It's with us only that they make battles. It is we who are the material of war.
All we can see is only a speck. You've got to remember that this morning there's three thousand kilometers of equal evils, or nearly equal, or worse.
War is frightful and unnatural weariness, water up to the belly, mud and dung and infamous filth.
We're forgetting-machines. Men are things that think a little but chiefly forget. That's what we are.
Some of the invalids break the silence, and say the word again under their breath, reflecting that this is the greatest happening of the age, and perhaps of all ages. Even on the lucid landscape at which they gaze the news casts something like a vague and somber mirage.
Each country whose frontiers are consumed by carnage is seen tearing from its heart ever more warriors of full blood and force. One's eyes follow the flow of these living tributaries to the River of Death. To north and south and west ajar there are battles on every side. Turn where you will, there is war in every corner of that vastness.
Two armies at death-grips — that is one great army committing suicide.
Variant translation: Two armies that fight each other is like one large army that commits suicide.
Stop war? Impossible! There is no cure for the world's disease.
"Put an end to war?" say the watchers. — "Forbid the Storm!"
Cleansed from the passions of party and faction, liberated from prejudice and infatuation and the tyranny of tradition, these watchers on the threshold of another world are vaguely conscious of the simplicity of the present and the yawning possibilities of the future.
The streaming plain, seamed and seared with long parallel canals and scooped into water-holes, is an immensity, and these castaways who strive to exhume themselves from it are legion. But the thirty million slaves, hurled upon one another in the mud of war by guilt and error, uplift their human faces and reveal at last a bourgeoning Will. The future is in the hands of these slaves, and it is clearly certain that the alliance to be cemented some day by those whose number and whose misery alike are infinite will transform the old world.
It's with us only that they make battles. It is we who are the material of war. War is made up of the flesh and the souls of common soldiers only. It is we who make the plains of dead and the rivers of blood, all of us, and each of us is invisible and silent because of the immensity of our numbers. The emptied towns and the villages destroyed, they are a wilderness of our making. Yes, war is all of us, and all of us together.
Waking, Paradis and I look at each other, and remember. We return to life and daylight as in a nightmare. In front of us the calamitous plain is resurrected, where hummocks vaguely appear from their immersion, the steel-like plain that is rusty in places and shines with lines and pools of water, while bodies are strewn here and there in the vastness like foul rubbish, prone bodies that breathe or rot. Paradis says to me, "That's war."
"Yes, that's it," he repeats in a far-away voice, "that's war. It's not anything else."
He means — and I am with him in his meaning — "More than attacks that are like ceremonial reviews, more than visible battles unfurled like banners, more even than the hand-to-hand encounters of shouting strife, War is frightful and unnatural weariness, water up to the belly, mud and dung and infamous filth. It is befouled faces and tattered flesh, it is the corpses that are no longer like corpses even, floating on the ravenous earth. It is that, that endless monotony of misery, broken, by poignant tragedies; it is that, and not the bayonet glittering like silver, nor the bugle's chanticleer call to the sun!"
Paradis was so full of this thought that he ruminated a memory, and growled, "D'you remember the woman in the town where we went about a bit not so very long ago? She talked some drivel about attacks, and said, 'How beautiful they must be to see!'"
A chasseur who was full length on his belly, flattened out like a cloak, raised his bead out of the filthy background in which it was sunk, and cried, 'Beautiful? Oh, hell! It's just as if an ox were to say, 'What a fine sight it must be, all those droves of cattle driven forward to the slaughter-house!'
Paradis, possessed by his notion, waved his hand towards the wide unspeakable landscape. and looking steadily on it repeated his sentence, 'War is that. It is that everywhere. What are we, we chaps, and what's all this here? Nothing at all. All we can see is only a speck. You've got to remember that this morning there's three thousand kilometers of equal evils, or nearly equal, or worse."
"And then," said the comrade at our side, whom we could not recognize even by his voice, "to-morrow it begins again. It began again the day before yesterday, and all the days before that!"
The paralysis of cold was passing away from the knot of sufferers, though the light no longer made any progress over the great irregular marsh of the lower plain. The desolation proceeded, but not the day.
Then he who spoke sorrowfully, like a bell, said. "It'll be no good telling about it, eh? They wouldn't believe you; not out of malice or through liking to pull your leg, but because they couldn't. When you say to 'em later, if you live to say it, 'We were on a night job and we got shelled and we were very nearly drowned in mud,' they'll say, 'Ah!' And p'raps they'll say. 'You didn't have a very spicy time on the job.' And that's all. No one can know it. Only us."
"No, not even us, not even us!" some one cried.
"That's what I say, too. We shall forget — we're forgetting already, my boy!"
"We've seen too much to remember."
"And everything we've seen was too much. We're not made to hold it all. It takes its damned hook in all directions. We're too little to hold it."
"You're right, we shall forget! Not only the length of the big misery, which can't be calculated, as you say, ever since the beginning, but the marches that turn up the ground and turn it again, lacerating your feet and wearing out your bones under a load that seems to grow bigger in the sky, the exhaustion until you don't know your own name any more, the tramping and the inaction that grind you, the digging jobs that exceed your strength, the endless vigils when you fight against sleep and watch for an enemy who is everywhere in the night, the pillows of dung and lice — we shall forget not only those, but even the foul wounds of shells and machine-guns, the mines, the gas, and the counter-attacks. At those moments you're full of the excitement of reality, and you've some satisfaction. But all that wears off and goes away, you don't know how and you don't know where, and there's only the names left, only the words of it, like in a dispatch."
"That's true what he says," remarks a man, without moving his head in its pillory of mud. When I was on leave, I found I'd already jolly well forgotten what had happened to me before. There were some letters from me that I read over again just as if they were a book I was opening. And yet in spite of that, I've forgotten also all the pain I've had in the war. We're forgetting-machines. Men are things that think a little but chiefly forget. That's what we are."
"Then neither the other side nor us'll remember! So much misery all wasted!"
This point of view added to the abasement of these beings on the shore of the flood, like news of a greater disaster, and humiliated them still more.
"Ah, if one did remember!" cried some one.
"If we remembered," said another, "there wouldn't be any more war."
The principle of the equal rights of every living being and the sacred will of the majority is infallible and must be invincible; all progress will be brought about by it, all, with a force truly divine.
I tell them that fraternity is a dream, an obscure and uncertain sentiment; that while it is unnatural for a man to hate one whom he does not know, it is equally unnatural to love him. You can build nothing on fraternity. Nor on liberty, either; it is too relative a thing in a society where all the elements subdivide each other by force.
But equality is always the same. Liberty and fraternity are words while equality is a fact. Equality should be the great human formula — social equality, for while individuals have varying values, each must have an equal share in the social life; and that is only just, because the life of one human being is equal to the life of another. That formula is of prodigious importance. The principle of the equal rights of every living being and the sacred will of the majority is infallible and must be invincible; all progress will be brought about by it, all, with a force truly divine. It will bring first the smooth bed-rock of all progress — the settling of quarrels by that justice which is exactly the same thing as the general advantage.
There'll no longer be the things done in the face of heaven by thirty millions of men who don't want to do them!
They nourish national vanity and the love of supremacy by force. "We alone," they say, each behind his shelter, "we alone are the guardians of courage and loyalty, of ability and good taste!"
"When all men have made themselves equal, we shall be forced to unite."
"And there'll no longer be appalling things done in the face of heaven by thirty million men who don't wish them."
It is true, and there is nothing to reply to it. What pretended argument or shadow of an answer dare one oppose to it — "There'll no longer be the things done in the face of heaven by thirty millions of men who don't want to do them!"
Such is the logic that I hear and follow of the words, spoken by these pitiful fellows cast upon the field of affliction, the words which spring from their bruises and pains, the words which bleed from them.
Now, the sky is all overcast. Low down it is armored in steely blue by great clouds. Above, in a weakly luminous silvering, it is crossed by enormous sweepings of wet mist. The weather is worsening, and more rain on the way. The end of the tempest and the long trouble is not yet.
"We shall say to ourselves," says one, "'After all, why do we make war?' We don't know at all why, but we can say who we make it for. We shall be forced to see that if every nation every day brings the fresh bodies of fifteen hundred young men to the God of War to be lacerated, it's for the pleasure of a few ringleaders that we could easily count; that if whole nations go to slaughter marshaled in armies in order that the gold-striped caste may write their princely names in history, so that other gilded people of the same rank can contrive more business, and expand in the way of employees and shops — and we shall see, as soon as we open our eyes, that the divisions between mankind are not what we thought, and those one did believe in are not divisions."
Already there is uneasy hesitation in these castaways' discussion of their tragedy, in the huge masterpiece of destiny that they are roughly sketching. It is not only the peril and pain, the misery of the moment, whose endless beginning they see again. It is the enmity of circumstances and people against the truth, the accumulation of privilege and ignorance, of deafness and unwillingness, the taken sides, the savage conditions accepted, the immovable masses, the tangled lines.
