'The Holy Family' by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1844): Fluer de Marie

Dante Rossetti's Fluer de Marie, 1874

A selection from The Holy Family by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, 1844.

The subject of this extract is a popular book written by Eugene Sue's published in Serial form between 1842-43 called The Mysteries of Paris which became very popular, and the first in a genre which would be styled 'City Mysteries'.

Note: an article with the title The Beginnings of Bleeding-Heart Liberalism: Eugene Sue's Les Mysteres de Paris was published in the Cambridge journal Comparative Studies in Society and History in 1981.

Chapter VIII

2) Revelation of The Mystery of Critical Religion, Or Fleur De Marie

b) Fleur de Marie

We meet Marie surrounded by criminals, as a prostitute in bondage to the proprietress of the criminals’ tavern. In this debasement she preserves a human nobleness of soul, a human unaffectedness and a human beauty that impress those around her, raise her to the level of a poetical flower of the criminal world and win for her the name of Fleur de Marie.
We must observe Fleur de Marie attentively from her first appearance in order to be able to compare her original form with her Critical transformation.
In spite of her frailty, Fleur de Marie at once gives proof of vitality, energy, cheerfulness, resilience of character — qualities which alone explain her human development in her inhuman situation.
When Chourineur ill-treats her, she defends herself with her scissors. That is the situation in which we first find her. She does not appear as a defenceless lamb who surrenders without any resistance to overwhelming brutality; she is a girl who can vindicate her rights and put up a fight.
In the criminals’ tavern in the Rue aux Fèves she tells Chourineur and Rudolph the story of her life. As she does so she laughs at Chourineur’s wit. She blames herself because on being released from prison she spent the 300 francs she had earned there on amusements instead of looking for work. “But,” she said, “I had no one to advise me.” The memory of the catastrophe of her life — her selling herself to the proprietress of the criminals’ tavern — puts her in a melancholy mood. It is the first time since her childhood that she has recalled these events.
“Le fait est, que ça me chagrine de regarder ainsi derrière moi ... a doit être bien bon d'être honnête." [The fact is that it grieves me when I look back in this way ... it must he lovely to be honest]
When Chourineur makes fun of her and tells her she must become honest, she exclaims:
“Honnête, mon dieu! et avec quoi donc veux-tu que je sois honnête?" [Honest! My God! What do you want me to be honest with?]
She insists that she is not one “to have fits of tears": “Je ne suis pas pleurnicheuse[I am no cry-baby]; but her position in life is sad — “Ça nest pas gai.[It isn’t a happy one] Finally, contrary to Christian repentance, she pronounces on the past the human sentence, at once Stoic and Epicurean, of a free and strong nature:
Enfin ce qui est fait, est fait." [Well, what is done is done]
Let us accompany Fleur de Marie on her first outing with Rudolph.
“The consciousness of your terrible situation has probably often distressed you,” Rudolph says, itching to moralise.
“Yes,” she replies, “more than once I looked over the embankment of the Seine; but then I would gaze at the flowers and the sun and say to myself: the river will always he there and I am not yet seventeen years old. Who can say? “On such occasions it seemed to me that I had not deserved my fate, that I had something good in me. People have tormented me enough, I used to say to myself, but at least I have never done any harm to anyone.”
Fleur de Marie considers her situation not as one she has freely created, not as the expression of her own personality, but as a fate she has not deserved. Her bad fortune can change. She is still young.
Good and evil, as Marie conceives them, are not the moral abstractions of good and evil. She is good because she has never caused suffering to anyone, she has always been human towards her inhuman surroundings. She is good because the sun and the flowers reveal to her her own sunny and blossoming nature. She is good because she is still young, full of hope and vitality. Her situation is not good, because it puts an unnatural constraint on her, because it is not the expression of her human impulses, not the fulfilment of her human desires; because it is full of torment and without joy. She measures her situation in life by ‘ her own individuality, her essential nature, not by the ideal of what is good.
In natural surroundings, where the chains of bourgeois life fall away and she can freely manifest her own nature, Fleur de Marie bubbles over with love of life, with a wealth of feeling, with human joy at the beauty of nature; these show that her social position has only grazed the surface of her and is a mere misfortune, that she herself is neither good nor bad, but human.
Monsieur Rudolph, what happiness! ... grass, fields! If you would allow me to get out, the weather is so fine ... I should love so much to run about in these meadows.
Alighting from the carriage, she plucks flowers for Rudolph, can hardly speak for joy”, etc., etc.
