11-1 literature

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

11.1 (Winter 2011)




courtesy of artrenewal.org


Men of Less Will Than Whimsy: The Moral Non-Sequitur Within Jules Romains’s Epic Portrait of Europe (Part One)

John R. Harris

     The following essay is intended to apply the ideas which I set forth in the two previous issues of this journal.  Specifically, I shall use what I call narrative praelectics to describe an artistic weakness in Jules Romains’s vast series of unanimist novels. 1  Romains’s series, I  believe, is flawed artistically because his assumptions about how human beings ought to behave are flawed morally.  His portrait of twenty-five years of Western European history, that is, does not resemble the “real object” at a final and critical juncture because his understanding of the human heart is slightly skewed.  The resulting distortion is thus both aesthetic and ethical (in the manner that I explained in the earlier essays), since the order represented by literary narrative is and must be somewhat affected by one’s understanding of human motivation–of how and why people make choices.  

     Romains, of course, is fully entitled to his own views in this cryptic matter.  He is surely right as an historian, furthermore, that many of his generation thought and felt in the represented way.  The bone of contention I would pick with him is his implying (already in the very title of the series) that the thoughts and feelings of his select few characters among a vast cast exhibit good will.  I, as his reader, am also entitled to my views; and if I am convinced that he has misrepresented “the good”, I can no more assent to his portrait’s complete reality than I could accept a color-blind landscape-painter’s rendition of a flower garden in bloom.  The characters whom I am meant to “like” in these novels (i.e., whose moral fiber I am to recognize as most closely indexed to right action and good will) do not strike me as at all admirable on several occasions; and, more to the point (since it would be sheer fantasy to imagine any of our species as being admirable all the time), these characters appear to me often to regret the wrong things and to repeat wrong choices persistently–without compunction and, indeed, with an authorial benediction.

     The moral incoherence of Romains’s enormous undertaking cuts right to the heart of the unanimist movement which he championed and, in many respects, pioneered.  For the most troubling aspect of this art is its disdain for what Frank Kermode famously called “the sense of an ending”: Les Hommes de Bonne Volonté is a lacework of perhaps four dozen developed personal stories, not one of which is ever concluded in the manner demanded by conventional aesthetics.  Romains often addressed the moral question implicitly in tackling the aesthetic objection explicitly.  For instance, in his preface to the 1933 English edition, Men of Good Will (which I myself will translate using his original French text), he writes:

     What I see before my eyes is life in the twentieth century, our own century as a modern people.  I am obliged to declare that this life is very difficult to assemble around one central character; that, in all honesty, it obstinately refuses an assembly of this kind; and that its refusal is much more insistent than any previous age’s.  A century ago, it would not have been silly to make the life of an entire city like Paris revolve around an extraordinary individual, and to absorb this life through the experiences of a single man.  Today, in my opinion, this would look ridiculous….

     I am not responsible for this situation.  You may view with regret the loss of that powerful unifying factor–powerful and simple–which a central character, or at most one family. provides the work of fiction.  I regret the loss myself.  But the question is to decide if we prefer a unifying factor or a vibrant truth in our art; or, to say it better, if we desire to cling at all costs, whenever we depict the world that we have before our eyes, to a handling of perspective that has grown inadequate. 2

        Now, some of these assertions are themselves inclined to the absurd.  The lives of twentieth-century Westerners are probably far more susceptible to representation through the tracing of just one or two than lives belonging to previous European centuries, thanks mostly to the leveling effects of technology (much discussed in these same years by José Ortega y Gasset).  What the unanimist method of studying dozens of lives concurrently like the organs of a complex beast accomplishes is to guarantee that no story–no individual’s story, nor indeed the collective’s story–can be completed in the classical manner.  Loose ends must always remain.  Even when a particular character dies (and quite a few will do so in the two volumes dedicated to the Battle of Verdun), the continuation of rival stories around his own ensures that no frame can enclose his experience.  The aesthetic vehicle for delivering a summary judgment on the nature of human existence is thus dismantled; the sunset which lures us to conclude, “Such is a day in this world,” is indefinitely postponed (as a deconstructionist would be sure to note) in competing sunrises and noons. 3

