Home > Uncategorized > Henri Fauconnier: A chance encounter on the evening of a day of slaughter

Henri Fauconnier: A chance encounter on the evening of a day of slaughter

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

French writers on war and peace

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Henri Fauconnier
From Malaisie
Translated by Eric Sutton

“Listen. When I went off to the war I merely thought of killing Germans. But, later on, when I heard the rattle of our machine guns I thought that a Goethe or Schumann might be in the trenches opposite.”

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Those fugitive war-time contacts that suddenly revealed the abysses of a man’s soul, are an estranging influence afterwards, from fear of the mechanical intercourse of everyday. Him I still pictured in the light of the flares that seared the treacherous night around us. We were alone in a shell-hole; a chance encounter on the evening of a day of slaughter. Our machine-gun post was stationed near one of those calvaries that stand just outside every Picardy village. There the struggle is hottest; much blood flows at the foot of a crucifix. At that moment a vast silence had fallen, and the stranger realised that I was overwhelmed by that awful silence. He spoke to me and asked me questions. He knew what I was going through. He probed my flayed soul with gentle fingers that seem to pour out a corrosive drug. He seemed pleased to observe that I was as empty as that plain was ravaged. I had lost faith, love, and even self-respect; I had gone beyond contempt, which still offers some support, I knew no longer why I suffered since I was indifferent to life and to death….

I fell silent again because I distrusted my voice, and it is ridiculous to talk heroics in a voice that trembles. I wondered if I were not like those old women who do not weep when they think of their misfortunes but only when they talk about them….

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“Did you ever find yourself,” he went on calmly, “in open country, standing before a line of sputtering machine gun fire. The whole earth quakes; you are helpless in the meshes of that network of steel. Then you suddenly have the sense of disembodiment, an exhilarating impression. That is what is called heroism. It is no more than that.”

“Do you mean to say you enjoy war?”

“No, I hate it. You’ve missed the point. You might as well say I was anxious to die.”

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