Parliamentary Conference in the rue Serpente

To Robert de Flers


   Along with, perhaps even ahead of the glory of the actor, the glory of the man of politics is altogether the most resounding and the most direct, the most prodigiously intoxicating there could be. It was therefore completely natural to see "people of the world" wanting to participate in it and that after the theatre of society we should have the parliamentarianism of the salon - or of the conference, where young people eager for - and exempt from - honours or at least of public duties, derive pleasure from voting for laws, to appoint, to overturn cabinets, to finally be men of politics as a hobby, just as tomorrow they will become amateur coachmen, and conduct each in their turn along the highway of his dreams, the mail-coach of the state. They will understand the joys of the man of politics, and of the actor too who, peaceable bourgeois this morning, will become, this evening, at the Châtelet, general in chief, but with no army, eloquent and inobedient, who will fiercely jab at the flanks of the circus horse with spurs made of silver paper. But in an imaginary parliamentary assembly, the place of illusion that forcibly enters into the power of each one, and to the joy of all, easily changes into symbolism, and the impartial spectator who hears being proposed by a government with no reality, sees being voted by a chimerical Chamber laws that nobody dreams will be executed, asks himself if he has not come through the wrong door and if he is not in the presence of a genuine Parliament. And from the excess of illusion, from the overflow of the impossible, is born a quite self-sufficient reality.


   Such facile comments as these would never be directed by me to the conference that has recently been set up in the rue Serpente and about which I have excellent reasons for saying nothing but good. I would never be believed if I said, even in excusing myself, that all its members are endowed with true political genius, with boundless seriousness and unparalleled modesty. But there is a very good proportion of very intelligent young men among them. If one were to allow oneself one small jest at their expense, while otherwise being quite sympathetic, it would be with regard to their powers of delusion, to the persistent gravity and perfect simplicity with which they say: "The honourable president of the Council", "my esteemed colleague", "my long-standing statesman", "the secular abhorrence of the party you represent", "the government that sits on these benches has France behind it", a whole phraseology that is not quite comical and very touching, which seems to imply that due to a weekly miracle the body of these deputies, not all superiors, continues all of a sudden the Monday evenings of the past, enriching itself from the ardent and obstinate spirit of their part since the Revolution... at least. I once saw some little girls playing at the seaside. One of them, running with short little steps, was pretending to be a princess in a carriage. Another one ran after her to give her back a muff she had forgotten, crying at the top of her voice: "Madame, Your Royal Highness has forgotten her muff. The princess has forgotten her muff. Your muff, princess." The little girl thanked her with a smile and took the muff showing no surprise. In much the same way as when somebody said to the deputy of the rue Serpente: "Minister, sir, please accept this portfolio." But if they were not smiling it was because deep down they took their work very seriously, and under the eminent direction of a very superior gentleman, M. André Lebon, their studies had assumed much dignity, authority and an almost historic value. Because the laws rejected in the Chamber of Deputies, and voted upon there, will one day become precedents. They are, till then, signs of the political orientation of the young, which seems to be more tolerant, much more pervaded with the importance of religious ideas than the previous generation. We are not able to list here all the orators in the rue Serpente, having heard only a few of them. The president of the Council who has just been overturned for having supported academic laws, M. Paisant, pronounces and reads out his speeches with a calm and gentle forcefulness that is delightful. He is the most capable, by turns the most persuasive and retiring, the most harmoniously changeable of speakers at the rue Serpente. One could say that it is here that he performs, with much grace and suppleness, the Serpentine dance. Which does not prevent him from knowing what he wants and generously sacrificing his portfolio to his ideas. M. de Calan is the great leader from the right, with a sombre energy and inflamed dialectic. M. de Torrès, the new president of the Council, is also well appreciated for his sterling performance over the audience. But M. de Soussay, very shrewd, very energetic too, with great loftiness of opinion, is perhaps more moderate, more ingenious, more rational. I could say the same about M. Zevallos.
   But I would have wanted to be able to sing the praises of M. Payen, who was the triumph of the last session, who we cannot praise too highly for his exalted ideas, his powerful and charming talents, his wonderful officiation over the tribune. His speech was a masterpiece and a promise of many marvels to come. It seems that it is this that makes a thinker, an orator, and quite simply a man of politics.


   P.S. - I was told that M. de Payerhimof revealed himself, at the last session where I was not present, as a dialectician and a first-rate orator.1


   Le Banquet, no 7 (February 1893).

1. These eulogies may have seemed ironic to Fernand Gregh and the other directors of Le Banquet. They felt compelled to accompany Proust's article with the following note: "Le Banquet believes it is of interest to give some account of this assembly where there can no doubt be found several of our future political leaders. But it must be understood that the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author". Whether or not Proust took exception to this, he did not contribute to the subsequent, and as it turned out final, edition of Le Banquet.


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