And the dream of fumbling thought is continued in another vision, in which everlasting enemies emerge from the shadows of the past and stand forth in the stormy darkness of to-day.
They are not only the warrior caste who shout as they fight and have joy of it, not only those whom universal slavery has clothed in magic power, the mighty by birth, who tower here and there above the prostration of the human race and will take their sudden stand by the scales of justice when they think they see great profit to gain; not only these, but whole multitudes who minister consciously or unconsciously to their fearful privilege.
"There are those who say," now cries one of the somber and compelling talkers, extending his hand as though he could see the pageant, "there are those who say, 'How fine they are!'"
"And those who say, 'The nations hate each other!'"
"And those who say, 'I get fat on war, and my belly matures on it!'"
"And those who say, 'There has always been war, so there always will be!'" "There are those who say, 'I can't see farther than the end of my nose, and I forbid others to see farther!'".
There are all those things against you. Against you and your great common interests which as you dimly saw are the same thing in effect as justice, there are not only the sword-wavers, the profiteers, and the intriguers.
There is not only the prodigious opposition of interested parties — financiers, speculators great and small, armorplated in their banks and houses, who live on war and live in peace during war, with their brows stubbornly set upon a secret doctrine and their faces shut up like safes. There are those who admire the exchange of flashing blows, who hail like women the bright colors of uniforms; those whom military music and the martial ballads poured upon the public intoxicate as with brandy; the dizzy-brained, the feeble-minded, the superstitious, the savages.
There are those who bury themselves in the past, on whose lips are the sayings only of bygone days, the traditionalists for whom an injustice has legal force because it is perpetuated, who aspire to be guided by the dead, who strive to subordinate progress and the future and all their palpitating passion to the realm of ghosts and nursery-tales.
With them are all the parsons, who seek to excite you and to lull you to sleep with the morphine of their Paradise, so that nothing may change. There are the lawyers, the economists, the historians — and how many more? — who befog you with the rigmarole of theory, who declare the inter-antagonism of nationalities at a time when the only unity possessed by each nation of to-day is in the arbitrary map-made lines of her frontiers, while she is inhabited by an artificial amalgam of races; there are the worm-eaten genealogists, who forge for the ambitious of conquest and plunder false certificates of philosophy and imaginary titles of nobility. The infirmity of human intelligence is short sight. In too many cases, the wiseacres are dunces of a sort, who lose sight of the simplicity of things, and stifle and obscure it with formulae and trivialities. It is the small things that one learns from books, not the great ones.
And even while they are saying that they do not wish for war they are doing all they can to perpetuate it. They nourish national vanity and the love of supremacy by force. "We alone," they say, each behind his shelter, "we alone are the guardians of courage and loyalty, of ability and good taste!" Out of the greatness and richness of a country they make something like a consuming disease. Out of patriotism — which can be respected as long as it remains in the domain of sentiment and art on exactly the same footing as the sense of family and local pride, all equally sacred — out of patriotism they make a Utopian and impracticable idea, unbalancing the world, a sort of cancer which drains all the living force, spreads everywhere and crushes life, a contagious cancer which culminates either in the crash of war or in the exhaustion and suffocation of armed peace. They pervert the most admirable of moral principles. How many are the crimes of which they have made virtues merely by dowering them with the word "national"? They distort even truth itself. For the truth which is eternally the same they substitute each their national truth. So many nations, so many truths; and thus they falsify and twist the truth.
Those are your enemies. All those people whose childish and odiously ridiculous disputes you hear snarling above you — "It wasn't me that began, it was you!" — "No, it wasn't me, it was you!" — "Hit me then!" — "No, you hit me!" — those puerilities that perpetuate the world's huge wound, for the disputants are not the people truly concerned, but quite the contrary, nor do they desire to have done with it; all those people who cannot or will not make peace on earth; all those who for one reason or another cling to the ancient state of things and find or invent excuses for it — they are your enemies!
They are your enemies as much as those German soldiers are to-day who are prostrate here between you in the mud, who are only poor dupes hatefully deceived and brutalized, domestic beasts. They are your enemies, wherever they were born, however they pronounce their names, whatever the language in which they lie. Look at them, in the heaven and on the earth. Look at them, everywhere! Identify them once for all, and be mindful for ever!
"They will say to you," growled a kneeling man who stooped with his two bands in the earth and shook his shoulders like a mastiff, 'My friend, you have been a wonderful hero!' I don't want them to say it!
"Heroes? Some sort of extraordinary being? Idols? Rot! We've been murderers. We have respectably followed the trade of hangmen. We shall do it again with all our might, because it's of great importance to follow that trade, so as to punish war and smother it. The act of slaughter is always ignoble; sometimes necessary, but always ignoble. Yes, hard and persistent murderers, that's what we've been. But don't talk to me about military virtue because I've killed Germans."
"Nor to me," cried another in so loud a voice that no one could have replied to him even had he dared; "nor to me, because I've saved the lives of Frenchmen! Why, we might as well set fire to houses for the sake of the excellence of life-saving!"
Their eyes are opened. They are beginning to make out the boundless simplicity of things. And Truth not only invests them with a dawn of hope, but raises on it a renewal of strength and courage.
"It would be a crime to exhibit the fine side of war, even if there were one!" murmured one of the somber soldiers.
The first man continued. "They'll say those things to us by way of paying us with glory, and to pay themselves, too, for what they haven't done. But military glory — it isn't even true for us common soldiers. It's for some, but outside those elect the soldier's glory is a lie, like every other fine-looking thing in war. In reality, the soldier's sacrifice is obscurely concealed. The multitudes that make up the waves of attack have no reward. They run to hurl themselves into a frightful inglorious nothing. You cannot even heap up their names, their poor little names of nobodies."
The man raised himself, fell down, and rose again. The wound that he had under his armor of filth was staining the ground, and when he had spoken, his wide-open eyes looked down at all the blood he had given for the healing of the world.
The others, one by one, straighten themselves. The storm is falling more heavily on the expanse of flayed and martyred fields. The day is full of night.
One sees their shadows stirring on the shining sad expanse of the plain, and reflected in the pallid stagnant surface of the old trenches, which now only the infinite void of space inhabits and purifies, in the center of a polar desert whose horizons fume.
But their eyes are opened. They are beginning to make out the boundless simplicity of things. And Truth not only invests them with a dawn of hope, but raises on it a renewal of strength and courage.
While we get ready to rejoin the others and begin war again, the dark and storm-choked sky slowly opens above our heads. Between two masses of gloomy cloud a tranquil gleam emerges; and that line of light, so blackedged and beset, brings even so its proof that the sun is there.
"L'Enfer" primarily as translated by Edward J. O'Brien (1918); also translated as HellFull text online
Moving in both directions, the street is full of dresses which sway, offering themselves airily, the skirts lifting; dresses which lift and yet do not lift.
In the tall and narrow shop mirror I see myself approaching, rather pale and heavy-eyed. It is not a woman I want — it is all women. And I seek for them in those around me, one by one...
Defeated, I followed my impulse casually. I followed a woman who had been watching me from her corner. Then we walked side by side. We said a few words; she took me home with her. Then I went through the banal scene. It passed like a sudden hurtling–down. Again, I am on the pavement and I am not at peace as I had hoped. An immense confusion bewilders me. It is as if I could not see things as they were. I see too deep and too much.
All the truths taken together make only one truth. I had had to wait until that day to learn this simple thing. It was this truth of truths which I needed.
Will the great poet come who shall settle the boundaries of belief and render it eternal, the poet who will be, not a fool, not an ignorant orator, but a wise man, the great inexorable poet?
All the force we have, all our energy and clearness of mind serve to intensify themselves in one way or another. We intensify ourselves with new impressions, new sensations, new ideas. We endeavour to take what we do not have and to add it to ourselves.
I wanted to know the secret of life. I had seen men, groups, deeds, faces. In the twilight I had seen the tremulous eyes of beings as deep as wells. I had seen the mouth that said in a burst of glory, "I am more sensitive than others." I had seen the struggle to love and make one's self understood, the refusal of two persons in conversation to give themselves to each other, the coming together of two lovers, the lovers with an infectious smile, who are lovers in name only, who bury themselves in kisses, who press wound to wound to cure themselves, between whom there is really no attachment, and who, in spite of their ecstasy deriving light from shadow, are strangers as much as the sun and the moon are strangers. I had heard those who could find no crumb of peace except in the confession of their shameful misery, and I had seen faces pale and red-eyed from crying. I wanted to grasp it all at the same time. All the truths taken together make only one truth. I had had to wait until that day to learn this simple thing. It was this truth of truths which I needed.
Not because of my love of mankind. It is not true that we love mankind. No one ever has loved, does love, or will love mankind. It was for myself, solely for myself, that I sought to attain the full truth, which is above emotion, above peace, even above life, like a sort of death. I wanted to derive guidance from it, a faith. I wanted to use it for my own good.
