Wednesday, February 26, 2014

It was the best of times...

I re-read A Tale of Two Cities which I read at age 12 for school.  I remembered the famous beginning ("It was the best of times... .") and the iconic close ("far better rest that I go to... .") but not much in between. 

I see now that it is a novel about expiation of past sins through terror which is in itself a horror.  During the French Revolution's Reign of Terror, each day scores of people were condemned to die within 24 hours under the Guillotine (the National Barber) for various impure thoughts or actions towards the Republic by jackal courts thronged by vengeful baying people who retired therefrom to the "sharp female, newly born" to watch that day's grim tally tied to the instrument and perish one by one.  The crowds would count out loud each head as it was lopped off. 

How far to take the cleansing? asked Ernest Defarge, a revolutionary leader, of his vengeful, implacable wife.  "To extermination." 

When will there be a finish to it? he inquired of her.  "Tell the Wind and the Fire where to stop; not me!" was the soulless answer.

Written in the 19th century about occurrences in the 18th century, such sentiments presaged even worse events in the 20th century.  As the dreary tumbrils trundled through the crowded streets towards the guillotine each afternoon, each dolorous cart bearing its piteous load of bound, condemned prisoners, the occupants looked out with their faces reflecting various expressions, resignation, defiance, dignity, desperation, but not one looked out beseeching mercy, because there was no pity to be had in the massed crowd.

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