Paris - Silence: For The Censor Is At Work
( Originally Published 1915 )
IT has been a psychological mistake to feed us with news of victories, and to suppress news of reverses. Since last Friday, by one of those weird telepathic instincts to which people as a community are sensible, we have become anxious and depressed. We are irritated. From the boy in the passage by the Gare Saint Lazare who shines my shoes to the Senator of the Rue Babylone who sits among the Immortels every Thursday afternoon, I find the same sentiment of disgust with the censorship. "We are not children!" cries the bootblack. "We are not children !" echoes the Academician.
When the gong rang at five minutes of four this afternoon, I was glad to turn in the manuscript upon which I was working, and I noticed a similar alacrity on the part of other readers at the Bibliothèque Nationale. We all hurried out into the Rue de Richelieu, and made straight for the kiosque across the street on the corner of the Square Louvois. A dozen musty subjects of past centuries were forgotten in an instant. We spent our sous for the little single sheets they call newspapers these days, and turned as if we had been in long training to the column containing the last communiqué, as the official bulletin is called. Rien de nouveau—nothing new. This has been our chorus for days. Wait a minute. NAMUR STILL HOLDS OUT! Why, we did not know that Namur was besieged. THE GERMANS DRIVEN BACK FROM MALINES! Is not Malines near Antwerp I How could the Germans have got there'?
It is something like this every day. And a dozen men, whose business in life is to find evidence that will overthrow the theories of some fellow who has written on their particular subject long ago and to gain a reputation by proving him wrong in the eyes of the world, go their different homeward ways, wondering if the present is n't as perplexing as the past, and whether the Censor does not afford as interesting an object of attack as the long-dead German scholars whose impeccability they are trying to destroy.
I take to the Grands Boulevards between four and five as an antidote to what I have been burying my nose in during the better part of the summer day. I fear sometimes that I may forget the truth and joy of nihil humani a me alienum puto more than that I may have to wear spectacles. So I take to the Grands Boulevards, spend an occasional hour in a cinéma, gaze into the shop windows and seek out an apéritif-addicted friend who is no more interested in my fourteenth-century history than I am in his steel rails f.o.b. Pittsburgh.
I go the length of the Boulevard des Capucines and the Boulevard de la Madeleine without meeting any one I know. Paris is thinning out these days. The Artist had to go home to his wife. I reconciled myself to his departure because it was necessary. But how about those that deserted the ship before the first leak had sprung? How about the others who are getting ready now to desert it if the real news is what we fear it is? I can tell from the faces of those I pass that the old axiom of "no news is good news" has no acceptance in Paris.
of the many cafés on the Rue Royale, the dullest of them all (before midnight) is the one best known to Americans. It is equally dull after midnight, because it is so evidently a "plant" for the stranger within our gates. But these days there is no after midnight. Maxim's is in the depths. Its terrace is never much frequented, so I am surprised to find the Pasha sitting there. His pasty face is expressionless; the fleshy bags under his eyes do not quiver a bit; and the curve of his nose is as mournful as a crow's in a cornfield before the spring sowing. He fingers his glass by its fragile stem, turning it around on the saucer, and gazes out into the deserted street as if there were nothing in his mind or there.
Certainly there is nothing of interest in the street, usually so animated at this hour. Here I was, almost at the Hotel Crillon, and I had not been tempted anywhere to sit down. There was n't even a pretty girl carrying a box that unmistakably indicated its contents and her profession, whose looks and dress demonstrated her superiority and attraction to the demi-mondaine with rings that the honest toil of a milliner's lifetime would not suffice to purchase.
There was nothing in the street. But one would do injustice to the Pasha to believe that there could be nothing in his mind. A mystery of a parasitical and lazy stock, like that of the landowning Turks, is that it has given to the world keen, alert men who have failed to become giants in the domain of mind only by the hopeless lack of opportunity afforded by their governmental and social system. Some Pashas may be fools : but not this one.
This was not steel rails f.o.b. Pittsburgh, but it was just as welcome. So I greeted him.
"May I be permitted two questions, Excellence?"
I asked, and without waiting for the permission continued, as I grasped a cordially outstretched hand:
"A—Why do you sit in front of Maxim's, and B— What makes you look so much sadder than usual ?"
"I shall answer A, and prove the sincerity of my answer by action while I answer," he said, rising from his seat. "one alone might as well sit here as anywhere, but now that you have come, let us go on up the street to Weber's. When we get there, I shall answer B." Weber's was full. No table. Ah! there was the Lawyer, shoveling ice into a vermouth cassis with his left hand, for the right was gesticulating wildly under the nose of a French cavalry officer. Two more chairs were produced from somewhere, and the Pasha appealed to the Lawyer and the Cavalry officer.
