George Sand: Trader in uniformed flesh and the religion of self
From Monsieur Sylvestre (1866)
Translated by Francis George Shaw
“Sir,” said I, indignant, “did you buy these blacks on the coast of Guinea? ”
“You think, perhaps,” he replied, “that I have been in the trade? Well, why not? I have done everything, as I told you; and there is nothing wrong in it when you buy of people who sell their children, their servants, and their wives. If you pay, they are well satisfied; and I always did pay. There were some shabby fellows who traded with the blacks, and killed the sellers while they carried off the merchandize. But that was in old times; in my time the trade was fair…”
I reminded my uncle that he had not blamed me much for refusing as father-in-law a man who had traded in blacks, and that, consistently, he must excuse me for declining as mother-in-law a woman who had made such an extended traffic with whites. In reply to this judicious observation, my uncle wanted to kill me…
But this is quite another part of speech! My uncle, also, had traded in human flesh! Did you know it? I never knew anything about it, and I believe that, as he put nothing but his money into that kind of business, he may never have spoken of it to any one. How do you suppose I found it out here, after living with him twenty years, and never imagining anything of the kind? I brought with me some boxes, into which I had thrown my papers and letters when I left the house. In overhauling them I found an open letter which I suppose must have been lost by my uncle, picked up by a servant, and put among mine, on my table; I don’t know how else it could have got there. I looked it over without remarking the address, and was quite astonished at reading that there was a balance to my credit with the house of M. & Co. I was asking myself how this good luck could have befallen me, when I saw that the letter had reference to conscripts and substitutes, and that my uncle’s profits from the partnership had been so large as to constitute a great portion of the fortune he intended to leave to me…The source of my uncle’s fortune is, therefore, in some degree, subject to the same odium as M. Aubry’s and Mlle Irene’s…
Yes, my dear boy, I did know it, and thought that you knew it too; therefore I never mentioned it. Your uncle gained some hundreds of thousands of francs by becoming bondsman for a dealer in men. He did it without scruple, because he does not reflect, and is therefore liable unwittingly to commit a social crime, while intrenching himself behind his individual uprightness. He has been educated in the religion of self, and, provided he does honor to his signature and his word, he cares little whether his money goes to injure or to help humanity. This was why I was sorry when you deserted the wholesome ways of spiritual philosophy, which we were so pleasantly following together, to enter upon those of materialism, which is so closely allied nowadays, in many young minds, with absolute individualism. I was rather afraid, I confess, lest, even while protesting against the gross application which M. Pierinont openly makes of the principle of each for himself, you might allow yourself to become accustomed to look upon general evils with indifference. Assuredly, I am happy at finding my fears groundless, and, if my anxiety be not wholly dissipated, it is because I would like to see in you, in every respect, that intellectual antithesis which your protest ought to represent. You need to be this complete contrast to your uncle, in order not only to preserve your self-respect, but to produce something young and living. What can proceed from the negation of collective life? An apology for self? This does not interest others, and yet you must invite the public to become interested in your thought.