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Georges Duhamel: The Third Symphony, a slender bridge across the abyss

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

Georges Duhamel: Selections on war

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Georges Duhamel
From The New Book of Martyrs (1918)
Translated by Florence Simmonds

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Throughout the Land

From the disfigured regions where the cannon reigns supreme, to the mountains of the South, to the ocean, to the glittering shores of the inland sea, the cry of wounded men echoes throughout the land, and a vast kindred cry seems to rise responsive from the whole world.

There is no French town in which the wounds inflicted on the battle-field are not bleeding. Not one which has not accepted the duty of assuaging something of the sum of suffering, just as it bears its part in the sum of mourning; not one which may not hear within its own walls an echo of the greater lamentation swelling and muttering where the conflict seems to rage unceasingly. The waves of war break upon the whole surface of the country, and like the incoming tide, strew it with wreckage.

In the beds which the piety of the public has prepared on every side, stricken men await the verdict of fate. The beds are white, the bandages are spotless; many faces smile until the hour when they are flushed with fever, and until that same fever makes a whole nation of wounded tremble on the Continent.

Some one who had been visiting the wounded said to me: “The beds are really very white, the dressings are clean, all the patients seem to be playing cards, reading the papers, eating dainties; they are simple, often very gentle, they don’t look very unhappy. They all tell the same story…The war has not changed them much. One can recognise them all.”

Are you sure that you recognise them? You have just been looking at them, are you sure that you have seen them?

Under their bandages are wounds you cannot imagine. Below the wounds, in the depths of the mutilated flesh, a soul, strange and furtive, is stirring in feverish exaltation, a soul which does not readily reveal itself, which expresses itself artlessly, but which I would fain make you understand.

In these days, when nothing retains its former semblance, all these men are no longer those you so lately knew. Suffering has roused them from the sleep of gentle life, and every day fills them with a terrible intoxication. They are now something more than themselves; those we loved were merely happy shadows.

The Third Symphony

Every morning the stretcher-bearers brought Vize-Feldwebel Spat down to the dressing ward, and his appearance always introduced a certain chill in the atmosphere.

There are some German wounded whom kind treatment, suffering, or some more obscure agency move to composition with the enemy, and who receive what we do for them with a certain amount of gratitude. Spat was not one of these. For weeks we had made strenuous efforts to snatch him from death, and then to alleviate his sufferings, without eliciting the slightest sign of satisfaction from him, or receiving the least word of thanks.

He could speak a little French, which he utilised strictly for his material wants, to say, for instance, “A little more cotton-wool under the foot, Monsieur,” or, “Have I any fever to-day?”

Apart from this, he always showed us the same icy face, the same pale, hard eyes, enframed by colourless lashes. We gathered, from certain indications, that the man was intelligent and well educated; but he was obviously under the domination of a lively hatred, and a strict sense of his own dignity.

He bore pain bravely, and like one who makes it a point of honour to repress the most excusable reactions of the martyred flesh. I do not remember ever hearing him cry out, though this would have seemed to me natural enough, and would by no means have lowered Monsieur Spat in my opinion. All I ever heard from him was a stifled moan, the dull panting of the woodman as he swings his axe.

One day we were obliged to give him an anaesthetic in order to make incisions in the wounds in his leg; he turned very red and said, in a tone that was almost imploring: “You won’t cut it off, gentlemen, will you?” But no sooner did he regain consciousness than he at once resumed his attitude of stiff hostility.

After a time, I ceased to believe that his features could ever express anything but this repressed animosity. I was undeceived by an unforeseen incident.

The habit of whistling between one’s teeth is a token, with me as with many other persons, of a certain absorption. It is perhaps rather a vulgar habit, but I often feel impelled to whistle, especially when I have a serious piece of work in hand.

One morning accordingly, I was finishing Vize-Feldwebel Spat’s dressing, and whistling something at random. I was looking at his leg, and was paying no attention to his face, when I suddenly became curiously aware that the look he had fixed upon me had changed in quality, and I raised my eyes.

Certainly, something very extraordinary had taken place: the German’s face glowed with a kind of warmth and contentment, and was so smiling and radiant that I hardly recognised it. I could scarcely believe that he had been able to improvise this face, which was sensitive and trustful, out of the features he generally showed us.

“Tell me, Monsieur,” he murmured, “it’s the Third Symphony, isn’t it, that you are…what do you call it? — yes…whistling.”

First, I stopped whistling. Then I answered: “Yes, I believe it is the Third Symphony”; then I remained silent and confused.

A slender bridge had just been flung across the abyss.

The thing lasted for a few seconds, and I was still dreaming of it when once more I felt an icy, irrevocable shadow falling upon me — the hostile glance of Herr Spat.

From Nights in Artois

I have come to take refuge among my wounded to smoke in peace, and meditate in the shadow. Here, the moral atmosphere is pure. These men are so wretched, so utterly humiliated, so absorbed in their relentless sufferings that they seem to have relinquished the burden of the passions in order to concentrate their powers on the one endeavour: to live.

In spite of their solidarity they are for the time isolated by their individual sufferings. Later on, they will communicate; but this is the moment when each one contemplates his own anguish, and fights his own battle, with cries of pain…

They are all my friends. I will stay among them, associating myself with all my soul in their ordeal.

Perhaps here I shall find peace. Perhaps all ignoble discord will call a truce on the threshold of this empire.

But a short distance from us the battle-field has thundered unceasingly for days. Like a noisy, complicated mechanism which turns out the products of its internal activity, the stupid machine of war throws out, from minute to minute, bleeding men. We pick them up, and here they are, swathed in bandages. They have been crushed in the twinkling of an eye; and now we shall have to ask months and years to repair or palliate the damage.

How silent they are this evening! And how it makes one’s heart ache to look at them! Here is Bourreau, with the brutal name and the gentle nature, who never utters a complaint, and whom a single bullet has deprived of sight for ever. Here is Bride, whom we fear to touch, so covered is he with bandages, but who looks at us with touching, liquid eyes, his mind already wandering. Here is Lerouet, who will not see next morning dawn over the pine-trees, and who has a gangrened wound near his heart. And the others, all of whom I know by their individual misfortunes.

How difficult it is to realise what they were, all these men who a year ago, were walking in streets, tilling the land, or writing in an office. Their present is too poignant. Here they lie on the ground, like some fair work of art defaced. Behold them! The creature par excellence has received a great outrage, an outrage it has wrought upon itself.

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