     This is an aesthetic problem insofar as the art object is required to end, or at least to confine its suggestion of eternity within limits intelligently chosen for their suggestive powers.  Romains’s rejection of such an ending as inadequate to reality simply begs the question, What is humanly real?  Is it unreal to live life as if one’s actions had a purpose?  To be sure, the purposive is aesthetic, and we risk deluding ourselves when we organize our days to serve an ineffably higher cause–we may simply be making castles in the clouds.  Yet the love of clouds–of sublime fantasies–is irrepressibly human, so to refuse it would be to deny one aspect of human reality.  Unanimism does not go this far… or perhaps it goes this far and farther, in that it belittles individual inspiration for a collective variety.  It may certainly be said to substitute an oppressively inhuman vision for an intimately human one.  In its refusing to bestow terminal meaning on any single life, it feeds the impression (the illusion, I would contend) that a grand consummation continues to await the forward-struggling human throng.  Romains volunteered in an early reference to his epic series that “Paris, actual Paris, would be the principal hero”! 4  Such an utterance betrays a vaulting mysticism which would turn hives of human beings into unitary life forms.

     This perspective seems to me infinitely more removed from objective reality–more absorbed into the indemonstrable, the wildly whimsical–than the conventional central character’s.  It is a progressive’s dream of a dream (since no one man can dream other than for himself, and only a lunatic imagines that he does so).  It requires to get up and walk around, not Ezekiel’s bones of dead ancients, but the petroleum-based and metal-alloy creations within which humans sleep, work, and travel, along with the humans themselves en masse–one great vivified Megalopolis.   

     As a student of literature and of moral duty, I cannot endorse without reservation Romains’s narrative canvas as beautiful or real; for the basis of all possible morality is the will of the individual agent, and the beauty of stories about such creatures must be woven in patterns consistent with a human notion of the good.  Romains’s progressive Western Caravan to the Stars is an inhuman fantasy, by my measure… but decide for yourself. 

I.  Observers of the Human Canvas

      More than two years ago, I published a translation of Jules Romains’s six broadcasts from New York and Boston to Occupied France (Praesidium 8.4: Fall 2008).  I admired Romains (whose birth name was Louis Farigoule) then as I do now for holding up the sputtering torch of Western culture during Europe’s dark night of Nietzschean regeneration.  At the time of the translation, however, I distinctly recall being struck by the poignant weakness and pallor of Romains’s beacon.  Mere evocation of les beaux arts never suffices to protect them from the barbarian who would clear away the room that they occupy for more blood sports.  Even zealous performance and costly enshrinement of the classics can seldom detain the hairy hand from its demolition; for proper appreciation of a humane culture requires not only years of apprenticeship, but also a substratum of metaphysical belief which gives context to the humane.  The barbarian may briefly sit bemused as Orpheus plays his lyre, but the call to saddle up again will be met with no reluctance.  The benighted mind must first experience the conceptual dawn of the thought, “All men have an equally precious soul, and it comes from no man,” before it can see particular men in a new light.

     The awareness of this critical chain of psychic events I found to be missing in Romains.  He yearned for Europe to turn back from Hitler and Stalin alike, yet he seemed to think that reminding Europeans of Corneille and Montaigne would be Siren-song enough.  It was not.  His Europe would never recover: to this day, one cannot say that Europe’s humane tradition is more than scattered deposits of relics gnawed daily by the acid of contemporary irrationalism.  In short, I suspected that I had found in Romains a minutely accurate representation, not exactly of classical liberalism, but of the last classical liberal’s eldest child: the kind of person who claims to love Shakespeare yet scoffs at all sexual inhibition, who makes a show of valuing Chopin and Schubert but will not risk uttering a word against “gangsta rap”, and who jealously preserves whatever pomp and circumstance the Halls of ivy have bestowed upon him or her yet is ever willing to view distinction by merit as class warfare.

