Wednesday, 5 May 2010

L'Entre-deux-guerres: Back in the wars

One of the funniest albeit most offensive French writers I know is Léon Daudet. Readers might have heard of Alphonse Daudet, author of Lettres de mon moulin and one of the founders of the myth of the sun-kissed, olive-groved, lavender-scented Provence. Alphonse himself hardly had clean hands; he was a fincancial supporter of Edouard Drumont, France's most notorious nineteenth-century anti-Semite, and died from complications caused by syphilis. Léon, his son, became famous as the journalist editor workhorse of the Action française movement. He was a fearsome bon viveur, quaffing sometimes as many as six bottles of wine in a day, and he was also a feared duellist. You'd be amazed at how popular duelling remained in the late nineteenth century in France; Georges Clémenceau himself was a crack shot with a pistol. Anyway, I digress.

Well, Daudet it was who gave French journal literature the concept of l'entre-deux-guerres. This is not the same as peacetime. Rather, any period that followed a war could legitimately be seen as a period of l'entre-deux-guerres: between two wars. Perhaps this was an especially French way of looking at the issue. Daudet was born in the 1860s in a France which was usually between two wars, not to mention two governments, at least until 1958. I don't remember all the nuances now, but the entre-deux-guerres mentality is not hard to fathom. It is a warning about optimism; it is a monitory note sounded while the John Lennons of this world drivel on about no possessions. Don't get comfortable, war isn't that far away, dixit Daudet. It's a useful lesson.

Well, please don't believe that I'm revelling in the idea, but I couldn't help coming to that conclusion during my short break last weekend. There are few benefits to the wave of prejudice and anger aimed at Pope Benedict XVI in the last few months, and at the Catholic Church in general. But one of them is that it has popped the myth that had sprung up around the 'men of good will'. Of course we greet all men as honest and upright; of course we take them where they are. But that discourse has for the last few decades promoted a kind of irenic pacifism, an unrealistic expectation concerning the benignity of the world at large. The problem with trying always to see the other man's point of view - like Trollope's Septimus Harding - is that sometimes we actually miss his point. The trouble is that sometimes the other man's point of view is not the sign of a benign attachment to what he thinks is truth, but the tool with which he is setting out to beat us. The trouble with trying always to see his point of view is that we fail to do him the honour of thinking him capable of ill will. The trouble is we forget we are in a war. Or at the very least between two wars.

I'm not complaining about that of course. I don't mind a bit of a fight. I suppose what I struggle with are the loitering Munich agreement makers. Them and the advance party of collaborationists. You know who they are! That said, all is not fair in love and war; Christ's victory is one of love, not force. Still, it's about time we stopped interpreting love as niceness. After all, niceness doesn't stop the l'entre-deux-guerres ending in another conflict. It only disarms the battle weary and makes them think that peacetime has come at last.

Now, where is my helmet of salvation? Perhaps I should be wearing it already. Is it any wonder I am thinking of this old socialist melody? As a colleague once said of Léon Daudet, sometimes the devil has the best tunes.

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