Romain Rolland: War, a divine monster; half-beast, half-god
From Clerambault (1916-1920)
Translated by Katherine Miller
The order for general mobilisation had just been affixed to the doors of the Mairies. People read and re-read them in silence, then went away without a word. After the anxious waiting of the preceding days, with crowds around the newspaper booths, people sitting on the sidewalk, watching for the news, and when the paper was issued gathering in groups to read it, this was certainty. It was also a relief. An obscure danger, that one feels approaching without knowing when or from where, makes you feverish, but when it is there you can take breath, look it in the face, and roll up your sleeves. There had been some hours of deep thought while Paris made ready and doubled up her fists. Then that which swelled in all hearts spread itself abroad, the houses were emptied and there rolled through the streets a human flood of which every drop sought to melt into another.
Clerambault fell into the midst and was swallowed up…All were flesh of their flesh, closely drawn together in a superhuman embrace, conscious of the gigantic body formed by their union, and of the apparition above their heads of the phantom which incarnated this union, the Country. Half-beast, half-god, like the Egyptian Sphinx, or the Assyrian Bull; but then men saw only the shining eyes, the feet were hid. She was the divine monster in whom each of the living found himself multiplied, the devouring Immortality where those about to die wished to believe they would find life, super-life, crowned with glory. Her invisible presence flowed through the air like wine; each man brought something to the vintage, his basket, his bunch of grapes; — his ideas, passions, devotions, interests. There was many a nasty worm among the grapes, much filth under the trampling feet, but the wine was of rubies and set the heart aflame; — Clerambault gulped it down greedily.
These young people sought employment for their strength which really embarrassed them, but they did not find it in the ideals of the noblest among their elders; the humanitarianism of a Clerambault was too vague, it contented itself with pleasant hopes, without risk or vigour, which the quietude of a generation grown old in the talkative peace of Parliaments and Academies, alone could have permitted. Except as an oratorical exercise it had never tried to foresee the perils of the future, still less had it thought to determine its attitude in the day when the danger should be near. It had not the strength to make a choice between widely differing courses of action. One might be a patriot as well as an internationalist or build in imagination peace palaces or super-dreadnoughts, for one longed to know, to embrace, and to love everything. This languid Whitmanism might have its aesthetic value, but its practical incoherence offered no guide to young people when they found themselves at the parting of the ways. They pawed the ground trembling with impatience at all this uncertainty and the uselessness of their time as it went by.
They welcomed the war, for it put an end to all this indecision, it chose for them, and they made haste to follow it. “We go to our death, — so be it; but to go is life.” The battalions went off singing, thrilling with impatience, dahlias in their hats, the muskets adorned with flowers. Discharged soldiers re-enlisted; boys put their names down, their mothers urging them to it; you would have thought they were setting out for the Olympian games.
It was the same with the young men on the other side of the Rhine, and there as here, they were escorted by their gods: Country, Justice, Right, Liberty, Progress of the World, Eden-like dreams of re-born humanity, a whole phantasmagoria of mystic ideas in which young men shrouded their passions. None doubted that his cause was the right one, they left discussion to others, themselves the living proof, for he who gives his life needs no further argument.
The older men however who stayed behind, had not their reasons for ceasing to reason. Their brains were given to them to be used, not for truth, but for victory. Since in the wars of today, in which entire peoples are engulfed, thoughts as well as guns are enrolled. They slay the soul, they reach beyond the seas, and destroy after centuries have passed. Thought is the heavy artillery which works from a distance. Naturally Clerambault aimed his pieces, also the question for him was no longer to see clearly, largely, to take in the horizon, but to sight the enemy, — it gave him the illusion that he was helping his son.
With an unconscious and feverish bad faith kept up by his affection, he sought in everything that he saw, heard, or read, for arguments to prop up his will to believe in the holiness of the cause, for everything which went to prove that the enemy alone had wanted war, was the sole enemy of peace, and that to make war on the enemy was really to wish for peace.
There was proof enough and to spare; there always is; all that is needed is to know when to open and shut your eyes…
The people in the cafés and the tea-rooms were ready to hold out for twenty years, if necessary. Maxime and his family sat in a tea-shop at a little table, gay chatter and the perfume of women all about him. Through it he saw the trench where he had been bombarded for twenty-six days on end, unable to stir from the sticky ditch full of corpses which rose around him like a wall…His mother laid her hand on his, he woke, saw the affectionate questioning glances of his people, and self-reproached for making them uneasy, he smiled and began to look about and talk gaily. His boyish high spirits came back, and the shadow cleared away from Clerambault’s face; he glanced simply and gratefully at Maxime.