        I vaguely expressed my misgivings about Romains’s ideological coherence in my introductory words to the translation: they remain in that issue for anyone to see.  I had not yet completed all twenty-seven novels contained within the “unanimist” epic, Les Hommes de Bonne Volonté, however.  As I drew nearer to the finish line thereafter, I found my discomfort with Romains growing.  In fact, I can place my finger on the exact textual spot where I first knew that this author and I could never see eye to eye about the human universe.  It was a scene from That Great Glow from the East (a title referring to the direction of the new Soviet “experiment”), the nineteenth novel.  Pierre Jallez, the recurrent journalist-character whom Romains would virtually admit was his mouthpiece, is enjoying a leisurely carriage-ride with his English compatriot Bartlett.  As the two loll back and take in the countryside, Jallez responds to his friend’s concern with the following flight of fastidious connoisseurship:  

      “You don’t seem exactly… enthusiastic.”

        “To be frank, I’m trying to put my finger on something, with complete honesty… on something that’s causing me discomfort.  I say to myself, all the people in the past who waxed ecstatic over this Roman countryside, all the periods when people actually chased after indefinable kinds of beauty less than now, cannot have been simple-minded.  Besides, we feel the same way as they did about everything admirable in Rome itself.  They talked especially about the ‘charm’ of this landscape, about the astonishing power of reverie, melancholy, and poetry that it set loose in them.  Ordinarily, I register such things with great force… I assure you, nothing attracts me more.  I get a little beside myself, even.  And thanks to you, my dear friend, the present circumstances have been assembled in ideal fashion.  The hour is propitious.  This carriage is perfect…”

        “And yet, something’s missing?”

        “I’m trying to… wait.  Do you see those posts over there?”

        “Yes.  I think they’re for the electric tram that we didn’t take–the one that follows the Via Tusculana.”

        “Well… and there are others farther along, do you see?  They veer more toward the north, making an angle with these.”

        “Power lines, maybe, that carry current to Rome down from the mountains.”

        “That may be it… though they seem a little big for that.  Anyway… I think they are what’s bothering me… yes, and a lot.  And if you continue to look, you find more of them… look, a bit farther in that same direction.  And that’s to say nothing of certain buildings which one could really do without, but which might pass unnoticed with some effort.  No, it’s the posts and the lines that really annoy me.”

        “But they’re only minor details in a great immensity…”

        “Not to me, they’re not.”

        “Well, you find such things around all the big cities… and in much greater abundance.”

        “It’s not the same.  The surroundings of certain big cities have come to compose an entirely new sort of landscape, one which might be judged horrible but which doesn’t leave any regrets behind, since it has only replaced fields of cabbage or beets, or maybe wild brush.  Here, I expected to find a very ancient, very richly defined beauty, and… well, you know, very tenuous, very fragile.  Of what was this Roman countryside once composed?  Recall the landscape paintings you’ve seen: a deserted plain retreating to the horizon, a small tree here and there, all alone; a paltry ruin, almost brought to ground-level; larger ruins, like those of an aqueduct, that followed the lay of the land and hardly dented its contours from a distance.  You understand what I’m trying to say: nothing at all like the enormous structures and lofty profiles of those ruins in Rome’s center which dominate you from close up–crush you, leaving the modern streetlights and newspaper stands at their feet looking like mere details..  Or if you prefer, what travelers came to find in this landscape was the emotion of being in a deserted cemetery–the cemetery of civilization… yes, a vast space as far as the eye could see.  (In a certain lighting, those faraway hills are hardly visible, and in any case they only put a frame around the solitude.)  A vast space, I say, where nothing happens any more, where life is no more detectible except in traces and serving, even then, as a kind of mortuary ornament… a peasant, a peasant girl, with their pale complexion and feverish eyes, wouldn’t really have counted–no more than a rose bush that had turned wild on a tomb.  The silhouette of Rome that remained at one’s back, or far ahead, wouldn’t have damaged the solitude in the least–would have qualified it, authenticated it.  It wouldn’t have let you forget that this abandoned plain wasn’t just any countryside strewn with shrubs and rocky outcrops.  In that scene, you would have found an immense reservoir of ruins, historical reflections, meditations on the grandeur and the decadence of empires… and from this reservoir would flow enough nourishment to feed your reverie indefinitely as your carriage carried you–just as this one does us–along ancient ways, your coachman hesitating, perhaps over whether to choose the Via Appia or the Via Tusulana, a pretty little peasant pale with malaria watching you pass from time to time in her red scarf.  Even the tingle of the horses’ bells must have been poignant.  And when you would happen upon a tomb from the early centuries near a gnarled old pine, and the sky’s line along the horizon would grow gold as it does now, you would surely have discovered a quality of melancholy exceptional in its richness, in its density of motifs, in its breathtaking bittersweetness of universal lapse and decline–and thus in its unity, its purity of style.

