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Georges Duhamel: No end to war without moral reeducation


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

Georges Duhamel: Selections on war


Georges Duhamel
From The Heart’s Domain (La Possession du monde) (1919)
Translated by Eleanor Stimson Brooks


Here should lie the lesson and the one benefit of this war: that we should undeceive ourselves about ourselves and about our ends! Let us not devote our courage to choosing a ferocious discipline devoid of the ideal. Let us once for all reject our calculating and demoralizing intelligence. Let us organize, in the peace that returns, the reign of the heart.

The search for happiness cannot ignore the conditions of the material life. Undoubtedly, well-being, comfort, dispose us to a happy view of things; but will they ever replace what a poet has called “the contented heart”?

The Anglo-American peoples, susceptible as they are to all the moral and religious revolutions, have applied themselves to altering the original sense of simple well-being so as to identify it with luxurious comfort. That is a way of giving a moral aspect to pleasure, making an honest bargain with the corruptions of money.

The exigencies of this sort of life have largely contributed to involving these peoples in a frenzied whirlwind of business that wears a man out and bewilders him.


The dramatists and novelists of our time who, by the quality of their opinions or by their political positions are ostensibly laboring for a moral or religious end, have betrayed, in most of their works, a servile and ill-concealed love of luxury. It is useless to give names; let us say only that none of the modern novels of certain of our authors lack those descriptions and professions of faith that reveal the quivering longing of the pauper for the delights and enjoyments on which all his eager desires are fixed.

It is partly to the influence of this literature that our old world owes the headlong rush of all classes of humanity toward those pleasures that are only the phantom of happiness and will never be anything else.

If genius wishes to consecrate itself to a labor that is truly reconstructive, truly pacific, it must discover other subjects for its works.

If the future laws governing labor do not allow enough time for the cultivation and the flourishing of the soul, a sacred struggle will become inevitable.

The organizers of the modern world, who have shown themselves powerless to avert war and did not realize the vanity of our old civilization, do not yet seem to foresee the urgency of radical changes in the moral education of the peoples.

They continue to talk to us about the superhuman efforts we must make in order to redeem their faults.

No one shrinks before these efforts. Society is weary of crime but not of peaceful tasks. Everyone prepares with joyous energy to take up his former position and his tools again.

It rests with us all to mitigate the severity of economic conflicts by working to transform the current idea of happiness.

The possessors of material wealth have, in general, for centuries, given to those whom they employ and direct so scandalous and basely immoral an example that they themselves are the principal fomenters of the attacks which they will henceforth have to undergo.

In the machinery of modern industry, work has lost a great many of its attractive virtues: all the methods in force tend to diminish the part played by the soul and the heart, and the workman, imprisoned in an almost mechanical function, no longer expects from work the personal satisfaction he once obtained; as a poet has said: “His empty labor is the fate he fights against.”

France has suffered, suffers and will suffer more deeply than all the other countries of the world. She is at once the altar and the holocaust. She has sacrificed her men, her cities, and her soil. It is in the heart of her beautiful fields that the devastating storm whirls and roars.

In the depths of my soul I hope that, because of this great grief, it will be France that will give the signal for redemption. I hope that the reign of the heart will begin just here where the old civilization will leave imperishable traces of its murderous folly.

The resources of the French people in perseverance, in self-reliance, in goodness, in subtle delicacy are so great that one feels a word would suffice to rally all hearts and give them their bearings. One feels that at the mere phrase “moral civilization” thousands and thousands of noble heads will nod approval, thousands of hands will reach out to find each other.

People who have obstinate views on the political meaning of wars, on the eminently economic nature of the peril that has been run by humanity, and on the efficacy of the industrial and scientific civilization, will not fail to proclaim that France ought first of all to return to its furious task and apply itself to surpassing the peoples that have outstripped it along this path.

But France has always been the country of initiation and revelation. It is the chosen land of spiritual revolutions. May the bloody baptism it has received give it precedence in the discussion of the future!

If the destiny of our country is to make a humanity that is plunged in affliction give ear to the words of peace, consolation and love, let it accomplish this beautiful mission, let it teach the other peoples the generous laws of the true possession of the world.

It is late. The night is drawing to a close; it is calm and yet penetrated with a vast, subdued murmur of joy. They say it is one of the last nights of the war.

I hear about me the panting breath of the wounded. There are several hundred of them; they are sleeping or longing for sleep and rest. Their burning breath is like a lamentation. Many of them will never see the peace they have so dearly bought. They are perhaps the wounded of the last battle, the last victims, the last martyrs.

Over the whole face of the world souls are suffering with them, for them, souls which the angel of death laboring here this night will not deliver.

My work is finished. It begins to withdraw from me. If it can bring any consolation to a single one of these suffering souls, let me believe that it has fulfilled its destiny.

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