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What I especially love . . . is this intimate alliance—which for me makes the true man—of pessimism of the intelligence, which penetrates every illusion, and optimism of the will. It is this natural bravery that is the flower of a good people, which "does not need to hope to undertake and to succeed to persevere," but which lives in struggle over and above suffering, doubt, and the blasts of nothingness because his fiery life is the negation of death. And because his doubt itself, the French "What do I know?" becomes the weapon of hope, barring the road to discouragement and saying to his dreams of action and revolution: "Why not?"
Romain Rolland, review of R. Lefebvre's The Sacrifice of Abraham

When Britain and France declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, Romain Rolland was seventy-three years old. He lived in Vézelay and occasionally traveled to his Left Bank apartment on 89, boulevard du Montparnasse to conduct literary business or to consult with a physician about his failing health. The "phony war" in France lasted six weeks, from 10 May until 25 June 1940. France's defeat and the fall of the Third Republic were followed by Nazi occupation and the "phony regime" of Vichy France, in which Pétain and his entourage collaborated with the German fascists and took their revenge on the French Popular Front. Consistent with his mature intellectual politics of the 1930s, Romain Rolland remained unalterably antifascist. He regarded the era as reflecting "the tidal wave threat of the barbarous tyranny of Hitler's Third Reich."[1]

His final years were marked by chronic illnesses of the heart, lungs, intestines, and eyes. Problems of everyday life were exacerbated by difficulties in walking and breathing, lack of food, anxieties about the sales of his books, intellectual isolation, and separation from friends and acquaintances. Many of his closest colleagues


did not survive the Second World War. In 1942, he learned of the suicide of his Viennese translator and biographer, Stefan Zweig, who was unable to tolerate the horrors of exile, total war, and the shattering of the Europe of his youth. Romain Rolland and his wife were deeply concerned about the safety of his Russian stepson, Serge Koudachef, who was fighting in the Russian Army, and who was later killed in action.[2] Living in solitude in Occupied France severely taxed the elderly writer's inner resources. It appeared that his idealism had been useless, that the ensemble of his campaigns for humanitarian, political, and cultural causes had failed miserably. Yet he remained cautiously optimistic about his ideals and about the future.

Well-meaning friends urged him to leave France and seek shelter in the United States. He felt too old and disabled, and too culturally distant from America, to uproot himself. As his economic situation worsened, he anticipated royalties from American translations of his Memoirs and his multivolume Beethoven . Undoubtedly, his life was extended by the tireless aid and tenderness of his wife, Marie Romain Rolland, who nursed him, kept visitors and informers away, and provided invaluable administrative and secretarial services to him. Blurring the line between personal and political and social history, he characterized the era of Vichy France as the "weary, dark, somber years of moral oppression and illness."[3]

Unable to participate in meaningful resistance, he restricted his activities to literary creation. As in other tormented periods of his life, writing became a source of consolation and revitalization. Rather than be overwhelmed by the bigotry, conservatism, and mindless clerical nationalism of Vichy France, he worked, retaining a "serene soul and clear mind."[4] Because the present was so dreadful, he looked back to the past, including the period of his own intellectual apprenticeship, taking courage from the moral stature of his earliest cultural heroes. During this period, he completed the final volumes of his massive Beethoven . In 1943, he finished both The Ninth Symphony and The Last Quartets .[5] No better contrast could be made between the two Germanys: Hitler's cruel vision of Aryan purity and global conquest against Beethoven's vision of fraternity and creative joy. Reflecting on Beethoven's last years and hearing his glorious music were an escape from the bleak conditions of Occupied France. The biography was an extended meditation on musical


genius and on the historical and psychological components of the composer's imagination. It explored the strength of will that enabled Beethoven to overcome personal obstacles to produce sublime, life-affirming works of art. Romain Rolland managed to conclude his oeuvre with a literary masterpiece, a two-volume biography of Charles Péguy, in whose independent journal he had published his earliest engaged writing at the beginning of the century. Péguy contained much autobiographical data, but it was, above all, a "moral portrait" underscoring the subject's "independent faith and passion for freedom."[6]

