Romain Rolland: Hatred and holy butchery; the deadly sophistry, carnivorous poetry of war
From Clerambault (1920)
Translated by Katherine Miller
One day as he was walking alone, he saw a crowd on the other side of the street, he crossed over calmly and found himself on the opposite sidewalk in the midst of a confused agitation circling about an invisible point. With some difficulty he worked his way forward, and scarcely was he within this human mill-wheel, than he felt himself a part of the rim, his brain seemed turning round. At the centre of the wheel he saw a struggling man, and even before he grasped the reason for the popular fury, he felt that he shared it. He did not know if a spy was in question, or if it was some imprudent speaker who had braved the passions of the mob, but as cries rose around him, he realised that he, yes he, Clerambault, had shrieked out: … “Kill him.” …
A movement of the crowd threw him out from the sidewalk, a carriage separated him from it, and when the way was clear the mob surged on after its prey. Clerambault followed it with his eyes; the sound of his own voice was still in his ears, — he did not feel proud of himself…
From that day on he went out less; he distrusted himself, but he continued to stimulate his intoxication at home, where he felt himself safe, little knowing the virulence of the plague. The infection came in through the cracks of the doors, at the windows, on the printed page, in every contact. The most sensitive breathe it in on first entering the city, before they have seen or read anything; with others a passing touch is enough, the disease will develop afterwards alone. Clerambault, withdrawn from the crowd, had caught the contagion from it, and the evil announced itself by the usual premonitory symptoms. This affectionate tender-hearted man hated, loved to hate. His intelligence, which had always been thoroughly straightforward, tried now to trick itself secretly, to justify its instincts of hatred by inverted reasoning. He learned to be passionately unjust and false, for he wanted to persuade himself that he could accept the fact of war, and participate in it, without renouncing his pacifism of yesterday, his humanitarianism of the day before, and his constant optimism. It was not plain sailing, but there is nothing that the brain cannot attain to. When its master thinks it absolutely necessary to get rid for a time of principles which are in his way, it finds in these same principles the exception which violates them while confirming the rule. Clerambault began to construct a thesis, an ideal — absurd enough — in which these contradictions could be reconciled: War against War, War for Peace, for eternal Peace.
When the herd draws itself together in arms against the stranger it is a fall for those rare free spirits who love the whole world, but it raises the many who weakly vegetate in anarchistic egotism, and lifts them to that higher stage of organised selfishness.
Patriotism is perhaps the only instinct under present conditions which escapes the withering touch of every-day life. All other instincts and natural aspirations, the legitimate need to love and act in social life, are stifled, mutilated and forced to pass under the yoke of denial and compromise. When a man reaches middle life and turns to look back, he sees these desires marked with his failures and his cowardice; the taste is bitter on his tongue, he is ashamed of them and of himself. Patriotism alone has remained outside, unemployed but not tarnished, and when it re-awakes it is inviolate. The soul embraces and lavishes on it the ardour of all the ambitions, the loves, and the longings, that life has disappointed. A half century of suppressed fire bursts forth, millions of little cages in the social prison open their doors. At last! Long enchained instincts stretch their stiffened limbs, cry out and leap into the open air, as of right — right, do I say? it is now their duty to press forward all together like a falling mass. The isolated snow-flakes turned avalanche.
War brought this gift, therefore Peace is an enemy, and enemies are all those who desire it.
He began to write Hymns to Battle. There was great competition in this line among poets who did not fight themselves. But there was little danger that their productions would clog men’s memories in future ages, for nothing in their previous career had prepared these unfortunates for such a task. In vain they raised their voices and exhausted all the resources of French rhetoric, the “poilus” only shrugged their shoulders.
However people in the rear liked them much better than the stories written in the dark and covered with mud, that came out of the trenches. The visions of a Barbusse had not yet dawned to show the truth to these talkative shadows. There was no difficulty for Clerambault, he shone in these eloquent contests. For he had the fatal gift of verbal and rhythmical facility which separates poets from reality, wrapping them as if in a spider’s web. In times of peace this harmless web hung on the bushes, the wind blowing through it, and the good-natured Arachne caught nothing but light in her meshes. Nowadays, however, the poets cultivated their carnivorous instincts — fortunately rather out of date — and hidden at the bottom of their web one could catch sight of a nasty little beast with an eye fixed on the prey. They sang of hatred and holy butchery, and Clerambault did as they did, even better, for he had more voice. And, by dint of screaming, this worthy man ended by feeling passions that he knew nothing of. He learned to “know” hatred at last, know in the Biblical sense, and it only roused in him that base pride that an undergraduate feels when for the first time he finds himself coming out of a brothel.
Now he was a man, and in fact he needed nothing more, he had fallen as low as the others.