Georges Bernanos: Wars like epidemics, with neither beginning nor end
From The European Spirit and the World of Machines (1946)
Translated by Joan and Barry Ulanov
It’s no use pretending to believe that total wars resemble all other wars, with the slight difference that many more are killed in total wars thanks to the perfecting of the techniques of destruction. Whatever trouble one takes to glorify the spirit of sacrifice of the victims of these gigantic cataclysms, everybody knows very well – although without daring to say so – that modern wars are not military conflicts, but crises each time more violent, the true nature of which we ourselves don’t quite understand. One can neither prevent nor control these wars, as the failure of pretended peace negotiations proves only too well…Actually, these wars are a great deal more like epidemics than like wars. They are epidemics which take the lives of our best people, as if humanity, by an inverted scale of values, sought to create little by little a type of man abridged and crude enough to survive the total collapse of the rights of the individual and of all his freedoms.
For a hundred and fifty years, money has been the only sign and symbol of the collapse of spiritual values and the despair latent in man which is suddenly revealed in these wars of ours which have neither beginning nor end.
If science had not made such gigantic leaps forward, under the lashing of all the greed which burns to make use of science, the discovery of the atomic fission of plutonium would certainly have come a good deal later and would not have surprised humanity in the full crisis of the moral nihilism which makes any madness possible, and above all that of self-destruction. If the Egyptians or the Greeks had been guided in their work by a concept of man and life just like – or in any way comparable with – ours, we should undoubtedly never have known the dialogues of Plato, and the planetary catastrophe that threatens us now would have occurred a long time ago.
One may think what one will of the modern world, but I think the time has come to know whether the modern world was made for men or men for it, that is, whether or not we have the right to allow the modern world to try to save itself at the expense of men. We understand quite well that the modern world, or at least the kind of mechanical and centralized civilization we call by that name, is engaged, not in saving itself, of course – I beg your pardon for having used that phrase – but in staying alive, again at the expense of men, millions and millions of the massacred, the imprisoned, the starving. At the expense of millions of men, yes, and even more at the expense of bread and wine, of rivers, forests and great cities that crumble, one after another, under the bombs. What frightens me – God grant that I may share my fright with you! – is not that the modern world destroys everything, but that it gains nothing from what it destroys. In destroying, it consumes itself. This civilization is a civilization of consumption which will last as long as there is something to consume. Oh, I know it’s quite an effort for you to consider it this way, even though its only law seems to be the law of production to the bitter end, limitless production. But this monstrous production, this elephantiasis of production, is the exact indication of the disorder to which, sooner or later, it cannot help succumbing. In destroying, it consumes itself. In producing, it destroys itself. Machine civilization produces commodities and eats up men. One cannot limit the production of commodities. Machine civilization will not stop producing commodities until it has devoured all men. It will eat them up in wars in huge masses, in heaps, but also one by one, draining them one by one of their backbone, of their soul, of the spiritual substance that made them men.