From Eternity to Here
Responding to the publication of a new edition of communard Blanqui's elliptical cosmic work, Eternity by the Stars, Sean Bonney notes the conjunction of defeat, imprisonment, hell's eternity and its undoing
For Karl Marx, Louis-Auguste Blanqui was the missing head of the Paris Commune. He’d been incarcerated in the Fort du Taureau a few days before its declaration, elected its president in absentia, and in the months following the massacre that marked its end, he wrote Eternity by the Stars, a classic of prison literature, described by Walter Benjamin as a statement of reconciliation and defeat, albeit one delivered with ‘truly hallucinatory power’. But within those hallucinations it is also a refusal of that defeat, a transposition of class struggle onto a cosmic plane. Blanqui sees the universe as Hell, as eternal uniformity and repetition – ‘what I write at this moment in a cell at the Fort du Taureau I have written and shall write throughout all eternity, at a table, with a pen, clothed as I am now, in circumstances like these’ – but while his cell is the centre of this hell, it is also eternally locked out of it: ‘the infinity of space is populated by an infinite number of globes that leaves no room for darkness, for solitude and immobility’. For Blanqui, all there is is immobile darkness and solitude. The guards have instructions to shoot him if he even goes near the window. Thus, while according to his own system, Blanqui’s cell is a negative space trapped outside the universe, at the same time the entirety of that universe is transformed into that cell. Unimaginable distance becomes unimaginable compression, absolute variety becomes absolute repetition, populated only by ‘a noisy humanity, infatuated by its greatness, thinking itself to be the universe and inhabiting its prison like an immensity’.
The stars themselves are slaves: ‘the creators and servants of the productive power of the planets, they do not possess it for themselves [...] they have the glow without the benefits’. That is, even within hell, Blanqui refuses to abandon the possibility of fighting back, and via metaphor implies that the stars are the seeds of the destruction of the infinite: ‘it is behind [the stars] that hide the living invisible realities [...] the infinite takes its lies behind the possible.’ Barricade fighting on a cosmic level, metaphor recast as reality, a radical poetics which from the perspective of the universal ruling class is an untruth, a black hole, anti-gravity. It wasn’t the first time Blanqui had used an infernal cosmos as metaphor for class relations: his defence speech of 1832 was clear enough.
The wheels of this machine, combined with a marvelous art, reach the poor at every moment of the day, intruding into every moment of their humble life [...] It is all nothing more than the theory of corruption pushed to its outer limits [...] the ever re-born hunger of this chasm.
These metaphors weren’t original to Blanqui. Heinrich Heine, in 1840, walking the proletarian quarters of Paris: ‘the songs I heard there seemed to be composed in hell and the refrains rang with furious anger. The demonic tones making up these songs can hardly be imagined in our delicate spheres.’1 Gustave Geffroy, on the Blanquist revolt of May 12 1839: ‘the revolutionary band all at once musters and appears. Immediately a vacuum, a silence, sets in around them’.2 The negation of Blanqui’s cell, the demonic tones of unimagined songs make their ‘living invisible realities’ become visible with destructive force. In the vacuum of his cell, Blanqui meditates on the comets, in the nineteenth century still a source of confusion for bourgeois astronomy. ‘There is no reason to include comets in a description of the world [...] they become an insurmountable obstacle to our knowledge of the universe [...] their only role is that of an enigma.’ That is, they are ‘true scientific nightmares’ and negate everything the rulers think they know. Comets. True medieval horror. They are bad omens, they bring unwanted news, they predict the death of kings. They have their own calendar, they ignore official gravity, they may disappear for thousands of years, and then return from spheres the official world desperately need to believe cannot exist. They spit out X-rays and weird radiation. Like Geffroy’s revolutionaries, they ‘are liable to divide themselves, to regroup, to form masses, or to tear themselves to tatters’. Sure, they are still prisoners, but they still know how to hate. They spike the eternal return of a hell ruled by the bourgeoisie with an infernal return that will wreck their dreams, make peace impossible, ensure that class conflict too is eternal. They may be doomed, but they are still, if only momentarily, radical negations of the sameness of the cosmic system: they are barricades and gasoline, the stars of the poem Louise Michel wrote following the defeat of the Commune. ‘We will return, an infinite mob / through all your doors, we’ll return / vengeful spectres, out from the shadows / with raised fists, we will return’. This is hideous, but for Blanqui, in defeat, its all we’ve got. Class victory comes with the abolition of the universe. And Blanqui is still in his cell.
Sean Bonney’s <snbonney AT yahoo.co.uk> books of poetry include Happiness: Poems after Rimbaud, The Commons, Baudelaire in English and Document: Poems, Diagrams, Manifestos. His first prose book, Letters Against Enchantment will be published next year. His work has been translated into German, French, Spanish and Icelandic. He lives in abject poverty in Walthamstow, East London, and most of his writing can be read at www.abandonedbuildings.blogspot.co.uk
Louis-Auguste Blanqui, Eternity by the Stars, (trans. Frank Chouraqui) New York: Contra Mundum Press, 2013
1 Shlomo Barer, The Doctors of Revolution: 19th Century Thinkers Who Changed the World, London: Thames & Hudson, 2000, p.640.