I thought of all those wise men, poets, artists before me who had suffered, wept, and smiled on the road to truth. I thought of the Latin poet who wished to reassure and console men by showing them truth as unveiled as a statue. A fragment of his prelude came to my mind, learned long ago, then dismissed and lost like almost everything that I had taken the pains to learn up till then. He said he kept watch in the serene nights to find the words, the poem in which to convey to men the ideas that would deliver them. For two thousand years men have always had to be reassured and consoled. For two thousand years I have had to be delivered. Nothing has changed the surface of things. The teachings of Christ have not changed the surface of things, and would not even if men had not ruined His teachings so that they can no longer follow them honestly. Will the great poet come who shall settle the boundaries of belief and render it eternal, the poet who will be, not a fool, not an ignorant orator, but a wise man, the great inexorable poet? I do not know, although the lofty words of the man who died in the boarding-house have given me a vague hope of his coming and the right to adore him already.
I am like a poet on the threshold of a work, an accursed, sterile poet who will leave no glory behind, to whom chance lent the truth that genius would have given him, a frail work which will pass away with me, mortal and sealed to others like myself, but a sublime work nevertheless, which will show the essential outlines of life and relate the drama of dramas.
What am I? I am the desire not to die. I have always been impelled — not that evening alone — by the need to construct the solid, powerful dream that I shall never leave again. We are all, always, the desire not to die. This desire is as immeasurable and varied as life's complexity, but at bottom this is what it is: To continue to be, to be more and more, to develop and to endure. All the force we have, all our energy and clearness of mind serve to intensify themselves in one way or another. We intensify ourselves with new impressions, new sensations, new ideas. We endeavour to take what we do not have and to add it to ourselves. Humanity is the desire for novelty founded upon the fear of death. That is what it is.
Where are the words that will light the way? What is humanity in the world, and what is the world?
Everything is within me, and there are no judges, and there are no boundaries and no limits to me. The de profundis, the effort not to die, the fall of desire with its soaring cry, all this has not stopped. It is part of the immense liberty which the incessant mechanism of the human heart exercises (always something different, always!).
We do not die. Each human being is alone in the world. It seems absurd, contradictory to say this, and yet it is so. But there are many human beings like me. No, we cannot say that. In saying that, we set ourselves outside the truth in a kind of abstraction. All we can say is: I am alone.
And that is why we do not die.
Once, bowed in the evening light, the dead man had said, "After my death, life will continue. Every detail in the world will continue to occupy the same place quietly. All the traces of my passing will die little by little, and the void I leave behind will be filled once more."
He was mistaken in saying so. He carried all the truth with him. Yet we, we saw him die. He was dead for us, but not for himself. I feel there is a fearfully difficult truth here which we must get, a formidable contradiction. But I hold on to the two ends of it, groping to find out what formless language will translate it. Something like this: "Every human being is the whole truth." I return to what I heard. We do not die since we are alone. It is the others who die. And this sentence, which comes to my lips tremulously, at once baleful and beaming with light, announces that death is a false god.
Granted that I have the great wisdom to rid myself of the haunting dread of my own death, there remains the death of others and the death of so many feelings and so much sweetness. It is not the conception of truth that will change sorrow. Sorrow, like joy, is absolute.
And yet! The infinite grandeur of our misery becomes confused with glory and almost with happiness, with cold haughty happiness. Was it out of pride or joy that I began to smile when the first white streaks of dawn turned my lamp pale and I saw I was alone in the universe?
He put his hands on the young woman's shoulders, and looked at her, in readiness for his eager embrace.
They held each other close, staggering. They said the same word at the same time, "At last!" That was all they said, but they said it over and over again in a low voice, chanting it together. Their eyes uttered the same sweet cry. Their breasts communicated it to each other. It seemed to be tying them together and making them merge into one. At last! Their long separation was over. Their love was victor. At last they were together. And I saw her quiver from head to foot. I saw her whole body welcome him while her eyes opened and then closed on him again. They made a great effort to speak to each other. The few shreds of conversation held them back a moment.
Afterwards they did as the others had done, as human beings always do, as they themselves would do many times again in the strange future — they sat with their eyes half-closed and the same uneasy look of shame and terror in them as Amy and her lover.
But these two required no artificial stimulus for their love. They had no need of the night. And they felt no culpability. They were two grand young creatures, driven together naturally by the very force of their love, and their ardour cleansed everything, like fire. They were innocent. They had no regrets and felt no remorse. They thought they were united.
I followed them with my eyes going through life, which would be nothing to them but fields, mountains, or forests. I saw them veiled in a kind of light, sheltered from darkness, protected for a time against the fearful spell of memory and thought.
I sat down and leaned on my elbows. I thought of myself. Where was I now after all this? What was I going to do in life? I did not know. I would look about and would surely find something.
So, sitting there, I quietly indulged in hopes. I must have no more sadness, no more anguish and fever. If the rest of my life was to pass in calm, in peace, I must go far, far away from all those awful serious things, the sight of which was terrible to bear.
Tenderness is greater than love. I do not admire carnal love when it is by itself and bare. I do not admire its disorderly selfish paroxysms, so grossly short-lived. And yet without love the attachment of two human beings is always weak. Love must be added to affection. The things it contributes to a union are absolutely needed — exclusiveness, intimacy, and simplicity.
In life's tragedy, separation is the only thing one sees.
I came and went in the midst of the naked truth. I am not a man of peculiar and exceptional traits. I recognise myself in everybody.
I went out on the street like an exile, I who am an everyday man, who resemble everybody else so much, too much. I went through the streets and crossed the squares with my eyes fixed upon things without seeing them. I was walking, but I seemed to be falling from dream to dream, from desire to desire. A door ajar, an open window gave me a pang. A woman passing by grazed against me, a woman who told me nothing of what she might have told me. I dreamed of her tragedy and of mine. She entered a house, she disappeared, she was dead.
I stood still, a prey to a thousand thoughts, stifled in the robe of the evening.
A couple, a man and a woman — poor human beings almost always go in pairs — approached, and passed. I saw the empty space between them. In life's tragedy, separation is the only thing one sees. They had been happy, and they were no longer happy. They were almost old already. He did not care for her, although they were growing old together. What were they saying? In a moment of open-heartedness, trusting to the peacefulness reigning between them at that time, he owned up to an old transgression, to a betrayal scrupulously and religiously hidden until then. Alas, his words brought back an irreparable agony. The past, which had gently lain dead, rose to life again for suffering. Their former happiness was destroyed. The days gone by, which they had believed happy, were made sad; and that is the woe in everything.
Turn where you will, everywhere, the man and the woman ever confronting each other, the man who loves a hundred times, the woman who has the power to love so much and to forget so much. I went on my way again. I came and went in the midst of the naked truth. I am not a man of peculiar and exceptional traits. I recognise myself in everybody. I have the same desires, the same longings as the ordinary human being. Like everybody else I am a copy of the truth spelled out in the Room, which is, "I am alone and I want what I have not and what I shall never have." It is by this need that people live, and by this need that people die.
The people who live my truth, what do they say when they speak of themselves? Does the echo of what I am thinking issue from their mouths, or error, or falsehood?
Night fell. I looked for a word like mine, a word to lean upon, a word to sustain me. And it seemed to me that I was going along groping my way as if expecting some one to come from round the corner and tell me everything.
I lifted my glass to my lips when suddenly I stopped and felt all my blood rush to my heart.
This is what I heard:
"What's the theme of the novel you're working on?"
"Truth," replied Pierre Villiers.
"What?" exclaimed his friend.
"A succession of human beings caught just as they are."
Starting at the dark bottom he would ascend the ladder and begin life over again, life, the only paradise there is, the bouquet of nature. He would make beauty beautiful. He would make eternity over again with his voice and his song. And clasping the new-born infant close, she looked at all the sunlight she had given the world.
"This is the subject," said Pierre Villiers. "It gives me scope to amuse and tell the truth at the same time. A man pierces a hole in the wall of a boarding-house room, and watches what is going on in the next room."
A stupor and a sort of shame overwhelmed me as I heard that man trying to extract the utmost entertainment possible from the dark happenings that had been torturing me for a month.
I thought of that great voice, now silenced, which had said so clearly and forcefully that the writers of to-day imitate the caricaturists.
I, who had penetrated into the heart of humanity and returned again, found nothing human in this jiggling caricature! It was so superficial that it was a lie.
He said in front of me — of me the awful witness:
"It is man stripped of all outward appearances that I want people to see. Others are fiction, I am the truth."
And he continued to travesty the truth, and I was impotent — the truth, that profound thing whose voice was in my ears, whose shadow was in my eyes, and whose taste was in my mouth.
Was I so utterly forsaken? Would no one speak the word I was in search of?