        “A few rows of posts, a little bit of metal wire thrown crudely across all of that… and, as one can well imagine, almost nothing remains of a marvel so delicate and breakable.”   (Cette Grande Lueur à l;Est, v. 3, 809-811) 

        I am little inclined to comment upon this exchange: if the reader does not instantly share my reservations, then my efforts to elucidate them will probably be of no help.  The most overtly bothersome sections refer to peasants suffering from malaria as part of a once-quaint setting, the feverish sweat beading their brows and the unnatural paleness in their hollow cheeks composing part of the anticipated “charm” of which Jallez feels himself cheated.  We may more easily sympathize with his detestation of power lines and their regimented queues of poles.  Yet consider when weighing such sympathy that Jallez espouses progressive social and political ideas.  His friend Jerphanion, another Romains alter ego, 6 eventually wins election to the national government in the Radical Party; and the career politico Gurau, perhaps the most introspective and attractive character not readily identifiable by physique and surroundings with Romains himself, is a syndicalist.   How does one subscribe to some quasi-Marxian elevation of the working classes while deploring the technology on whose back they must be raised?

     I find no indication whatever of the novelist’s cultivating a creative distance between such remarks and his own view of things: no challenge by others in this or that conversation (Bartlett chimes in harmoniously with the sentiments above), no ironic contradiction by subsequent events. 7  Indeed, as this vast series of novels at last winds down in a symposium where Jallez and Jerphanion are brought together (with fiancée and wife, respectively) rather like the intimate gathering of lords and ladies at the end of a Shakespearean comedy, Jerphanion frets over that advancing technology, the airplane, in much the same terms as Jallez employs for power lines.  Wine liberally circulates at this rencontre: the occasion is a symposium in the literal sense.  Plato and Socrates are even mentioned by name (along with Shakespeare).  Yet only the buffoonish Caulet is not in complete control of his wits.  The setting, in short, bears all the signs being a narrative delivery system for vatic pronouncements.  Thus, on the subject of aviation:

        “As for me,” said Jerphanion, “I can’t manage to put it out of my mind that the airplane is first of all an instrument of war; that the little that it has done to ameliorate–or rather exalt–men’s lives is nothing beside what it has done to destroy or terrorize them… and will continue to do.  Maybe that’s not the fault of the technology itself, but that’s just how it is.  Among modern inventions with a negative balance sheet, only the submarine has it beat.  And the ravages of the submarine are quite limited, by comparison.  Open a newspaper or a magazine.  It’s a lucky day when you don’t find an article about the pulverizing and asphyxiating of populations in the next war by airborne flotillas, the crushing and burning of entire cities.  I don’t have the feeling that those projections are exaggerating.”  (Le 7 Octobre, v. 4, 1106)

