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Romain Rolland: Youth delivered up to the sword of war

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Romain Rolland: Selections on war

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Romain Rolland
From Pierre and Luce (1922)
Translated by Charles De Kay

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The war! Four years ago it was, the war had come to stay. It had weighed heavily on his adolescent years. It had caught him by surprise in that morally critical period when the growing boy, disquieted by the awakening of his feelings, discovers with a shock the existence of blind, bestial, crushing forces in life whose prey he is and that without having asked to live at all. And if he happens to be delicate in character, tender of heart and frail as to body in the way Pierre was, he experiences a disgust and horror which he does not dare confide to others for all these brutalities, these nastinesses, all this nonsense of fruitful and devouring nature — this breeding sow that gobbles up her litter of pigs.

In every growing youth between sixteen and eighteen there is a bit of the soul of Hamlet. Don’t ask him to understand the war! (All right for you men, who have had your fill!) He has all he can do to understand life and forgive its existence. As a rule he digs himself in with his dream and with the arts, until the time comes when he has got used to his incarnation, and the grub has achieved its agonizing passage from larva to winged insect. What a need he has for peace and meditation during these April days so full of the trouble of maturing life! But they come after him to the bottom of his burrow, look him up, drag him from the dark while still so tender in his new-made skin. They toss him into the raw air amongst the hard human race whose follies and hatreds he is expected at the very first moment to accept without understanding them and, not understanding, to atone for them.

Pierre had been called to military service along with those of his own class, boys of sixteen to eighteen. Within six months his country would be needing his flesh. The war claimed him…

The big brother was aware of this naïve homage and was flattered by it. Not so long ago he had tried to read the heart of the little brother, and explain things to him with discretion; for, although more robust, like him he was molded of that fine clay which, among the better sort of men, retains a little of the woman and does not blush to own it. But the war had come and torn him away from his hard working career, from his study of the sciences, from his twenty-year-old dream and from his intimacy with his young brother. He had dropped everything in the intoxicating idealism of the moment, like a big crazy bird that launches out into space with the heroic and absurd illusion that his beak and his talons will put an end to the war and restore to earth the reign of peace. Since then the big bird had returned two or three times to the nest; each time, alas, a little more worn in plumage. He had come back denuded of many of his illusions, but he found himself too much mortified about them to acknowledge it. He was ashamed to have believed in them.

Among these young fellows the most distinguished ones, too feeble to rebel and too proud to complain, knew beforehand that they were delivered up to the sword of war. While they waited for their turn at the slaughterhouse they looked on and made their judgments in silence, each one by himself, with a little surprise and a great deal of irony. Through a disdainful reaction against the mental condition of the herd they fell back into a kind of egotism, intellectual and artistic egotism, an idealistic sensualism, where the tracked and hunted ego vindicated its rights against human fellowship. Laughable fellowship, which made itself manifest to these adolescents only in the shape of finished murder, one undergone in common! A precocious experience had shriveled their illusions: they had seen how much those same illusions were worth in their elders and how those who did not believe in them paid for them with their lives. Even as to those of their own age and as to man in general their confidence was shaken. And besides, at such a time it cost something to confide in people! Every day one learned of some denunciation of thoughts and intimate conversations by a patriotic spy whose zeal the government honored and stimulated. So it was that these young people, through discouragement, through disdain, through prudence, through a stoical sense of their solitude in thought, gave themselves very little indeed the one to the other.

Why then this madness to destroy oneself? Why these countries given over to pride, these States devoted to rapine, these peoples to whom is taught murder, as if murder were their duty? But wherefore this butchery everywhere among living beings? Why this world that devours itself? To what purpose the nightmare of that monstrous and endless chain of life, each one of whose links sets its jaws into the neck of the other, feasts on its flesh, delights in its suffering and lives through its death? Why the conflict and why the pain? Why death? Why life? Why? Why?…

During these first weeks of February, Paris was counting her ruins from the last raid and licking her wounds. The press, locked up in its kennel, was barking for reprisals. And, according to the statement of “the Man who put the fetters on,” the government was making war on the French. The open season for suits at law for treasonable acts commenced. The spectacle of a wretched creature who was defending his own head, bitterly demanded by the public accuser, was a matter of amusement for Tout-Paris, whose appetite for the theatre had not yet been satisfied by four years of war and ten millions of dead men dissolving behind the flies.

March was back again with a longer day and the first songs of birds. But along with the days increased the sinister flames of the war. The air was feverish with waiting for springtime — and waiting for the cataclysm. One heard the monstrous rumbling grow in intensity, the arms of millions of enemies clashing together, heaped up for the past months against the dyke of the trenches, and all ready to spill over like a tidal bore upon the Ile de France and the nave of La Cité. The shadow of frightful rumors preceded the plague; a fantastic report of poisoned gases, of deadly venom scattered through the air, which was about, so it was said, to descend on whole provinces and destroy everything like the asphyxiating overflow from Pelée Mountain. Finally the visits of bombing Gothas, coming oftener and oftener, cleverly kept up the nervousness of Paris.

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