The French anarchist Louise Michel was born in 1830 and died in 1905. She led a very eventful life, which included fighting in the Paris Commune of 1871. In this video I’m going to be drawing attention to an aspect of her life which doesn’t get the attention it deserves. She was extremely chaotic good.
As a child she gave away her possessions to poor people. This even included her shoes on one occasion. Not content with giving away items she personally owned, Michel also stole money, fruits and vegetables from her grandparents and then distributed them to local peasants in her relatives’ name. This led to unexpected consequences when the peasants arrived at the house to thank her grandparents for their generosity. Michel claims to have “laughed” in response to the “great scenes” which occurred during these moments. (Thomas 1983, 21; Michel 1981, 6)
During her childhood Michel attended church regularly (Thomas 1983, 20). This did not stop her from also attempting “alchemy, astrology, the summoning of spirits” at the top of a tower which she decorated with the skeletons of dogs, cats and horses. At one point she took her practice of witchcraft to the next level and tried to summon the devil. She wrote in her autobiography, “among haunted ruins I drew magical circles, and I declared my love to Satan. Satan didn’t come, which led me to think he didn’t exist.” (Michel 1981, 20, 19)
This chaotic good energy continued into adulthood. During the 1860s she earned a living as a teacher in Paris (Thomas 1983, 42-3). In her autobiography she claimed that one night when walking home she deliberately scared a member of the bourgeoisie. She wrote,
Another time I was returning home on foot fairly late, and I had on a long cloak which enveloped me completely. I was wearing a sort of wide hat made out of shaggy cloth which cast a lot of shadows on my face, and brand-new ankle boots from the pawnshop, For some reason the heels made a lot of noise. The newspapers recently had been writing a lot about nocturnal attacks. Some good bourgeois heard my boots ringing, and being unable to make out my exact form because of my cloak and hat, he began to run with such fear that it gave me the idea of following him for a bit to scare him properly.
He went along, looking around to see if anyone would come to help him. With the black night and the deserted streets, the bourgeois was scared witless, and I was having a really good time. He lengthened his stride as much as he could. I kept to the shadows and made my heels strike even louder, because that noise was what kept up his fright. I don’t know what district we had come to when I let the bourgeois go, yelling at him: ‘Must you be so stupid?’ (Michel 1981, 48-9)
During her eventful life Michel was arrested and imprisoned a number of times. In January 1882 she was arrested and sentenced to two weeks in prison for insulting a police officer. During the trial Michel denied that she had called the police “hoods and deadbeats” and offered an alternative chain of events. A newspaper account of the trial reads as follows.
‘You are charged with insulting policemen,’ said M. Puget, the judge.
‘On the contrary, it is we who should bring charges concerning brutality and insults,’ Louise Michel said, ‘because we were very peaceful. What happened, and doubtless the reason I am here, is this: I went to the headquarters of the police commissioner and when I got there, I looked out a window and saw several policemen beating a man. I did not want to say anything to those policemen because they were very overexcited, so I went up to the next floor and found two other policemen who were calmer. I said to them, ‘Go down quickly. Someone is being murdered.’ (Michel 1981, 134)
Michel’s true crime was, in other words, trolling a police officer. She had amusing interactions not only with the police but also with men in general. When she was twelve or thirteen two adult suitors attempted to marry her. She remembered that “they both had the idea of choosing a very young fiancée and having her moulded like soft wax for a few years before offering her up to themselves as a sacrifice.” After the first adult suitor did not notice her literary reference to Moliere she “looked straight in his face, and with the ingenuousness of Agnes, I said to him boldly, knowing he had one glass eye, ‘Monsieur, is your other eye glass, too?’ That seemed to embarrass my relatives a little, and as for my suitor, he gave me a venomous look from the eye that wasn’t glass, and made it clear he no longer wanted to make me his fiancée.” (Michel 1981, 21) Michel scared away the second adult suitor with similar tactics. She remembered saying,
‘You see plainly what’s hanging on the wall over there.’ It was a pair of stag antlers. ‘Well, I don’t love you. I will never love you, and if I marry you I won’t restrain myself any more than Mme Dandin did. If I marry you, you will wear horns on your head a hundred thousand feet higher than those antlers.’ I suppose I convinced him I was telling him the truth, for he never came back. My relatives advised me, however, to be a little more reserved in quoting old authors in the future.There have been unfortunate children who were forced to marry old crocodiles like those. If it had been done to me, either he or I would have had to jump out the window. (Michel 1981, 21)
As an adult Michel acted in a similar manner towards unwanted men. She wrote that one day,
a simple-minded man, absolutely dressed to the teeth, a stupid man as stiff as a wooden doll, appeared at the door of 45, boulevard Ornano, where my mother and I were living. ‘MIle Michel?’ he asked, forgetting to take off his stove-pipe hat and beating his right hand with a small stick. ‘I am she,’ I said. ‘No, you aren’t her.’ ‘I’m not me?’ ‘Well! I know Louise Michel. I saw her portrait in the Salon.’ ‘So?’ ‘So! Try not to make fun of me. A woman who has horses and carriages doesn’t open her own door. Go and get her for me. I repeat: It isn’t her who is opening this door.’ ‘It’s she who is closing it,’ I said. Whereupon, as this stupid man wasn’t all the way inside, I pushed him completely outside and slammed the door in his face. He blustered a little from the other side of the door, and then I heard him going down the steps, still shouting insults. (Michel 1981, 153)
Michel regularly went on speaking tours to spread anarchist ideas and raise money for social movements. On one occasion she combined this with a cunning plan to manipulate her haters. She wrote,
In October 1882 I went to Lille to speak in connection with the strike of the women spinners there. . . All the strikers had to do was hold out for one week more and the exploiters would have given in, but to last a week longer the strikers needed two thousand francs. That was why I went to Lille to make a speech. Thanks to the reactionaries who paid for their seats so that they could come to insult me, we made the two thousand francs in one lecture alone. I asked the organizers of the speech to put that money away safely, and then I was able to announce to the gentlemen who had bought tickets that we had what we needed. Thus, they were free either to listen to me or to spend their time howling, either of which was perfectly all right with me because we already had the two thousand francs that we needed. (Michel 1981, 153-4)
From these stories it is apparent that Louise Michel had powerful chaotic good energy. Yet these stories are not only amusing. They also serve as a reminder that famous revolutionaries in the past were not fundamentally different to people alive today. They were human beings who, despite living in a different time and place, engaged in what one might call relatable content.
Michel, Louise. 1981. The Red Virgin: Memoirs of Louise Michel. Edited and Translated by Bullit Lowry and Elizabeth Ellington Gunter. The University of Alabama Press.
Thomas, Edith. 1983. Louise Michel. Black Rose Books.