The heart of Paris was already burning before Notre Dame went up in flames. The collapse of this masterpiece of medieval architecture—whose last damages date back to its plundering during the French Revolution, when statues of the kings of Israel were mistaken for those of France and decapitated—echoed the resurgence of the city’s age-old tradition of plebeian insurrection, now embodied in the Gilets Jaunes. Had it not been for the intervention of a handful of Good Samaritans, Notre Dame would have been burned by the Communards in 1871. This text was sent to Liaisons in the aftermath of March 16’s riotous upheaval, surprising everyone after Macron had attempted to resolve the turmoil of the Gilets Jaunes with his “Great Debate.” This text speaks of the end times, divine violence, and sanctity—a series of themes for which the blaze of Notre Dame now offers a dramatic image.
No one remains unaware of the Gilets Jaunes movement, and those who turned their back on it have come to regret it. The roundabouts of the Gilets Jaunes survived the cold of winter, and now the movement seems more determined than ever, as the events of March 16 have shown the world.
Plans to mobilize on this date had been announced for some time. Macron intended to conclude his “Great Debate”—the longest monologue in French history—after which he was supposed to spend a few days deep in thought and reemerge with a series of solutions that would reconcile the people with their government, transforming the Gilets Jaunes into a great, tragic aside to the real course of history. It was precisely the opposition to such a scenario that prompted the Gilets Jaunes to return to the Avenue des Champs-Élysées once again on March 16.
On the same day, two other forces called for rallies near the Champs-Élysées. Around the same time, there were plans for a “Climate March” and a “March Against Police Violence” calling on climate and social-justice activists to converge with the Gilets Jaunes to express a shared refusal of the self-destructive path of the world. On that day, however, neither climate nor social-justice activists joined the Gilets Jaunes. On March 16, only ruins, debris, and wrath sang a song familiar to the ears of all the oppressed. The great convergence failed, and no one knew quite why.
Yet despite this failure, something crucial happened, and I’m writing you to share the deep interior experience that was felt on that day. It was a collective experience that opened the Gilets Jaunes to a new historical sequence, an experience that plunged us further into the unknown. It was an instructive experience that explained why the other activists were unable to share the rage of the Gilets Jaunes, an experience that clearly revealed the limits of such a revolt in the world that is ours.
I would be ridiculous saying, ‘I love the people,’ since I am the same as they are. Lacerated, but absent. My laceration is more confusing, my absence certainly.
—Georges Bataille, Guilty
The People arise and sing the end of an innocence. After this end, no one can ignore the arbitrary nature of the power they tried to overthrow. The red of the blood that was spilled, the white of gassed eyes rolling back in the heads of the Gilets Jaunes, and the purple of bodies swollen by the force of a political order can no longer be ignored. The word “revolution” took on a meaning we thought had already disappeared for us. Suddenly, on the horizon, an opening appeared, and it seemed like history could turn away from its tragic destiny. In other words, the apocalypse reveals the power that can both silence it and inflect history. In the simple image of insurrections, we find an almost cosmological regularity: eclipse, darkness, and light again . . . before the next eclipse. The suspended time of revolt and insurrection calls forth major changes in human history, unless—as is unfortunately so often the case—the blood that is shed flows into the gutters of oblivion.
But what does revolution mean in an age in which capitalism, human history, and the destiny of the living are intermingled irremediably? According to the refrain taken up by Slavoj Žižek, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” In other words, it now seems impossible to conjure this disruptive theatricality of the People and its revolutions to make human history turn away from the tragic destinies foreseen by this end of the world.
The ability to conceive of the history of hominids and the destiny of the Earth in the same temporal trajectory seems particularly deceptive today. Yet it certainly wasn’t during the French Revolution, and it wasn’t during the subsequent, aborted attempts at revolution in the 19th century, when the People rose up against society and as the self-foundation of a new universal history. The end of the ancien régime was definitively the end of a known world, and if historians have emphasized traces of its extinction dating back to the Renaissance, the night of August 4, 1789, the decapitations of 1792 and 1793, the peasant revolts and wars of “liberation” were spasms also containing the seeds of a new world, one still struggling to germinate and bloom. So what is left of human history amid the present theater, in which technique devastates the world with a profound indifference? A scene in which being and nonbeing depend no longer on the res gestae of humans but on technique and its application? This state of things was already made clear by the middle of the 20th century. The world of the atom had revealed itself through an immense catastrophe, taking the form of a nuclear mushroom that signified the immediate and simultaneous deaths of 75,000 people. Ever since then, it seems, the apocalypse only reveals our fall, made possible by our banal exile from history.
