- Literary Escapes and Astral Shelters of an Incarcerated Conspirator
And in this circular cell a man who looks like me is writing, in characters I cannot understand, a long poem about a man in another circular cell writing a poem about a man in yet another circular cell. The series has no end, nor will anyone ever read what these prisoners are writing.—Jorge Luis Borges
On the edge of things we do not entirely understand, we create fantastic stories in order to venture hypotheses or to share with others the vertigos of our perplexity.—Adolfo Bioy Casares (1964)
The eternity of hell's punishments has perhaps taken the worst sting out of the antique idea of eternal return. It substitutes eternal torture for the eternal circuit.—Walter Benjamin [End Page 61]
It is the legitimate endeavor of scientific man now, as it was twenty-three hundred years ago, to account for the formation of the solar system and of the cluster of stars which forms the galaxy, by the fortuitous concourse of atoms. The greatest expounder of this theory, when asked how he could write an immense book on the system of the world without one mention of its author, replied, very logically, "Je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là."—Charles Sanders Peirce (1998)
In more than one sense, Eternity Through the Stars, published in Paris at the beginning of 1872, is a strange book. Written by Louis-Auguste Blanqui (1805-1881), a revolutionary whom history remembers for the audacity of his conspiracies and the perseverance of his political agitation, the book surprises by the poetic lucidity of an imagination that supplies an unexpected itinerary, at once sidereal and familiar: "I take refuge in the stars where one can wander without limits," Blanqui writes to his sister in a letter addressed from prison, as if he were referring to a welcoming astral shelter to which he habitually recurred. The letter's author was recognized as the natural leader of the Commune1 and, later, as "the best fighter of the period that extended from 1827 to 1881" (Mitry 1951, 8).
Baudelaire, who admired Robespierre, saw in Blanqui's "ardent and pure" courage the reincarnation of one who breathed Terror and Virtue. He deserved the esteem of Karl Marx who, in spite of marked discrepancies, never stopped recognizing in Blanqui "the heart and soul of the proletariat party in France."2 His opponents considered him the most dangerous of their enemies; those who formed alliances and who shared ideological affinities with him did not dissimulate the apprehension that the resonance of his clamorous seditious sermons provoked in them. For Walter Benjamin, Blanqui's was "the bronze voice that shook the nineteenth century" (1971, 284). In the notes that anticipate his book on Baudelaire, Benjamin proposes to confront them both, to clear away once and for all—they are his words—the fog that obscures the "illuminations" of one who is usually remembered according to the discontinuous vehemence of his followers: "Baudelaire finds himself as isolated in the literary world of his epoch as Blanqui is in the world of [End Page 62] the conspirators" (Benjamin 1989, 384). Additionally, he interprets Blanqui's defeat as Baudelaire's and the petite bourgeoisie's victory. "The Abyss" (Le gouffre), among others of Baudelaire's poems, repeats his vertiginous vision of infinity and silence, the silence of prison and of unfathomable space but also of the desire and the dreams of a terrorist who at the height of action never stopped thinking. Blanqui has succumbed, Baudelaire has reached success, and in the comparative oscillation Benjamin raises the author of Eternity Through the Stars over other characters of the age.
Condemned for his insurrections against the monarchy; feared for his violent accusations against the clergy, against the bourgeoisie, against Freemasonry; persecuted as the intrepid organizer of secret societies; victim of the slanders of those who were his companions; Blanqui was incarcerated more than twenty times, deported, and three times sentenced to death. He spent more than thirty years of his life locked up in the most severe prisons: in the...