Gustave Flaubert and George Sand: Monstrous conflicts of which we have no idea; warfare suppressed or civilization perishes
Gustave Flaubert and George Sand
Translated by A.L. McKensie
To George Sand
Wednesday evening 1870
What has become of you, dear master, of you and yours? As for me, I am disheartened, distressed by the folly of my compatriots. The hopeless barbarism of humanity fills me with a black melancholy. That enthusiasm which has no intelligent motive makes me want to die, so as not to see it any longer.
The good Frenchman wants to fight: (1) because he thinks he is provoked to it by Prussia; (2) because the natural condition of man is savagery; (3) because war in itself contains a mystic element which enraptures crowds.
Have we returned to the wars of races? I fear so. The terrible butchery which is being prepared has not even a pretext. It is the desire to fight for the sake of fighting.
I bewail the destroyed bridges, the staved-in tunnels, all this human labor lost, in short a negation so radical.
The Congress of Peace is wrong at present. Civilization seems to me far off. Hobbes was right: Homo homini lupus.
I have begun Saint-Antoine , and it would go perhaps rather well, if I did not think of the war. And you?
The bourgeois here cannot contain himself. He thinks Prussia was too insolent and wants to “avenge himself.” Did you see that a gentleman has proposed in the Chamber the pillage of the duchy of Baden! Ah! why can’t I live among the Bedouins!
To Gustave Flaubert
July 26, 1870
I think this war is infamous; that authorized Marseillaise, a sacrilege. Men are ferocious and conceited brutes; we are in the HALF AS MUCH of Pascal; when will come the MORE THAN EVER!
It is between 40 and 45 degrees IN THE SHADE here. They are burning the forests; another barbarous stupidity! The wolves come and walk into our court, and we chase them away at night…The trees are losing their leaves and perhaps their lives. Water for drinking is becoming scarce; the harvests are almost nothing; but we have war, what luck!
You said rightly that in order to work, a certain lightness was needed; where is it to be found in these accursed times?
To George Sand
August 3, 1870
What! dear master, you too are demoralized, sad? What will become of the weak souls?
As for me, my heart is oppressed in a way that astonishes me, and I wallow in a bottomless melancholy, in spite of work, in spite of the good Saint-Antoine who ought to distract me. Is it the consequence of my repeated afflictions? Perhaps. But the war is a good deal responsible for it. I think that we are getting into the dark.
Behold then, the NATURAL MAN. Make theories now! Boast the progress, the enlightenment and the good sense of the masses, and the gentleness of the French people! I assure you that anyone here who ventured to preach peace would get himself murdered. Whatever happens, we have been set back for a long time to come.
Are the wars between races perhaps going to begin again? One will see, before a century passes, several millions of men kill one another in one engagement. All the East against all Europe, the old world against the new! Why not? Great united works like the Suez Canal are, perhaps, under another form, outlines and preparations for these monstrous conflicts of which we have no idea.
To Gustave Flaubert
August 8, 1870
Are you in Paris in the midst of all this torment? What a lesson the people are getting who want absolute masters! France and Prussia are cutting each other’s throats for reasons that they don’t understand! Here we are in the midst of great disasters, and what tears at the end of it all, even should we be the victors! One sees nothing but poor peasants mourning for their children who are leaving.
The mobilization takes away those who were left with us and how they are being treated to begin with! What disorder, what disarray in that military administration, which absorbed everything and had to swallow up everything! Is this horrible experience going to prove to the world that warfare ought to be suppressed or that civilization has to perish?
We have reached the point this evening of knowing that we are beaten. Perhaps tomorrow we shall know that we have beaten, and what will there be good or useful from one or the other?
The peasant is working and ploughing his fields; digging hard always, sad or gay. He is imbecile, people say; no, he is a child in prosperity, a man in disaster, more of a man than we who complain; he says nothing, and while people are killing, he is sowing, repairing continually on one side what they are destroying from the other. We are going to try to do as he, and to hunt a bubbling spring fifty or a hundred yards below ground…
We are trying to dig into the bowels of the earth to forget all that is going on above it. But we cannot distract ourselves from this terror!
To Gustave Flaubert
August 15, 1870
..This human butchery tears my poor heart to pieces. I tremble too for all my children and friends, who perhaps are to be hacked to pieces.
And YET, in the midst of all that, my soul exults and has ecstasies of faith; these terrific lessons which are necessary for us to understand our imbecility, must be of use to us. We are perhaps making our last return to the ways of the old world. There are sharp and clear principles for everyone today that ought to extricate them from this torment. Nothing is useless in the material order of the universe. The moral order cannot escape the law. Bad engenders good. I tell you that we are in the HALF AS MUCH of Pascal, so as to get TO THE MORE THAN EVER! That is all the mathematics that I understand.
To George Sand
Sunday evening 1870
I don’t think that there is in all France a sadder man than I am! (It all depends on the sensitiveness of people.) I am dying of grief. That is the truth, and consolations irritate me. What distresses me is: (1) the ferocity of men; (2) the conviction that we are going to enter upon a stupid era. People will be utilitarian, military, American and Catholic! Very Catholic! You will see! The Prussian War ends the French Revolution and destroys it…
What a cataclysm! What a collapse! What misery! What abominations! Can one believe in progress and in civilization in the face of all that is going on? What use, pray, is science, since this people abounding in scholars commits abominations worthy of the Huns and worse than theirs, because they are systematic, cold-blooded, voluntary, and have for an excuse, neither passion nor hunger?
Ready-made phrases are not wanting: France will rise again! One must not despair! It is a salutary punishment! We were really too immoral! etc. Oh! eternal poppycock! No! one does not recover from such a blow!
Oh! if I could flee into a country where one does not see uniforms, where one does not hear the drum, where one does not talk of massacres, where one is not obliged to be a citizen!
1) His novel La Tentation de Saint Antoine (The Temptation of Saint Anthony)