Rudolph tells her that he is going to take her to Madame George’s farm. There she can see dove-cotes, cow-stalls and so forth; there they have milk, butter, fruit, etc. Those are real blessings for this child. She will be merry, that is her main thought. “You can’t believe how I am longing for some fun!” She explains to Rudolph in the most unaffected way her own share of responsibility for her misfortune. “My whole fate is due to the fact that I did not save up my money.” She therefore advises him to be thrifty and to put money in the savings-bank. Her fancy runs wild in the castles in the air that Rudolph builds for her. She becomes sad only because she
“has forgotten the present” and “the contrast of that present with the dream of a joyous and laughing existence reminds her of the cruelty of her situation”.
So far we have seen Fleur de Marie in her original un-Critical form. Eugène Sue has risen above the horizon of his narrow world outlook. He has slapped bourgeois prejudice in the face. He will hand over Fleur de Marie to the hero Rudolph to atone for his temerity and to reap applause from all old men and women, from the whole of the Paris police, from the current religion and from “Critical Criticism”.
Madame George, to whom Rudolph entrusts Fleur de Marie, is an unhappy, hypochondriacal religious woman. She immediately welcomes the child with the unctuous words: “God blesses those who love and fear him, who have been unhappy and who repent.” Rudolph, the man of “pure Criticism”, has the wretched priest Laporte, whose hair has greyed in superstition, called in. He has the mission of accomplishing Fleur de Marie’s Critical reform.
Joyfully and unaffectedly Marie approaches the old priest. In his Christian brutality, Eugène Sue makes a “marvellous instinct” at once whisper in her ear that “shame ends where repentance and penance begin”, that is, in the church, which alone saves. He forgets the unconstrained merriness of the outing, a merriness which nature’s grace and Rudolph’s friendly sympathy had produced, and which was troubled only by the thought of having to go back to the criminals’ landlady.
The priest Laporte immediately adopts a supermundane attitude. His first words are:
God’s mercy is infinite, my dear child! He has proved it to you by not abandoning you in your severe trials.... The magnanimous man who saved you fulfilled the word of the Scriptures” (note — the word of the Scriptures, not a human purpose!): “Verily the Lord is nigh to those who invoke him; he will fulfil their desires ... he will hear their voice and will save them ... the Lord will accomplish his work.”
Marie cannot yet understand the evil meaning of the priest’s exhortations. She answers:
“I shall pray for those who pitied me and brought me back to God.”
Her first thought is not for God, it is for her human saviour and she wants to pray for him, not for her own absolution. She attributes to her prayer some influence on the salvation of others. Indeed, she is still so naive that she supposes she has already been brought back to God. The priest feels it is his duty to destroy this unorthodox illusion.
“Soon,” he says, interrupting her, “soon you will deserve absolution, absolution from your great errors ... for, to quote the prophet once more, the Lord holdeth up those who are on the brink of falling.”
One should not fail to see the inhuman expressions the priest uses. Soon you will deserve absolution. Your sins are not yet forgiven.
As Laporte, when he receives the girl, bestows on her the consciousness of her sins, so Rudolph, when he leaves her, presents her with a gold cross, the symbol of the Christian crucifixion awaiting her.
Marie has already been living for some time on Madame George’s farm. Let us first listen to a dialogue between the old priest Laporte and Madame George.
He considers “marriage” out of the question for Marie “because no man, in spite of the priest’s guarantee, will have the courage to face the past that has soiled her youth”. He adds: “she has great errors to atone for, her moral sense ought to have kept her upright.”
He proves, as the commonest of bourgeois would, that she could have remained good: “There are many virtuous people in Paris today.” The hypocritical priest knows quite well that at any hour of the day, in the busiest streets, those virtuous people of Paris pass indifferently by little girls of seven or eight years who sell allumettes [matches], and the like until about midnight as Marie herself used to do and who, almost without exception, will have the same fate as Marie.
The priest has made up his mind concerning Marie’s penance; in his own mind he has already condemned her.. Let us follow Marie when she is accompanying Laporte home in the evening.
“See, my child,” he begins with unctuous eloquence, “the boundless horizon the limits of which are no longer visible” (for it is evening), “it seems to me that the calm and the vastness almost give us an idea of eternity.... I am telling you this, Marie, because you are sensitive to the beauties of creation.... I have often been moved by the religious admiration which they inspire in you-you who for so long were deprived of religious feeling.”
