Home > Uncategorized > Octave Mirbeau: An orgy of destruction, criminal and foolish. What was this country, in whose name so many crimes were being committed?

Octave Mirbeau: An orgy of destruction, criminal and foolish. What was this country, in whose name so many crimes were being committed?

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

Octave Mirbeau: Selections on war

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Octave Mirbeau
From Calvary (1886)
Translated by Louis Rich

mirbeau_old

While one company of chasseurs was detailed to the crossroads to establish an “impregnable barrier” there, my company went in the woods to “fell as many trees as possible.” All the axes, bill-hooks and hatchets of the village were speedily requisitioned. Almost everything was used as a tool. For a whole day the blows of the axes were resounding and trees were falling. To spur us on to greater efforts, the general himself wanted to assist us in the vandalism.

“Come on, you scamps!” he would cry out at every occasion, clapping his hands. “Come on boys, let’s get this one!…”

He himself pointed out the most stalwart among the trees, those which grew up straight and spread out like the columns of a temple. It was an orgy of destruction, criminal and foolish; a shout of brutal joy went up every time a tree fell on top of another with a great noise. The old trees became less dense, one could say they were mowed down by some gigantic and supernatural scythe. Two men were killed by the fall of an oak tree.

And the few trees which remained standing, austere in the midst of ruined trunks lying on the ground, and the twisted branches which rose up towards them like arms outstretched in supplication, were showing open wounds, deep and red gashes from which the sap was oozing, weeping as it were.

The supervisor of the forest section, warned by a guard, came running from Senonches, and with a broken heart witnessed this useless devastation. I was near the general when the forester approached him respectfully, kepi in hand.

“Beg pardon, general,” said he. “I can understand the felling of trees on the edge of the road, the barricading of lines of approach…. But your destruction of the heart of the old forest seems to me a little…”

But the general interrupted:

“Eh? What? It seems to you what?…What are you butting in here for?…I do as I please…Who is commander here, you or I?…”

“But…” stammered the forester.

“There are no buts about it, Monsieur…You make me tired, that’s one thing sure!…You had better hurry back to Senonches or I’ll have you strung up on a tree…Come on, boys!…”

***

Worn out with fatigue, always occupied with something or other and never alone, I had no time to reflect on anything from the moment we started out. But still confronted by the strange and cruel sights constantly before my eyes, I felt within me the awakening of the idea of human life which until now had lain slumbering in the sluggishness of my childhood and the torpor of my youth. Yes…the idea awoke confusedly, as if emerging from a long and painful nightmare. And reality appeared to me more frightful than the nightmare. Transposing the instincts, the desires and passions which agitated us from the small group of errant men that we were to society as a whole, recalling the impressions so fleeting and wholly external which I had received in Paris, the rude crowds, the pushing and jostling of pedestrians, I understood that the law of the world was strife; an inexorable, murderous law, which was not content with arming nation against nation but which hurled against one another the children of the same race, the same family, the same womb. I found none of the lofty abstractions of honor, justice, charity, patriotism of which our standard books are so full, on which we are brought up, with which we are lulled to sleep, through which they hypnotize us in order the better to deceive the kind little folk, to enslave them the more easily, to butcher them the more foully.

What was this country, in whose name so many crimes were being committed, which had torn us — formerly so full of love — from the motherly bosom of nature, which had thrown us, now so full of hatred, famished and naked, upon this cruel land?… What was this country, personified to us by this rabid and pillaging general who gave vent to his madness on old people and trees, and by this surgeon who kicked the sick with his feet and maltreated poor old mothers bereaved of their sons?…What was this country every step on whose soil was marked by a grave, which had but to look at the tranquil waters of its streams to change them into blood, which was always frittering away its man power, digging here and there deep charnel vaults where the best children of men were rotting?…And I was astounded, when for the first time it dawned upon me that only those were the most glorious, the most acclaimed heroes of mankind who had pillaged the most, killed the most, burned the most.

They condemn to death the stealthy murderer who kills the passerby with a knife, on the corner of the street at night, and they throw his beheaded body into a grave of infamy. But the conqueror who has burned cities and decimated human beings, all the folly and human cowardice unite in raising to the throne of the most marvelous; in his honor triumphal arches are built, giddy columns of bronze are erected, and in the cathedrals multitudes reverently kneel before his tomb of hallowed marble guarded by saints and angels under the delighted gaze of God!…With what remorse did I repent of the fact that until now I had remained blind and deaf to this life so full of inexplicable riddles! Never had I opposed this mysterious book, never had I stopped even for a single moment to consider the question marks which are represented by things and beings; I did not know anything. And now, suddenly, a desire to know, a yearning to wrest from life some of its enigmas tormented me; I wanted to know the human reason for creeds which stupefy, for governments which oppress, for society which kills; I longed to be through with this war so that I might consecrate myself to some ardent cause, to some magnificent and absurd apostleship.

My thought traveled toward impossible philosophies of love, toward utopias of undying brotherhood…I saw all men bent down beneath some crushing heels; they all resembled the little soldier of the reserves at Saint-Michel, whose eyes were running, who was coughing and spitting blood, and as I knew nothing of the necessity of higher laws of nature, a feeling of compassion rose within me, clogging my throat with suppressed sobs. I have noticed that a man has no real compassion for anyone except when he himself is unhappy. Was this not, after all, but a form of self-pity? And if on this cold night, close to the enemy who would perhaps come out of the fogs of the morrow, I loved humanity so much — was it not myself only that I loved, myself only that I wanted to save from suffering? These regrets of the past, these plans for the future, this sudden passion for study, this ardor which I employed in picturing myself in the future in my room on the Rue Oudinot, in the midst of books and papers, my eyes burning with the fever of work — was this not after all only a means to ward off the perils of the present, to dispel other horrible visions, visions of death which, blurred and blunted, incessantly followed one another in the terror of darkness?

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