Vanity of Vanities

A tale of a failed revolution

Corlett Novis
Dec 12, 2018 · 5 min read

Four years ago, I had longed for a revolution in France. Every day my hungry belly and aching bones had cried out for freedom alongside my fellow countrymen and every night I had fallen asleep to dreams of a new, free world, a world which I had yearned for with every drop of my bitter sweat.

When we’d stormed their fortresses, levelled their walls, cut of their heads and revelled in our victory it had seemed, for a brief and flickering instant, as though we would finally breathe free, and standing in front of the bodies of our enemies I never once felt the slightest doubt about our cause.

But as the years had passed, the new regime had begun to seem little better than what had come before. The fledgling Republic was just as poor as the old Monarchy, and war was looming hungrily on the horizon.

Not so very long ago these things would have been bearable in our new world, we could afford to pay such a cost for our freedom.

And yet, today, I would finally see how great this cost had been.

Yesterday evening, cheered by a hearty dinner, I had almost been as hopeful as I had been during the revolution. The ride into town had been pleasant. Peering out over the dusky townscape, I had watched the town roll past in slow urban waves and pictured the wealth our future Republic might provide. Scruffy thatched roofs and worn-down wooden walls opened up around me as I rode past before making their way back into the distant townscape behind, each one seeming like little more than a dusty painting of an old, dead world as I pictured what each building might look like in the near future, on some uncertain date when our Republic would be mature and strong.

But as I looked down, now, at the pretty streets of Cholet, teeming with fresh blood, I could not but pause to think on what we’d become.

Our battle had been fiercely won and Royalist corpses were strewn across the cobbled road, their broken cannons and empty guns lying feebly by their blood-soaked bodies. Above their heads, larks were swooping and soaring in the air, endlessly circling in the shifting blue sky. They were the revolutionaries against the revolution, forever loyal to the king even after his death.

More than brave, they had been cunning: starting smoky fires in the street to foil our artillery and fleeing when the battle had become too costly to them, the mass of their army had fled across the river. Those at my feet were the unlucky, and after gazing so long at these poor souls I began to wonder.

Had we become that which we had beheld? Had we so quickly filled that void of evil and transformed into the very thing which we had so deeply despised? These questions plagued my mind as I gazed at these fallen revolutionaries.

Looking away from the corpses of my countrymen and gazing instead at the horizon, I tried to remind myself of what we were fighting for: our struggle to free ourselves from the oppression of aristocracy.

But how easily that spectre of doubt came back to haunt me. What right had we, if freedom was our goal, to take the freedom of life from these brave men and to drown their convictions in warm blood?

Closing my eyes, I let the streets fill up once again in my mind as I tried to picture how the world would have been a few years before. The residents of Cholet now lying before me, and of the surrounding region, had never hated their masters as bitterly as we had. From what I knew, the nobility here had been relatively kind. I pictured the Lords and Ladies walking, perhaps, even alongside their subjects through the streets, an entourage of adoring subjects by their sides. Faces smiling.

What had we done?

How vain it was of us to think that we could rid the world of all its sorrow. Power had now corrupted us, the low-born, with its cruelty just as it had tainted the high-born long before. Surely the first kings were elected by their peers, just as we elect our politicians now, their subjects consenting to their rule. Perhaps even now some charismatic leader of the revolution was preparing to seize the power of the state for himself, a man seeking to recapture the power of our recently vanquished king. How long would it be until his tyranny would require a revolution of its own?

As if responding to my inner musings, a half-slouched body to my left started to re-animate:

“Good Sir, have mercy.” The corpse was murmuring “I am only wounded, please help me”.

With sadness in my voice I replied:

“No Sir, I will not help you. You are already dead.”

After a brief pause, I heard him mumble a final prayer: “God, have mercy on us.”

As the man murmured his agony to his imaginary creator, soon to be embraced by the cold dead earth around him, I realized that my doubts didn’t matter. Our fate had already been forged in the flames of the revolution, there was nothing I could do now. No longer condemned to the rule of Gods or Kings, each man and woman was now free to define and redefine their lives for themselves, forever rehearsing our great revolution internally whilst struggling to maintain the freedom they’d gained. They would have to fight, over and over, for the right to breathe free, for the right to define their own lives. Rulers and royalty, oppressors and suffocators, none of them had been truly vanquished, none of them had really gone while still new despots and dictators could rise through our new ranks. Now they were coming back, through us. We are them. The oppressed becoming the oppressor. The monarchy had never been the sole cause of our suffering, and no revolution could ever free us of the root of our ills.

There would forever be the oppressors and the oppressed, so long as living beings drew breath.

And so I must stand in bloody battlefield dirt, on the other side of that crooked mirror, the very oppressor I had once vowed my soul to defeat. I am destined to quell without mercy every spark of the counter revolution, just as our enemies had once sought to quell us.

Above my head the larks were still being carried through the air, swooping and rising and dipping down again in their endless flight, dark clouds rising behind them on the horizon.

We must march like this forever, through the pages of history, ceaselessly fighting in the dimness of the past.

Corlett Novis

Written by

Editor at Pi Media (London) interested in Science and Technology and how they interact in wider society and culture.