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Louis Aragon: War and its gloomy procession of storm clouds, sacred rites, illusions and lies

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

Louis Aragon: Selections on war

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Louis Aragon
From The Century Was Young (Les Voyageurs de l’Impériale) (1939)
Translated by Hannah Josephson

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“Sphere of influence be hanged! Either we’ll go to war or we won’t, and that’s all there is to it.”

“We could come to an understanding with the English because at bottom we have the same point of view.”

“Are you trying to tell me that the French and the English have similar ideals, while the wicked Germans do not? What nonsense! The whole lot of them just want to divide the world among themselves, slaughtering any number of Negroes and yellow men in the process, and the strongest is always right.”

***

Senator Brécy flung back his handsome, rather bovine head. He had been holding the upper house breathless with a dramatic picture of France’s military unpreparedness. Clemenceau himself was standing on his bench, following the exposé with frequent applause. Fear and patriotism were mingled in the bald pates and silvery heads of the senators as Brécy hurled his battle cry, “Shoes! Shoes! I shall never weary of clamoring for shoes for the defenders of our country!” The applause was so thunderous that the presiding officer threatened to clear the galleries.

***

As he walked along, Pascal brooded about his boy. He was not bringing up Jeannot to be cannon fodder some day. What if people suddenly began slaughtering each other ten or twenty years from now? With every nation armed to the teeth things could not go on at this rate much longer.

***

Where were his thoughts leading him? They were like wild goats on a mountain, following a new path, and yet unconscious of the bushes cropped on the way up. He heard himself say in an undertone, “It is better that she is dead,” and he knew that he was speaking of Yvonne. Because now he was sure that war would come, since Reine had killed herself. At least Yvonne would not see it. It would have been too hard to part from her. As a widower he was free to accept the horrors to come; there was nothing to hold him back. The child? His aunt and his grandmother would bring him up between them. If this was what he must do to spare his son the sufferings of war, then he was ready for it. So war was coming, and there were not enough shoes for the soldiers. Oh, why couldn’t they leave us alone with all their complaints! Shoes or no shoes, fate was closing in on Pascal and his generation, fate attended by a gloomy procession of storm clouds, sacred rites, illusions and lies.

And Pascal could hear the wind rising, like a man lost at a crossroad in a thunderstorm.

This, then, was the summit toward which he had climbed all his life, so that he might see the other side of the world. The other side of the world was all death and havoc, a clangorous epic of modern knights-in-arms…He was on the brink of the great brutal frenzy, and he was to learn to what ends the long era of patience and good will would lead. This was not the world of play he had known as a child, when the village boys left their secret signs in a hollow tree, nor the tender epic of love, in which nothing mattered but a woman’s surrender and Pascal’s triumphant cry of conquest. This was no longer to be the era of lonely men given to reflection; the ghost of individualism and unlimited personal license had been laid forever. Here was the other side of the world, where ungovernable streams tumbled down into the valley of desolation. Here was the other side of life, where all men became the playthings of the same dreadful winds, and shadows danced wildly in the air, high above the human puppets, above the dead.

***

Like all his people, Pascal was thrown into the war before he knew what he was about. That he had expected it helped little; when it came he could not believe it. He kept telling himself that no one wanted it, that modern devices made war impossible, that at the last minute everything would be amicably settled…

It had all been so quick, so mad, so brutal. Before he had time to turn around he was a soldier, living a soldier’s wretched life, with few or no newspapers, stirred by every senseless rumor.

***

Whenever Pascal thought that some day Jeannot might be just a number in an infantry corps, he felt a clutch at his heart. If he must die he would die, but his child must not go through this.

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