Amélie-Suzanne Serre, Portrait of Auguste Blanqui, Politician, c. 1835 (detail)
by Douglas Penick
Louis-Auguste Blanqui was born in 1805 and died in 1881. He was a life-long radical agitator, and for more than 40 years he advocated the violent overthrow of whatever government ruled France. He was the most feared man in the country, and thus was convicted many times for sedition, treason, revolution and so forth. Once he was sentenced to death, another time to exile. Every government imprisoned him. He spent most of his life in locked cells. His longest term of imprisonment took place on the Fort du Taurreau, a fortified island in the North Sea, a half mile off the French coast. The fortress was made of granite, and Blanqui was its only prisoner. His health was already broken, but he was confined to a small room with damp stone walls, small windows placed so that he could not see the sky. Above him loomed a dark domed ceiling. Occasionally, he was allowed to exercise in a walled courtyard, but his guards had orders to shoot him if he came near any portal through which he could see outside. He was, after all, the most effective and dangerous political operative in France. He had no reason to believe he would ever leave this prison alive. He was a living dead man.
ETERNITY BY THE STARS is the book he began in 1871 at the outset of his life imprisonment in Fort de Taurreau. His claustrophobia there was total, both in space and time. His circumstances were unalterable. In this book, Blanqui wrote what he saw from his terminal vantage point. In the dimensions of mind alone, he was drawn into infinite space and the infinity of galaxies of stars, which were otherwise inaccessible to him. Time likewise expanded before him without limit. Eternity was something he could see. He was allowed to write and he transcribed his vision of the continuing rhythms of material existence in the light of infinite time.
“Any celestial body whatever it is, exists in infinite numbers in time and space, not only under one of its aspects, but such that it appears (in simultaneous multiplicity) at every second of its life span, from its birth until its death. Every great being, great or small, live or inert, that is spread over (this body’s) surface shares the privilege of this immortality.
“The earth is one of these celestial bodies. Therefore ever human being is eternal at every second of its existence. That which I am writing at this moment, in the dungeon at the Fort du Taureau, I have written and shall write again forever, on a table with a quill, sometimes wearing the same clothes and in almost identical circumstances. And so it is for all of us,
“All of these earths tumble, one after the other, into the rejuvenating flames, so to be born again and to tumble again, in the monotonous flow of an hour glass, eternally turning itself over and emptying itself. What we have is ever-old newness and ever new oldness.”
“At the present hour, the entire life of the planet, from its birth to its death, unfolds, day by day, on myriads of identical globes, with all the same crimes and miseries….Always and everywhere…the same drama, the same set; on the same narrow stage, a noisy humanity, infatuated by its own greatness, thinking itself to be the universe and inhabiting its prison like an immensity, soon to drown along with the globe that has borne the burden of its pride with deepest scorn. The same monotony, the same immobility in the foreign stars. The universe repeats itself endlessly…Indifferent, eternity plays the same performance in the infinite.”
(Louis-Auguste Blanqui- tr. Frank Chouraqui- Eternity by The Stars, Contramundum Press 2013, pp146-9)
In his extremity, Blanqui saw an infinity of parallel universes, each almost identical, each moving through time simultaneously with all the others so that the totality of possibilities and outcomes of every conceivable kind were all happening. It was a universe where no ambition, desire, goal, disastrous or noble could lay completely frustrated. It was a universe in which each passing moment is, at the same time, eternal.
He lived with nothing but this vision for eight more years and it never left him, even when, in a strange almost ridiculous turn of events, the people of Bordeaux elected him as their representative in the chamber of deputies. Many thought the vote had been rigged, but he was, as a deputy, released. He had little strength but resumed political agitating. In December of 1880, after giving a fiery speech urging revolution, he collapsed from a stroke and soon after died. In this world, certainly, and no doubt in many others, his life ended and its causes failed. But perhaps elsewhere, if his prison visions truly penetrated the many veils of ignorance and delusion that hold us here, things are very different and more in line with what Blanqui sought.
In memory of Arakawa
About the Author
Douglas Penick’s work appeared in Tricycle, Descant, New England Review, Parabola, Chicago Quarterly, Publishers Weekly Agni, Kyoto Journal, Berfrois, 3AM, The Utne Reader and Consequences, among others. He has written texts for operas (Munich Biennale, Santa Fe Opera), and, on a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation, three separate episodes from the Gesar of Ling epic. His novel, Following The North Star was published by Publerati. Wakefield Press published his and Charles Ré’s translation of Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace In Rome. His book of essays , The Age of Waiting which engages the atmospheres of ecological collapse, was published in 2021 by Arrowsmith Press.