The woman from the depths of her rags, a waif, a martyr — smiled. She must have a divine heart to be so tired and yet smile. She loved the sky, the light, which the unformed little being would love some day. She loved the chilly dawn, the sultry noontime, the dreamy evening. The child would grow up, a saviour, to give life to everything again. Starting at the dark bottom he would ascend the ladder and begin life over again, life, the only paradise there is, the bouquet of nature. He would make beauty beautiful. He would make eternity over again with his voice and his song. And clasping the new-born infant close, she looked at all the sunlight she had given the world. Her arms quivered like wings. She dreamed in words of fondling. She fascinated all the passersby that looked at her. And the setting sun bathed her neck and head in a rosy reflection. She was like a great rose that opens its heart to the whole world.
The poet seemed to be searching for something, to be seeing things, and believing infinitely. He was in another world where everything we see is true and everything we say is unforgettable.
I come back as I always do to the greatness of mankind's curse, and I repeat it with the monotony of those who are always right — oh, without God, without a harbour, without enough rags to cover us, all we have, standing erect on the land of the dead, is the rebellion of our smile, the rebellion of being gay when darkness envelops us. We are divinely alone, the heavens have fallen on our heads.
The heavens have fallen on our heads! What a tremendous idea! It is the loftiest cry that life hurls. That was the cry of deliverance for which I had been groping until then. I had had a foreboding it would come, because a thing of glory like a poet's song always gives something to us poor living shadows, and human thought always reveals the world. But I needed to have it said explicitly so as to bring human misery and human grandeur together. I needed it as a key to the vault of the heavens.
These heavens, that is to say, the azure that our eyes enshrine, purity, plenitude — and the infinite number of suppliants, the sky of truth and religion. All this is within us, and has fallen upon our heads. And God Himself, who is all these kinds of heavens in one, has fallen on our heads like thunder, and His infinity is ours.
We have the divinity of our great misery. And our solitude, with its toilsome ideas, tears and laughter, is fatally divine. However wrong we may go in the dark, whatever our efforts in the dark and the useless work of our hearts working incessantly, and whatever our ignorance left to itself, and whatever the wounds that other human beings are, we ought to study ourselves with a sort of devotion. It is this sentiment that lights our foreheads, uplifts our souls, adorns our pride, and, in spite of everything, will console us when we shall become accustomed to holding, each at his own poor task, the whole place that God used to occupy. The truth itself gives an effective, practical, and, so to speak, religious caress to the suppliant in whom the heavens spread.
"I have such respect for the actual truth that there are moments when I do not dare to call things by their name," the poet ended.
She had fallen asleep with her head on her lover's knees. He looked at her and smiled. An expression of pity and benevolence flitted across his face. His hands stretched out part way toward the sleeping woman with the gentleness of strength. I saw the glorious pride of condescension and charity in this man whom a woman prostrate before him deified.
I believe in a lofty form of poetry, in the work in which beauty will be mingled with beliefs. The more incapable of it I feel myself, the more I believe it to be possible.
I have given notice. I am going away to-morrow evening, I with my tremendous memory. Whatever may happen, whatever tragedies may be reserved for me in the future, my thought will not be graver or more important when I shall have lived my life with all its weight.
But my whole body is one pain. I cannot stand on my legs any more. I stagger. I fall back on my bed. My eyes close and fill with smarting tears. I want to be crucified on the wall, but I cannot. My body becomes heavier and heavier and filled with sharper pain. My flesh is enraged against me.
I shall not be able to listen any more, or look into the room, or hear anything distinctly. And I, who have not cried since my childhood, I cry now like a child because of all that I shall never have. I cry over lost beauty and grandeur. I love everything that I should have embraced.
Here they will pass again, day after day, year after year, all the prisoners of rooms will pass with their kind of eternity. In the twilight when everything fades, they will sit down near the light, in the room full of haloes. They will drag themselves to the window's void. Their mouths will join and they will grow tender. They will exchange a first or a last useless glance. They will open their arms, they will caress each other. They will love life and be afraid to disappear. Here below they will seek a perfect union of hearts. Up above they will seek everlastingness among the shades and a God in the clouds.
Perhaps because of my fever, perhaps because of my lofty pain, I imagine that some one there is declaiming a great poem, that some one is speaking of Prometheus. He has stolen light from the gods. In his entrails he feels the pain, always beginning again, always fresh, gathering from evening to evening, when the vulture steals to him as it would steal to its nest. And you feel that we are all like Prometheus because of desire, but there is neither vulture nor gods.
There is no paradise except that which we create in the great tomb of the churches. There is no hell, no inferno except the frenzy of living.
There is no mysterious fire. I have stolen the truth. I have stolen the whole truth. I have seen sacred things, tragic things, pure things, and I was right. I have seen shameful things, and I was right. And so I have entered the kingdom of truth, if, while preserving respect to truth and without soiling it, we can use the expression that deceit and religious blasphemy employ.
Who shall compose the Bible of human desire, the terrible and simple Bible of that which drives us from life to life, the Bible of our doings, our goings, our original fall? Who will dare to tell everything, who will have the genius to see everything? I believe in a lofty form of poetry, in the work in which beauty will be mingled with beliefs. The more incapable of it I feel myself, the more I believe it to be possible. The sad splendour with which certain memories of mine overwhelm me, shows me that it is possible. Sometimes I myself have been sublime, I myself have been a masterpiece. Sometimes my visions have been mingled with a thrill of evidence so strong and so creative that the whole room has quivered with it like a forest, and there have been moments, in truth, when the silence cried out.
But I have stolen all this, and I have profited by it, thanks to the shamelessness of the truth revealed. At the point in space in which, by accident, I found myself, I had only to open my eyes and to stretch out my mendicant hands to accomplish more than a dream, to accomplish almost a work.
What I have seen is going to disappear, since I shall do nothing with it. I am like a mother the fruit of whose womb will perish after it has been born.
What matter? I have heard the annunciation of whatever finer things are to come. Through me has passed, without staying me in my course, the Word which does not lie, and which, said over again, will satisfy.
I have only one recourse, to remember and to believe. To hold on with all my strength to the memory of the tragedy of the Room. I believe that the only thing which confronts the heart and the reason is the shadow of that which the heart and the reason cry for. I believe that around us there is only one word, the immense word which takes us out of our solitude, NOTHING. I believe that this does not signify our nothingness or our misfortune, but, on the contrary, our realisation and our deification, since everything is within us.
One after another, sundry women have occupied my life. Antonia Veron was first. Her marriage and mine, their hindrance and restriction, threw us back upon each other as of yore. We found ourselves alone one day in my house — where nothing ever used to happen, and she offered me her lips, irresistibly. The appeal of her sensuality was answered by mine, then, and often later. But the pleasure constantly restored, which impelled me towards her, always ended in dismal enlightenments. She remained a capricious and baffling egotist, and when I came away from her house across the dark suburb among a host of beings vanishing, like myself, I only brought away the memory of her nervous and irritating laugh, and that new wrinkle which clung to her mouth like an implement.
Then younger desires destroyed the old, and gallant adventures begot one another. It is all over with this one and that one whom I adored. When I see them again, I wonder that I can say, at one and the same time, of a being who has not changed, "How I loved her!" and, "How I have ceased to love her!"
I am looking for the happiness which lives. And truly, when I have a sense of some new assent wavering and making ready, or when I am on the way to a first rendezvous, I feel myself gloriously uplifted, and equal to everything!
This fills my life. Desire wears the brain as much as thought wears it. All my being is agog for chances to shine and to be shared. When they say in my presence of some young woman that, "she is not happy," a thrill of joy tears through me.
On Sundays, among the crowds, I have often felt my heart tighten with distress as I watch the unknown women. Reverie has often held me all day because of one who has gone by and disappeared, leaving me a clear vision of her curtained room, and of herself, vibrating like a harp. She, perhaps, was the one I should have always loved; she whom I seek gropingly, desperately, from each to the next. Ah, what a delightful thing to see and to think of a distant woman always is, whoever she may be!
There are moments when I suffer, and am to be pitied. Assuredly, if one could read me really, no one would pity me. And yet all men are like me. If they are gifted with acceptable physique they dream of headlong adventures, they attempt them, and our heart never stands still. But no one acknowledges that, no one, ever.
I am alone on the earth, face to face with the mud, and I can no longer move. The frightful searching of the shells alights around me. The hoarse hurricane which does not know me is yet trying to find the place where I am!
Then the battle goes away, and its departure is heartrending. In spite of all my efforts, the noise of the firing fades and I am alone; the wind blows and I am naked.
I am not in pain. I am extraordinarily calm; I am drunk with tranquillity. Are they dead, all — those? I do not know. The dead are specters of the living, but the living are specters of the dead. Something warm is licking my hand. The black mass which overhangs me is trembling. It is a foundered horse, whose great body is emptying itself, whose blood is flowing like poor touches of a tongue on to my hand.
"Men must not awake," the shining shadow goes on, in dull and hollow tones.
"Don't worry!" says the ironical voice, and at that moment it terrifies me.
Several bodies arise on their fists into the darkness — I see them by their heavy groans — and look around them.
