Monday, 16 March 2009

Mourir pour des idées- a deeply felt song where he pleads for tolerance and restraint

Mourir pour des idées

A heartfelt poem against those who propagate suicidal ideals.

Brassens tells us that after the hostile response he has had after writing two recent songs (“Les deux oncles” and “La tondue”) he has decided to change his standpoint and accept that it’s a good idea to die for an ideology, his only proviso being that death should be a lifetime in coming. The song goes on to justify this delay.

Mourir pour des idées
Mourir pour des idées, l'idée est excellente.
Moi j'ai failli mourir de ne l'avoir pas eue,(1)
Car tous ceux qui l'avaient, multitude accablante,
En hurlant à la mort me sont tombés dessus.

Ils ont su me convaincre et ma muse insolente,

Abjurant ses erreurs, se rallie à leur foi
Avec un soupçon de réserve toutefois :
Mourons pour des idées, d'accord, mais de mort lente,
D'accord, mais de mort lente.

Jugeant qu'il n'y a pas péril en la demeure(2),

Allons vers l'autre monde en flânant en chemin
Car, à forcer l'allure, il arrive qu'on meure

Pour des idées n'ayant plus cours le lendemain.
Or, s'il est une chose amère, désolante,

En rendant l'âme à Dieu c'est bien de constater
Qu'on a fait fausse route, qu'on s'est trompé d'idée,
Mourons pour des idées, d'accord, mais de mort lente,
D'accord, mais de mort lente.

Les Saint Jean Bouche d'Or qui prêchent le martyre,
Le plus souvent, d'ailleurs, s'attardent ici-bas.

Mourir pour des idées, c'est le cas de le dire,
C'est leur raison de vivre, ils ne s'en privent pas.
Dans presque tous les camps on en voit qui supplantent
Bientôt Mathusalem dans la longévité.
J'en conclus qu'ils doivent se dire, en aparté (2)
"Mourons pour des idées, d'accord, mais de mort lente,
D'accord, mais de mort lente.

Des idées réclamant le fameux sacrifice,
Les sectes de tout poil en offrent des séquelles,(3)
Et la question se pose aux victimes novices (4)
Mourir pour des idées, c'est bien beau mais lesquelles ?
Et comme toutes sont entre elles ressemblantes,
Quand il les voit venir, avec leur gros drapeau,
Le sage, en hésitant, tourne autour du tombeau. (5)
Mourons pour des idées, d'accord, mais de mort lente,
D'accord, mais de mort lente.

Encor s'il suffisait de quelques hécatombes (6)
Pour qu'enfin tout changeât, qu'enfin tout s'arrangeât !
Depuis tant de grands soirs que tant de têtes tombent, (7)
Au paradis sur terre on y serait déjà
Mais l'âge d'or sans cesse est remis aux calendes,
Les dieux ont toujours soif, (8)n'en ont jamais assez,
Et c'est la mort, la mort toujours recommencée...
Mourons pour des idées, d'accord, mais de mort lente,
D'accord, mais de mort lente.

Ô vous, les boutefeux, ô vous les bons apôtres,
Mourez donc les premiers, nous vous cédons le pas.
Mais de grâce, morbleu ! laissez vivre les autres,
 La vie est à peu près leur seul luxe ici-bas ;
Car, enfin, la Camarde est assez vigilante,

Elle n'a pas besoin qu'on lui tienne la faux.

Plus de danse macabre autour des échafauds !

Mourons pour des idées, d'accord, mais de mort lente,
D'accord, mais de mort lente.

1972 – Fernande.

To die for your ideas. The idea is excellent
But I came close to dying for not having one,
For all those who had it, an overwhelming mass,
While howling for my blood came at me with full force.
They managed to convince me, and my insolent muse
Recanting her mistakes, rallies to their belief
With one tiny proviso all the same
Let us die for ideas, fine! but let death come slow
Fine! But, let death come slow.

Judging that there’s is no great risk in hanging on
Let us go to the other world taking our time
Because, forcing the pace, chance is that you might die
For ideas, no longer current on the morrow.
Now if there is a thing, bitter, and heart-breaking
On rendering one’s soul to God, it’s to find out
That you went wrong and latched onto the wrong idea.
Let us die for ideas, fine! but let death come slow
Fine! But, let death come slow.

The Saint John Chrysotoms (3) who preach for martyrdoms
Most often, besides, dawdle down here on earth.
To die for  ideas, we are quite right to say so
Is their reason for living, they won’t do without.
In almost all the groups, you see some  supplanting
Soon Methuselah’s record for longevity.
I conclude that they must whisper to each other:
Let us die for ideas, fine! but let death come slow
Fine!! But, let death come slow.

