Jean Guéhenno (Favorite Passages)

guehennoDiary of the Dark Years, 1940-1944: Collaboration, Resistance, and Daily Life in Occupied Paris, by Jean Guéhenno

Guéhenno bio

A selection from one of the best documents of occupation during wartime, and one of my favorite diaries of a writer:

[Guéhenno, on how he was a pacifist after WWI, but not after WWII started] I will never believe that men are made for war. But I know they are not made for servitude, either. xv

As he reads me, I want the reader to remember that hope never stopped running through these pages just as it ran through the streets of Paris: by hiding. Faces in the Metro were morose. But could we know what that seamstress was carrying in her handbag, between her lipstick and her compact? That ordinary-looking package a young student had set down on the floor next to her was a radio transmitter, lists of airdrops, mail from London, or weapons…. xxx

June 23, 1940 The bells for the ‘Ceasefire’ rang at midnight.
I had not realized that I loved my country so much. I am full of pain, anger, and shame. I’ve reached the point where I can’t talk to anyone I suspect of judging this event in a way that differs from mine. At the first word that reveals his spinelessness, his acceptance, I hate him. I feel a kind of physical horror, I move away. That coward, that craven, cannot belong to the same people as I do. At last I can understand all too well how civil wars can be born.
I am going to bury myself in silence. I can’t say anything I think out loud.
Already we’re settling into servitude. I heard a few of these noble citizens of Auvergne say: ‘Oh, well-they won’t take our mountains.’ Never have eggs, cherries, and strawberries sold so well. Few men really need freedom.
I will take refuge in my real country. My country, my France, is a France that cannot be invaded.” 3

September 20, 1940 In the famous Declaration of Rights, they had written, ‘Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.’ But they didn’t fool themselves. They proclaimed it against destiny, against nature, against all tyrannies. They knew what we were inevitably up against; they knew nature doesn’t care a whit about that justice which is only inside us. But if, at every moment, nature undoes what we do—liberty, equality, fraternity—that is all the more reason to redo it through our will, through our laws, and to set up human order against natural disorder. And be ready to pay the price for these pretensions. The precondition for the great life they dreamed of for themselves and all humanity was really—and this is not so easy—to keep themselves ready for life, but also to keep themselves ready for death. 23

September 27, 1940 I lived and thought inside a civilization (and much more than I thought). I am going to have to live and think among and against the barbarians. But the time has come, perhaps, for real work, for solitude, difficulty, and knowledge…. A rule for my work: useless, now, to think of undertaking some long book. It would be in order to lose myself in the task, and I wouldn’t have the heart for it. But I will have to take advantage of the slightest breath I have, working on little things, little essays, without letting myself be put off by their insignificance—work at all costs. 26

October 19, 1940 This tyranny is too absurd, and its absurdity is too obvious to too many people for it to last. 29

October 25, 1940 How I regret that I had such bad guidance when I was twenty. I had to find my away alone, and went where circumstances and my passions of the moment drove me. If I could begin my life again it is this world of myths, of sacred legends, of demons and gods that I would like to explore. I like to linger in this smoke and these flames. Or perhaps I would be a musician? Dreams don’t cost a thing. 30

December 23, 1940 But at twenty we think we have the task of changing the world, and when we discover how very imperfect it is, we think we’ve fallen into an ambush… Thus I remember being deeply shocked by the inadequacy of creation and vowing to correct it. I toiled for thirty years. I was hard, and full of anger. I looked at my contemporaries as so many enemies every time I found them inclined to accept a world in which all I could see was poverty and injustice. I brandished like a sword a few little ideas that I of course thought had come from the depths of my being, whereas they may merely have been prompted by the furies of the day. I strove to frighten people, as if that were a good way of persuading them. I found with all my strength and condemned as cowards those who did not commit themselves to the battle with the same heart. I wore out the best of myself in those battles. It was not enough; I almost forgot to live. (For life cannot merely be that vain brawl.) Perhaps pride as well as suffering persuaded me that I had a mission, that my life would only be justified by this battle, ‘my battle,’ Mein Kampf, as the fellow said—that king of madmen, that man typical of all today’s arrogant stupidity. I used up the years that were given me to love a few human beings kindly and modestly in fighting for the love of humanity. I lived badly, loved badly. I didn’t take the time for it….
I should make better use of this time of silence and prison. Sometimes I think I’ve fallen into the depths of despair. In the last analysis, what I have seen the past thirty years is a real enigma to me. How did the milk of human kindness turn into the blood of battles? How, out of love, have we ended up killing each other so conscientiously? 45

January 7, 1941 I don’t know if I’ve already noted by deepest reason for hope. It’s just that all this is too absurd. Something as absurd as this cannot possibly last. I seems to me I can read their embarrassment on the faces of the occupying forces. Every day, they are increasingly obliged to feel like foreigners. They don’t know what to do on the streets of Paris or whom to look at. They are sad and exiled. The jailor has become the prisoner. If he were sincere and could speak, he would apologize for being here. 51

January 17, 1941 Never have so many people in Europe known how to read and yet never have there been so many herd animals, so many sheep. In times gone by, a man who didn’t know how to read would save himself through his distrust. He knew he was ignorant, as Descartes did, and he was wary of anyone who spoke too well. He thought by himself—the only way to think. A man today who has learned to read, write, and count is utterly unprotected from his vanity. A degree certifies his knowledge. He believes in it, he’s proud of it. He reads the paper and listens to the radio like everyone else, with everyone else. He is abandoned to the tender mercies of advertising and propaganda. Something is true as soon as he has read it. The truth is in books? He doesn’t realize that the lie is in them, too.
I can see this confirmed more every day. Our teaching is far too much about teaching results. All too often, it fosters only the gift for pedantry and a docile memory. A hundred young people I talk to are far more knowledgeable in geometry than Euclid, but few of them are able to reflect that Euclid was a great geometer and that they are nothing. More than the results of the sciences, we should teach their history, reveal to young minds the nature of a moving, active intelligence and communicate the deep meaning of science: get them to understand that a scientist is not a man who knows but a man who seeks, crushed and exalted at the same time by the idea of all that he does not know. Thus we could produce independent, strong men and not vain, servile animals. 55

February 28, 1941 Bouche talked—admirably—of our helplessness. Despite all our good will, we cannot be useful. There simply are no conditions that make good, honest action possible: on the other hand, if we are not careful, we are sure to be used. War means the helplessness of men. It occurs precisely when the good will and rationality of men can no longer do anything to govern the relationships between them. 64

March 1, 1941 Yesterday in the Metro, a German soldier was looking through his guide to Paris. He finally asks an old worker. He’s looking for the Breguet-Sabin station. The old worker informs him, but does not succeed in making himself understood. Then, overflowing with sincere pity: ‘Poor guy. Man, are you dumb. What the hell are you doing here? It’s too complicated for you.’ 64

June 14, 1941 The conscience of our old Europe protests against all that we are being subjected to. I can go along with it if I say: there is no greater suffering than seeing a man fall away from that humble honor which should make him himself before God and man. I cannot stand to see men degraded. A man can only construct himself on his courage and through his courage. True order between men can only come from the influence of their dignity. I want to be able to look at all men as my brothers. But the man whose first look at me is to discover, cruelly, the weakness, need, or unhappiness which would guarantee my submission is no brother of mine. I can only love those who hope for my courage and my pride. 93

July 5, 1940 I remember those nights when I begged the beauty of the world to preserve what I loved, to grant it a few more years, while what I loved [Guéhenno’s wife] was suffering and dying at my side. Beauty of the world, I would say, save what is beautiful. Sweetness of the world, save what is sweet. But we are the ones who create helpful powers. They do not exist before our prayers. And what is beautiful dies, because we have not prayed enough in time.
Some mornings when I feel all my shortcomings more strongly, I dream of magic words that would open up the world to me, make me at ease among men and things, make of me a true living being, grateful and kind at last. But I still don’t know my prayer, and I’m afraid I will spend my life looking for it. 98

August 1, 1941 Jean Wahl is in prison. In prison, that little philosopher so sensitive to the cold, who unraveled the concepts of Kierkegaard and was afraid of drafts. But he has committed a great crime: he is Jewish. 104

August 21, 1941 I returned to the Vallee-aux-Loups, for I wanted to see. We follow a path along the vegetable garden, jump over a little wall, and cross a path. It is there. The occupying authority ‘used the terrain,’ a rather deep hollow n a sparsely wooded area. Bullets have slashed into the slope. People who have no doubt come from town are turning around a bunch of skinny tree stumps like the ones I saw twenty years ago in the Ardennes. We draw near. It is really there. The tree has been sawed off, ripped apart by bullets at the level of a man’s heart. It was used all last winter, four or five times every week. The earth is all trampled down at the foot of the tree. It has lost its bark. It is black from the blood that drenched it. It can no longer be used now. It was shot too many times. It ended up collapsing, too. The people from a nearby farm carried off the top of the trunk and the branches. I am absorbed in looking at it. In the thickness of the trunk a V—yes, a V—has been carved out with a knife. By whom? By the Germans, to sign their crime? Rather, no doubt, by a French boy, as a tender greeting of friendship and hope to the men who came to die there, and a promise to avenge them.
A few meters away, here’s the tree that’s in use today. It’s a beech tree. It is hardly wounded yet. Its bark has burst, however, and we can already see its white flesh with blood stains still at the same height, the height of a man’s heart. No trace of a bullet underneath. The firing squad has good aim.
I am full of suffering disgust, and horror. 109

September 3, 1941 The utilization of youth as a separate force is one of the new, singular traits of contemporary politics. Youth is rather proud of that separation. Today’s politicians would have youth believe that is it leading the world, when in reality they are merely exploiting its frenetic energy and its thoughtlessness. Totalitarian ideology is completely instinctive and naturally must make use of the fervor of youth. And there is something in it for a few young sharks, but the mass of young people have never been more skillfully deceived. They give themselves up completely for a black, brown, or blue shirt, and use their energy to make a world in which, when they grow older, they are ashamed to live. 112

September 17, 1941 Old Saint-Pol-Roux, the poet, was finishing out his life in Camaret, in the ‘manor’ with his daughter, Divine, a woman servant, and his dog. The manor is solitary, far from the village, on the edge of the heath in front of the sea, on a cliff. One evening a year ago, around ten o’clock, a German suddenly walked into the house on the pretext that Englishmen were hidden there. Nobody. They walked back to the living room. Then the soldier sent away the dog. Then, in front of the poet, his daughter, and the servant, all terrified, he laid two revolvers and a dagger on the table, saying he was expecting his buddies. An hour went by in terrible silence. Toward eleven o’clock, the old poet asked the soldier to leave. Then the soldier, with a revolver in each hand, demanded that everybody go down to the cellar. They went down. The soldier shot and Saint Pol was wounded; the servant who wanted to protect Divine was killed. As Divine was running away, the soldier shot again and she collapsed, with a broken leg. Then he dragged her into the living room and raped her. The dog, who came in through a window of the living room, chased him away. Divine wandered over the heath, where she was found in the morning, unconscious.
Since then, old Saint Pol has died of sorrow. Poor Divine was taken in by the dead servant’s sister. She would like not to remember. She walks on crutches. She can’t do anything, not even read.
To be fair, let us note that the soldier was executed. Divine recognized him in the midst of a line-up they made for her. He confessed right away. He had seen Divine swimming at the bottom of the cliff. So… The occupying authorities, decidedly considerate, gave Divine and the old poet the privilege of watching the execution. After which she occupied the ‘manor.’ 113

October 20, 1941 I have lived so grossly, paying so little attention to other people’s souls. It seems to me that I can see what determines the principle of my grossness… I had no modesty in myself and had a hard time imagining it in others. I always revealed everything I was, fairly ready to make a rule of that indecent, naïve frankness. I did not sufficiently reflect on the fact that there are more discreet souls, wrapped in modesty as in a veil, and sometimes I must have been insufficiently careful not to offend them. I thought other people were only as I saw them. Idiot! Will I still have the time to live with a little delicacy? 120

November 12, 1941 Nothing is more intolerable than a mind which always postulates that all education can only have the goal of justifying its own prejudices. And what an insult to Pascal, using him only to justify one’s own conformism, one’s habits, one’s flabby, earthy religion. They cut everything down to their size. And perhaps in the end what they hate the most, in my way of talking about it, is the care I take to show what his faith really was: terribly hard and demanding. 128

November 25, 1941 It is no doubt rather remarkable that attacks on individualism are almost always the work of pretentious egoists who long for tyranny. They have doubts only about other people’s ego, not their own. They preach so well and advise us so eloquently to lose ourselves in the state or the Party only in order to make sure they have an easier reign. 129

December 3, 1941 The history of these last two centuries has led us to give the man of letters credit that he does not deserve. He is, most often, an entertainer among other entertainers. And to assure his welcome, like any other salaried employee, he sometimes postures before the boss….
God deserves his existence to the confusion of the human mind. This morning, that struck me as glaringly obvious as I listened to young people talking about their faith. They were celebrating or denying God with the same frenzy. But aside from the fact that each of them would have been quite hard put to define him if asked, you couldn’t have found two of them with the same definition. God is the noblest of our vague ideas. The only way of believing in him seems to be not to wonder too much about what he is. He may be everything we lack but we lack so many things… Rarely have I better understood the revolutionary character of clear, distinct ideas than when I was listening to them ramble on. 132

January 27, 1942 I have ample proof, unfortunately, that the teaching of literature in the Sorbonne and the Universities has become pathetic. The abuse of history, of the footnotes of history, has destroyed all critical sense and taste. I know a professor who spent a whole year giving a commentary on Lamartine’s Le Lac. He traced the history of a little pink or blue notebook in which Lamartine had scrawled a few stanzas of his poem. He related what hands it passed through, he counted the pages, analyzed them… That required several lectures. When the last one came around, neither he nor his students had read the poem yet. To these so-called historians, it seems that all the artists of the past suffered, wrote, and lived only to provide matter for a few bibliographical index cards. They have fused research with education. We must have researchers. But ‘researchers’ are not professors. Let the researchers do research and the professors teach. They are two distinct functions…. But in the best cases we train bookworms; from the age of twenty on, we accustom them to remain inside one drawer of index cards, we train them to compile notes and work their way through it. We cultivate petty vanity in them. For them, knowledge will always consist in adding a card to their file, like a gram to a kilo. Knowledge will distract them from their life, which it should rather enrich and govern. Their curiosity about small things will dispense them from being curious about great ones. Without critical sense, without taste, without ardor, mediocre researchers and worse teachers, they can only maintain our society of quantity in its vain illusion of being a civilization. 142

May 4, 1942 We are in that cesspool Bernanos was talking about. The worst is that we manage to live in it. Toward the end of a meager meal, we turn the dial on the radio. We calmly listen to them say that fifty-five hostages were shot in Lille, two divisions were exterminated in Russia, Malta has just undergone its 2,000th bombing, etc…. Then we savor that drop of wine had had been saving for the end of the dinner, we keep it in our mouths for a long time, dreaming of wine-cellars and barrels; finally we make up our minds to swallow it. And then we talk of the war that’s coming, inevitably—civil war—and of this one and that one, too, who will have to be killed so they won’t kill us. We walk over to the window. The first iris has opened in the garden…
I am ashamed of this monstrous apathy. Have I forgotten? I know, however. I saw men die. Could I no longer feel anything of that immense pity I was filled with at the age of twenty-five? Have these past twenty-five years worn away all our humanity? 154

May 16, 1942 But won’t this propaganda, this mechanism, end up by defeating itself? Don’t German women shudder every time they hear that frenetic music once again? Wotan is calling: ‘I need your sons! Give them to me. What’s that one doing, huddled in your skirts, woman of Germany? Come on, hurry up! Kerch has been taken, but I have a spot for him near Moscow. And that one? And that one? I want all of them! Russia is vast. There is room for many, many dead. 157

June 11, 1942 This diary is not at all what I would like it to be. It is too external. I don’t use it enough for inner prayer, to construct myself…. Now Caliban needs to talk like a new man, the new lawgiver. A great simple heart could do it. But I lost myself in books. I was thick as thieves with them: I read, read endlessly, and now feel only despair at my ignorance. Sometimes the hunger for reading takes hold of me. Last night it was for the sequences and prose of the liturgy… But I am well aware that I will die starving. 160

July 17, 1942 I went to a little cemetery [where Guéhenno’s wife is buried] scorched by the sun. For a long time, L… [Guéhenno’s daughter Louisette] and I sat there in the shade of a cypress, without talking. Nothing but a bug slab of granite burning in my mouth, with lizards running on it and the light dancing, and all around the same eternal countryside, the great country sparkling and silent, and so absolutely identical to with it was two years ago when we left it and nine years ago when J… left it [Guéhenno’s wife Jeanne, who died in 1933], when we closed her under that stone. What difference between her and us? We returned—why shouldn’t she? What does it mean to be dead? To be absent from certain things, but present for others, perhaps, as we ourselves had been for two years. Where is she? 165

July 19, 1942 [Guéhenno on Goethe’s preface to his Autobiography] And that same preface gives us a glimpse of a remarkably noble sense of the function of the writer. No desire to show off, no ostentation, no vanity. He only tells his life to help those who trusted him to better understand his work, to “contribute in this way to the education of those who were educated with him in the past, and according to him.” He knows he is responsible. He was a man whom others took for a model. It’s the least he can do to let them know him exactly, to follow him still, or to stop doing so if they think it right. He has no need to interest them in him as if he were a magnificent monster. He will not cater to their vain, low curiosity. He is not expecting them to worship him. He is not preparing a chapel for himself: his memoirs, like his other books, have no other object than to offer his readers, once more, the opportunity of taking the measure of a man, and their own measure. 166

August 15, 1942 I can regret some of my writings. I had too much confidence in men and I did not sufficiently take account of their skill in debasing everything, in pulling everything one says down to their own level. 170

August 15, 1942 In fact, I grieved for the dead in victory; I found the pride of the victors intolerable. I never accepted the idea of being proud of taking part in an action where you were following orders, even despite yourself. I have never had anything but disgust for the boasting of veterans, the little benefits they draw from their title. One may have gone to war, but one cannot boast of it. 171

September 8, 1942 My very diligence prevented me from recognizing the wonderful variety of life, from seizing all the occasions life offers; and it prevented me from acting generously, liberally, according to the circumstances. I considered only myself and did only those little things that the rule I had imposed on myself commanded. A deeper, more natural fidelity would have given me a transformational vision of the world. But the fear of betraying my idea locked me inside myself as in a prison. I brought everything back to my little rule, to my little problems. A stronger heart, less mistrustful of itself, would have shone forth far more. Perhaps I have been faithful to myself alone, not to an idea, not to Caliban. Truth must be served as truth, that is, as the common good, and not as one’s own truth—that is, as the possession of one person. 174

October 9, 1943 I haven’t gone out these last, infinitely dreary days. I walk through the streets without curiosity, wondering why I should keep on living. Sleeping is my only pleasure: it means not living. The wonderful thing is that I can always sleep—and without dreaming, like an animal. 218

October 10, 1943 I leafed through the notebooks that have made up this diary for four years, and it’s a rather depressing ordeal, just right for stripping me of all illusions about the unity of a human being, and my being. So many contradictions! How events and circumstances bowl us over and drive us this way or that! How our kingdom is of this world, whether we like it or not! And how much we are subjected to the confusion of this kingdom!
Nonetheless, I will continue this diary. May it help me to give myself a bit of internal order. Or let it bear witness to my mistakes. 218

December 3, 1943 But the real Revolution is nothing but the constancy of our love. It throws everything into question all the time, because everything can be perverted and degraded at any time. If we think about it, it really has no object except to maintain and save everything—everything, that is, man—and his freedom, which is nothing but his honor and the means of his progress. 231

May 30, 1944 What bothers me is that the author [Sartre’s No Exit] never adheres to what he says; the horrors he depicts are never quite horrible because he is not horrified himself. At no point was I moved. Just literature…. I am disgusted by the falsely cynical, provocative ravings of irresponsible people. 254

August 22, 1944 Germans tanks were patrolling. As I was going to cross Boulevard Sebastopol, one of them fired thirty-odd meters ahead of me, decapitating a woman and ripping a man’s stomach open. In the little streets fifty meters from there, as strange as it seems, people were sitting in their doorways chatting. Curiosity and joy are strongest. 271


On Literature, Writers, Writing, Collaboration:

[On choosing to not publish anything during the war years] All you will find here is the journal of our common miseries. You will not find the unknown story of any event or the explanation of any secret intrigue. The witness was not privy to the secret of the gods, thank heaven. But you won’t find any exceptional tragedy or suffering related here, either. Our French masters (so to speak) and our foreign ones did not honor him with any particular offense. Nor did he merit it. He merely had a few little problems. He lived through these four years like everybody else, any way he could, champing at the bit in the frightful silence imposed on everybody. One of his professions was writing, but he remained silent. He was lucky enough not to be obliged to write for a living. He earned his living from another profession. He had given up the idea of any open publication. He felt that in a time when you had to keep quiet about the one thing you wanted to shout out loud, if you weren’t absolutely obliged to ‘appear’ because of the need to earn a living, the least you could do was hide—and also be quiet about everything else that no longer had any importance, or hardly any. Since we were in prison, we had to live like prisoners and at least hold on to a prisoner’s honor: fully appreciate our servitude, the better to find an intense, living freedom inside ourselves. xxviii

November 30, 1940 [Criticizing those writers who agreed to appear in Nazi sponsored/censored magazines] The man-of-letters species is not one of the greatest species in the human race. The man of letters is unable to live out of public view for any length of time; he would sell his soul to see his name ‘appear.’ A few months of silence, of disappearance, have pushed him to the limit. He can’t stand it anymore. All he quibbles about now is the size or font of the characters that will print his name, or his place in the table of contents. Of course he’s chockfull of edifying reasons: ‘French literature must go on,’ he says. He thinks he is French literature and French thought, and they would die without him.
Why keep on writing? It is hardly possible to doubt the absurdity of exercising a profession of such a personal nature any longer. These times call us back to modesty. Men seek the new conditions of life for their species. Poor species. Flabbergasted by its discovering, lost on earth because it has transformed the planet, a dupe of its own creations. We are still one of those pleasure-loving, greedy apes who, when they were surprised by the ice age which threatened to kill them, survived through strenuous efforts and became men. What will we become this time? No doubt what is happening does not concern the individual conscience very much, and only makes the human pipe dream seem more fantastic—that pretension each of us has of existing by himself and being the magical, predestined mirror in which the vague universe finds its order and beauty.

July 26, 1941 I can only write if I can imagine with some precision who will read me, just as I need to see the eyes of the person I’m talking to when I speak. Otherwise my thought wanders without an object. 102

July 31, 1941 Conversation with Blanzat. He talks magnificently to me about what our writings should now be, when we write about France: a great simple, natural cry, without dialectic, without “literature.” Write and speak like a man, like anybody at all, forget you’re an intellectual. But apparently ever since Gide, no French writer has been able to forget it.” 103

June 20, 1942 [Guéhenno’s sudden inspiration to write a book on Rousseau and the nineteenth century] I felt more keenly than ever what I should never do: this morning, I even doubt whether I should continue to write that long life of Rousseau. I’m afraid in the end it will seem no more than a work of scholarship. They’ll think I merely wanted to put anecdotes in order, classify events and documents. Simple notes on Rousseau would perhaps be better, notes where one could feel that I am in quest of a soul. All I want to do, if I can, is to recognize a man in all his truth—a man to whom I feel infinitely close, whom I neither love nor hate, but admire; and for whom I feel sorry. 161-2

October 5, 1942 A young poet gave me the poems he wrote these past two years, 1941-42. This young poet, lost in old fables which speak to him only of himself, thinks he’s Adonis or Narcissus. For two years he had not seen a face other than his own or heard a complaint other than his own. Oh, the deaf, blind, stupid, pitiless young! I fear the events themselves have burnt all the bridges between them and us. They are blasé, disappointed before they have really lived, full of sleep, and when they wake up, I think, rather cynical. In their eyes, we’re just silly to have believed so strongly in justice and freedom. How will they even know what these words mean? 177

[Guéhenno writing on one of Andrew Gide’s characters, an aesthete only worried about himself, and other young writers who are] utterly disconcerted and has no idea what to do in a world full of distress…. He is devouring himself with a small noise: the noise of a mouse in a little box…. Alone, as you believe yourself to be. But one is never alone. The idea of our solitude is an utterly abstract idea, and a rather vain one, perhaps. Real solitude, the solitude people suffer from, is itself only a product of our society, the result of its disorder…. But that solitude is nothing but a misfortune. There is no reason to be proud of it and one should wish to get over it. 207-8

[Guéhenno on “art for art’s sake”:] A silly invention of decadence, of an era when artists, along with all other men, lost the sense of the universal and became makers of trinkets, specialists in a little profession, and brought everything down to that level. Great poets never posed such questions…. A poet is not a specialist. Everything is his domain. He wants to say everything, every time. 214