The shadow talks to himself and repeats his insane words: —
"Men must not awake."
The voice opposite me, capsizing in laughter and swollen with a rattle, says again: —
Suddenly I am pushed by a movement of the horse on which I am lying. I see that he has turned his great head aside; he is mournfully eating grass. I saw this horse but lately in the middle of the regiment — I know him by the white in his mane — rearing and whinnying like the true battle-chargers; and now, broken somewhere, he is silent as the truly unhappy are.
Animals are innocence incarnate. This horse is like an enormous child, and if one wanted to point out life's innocence face to face, one would have to typify, not a little child, but a horse.
"The truth is revolutionary," gasps the nocturnal voice; "get you gone, you men of truth, you who cast disorder among ignorance, you who strew words and sow the wind; you contrivers, begone! You bring in the reign of men! But the multitude hates you and mocks you!"
"I have confidence in the abyss of the people."
And those words stabbed me to the heart and dilated my eyes with horror, for it seemed to me suddenly, in a flash, that he understood what he was saying!
The horse has not stopped bleeding. Its blood falls on me drop by drop with the regularity of a clock, — as though all the blood that is filtering through the strata of the field and all the punishment of the wounded came to a head in him and through him. Ah, it seems that truth goes farther in all directions than one thought! We bend over the wrong that animals suffer, for them we wholly understand.
Men, men! Everywhere the plain has a mangled outline. Below that horizon, sometimes blue-black and sometimes red-black, the plain is monumental!
Quite near, one face is looking sadly at me, as it lolls to one side. It is coming out of the bottom of the heap, as a wild animal might. Its hair falls back like nails. The nose is a triangular hole and a little of the whiteness of human marble dots it. There are no lips left, and the two rows of teeth show up like lettering. The cheeks are sprinkled with moldy traces of beard. This body is only mud and stones. This face, in front of my own, is only a consummate mirror.
I am frozen by a mass which supports me. My elbow sinks into it. It is the horse's belly; its rigid leg obliquely bars the narrow circle from which my eyes cannot escape. Ah, it is dead! It seems to me that my breast is empty, yet still there is an echo in my heart. What I am looking for is life.
Death is not yet dead everywhere. Some points and surfaces still resist and budge and cry out, doubtless because it is dawn; and once the wind swept away a muffled bugle-call. There are some who still burn with the invisible fire of fever, in spite of the frozen periods they have crossed. But the cold is working into them. The immobility of lifeless things is passing into them, and the wind empties itself as it goes by.
I think of myself, of all that I am. Myself, my home, my hours; the past, and the future, — it was going to be like the past! And at that moment I feel, weeping within me and dragging itself from some little bygone trifle, a new and tragical sorrow in dying, a hunger to be warm once more in the rain and the cold: to enclose myself in myself in spite of space, to hold myself back, to live.
I felt the beginning of a farewell rise in me like a sob. But there are too many of them for one to mourn them all. How many of them are there on all this plain? How many, how many of them are there in all this moment? Our heart is only made for one heart at a time. It wears us out to look at all. One may say, "There are the others," but it is only a saying. "You shall not know; you shall not know."
All is accomplished, all has terminated there. It is there, in that circle narrow as a well that the descent into the raging heart of hell was halted, the descent into slow tortures, into unrelenting fatigue, into the flashing tempest. We came here because they told us to come here. We have done what they told us to do. I think of the simplicity of our reply on the Day of Judgment.
Hidden behind the horizons, living men unite with machines and fall furiously on space. They do not see their shots. They do not know what they are doing. "You shall not know; you shall not know."
But since the cannonade is returning, they will be fighting here again. All these battles spring from themselves and necessitate each other to infinity! One single battle is not enough, it is not complete, there is no satisfaction. Nothing is finished, nothing is ever finished. Ah, it is only men who die! No one understands the greatness of things, and I know well that I do not understand all the horror in which I am.
War will come again after this one. It will come again as long as it can be determined by people other than those who fight.
Through centuries of centuries, fire and water face each other; the fire, upright, buoyant and leaping; the water flat, creeping, gliding, widening its lines and its surface. When they touch, is it the water which hisses and roars, or is it the fire?
Men have gone towards each other because of that ray of light which each of them contains; and light resembles light. It reveals that the isolated man, too free in the open expanses, is doomed to adversity as if he were a captive, in spite of appearances; and that men must come together that they may be stronger, that they may be more peaceful, and even that they may be able to live.
For men are made to live their life in its depth, and also in all its length. Stronger than the elements and keener than all terrors are the hunger to last long, the passion to possess one's days to the very end and to make the best of them. It is not only a right; it is a virtue.
When two overlords, jewel-set with glittering General Staffs, proclaim at the same time on either side of their throbbing mobilized frontiers, "We will save our country!" there is one immensity deceived and two victimized. There are two deceived immensities!
There is nothing else. That these cries can be uttered together in the face of heaven, in the face of truth, proves at a stroke the monstrosity of the laws which rule us, and the madness of the gods.
War will come again after this one. It will come again as long as it can be determined by people other than those who fight. The same causes will produce the same effects, and the living will have to give up all hope.
We cannot say out of what historical conjunctions the final tempests will issue, nor by what fancy names the interchangeable ideals imposed on men will be known in that moment. But the cause — that will perhaps everywhere be fear of the nations' real freedom. What we do know is that the tempests will come.
Armaments will increase every year amid dizzy enthusiasm. The relentless torture of precision seizes me. We do three years of military training; our children will do five, they will do ten. We pay two thousand million francs a year in preparation for war; we shall pay twenty, we shall pay fifty thousand millions. All that we have will be taken; it will be robbery, insolvency, bankruptcy. War kills wealth as it does men; it goes away in ruins and smoke, and one cannot fabricate gold any more than soldiers. We no longer know how to count; we no longer know anything. A billion — a million millions — the word appears to me printed on the emptiness of things. It sprang yesterday out of war, and I shrink in dismay from the new, incomprehensible word.
There will be nothing else on the earth but preparation for war. All living forces will be absorbed by it; it will monopolize all discovery, all science, all imagination.
It terrifies one to think for how short a time science has been methodical and of useful industry; and after all, is there anything on earth more marvelously easy than destruction? Who knows the new mediums it has laid in store? Who knows the limit of cruelty to which the art of poisoning may go? Who knows if they will not subject and impress epidemic disease as they do the living armies — or that it will not emerge, meticulous, invincible, from the armies of the dead? Who knows by what dread means they will sink in oblivion this war, which only struck to the ground twenty thousand men a day, which has invented guns of only seventy-five miles' range, bombs of only one ton's weight, aeroplanes of only a hundred and fifty miles an hour, tanks, and submarines which cross the Atlantic? Their costs have not yet reached in any country the sum total of private fortunes.
They who say, "There will always be war," do not know what they are saying. They are preyed upon by the common internal malady of shortsight. They think themselves full of common-sense as they think themselves full of honesty. In reality, they are revealing the clumsy and limited mentality of the assassins themselves.
We may no longer be able to count; but Fate will count. Some day the men will be killed, and the women and children. And they also will disappear — they who stand erect upon the ignominious death of the soldiers, — they will disappear along with the huge and palpitating pedestal in which they were rooted. But they profit by the present, they believe it will last as long as they, and as they follow each other they say, "After us, the deluge." Some day all war will cease for want of fighters.
The spectacle of to-morrow is one of agony. Wise men make laughable efforts to determine what may be, in the ages to come, the cause of the inhabited world's end. Will it be a comet, the rarefaction of water, or the extinction of the sun, that will destroy mankind? They have forgotten the likeliest and nearest cause — Suicide. They who say, "There will always be war," do not know what they are saying. They are preyed upon by the common internal malady of shortsight. They think themselves full of common-sense as they think themselves full of honesty. In reality, they are revealing the clumsy and limited mentality of the assassins themselves.
The shapeless struggle of the elements will begin again on the seared earth when men have slain themselves because they were slaves, because they believed the same things, because they were alike.
There have been those who magnificently dared. There have been bearers of the truth, men who groped in the world's tumult, trying to make plain order of it.
All is madness. And there is no one who will dare to rise and say that all is not madness, and that the future does not so appear — as fatal and unchangeable as a memory.
But how many men will there be who will dare, in face of the universal deluge which will be at the end as it was in the beginning, to get up and cry "No!" who will pronounce the terrible and irrefutable issue: —
"No! The interests of the people and the interests of all their present overlords are not the same.
Will not thoughtful faces arise out of the darkness? (For this is Chaos and the animal Kingdom; and Reason being no more, she has yet to be born.
There have been those who magnificently dared. There have been bearers of the truth, men who groped in the world's tumult, trying to make plain order of it. They discover what we did not yet know; chiefly they discover what we no longer knew.
