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Caroline Warman

25. Rétif de la Bretonne (1734-1806), Paris Nights, 17881

Texte intégral

  • 1 Nicolas-Edme Rétif de La Bretonne, Night 81: ‘L’Homme aux cheveux plats’, in his Les nuits de Paris (...)

1In a passage from Paris Nights, Rétif de la Bretonne muses on the subjects of blasphemy and fanaticism.

2My day was taken up by work, as usual. In the evening, I witnessed a new scene of fanaticism. At ten o clock, as I passed in front of the police superintendent’s door in the square near where I lived, I saw a crowd gathered. I enquired why. Some local women replied that it was someone who had blasphemed against the Virgin Mary. I felt compelled to go into the Superintendent’s office. I found, alone with the clerk, a man with plain flat hair, who was sitting peacefully. I asked them who the blasphemer was.

3‘It is this man’, the clerk told me, ‘who is staying here until the crowd disperses’.
I said to the man with the Jansenist hair: ‘Tell me, please, sir, why you are accused of blasphemy’.
‘Please believe me, sir’, the man responded, ‘when I say that I have not committed blasphemy. Here are the facts: I was walking down the Rue St Victor; on the corner of the Rue du Mûrier, were three women, who were chatting, and two seemed to be consoling the other. The eldest said to her: ‘Call upon the Holy Virgin Mary; she will hear you: she’s my port of call. Isn’t the Holy Virgin Mary everywhere?’
I felt I should pick up on this phrase, from the lips of a pious woman and deserving of an explanation: ‘What you just said was heretical, my good woman: it is God alone who is all around us’.

4The three women looked at me for a moment in silence and I was just about to explain the true principles of faith to them, when the old woman who had spoken before shrieked, ‘Help! Atheist! Huguenot! He says that the Virgin Mary isn’t everywhere!’

5At these words, I was surrounded by a huge crowd of people who all came out of their homes in an instant. People flung themselves at me: I asked for help from the guards and to be brought before the Superintendent.

6I smiled and said to the fellow: ‘Sir, you have acted recklessly! You should be very careful before attacking the prejudices of common people, and only do it when their prejudices are truly harmful: this one isn’t, even though it is an error’.
‘What! Sir, you want a true Christian to see an error and not fight against it?’
‘Yes, sometimes’.
‘You would let it be, a mistake like that?’
‘Well why not?’
‘That’s Jesuit morality, pure and simple’.
‘Jesuits may not have been right about everything; but they were no fools’.
‘You’re a Molinist, sir!’
‘No, good sir’.
‘Aha! So then you must be… an honest person…’
‘Well I’d like to think so!’
‘You’re a moderate then!!’
‘Oh! Yes, I am a moderate! One can never be sufficiently so’.

7At these words, the fellow meditated, sat down (he had been standing up while talking), and said nothing more to me: this word ‘moderate’ had scandalised him. I went to see if the rabble was dispersing. There were no more than a dozen left. And as I knew the Superintendent, I took it upon myself to tell the guard to bring all these nosey people in. When they heard this, they all withdrew, and I returned to invite the Jansenist to leave. Which he did. I accompanied him just beyond the fateful Rue du Mûrier, before taking my leave. He was extremely cold towards me: I was moderate. I concluded from his behaviour that he always took the most foolish stance, the stance of those who exaggerate, and who are the cause of all ills.

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1 Nicolas-Edme Rétif de La Bretonne, Night 81: ‘L’Homme aux cheveux plats’, in his Les nuits de Paris ou lobservateur nocturne, London: Libraires de France, 1789, pp. 114-116.


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