His alarms were not at an end, however. As they left the tea-shop — he leaning on the arm of his son — they met a military funeral. There were wreaths and uniforms, a member of the Institute with his sword between his legs, and brass instruments braying out an heroic lamentation.
The crowd drew respectfully to either side, Clerambault stopped and pointedly took off his hat, while with his left hand he pressed Maxime’s arm yet closer to his side. Feeling him tremble, he turned towards his son, and thought he had a strange look. Supposing that he was overcome he tried to draw him away, but Maxime did not stir, he was so much taken aback.
“A dead man,” he thought. “All that for one dead man!…and out there we walk over them. Five hundred a day on the roll, that’s the normal ration.”
Hearing a sneering little laugh, Clerambault was frightened and pulled him by the arm.
“Come away!” he said, and they moved on.
“If they could see,” said Maxime to himself, “if they could only see!…their whole society would go to pieces,…but they will always be blind, they do not want to see…”
His eyes, cruelly sharpened now, saw the adversary all around him, — in the carelessness of the world, its stupidity, its egotism, its luxury, in the “I don’t give a damn!”, the indecent profits of the war, the enjoyment of it, the falseness down to the roots…All these sheltered people, shirkers, police, with their insolent autos that looked like cannon, their women booted to the knee, with scarlet mouths, and cruel little candy faces…they are all satisfied…all is for the best!…”It will go on forever as it is!” Half the world devouring the other half…
Clerambault’s warm feelings were not reciprocated; and he was more attacked than ever, though for some months he had published nothing. In the autumn of 1917 the anger against him had risen to an unheard-of height. The disproportion was really laughable between this rage and the feeble words of one man, but it was so all over the world. A dozen or so weak pacifists, alone, surrounded, without means of being heard through any paper of standing, spoke honestly but not loudly, and this let loose a perfect frenzy of insults and threats. At the slightest contradiction the monster Opinion fell into an epileptic fit.
…In history and at a distance it could be laughed at; but close at hand it looked as if the human brain was about to give way. Why is it that in this war men lost their mental balance more than in any other at any previous time? Has the war been really more atrocious? That is either childish nonsense, or a deliberate forgetfulness of what has happened in our own day, under our eyes; in Armenia, in the Balkans; during the repression of the Commune, in colonial wars under new conquistadors in China and the Congo…Of all animals we know, the human beast has always been the most ferocious. Then is it because men had more faith in the war of today? Surely not. The western peoples had reached the point of evolution when war seemed so absurd that we could no longer practise it and preserve our reason.
We are obliged to intoxicate ourselves, to go crazy, unless we would die the despairing death of darkest pessimism; and that is why the voice of one sane man threw into fits of rage all the others who wanted to forget; they were afraid that this voice would wake them up, and that they would find themselves sobered, disgraced, and without a rag to cover them.
It was all the worse because at this time the war was going badly and the fine hopes of victory and glory which had been lighted up so many times were beginning to die out. It began to be probable, no matter which way you looked at it, that the war would be a failure for everybody. Neither interest, nor ambition, nor ideals would get anything out of it, and the bitter useless sacrifice, seen at close range, with nothing gained, made men who felt themselves responsible, furious. They were forced either to accuse themselves or throw the blame on others, and the choice was quickly made. The disaster was attributed to all those who had foreseen the defeat and tried to prevent it. Every retreat of the army, every diplomatic blunder found an excuse in the machinations of the pacifists, and these unpopular gentry to whom no one listened were invested by their opponents with the formidable power of organising defeat. In order that none should be ignorant of this, a writing was hung about their necks with the word “Defeatist,” like their brother-heretics of the good old days; all that remained was to burn them, and if the executioner was not at hand there were at least plenty of assistants.
At first, by way of getting their hand in, the authorities picked out inoffensive people — women, teachers, anyone who was little known and unable to defend himself; and then they turned their attention to something bigger. It was a good chance for a politician to rid himself of a dangerous rival, of anyone possessed of secrets or likely to rise in the future. Above all, according to the old receipts, they took care to mix accusations, throwing into the same bag vulgar sharpers and those whose character and mind made them uneasy, so that in all this mess the blindfolded public did not attempt to distinguish between an honest man and a scamp. In this way those who were not sufficiently compromised by their actions found themselves involved in those of their associates; and if these were lacking, the authorities stood ready, if necessary, to supply them made to order to fit the accusation.