So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The Silver Cross by Eugene Sue

The Silver Cross is the fourth book of the 19 volume series The Mysteries of the People; or History of a Proletarian Family Across the Age. The first three books show how a proud Gallic family is reduced to slavery due to the Roman conquest of Gaul. In the first book Joel, the leader of the clan, directs his children to write and pass on their story as a reminder to their descendants to never forgive their oppressors.

This fourth volume tells the story of Genevieve, a 23 year old Gallic slave, who is the personal attendant to Aurelia, a Roman matron. They have just arrived in Judea with Aurelia's husband, a relative of the local procurator, Pontius Pilate. He has come to take the position of tax collector. At a dinner at Pilate's house Aurelia and Genevieve meet and become friends with Jane, the wife of the steward to Herod, the local governor. All the positions of power and authority are represented at the dinner: government administrators, a lawyer/senator, a Pharisee, and a banker. These men of power talk about the troublemaker Jesus. While Pilate tends to minimize the threat, the others see Jesus as a menace to their wealth and power and want him destroyed.

Jane attempts to defend Jesus and says the men misunderstand his message of hope and love for the desolate and downtrodden. The men do not want to hear this, but Aurelia and Genevieve are interested in learning more about the gentle carpenter. A few days later when their husbands are away on business, Jane and Aurelia, disguised as men and accompanied by Genevieve, seek out the Wild Ass Tavern where Jesus is known to speak. They are inspired by his parables and stories and his gentle and giving manner.

This series was written to be a European history depicting the struggle between the ruling and the ruled classes. This is the last of the four introductory volumes of the series. In it we see Jesus as the first Christian communist speaking out against the ruling authority of church, state and money. The slave Genevieve observes in him a great leader for justice and equality. She documents how the bankers, priests and lawmakers orchestrate the persecution and murder of Jesus to remove the threat to their privileged lives. While the story has the feeling of a Socialist morality play and the characters are stereotypical, in reading this book we get to see the Passion of Jesus in a working class perspective as seen from the eyes of a slave wishing to be free.

Considered classics of Marxist/Socialist thought, these books are mostly forgotten today, and the English-language editions published at the beginning of the 20th Century have only recently become available through large-scale digitization projects of Public Domain books. Daniel DeLeon, leader of the Socialist Labor Party of America and translator of this series into English, writes a Preface to each volume as an introduction.

Of the series of nineteen historic novels that comprise Eugene Sue's work entitled The Mysteries of the People; or, History of a Proletarian Family Across the Ages, the first four may be called the overture to the historic drama that really starts with the fifth—The Casque's Lark; or, Victoria, the Mother of the Camps, when the two distinct streams of the typically oppressed and typical oppressor meet—and closes with the nineteenth—The Galley Slave's Ring; or, The Family of Lebrenn, bringing history down to the year 1848. The introductory period closes with this, the fourth story, The Silver Cross; or, The Carpenter of Nazareth. While the first of the introductory stories—The Gold Sickle; or, Hena, the Virgin of the Isle of Sen—portrays the Gallic people, pure, brave, industrious but unorganized; while the second—The Brass Bell; or, The Chariot of Death—narrates the enslavement of this people, as the inevitable consequence of their unorganized condition, which not all their virtues could parry; while the third—The Iron Collar; or, Faustina and Syomara—describes Roman society with an eye especially to the brutality that the slave was subjected to, and the brutalizing effect thereof upon the slaveholder himself;— while these three stories unfold the gradual breakdown of society under the Roman sway, this, the fourth, summarizes the preceding ones in the grand climax of the political upheaval which the Tragedy of Calvary, though expected to, was not able to burke.
Although Sue's Mysteries of the People; or, History of a Proletarian Family is a "work of fiction," yet it is the best universal history extant; better than any work, avowedly on history, it graphically traces the special features of the several systems of class-rule as they have succeeded each other from epoch to epoch, together with the nature of the struggle between the contending classes. The "Law," "Order," "Patriotism," "Religion," etc., etc., that each successive tyrant class, despite its change of form, hysterically sought refuge in to justify its criminal existence whenever threatened; the varying economic causes of the oppression of the toilers; the mistakes incurred by these in their struggles for redress; the varying fortunes of the conflict;—all these social dramas are therein reproduced in a majestic series of "historic novels," covering leading and successive episodes in the history of the race. The present story—The Silver Cross; or, The Carpenter of Nazareth—is a marvellous presentation of one of the world's leading events in a garb without which that event is stripped of its beauty and significance. As the narrative rushes onward thrillingly from start to catastrophe, it delineates one after another the leading features of the oppressors' class—their unity of action, despite hostile politico-material interests and clashing creed tenets; the hypocrisy that typifies them all; the oneness of fundamental purpose that animates pulpit, professional chair, or public office in possession of a plundering class. Page after page holds the mirror up to the modern ruling class—its orators, pulpiteers, politicians, lawyers, together with its long train of menials of high and low degree— and, by the reflection cast, enlightens and warns.
Daniel De Leon
Milford, Conn., May, 1909.


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