Victor Hugo — “Cowardice is consent”

Time for another translation!

Victor Hugo, one of the great Romantic writers of nineteenth-century France, wrote William Shakespeare in 1864, during his exile from France following Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power in 1851. The treatise purports to be a biography of Shakespeare, but, as Hugo confesses in his preface, “All the questions touching on Art have presented themselves to his spirit.” For Hugo, William Shakespeare and Joan of Arc are both national heroes, both under-appreciated by their respective nations.

I first translated this excerpt as a junior in college in the summer of 2010; I have re-translated it today because I am interested in the second-to-last paragraph. Is injustice ever a two-way street? Where does the agency of a citizenry end and that of its government begin? Can we even discuss an injustice done to individuals (citizens, subjects) in the same terms as those in which we would discuss an injustice done to a collective (a nation, or a “people”?)

Re: the aphoristic third-to-last paragraph — which is worse? a campaigning President flattering his “base”? or a “base” sucking up to a sitting President? I’m inclined to think that either option sounds deplorable …

Howsoever it may be, there is a monument that England owes Shakespeare, and that Shakespeare does not have. France is not, we must say, much quicker in similar cases. Another glory, quite different from Shakespeare, but none the less great, Joan of Arc, awaits — she too, and for still longer — a national monument, a monument worthy of her.

This land, which was Gaul, where the Velladas once reigned, has, catholically and historically, two noble figures as patronesses: Mary and Joan. The one, sacred, is the Virgin; the other, heroic, is the Maid. Louis XIII gave France to the one; the other gave France back to France. The monument to the second should not be less exalted than the monument to the first. Joan of Arc demands a memorial as great as the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. When will she have it?

England has bankrupted Shakespeare, but France has defrauded Joan of Arc.

These ingratitudes must be severely denounced. Doubtless, powerful elites, who are always casting dust in the eyes of the masses, are the first to blame; but, in sum, a nation has as much of a moral conscience as an individual, ignorance is nothing but an extenuatng circumstance, and, when these injustices last for centuries, they not only remain the fault of the government, but they become the fault of the people. Let us, when the occasion arises, tell the people the facts. France and England, you are doing wrong!

To flatter a people would be worse than flattering a king. One is low; the other would be base.

Let us go farther, and, since this thought presents itself to us, let us generalize from it, even if we might depart from our subject for a moment. No, a people does not have the right to blame its government indefinitely. The acceptance of oppression, on the part of the oppressed, ends in complicity; cowardice is consent, whenever an evil thing that weighs upon the people, and which the people could prevent if they so desired, surpasses the amount of patience that an honest man can possibly possess; there is an appreciable solidarity and shame that is shared between the government doing evil and the people that allow it to keep going. Suffering is venerable; submission, contemptible. But let that go.

A coincidence worth noting — he who denied Shakespeare, Voltaire, also insulted Joan of Arc. But what, then, is Voltaire? Voltaire, let us say joyfully and sadly, is the French mind. Understand, he is the French mind only up until the Revolution. Since the Revolution, as France has been growing, the French mind is growing also, and is tending toward becoming the European mind. It is less local and more fraternal, less Gaulish and more human. More and more, it represents Paris, the city at the heart of the world. As for Voltaire, he remains what he is, the man of the future, but also the man of the past; he is one of those glories that are loved and hated; against him, he has his two sarcasms, Joan of Arc and Shakespeare. He is punished by where he chose to jeer.

Victor Hugo, William Shakespeare (Paris, 1864)

Victor Hugo’s original French can be found in the following sources, which are freely available on Google Books:

Hugo, Victor. Œuvres complètes de Victor Hugo: Philosophie II: William Shakespeare. Paris: J. Hetzel & Cie., 1882.

Hugo, Victor. William Shakespeare. Paris: A. Lacroix, Verboeckhoven et Cie., 1864.

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