Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Anti-War and Anti-Woman

My latest read is a French novel (recently out in a new English translation in one of those nice trade paperback editions but out by NYRB), Fear: A Novel of World War I by Gabriel Chevallier. Fear was one of the rash of war novels that came out around 1930. Twelve years after the end of the first war, and nine before the beginning of the second, a number of blistering anti-war novels and memoirs came out, in part a reaction to an understanding of the war which had, in the eyes of the veterans writing these novels, been too heroic and too nationalistic. These novels emphasized the futility and brutality of the war, and the estrangement which it caused between those who fought and those back home. Probably the most famous of these was Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, but within France, Chevallier's Fear, which came out the same year, caused its own significant stir.

There's a lot interesting going on in the novel, but the part that I read tonight which struck me takes places when the main character has been wounded and is spending time in a hospital. There he's well taken care of a a group of young nurses who take an interest in him, even though he's a private, because he is a student and self consciously intellectual.

There's a trope, certainly in English and American war novels that I've read, of women as being those who see through the hypocrisy of war and object to the waste of life. I hadn't thought about how used I am to this trope until I found Chevallier taking the opposite approach: in this scene he describes women as being the ones upholding the bourgeois and sentimental mentality which he thinks enables war.
Such are our most frequent topics of conversation. They lead us, inevitably, to define our notion of happiness, our ambitions, the goals of humanity, the summits of thought, even god and religion. We re-examine the old laws of humanity, laws created for interchangeable minds, for the whole flock of bleating minds. We discuss every article of her morality, the morality which has guided the endless procession of little souls down through the ages, indistinct little souls which twinkled like glow-worms in the darkness of the world, and were extinguished after one night of life. Today we offer our own feeble light, which isn't even enough for us.

Through my questions, I lead the nurses into traps of logic, and ensnare them in syllogisms that completely undermine their principles. They struggle like flies in a spider's web, but refuse to surrender to the mathematical rigour of reason. They are led by the sentiments that a long passage of generations, ruled by dogma, has incorporated into the very substance of their being -- sentiments that they have got from a line of women, housewives and mothers, who were alive in their early years and then crushed by domestic drudgery, worn out by the daily round, who crossed themselves with holy water to exorcise any thoughts they might have.

They are surprised to learn that duty, as they understand it, can be opposed to other duties, that there are seditious ideas vaster and more elevated than theirs, and which could be more beneficial to humanity.

Nonetheless, Mademoiselle Bergniol declared:

'No son of mine will be brought up to think like you.'

'I know that, mademoiselle. You could bear flaming torches as well as babies, but you'll only give your son the guttering candle that you were given; its wax is dripping and burning your fingers. It is candles like that which have set the world ablaze instead of illuminating it. Blind men's candles, and you can be sure taht tomorrow they'll relight the braziers that will consume the sons of your loins. And their pain will be nothing but ash, and at the moment their sacrifice is consummated, they will know this and will curse you. With your principles, if the occasion presents itself, then you in turn will be inhuman mothers.'
When Mademoiselle Bergniol has gone, Negre, who was following our conversation, shared his opinion:

'The delicate little dears! What they need is a hero in their beds, a real live hero with a bloody face, to make them squeal with pleasure!'

'They don't know...'

'They don't know anything, I agree. When all's said and done, women -- and I've known plenty of them -- are females, stupid and cruel. Behind all their airs and graces, they are just wombs. What will they have done during the war? They'll have egged on men to go and get their heads blown off. And the men who will have disembowelled lots of the enemy will receive their reward: the love of a charming, right-thinking young woman. What sweet little bitches!'

It's a toxic mixture, I suppose, of a couple different trends I've seen, reading a bit of French stuff from the late 19th and early 20th century. It's fairly common to see women presented as less capable of the intellectualism which is seen as quintessentially French. (There's a political analog to this in that France had a very early universal voting franchise for men, but was fairly late to give the vote to women.) There's also a tendency to portray women as the keepers of family and domestic culture, and since Chevallier is writing about his sense of alienation from mainstream culture, indeed from everyone who hasn't both experienced war in the trenches and reacted to it in the same way that he has, women are an obvious target since none of them have experienced the war as soldiers.


Jenny said...

It sounds like the manosphere.

Josiah Neeley said...

The Americanization of Emily takes a similar line.

Banshee said...

It sounds like the nurses were humoring the cranky little twit, whereas he persisted in being a jerk as hard as he could.

His "logic traps" were probably just fallacies and sophism, so they were probably rolling their eyes pretty darned hard.

But yeah, nurses are so sheltered, so far from the harsh realities of life, as they clean up peoples' bowels as well as their bowel movements. Sigh.

Enbrethiliel said...


The trope of a woman character who sees through the hypocrisy of war quicker than all the men is common enough. (I find it cliched, too, and I don't read as many war novels as you do.) But now I'm wondering how many war-set stories include a woman character who does the equivalent of handing out white feathers to men who don't seem to be taking up arms. The only one that comes to mind now is The Four Feathers.

Darwin said...


I don't think I'd run into this take before (I haven't read The Four Feathers.)