Romain Rolland's age and infirmities kept him from active opposition to the Nazis and the Vichy government, but he was in solidarity with the French Resistance movement. Given his public political commitments in the 1930s, Vichy France authorities considered him dangerous. They labeled him, pejoratively, an "antifascist." The Vichy police monitored his house, opened his correspondence, spread rumors, and assembled data in a classified dossier. The harmless old man of French letters was a ready target for police intrusion, even for persecution. The gendarmerie was located across the street from his residence, and surveillance was relatively easy. Marie Romain Rolland feared that his arrest or assassination was a distinct possibility. Not until influential Parisian friends interceded did the zealous Vichyite subprefect back off from petty but potentially injurious harassment. Jean-Christophe was placed on the index of books banned by Vichy's state secretary of public instruction in February 1941.[7] It was alleged to corrupt French adolescents. An abridged version was removed from the educational syllabus in the French national school system. Attentive to the cultural politics of repressive states, Romain Rolland held Vichy authorities accountable for this act of censorship and intellectual terrorism: "It is its fashion of practicing the politics of collaboration."[8]

He wrote letters to a young member of the French Resistance, Elie Walach, a Jew born in Poland in 1921, who had emigrated to France in 1929 and been recruited into the communist Resistance. Walach's early membership was exceptional. The majority of French communists became active in the Resistance only after June 1941, following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. For the French writer, Walach represented the "ardor and spontaneity" of the antifascist Resistance movement. Walach joined the Resistance on 1 March 1940 and


was captured by Vichy authorities on 27 February 1941. He was imprisoned, interrogated, and tortured for months without disclosing information; he was finally murdered on 27 July 1941.[9]

Romain Rolland's first letter to Walach articulated their shared, uncompromising antifascist sentiments. He did not, however, exaggerate the impact of intellectual opposition in these extreme circumstances. Such claims would have been grandiose and disrespectful of the concrete dangers of those actively resisting, whose lives were on the line. He recognized the need for a collective, military assault on fascism:

Those of us [alive] today when the word cannot be of significance . . . can only be brave and patient and lead in common the combat against Hitlerism, until it is vanquished. For if it is not, all that we love and respect will perish: our France, our freedoms, and our great hopes. Hitler must be vanquished.[10]

Romain Rolland predicted that world war and Vichy France's Catholic and nationalistic bigotry, including its horrific policies toward Jews, workers, and intellectuals, would be transient phenomena. Police states run by narrow-minded, reactionary oligarchies were destined for short historical duration. He persisted in believing that hatred among people and nations could be overcome and that the eventual reconciliation of humanity might still occur. Fascism had to be obliterated for that hope to germinate. He would neither live to see these ideals realized nor witness a regenerated France forge the "victory of the human spirit" out of the ruins of the Occupation.[11]

He was inspired by the young, activist intellectuals of the French Resistance, particularly those steeled in the underground. Their words and deeds eloquently testified to a minority's will to fight degradation. This new breed of French intellectual might continue the tradition of intellectual engagement he had participated in, legitimized, indeed partly invented. He clearly felt that his style of commitment, fusing morality and politics, was being passed on to the generation of the Resistance, which gradually took on the form and content of politicized engagement and was a powerful impetus toward social and cultural renewal: "And in the clandestine literature and in the liberated press, one has already heard great voices—young and moving, for the most part. I have trust."[12]