In 1938, in the context of his work on Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin exchanged the following words with Gershom Scholem:
I would say that this reality is now almost beyond the individual’s capacity to experience, and that Kafka’s world, often so serene and pervaded by angels, is the exact complement of his age, which is preparing to do away with considerable segments of this planet’s population. In all likelihood, the public experience corresponding to this private one of Kafka’s will be available to the masses only on the occasion of their extermination.
Benjamin wrote on the verge of the Second World War, while the conditions for mass extermination were being prepared. In this sense, Benjamin was a visionary who knew how to spot in the ruse of the past century the interstices of our present. Everyone knows the individual experience of our world corresponds to that of a mass extermination—and an extermination of history—in the likeness of the atomic bomb. And when the masses flood the streets and call for a turning away, a historical bifurcation, the imperceptible and individual reality of our liquidation is revealed in the light of day. Exiled from our own history, we have enlarged our ego to the dimensions of the entire Earth, so much that this historical bifurcation is almost impossible to imagine. In response to this exile, we must turn away from ourselves, from our own being, like the saints of old who escaped human history to tumble into divine history, as if by leaping backward.
What happened on March 16 on the Champs-Élysées was an inner bifurcation—the first, from which others will flow. When thousands of people chanted “revolution,” no one escaped the shiver of history. This shiver arrives with the ability to glimpse, beyond infinite riot, the possibility of another history. For a brief moment, each one of us saw the possibility of the end of capitalism rather than the end of the world.
Yet this Act was at once the scene of a terrible irony. On the one hand, while the Climate March was organized to protest irreversible damage to the planet, it seemed paradoxically paralyzed and incapable of dissociating the end of capitalism from the end of the world. On the other hand, the Gilets Jaunes had, as if by way of a qualitative leap, acted from their desire for the end of a world. Why was this the case? Why, on one side of Paris, did protestors give themselves over to excess and joy, while on the other they marched half-suffocated and anxious, clinging to the hope that human history could still turn away from itself?
The world of words is laughable. Threats, violence, compelling power belong to silence. Deep complicity is inexpressible in words. . . .
Sovereignty is silent or deposed.
Future sanctity will aspire to evil.
To speak of justice is to be justice, to propose a judiciary, a father, a guide.
I am not proposing justice.
I bear complicit friendship.
The feeling of a festival, of license, of childish, hellish pleasure.
—Georges Bataille, Guilty
In a letter to Walter Benjamin that offered some reflections on the work of his friend, Theodor Adorno wrote, in 1936, “The goal of the revolution is the elimination of anguish. That is why we need not fear the former, and need not ontologize the latter.” Here Adorno gives the key to true revolutionary activity. It aims to rid us of the fear and anguish that weighs on our backs and organizes our daily life in society. This clarifies why, on that day, so many people chanted the word “revolution” together.
Bataille also confirms Adorno’s intuition: “In its intimacy, its gentleness, its disinterestedness, society rests on evil: It is like the night, made of anguish.” Society is unhealthy because it rests on anguish, and revolutionary evil is holy to the extent that it frees us from society. What is therefore at play is the malsain and the mal saint—unhealthiness and evil sanctity. Evil saints affirm themselves in jubilation, in collusion, and in the destruction of anguish, which is tantamount to the refusal of the social order. On March 16, 2019, the Gilets Jaunes intoned the end of their anguish and temporarily gained access to the coming sanctity. Yet to the good souls who thought themselves the saviors of the world, the Gilets Jaunes were the figure of Evil. We saw their sidelong glances, and we saw their poorly hidden disgust. But more than anything we saw their profound anguish, resulting from this frustrated desire for human justice (for “a father, a guide”). There is nothing more illusory than this desire for justice. It renders humans absolute and leads us to believe we can separate the end of the world from the end of capitalism, without separating ourselves from ourselves, without tearing ourselves away from the everyday banality of the catastrophe.