 This vein of thought begins in grotesque distortion and ends in profitless (but, in certain circles, highly fashionable) blanket-condemnation.  The aircraft was not first conceived of as an instrument of war.  Having once been so abused, it also became the vulnerable population’s only reliable protection against itself   Jerphanion might as well condemn loudspeaker systems and the radio for aiding Mussolini’s and then Hitler’s rise to power, or even Lord Kelvin for the use of mustard gas in trench warfare.  To lay the blame for human misery upon human ingenuity is to deny the complexity of human nature and the reality of human sin.  It is to treat, once again, a moment in human history as a troubling tableau wherein one color is wrong or one form poorly drafted–the “arm’s length” assessment of aesthetic quality which we saw in Jallez’s opposition to electrical lines.

     A novel’s characters are supposed to compose part of its canvas–not to stand outside of its frame and judge the very motions and processes in which they participate.  Romains’s favored few share this annoying quality of disengagement, as if they were really gods circulating among their mortal puppets in disguise.  To them, life must “look good” from a tasteful remove.  When not rumbling about in cars, carriages, or aircraft, Jallez and Jerphanion appear to be enthusiastic walkers–as is the morally subtle and politically astute priest Mionnet, a normalien like the other two (i.e., educated at the École Normale Supérieure to assume an elite position in society).  There are a few other passionate ambulators in the novels, as well.  All exhibit an inclination to the socially visionary of which Romains approves.  Walking, it seems, draws them less into the invincible variety of human existence than toward a synthetic view of how things might be. 8  The amble up and down village streets, one might say, is brainstorming for utopia.  These walkers have certain preferred routes.  They avoid certain quarters, double back through others, and even select weather and time of day to favor their meditations insofar as is possible.  Their endeavor may fairly and fully be described as artistic creation. 

     And so indeed should walking be, up to a point.  Towns and cities, basic utility having been served, should be pleasant to look at.  People, after all, must live in them–and life’s routine is much enhanced when it occurs amid uplifting, inviting, harmonious, or otherwise sensually gratifying circumstances.  People are so constructed as to appreciate order and beauty, and their lives (as an ancient Stoic would have insisted) succeed to the extent that they live according to their nature.  At a higher and indeed preemptive level, however, people are also constructed to recognize moral duty.  The terms of this duty may or may not lend themselves to an orderly or beautiful setting or sequence of actions.  To evaluate the success of a human society, therefore, primarily on its perceived beauty–or to conceive of a future society on the same basis–is putting the cart (or the carriage) before the horse.

     So enamored of (one might well say obsessed with) the static visual impression of human settlement is Romains that he has Jallez initiate Jerphanion into a somewhat risky ritual at the École Normale which delivers to them the perspective of a wing-sandaled Mercury.  Navigating a course which takes them out of a garret window and over an ancient gutter, the born-and-bred Parisian Jallez leads his new carrel-mate onto the tile roof of their college as the third novel, Childhood Loves, begins.  Enraptured by the urban panorama, Jerphanion lingers after Jallez weaves the treacherous return back into the building.  He broods in vague inspiration about the future–a reverie whose paths converge upon his political orientation: 

“To fly to the aid of victory?  Nothing could be less like me.  On the contrary, I have something of the spirit of contradiction.  I descend from non-conformist ancestors.  To be part of a militant minority, perhaps even a persecuted one… I can’t imagine a situation that would excite me more.  I would be very happy, even, to be the only one of my persuasion–to be fighting all alone, but for a cause that would one day prevail.  Let the future, if necessary, be my only ally–but let me have the future on my side.  I’m not enough of a child that I would want to waste my time.  A devotion to lost causes?  I know, there’s a kind of chivalrous elegance to it… but what skepticism is at its bottom!  I would rather pass for naive.  Because, obviously, it’s a kind of naiveté to believe that the best causes have the future on their side… but that naiveté is what has made the world run up to now.  I suppose it’s tantamount to a faith in progress.  Perhaps slightly precedent to it.  Well, so much the worse for the scheming and the jaded.  I have faith in progress.”  (Les Amours Enfantines, v. 1, 324)