I had seen Jesus Christ on the margin of the lake. He came like an ordinary man along the path. There is no halo round his head. He is only disclosed by his pallor and his gentleness. Planes of light draw near and mass themselves and fade away around him. He shines in the sky, as he shone on the water. As they have told of him, his beard and hair are the color of wine. He looks upon the immense stain made by Christians on the world, a stain confused and dark, whose edge alone, down on His bare feet, has human shape and crimson color. In the middle of it are anthems and burnt sacrifices, files of hooded cloaks, and of torturers, armed with battle-axes, halberds and bayonets; and among long clouds and thickets of armies, the opposing clash of two crosses which have not quite the same shape. Close to him, too, on a canvas wall, again I see the cross that bleeds. There are populations, too, tearing themselves in twain that they may tear themselves the better; there is the ceremonious alliance, "turning the needy out of the way," of those who wear three crowns and those who wear one; and, whispering in the ear of Kings, there are gray-haired Eminences, and cunning monks, whose hue is of darkness. I saw the man of light and simplicity bow his head; and I feel his wonderful voice saying:
"I did not deserve the evil they have done unto me."
Robbed reformer, he is a witness of his name's ferocious glory. The greed-impassioned money-changers have long since chased Him from the temple in their turn, and put the priests in his place. He is crucified on every crucifix.
Truth is simple. They who say that truth is complicated deceive themselves, and the truth is not in them.
I — my heart — a gaping heart, enthroned in a radiance of blood. It is mine, it is ours. The heart — that wound which we have. I have compassion on myself.
She is one with me. Love — it comes back to me. Love is an unhappy man and unhappy woman.
I awake — uttering the feeble cry of the babe new-born.
The immense mourning of human hearts appears to us. We dare not name it yet; but we dare not let it not appear in all that we say.
The truth is that we have within us something much more mortal than we are, and that it is this, all the same, which is all-important.
Instinctively we both looked for the inscriptions we cut, once upon a time, on trees and on stones, in foolish delight. We sought them like scattered treasure, on the strange cheeks of the old willows, near the tendrils of the fall, on the birches that stand like candles in front of the violet thicket, and on the old fir which so often sheltered us with its dark wings. Many inscriptions have disappeared. Some are worn away because things do; some are covered by a host of other inscriptions or they are distorted and ugly. Nearly all have passed on as if they had been passers-by.
We do not speak. We have gone down along the side of the river — slowly, as if we were climbing — towards the stone seat of the wall. The distances have altered. This seat, for instance, we meet it sooner than we thought we should, like some one in the dark; but it is the seat all right. The rose-tree which grew above it has withered away and become a crown of thorns.
On this seat — where she came to me for the first time, which was once so important to us that it seemed as if the background of things all about us had been created by us — we sit down to-day, after we have vainly sought in nature the traces of our transit.
The landscape is peaceful, simple, empty; it fills us with a great quivering. Marie is so sad and so simple that you can see her thought.
I have leaned forward, my elbows on my knees. I have contemplated the gravel at my feet; and suddenly I start, for I understand that my eyes were looking for the marks of our footsteps, in spite of the stone, in spite of the sand.
After the solemnity of a long silence, Marie's face takes on a look of defeat, and suddenly she begins to cry. The tears which fill her — for one always weeps in full, drop on to her knees. And through her sobs there fall from her wet lips words almost shapeless, but desperate and fierce, as a burst of forced laughter.
"It's all over!" she cries.
I have put my arm round her waist, and I am shaken by the sorrow which agitates her chest and throat, and sometimes shakes her rudely, the sorrow which does not belong to me, which belongs to no one, and is like a divinity.
Once, after we had recalled to each other an enchanted summer evening, I said, "We loved each other," and she answered, "I remember."
In those former times we lived. Now we hardly live any more, since we have lived. They who we were are dead, for we are here. Her glances come to me, but they do not join again the two surviving voids that we are; her look does not wipe out our widowhood, nor change anything. And I, I am too imbued with clear-sighted simplicity and truth to answer "no" when it is "yes." In this moment by my side Marie is like me. The immense mourning of human hearts appears to us. We dare not name it yet; but we dare not let it not appear in all that we say.
Marie falls back upon her idea, obdurately, and says, "A woman only lives by love and for love. When she's no longer good for that she's no longer anything."
She repeats, "You see — I'm nothing any more."
Ah, she is at the bottom of her abyss! She is at the extremity of a woman's mourning! She is not thinking only of me. Her thought is higher and vaster. She is thinking of all the woman she is, of all that love is, of all possible things when she says, "I'm no longer anything." And I — I am only he who is present with her just now, and no help whatever is left her to look for from any one.
I should like to pacify and console this woman who is gentleness and simplicity and who is sinking there while she lightly touches me with her presence — but exactly because she is there I cannot lie to her, I can do nothing against her grief, her perfect, infallible grief.
"Ah!" she cries, "if we came to life again!"
Once, when she was looking at me distressfully, she murmured, "You — you've no more illusion at all. I pity you!"
At that moment, within the space of a flash, she was thinking of me only, and she pities me! She has found something in her grief to give me.
The truth is that the love of mankind is a single season among so many others. The truth is that we have within us something much more mortal than we are, and that it is this, all the same, which is all-important. Therefore we survive very much longer than we live. There are things we think we know and which yet are secrets. Do we really know what we believe? We believe in miracles. We make great efforts to struggle, to go mad. We should like to let all our good deserts be seen. We fancy that we are exceptions and that something supernatural is going to come along. But the quiet peace of the truth fixes us. The impossible becomes again the impossible. We are as silent as silence itself.
We go back home. We wait and then have dinner. We live these few hours. And we see ourselves alone in the house, facing each other, as never we saw ourselves, and we do not know what to do! It is a real drama of vacancy which is breaking loose. We are living together; our movements are in harmony, they touch and mingle. But all of it is empty. We do not long for each other, we can no longer expect each other, we have no dreams, we are not happy. It is a sort of imitation of life by phantoms, by beings who, in the distance are beings, but close by — so close — are phantoms!
She goes into her room and disappears. Before I went to the war we slept in the same bed. We used to lie down side by side, so as to be annihilated in unconsciousness, or to go and dream somewhere else. Commonplace life has shipwrecks worse than in Shakespearean dramas. For man and wife — to sleep, to die.) But since I came back we separate ourselves with a wall.
Among some papers on my table I see the poem again which we once found out of doors, the bit of paper escaped from the mysterious hands which wrote on it, and come to the stone seat. It ended by whispering, "Only I know the tears that brimming rise, your beauty blended with your smile to espy."
In the days of yore it had made us smile with delight. To-night there are real tears in my eyes. What is it? I dimly see that there is something more than what we have seen, than what we have said, than what we have felt to-day. One day, perhaps, she and I will exchange better and richer sayings; and so, in that day, all the sadness will be of some service.
It is not yet hostility around me; but it is already a rupture. With this truth that clings to me alone, amid the world and its phantoms, am I not indeed rushing into a sort of tragedy impossible to maintain? They who surround me, filled to the lips, filled to the eyes, with the gross acceptance which turns men into beasts, they look at me mistrustfully, ready to be let loose against me.
My spirit is no longer what it was. Vaguely I seek, everywhere. I must see things with all their consequences, and right to their source. Against all the chains of facts I must have long arguments to bring; and the world's chaos requires an interpretation equally terrible.
There must be justice, not charity. Kindness is solitary. Compassion becomes one with him whom we pity; it allows us to fathom him, to understand him alone amongst the rest; but it blurs and befogs the laws of the whole. I must set off with a clear idea, like the beam of a lighthouse through the deformities and temptations of night.
The idea of motherland is not a false idea, but it is a little idea, and one which must remain little.
There is only one common good. There is only one moral duty, only one truth, and every man is the shining recipient and guardian of it. The present understanding of the idea of motherland divides all these great ideas, cuts them into pieces, specializes them within impenetrable circles. We meet as many national truths as we do nations, and as many national duties, and as many national interests and rights — and they are antagonistic to each other.
We hear talk of sanctified selfishness, of the adorable expansion of one race across the others, of noble hatreds and glorious conquests, and we see these ideals trying to take shape on all hands.
If, from the idea of motherland, you take away covetousness, hatred, envy and vainglory; if you take away from it the desire for predominance by violence, what is there left of it?
It is not an individual unity of laws; for just laws have no colors. It is not a solidarity of interests, for there are no material national interests — or they are not honest. It is not a unity of race; for the map of the countries is not the map of the races. What is there left?
There is left a restricted communion, deep and delightful; the affectionate and affecting attraction in the charm of a language — there is hardly more in the universe besides its languages which are foreigners — there is left a personal and delicate preference for certain forms of landscape, of monuments, of talent. And even this radiance has its limits. The cult of the masterpieces of art and thought is the only impulse of the soul which, by general consent, has always soared above patriotic littlenesses.
The universal problem into which modern life, as well as past life, rushes and embroils and rends itself, can only be dispersed by a universal means which reduces each nation to what it is in truth; which strips from them all the ideal of supremacy stolen by each of them from the great human ideal; a means which, raising the human ideal definitely beyond the reach of all those immoderate emotions, which shout together "Mine is the only point of view," gives it at last its divine unity. Let us keep the love of the motherland in our hearts, but let us dethrone the conception of Motherland.
