Guinea Pig Zero

By gpzero


I took this picture too late for it to be my blip on Voltairine's 145th birthday. To mark the event I pulled out artifacts of her life that are precious to me, and this shows a few of them.

Briefly stated, Voltairine de Cleyre (1866-1912) was the most brilliant and charismatic anarchist who ever lived in Philadelphia. I first read her biography in 1989 and I've been studying her ever since. I've unearthed lost articles that she wrote, found images and events of her life, I met her granddaughter, and even rescued the pillar from the porch of a house she lived in before it was torn down. I've spent so much time, covered so much ground searching her out that I know more about her than any other living person. Once I read an incredible but extremely painful letter she wrote. I was the second person alive to have read it, and first to spot the depth of its personal pain. She would really turn in her grave if she knew I shared it, but hey, she's dead and the letter is too powerful to keep to myself. I've also found out other secrets of her love life --some embarrassing (one early lover turned out to be a Deputy US Marshall) others simply romantic, and still others the painful details of life in those times.

I have spoken to Voltai (her nickname; "VOL-tee") both in dreams and in waking fantasy while out walking alone. I'm happy to report that she has never answered my questions. It has often occured to me that I don't really know what she looked like, nor in what way she impressed people, because no image survives of her smile, no recording of her voice or her laughter. Yet I know her so well that when I meet people who have read and understood plenty about her, I will roll my eyes and think, Oh, dabbler...

She was an Anarchist (tending to Individualism), a Freethinker, a sex radical, a poet, essayist, short story writer, musician, teacher, and public speaker. She was poor all through her life. If she had been of more robust heath and lived longer, or if she had been comfortable being paid for her anarchist work, she probably would have become world-famous. She was so absolutely committed to spreading the anarchist idea that she'd risk her life for it without hesitation.

I re-read some material as I got ready for this blip and hours passed, and I hardly know where to start in telling stories from Voltai's life. I'll just explain the things in this picture.

At left is an open copy of the program that was printed for her memorial service here in Philadelphia after Voltairine died in Chicago. Evidently her "most favorite song" was a Hawai'ian ballad of love and the natural beauty of the place. There is no other testimony of her liking the song but it reminds me of Le Temps des Cerises (anthem of the Paris Commune) and La Guantanamera (national anthem of Cuba) --sweet, emotional songs of the love of place and people. Aside from the music, just read the lyrics of those three, then try to find words for how bad a choice was The Star Spangled Banner as the US national anthem. My my, what a brave flag we have here!

In the middle is a page from one of my scrap-books, showing Voltairine and her comrade Chaim Weinberg in court after being arrested for inciting a riot. She spoke to the gathering in English, he in Yiddish. The so-called "rioters" spoke only Italian. It was the only time she was ever arrested, but the images I found in connection with that affair are delightful ornaments for an interesting tale. Another shot shows two detectives escorting her out of her house, arresting her. Finding these things creates moments when I tingle all over, being the only person on Earth who knows something really cool.

On the right is a copy of a letter letter she wrote to another leading anarchist of the day, Alexander Berkman. Her handwriting was very fine because she was educated in a convent, just as she was an atheist because she was educated in a convent. The letter also indicates that Voltairine was in love with the man. It makes me crazy that either no one else has noticed this or they didn't think it important enough to write down. To an anarchist, this is like finding a love note from Marilyn to Elvis.

The same letter told of an excursion Voltairine took with her 16-year old son Harry. They got a train to Devon PA at 10 PM, then hiked all night under a full moon in the Valley Forge battlefield, getting the train back just after sunrise, "the Sun and the Moon over against each other, and an opaline sea between." That's what I and Ceridwen will do, next time she visits.

Around the turn of the 20th Century, de Cleyre would be invited to speak at the funerals of anarchists and other freethinkers. In one of those addresses she said,

"Farewell, brave heart who dared to be true to yourself, even unto death. This last trust of yours has helped us to break a link in the fetters of the world. Even your pale face gives the "everlasting no" to every liberty-denying creed that seeks to bind in slavery the minds of men."

Happy Birthday, Voltairine!

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