"This evening, more than ever, in this setting both marvelously calm and exciting, where, in a shelter from the violent emotions and excessive tension of the trenches, I feel breaking out again, in their native form, the impressions deposited in me by three years of war, the Front casts its spell on me. And I seek ardently the sacred line of heavings of the earth and explosions, the line of balloons which are winched down every evening with regret, one after another, like bizarre and extinct stars, then, the line of Verey lights which starts rising."
Teilhard de Chardin, La Nostagie du Front, 1917
Osvaldo Bot - Trench - 1933
Barbusse, Henri. 2014. Le Feu (journal d'une escouade)
Sayat: De Borée (Poche Classique)
Barbusse, Henri. 2014. Le Feu (journal d'une escouade)
Sayat: De Borée (Poche Classique)
I am generally very wary of patois, créole and other celebration of idiolectic regionalism, as it can be found in French naturalist and late-romantic fiction; There is no doubt a part a question of generation, and a part of ignorance too, but in my experience vernacular dialogues generally tend to make up for uneventful conversation with exotic terminology. So when I engaged the six hundred pages of Barbusse’s “Le Feu” to find that the narrator (pretty much the only character who could be expected to use anything but the language one addresses cattle with) was of the silent type, I kind of wished for d’Annunzio’s (the other extreme...) rather than Barbusse’s Fire. After about a hundred pages, if I am glad I have read the book in my native French (most of the dialogues would be lost on me if it were in English) I have grown very much accustomed to Barbusse’s perverse fascination for the illiterate.
There are two themes that intersect in Barbusse’s project: the war and the commoners. His project is to write an account of the war as it was lived by the lower class. To a significant extent, and despite outstanding litterary qualities, they come into conflict:
The unending rigmarole of of provincial peasants and proles, despite Barbusse’s laudable efforts at giving them some specificity, start feeling like a litany about half-way through the book: food, booze, an inarticulate indignation and a naive idealization of life before the war comes back in their dialogues again and again, so much so that in fact the diversity of the characters dissolves into the portrayal of a unanimous mass of boorish victims. A couple of Deus ex Machina do discreetly stand out, the caporal Bertrand and the accountant, the first being the fair but distant voice of bourgeois leftism, the other the vessel for Barbusse to provide some hard facts and numbers about the war.
Completely deprived of subjectivity by first the alienation of the working class, and second by that of life in the trenches, this reader found it difficult to empathize with those characters.
Barbusse, instead, is found at his best in small epiphanic nuggets where the absurdity of trench-life is in its purest form, unmixed with social tropes: “Around the dead fluttered letters which, while they were deposited on the ground, had escaped from their pockets or their cartridge belts. On one of those little bits of all white paper, that flitted in the wind but which the mud englued, I read, leaning over slightly, the sentence: “My dear Henri, how beautiful was the weather on your name day !” The man lies on his belly; his back was cleaved from one hip to the other by a profound furrow; His head was half-turned; we see the empty eye, and on the temple, the cheek and the neck, a sort of green moss has grown. (…). And if we were to say something in front of this heap of annihilated creatures, we would say: “Poor guy!” (205-6)
This memorable outing of the narrator with his mate Poterloo, among the inhumane landscape where flesh and mud have melted into one choking mass, is a telling highlight of the author’s gruesome but poetic (in fact so gruesome it is poetic) attention to details : “We approached them slowly. They were layed tight against each others: each gesturing with arms and legs, a petrified movement, distinct in agony. Some show half-molded faces, the skin rusting, yellow dotted with black. Some have their face fully blackened, tarred, lips swollen and enormous: negro heads blown like balloons.
Between two bodies, reaching out confusingly from one or the other, a cut-off wrist finished in a ball of filaments.
Others are shapeless larvae, sullied, were stick out some vague objects of equipment or shards of bone. Further away, a corpse has been moved in such a state that one has had, not to loose it on the way, to pile him up in some wire fencing then attached to both ends of a stake. Like this, rolled up in this iron hammock, he was carried and dropped here. One can distinguish neither the top nor the bottom in this body; in the pile that he makes, we can only recognize the gaping pocket of trousers. We can see an insect that exits and enters.“ (205)
There is something hieratic and abstract, like a painting of Barnett Newman, in the apocalyptic experience Barbusse, like many of the war novelists, takes such pain to depict: visionary revelations of the absurdity of life and of the death of God, they fail to move the cast of characters the author assembled, shielded from abstraction, from all causes or aspirations by their earthly common-sense and their simplicity.
This isolation seems often contrived by the author to emphasize the tragedy of common men sacrificed for ideals they have no grasp of. History has shown that nationalism was not then the vice of the middle class, as many on the left wished to see it, but a widespread -if suicidal- aspiration, down to the foot-soldier. Of course no one can claim that Barbusse does not depict his brigade as he saw it, closer and better than we might ever do, but we can wish for less angelism (“How happy was life before!”, 204, or “It’s when there is nothing left that we understand we were happy. Ah! How happy we were!”, 212) and more psychology: “Those are simple men that have been simplified further, and whose primordial drives only, out of necessity, can grow: survival instinct, egoism, hope to hold on for ever, joys of eating, drinking and sleeping.” (68)
Surely it has become a commonplace to compare Junger and Barbusse, but it feels even staler to claim they cannot be: the first world war, and the experience of the trenches, had something international, maybe even universal in the words of most of its chroniclers.
