Louis-Ferdinand Celine, the novelist and physician, who once observed that most people don’t die until the last minute, was old enough in 1914 to remember how far minds still were, late in July, from thoughts of the abyss yawning just ahead.
Yet when the war began celebrants prophesied in chorus that a decadent nation would regain its health once released from the drear monotony – the horrible quotidian- of peacetime. Fire, mortal danger and the common enemy would enforce a collective truth. At the front, disparate elements would fuse into the “organic” society so loathsome to Kant-besotted intellectuals, for whom France’s honor had depended upon the exculpation of a Jew.
Montesquieu’s humanist oath – “If I knew something useful to my family but prejudicial to my country, I would endeavor to forget it; if I knew something useful to my country but harmful to Europe, or useful to Europe but harmful to the human race I would reject it as a crime”- spelled treason
…A multitude of Allied flags unfurled from windows all over the city, like glad rags draped over widow’s weeds.
Even when the avant guardists and Maurice Barres situated true selfhood in very different realms – Barres in the graveyard of venerated ancestors, Surrealists-to be in the cradle of reawakened childhood –they were of one mind in prosecuting Reason as a subversive agent.
Andre Breton had cocked a snook at aesthetic propriety in language reminiscent of Rimbaud’s Une Saison en Enfer . “We are drawn to ageless, undreamed of, unimaginable little objects,” he wrote,” The museum of a child raised in the wild, curios from insane asylums . . . broken mechanical toys, steam organs.” They loved what soon came to be known as “found objects” –objects valued from having no value, or for being prized by children and madmen, for being innocent of the culture that butchered millions while patenting the useful and insuring the beautiful. Poetry and art were to be found in trashcans and in the flea market rather than museums. “In shop signs, in idiotic paintings, in the backdrops of circus performers,” Rimbaud would have added.
The last word might have belonged to E.M. Forster (at the Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture (1935). He saw twilight rather than dawn for writers such as himself – writers bred in a liberal tradition and sworn to defend their literary métier against political and religious bondage.
“My colleagues probably agree with my account of the situation in our country but they may disagree with my old-fashioned attitude over it, and may feel that it is a waste of time to talk about freedom and tradition when the economic structure of society is unsatisfactory. They may say that if there is another war, writers of the individualistic and liberalizing type, like myself and Mr. Aldous Huxley, will be swept away. I am sure that we shall be swept away, and I think furthermore that there may be another war. It seems to me that if nations keep on amassing armaments, they can no more help discharging their fifth than an animal, which keeps on eating, can stop from excreting. This being so, my job and the job of those who feel with me, is an interim job. We have just to go on tinkering as well as we can with old tools, until the crash comes. When the crash comes, nothing is any good. After it – if there is an after – the task of civilization will be carried on be people whose training has been different from my own.