French Socialist Paul Lafargue recorded his visit to Louise Michel in St Lazare prison following her conviction for starting a riot in 1883.
– But what’s wrong with you? You look all upset, as if the sight of a prison troubles you, Louise Michel smilingly said to me as I entered
– Citizen, it’s painful for us to know you're imprisoned. But I didn’t expect to see you behind a grill. I had hoped to talk with you in a room, to hold your hands.
– My dear Lafargue, she answered, there is no other parlor in this hotel where the bourgeois lodge me gratis. I'm not complaining. To tell you the truth, I've had to put up with worse. I ‘ve found a happiness in prison that I never knew when I was free; I have time to study and I take advantage of it. When I was free I had my classes: 150 students or more. It wasn’t enough for me to live on, since two thirds of them didn’t pay me. I had to give lessons in music, grammar, history, a little bit of everything, until ten or eleven o'clock in the evening, and when I went home I went to sleep exhausted, unable to do anything. At the time I would have given years of my life in order to have time to give over to study.
Here in St Lazare I have time for myself, a lot of time, and I'm happy about this: I read, I study. I've learned several languages. A friend, G..., gave me Russian lessons and I can already read it and even write it a little. You know that I have an excellent memory, the main thing needed for the study of language. I learned English all on my own...In order to undertake what I want to do when I get out of prison I have to know several languages.
While waiting to re-conquer my freedom of action, my freedom to propagandize, I write. I wrote some children’s books. I teach them to think like citizens, like revolutionaries, while at the same time amusing them. In novels I realistically paint the miseries of life, and I try to breathe the love of the revolution into the hearts of men.
We spoke for an hour and a half, forgetting about the place we were in, talking about everything, touching on all possible topics of current affairs, elections, realist literature, new novels, voyages.
– Don’t feel sorry for me, I'm more free than many of those who walk about under the open skies. Their minds are imprisoned, they are enchained by their property, by their monetary interests, the sad necessities of their lives. They are so absorbed that they can’t live like living, thinking beings. As for me, I live the life of the world. I follow with enthusiasm the revolutionary movements of Russia, Germany, and France, everywhere. Yes, I am a fanatic and, like all martyrs, my body doesn’t feel pain when my thoughts transport me to the world of the revolution.
Imprisoned behind these thick walls I see again my beautiful voyage to New Caledonia. My being was never so strongly moved by the spectacle of nature as when I sailed on the somber immensity of the ocean, than when on the South Pole I witnessed a snow storm and saw the air white with snow and the black sea devouring the flakes that fell on its surface; while in my heart lived the bloody days of the defeat and the sublime explosion of March 18.
I people my solitude with thousands of memories. And my beloved Canaques! How barbarian the civilized are! I learned their language, their music, their songs. I lived among them and they loved me as if I belonged to their tribe. I founded a school, and in no time I had taught these little savages to read and to count, but I have to say that I invented a special method for their usage...
Louise Michel elaborated at length on the pedagogical question that so interests her.
– I received a letter from the mayor of Noumea. He asks that I go there to found schools, and I will.
It was moving to hear this heroic woman speak.
– Oh, citizen, how we miss you!
– Don’t talk to me about a pardon. I don’t want a pardon; never, at any price.
– It wouldn’t be a pardon that the government would give you in returning to you the freedom it deprives you of by force. A revolutionary, and this is my carefully thought out opinion, should not recognize the bourgeoisie’s right to condemn him. He cedes before the enormous force that crushes him, but doesn’t abandon any of his rights and if, after having locked him up, the bourgeois government opens the prison gates, it isn’t pardoning him, it is restoring the freedom it robbed him of. It even owes him reparations for the months of prison they made him suffer. I just finished eight months of prison and I count on receiving damages the day of the revolution. Think then, citizen, of the services you would render the revolutionary cause if you were free.
– No, I don’t want a pardon. I will only leave prison if I'm given an amnesty. Let those who love me never speak of a pardon: this would dishonor me.
– No pardon will ever dishonor Louise Michel, who, the day after she leaves, will begin again her campaign of revolutionary struggle.
– Stop, I don’t want to hear any talk about a pardon. Don’t forget to bring me your anthropology books and Darwin’s The Descent of Man; reading it will fortify my English. Tell my friends that I'm doing well. Adieu et au revoir.
Le Socialiste, September 26, 1885