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On Liberty and Love

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As with the weather, so with the spirit. Jehan found this obvious enough that he wasn't surprised no one remarked on it. As the middle of August rolled by and the afternoons cooled, so did his comrades. The torrent of indignation, imprecations--the hope--of those July days slowed. They had a new king, perhaps less offensive than the old... that summed it up really, Jehan reflected.

The exception, of course, was Enjolras, who grew agitated in proportion to the others' malaise. They'd come so close that to watch their momentum fail must have been almost a physical pain, particularly on nights when the Café Musain cleared out early. For three weeks, they'd scarcely seen Combeferre and Joly, putting in extra hours at the hospital. Feuilly's employer had subcontracted his men to repaint damaged buildings, and after the long days Feuilly went home early. This evening, they'd lost the others to some party Bahorel had got wind of.

Courfeyrac took a stab at scooping up Jehan too: "It will be just the thing to pull you out of your moping."

But when Jehan demurred, he declined to press, perhaps sensible of a certain rudeness in leaving Enjolras there on his own, though he looked busy enough at his writing.


After half an hour of silence, Enjolras said from across the room, "Prouvaire, are you presently occupied?"

In reply, Jehan crumpled up the hand bill on which he'd been scribbling inanely and lobbed it at the hearth.

Enjolras watched its arc. "In that case, I wonder if you'd lend me a hand. I have this pamphlet that must go to the printer tomorrow, and the words are sticking. It's imperative to strike the right tone between urgency and reassurance. Just the task to suit your talents."

"I'd hardly say that." But Jehan took up his candle and came to sit beside him.

For a while, the rhetorical puzzle was a welcome distraction. But after an hour and a half, his mind was rebelling; it all seemed trivial next to the sorrows in his heart, meaningless verbiage, no different from his poetry. Why did he waste his life on such maundering?

Enjolras read back their latest line: "We must not get caught in the trap of assuming that some slight concessions are a substitute for victory."

"The references are not parallel," said Jehan shortly. "'Concessions' is them; 'victory' is us."

Enjolras considered. "Well, parallel would be 'defeat,' but that wrecks the tone."

"What about 'that some slight concessions are a substitute for conceding--' no, 'that their slight concessions are a substitute for our victory.'"

"Yes. Excellent."

Jehan huffed. "It isn't. It's functional at best. 'Get caught in the trap' is a horrible cliché."

"I agree, but let's get the basics down first."

Jehan reached for his wine glass and realized he'd drained it. "I thought you wanted me here to pick at wording."

"I presume you are useful for more than one thing."

"Well, perhaps you presume incorrectly." All at once, Jehan was too aware of his tight neck and his aching head. "Look, all my work on this is tripe. I'm going home." He put down his pencil with a clack.

Enjolras looked up at him, as if surprised to see a person behind the voice he'd been talking with. "I know the hour is dark, and the flame of hope may seem to gutter, but all the more reason to finish this pamphlet, to rekindle the embers before they grow cold."

"Lovely metaphors. Why don't you just write the rest?"

"I would sooner have your touch."

Jehan scoffed. "It's all a wreck; I'm tired."

Enjolras sat back and checked his watch. "I suppose I could finish a draft tonight and get your eye on it first thing tomorrow."

"Fine." Jehan rose and reached for his coat.

"But it is not a wreck. The tides of history are with us; Louis-Philippe is but a delay on the path."

Jehan suspected Enjolras had just mixed three metaphors to convince him to stay. And truth be told, though his brain was sludge, he had to fight down the urge to repair them. He smiled sadly. "It's not the government that's done me in. It's an ordinary broken heart; that's all."

"Oh." It lifted Jehan's spirits just a little to watch Enjolras grasp after something to say. "I hadn't realized. Is it that woman Courfeyrac used to tease you about... Marie?"

"Marianne." As he uttered her name, his mood fell again.

"But I was under the impression you'd parted ways a month or two ago."

"Four months." Jehan stared longingly at the empty wine glass on the table. Though he was not a great drinker, tonight his heart needed soothing.

"Ah. So you are presently lamenting another woman."

Jehan dropped back into his seat, perturbed. "No, there is no other woman. When you're ripped to pieces, sometimes it takes more than four months to quilt yourself back together." He slumped, elbows pinning the papers before him, angry at himself for wasting his friend's time. But he'd wanted a long while to talk about it and hadn't--not with anyone--because it cut too deep. "There isn't a day it doesn't plague me. Not even those Three Days; oh, I have a remarkable facility for running emotional efforts on parallel tracks. All it takes is a lull in the gunfire, and my thoughts drop into their old pit like lead."

