Christos Tsiolkas

Danton’s Laugh

The power of the image is such that I find it difficult to imagine Danton without his assuming Gerard Depardieu’s visage and physique. And that seems absurd, as it has been nearly two decades since I last saw Andrzej Wajda’s biographical film, in which the French actor plays the eponymous revolutionary.  Nevertheless, I still trust in the authenticity of Depardieu’s portrayal over contemporaneous illustrations of the man; I have more faith in Wadja’s creativity than I do in the imagination of the nineteenth century sculptors who rendered Danton as monument. By nineteen eighty-three Depardieu’s body had begun to thicken, and he was losing the callow but bullish handsomeness of the youth who possessed the screen in Betrand Blier’s Get Out Your Handkerchiefs and Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900. He had not yet become the corpulent, unsexed caricature of French bucolic charm,  starring in those sentimental peasant dramas and mean-spirited comedic farces that slowly-slowly, year by year, chipped away at his talent. All the existing illustrations of Danton indicate that he was both masculine and ugly. The Depardieu of nineteen eighty-three can grant Danton something that must have been the man’s due: he can give him potency. That is what the illustrators and the sculptors did not achieve. Depardieu is ugly but his virility makes him attractive. I think this is why both women and men respond to Depardieu, or at least the Depardieu of those years: there is nothing fey or feeble about him. Wadja chose wisely: we know that thought Danton was physically unattractive, the force of his personality was such that he was powerfully charismatic.

Danton was not yet forty when he was sent to the guillotine. Those illustrations and cartoons, those monuments and epic paintings, they make him seem an old man. I am prepared to believe that humans aged faster as well as died younger two centuries ago. But a man who makes a revolution, he is youthful, not old.


It is unimaginable, I can’t conceive of the command of will demanded – I know that I would be incapable of it – but I hope that as he knelt and placed his head in the stock, that he smiled. The smile that Robespierre so detested, the smile that Robespierre could not forgive.

I place all my underwear and socks, two singlets, two cotton handkerchiefs, my swimmers, my goggles, my shaving kit and bath kit, my medicine and vitamins, a blister pack of xanax, one pair of jeans, one good pair of trousers, two hoodies and two jumpers, I punch them all into the suitcase. In the zip flap on the side of the case I stuff in the charger for my phone and the charger for my laptop. That’s all I need, for the moment it will do. Sarah is in the kitchen, she claims that if she even as much as looks at me she will be ill. That is how much I disgust her. Sarah believes herself incorruptible, she claims that she does not know what it is to be racist, that she abhors hypocrisy and that she is always and only fair. She forgives weakness only in the destitute and the pitiable. She is an atheist but she sweats sanctity, as all the good Protestant bourgeoisie do: it is her blood, her marrow, her core. She is incorruptible.

Goodbye, I say to her. I am standing in the doorway, she is sitting rigid on a kitchen chair, refusing to look at me. Goodbye, I repeat.

Without turning, she spits out, droplets of piety propelling from her lips, “I said I can’t look at you, I can’t stand to look at you.”

I want her to look. I want her to see that I am smiling.

There are three beats of our hearts and then I break the silence again.

“I’ll come back and pick up the rest of my stuff over the next few days.”

“Do it when I’m at work. And leave your key when you go. I don’t want you to have a key to my house anymore.”

She says this all, again, without looking once in my direction.

I turn and I leave. And I am thinking, my house? Is our home now her house? It is in the thinking of assets, of how to divide and fight over the bricks and mortar, the stocks and the cash, it is in thinking of economic matters that it hits me with the force of a punch that you never saw coming, that this indeed might be divorce.

There is the shock of the blow landing, the Herculean struggle for breath, the tears in the eyes, the wince from the pain. Then the relief, followed by the shame: it doesn’t hurt as much as you thought it might.