"Do I look sadder than usual?" he asked. "I do not object to the adjective, but only to the comparative degree. I lost the physiognomical ability of ever looking sadder when I sat with my soldiers in the trenches at Tchataldja, trying to prevent them from getting cholera by forbidding them to eat raw vegetables and at the same time to pacify the call of their stomachs by promises that bread would certainly come from Stamboul before nightfall."
The Lawyer and the Cavalry officer looked at each other. "When your mind is agitated by something bad, there is always the relief of something worse that has already actually happened to comfort you," almost whispered the Cavalry officer. The Lawyer shot him a swift glance of sympathy.
The Pasha continued : "This takes me back to those evenings at Tokatlian's in Pera less than two years ago when you used to come hovering around to get our interpretation of the communiqués of the Agence Ottomane." The Pasha was looking at me. "We did n't know what was going on, and you knew that we did n't know, and that nobody knew. Yet there was always the question, what do you think? Now here we are up against the same old problem in Paris. The communiqués do not communicate: ergo, rumors are breeding fast. The less news in the papers, the more canards in the air. Into these long blank places in our journals we read far more fantastic and disquieting things than what was actually there, struck out by the pencil of a foolish censor who was afraid that the truth might have 'a bad effect upon the people.' "
The Cavalry officer got ahead of the Lawyer with a quick exclamation of approval. "If that was true for Constantinople, it holds doubly true for Paris. I know my people. There is no mean possible, unless we have both extremes at once. To keep us where we ought to be in frame of mind we should have good and bad news on the same page : God knows there are both in store for us at this very moment ! A donkey, placed at equal distance from two bales of hay, could n't make up his mind which to tackle: so he stood still and went hungry. We need to be like that donkey now. Elation, whether justified or not, is dangerous at the beginning of a gigantic struggle, such as this is bound to be. So is depression. To avoid both of these extremes, let us have good news and bad news at the same time."
But the Lawyer shook his head. He did more than that : he shook both hands, and brought them down on the table with a force that startled our glasses.
"On the contrary, on the contrary. All three of you are wrong. You don't understand. Let me explain. Your fundamental error is this. You assume that everybody has your brains, your training, your mental poise. You think of how you feel, and say I AM THE PUBLIC. You are not. You belong to an exotic one per cent., and have no more right to speak for the Public than you have to speak for the Germans.
"The Public is a child, a little child, a baby in arms, and if it has developed any instincts, any tendencies at all, they are feminine. You protect and shield a baby from shock; you feed it milk as you feed it medicine in small doses. Anything pleasant, anything happy, you let the child see and share with it. If you possibly can, and to the last minute, you keep evil from the child. You talk about psychology. The Censor thinks more logically than you do. He knows well that harm is wrought not by evil itself, but by the anticipation of evil.
Canards, less true than the facts, about what is going to happen, or more exaggerated than the facts, do less harm than the facts. Half who hear them say, 'Well, they may not be true they 're canards, after all.' The other half would get excited no matter what did or did not happen. But the facts, if unfavorable, work on the nerves of the Public, and, when the blow falls, the Public is less able to bear up than if the blow came unexpectedly."
I began immediately to muster up arguments to combat the Lawyer's position. But the Pasha and the Cavalry officer were agreeing with him, and I could not get myself heard. These lawyers certainly have a way with them.
We four dined together. The conversation turned into other channels. The Pasha's story of what happened at Kirk Kilisseh and Lule Burgas I may repeat another time. It does not belong here. We were all of us thankful for the diversion. But I venture to say that the Lawyer, the Cavalry officer, and the Pasha himself are going to bed tonight with the same questions in their head that I have in mine. WHERE ARE THE GERMANS REALLY?. HAVE THEY BROKEN THROUGH? ARE THEY PARIS-BOUND?
For, on my way home, I read the latest communiqué. It says : "The Franco-British lines have been slightly brought backwards; the resistance continues...In the meantime, the Russians are marching on the roads of Eastern Prussia, and Germany is invaded." And, more significant than the slight retreat of our armies is the announcement that the Cabinet has resigned, and that Viviani has formed a new Cabinet with Briand, Delcassé, Ribot, Millerand, Sembat, and Guesde for additional colleagues. This is certainly "a Ministry of National Defense." Is history going to repeat itself'? After 1870, 1914?
Only six days ago, the official communiqués boasted : "It is pleasant to state that there is no longer a single point of French territory occupied by the enemy, save a slight bit at Audun-le-Roman."
But "the Russians are advancing on Berlin." Cold comfort this. I do not believe it, and I find that I am not alone. As my concierge puts it, "It is not the Russian advance on Berlin, but the German advance on Paris that interests us."