I began this section by referring to “Nietzschean irrationalism”.  While Jerphanion is not exactly speaking after the fashion of Zarathustra, his words certainly show that Romains (should we continue in the safe assumption that Jerphanion’s views are Romains’s) has no antidote to that irrationalism, and is indeed tinged with it.  The young collegian plainly finds a picturesque pleasure in playing “man against the world” which resonates with his lonely, lofty physical perch.  His resolution in this passage appears to be well over half aesthetic thrill–and he appears, furthermore, to understand as much.  The actual logic of his reflection, after all, is hopelessly garbled.  Is it more important to him to be right in the end–i.e., vindicated by general judgment–or to be right at this lonely instant–i.e., swept up in a mantic (or manic) certainty that his admirers will one day shift from none to all?  If this confidence stems from something like moral conviction, then why do numbers matter?  Right is right, even when it has no support and continues to have none (a situation which Jerphanion contemptuously dismisses as “chivalrous”).  Is progress, then, a matter of “getting it right” to this young man, or rather a romance of being avant garde?  What are the chances, realistically, that a phalanx of such young dynamos all yearning to rush ahead of the line will in fact chart a salutary course for humanity?

II.  The Third Way

     To be sure, Romains’s novels do not represent either communist or fascist revolutionaries as heroic or worthy of emulation.  The author is no mere ideologue: neither, it seems, are the characters that he most favors.  The enigmatic Laulerque, infected with tuberculosis and perhaps lured to danger by the shadow of an early death, actually flirts with criminal subversion during the early novels.  In the eighth, Province, this habitué of a weekly discussion group that includes Jerphanion, Clanricard, and others of the normalien set finds himself delivering cryptic messages to Amsterdam.  In the next novel, Montée des Périls, he allows his invisible handlers to use him as a screen behind which they purchase a country villa suspiciously close to a legendary Mediterranean smugglers’ cove.  Laulerque eventually deduces that the remote house, endowed with a subterranean passage to the beach, was intended to figure prominently in a political kidnapping.  The insight does not so much shock him as leave him feeling cynically exploited.  He does not like being one of the game’s pawns.  After the Great War, Laulerque resurfaces as an ascending administrator–relatively healthy and very well paid–in the Swiss clinic which cured him.  Conversations with several erstwhile-radical companions of his youth show him to have developed a jaundice of the soul even as his lungs cleared of bacillae In the final novel, Le 7 Octobre, Clanricard muses that “he’s about as much tubercular as he was a terrorist” (v. 4, 965).

     While Clanricard is not quite as reliable a witness to Romains’s personal sentiments as Jerphanion or Jallez (Laulerque had seduced his wife both before and after their marriage), we may read into his contempt an authorial verdict upon extreme action taken in ignorance of and indifference to its consequences.  Laulerque is a bit of a turncoat–certainly too volatile to achieve heroic status.  Clanricard lost an arm fighting in a war whose pretext he rejected philosophically–but his countrymen were in danger.  Laulerque dared to go philosophically where none of his mates would set foot–but the years following the war find him more healthy and prosperous than one could ever have foreseen of him before the first shots were fired.  Even if the latter was never motivated by a desire to save his own skin (and there is no suggestion that he was), the results are slightly malodorous.  While Laulerque was playing with “-isms”, Clanricard was trying to help his company survive to see another sunrise.

     Might one go so far as to say that Romains dislikes any and all doctrine to the extent that a preconceived end devalues incidental human costs–that “progress” attracts him largely or precisely because the end is always indefinitely postponed?  Such a humanistic interpretation is worthy of his own manifest “good will”, but it remains a species of irrationalism: for no “advance” can be defined as moving forward without a destination.  Progress and vagabondage are of two houses.