In August 1944, Paris was liberated and the end of European hostilities seemed near. Charles de Gaulle received a kind of popular coronation in Paris on 26 August 1944. As an epilogue to a career of intellectual politics, Romain Rolland's last article warmly endorsed the engaged writers emerging historically from the Resistance. His commemoration of intellectuals killed by the German Occupation or by French collaboration was read in his absence at the Sorbonne on 9 December 1944. He established a continuity between the left-wing and antifascist politics of the 1930s and the Resistance politics of the early 1940s. The moral and political awakening among the intellectual youth of France in the period between the two wars reached its climax during the Occupation. Resistance intellectuals came from diverse classes, regions, and political, religious, and ideological backgrounds. Their common denominators were purity, generosity, a capacity for sacrifice, and above all an antifascist passion. This new generation of insurgents and their heirs represented France's profound mission in the world, namely, to overcome passivity in fighting to defend human freedom: "Each of the young deaths has affirmed the life and victory of France and Freedom."[13]

Romain Rolland last appeared in public at the Russian Embassy in Paris on 7 November 1944. He expressed skepticism about having accomplished his role as an engaged writer. These self-doubts were perhaps connected to the Russian setting, where he was obligated to maintain his tact, or to his bad conscience for not having spoken out about deformations in Soviet communism during the late 1930s. His theme on that occasion in 1944 was the writer, self-disclosure, and the connection to the reader: a characteristic Rollandist preoccupation and one of the central problems in the conception of engaged literature. Respecting his audience's need for hope, he admitted that he had remained silent at various "moments," despite reflection on and knowledge of the issues: "Even in his Diary, even in his Memoirs, there are things he must be silent on. . . . A writer cannot expose himself completely. . . . And yet I am one of those who will have confided the most."[14]

Romain Rolland died in Vézelay on 30 December 1944. He was seventy-nine years old. One last episode of impassioned debate surrounded him. He was the first celebrated man of French letters to die after France's liberation. The choice of a final resting place


became a battle among leading Parisian writers; intellectual politics extended to burial. Several distinguished writers launched a journalistic campaign to have his ashes transferred to the Panthéon. Aragon, among others, vociferously rallied communist and leftwing opinion. The cry was "Romain Rolland au Panthéon!" He deserved this honor, Aragon asserted, because he was "the symbol of the Sacred Union against Fascism and for France ." As the left lobbied for this official recognition by the French state, they were answered by the center and the post-1945 new right. Jérôme Tharaud, writing in Le Figaro , demanded that Péguy's ashes be transferred to the Panthéon alongside Romain Rolland's. (No mention was made of the fact that Péguy died in 1914.) Tharaud's desire, read between the lines, was to balance Romain Rolland's internationalism, pacifism, cosmopolitanism, antifascism, and fellow traveling with Péguy's Catholicism, his reassuring mysticism, and his amorous feelings for France. To complicate matters further, and perhaps to ensure a stalemate, the Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel and the Gaullist Maurice Schumann insisted that Henri Bergson, who had died in 1941, also belonged in the Panthéon. They maintained that the ashes of two such fin de siècle vitalists as Romain Rolland and Péguy should not be placed there without those of the author of Creative Evolution .[15]

The public struggle over Romain Rolland's corpse was a signal of the beginning of the post—World War II realignment in France and the emergence of Cold War politics. The episode marked the end of a temporary period of Resistance unity, which stemmed from opposition to the common enemy. Once that enemy disappeared, the death of an eminent but controversial writer unleashed new ideological battles in the context of French intellectual politics.

Appropriately, Romain Rolland's posthumous testament effectively ended the debate: his wish was to be buried quietly, nonreligiously, and privately in Burgundy, next to the graves of his parents in Clamecy.[16]

Romain Rolland can be viewed as the key transitional figure in the history of engaged French intellectuals. His mature life as a writer practically spanned the time between Zola's Dreyfusard "J'accuse"


(1898) and Sartre's existential formulations about engagement in What Is Literature? (1947). He lived through and reflected on every major crisis of the Third Republic. He witnessed France's decline from a global to a peripheral power. In that fifty-year period, he not only named his form of activism "engagement" but also entered into periodic dialogue with other intellectuals about it. He personally laid the foundation for intellectual engagement, its possibilities, and its contradictions. Both his adventures with commitment and his self-criticism legitimized the committed style. His life and work demonstrated that twentieth-century writers need not retreat from political reality or ideological involvements.