Their anguish formed a vast barrier, and the day’s nuances hinged upon this subtle, almost imperceptible partition between those who had overcome anguish and those who still hung on every word from its toxic lips. The weight of the anguish of the end of the world is the same as that of the end of the month, of that of prison or of death. Each of these lends its rhythm to our lives, and each one weighs more than the salt of the sea. It is only by way of violent and ecstatic raptures that we strip ourselves of this weight, permitted by the feverish Saturdays of certain Acts of protest. The Gilets Jaunes succeeded in elaborating the conditions of possibility for these ecstatic experiences by destroying the thread of life’s daily fears, by coming together in the roundabouts, by combining the practices of inhabiting, building, and destroying, and by converging each Saturday to form a singular presence that power has never succeeded in undoing, for more than four months. It is a presence that is also a community, open and generous to those who share their refusal of anguish, guilt, and justice. Theirs is a trust built on and against ruins. It has spread the idea of victory and a better life much more effectively than the notions of “green” or “resilience planning” that power promises to those who entrust it with the future. The Gilets Jaunes very quickly learned not to rely on power. Then they understood that the weight of this world is so overwhelming because it hangs by a thread—on the point of breaking for those who decide to shed their anxiety.
It was clear that our sanctity ricocheted off the climate and social-justice activists. These latter weren’t merely content to confound law and justice in order to position themselves as the last possible bifurcation. They also watched, as if from the heights of a dead soul, as the Gilets Jaunes joined their march, marking the contamination of their ecosystem by a strange species. It was the sign of a fissure only access to sanctity can repair. There is nothing trivial about this behavior, because whoever relies on human justice for something as divine as the future of our world forgets that violence, force, and coercion are different things that take on neither the same historical meanings nor the same historical possibilities.
This account indicates the urgency of untangling justice and law and relating them to the notion of violence. This is true not only because what the Gilets Jaunes hold in common is inexorably destined to fuse around violence and against the law and its justice but because of the unhappiness of our age and the fact that all human justice takes on a ghostly appearance, incapable of action without the violence of technique leaving its mark. The coming sanctity offers a lesson to the extent that it is the sign of a divine violence, unexpectedly opening onto a possible bifurcation.
In the essay “Human Personality,” Simone Weil enacts an inversion, claiming that the sacred part of humans, independent of personal qualities, resides in the impersonal. According to Weil, justice also lies in the universal depth of the sacred, hidden part of humans and is opposed to law, which is inferior to it. “What you are doing is unjust” has much more power than “You don’t have the right.” Of these two cries, one is audible because it is derived from the language of democratic rights. It proclaims, “Why does the other have more than me?” The second, “Why am I being hurt?” is derived from justice and seems destined to be a muffled cry. Rights only speak in the noisy language of demands, while justice is anonymous and difficult to discern. Justice “consists in preventing evil being done to humans.” It is impersonal and in humans touches the sacred and universal part. While the law only acts on the persona, the individual and his qualities, justice pierces every heart. This is why, as Weil confirms, the violence of justice—though it is ruthless—only strikes to punish evil, while the law only protects certain human interests.
The search for a nonhuman foundation to justify violence paradoxically leads Weil to justify conservative violence, which destroys a life because it has acted against an order that perceives itself as just. In an essay that otherwise takes seriously the need to wrest humans from their own self-exterminating laws, Weil’s confusion of coercion, force, and violence lends this text its bittersweet character. Punishment is the only possible result of the law and justice, the means through which human appeasement is reached. But we know that “we make the appearance of appeasement impossible. Lucid sanctity recognizes in itself the necessity of destruction, the necessity of a tragic outcome” (Bataille). How can we think violence today without falling in the eternal trap of Simone Weil? How can we think revolutionary violence in a period in which historical bifurcation no longer seems humanly possible?
Divine violence is not exercised by decision, but is only evident after the fact, like a bolt of lightning that announces the thunder to come. Divine violence is not something exterior; it does not depend on the level of conflict, the amount of destruction, or even the number of enemies injured or killed. Divine violence dwells in the kingdom of the qualitative, in the realm of interior experience.
As an interior experience, this newly acquired divine violence began to dwell in each of us and took the form of a word Benjamin associated with it—“revolution.” It is a word that hides something other than what we ordinarily attribute to it: no longer an exterior bifurcation toward the founding of another human order but an interior bifurcation of having grasped the necessity to destroy on no human grounds. Frivolity in the face of destruction, looting, the barricades, and police attacks did not express a naive lack of concern but the result of an uncoupling of law and justice, the result of the experience of this impossible appeasement.
The word “revolution” rang out again on Saturday, March 24, 2019, during an unplanned demo in Paris, which assembled 10,000 people. Nothing could stop it. Neither the threat of the army, nor tyrannical proclamations, nor promises of justice could divert the Gilets Jaunes from the necessity of divine violence. Divine violence is emancipatory because it is outside of human judgment. It is the living awareness that the law and its justice can never do anything against the collapse of the familiar world. All this brings to mind the favorite saying of Michael Kohlhaas—that symbol of thirst and rage for justice—“Let justice be done though the world perish.”