     Nevertheless, while neither Jallez, Jerphanion, nor Clanricard is a card-carrying communist, all three long to view the Soviet experiment up close, and the first two succeed in making the trip.  Jerphanion is relatively insulated from scenes of brutal oppression and starvation by virtue of being on an official diplomatic mission, for which a red carpet (so to speak) has been rolled out.  Jallez, on the other hand, has that ring-side seat which he so loves to occupy.  Still in Italy, as he finalizes the details of the trip with his English friend and fellow journalist, Bartlett, he is approached by Dmitri Poliapof, an aristocratic Russian refugee now waiting tables.  Through the good-humored and energetic Poliapof’s eyes, Jallez learns how the reigning political topsy-turvyness has been exploited by the unscrupulous and the vengeful.  This occurs late in Cette Grande Lueur à l’Est.  In the next novel, Le Monde Est Ton Adventure, Jallez and Bartlett hear much more on this same theme as a muzhik in the starvation-ravaged Ukraine covertly spills his heart to them.  Jallez will conclude this novel sitting in a cell whose occupants have frequently been surrendered to the firing squad.  It turns out that one of his freelance articles, expedited west in an envelope provided by an American relief worker, has been unsealed and read by the already mammoth bureaucracy of thought-police.  Since the article’s tone is unfavorable, he is eventually informed that he is under suspicion of espionage.

     So much for the Bolsheviks, one might think.  Yet throughout the novels, the reign of terror in Russia continues to receive no more than mild disapprobation from Romains’s elite circle of journalists, educators, and civil servants.  Even as he sits awaiting to learn his fate in prison, Jallez seems to ascribe his situation to the isolated over-zealousness and stupidity of a few petty officials.  At worst, he may end up being one of the broken eggs required to make the omelet.  “I prefer to be here,” he muses, contrasting his state with a typical French death from a slow disease in a clean bed.  “At least this way, it won’t take so long.”

He continued, “And if someone made me the offer of being released right now, but at the doorway I had to resume one of my adolescence’s inner tortures–one of those agonies created entirely by myself (or by the anti-me)–what then?  I’d ten times rather stay on this back-breaking slab and trust to chance.  All things considered, I don’t really have much to complain about except that, my bad luck… if one can call ‘luck’ that sinuous line that weaves a man’s destiny into universal confusion.”  (Le Monde Est Ton Adventure, v. 3, 984) 

This stunning confession is reminiscent of Jerphanion’s embrace of a kind of avant garde martyrdom from the high gable of his college.  Its terms are incoherent: Jallez’s adolescence has nothing objective whatever to do with the inhumane bullying of the Bolsheviks, yet he appears to assess his desperate situation as personal experience rather than as a measure of what the masses must be suffering.  In a way, he is a spy, looking on with a strange detachment, not really dedicated to the work under whose cover he has penetrated Russia.  The trip seems at this moment to have been far more about personal escape than about public welfare.  One wonders, once again, if a man who was so dismally unhappy in his adolescence (as Jerphanion’s need of a lonely cause suggests of him, as well) can possibly serve as a beacon of transformative wisdom.  Can a man who must always be running truly be trusted to select the best destination?  And yet, such men are Romains’s standard-bearers.  Since the author himself can scarcely have intended this profound degree of dissonance, we must further wonder where his epic project is leading us.  Away from an ironclad Bolshevism, fortunately… but whither from there?