Methodologically, I have situated Romain Rolland's intellectual politics by placing his writings into their proper historical framework. He belonged to an era quite unlike our own, although his cultural and political interrogations are pertinent. All of his work questioned what it meant to be an intellectual. He trafficked in ideas, spoke out on controversial issues, and allowed himself to be transformed by contemporary history. Romain Rolland belonged to the nineteenth century in that he aspired to be an exemplary intellectual, maintaining an elevated notion of intellectual responsibility. He lived in the present but was profoundly rooted in the culture and politics of the past. He developed a taste for puncturing hypocrisy, unmasking lies, and decoding mystifications. False idealism always represented to him the most dangerous cultural force. He demonstrated an equal taste for cultural preservation and affirmation. He regarded himself as a fixed point for others to follow, but always with humility and with the notion that he was continually in process, evolving and rethinking his earlier positions. This book has mapped out an itinerary of distinctly twentieth-century engaged stands, not dramatic conversions without mediations. In this sense, engagement modified engagement: one commitment in context became a frame of reference and a springboard for advance or regression. There were definite periods of partial to total disengagement and introspection. Disengagement was also part of the dialectic.

Romain Rolland assumed a prophetic voice because he intuited patterns in human behavior and understood the tragedy of historical repetition. If history repeated itself without human knowledge, people would never gain mastery over their own lives. He realized most of his contemporaries were emotionally and intellectually un-


prepared to hear his message. He was a moralist who concerned himself with universal issues, who linked a particular abuse to all-encompassing principles; one example of cruelty reverberated for all of humanity. He advanced a totalizing but tragic view of the individual in society based on the novelist's technique of critical realism. His oceanic sensibility allowed him to feel an intimate contact with other human beings who struggled. At moments, he felt indissolubly merged with them into a larger whole. The oceanic feeling existed alongside his analytical faculties. It enabled him to transcend the boundaries of language, ethnicity, history, and culture. The oceanic sense was never anti-intellectual, but it distrusted critical intelligence stripped of visceral emotions, devoid of compassionate understanding for human suffering.

Romain Rolland aspired to express his moral views with courage, regardless of the receptivity of his audience. Rarely shrill, often polemical, but always courteous, he occasionally became sentimental and self-righteous about his own ethical stance. Yet he fully realized the limitations of conscience in a field dominated by political, economic, social, or military power. If appeals to conscience were futile, if articulating the grievances of history's victims meant defending lost causes, he persisted nevertheless with the conviction that potential openings could be discovered among those in power or those who were destined to come to power. Protest and subsequent politicized resistance might make the masters of power ill at ease.

There was a dialectic of intellectual engagement in his career, summed up elegantly in the phrase "Pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will." In positing a necessary tension between pessimism and optimism, intelligence and will, thinking and revolution, he sharply distinguished the committed writer from his disengaged contemporaries. The loss of tension unbalanced the writer's tenuous situation at the interface of politics and culture, where power relations and cultural production intersected and critical analysis was always difficult. Pessimism of the intelligence meant being able to see glaring, as well as subterranean, sources of misery and to uncover those relationships in the present that worked against human dignity and fulfillment.

Optimism of the will was a leap into action that enabled the engaged writer to struggle for hopeless causes and to resist co-


optation and the status with which modern societies rewarded illustrious writers. It affirmed renewal even in the face of chaos and devastation. In Romain Rolland's case, it may have involved a willful rechanneling of aggressive energies into culturally sanctioned modes of behavior.

