|St. Denis, circa 1830|
On Christmas Eve, 1773, two young army cavalrymen took lodgings at a small tavern near the abbey of St. Denis, France. They had no horses or luggage, and quietly dined and went to their room unnoticed among the cheerful preparations for the holiday. The younger man went out to buy gunpowder and bullets. He amiably told the shopkeeper that the town was so pleasant, he planned to spend the rest of his life there.
The next day, the two visitors continued their good cheer. They paid their bill in advance, ate a hearty dinner, and asked to have wine and writing paper sent up to them. The men then bolted their door.
A very short time later, the Christmas peace was shattered by the sound of two shots from inside their room. When their door was broken down, the men were found sitting across the table from each other, both quite dead from pistol shots fired into their mouths. Sitting on the table was a coin, along with a letter and what could loosely be called a will. They were the work of the younger of the men, who signed himself only “Bourdeaux.” He may have been the junior member of the pair, but was clearly the dominant spirit. He described himself as “former pupil of the schoolmasters, then assistant pettifogger, monk, dragoon, and finally nothing…”
The documents he left behind make this obscure little tragedy one of the most self-consciously literary suicides I have encountered. Although Bourdeaux’s last messages have a decidedly affected quality, (he was a perfect forerunner to Goethe’s Young Werther, who was introduced to the world the following year,) his mixture of defiance and despair is still moving, particularly in the context of his times. This otherwise anonymous young soldier is oddly symbolic of the restless, dissatisfied spirit of France just before the Revolution.
Bourdeaux was clearly anxious that the world should not entirely forget them. His “will” read:
A man who is certain, that he shall quickly die, ought to leave nothing for his survivors to do, which it is in his own power to settle beforehand. This situation is peculiarly ours. It is our intention therefore to prevent all trouble to our landlord, and to render the business as easy as possible to those, whom curiosity, under the pretense of form and good order, may prompt to visit us.— Humain is the larger man of the two, and I Bourdeaux the smaller. He is drum-major du Mestre de Camp General des Dragons, and I am a simple Belzunce dragoon. Death is a passage. I refer to the Procureur Fiscal and his first clerk, who will assist him in this inquiry, the principle, which joined to the idea that all things must have an end, placed these pistols in our hands. The future part of our lives affords us an agreeable prospect: but that future must soon have had an end. Humain is twenty-four years of age as for myself I have seen only four lustres [twenty years.] No urgent motive has prompted us to intercept our career of life, except the disgust of existing here a moment under the idea, that we must at one time or other cease to be. Eternity is the point of re-union, which alone has urged us to anticipate the despotic act of fate. In short a disgust of life is the only motive, which has induced us to quit it. We have experienced all the pleasures of life, even that of obliging our fellow-creatures. We could still enjoy them; but all those pleasures must have an end, which is their poison. We are disgusted with the universal scene. Our curtain is dropped; and we leave our parts to be performed by those, who are silly enough to wish to act them a few hours longer. A few grains of powder will soon destroy this mass of moving flesh, which our haughty brethren like to call the "King of Beings."—Ministers of Justice! our bodies are at your service, as we despise them too much to fret about their fate.—As to our effects, I Bourdeaux leave to Monsieur de Rouilliere, Commandant de la Marechaussee at St. Denis, my steel-hilted sword. He will please to remember, that last year on this very day, he had the kindness to pardon at my instance one of the name of St. Germain, who had offended him. The maid of the inn shall have my pocket and neck-kerchiefs, my silk stockings which I have on, and all my other linen. The remainder of our effects will be sufficient to pay for the futile investigation and proceedings that will be conducted on our account. The half-crown left on the table will pay for the last bottle of wine, which we are now just going to drink." At St. Denis on Christmas-day, 1773, Signed Bourdeaux—Humain
Bourdeaux’s second letter was to his regimental lieutenant:
“…I think I told you several times how discontented I am with my present situation…After examining my thoughts more seriously, I realized that this disgust embraced everything, and that I was also fed up with every existing situation, of mankind, of the whole world, of myself; I was bound to act upon this discovery.
“When one is tired of everything, it is time to give up everything. The calculation was simple; there was no call for using geometry; now I am about to rid myself of the certificate of existence I have possessed for almost twenty years, and which has burdened me for fifteen…I owe no one an apology. I am deserting, which is a crime; but as I am going to punish myself, the law will be satisfied…Farewell, my dear Lieutenant…Keep flitting from flower to flower and extracting the nectar from all knowledge and all pleasures…If we exist after this life, and it is forbidden to quit it without permission, I will endeavour to procure one moment to inform you of it; if not, I should advise all those who are unhappy, which is by far the greatest part of mankind, to follow my example. When you receive this letter, it will already have been more than twenty-four hours since I ceased to be…"
In contrast with all of Bourdeaux’s carefully crafted emoting, we have no clues indicating his companion’s feelings at the moment he deliberately faced death. We cannot know to what extent he was Bourdeaux’s willing partner in this act, or simply the victim of a stronger nature.
The authorities, shocked by the casual, almost flippant way in which the pair committed what was considered a mortal sin, attempted to suppress their story. Despite that, these documents gained a wide circulation. Bourdeaux and Hermain were often commented on in contemporary diaries and letters (including those of Voltaire,) as well as the public press. It was a perfect example of otherwise unmemorable people unconsciously expressing the prevailing zeitgeist.
Perhaps this is why the pair was posthumously punished with such barbarity. Suicide was considered a crime “which had to be punished more severely than another,” as it was an act damning one’s soul to Hell. Even worse, from the point of view of the authorities, the philosophical willingness of Bourdeaux and Humain to relinquish their lives was seen as, in the words of modern writer Daren Fonda, "a radical assault against the fraying social contract between subject and ruler." The bodies of the two young men were dragged through St. Denis, publicly exhibited with stakes driven through their hearts, and then burned with the town garbage.
The civil and church leaders were obviously worried that Bourdeaux might prove to be a trend-setter.