When I was younger I wanted to admire Robespierre, if only to spite the bourgeois guardians of democracy who saw only degeneracy and cruelty in revolution. But try as I might, it was impossible for me to warm to let alone respect the prick. I do not doubt that he was a man of conviction, there is nothing I have read to indicate that he was not truly possessed by a fiery desire for equality. He did wish to propel the revolution forward, he wished to inaugurate a new democratic dawn that would annihilate privilege and injustice forever. Reading some of his speeches and tracts from before the creation of the Committee of Public Safety, his dreams of universal education and suffrage, his condemnation of the hellish poverty to which the mass of French humanity were sentenced to, it is impossible not to be carried away by the sweep of his zeal, to not admire the eloquence and good faith of his righteousness. But even there, in those early writings, purity is aligned with good, and human frailty is only excusable for those who require his protection and his representations. The failures of equals are to be condemned as moral injustices, and by the time one is reading the speeches from the Terror, the rhetoric is hysterical in its vehemence and hate. I have no doubt that he believed he was enacting justice for every head he ordered to roll from the guillotine. The revolution immolated from the intense blue flame of such fury. I can’t imagine Robespierre fucking; though of course, he must have, he was a father. But I can’t see it, as I can’t see him cracking a joke or spewing his guts out after a night’s bout of heavy drinking. Robespierre loved mankind but detested humanity. That might just be the creed of every revolutionary hero.

What about Trotsky, I hear a voice shout. What about Kronstadt, I hear another answer.


“Well, each man kills the thing he loves.”

That made me crack up. But I realised I was the only one laughing.

“What do you mean?”

Annette is eying Stewie suspiciously, her eyes squinting in distrust. It is nineteen eighty-two, it is a meeting of the Socialist Workers Party, there are eleven of us in Annette’s lounge and the room stinks of tobacco, and of moist armpits that are forbidden the patriarchal and imperialist evil of deoderant. Except for Stewie; he smells sweetly of both aftershave and talcum powder, and that is another reason for Annette’s disdain. Stewie is my age, eighteen, just out of high school and so flamboyantly homosexual that I have to resist the shameful revulsion I experience every time I look in his direction. But he has a delicious sense of humour and I am so very grateful for that. We had just been involved in a long, tedious argument about the Russian Revolution, debating where Bolshevism had taken the wrong turn, where it had deviated from the great historical moment of liberating the proletariat. As good Trotskyists we wished to believe that it was the moment of Stalin’s stealing the leadership of the Central Committee, the point at which the Party turned away from Internationalism. But Andre, who we all suspected of anarcho-syndicalism, was playing the devil’s advocate.

“What about Kronstadt?”

That’s when Stewie, in his droll deep baritone had intoned, “Well, each man kills the thing he loves.”

“What does that mean?”

Was it Annette who had asked, was it Patricia? Surely not Patricia, she loved literature and would have known the source. It must have been Annette.

“It’s an Oscar Wilde quote.”

“Trotsky wasn’t homosexual.”

Stewie and I fell about laughing; Annette was always so bloody literal.

“It’s alright, sweetheart, I am not suggesting Trotsky was into getting buggered by his naval comrades.” There was icy steel now in Stewie’s tone. “God forbid he fucked them. But I guess it was okay to shoot them.”

I think we all held in our breaths at that moment, fearful of the challenging danger in Stewie’s voice. But Annette’s next words were apologetic.

“There were gay revolutionaries, Stew, I think it important we acknowledge them. But Trotsky was heterosexual, it is the historical record.”

It is at that very moment, I am sitting cross-legged, and Sarah is sitting across from me, she has her left leg folded beneath her and her right leg is stretched out, I notice how beautiful and svelte her calf is, and she is smiling conspiratorially at me. I smile back.

Three red wines later, we are in her bedroom, and we are fucking. After sex, we take turns tenderly mocking our fellow comrades, I imitate Annette’s strident pronouncements and she mimes Andre’s passionate gestures, the way he clenches his fists and shakes them every time he wishes to make a political challenge.  Her laughter, the way her whole body convulses from it, it reawakens my desire and we make love again. We are both eighteen. We can fuck for hours and hours.


