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Henri Barbusse: The goddess of slaughter, the world worn out by war


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

Henri Barbusse: Selections on war


Henri Barbusse
From Chains (1924)
Translated by Stephen Haden Guest

Maria Ulyanova and Henrie Barbusse

The bodies around mine are each uglier than the next. Faced by the colours of putrefaction, I call on the secret night. In the grey dusk as in the north wind I call up before my eyes rosy tints, the warm colour as of a nude body of a woman veiled. I smell a scent of violets; there are somewhere beneath the gloom pensive tufts of them, and on the broken stones convolvuli completely shroud the nettles.

I have remained a long time dreaming…I am held by a hand; it was not dead when I came, but it died as it held me. When I separate the fingers the whole mass falls back. The death of a creature before one’s eyes makes it seem, miraculously, that one had known and loved him for a long while.

This fellow has his mouth open. It is obvious that he is crying. When I raise him his weight shows me the strength of the tenderness he had for his children.

Another is naked in the corner of the room that is drowned in space, in the room whose warmth has been violently expelled. His stomach and entrails are exposed; behind his stomach the octopus of his entrails shivers and gleams. Perhaps his nails grasp the very substance of his heart.

He is like all of them; I hear his voice. What does it say? That which all voices say: – “Thou.”

All of us are creatures of littleness, and whether dead or living we are killed by the dark. But we are meant to live as intensely as possible, and it is in the ruins peopled by the slaughtered that I end, in the evening of today and of the ages, without leaving my road.


Although I flee, the reek overtakes and caresses me. We are at the end of the ages. The world is in extremity, worn out by war, despite the stubborn will to live of the vast, half-conscious masses. All proper names become the names of battles, advertisements of destruction, of the defeat of the poor. At every turn one encounters the thundering proof of the crime of victories.


He says little, but in a voice rasped by chronic laryngitis: “Righteous war, patriotism, democracy,” and: “The happiness of one depends on the unhappiness of another.”

He became tender when he saw a soldier boozing alcohol from his mess tin. “Drink, my friend, drink a little illusion!” he said affectionately.

Do they know with whom they have to do?

The initiated, the best informed may discern and place the man of immense worldly wealth who has succeeded above all others, who tramples on all, who dominates the rest, even the military stars; he for whom the Commander of an Army Corps or a War Minister is merely an official whom one nominates. This man, in the fantastic order of civilisation, embodies personally, Attila.

He is above all right, who has forced others to see in him a reflection of divinity, and to obey him for reasons wholly illusionary; he who has tamed nature and mankind, and the whole mathematical order of industry – the goddess of slaughter – and science and religion and morality; while every man of the crowd carries his whole wealth with him and has only his own death as his goal, he disburses millions of lives, and lives on the million dead. He is right, for he is obeyed, and in every hovel, hut and pulpit, each automaton repeats: “There are no longer slaves nor tyrants.” To show themselves more right that he men must one day rise together in a great awakening of wisdom and anger and smash in his skull.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. August 16, 2013 at 5:24 am

    Barbusse is brilliant, and still somewhat neglected. “Hell” is his masterpiece.

    • richardrozoff
      August 16, 2013 at 12:54 pm

      Am in agreement about his major pre-war novel being as you describe it.
      Have just read the (long) Chains and have started on the Jesus trilogy. Will include excerpts from the latter on this site as I have from the former.

    • richardrozoff
      August 16, 2013 at 7:03 pm

      Have had the opportunity to begin to explore your site and thank you for the poem by Benjamin Péret, which I plan to post soon on Stop NATO.

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