Both Le Feu and Storm of Steel are emphatically direct and realist in their depiction, and are based on journals kept at the front. In a sense, despite a seemingly polar opposition between Junger’s enthusiastic Storm and Steel and Barbusse’s elegiac tone, both share a common stock of poetic image, as did a strikingly large number of trench writers: if the moral judgement on the events vary from one to the other, there is a remarkable consensus on moods and metaphors in depicting “la guerre suprême” (12).
Indeed, the same mindset, which Barbusse sees both as alienation and innocence, is extremely close to that “liberated” mentality celebrated by Junger, as well as some future fascists (Ardengo Soffici for example) :
“The soldiers of this war have, for all things, the philosophy of a child: they never look afar, nor around them, nor ahead. They think more or less day to day.” (74)
But Barbusse of course is a pacifist and a humanist – to him, no atavistic return to simple, primitive concern, can salvage those men: what the rightists are celebrating is to him the last stage of degeneration, that which outstrips the man from all its hope and dignity prior to its eventual physical elimination. At times Le Feu even reminded me of Arendt, in its emphasis on the de-humanizing character of war: physically so: "One stumbles upon reefs of crouching beings, curled up, bleeding and screaming, at the bottom." (346) - and mentally too: “I raise myself half-way as on a battle-field. I contemplate once more those creatures that rolled here one above the other among the regions and the events. I watch them all, wedged in the chasm of oblivion and inertia, at the brink of which some seem to cling, with their pitiable preoccupations, with their child-like instinct and their ignorance of slaves.” (257)
How come, sometimes the reader might wonder, are those men so broken, so crushed by the experience, while Barbusse himself retain enough distance, enough aloofness to write about it with such brio?
I suspect this tension is grounded in Barbusse’s frustrated attempt to align himself effectively with a the plebes he outlined too starkly - as if the writer Barbusse found himself unable to resist the poetic appeal of of the spectacle of technological warfare, that which his creations, unsullied by artistic aspiration, can remained aloof from. The sublimity of inhumane, monstruous experience of the Great War shows again and again in the book.
“But that clutter of sodden corses
On the sodden Belgian grass—
That is a strange new beauty.”
Ford Maddox Ford, Antwerp, 1915
Down to the mystique experience, another locus communis of the modernist depiction of war, we find painted by both Junger and Barbusse. Compare:
“I had felt Death’s hand once before, on the road at Mory – but this time his grip was firmer and more determined. As I came down heavily on the bottom of the trench, I was convinced it was all over. Strangely, that moment is one of the very few in my life of which I am able to say they were utterly happy. I understood, as in a flash of lightening, the true inner purpose and form of my life. I felt surprise and disbelief that it was to end there and then, but this surprise had something untroubled and almost merry about it. Then I heard the firing grow less, as if I were a stone sinking under the surface of some turbulent water. Where I was going, there was neither war nor enmity.” (Ernst Junger, Storm of Steel, Penguin books, p.281)
“All of a sudden, a formidable explosion fell unto us. I was shaken down to my skull, a metallic resonance filled my head, a burning smell of sulfur penetrate my nostrils and suffocate me. The earth oppened in front of me. I felt raised above the ground and thrown to the side, folded, smoldered and half-blinded in this flash of thunder... Yet I remember very well: during this second where, instinctively, I sought, desperately, haggard, my brother in arms, I saw his body rose, standing, black, arms fully outstretched, and a flame instead of the head.” (230)
In fact if the reader was to survey both works in search of a radical difference, he might be disappointed: despite Barbusse’s effort to ground his narrative in “the social experience” of war, with a selection of salt-of-the-earth dialogues rendered in colourful and inflected dialects, both authors remain invariably at a remove from the mass: if in Junger this is rooted in an (reconstructed) aristocratic ideology of cold virtus and sacrifice, in Barbusse it comes from both ethnographic remove and the fascination the author cannot hide in the face of a surreal and visionary experience, unfathomed by his squadmates, yet which he cannot help but share with his reader.
To those soldiers around him he seems to love or want to love, the war is “merely” extra-ordinary, but to Barbusse and Junger, to the writer and his readers, the war is the brutal incursion of the unreal, of the fictional maybe, inside the most gritty real. The war seems to collapse the constitutive diegesis between the experience and its retelling, bringing the fact ever closer to the metaphor. This surreal collision of fact and fiction prompts in Junger lyrical outbursts and heroic (or absurd) deeds, whereas there seems to be a lingering sense of guilt in Barbusse’s chronicles.
To put it differently, by his very condition of writer or narrator, despite his best efforts, Barbusse has some of the same fascination many more enthusiastic authors have had in the morbid face of trench-war.
To me there is no doubting that the high-water mark of Barbusse’s prose is to be found not in his sometimes contrived naturalistic depiction of military life, but in the poetic effusions of his description of modern warfare: the fabric of the real pushed in bulks through the shredder of war, falls in an abstract dump of mud and flesh, where gleams from to time, explosions, shrapnel and other machines. The result is surreal, or maybe subreal, the incursion of hell on earth. Apocalyptic visions are regular trope of WW1 depiction, and despite his best efforts to “secularize” his discourse, Barbusse cannot help but giving us some rather successful examples. On him, too, the front has cast
“We leave. We are the two sole living spoiling this illusory and vaporous scene, this village strewed over the land, on which we step.” (213)