The dialectic "Pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will" implicitly acknowledged every person's right to choose to be an intellectual. An intellectual life was open to the possibilities of reflection and self-reflection. It granted the individual an active and critical connection to the community. To be an engaged intellectual, as Sartre brilliantly formulated it, was to be aware that one was already engaged, that one's life was contemporaneous by necessity. Engagement encouraged intellectuals to use their knowledge, historical consciousness, imagination, and emotion to make responsible choices in the present, as well as to pass on a cultural legacy.

Romain Rolland was both an exponent and practitioner of littérature engagée . He applied it experimentally in novels, plays, biographies, essays, journalistic pieces, protests, appeals, manifestos, and also in his private correspondence and diaries. Writing was a means of igniting his audience to create a society that would guarantee human rights without the alienating aspects of class, caste, nationalism, militarism, or privilege. No society was truly free unless esprit , that untranslatable French noun meaning mind, spirit, soul, wit, and sensibility, was expressed by every individual in a spontaneous and self-determining manner. The engaged writer viewed reflection as a form of action. Those who reflected were enjoined to revise their analyses in the light of changing circumstances. Engaged writers took full responsibility for their writings and their actions: no alibis, no excuses, no self-deception. The reciprocity of the writer and reader was the paradigm for radical social change and authentic dialogue. The engaged intellectual understood the implicit power of words to inspire and transform readers. Words informed, relaxed, and consoled, while tapping into the deepest strivings of the human soul. Engaged writings were mediations, transferring energy between texts and audience.

Once the engaged writer became more involved in political activity, writing took on new parameters and encountered new limitations. Romain Rolland was at times confronted with impossible


choices. His commitment was simultaneously to social revolution and to democratic freedoms, including intellectual independence. In revolutionary crises, as the Soviet Union illustrated in the late 1930s, it was often impossible to salvage both the socialist revolution and the guarantee of individual human rights. Nothing he could say or do would shift the momentum of the revolution's slide toward tyranny. This dilemma forced him to maintain his sympathies for socialist revolution while remaining outside the French Communist Party, the Communist International, and all other leftwing political parties and social movements.

In his reflections on the world wars, social revolutions, counter-revolutions and the massive social and economic dislocations of his era, Romain Rolland developed a new intellectual style, formulating a language of engagement that combined the negative and the positive. The negative emphasized lucidity, the writer's need to be analytical and in sharp antagonism to anti-intellectual, antiprogressive, and antidemocratic forces. He negated political and cultural values that denied the oppressed an opportunity to develop their mental and emotional lives. Engagement was a powerful way of rebelling against the embourgeoisement, bureaucratization, and professionalization of French intellectual life. He also criticized those aspects of socialist and Marxist orthodoxy that stifled the imagination, worked against dialogue, and trampled on human rights. The engaged writer reflected on himself while contesting specific grievances within the larger framework. One single abuse, one known injustice, resonated for all people. The key unit of discourse was always humanity. The positive was expressed as a sensation of fusion, of the potent mutuality and freedom implicit in human contact. Romain Rolland described this deep sense of oneness with the environment and with other individuals as "oceanic." Oceanic optimism gave him a sense of purpose and meaning, even in defeat, and reminded him, particularly in adverse circumstances, that people could make and comprehend their own history.

The writer's existence in the twentieth century was anomalous. Writers consumed while not producing. No price could be placed on them, no value assigned to their activities. But the engaged writer was not simply an articulate impostor on the stage of history. Romain Rolland's tragic vision transcended static nineteenth-century values such as honor, genius, virtue, and courage. He


could synthesize in a single passage the idealism of William of Orange, the doubts of Montaigne, and the activist fervor of the French Revolution. As an engaged writer, he kept toleration, self-reflexive knowledge, and the will to change the world in dialectical relation to one another. "Pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will" was his legacy to this century. That dialectical blend of negative and positive, realism and idealism, self-knowledge and self-affirmation, linked to a mature historical sense of the possibilities of a rationally organized social community, allows the writer to act, to mediate, to contest, and to dream all at the same time.


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