Enjolras cast a furtive glance at Combeferre's empty seat, as if he were hoping Combeferre would materialize and take over. "My sympathies." He hesitated. "I know you are a person who loves deeply."

"No. I didn't love her. That's the horror of it. There has got to still be something to drink around here."

"I'll see." Enjolras got up and stuck his head out the washroom door, exchanging a few words, presumably with Louison. He resumed his place. "It's coming."

"Thank you. It's good of you to listen to my rambles." Though some cynical part of him wondered if this weren't--not a ploy: say, a tactic to settle him back down to pamphlet writing.

Enjolras dismissed the praise with a small gesture.

Louison came in with some bread and cheese, a Burgundy, and two fresh glasses.

"You needn't have brought new glasses, dear," said Jehan. "It's just more for you to wash up."

"Different vintage," she smiled, "and a slow night. A night like this we're lucky to have custom at all."

I don't know her, thought Jehan as the door swung shut behind her. I haven't the vaguest idea who she is.

Enjolras filled Jehan's glass, then his own.

"Thanks," said Jehan. "I did tell myself I loved her, you know; I had myself quite convinced. But after no more than three months, she bored me. What a horrible thing to say, as if I could judge the depth of the poor girl's soul by fact that she didn't have the education that her class and sex made impossible. What did I expect of her, after all? Recitation of the Paradiso?"

"You give a intimate illustration of the damage inflicted on human relations by the failure to apply universal education."

Jehan smiled. "That's not really what I was trying illustrate. Not that I disagree, mind. But the source of the hurt--this hurt--isn't out there; it's in here." He tapped his chest. "There is no law, manmade or natural, that requires a man to take a woman into his home and pretend he loves her. That I am too, oh, esoteric perhaps to open my soul to a simple girl may just be my nature. But there can be no excuse for the pretense I foisted on her and myself." He watched his glass swirl red. "There is a terrible arrogance in the sort of magnanimity a man tells himself he feels for a poor, unfortunate girl. When I met Marianne, she was lodging in a cellar with three of her sisters, scarcely feeding herself as a sometime assistant to my washerwoman. And do you know why I took up with her?"

"You took pity on her circumstances?"

Jehan barked a laugh. "Because she was willing to take up with me. She was the first, you know, the first girl I ever bared my heart to who didn't either laugh at me or tell me very sweetly that I she thought I was a dear but not like that. Marianne smiled and talked to me and didn't roll her eyes."

Enjolras handed him a slice of bread. "It seems to me you are saying you have a taste for amiable women, which hardly seems a moral crime."

"It is all well and good to appreciate someone for being amiable. It is another thing entirely to invite her into your home and into your bed with a sort of understanding that there is--that there is a bond to be believed in."

Enjolras considered a moment. "Had you spoken of marriage?"

"We did not, no. But we spoke of love, and is not love a bond infinitely stronger than a bond on paper?"

"Ideally, the one represents the other."

"Yes, well, howsoever, I presently became aware that I found her tedious: sweet, pretty, honest--everything a man might feel blessed to win--but terribly preoccupied with sleeves and--"

"Sleeves?"

"She could have written a treatise on ruffling sleeves. Mind you, I wasn't her ideal either. In various ways, she conveyed that she found me vague, abstracted, abstruse. If she were here, no doubt she'd accuse me of being able to write a treatise on deliverance symbolism in Isaiah--a charge of which I am guilty, of course. It's clear that she leapt to my side so nimbly for reasons that were mainly financial, and I don't blame her. She was living near the edge; I made the offer. The move, for her, was a prudent one. But in the end, we agreed we had no future. I ended up putting down rather a sum of money to persuade a dressmaker to take her on, and she went back to live with her sisters."

"It sounds as if, financially at least, you left her better off than you found her."

Jehan finished off his wine. "Does that exonerate me?"

"I do not understand what you require exoneration from. From what you say, you treated her well. From what I know of you, I'd believe nothing else. That a passion proves transient seems a common experience and hardly a sign of corrupt intent. Or is there some other piece you haven't mentioned? Did she become pregnant?"

"No. Thank God." He let his forehead sink in his hand. "Thank God for that."

"May I rescue those papers? I fear they may be smudging." Enjolras reached over gathered their drafts from under Jehan's sliding elbows.