The priest has already succeeded in changing Marie’s immediate naive pleasure in the beauties of nature into a religious admiration. For her, nature has already become devout, Christianised nature, debased to creation. The transparent sea of space is desecrated and turned into the dark symbol of stagnant eternity. She has already learnt that all human manifestations of her being were “profane”, devoid of religion, of real consecration, that they were impious and godless. The priest must soil her in her own eyes, he must trample underfoot her natural, spiritual resources and means of grace, in order to make her receptive to the supernatural means of grace he promises her, baptism.
When Marie wants to make a confession to him and asks him to be lenient he answers:
“The Lord has shown you that he is merciful.”
In the clemency which she is shown Marie must not see a natural, self-evident attitude of a related human being to her, another human being. She must see in it an extravagant, supernatural, superhuman mercy and condescension; in human leniency she must see divine mercy. She must transcendentalise all human and natural relationships by making them relationships to God. The way Fleur de Marie in her answer accepts the priest’s chatter about divine mercy shows how far she has already been spoilt by religious doctrine.
As soon as she entered upon her improved situation, she said, she had felt only her new happiness.
“Every instant I thought of Monsieur Rudolph. I often raised my eyes to heaven, to look there, not for God, but for Monsieur Rudolph, and to thank him. Yes, I confess, Father, I thought more of him than of God; for he did for me what God alone could have done.... I was happy, as happy as someone who has escaped a great danger for ever.”
Fleur de Marie already finds it wrong that she took a new happy situation in life simply for what it really was, that she felt it as a new happiness, that her attitude to it was a natural, not a supernatural one. She accuses herself of seeing in the man who rescued her what he really was, her rescuer, instead of supposing some imaginary saviour, God, in his place. She is already caught in religious hypocrisy, which takes away from another man what he has deserved in respect of me in order to give it to God, and which in general regards everything human in man as alien to him and everything inhuman in him as really belonging to him.
Marie tells us that the religious transformation of her thoughts, her sentiments, her attitude to life was effected by Madame George and Laporte.
“When Rudolph took me away from the Cité, I already had a vague consciousness of my degradation. But the education, the advice and examples I got from you and Madame George made me understand ... that I had been more guilty than unfortunate.... You and Madame George made me realise the infinite depth of my damnation.”
That is to say she owes to the priest Laporte and Madame George the replacement of the human and therefore bearable consciousness of her degradation by the Christian and hence unbearable consciousness of eternal damnation. The priest and the bigot have taught her to judge herself from the Christian point of view.
Marie feels the depth of the spiritual misfortune into which she has been cast. She says:
“Since the consciousness of good and evil had to be so frightful for me, why was I not left to my wretched lot?... Had I not been snatched away from infamy, misery and blows would soon have killed me. At least I should have died in ignorance of a purity that I shall always wish for in vain.”
The heartless priest replies:
“Even the most noble nature, were it to be plunged only for a day in the filth from which you have been saved, would be indelibly branded. That is the immutability of divine justice!”
Deeply wounded by this priestly curse uttered in such honeyed tones, Fleur de Marie exclaims:
“You see therefore, I must despair!”
The grey-headed slave of religion answers:
“You must renounce hope of effacing this desolate page from your life, but you must trust in the infinite mercy of God. Here below, my poor child, you will have tears, remorse and penance, but one day up above, forgiveness and eternal bliss!
Marie is not yet stupid enough to be satisfied with eternal bliss and forgiveness up above.
“Pity, pity, my God!” she cries. “I am so young.... Malheur à moi! [Woe unto me!]
Then the hypocritical sophistry of the priest reaches its peak:
“On the contrary, happiness for you, Marie; happiness for you to whom the Lord sends this bitter but saving remorse! It shows the religious susceptibility of your soul.... Each of your sufferings is counted up above. Believe me, God left you awhile on the path of evil only to reserve for you the glory of repentance and the eternal reward due to atonement.”
From this moment Marie is enslaved by the consciousness of sin. In her former most unhappy situation in life she was able to develop a lovable, human individuality; in her outward debasement she was conscious that her human essence was her true essence. Now the filth of modern society, which has touched her externally, becomes her innermost being, and continual hypochondriacal self-torture because of that filth becomes her duty, the task of her life appointed by God himself, the self-purpose of her existence. Formerly she said of herself “Je ne suis pas pleurnicheuse” and knew that “ce qui est fait, est fait”. Now self-torment will be her good and remorse will be her glory.