It is eleven in the morning, she is at work and I am placing my books, my records, my CDs, my papers, my clothes, my shoes, my old computers, I am putting everything into boxes. The removalists are due at midday and my nose is twitching from the dust. I have so many books, so many books that have remained untouched for decades. There is “Capital”, all three volumes, there is the “Grundrisse”, there is Gramsci and Trotsky and Lenin. There is Giddens and Hall and Eagleton. There is Butler and Foucault and Kristeva. There are so many books and so much dust. There are so many books unread and it seems a betrayal.

I take the Kristeva and flick through the leaves. I come to the title page and it is my name there, my script there, it reads, To my dear Sarah, a comrade in heart and in mind, I love you always, Jack. The words now make me blush. What kind of present is that to give to someone you adore, that you cherish, that you are already thinking of asking to be your wife? What could such a gift mean?

That we were young. I cough; I blow my nose on my T-shirt sleeve. That’s all it means, that we were young. I place the book back on the shelf.


I placed the book back on her shelf.


It is impossible to write of that radical past without making it ridiculous. I lied when I described that argument over the revolution’s wrong turn as tedious. It did not feel like that at the time. I was excited by such questions, they seemed necessary and important, for I did believe in abolishing the cruel and brutal yoke of capitalism. I also believed its extinction was imminent and possible. I think it important to note that my conviction was not only academic, not merely intellectual. Stewie and I were the only genuinely working class people in that living room that night. My father’s back was so destroyed by his years in the abattoirs, corralling animals to slaughter, lifting slabs of meat over his shoulders, that at forty-four he already begun to walk with a cane. My mother was a seamstress: when she sat at the dinner table with her family and friends, she hid her hands into her sleeves as she talked; she was ashamed at how gnarled and ugly they were. Stewie had never met his father, and his mother had raised the three children on her own, on a cashier’s wages, their home a fibro public house in the western suburbs. Some of the others in our collective affected proletariat biographies – Annette’s grandfather in Wales had been a miner, Andre’s parents were refugees from Czecholsavakia. But Annette’s parents were teachers, and Andre’s folks had been bourgeois before the Second World War displaced them. But I will resist making them preposterous. Annette stills works in women’s health, and she is a tireless advocate for asylum seekers. Andre is a teacher in community schools, Luke works in Aboriginal health in the Territory, and Stephanie works in Legal Aid, as does my Sarah. Tahim became schizophrenic and we’ve long lost contact with him. Nadia is working as a doctor in Laos. And Stewie? He left us in nineteen eighty-four, went to London where he danced with Leigh Bowery and slept with the drummer from Culture Club. He died of AIDS a few years later and the group of us, still all comrades then, arranged for Stewie’s mother to fly to England for her son’s funeral.


My Sarah? She would hate that possessive pronoun and I will have to wean myself off its use.


My daughter, Rena, studied the French Revolution in high school and found it inconceivable that it was ideology alone that led Robespierre and Saint-Just to condemn Danton to the guillotine. She was sixteen and opinionated at the time, sixteen and idealistic, sixteen and righteous, and I tried to explain how it was possible that the same fury she felt at the casual racism of the kids at school – they are fucking drop kicks, they should all have been aborted– was the same rage that led Robespierre to condemn an intimate, a comrade and colleague. But those kids aren’t my friends, she countered, I would never do that to a friend. It was Sarah who explained to her that the Jacobins believed themselves to be assailed by enemies on all sides, both within and outside France, that they were fighting a civil war and a war against Austria, that they were convinced that Danton had been in league with enemies of the revolution, that he was secretly plotting the restitution of the monarchy.

“But there was no proof of that, Mum, there’s no evidence of it.”

Sarah had been patient.

“The fear of counter-revolution was real, Rena, I’m not saying it wasn’t exaggerated, but the Jacobins did truly believe all that had been achieved since the destruction of the monarchy and the nobility was going to be undone by the forces of reaction.”

Sarah had looked across at me then, proffered a complicit smile.

“That is what your father is trying to explain, that in such moments of desperation the Jacobins had to make a choice for the lesser evil.”


