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Andre Des Touches at Siam

André Des Touches was a very agreeable musician in the brilliant reign of Louis XIV. before the science of music was perfected by Rameau; and before it was corrupted by those who prefer the art of surmounting difficulties to nature and the real graces of composition.

Before he had recourse to these talents he had been a musketeer, and before that, in 1688, he went into Siam with the Jesuit Tachard, who gave him many marks of his affection, for the amusement he afforded on board the ship; and Des Touches spoke with admiration of father Tachard for the rest of his life.

At Siam he became acquainted with the first commissary of Barcalon, whose name was Croutef; and he committed to writing most of those questions which he asked of Croutef, and the answers of that Siamese. They are as follows:

DES TOUCHES.—How many soldiers have you?

CROUTEF.—Fourscore thousand, very indifferently paid.

DES TOUCHES.—And how many Talapolins?

CROUTEF.—A hundred and twenty thousand, very idle and very rich. It is true that in the last war we were beaten, but our Talapolins have lived sumptuously, and built fine houses.

DES TOUCHES.—Nothing could have discovered more judgment. And your finances, in what state are they?

CROUTEF.—In a very bad state. We have, however, about ninety thousand men employed to render them prosperous, and if they have not succeeded, it has not been their fault; for there is not one of them who does not honorably seize all that he can get possession of, and strip and plunder those who cultivate the ground for the good of the state.

DES TOUCHES.—Bravo! And is not your jurisprudence as perfect as the rest of your administration?

CROUTEF.—It is much superior. We have no laws, but we have five or six thousand volumes on the laws. We are governed in general by customs; for it is known that a custom, having been established by chance, is the wisest principle that can be imagined. Besides, all customs being necessarily different in different provinces, the judges may choose at their pleasure a custom which prevailed four hundred years ago, or one which prevailed last year. It occasions a variety in our legislation, which our neighbors are forever admiring. This yields a certain fortune to practitioners. It is a resource for all pleaders who are destitute of honor, and a pastime of infinite amusement for the judges, who can with safe consciences decide causes without understanding them.

DES TOUCHES.—But in criminal cases—you have laws which may be depended upon.

CROUTEF.—God forbid! We can condemn men to exile, to the galleys, to be hanged; or we can discharge them, according to our own fancy. We sometimes complain of the arbitrary power of the Barcalon; but we choose that all our decisions should be arbitrary.

DES TOUCHES.—That is very just. And the torture—do you put people to the torture?

CROUTEF.—It is our greatest pleasure. We have found it an infallible secret to save a guilty person, who has vigorous muscles, strong and supple hamstrings, nervous arms, and firm loins; and we gaily break on the wheel all those innocent persons to whom nature has given feeble organs. It is thus we conduct ourselves with wonderful wisdom and prudence. As there are half proofs, I mean half truths, it is certain there are persons who are half innocent and half guilty. We commence, therefore, by rendering them half dead; we then go to breakfast; afterwards ensues entire death, which gives us great consideration in the world, which is one of the most valuable advantages of our offices.

DES TOUCHES.—It must be allowed that nothing can be more prudent and humane. Pray tell me what becomes of the property of the condemned?

CROUTEF.—The children are deprived of it. For you know that nothing can be more equitable than to punish the single fault of a parent on all his descendants.

DES TOUCHES.—Yes. It is a great while since I have heard of this jurisprudence.

CROUTEF.—The people of Laos, our neighbors, admit neither the torture, nor arbitrary punishments, nor the different customs, nor the horrible deaths which are in use among us; but we regard them as barbarians who have no idea of good government. All Asia is agreed that we dance the best of all its inhabitants, and that, consequently, it is impossible they should come near us in jurisprudence, in commerce, in finance, and, above all, in the military art.

DES TOUCHES.—Tell me, I beseech you, by what steps men arrive at the magistracy in Siam.

CROUTEF.—By ready money. You perceive that it may be impossible to be a good judge, if a man has not by him thirty or forty thousand pieces of silver. It is in vain a man may be perfectly acquainted with all our customs; it is to no purpose that he has pleaded five hundred causes with success—that he has a mind which is the seat of judgment, and a heart replete with justice; no man can become a magistrate without money. This, I say, is the circumstance which distinguishes us from all Asia, and particularly from the barbarous inhabitants of Laos, who have the madness to recompense all kinds of talents, and not to sell any employment.

André des Touches, who was a little off his guard, said to the Siamese, that most of the airs which he had just sung sounded discordant to him; and wished to receive information concerning real Siamese music. But Croutef, full of his subject, and enthusiastic for his country, continued in these words:

"What does it signify that our neighbors, who live beyond our mountains, have better music than we have, or better pictures; provided we have always wise and humane laws? It is in that circumstance we excel. For example:

"If a man has adroitly stolen three or four hundred thousand pieces of gold, we respect him, and we go and dine with him. But if a poor servant gets awkwardly into his possession three or four pieces of copper out of his mistress's box, we never fail of putting that servant to a public death; first, lest he should not correct himself; secondly, that he may not have it in his power to produce a great number of children for the state, one or two of whom might possibly steal a few little pieces of copper, or become great men; thirdly, because it is just to proportion the punishment to the crime, and that it would be ridiculous to give any useful employment in a prison to a person guilty of so enormous a crime.