It puzzled Jehan that Enjolras couldn't follow his train of thought. It seemed that he, of all people, ought to understand--not the infatuation but the error of it. "My crime is a common one, and the proper punishment nothing more nor less than the agony the heart inflicts upon itself. The crime is the perversion of the name of 'love,' the belief that love is something done to us, or owed to us, or there for us to discover like a map to pirates' treasure--this clinging to a person like a child to a toy in hopes she'll drive out the darkness that lives inside. That's the thing. Maybe I don't know how to love. That's what Marianne taught me, and it makes me despise myself."

He poured a bit more wine. "Real love is not like that. Isaiah 26-something says, 'Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee, because he trusteth in thee.' What is the object of that trust? What it is that we know as God? It is Love. Real love is a faith; it is-- it exists in action. Real love does not question if its object suffices because it knows it to be sufficient. Real love is given freely; in existing it has its return. It is inviolate and indestructible. It knows no despair for it is incapable of disappointment, and even its pains are sweet, for they only call it forth to greater loving."

Enjolras stared at him a moment. "That's brilliant, Jean. Here, write it down."


"All right," said Jehan after several minutes of word-jostling. "How's this version? 'Love knows no despair, for it's incapable of losing, and even its agonies are sweet, for they summon it to a higher loving.'"

Enjolras nodded. "Admirably tuned. An excellent cue for a call to action."

Jehan looked up at him. "This is love," he said spontaneously.

"Yes," said Enjolras, still perusing the page, "your phrasing distills it beautifully."

"No, this." Jehan reached across the table and pressed his wrist. "Us, all of us. We friends who gather here, we love. We love each other. Love comes easy. Love is living. You know it better than anyone. In your every breath is a love of the republic so complete you don't even need to pause to consider it love. It simply is."

Enjolras frowned at him. "You make an idol of me, Prouvaire."

Jehan sat back, releasing him. "I do not think so. I make no claim to think you perfect in every respect, but I have yet to see how your love of France isn't."

"Combeferre might differ with you."

"Combeferre might come to different conclusions on certain matters of politics or philosophy, and to be honest, I'd likely as not side with him. But I'm not talking about particular conclusions; I'm speaking of a quality of devotion. A mother may not always be the most objective judge of her child's best interests, but I defy you to find a purer lover."

Enjolras gave a small laugh. "I believe you have inverted the relation between the republic and myself."

"Well, it's late." Jehan cut himself some cheese and bread, suddenly hungry and feeling much better. "But I do envy you--I think on some level most of us do--that you do not deceive yourself with desire for women masquerading as love. It's as if you had already passed through those lessons in another life."

Enjolras made no immediate response but fell to perusing their papers. "You're right: 'get caught in the trap' is a pedestrian phrase. But if you wish to go home, I can hammer something out tonight, and if you are free to meet at, say, 7 o'clock tomorrow morning, we can polish-up and get this to the printer by 9."

Though he'd been eager to escape a quarter hour ago, Jehan now found the idea of returning to his lonely rooms disagreeable. "Actually, now you've brought me bread and wine, I feel quite fortified to carry on."

"Good. Then, if you'll see to the opening..." He passed a page to Jehan. But as Jehan started writing he added, "It isn't a matter of passing through lessons."

Jehan stared at the paper in front of him, trying to work out where that fit.

He glanced up. "Are we talking about women again?"

Enjolras smiled tightly. "I have never desired a woman, ever. It isn't wisdom or some exercise in rarifying love beyond the carnal. I recognize some women as beautiful, as I recognize some children or mountains, but the aesthetic judgment does not extend to a carnal impulse."

"You're very lucky--in a sense. In a sense, it's lucky. In a sense, it's a little sad."

Enjolras pretended to resume reading the paper in front of him. Jehan waited, pretending to read his own.

After a moment, Enjolras said, "I have, however, in some small degree, desired men."

Jehan felt himself go quiet inside. He had been expecting something further, but not quite that, though thinking back, he now saw the lacuna in Enjolras's list of purely "aesthetic" beauties.

"I do not mean to imply," added Enjolras quickly, "that because I am saying this to you--"

"No, no. I know." Jehan smiled sheepishly. "I scarcely imagine my mousy, ill-tailored physique to be an appealing object."

Enjolras gave him a puzzled look. "As to my refusal to be swayed by physical desire, I'm sure you'll appreciate that my... predilection facilitates my victory. The dearth of similarly inclined companions and the breadth of social censure alike make abstention the easiest option. I don't consider myself a paragon of virtue in this--or of perfectly unadulterated love, or whatever you wish to call it."