I had to walk out of the kitchen, I had to go out in the back yard for air. It was not what I fucking meant.


I was never a good Leninist. I secretly thought Stalinism preferable if only because it seemed more genuinely working-class, more honest. My parents distrust and aversion, and yes, their envy and resentment of the rich, was the fire in the belly of their politics. They knew they were not living in the cusp of capital’s demise, they knew that the best they could hope for was the Labor Party in power, but they didn’t disguise their desire that in some possible future their bosses and their bosses families would have to pay. The desire was instinctual and arguably base but it did not require being justified by Marxist science. My mother popped her pills and loved betting on the horses, my father drank and smoked and was always flirting with women at the pub. They argued and bickered and damaged each other but they did so openly and without guile.  I can’t imagine Lenin whoring or drinking, anymore than I can imagine Robespierre. I can understand – I can sense it as the whiff of warm blood, the scent of it my nostrils, the way it stunk when I visited my father at his work – that desire to send someone to the guillotine or the firing squad or the gulag or the scaffold from hate.  That I can understand. But to send them there because of the purity of your intentions? The working class didn’t want to assume the dictatorship of the proletariat because that was their historic, scientific role, they wanted to do it because that’s how they could get their bloody revenge.


That’s not what I fucking meant.


The motel room I am renting is on the corner of a busy intersection, and my sleep is worried by the sounds of ambulance and police sirens, the shouts and laughter and the occasional fighting of the louts leaving the pub across the road.  I wake three or four times a night, pour myself another whiskey, I read, I switch on the television, fire up the computer to sate myself with porn. I catch my image in the mirror, the sag of my belly, the mound of flesh around both my nipples, my receding temple. I have left three messages with Rena but she will not return my calls. “She can’t forgive you”, says Sarah primly, “You betrayed her as well.”

“How the fuck did I betray our daughter?”

Sarah snorts in disgust.

“She’s known Alice all her life, Alice is like an aunt to her. How the fuck can you ask how you betrayed her? How both of you betrayed her? How can you not see it?”

She is incredulous, she does believe me wicked.


We did not marry in a Church, though this saddened my parents, and we did not marry until Rena was born. For many years Sarah avowed that marriage was bondage for women and I parroted such statements. Did I believe them? I think I did, but I was not committed to them as articles of faith. And in the end we thought we could remake marriage, as we thought we could remake family and society, in our own image. What we discovered is that the words – and an image can only be made manifest through words – had a power and a force greater than ourselves. Sarah became my wife and I became her husband and Rena was our child and none of this need imply servitude (which was what I foolishly thought Sarah meant when she used that word, bondage) but certainly it became harder and harder to imagine oneself outside such definitions.  I never found the courage to say to my wife, I love you but I don’t want to be with you all the time. For many years I thought this made me unequal to her as a partner. In the end it was lack of imagination on my part that I didn’t think Sarah too capable of dreaming of possibilities beyond the we and the us. We had thought ourselves such radicals, in the vanguard of new formations of relationships, of family and sexuality, but we found ourselves too timid to ask for a marriage that did not depend on sharing the same pillows, the same bed, lying next to each other night after night.  Creating the world anew proved too exhausting, and anyway, after Rena was born, we were just too damn tired.  We didn’t discuss or analyse or even argue over any of this. First monogamy, then marriage, then divisions of labour, then buying a property: we came to silent consensus over all of it.  So when she discovered my infidelity, and that it was not once and that it was an adultery that was long lasting and that it was not only a husband but also a good friend who had been disloyal, I accepted her contempt and her hate. I knew, and had known an age, that I deserved them. But I will not forget the moment, after we had exhausted ourselves in screaming and vile insult, when we had made ourselves punch-drunk from it, and when I had asked her, Do you really want it to be over, and she had made no reply but a curl of a smile played and unfurled on the corner of her mouth, that I realised she too had calculated what it would cost, who would get the house, how we would share the time with our child, where she could live, what it would be like to sleep alone, to have room and space and time alone; it was a smile that revealed relief. It vanished, disappeared within a breath, and her reply had been, It was you who destroyed us, you did this. But I had witnessed the smile.