"But we are still more just, more merciful, more reasonable in the chastisements which we inflict on those who have the audacity to make use of their legs to go wherever they choose. We treat those warriors so well who sell us their lives, we give them so prodigious a salary, they have so considerable a part in our conquests, that they must be the most criminal of all men to wish to return to their parents on the recovery of their reason, because they had been enlisted in a state of intoxication. To oblige them to remain in one place, we lodge about a dozen leaden balls in their heads; after which they become infinitely useful to their country.

"I will not speak of a great number of excellent institutions, which do not go so far as to shed the blood of men, but which render life so pleasant and agreeable that it is impossible the guilty should avoid becoming virtuous. If a farmer has not been able to pay promptly a tax which exceeds his ability, we sell the pot in which he dresses his food; we sell his bed, in order that, being relieved of all his superfluities, he may be in a better condition to cultivate the earth."

DES TOUCHES.—That is extremely harmonious!

CROUTEF.—To comprehend our profound wisdom, you must know that our fundamental principle is to acknowledge in many places as our sovereign, a shaven-headed foreigner who lives at the distance of nine hundred miles from us. When we assign some of our best territories to any of our Talapolins, which it is very prudent in us to do, that Siamese Talapolin must pay the revenue of his first year to that shaven-headed Tartar, without which it is clear our lands would be unfruitful.

But the time, the happy time, is no more, when that tonsured priest induced one half of the nation to cut the throats of the other half, in order to decide whether Sammonocodom had played at leap-frog or at some other game; whether he had been disguised in an elephant or in a cow; if he had slept three hundred and ninety days on the right side, or on the left. Those grand questions, which so essentially affect morality, agitated all minds; they shook the world; blood flowed plentifully for it; women were massacred on the bodies of their husbands; they dashed out the brains of their little infants on the stones, with a devotion, with a grace, with a contrition truly angelic. Woe to us! degenerate offspring of pious ancestors, who never offer such holy sacrifices! But, heaven be praised, there are yet among us at least a few good souls, who would imitate them if they were permitted.

DES TOUCHES.—Tell me, I beseech you, sir, if at Siam you divide the tone major into two commas, or into two semi-commas; and if the progress of the fundamental sounds are made by one, three, and nine?

CROUTEF. By Sammonocodom, you are laughing at me. You observe no bounds. You have interrogated me on the form of our government, and you speak to me of music!

DES TOUCHES.—-Music is everything. It was at the foundation of all the politics of the Greeks. But I beg your pardon; you have not a good ear; and we will return to our subject. You said, that in order to produce a perfect harmony—

CROUTEF.—I was telling you, that formerly the tonsured Tartar pretended to dispose of all the kingdoms of Asia; which occasioned something very different from perfect harmony. But a very considerable benefit resulted from it; for people were then more devout toward Sammonocodom and his elephant than they are now; for, at the present time, all the world pretends to common sense, with an indiscretion truly pitiable. However, all things go on; people divert themselves, they dance, they play, they dine, they sup, they make love; this makes every man shudder who entertains good intentions.

DES TOUCHES.—And what would you have more? You only want good music. If you had good music, you might call your nation the happiest in the world.


A SHORT DIGRESSION.—When the hospital of the Quinze Vingt was first founded, the pensioners were all equal, and their little affairs were concluded upon by a majority of votes. They distinguished perfectly by the touch between copper and silver coin; they never mistook the wine of Brie for that of Burgundy. Their sense of smelling was finer than that of their neighbors who had the use of two eyes. They reasoned very well on the four senses; that is, they knew everything they were permitted to know, and they lived as peaceably and as happily as blind people could be supposed to do. But unfortunately one of their professors pretended to have clear ideas in respect to the sense of seeing, he drew attention; he intrigued; he formed enthusiasts; and at last he was acknowledged chief of the community. He pretended to be a judge of colors, and everything was lost.

This dictator of the Quinze Vingt chose at first a little council, by the assistance of which he got possession of all the alms. On this account, no person had the resolution to oppose him. He decreed, that all the inhabitants of the Quinze Vingt were clothed in white. The blind pensioners believed him; and nothing was to be heard but their talk of white garments, though, in fact, they possessed not one of that color. All their acquaintance laughed at them. They made their complaints to the dictator, who received them very ill; he rebuked them as innovators, freethinkers, rebels, who had suffered themselves to be seduced by the errors of those who had eyes, and who presumed to doubt that their chief was infallible. This contention gave rise to two parties.

To appease the tumult, the dictator issued a decree, importing that all their vestments were red. There was not one vestment of that color in the Quinze Vingt. The poor men were laughed at more than ever. Complaints were again made by the community. The dictator rushed furiously in; and the other blind men were as much enraged. They fought a long time; and peace was not restored until the members of the Quinze Vingt were permitted to suspend their judgments in regard to the color of their dress.

A deaf man, reading this little history, allowed that these people, being blind, were to blame in pretending to judge of colors; but he remained steady to his own opinion, that those persons who were deaf were the only proper judges of music.


Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire