Monday, November 10, 2014

Speaking Silence to Power: Jean Guéhenno’s Diary of the Dark Years, 1940-1944

German soldiers enjoy ice creams in occupied Paris in 1940

Words matter. Words teach, extoll, blame and praise. At their very best and in the hands of those who know how to speak and write, they can open our minds to ideas and possibilities that we never dreamed of. Words are means by which we are alerted to the fact that the world can be other than it is, whether for better or for worse. And using words means assuming a formidable burden of responsibility. When we convince someone that things could be better, we are persuading them that how things are now is not right, or could be changed, encouraging our audience to think about how things could be better and by association what they might do to make that better world a reality. When we convince people that things could be worse, we encourage a certain satisfaction or acceptance of the way things are now, disinclining our audience to action by dangling before them the danger that any action they might take could have negative consequences.

This is not a new insight—philosophers and dramatists throughout the ages have been aware of the dangerous power of words. From Plato and Aristophanes to Leo Strauss and Salman Rushdie, novelists, poets, philosophers, and politicians have understood that words can catalyze and control. But what they have also known is that words are not just volatile for those who hear them—they can also be a danger to those who write them. Jean Guéhenno, the author of the diaries which make up Diary of the Dark Years, 1940-1944 (Oxford University Press, 2014) was very well aware of this fact, and of the fact that his diaries would have warranted a death sentence if they had been uncovered. But he also knew that there were other ways to write—perhaps light comedies with traditional plots to make people laugh, or even serious essays that didn't address issues of the day. And yet, drawing on his own sensibilities and the works of the great French philosophers who influenced him, Guéhenno came to the conclusion that to write as though there was no Occupation would be like aiding in an infection of a hallucination. The Germans needed French authors to publish, to create the illusion that they were allowing France to be France. Every word made the Occupation more normal, "not so bad." And so, Guéhenno did not write.

A well-respected teacher at the Paris lycées when the army of the Third Reich broke the Maginot Line, he watched in horror the development of Vichy collaboration with the Nazis and the occupation of Paris. He saw friends being carted away, Jewish colleagues losing their jobs, and the despair into which the people of Paris sunk under the weight of German rule, and (even worse) French complicity. Paris before the Occupation was, as Paris has been more often than not in her history, a center of intellectual life, full of not just political and philosophical thinkers but also of comedians, essayists, poets, and novelists. Some of these writers struggled to write and publish under the German gun—sometimes because of censorship, and sometimes because they fought to hint, in their written work, at a kind of resistance that they could not advocate publicly. Some leapt at the chance to acquire an audience by explicitly advocating cooperation with and support for Germany. But few made the choice of Guéhenno.

He went silent. One of the leading essayists of the Left in his day, he softly put down his pen as German tanks thundered down the Champs-Élysées. He did not write in the German-controlled French papers or literary magazines, he did not publish articles or books of a more academic nature. Against pressure from friends (some who wanted his support for the Occupation since things could after all always be worse, and some who believed that his writing on Rousseau and Montaigne would remind the French people of what it meant to be free) and pressure from German authorities, he remained silent. It was, he writes in The Dark Years, a painful decision. A writer, after all, writes, and a writer wants an audience no less than a singer.

There are at least three themes running through A Diary of the Dark Years: the daily life of Paris under occupation, wartime reflections on some of the French philosophers who wrote most persuasively about human freedom and the organization of society, and his struggle with silence and its implications. The account of daily life under the Occupation is well and emotively told, full of description and a kind of sympathy. For an amateur reader of diaries and a non-historian, the book is worthwhile purely for this reason, and I expect anyone who reads this book and has the fortune to visit Paris afterwards will look with greater appreciation on the scenes that Guéhenno paints. Notes by the English translator David Ball do an excellent job of supplementing references that the English non-historian might otherwise miss. But if you are looking for a simple description of Paris under the occupation, this book will challenge you. And it is worth noting that Ball’s translation itself is seamless and retains all of the humor and sadness of the French original.

Woven together with descriptions of the streets of Paris and anecdotes (simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny and deeply disturbing) about German bureaucracy and its incompetencies, are reflections on works of political philosophy and literature. In fact, almost as soon as Guéhenno decides to stop writing, he embarks on a major project, a comprehensive study of Rousseau. For Guéhenno, Rousseau’s trenchant critique of corruption in social and political life was applicable to his own situation. Surrounded by the literary flowers of France as they chose to display themselves before the Germans, Guéhenno recognized a form of the corruption that Rousseau warned against. He saw how, in the words of David A. Bell, “egoism is a form of subjection, since it enslaves us to the mercy of others.” It was primarily the sheer egoism of the literary class in France, Guéhenno fumes, that led them to support and collaborate with the Nazis—from Sartre, who at least offset his collaboration through his work for the Resistance, to what Guéhenno describes as the disgusting pandering of André Gide and Jean Cocteau. They had, he thought, forgotten that literature on its own is not freedom, that speech is not free speech when it is uttered by a puppet. And so, he fell silent.

Diarist and author Jean Guéhenno
Well, he was not, in fact, completely silent. Throughout the war Guéhenno continued to teach, albeit demoted from teaching small groups of advanced scholars to larger groups of younger students. The effect of this under the German Occupation was not simply to create more and perhaps less rewarding work for Guéhenno—it also ensured that he could be less certain of the students in class, and in fact the ghostly possibility of a classroom informer is one of the constant refrains in the work. He had a right to be afraid, because although he did not publish on Rousseau during the war, he taught Rousseau to his students, grateful to have “eagles in this class. But there are also young lions, young tigers, as well as a few less dangerous animals.[… A] cultivated man is a temperament tamed, but also a temperament that endures and resists […] so I enjoy taming these sincere young animals.” To continue to teach what he had always taught was a risk, and faced with students who no longer knew their rights or future, Guéhenno took a stand, telling them that “according to the law of my profession and out of simple honesty and faithfulness to myself, to Europe, and my country, I would speak to them as I had always spoken.” Teaching was not simply his vocation, of course—it was also what made him financially independent enough that he could survive the war without publishing, a privilege that he is very much aware of. But as much as he understands why some authors continued to publish, and thus to perpetuate the illusion that France under German control was still France, he never excused them from responsibility.

In some ways, this is the diary of how a war changes a man. Guéhenno became a strong pacifist after WWI and in fact we know that he did support the Munich Agreement that arguably led to strengthening of Hitler’s forces and intensified the destruction of the war. But as the Germans are asserting their hold on Paris and French leaders bend to the will of their new German masters, Guéhenno writes in his very first entry that “I will never believe that men are made for war. But I know they are not made for servitude, either.” In a situation when there was no way for his publications to do anything but serve the ends of the Occupiers and participate in the normalization of the German project, he put his pen down.

A Diary of the Dark Years is a remarkable work, one that will be a joy to fans of the diary genre, as well as students of French literature and history. But it also has an ethical lesson for us all, particularly in these days where it is so easy to write and send that writing out into the world: some tragedies can only be faced in silence. And sometimes (albeit rarely) silence can speak louder than words.

– Jessica L. Radin is a graduate student living and working in Toronto, where she teaches, works on her dissertation, and reads everything she can get her hands on.

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