Ideas demanding the supreme sacrifice
Sects of every ilk offer followers of these

And the question is asked of the novice victims:
To die for ideas, is very nice - but which?
And as they are all alike, one with the other
When he sees them coming, with their great big standard
The wise man, hesitating, gives the tomb more time.
Let us die for ideas, fine! but let death come slow
Fine! But, let death come slow

Again, if it took only a few mass slaughters
For all at last to change, all at last be put right

Since so many grand nights when so many heads fell
In our heaven on earth we’d be already there
But the golden age is postponed constantly
The gods are still athirst, have never had enough

And it is death, death, over and over again

Let us die for ideas, fine! but let death come slow
Fine! But, let death come slow

Oh you firebrands, oh you the good apostles,
Be the first to die then, we stand aside for you.

But for mercy’s sake, heavens! allow the rest to live.
Life is nearly their sole luxury down here
For in truth, the grim reaper keeps close enough watch enough
She does not need people to hold for her the scythe
No more dance macabre around the grim scaffolds
Let us die for ideas, fine! but let death come slow
Fine! But, let death come slow

(1)     When Brassens says he almost died for not having ideas, he is referring to the violent reception he was given after writing his song "Les Deux Oncles", in which he asked for equal sympathy for one of his uncles who died fighting for the Allied cause and a second who died fighting for the Fascist cause. The ideas that he expressed towards the war caused great anger in the majority of the population.

(2)     la demeure –the general meaning is “dwelling”, but it has a secondary meaning of a legal delay or stay.  Il n'y a pas péril en la demeure is an idiom  meaning  « One is not taking any risk by waiting »

(3)     Saint John Chrysotom the 14th century bishop was known as the “Golden Mouth” on account of the power of his oratory.

(4)     En aparté : When something is said as an aside on the stage, so that, in theory, the audience can hear but the characters in the play cannot.

(5)     Les séquelles usually means consequences, things that follow. Brassens is using its archaic meaning of “followers”. 

(6)     Brassens’ little joke. Martyrdom is something you can’t build up experience in. All martyrs are novices. 

(7)     tourne autour du tombeau. There are two ideas in this line. Collins Robert tells us that “Un individu tourne autour de la maison depuis une heure” means some-one has been hanging around outside the house for an hour. The phrase could also link with the expression: “tourner autour du pot” = take your time about what you are going to do. 

(8)     Hécatombes- A hecatomb was originally a sacrifice to the ancient Greek and Roman gods of 100 oxen or cattle. Brassens uses it in its modern meaning of a mass slaughter. 

(9)     Brassens is talking about the frenzied slaughter of the French Revolution. The alliteration of the “t” in this line is the drumbeat as heads fall. 

(10)  « Les dieux ont soif » is Anatole France’s brilliant novel about the period of the Terror. I have a summary of the book on my literature website. 
To read the summary -it's long!- - click here

A Footnote

Arthur Koestler made this comment about ideologies:

..... the crimes of violence committed for selfish, personal motives are historically insignificant compared to those committed ad majorem gloriam Dei, out of a self-sacrificing devotion to the flag, a leader, a religious faith or political conviction.

Click here to return to the full index of Brassens songs on this blog

La Tondue - His disgust at the reprisals after the Liberation of France

After the liberation of France from the Germans, there was a period when groups of people in France took the law into their own hands and settled scores against those who were accused of collaboration. In some cases people were arbitrarily condemned and then lined up against the wall and shot.
 Among the victims of these reprisals were women who had fraternised with the Germans. Some of these, we are told, were prostitutes who had worked in military brothels -as if this would excuse this public cruelty!- many were just ordinary girls who had fallen for the charms of young men of another nationality. The punishment for these women is described by Brassens.

In this song Brassens expresses his shock at the cruelty of which groups of people are capable in the grip of a strong. self-righteous, idea.

La tondue -The girl with the shaven head

La belle qui couchait avec le roi de Prusse,(1)
Avec le roi de Prusse,
À qui l'on a tondu le crâne rasibus,

Le crâne rasibus,

Son penchant prononcé pour les "ich liebe dich ", (2)
Pour les "ich liebe dich ",
Lui valut de porter quelques cheveux postiches, 
Quelques cheveux postiches.

Les braves sans-culottes, et les bonnets phrygiens, (3)
Et les bonnets phrygiens,
Ont livré sa crinière à un tondeur de chiens,
À un tondeur de chiens.

