Home > Uncategorized > Georges Duhamel: War has achieved the mournful miracle of denaturing nature, rendering it ignoble and criminal

Georges Duhamel: War has achieved the mournful miracle of denaturing nature, rendering it ignoble and criminal

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

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I remember seeing hills that had been disemboweled by a bombardment and were sown with long splinters of twisted iron; the base of a monstrous shell appeared before me, one day, under these conditions, and it seemed to me truly inhuman, this product of the work of men: the noble metal, with which so many good and beautiful things can be made, took on a hateful appearance. Man had achieved the mournful miracle of denaturing nature, rendering it ignoble and criminal.

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An unhealthy curiosity and the taste for anomalies incline us to take pleasure in seeing a creature perform an action for which its own organism seems unsuited. It palls very quickly. For a long time now, for example, the flight of aviators has ceased to excite our interest: we know all about that unmysterious machine; its very sound and its presence in the sky defile the silence and the space whose virginity was a refuge for us.

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When beauty seems to have abandoned the world, we must realize that it has first deserted our own hearts.

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It may be that the philosophy which absorbs you is one that leaves no room for indulgence. Perhaps you feel yourself full of bitterness for your fellows, perhaps you have made up your mind not to see in the activity of the living any but motives of greed and covetousness. Do not laugh! Do not be in too great haste to prove yourself right! Above everything, do not rejoice in being right in so dismal a fashion.

I say it again, if certain pages of Beethoven were better known to those who suffer and slaughter one another they would succeed in disarming many a resentment, they would restore to many a tense face a soft, ineffable smile.

If you do not believe this, you are not accustomed to living among simple people, you have never watched an irrepressible class of little children whom their master dominates and calms by making them sing, you have never heard a multitude of people intoning a hymn in some cathedral, you have never seen a great flood of workingmen, in some foul slum, break into the rhythm of a revolutionary song, perhaps you have never even seen a poor man weeping because a violin had just recalled to him his youth and the obscure thoughts he believed he had never in all his life confessed to anyone.

Think of all these things and then form some notion of what it is the thoughts of the great masters can do with the soul. Why, why is it not better known, this thing which is, indeed, knowledge and revelation itself? Why does it not reign over the empires, this which is sovereignty, grandeur, majesty? Why is it not more ardently invoked in the hour of crisis, this that teaches, equally well, fruitful doubt and serene resolution?

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The war, which has crushed such great masses of men, has brought us face to face with this melancholy evidence, it has enabled us thoroughly to examine many individuals and to put many experiences to the proof. It has permitted us to measure the whole humiliation of moral civilization before that other, the scientific and industrial civilization which we might still better call practical civilization.

Gifted, serious, good men have said to me, “First of all one has to live. You can see, in the midst of this hurricane, what would become of a people weakened by idealism and given over to the works of the spirit. My son will study chemistry. The coming century will be a hard one, my son will perhaps never have the time to read Emerson or acquaint himself with the works of Bach! Too bad! But first of all one has to live.”

Does it not seem as if error had a dazzling power to seduce us and overwhelm us? Men are always hoping to conquer it by yielding to its demands. No one has the courage to turn his own steps away from its shifting shore. No one, for example, says to me: “The moral culture of the world is in peril. Mechanical progress monopolizes and swallows up all human energy. The generous soul of the best men is forgotten, in exile. Let us, with a common voice, with all our strength, summon it to come back to us, or let us go and die in exile with it, in an exile that is noble and pure.”

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