"My dear friend, I assure you I do not see your love for the republic as less pure for being divided with other desires. For heaven's sake, I already knew it was divided with your love of our friends."

"Thank you." Enjolras reflected for a space. "No," he said softly, "they are not separate. But at any rate, let us return to more important matters. The republic does not wait upon my personal convolutions."

"But this is important." Jehan sat forward. "I cannot see how liberty of love is of any less moment than liberty of speech or belief or association, etc. And frankly, I'm surprised that you--who are the first to speak in Liberty's name--should prove so dismissive of her, all the more so given that--as I see now--the manacles that bind her bind you yourself, in some particulars, most savagely."

"I am touched by your sympathy, Jean, but you greatly overstate my suffering." His voice was clipped and quiet. "More generally, while I agree that liberty of desire is overly constrained by our civilization, I'm sure that you'll grant that our present struggles are for liberties more pressing than the right to enact scenes out of Philosophy in the Bedroom--"

"Now you're trivializing."

"Let me finish."

"Have you read Philosophy in the Bedroom?"

"No. Parts."

Jehan smiled, feeling suddenly very gentle toward his friend.

"I agreed with the bit about not rendering unto Caesar, but that is by the way. Or perhaps it isn't. Look, Prouvaire-- Why are you laughing?"

Jehan shook his head, tickled by Enjolras's inability to decide what to call him.

"Liberty is a thing indivisible," said Enjolras. "You can pattern her one way or another, but she is a single cloth. Ultimately, every practical defense of Liberty tends toward liberty of thought: speech, press, association, religion, universal education--liberty from hunger, from overwork--all of these are indispensable to the free exchange of ideas and, thus, to the progress of ideas toward their optimal realization. Where Liberty reigns, truth will triumph. The primary struggle, then, must be to secure Liberty--and to do that, we must re-establish the republic. That foundation laid, free discourse will naturally tend toward the liberation of all ideas, including liberty of love or desire or whatever concerns, grand or trivial, you wish to associate with that piece of human experience."

Jehan poured a splash more wine into his glass and raised it. "Bravo." He had thought to say more, but now all his words left him.


In the silence that filled the room, Enjolras too half filled his glass, and they drank contemplatively.

Enjolras checked his watch again. "It's past one. We should reconvene tomorrow." He rose and moved to retrieve his coat from the chair across the room where it had somehow alighted.

"But do you really mean to say that until the revolution triumphs, you see no purpose at all in discussing liberty of desire?" asked Jehan.

"I would never say such a thing," Enjolras answered, throwing on his coat, "but I will not be the one to broach it."

"Because it might compromise you?"

"Yes." Enjolras threw a sharp glance at him. "Yes. And I am not prepared to sacrifice our war to that skirmish."

It was all very sad, thought Jehan. Suddenly a bit woozy, he cast about for his own coat, while Enjolras swept their papers into his portfolio.

"Shall we?" said Enjolras, gesturing to the door.

Jehan caught his shoulder. "Thank you for this talk tonight," he said. And then he did something he had never done before: he stole a kiss. That was precisely the character of it. He leaned as if to plant a kiss upon his friend's cheek and then abruptly changed aim and brushed his lips.

At once, he felt Enjolras's firm hands on his arms, standing him away. "There's no need for that."

"Sorry," Jehan mumbled, blushing. "I've had too much to drink. I get confused between love and use and selfishness and love, and I don't understand..." He broke off, unable to get a handle on what he didn't understand, too aware of Enjolras watching him. "I just dream of an ideal," he said stupidly, "and I shouldn't care that girls don't find me attractive, but I do. It's a weakness I'm still grappling with."

Enjolras tugged his arm gently toward the door. "For what it's worth," he said as they went out, "I suspect you underestimate your appeal with women. It may simply be that you place yourself in inopportune conversations."

The August air breathed temperately in the night. Their footfalls clicked softly.

"Inopportune conversations where I declare my undying love to someone I've watched from afar for months, and she naturally concludes that I'm insane? That kind?"

He thought he could see Enjolras smile in the darkness. They walked a little way in silence till they came to the well-worn crossroads that would take them separate ways to their rooms.

"In the morning, 7 sharp," said Enjolras. "Good night."

"Good night."

But as Jehan moved to go Enjolras's voice followed him, quite low, as if afraid someone might hear: "You are a beautiful man, Jean."

Jehan turned back to his shadowed figure. "Seven in the morning, sharp. We'll polish up Love and Liberty." And he found a kind of solace in that thought, for love exists in action, and in its existence lies its return.