

What’s it to him whether it’s Peter or John who demands his money and takes his life, since he’s obliged to strip himself of the one and hand over the other anyway?

But amongst those who steal from him and those who execute him, he has his preferences: he votes for the most rapacious and the most ferocious.

He voted yesterday, he’ll vote tomorrow, he’ll vote forever.

The sheep go to the slaughter. They don’t think anything and they don’t hope for anything. But at least they don’t vote for the butcher who’ll kill them, or for the bourgeois who will eat them. Stupider than dumb beasts, more sheep-like than the sheep, the voter nominates his butcher and chooses his bourgeois.

He fights revolutions to achieve this right.

Oh, good voter, inexplicable imbecile, poor prey animal. If, instead of letting yourself be taken in by the absurd refrains that are dumped on you every morning for a quarter by your newspapers—big or small, blue or black, white or red, and which get paid to skin you alive—if, instead of believing in the chimerical flatteries with which they pet your vanity, by which they dress your poor sovereignty in rags—if, instead of standing there gaping like an eternal rube before the clumsy dupery of their plans—if once in a while you would sit by the fire and read some Schopenhauer and Max Nordau (two philosophers who know all about you and your masters)—perhaps you would learn some amazing and useful things.

Perhaps as well, after having read them, you would be in less of a hurry to dress yourself back up in your serious air and your pretty coat and trot off to the homicidal urns where, no matter which name you stuff inside, you’re already putting in the name of your deadliest enemy. As connoisseurs of humanity, they will tell you that politics are an abominable lie, that everything in them goes against good sense, justice, and right; and that there’s nothing in it for you, you whose account is already settled in the great book of human destinies.

After that, go on and dream if you like, of a paradise of light and perfume, of impossible brotherhood, of unreal happiness. It’s good to dream, and that douses one’s suffering. But never mix mankind into your dreams. Because wherever you find man, you find pain, hatred, and murder.

Above all, remember that the fellow who seeks your vote is, by that fact alone, a dishonest man. Because in exchange for the job and the fortune you push him up toward, he promises you a heap of marvelous things that he will never give you, and which aren’t in his power to give you anyway. The man you raise up does not represent your poverty, nor your aspirations, nor anything about you: he only represents his own passions and his own interests, which are both contrary to yours. To comfort yourself and revive those hopes which will be quickly disappointed, don’t fool yourself into imagining that the depressing spectacle you participate in today is particular to an age or a regime, and that it shall pass.

Every epoch is worth as much as every other, and ditto for governments—since none of them are worth a thing. Therefore, go home, good fellow, and go on strike against universal suffrage. You have nothing to lose, I tell you; and it may amuse you for a while. On the threshold of your door, closed to the panhandlers asking for your electoral largess, you’ll watch the whole mess parade by you, quietly smoking your pipe.

And if, in some forgotten corner, there indeed exists an honest man who’s capable of governing you and loving you, don’t feel bad. He would be too jealous of his dignity to throw himself into the mudwrestling match of political parties; too proud to accept the mandate which you only ever award for cynical audacity, low blows, and lies.

I’m telling you, buddy. Stay at home and strike.

Le Figaro, November 28, 1888


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  1. rhondda
    Posted September 24, 2015 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    This is hilarious. I am almost hysterical. We in Canada are having an election too. I find it very funny because I do not watch TB (intended) and there is really nothing else going, unless I make the effort to find out. Why should I do that? It really is amazing that politicians really think people are involved with this kind of propaganda willingly. I was brought up with this idea of civic duty to vote. When I asked myself why, Mirbeau really has the answer. They don’t come to the door anymore and they don’t ask what your concerns are anymore. They just assume you give a shit and they have the solution. Well, sadly no. Even if you told them your concerns, say immigration, you will just get labelled racist. I find it very funny because a Muslim man was sent to the Arctic and he had a terrible time figuring out which way was East. Sorry, everything is south from there. Oh sorry, I was supposed to feel sorry for him. I am just so sorry.

  2. Sandy
    Posted September 25, 2015 at 12:00 am | Permalink

    I was shocked when I came to when the essay was written. How little has changed.

    In Canada the big difference between the parties standing in the current election are the number of immigrants each is promising to bring in. The two left wing parties vying over how many refugees to bring in have probably given the election to the ruling Conservatives who want to hold the line on immigration (something like 250,000/annually).

    I’m uncertain if in the long run a change of masters will make much difference but I am certain that we have reached the end of both the welfare state and the multi-cultural society of ours. What comes next is unclear to me and to be honest I don’t really want to know!!!!!

  3. Proofreader
    Posted September 29, 2015 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    If I had to characterize this article in one word, that word would be “Menckenian.” Consider that high praise.

    In a roundabout way, this article reminds me that I should get around to reading the writings of Octave Mirbeau’s contemporary Édouard Drumont, “the pope of anti-Semitism.” Interestingly, Drumont has been characterised by François Richard as a “right-wing anarchist.” One of the characteristics of “right-wing anarchism,” as Richard has defined it in his two books on the subject, is scorn for democracy and other institutions of mass society.

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