The Ability to Say “No”


The last few years of French writer/aphorist Sébastien-Roch Nicolas Chamfort (from here):

At the beginning of the French Revolution, Chamfort had been a member of the radical Jacobin Club. Captured by the spirit of the times, Chamfort hoped that the Revolution would travel round the world, but did not advocate war. In 1792 he was appointed co-director of the Bibliothèque Nationale with Jean-Louis Carra, a member of the Convention. Shocked by the excess of the Reign of Terror, Chamfort came into conflict with Marat, the editor of L’Ami du Peuple, and Robespierre, one of the leading figures of the revolution. “Be my brother, or I will you” (Sois mon frère ou je te tue), was his version of the revolutionary watchword, “Fraternity or Death”, painted on all walls. In 1793 Chamfort and some other librarians were denounced by another library employee as “sly aristocrats” and “false patriots”. Chamfort was arrested and taken with most of his employees to the Madelonettes prison, known for its unhygienic conditions, vermin, and poor food, and then released. The forty-eight hour prison stint was enough for Chamfort and he resigned from his post. His former co-director Carra was executed.

When Chamfort was again threatened with imprisonment in November 1793, he attempted suicide. He first shot himself in the head and blew out his right eye, and then he tried to cut his throat, but the blade slipped. In January 1794 Chamfort was given complete freedom by the Committee of Public Safety. The bullet which had shattered his nasal wall remained in his head. After the festering ceased, Chamfort started to translate Greek epigrams and write poetry. “I feel livelier than ever,” he said, “what a pity that I no longer care about living.” After selling his bed, bathtub, and two hundred and thirty bound volumes, he had only five pieces of furniture, a few engravings, and some Greek plays. Chamfort eventually died in his small apartment on April 13, 1794. Part of his manuscripts were stolen after his death.

I read somewhere else that Chamfort also sliced himself behind the knees with a blade after shooting himself and cutting his own throat.  He tried quite hard to kill himself, having slashed himself over 23 times, but couldn’t finish the job.  His suicide note is well known:

Moi, Sebastien-Roch Nicolas Chamfort, declare avoir voulu mourir un homme libre plutôt que d’etre reconduit en esclave dans une maison d’arrêt.”

5 thoughts on “The Ability to Say “No”

  1. The guns were pretty crappy back then. Didn’t Robespierre try to kill himself as well when he learned that he was about to be arrested but only manage to shoot himself in the jaw thus ironically silencing himself?

    In the same spirit, here’s a nice essay on Leibniz and shit-related issues, pardon my French…

  2. That’s a good movie, if I may say myself… One might also bring up Moe from The Simpsons with his attempts at suicide – I just can’t imagine the feeling of inadequacy and failure one must have once, having decided to end it all, one managed to fail at failing…

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