I will say what there is to say: I place the Republic before France. France is ourselves. The Republic is ourselves and the others. The general welfare must be put much higher than national welfare, because it is much higher.
The revelation still seems to me so terrible that the silence of men, heaped under the roofs down there at my feet, seizes and threatens me. And if I am but timidly formulating it within myself, that is because each of us has lived in reality more than his life, and because my training has filled me, like the rest, with centuries of shadow, of humiliation and captivity.
It is establishing itself cautiously; but it is the truth, and there are moments when logic seizes you in its godlike whirlwind.
Tradition reigns, the gospel of the blind adoration of what was and what is — God without a head. Man's destiny is eternally blockaded by two forms of tradition; in time, by hereditary succession; in space, by frontiers, and thus it is crushed and annihilated in detail. It is the truth. I am certain of it, for I am touching it.
Ah, there are cloudy moments when one asks himself if men do not deserve all the disasters into which they rush! No — I recover myself — they do not deserve them. But we, instead of saying "I wish" must say "I will." And what we will, we must will to build it, with order, with method, beginning at the beginning, when once we have been as far as that beginning. We must not only open our eyes, but our arms, our wings.
I am not slighting intellect; but life is common to us along with poorer living things than ourselves. He who kills an animal, however lowly it may be, unless there is necessity, is an assassin.
The noblest and most fruitful work of the human intelligence is to make a clean sweep of every enforced idea — of advantages or meanings — and to go right through appearances in search of the eternal bases.
The so-called inseparable cohesions of national interests vanish away as soon as you draw near to examine them. There are individual interests and a general interest, those two only.
Let everything be remade on simple lines. There is only one people, there is only one people!
The eye is lost in all directions among the desolation where the multitude of men and women are hiding, as always and as everywhere.
That is what is. Who will say, "That is what must be!" I have searched, I have indistinctly seen, I have doubted. Now, I hope.
I do not regret my youth and its beliefs. Up to now, I have wasted my time to live. Youth is the true force, but it is too rarely lucid. Sometimes it has a triumphant liking for what is now, and the pugnacious broadside of paradox may please it. But there is a degree in innovation which they who have not lived very much cannot attain. And yet who knows if the stern greatness of present events will not have educated and aged the generation which to-day forms humanity's effective frontier? Whatever our hope may be, if we did not place it in youth, where should we place it?
Speech perpetuates vision. We carry no light; we are things of shadow, for night closes our eyes, and we put out our hands to find our way when the light is gone; we only shine in speech; truth is made by the mouths of men. The wind of words — what is it? It is our breath — not all words, for there are artificial and copied ones which are not part of the speaker; but the profound words, the cries. In the human cry you feel the effort of the spring. The cry comes out of us, it is as living as a child. The cry goes on, and makes the appeal of truth wherever it may be, the cry gathers cries.
It is not enough to speak; you must know words. When you have said, "I am in pain," or when you have said, "I am right," you have said nothing in reality, you have only spoken to yourself. The real presence of truth is not in every word of truth, because of the wear and tear of words, and the fleeting multiplicity of arguments. One must have the gift of persuasion, of leaving to truth its speaking simplicity, its solemn unfoldings. It is not I who will be able to speak from the depths of myself. The attention of men dazzles me when it rises before me. The very nakedness of paper frightens me and drowns my looks. Not I shall embellish that whiteness with writing like light. I understand of what a great tribune's sorrow is made; and I can only dream of him who, visibly summarizing the immense crisis of human necessity in a work which forgets nothing, which seems to forget nothing, without the blot even of a misplaced comma, will proclaim our Charter to the epochs of the times in which we are, and will let us see it. Blessed be that simplifier, from whatever country he may come, — but all the same, I should prefer him, at the bottom of my heart, to speak French.
Let us spell out the Magna Charta of which we humbly catch sight. Let us say to the people of whom all peoples are made: "Wake up and understand, look and see; and having begun again the consciousness which was mown down by slavery, decide that everything must be begun again!"
Unless they are universal, the reforms to be carried out are utopian and mortal. National reforms are only fragments of reforms. There must be no half measures. Half measures are laughter-provoking in their unbounded littleness when it is a question for the last time of arresting the world's roll down the hill of horror. There must be no half measures because there are no half truths. Do all, or you will do nothing.
There are official proclamations, full of the notion of liberty and rights, which would be beautiful if they said truly what they say. But they who compose them do not attach their full meaning to the words. What they recite they are not capable of wanting, nor even of understanding. The one indisputable sign of progress in ideas to-day is that there are things which they dare no longer leave publicly unsaid, and that's all. There are not all the political parties that there seem to be. They swarm, certainly, as numerous as the cases of short sight; but there are only two — the democrats and the conservatives. Every political deed ends fatally either in one or the other, and all their leaders have always a tendency to act in the direction of reaction.
He who would dig right down to the truth must simplify; his faith must be brutally simple, or he is lost. Laugh at the subtle shades and distinctions of the rhetoricians and the specialist physicians. Say aloud: "This is what is," and then, "That is what must be."
The noblest and most fruitful work of the human intelligence is to make a clean sweep of every enforced idea — of advantages or meanings — and to go right through appearances in search of the eternal bases. Thus you will clearly see the moral law at the beginning of all things, and the conception of justice and equality will appear to you beautiful as daylight.
Strong in that supreme simplicity, you shall say: I am the people of the peoples; therefore I am the King of Kings, and I will that sovereignty flows everywhere from me, since I am might and right. I want no more despots, confessed or otherwise, great or little; I know, and I want no more.
Socially, women are the equals of men, without restrictions. The beings who shine and who bring forth are not made solely to lend or to give the heat of their bodies. It is right that the sum total of work should be shared, reduced and harmonized by their hands. It is just that the fate of humanity should be grounded also in the strength of women.
The so-called inseparable cohesions of national interests vanish away as soon as you draw near to examine them. There are individual interests and a general interest, those two only. When you say "I," it means "I"; when you say "We," it means Man. So long as a single and identical Republic does not cover the world, all national liberations can only be beginnings and signals!
You will do away with the military frontiers, and those economic and commercial barriers which are still worse. Protection introduces violence into the expansion of labor; like militarism, it brings in a fatal absence of balance. You will suppress that which justifies among nations the things which among individuals we call murder, robbery, and unfair competition. You will suppress battles — not nearly so much by the direct measure of supervision and order that you will take as because you will suppress the causes of battle. You will suppress them chiefly because it is you who will do it, by yourself, everywhere, with your invincible strength and the lucid conscience that is free from selfish motives. You will not make war on yourself.
Each country will be a moral force, and no longer a brutal force; while all brutal forces clash with themselves, all moral forces make mighty harmony together.
You can form no idea of the beauty that is possible! You cannot imagine what all the squandered treasure can provide, what can be brought on by the resurrection of misguided human intelligence, successively smothered and slain hitherto by infamous slavery, by the despicable infectious necessity of armed attack and defense, and by the privileges which debase human worth. You can have no notion what human intelligence may one day find of new adoration. The people's absolute reign will give to literature and the arts — whose harmonious shape is still but roughly sketched — a splendor boundless as the rest. National cliques cultivate narrowness and ignorance, they cause originality to waste away; and the national academies, to which a residue of superstition lends respect, are only pompous ways of upholding ruins.
Let everything be remade on simple lines. There is only one people, there is only one people!
To accomplish the majestically practical work, to shape the whole architecture like a statue, base nothing on impossible modifications of human nature; await nothing from pity.
We are in a great night of the world. The thing is to know if we shall wake up to-morrow. We have only one succor — we know of what the night is made. But shall we be able to impart our lucid faith, seeing that the heralds of warning are everywhere few, and that the greatest victims hate the only ideal which is not one, and call it utopian?
I believe, in spite of all, in truth's victory. I believe in the momentous value, hereafter inviolable, of those few truly fraternal men in all the countries of the world, who, in the oscillation of national egoisms let loose, stand up and stand out, steadfast as the glorious statues of Right and Duty.
I proclaim the inevitable advent of the universal republic. Not the transient backslidings, nor the darkness and the dread, nor the tragic difficulty of uplifting the world everywhere at once will prevent the fulfillment of international truth.
Such as you are and such as I am. I can say to you at last, "I love you."
To understand life, and love it to its depths in a living being, that is the being's task, and that his masterpiece.
Yes, there is a Divinity, one from which we must never turn aside for the guidance of our huge inward life and of the share we have as well in the life of all men. It is called the truth.
That society is badly arranged which forces nearly all women to be servants. Marie, who is as good as I am, will have spent her life in cleaning, in stooping amid dust and hot fumes, over head and ears in the great artificial darkness of the house. I used to find it all natural. Now I think it is all anti-natural.