J'aurais dû prendre un peu parti pour sa toison,
Parti pour sa toison,
J'aurais dû dire un mot pour sauver son chignon,
Pour sauver son chignon,

Mais je n'ai pas bougé du fond de ma torpeur,
Du fond de ma torpeur.
Les coupeurs de cheveux en quatre (4) m'ont fait peur,
En quatre m'ont fait peur.

Quand, pire qu'une brosse, elle eut été tondue,
Elle eut été tondue,
J'ai dit : " C'est malheureux, ces accroch'-cœur(5) perdus,
Ces accroch'-coeur perdus. "
Et, ramassant l'un d'eux qui traînait dans l'ornière,
Qui traînait dans l'ornière,
Je l'ai, comme une fleur, mis à ma boutonnière,
Mis à ma boutonnière.

En me voyant partir arborant mon toupet,
Arborant mon toupet (6)
Tous ces coupeurs de natt's m'ont pris pour un suspect,
M'ont pris pour un suspect.

Comme de la patrie je ne mérite guère,
Je ne mérite guère
J'ai pas la Croix d'Honneur, j'ai pas la Croix de Guerre,
J'ai pas la Croix de Guerre,
Et je n'en souffre pas avec trop de rigueur,
Avec trop de rigueur.

J'ai ma rosette (7) à moi : c'est un accroche-coeur,
C'est un accroche-coeur.

Georges Brassens

1964 – from the album: Les copains d'abord.
The pretty girl who'd slept with the king of Prussia
With the king of Prussia
Whose skull the people shaved as bald as a coot
Skull bald as a coot

Her marked preference for repeats of "ich liebe dich "
Repeat "ich liebe dich ",
Meant her wearing different mops of hair, not her own
Mops of hair not her own.

The brave sans-culottes and the bonnets phrygiens
And the bonnets phrygiens
Handed her flowing locks to a man who sheared dogs
To a man who sheared dogs.

I ought ‘have sided a bit for her gorgeous mane
Have sided for her mane ,.
I ought ‘have said a word to save her tight curls
To save her tight curls.

But I just did not budge from out of my torpor
From out  of my torpor
The extremist hair cutters put the wind up me
They put the wind up me..

When worse than down to a crew-cut, she’d been  shaven
She had been shaven
I said “It's a shame, those kiss curls to go to waste
Kiss curls to go to waste “
And picking one up, left behind in the tyre ruts
One left in the tyre ruts,
I placed it like a flower, in my buttonhole
Placed in my buttonhole

On seeing me leave, displaying my trophy
Displaying my trophy,
All those cutters of  plaits, eyed me with suspicion
Eyed me with suspicion.

As of my country I’m hardly deserving
I’m hardly deserving
I've no Medal of Honour, I've no Medal of War
I've no Medal of War
And I’m not troubled about that overmuch
Not troubled overmuch

I have a rosette of my own :  it's a girl’s kiss curl

It's a girl’s kiss curl.


(1) Le roi de Prusse. Brassens just means a German soldier, not necessarily a man of rank.   A number of explanations have been given for this device. My own feeling is that it conveys the romantic view of the French girl in love of her German lover.

(2) "ich liebe dich ". This phrase, of course, says « Je’t’aime in German.

(3) Les braves sans-culottes, et les bonnets phrygiens.
In this line Brassens identifies the masses of ordinary people who joined in the violent reprisals against alleged collaborators with the “sans-culottes” of the Revolution of 1789. They were then given this name because they didn't wear upper class breeches or “culottes”. The Phrygian bonnet was a symbol adopted by the 18th Century Revolution because it was worn at the time of the Roman Empire by former slaves who had been freed. Brassens aroused the anger of left wing activists by his depiction of them in this song.

(4) Les coupeurs de cheveux en quatre. « En quatre » is used in a number of expressions to mean to the highest degree (for example “se mettre en quatre pour quelq’un” = to do your utmost for some-one. If Brassens was indeed threatened in 1945, he would not have been the first choice for bullies to pick on. For a time, Brassens was employed as a bodyguard for Jean-Paul Sartre.

(5) Soft kiss curls. I put in the adjective to give me a 3 syllable translation.

(6) Toupet has 2 meanings (a) tuft of hair (b) impudence. His gesture with the locket of hair was recognised by these administrators of rough justice as an act of defiance.

(7) A Rosette is an insignia of honour in the military and in the Légion d’honneur.

The job completed, the girl is led through the streets with her Franco-German baby.


Arthur Koestler has said:
..... the evils of mankind are caused, not by the primary aggressiveness of individuals, but by their self-transcending identification with groups whose common denominator is low intelligence and high emotionality.