Revolutions too have their apocrypha. It is said that it was at a meeting of the Committee for Public Safety, when Robespierre was fulminating against the perfidy of those who would undo the gains of the revolution, when he was extolling the virtues of the new Eden being created, the purity through sacrifice of the new men who prized equality and justice and chastity, that he looked across and saw that Danton was smiling. It must have indeed seemed an affront, an undermining of everything that Robespierre had fought for, and all that had been achieved. A whole world had been altered, a society destroyed and a civilisation remade; if all that were possible in the space of a few years, then indeed one could believe that a friend could become foe, a comrade turn traitor.  Robespierre wrote, The word virtue made Danton laugh … How could a man, to whom all idea of morality was foreign, be the defender of liberty? And thus morality is twinned with equality, and at the birth of Revolution, the remaking of the human is of equal weight to the re-ordering of the economy and the social. Here, revolution is Platonic; here, revolution is capitalised. Chastity made Danton smile, and piety made him laugh. He was not executed for his giving succour to the monarchists or for selling out his nation to the enemy. He was executed for immorality. Rena, what I didn’t get the chance to tell you, what I wanted to say, was that this was the worm in the revolutionary apple. That is why I had to slam the screen door that night, why I had to leave the kitchen, why your mother’s smug righteous and measured explanations made me swallow for air.

Are you telling me this to justify your adultery?

No, no, I am ashamed of that and I am guilty of that.

Then what are you trying to say to me?

That I don’t believe heads should role.

Well, I do, some people are just vile, some people are disgusting.


I used to have conversations in my head with Sarah, in those early years, and in such conversations I could easily convince her of my arguments. But when I began to speak, she never read from my script. I understood that this was the way things were between lovers. What I had not understood was that it was to be the same between a parent and a child.


My own father died when Rena was a baby, before she learnt to make words from sound. For his sixtieth birthday I had given him a copy of John Reeds “The Ten Days That Shook the World” and every time I went to visit, I badgered him to finish it. He finally did read it and when I asked, excitedly, “So what did you think”, he replied, “It’s okay, Jack, but I don’t know about those bloody Bolsheviks, they were a bit ruthless, I think I might have been a Menshevik myself.” I had been cruelly disappointed, if not ashamed. He had seen my disdain in the way I had turned away from him and he quickly changed the subject, started talking about footy or the garden.

And now, when I too suspect I have always been a Menshevik, that they were indeed kinder, less arrogant, more human, I wish my father had lasted another decade in which to make our peace.


Rena, whatever she insists now, whatever she demands, she can only ever be our child. That can’t be unmade and that can’t be destroyed and that can’t be annulled. I’ve learnt patience; even if it takes decades, I am ready to make peace.


The movie house is long gone, where Sarah and I saw Danton in nineteen eighty-four. I recall that it always stunk of damp and smelly socks, and that in winter it was too cold and in summer too hot. I had enjoyed the film but she had found it unfair to the Jacobins. Revisionist would have been the term we would have used back then. We had grabbed gelato on the boulevard around the corner, in a café where old men were sipping espressos and smoking cigarettes. We had continued our argument but at the moment as we were leaving, I was holding the door open and she was stepping out into the street, one of the old men had whistled, said something in Italian. I had turned back to look at him, and he had winked at me. On the street Sarah had turned to me accusingly and said, “You smiled at him, didn’t you, you liked that he was checking out your girlfriend’s arse? You did, didn’t you? And this time indeed I did smile. I answered, “Yeah, I am proud of my girlfriend’s arse, I think it and she are beautiful.”  I was on the cusp of my twenties, I was cocky and cheeky and was never to be as handsome; she and I together were going to rule the world. She kissed me then, her lips cool and sugary from the ice cream. Silently, the movie forgotten, her head against my shoulder, hand in hand, we headed home.








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