I hear no more sounds. Marie has finished. She comes up beside me. We have sought each other and come together as often as possible since the day when we saw so clearly that we no longer loved each other!
She sighs for the thought she has. She would like to be silent, but she must speak.
"We don't love each other any more," she says, embarrassed by the greatness of the things she utters; "but we did once, and I want to see our love again."
All that we can remember is almost nothing. Memory is greater than we are, but memory is living and mortal as well.
There is nothing between the paradise dreamed of and the paradise lost. There is nothing, since we always want what we have not got. We hope, and then we regret. We hope for the future, and then we turn to the past, and then we begin slowly and desperately to hope for the past! The two most violent and abiding feelings, hope and regret, both lean upon nothing. To ask, to ask, to have not! Humanity is exactly the same thing as poverty. Happiness has not the time to live; we have not really the time to profit by what we are. Happiness, that thing which never is — and which yet, for one day, is no longer!
I take her hand, as I did before. I speak to her, rather timidly and at random: "Carnal love isn't the whole of love."
"It's love!" Marie answers.
For some moments there had been outlined within me the tragic shape of the cry which at last came forth. It was a sort of madness of sincerity and simplicity which seized me.
And I, unveiling my life to her, though it slid away by the side of hers, all my life, with its failings and its coarseness. I let her see me in my desires, in my hungers, in my entrails.
Two sensuous lovers are not two friends. Much rather are they two enemies, closely attached to each other. I know it, I know it! There are perfect couples, no doubt — perfection always exists somewhere — but I mean us others, all of us, the ordinary people! I know! — the human being's real quality, the delicate lights and shadows of human dreams, the sweet and complicated mystery of personalities, sensuous lovers deride them, both of them! They are two egoists, falling fiercely on each other. Together they sacrifice themselves, utterly in a flash of pleasure.
This hunger for novelty — which makes sensuous love equally changeful and rapacious, which makes us seek the same emotion in other bodies which we cast off as fast as they fall — turns life into an infernal succession of disenchantments, spites and scorn; and it is chiefly that hunger for novelty which leaves us a prey to unrealizable hope and irrevocable regret. Those lovers who persist in remaining together execute themselves; the name of their common death, which at first was Absence, becomes Presence.
By what right does carnal love say, "I am your hearts and minds as well, and we are indissoluble, and I sweep all along with my strokes of glory and defeat; I am Love!"? It is not true, it is not true. Only by violence does it seize the whole of thought; and the poets and lovers, equally ignorant and dazzled, dress it up in a grandeur and profundity which it has not. The heart is strong and beautiful, but it is mad and it is a liar. Moist lips in transfigured faces murmur, "It's grand to be mad!" No, you do not elevate aberration into an ideal, and illusion is always a stain, whatever the name you lend it.
When I have spoken thus, we are no longer the same, for there are no more lies.
Against the window's still pallid sky I see her hair, silvered with a moonlike sheen, and her night-veiled face. Closely I look at the share of sublimity which she bears on it, and I reflect that I am infinitely attached to this woman, that it is not true to say she is of less moment to me because desire no longer throws me on her as it used to do. Is it habit? No, not only that. Everywhere habit exerts its gentle strength, perhaps between us two also. But there is more. There is not only the narrowness of rooms to bring us together. There is more, there is more! So I say to her:
"Me?" she says. "I'm nothing."
"Yes, you are everything, you're everything to me."
All my strength has come back to me. I am no longer wounded or ill. I carry her in my arms. It is difficult work to carry in your arms a being equal to yourself. Strong as you may be, you hardly suffice for it. And what I say as I look at her and see her, I say because I am strong and not because I am weak:
"You're everything for me because you are you, and I love all of you."
You are a living creature, you are a human being, you are the infinity that man is, and all that you are unites me to you. Your suffering of just now, your regret for the ruins of youth and the ghosts of caresses, all of it unites me to you, for I feel them, I share them. Such as you are and such as I am. I can say to you at last, "I love you."
I love you, you who now appearing truly to me, you who truly duplicate my life. We have nothing to turn aside from us to be together. All your thoughts, all your likes, your ideas and your preferences have a place which I feel within me, and I see that they are right even if my own are not like them (for each one's freedom is part of his value), and I have a feeling that I am telling you a lie whenever I do not speak to you.
I am only going on with my thought when I say aloud:
"I would give my life for you, and I forgive you beforehand for everything you might ever do to make yourself happy.".
It seems to me that truth has taken its place again in our little room, and become incarnate; that the greatest bond which can bind two beings together is being confessed, the great bond we did not know of, though it is the whole of salvation:
"Before, I loved you for my own sake; to-day, I love you for yours."
When you look straight on, you end by seeing the immense event — death. There is only one thing which really gives the meaning of our whole life, and that is our death. In that terrible light may they judge their hearts who will one day die. Well I know that Marie's death would be the same thing in my heart as my own, and it seems to me also that only within her of all the world does my own likeness wholly live. We are not afraid of the too great sincerity which goes the length of these things; and we talk about them, beside the bed which awaits the inevitable hour when we shall not awake in it again. We say: —
"There'll be a day when I shall begin something that I shan't finish — a walk, or a letter, or a sentence, or a dream.".
What is there within us to-night? What is this sound of wings? Are our eyes opening as fast as night falls? Formerly, we had the sensual lovers' animal dread of nothingness; but to-day, the simplest and richest proof of our love is that the supreme meaning of death to us is — leaving each other.
And the bond of the flesh — neither are we afraid to think and speak of that, saying that we were so joined together that we knew each other completely, that our bodies have searched each other. This memory, this brand in the flesh, has its profound value; and the preference which reciprocally graces two beings like ourselves is made of all that they have and all that they had.
I stand up in front of Marie — already almost a convert — and I tremble and totter, so much is my heart my master: —
"Truth is more beautiful than dreams, you see."
It is simply the truth which has come to our aid. It is truth which has given us life. Affection is the greatest of human feelings because it is made of respect, of lucidity, and light. To understand the truth and make one's self equal to it is everything; and to love is the same thing as to know and to understand. Affection, which I call also compassion, because I see no difference between them, dominates everything by reason of its clear sight. It is a sentiment as immense as if it were mad, and yet it is wise, and of human things it is the only perfect one. There is no great sentiment which is not completely held on the arms of compassion.
To understand life, and love it to its depths in a living being, that is the being's task, and that his masterpiece; and each of us can hardly occupy his time so greatly as with one other; we have only one true neighbor down here.
To live is to be happy to live. The usefulness of life — ah! its expansion has not the mystic shapes we vainly dreamed of when we were paralyzed by youth. Rather has it a shape of anxiety, of shuddering, of pain and glory. Our heart is not made for the abstract formula of happiness, since the truth of things is not made for it either. It beats for emotion and not for peace. Such is the gravity of the truth.
"You've done well to say all that! Yes, it is always easy to lie for a moment. You might have lied, but it would have been worse when we woke up from the lies. It's a reward to talk. Perhaps it's the only reward there is."
She said that profoundly, right to the bottom of my heart.
Only the idolatrous and the weak have need of illusion as of a remedy. The rest only need see and speak.
She smiles, vague as an angel, hovering in the purity of the evening between light and darkness. I am so near to her that I must kneel to be nearer still. I kiss her wet face and soft lips, holding her hand in both of mine. Yes, there is a Divinity, one from which we must never turn aside for the guidance of our huge inward life and of the share we have as well in the life of all men. It is called the truth.
The Western misreading of the Soviet system was largely the product of a simple reflex. The Soviet order — indeed, the practice of communism everywhere — was seen as a form of "progressive" hostility to established Western politics and, particularly, economics. It seemed to represent a new system that had rid itself of the market, of exploitation. Whatever its doubtless temporary — or invented — faults (so the thinking went), the Soviet ideology stood for a better world. Thus many Western writers, including Lion Feuchtwanger, Henri Barbusse, and even Romain Rolland, the sensitive follower of Gandhi, spoke out in defense of the purges.
Robert Conquest, in "The Terrors" in The Atlantic Monthly (July-August 2004).
We shall be hearing and reading of this war for decades to come. No one of us can yet guess who will be its Tolstoys, its Barbusses, its Remarques and its Hemingways.
Lewis Gannet, in referring to the Second World War, in I saw it Happen (1942).
The only good war book to come out during the last war was Under Fire by Henri Barbusse. He was the first to show us, the boys who went from school or college to the last war, that you could protest in anything besides poetry, the gigantic useless slaughter and lack of even elemental intelligence in generalship that characterized the Allied conduct of that war from 1915 to 1917.
Ernest Hemingway in the Introduction to Men at War: The Best War Stories of All Time (1942).
At Paris Novelist Henri Barbusse, winner of the Prix Goncourt with his pen and the Croix de Guerre with his sword, occupies a position unique and anomalous. He is always bringing some unpleasant fact to light, and his genius is always just sufficient to make the expose nauseatingly unforgettable. With such a man what is to be done?