        Certainly not in the direction of fascism: for if the communists are inclined to brutality in their extremism, the fascists bear the suspicion of collaborating with capitalists under the table.  Jallez presents this indictment in a long and (from a literary perspective) tediously didactic letter early in Cette Grande Lueur à l’Est.  Writing to Jerphanion, he opines that “the leaders [of popular uprisings connected to fascism], who perhaps had their own reasons or special orders, have staged them in a manner opposed to their self-interest.  Their tactic would only have been defensible if it had led to a ‘proletarian’ revolution.  But think a minute: in all the nations at issue, a proletarian revolution would only have been possible through complete surprise.”  And he continues, after excepting Russia from his assertion: “In Italy, the enemies of the Fascia claim that large-scale capitalism quickly perceived that the black shirts were working for it, and that it is now feeding them the funds without which they would not have been able to develop so amply or to multiply such costly demonstrations.  That’s very possible” (v. 3, 723).  It is at the beginning of the next chapter that Jallez and Bartlett sit planning their Soviet pilgrimage in an Italian café–pontificating, among other things, about “the curious phenomenon of cafés: a climate too northern doesn’t favor them, but neither does one too southern” (v. 3, 727).  How very like countless graduate school conversations: summary judgments about which exploitative classes must die followed by pseudo-scholarly posturing about why people dream or the aesthetic properties of garbage cans!  Jallez guides the conversation in ways that allow him to assess Bartlett’s potential as a revolutionary–to compare the emerging portrait of his new comrade, one might say, with the Platonic ideal:

Without directly interrogating him, Jallez led him into talking about his origins.  They scarcely established any real solidarity between him and big-business capitalism.  He was the son of a career university professor–who was, into the bargain, a Presbyterian minister.  The father had raised four daughters and another son besides Bartlett.  Jallez understood from certain allusions that the family, though able to live honorably, had never set aside a penny of savings.  Bartlett had chosen his profession against his father’s will, who would have preferred to see him continuing in the university and the church, after his own example.  Without having broken cleanly with his people, Bartlett did little to keep up with them.  All that he could hope for by way of patrimony would be to pay his share of the burial costs one day.  As for his personal situation, even if one did not take his grievances against his editor quite seriously, he was certainly not among the best paid of his profession.  All in all, the English aristocracy–the major English proprietors–clearly inspired in him a disrespect that exceeded his sarcasm.  He possessed, then, everything that was necessary to make, if not a front-line revolutionary, at least an intellectual who was malcontent, almost bitter, severely disposed toward the present order, and positively predisposed toward any sort of subversion.

        This, then, is Jallez’s (and Romains’s?) “kind of guy”.  An opposition to capitalism must precede all else.  The Bolsheviks have gone too far in their methods–but the fascists, as is clarified by the context of the passage above, have not executed a clean and sincere break with the class of wealth and leisure.  That the kind of schism demanded by Jallez partakes of the theatrical–of the arm’s-length assessment of pose and framing–whose criterion we have seen applied elsewhere raises not a whimper of suspicion from Romains.  For instance, the distinct possibility that Bartlett’s political and economic views may be dictated viscerally by his subjective experience rather than by reason not only does not mar his credentials as a “man of good will”, but appears necessary to confirm them.  People of good will must above all else show “solidarity” (the word literally selected in French to initiate the evaluation above).  They must have the right discomfort with family, society, and tradition.  They must visibly occupy an “edge”.  Mussolini allowed the end to justify the means.  The Bolsheviks, precisely by littering the landscape with eggs sacrificed to their omelet, showed (to Romains’s elite, anyway) that they would not smooth or grease any transition.  Their barbarity, while regrettable, was pure.  They were true to the program, whereas the fascists were ever losing their way.

     Hence all of the portraits which Romains paints for us of fascist organizers and sympathizers are dominated by one of two qualities: a) a certain lubricity–a willingness to double back–not unlike Laulerque’s, but more pronounced; b) a taste for pure Dionysiac frenzy which surpasses the limits of sanity.  The dynamic populist rabble-rouser Douvrin best exemplifies the former and indeed is very reminiscent of Laulerque in some ways, though distinctly lacking in education and cultivation.  A renegade communist who defected from the party over some incident of wounded pride, Douvrin now leases his services as an agent of disruption.  Spontaneously eloquent in terms that move the rank and file, he specializes in crying out from an audience or pushing his way to the podium and turning the crowd against the designated speakers.  His henchmen, having secretly sown themselves throughout the masses, incite the necessary outrage or silence the occasional dissenter.  Obviously, Douvrin is the quintessence of fascist lack of principle, mercenary yet naively self-deluding; for it is Douvrin’s constant contention that, while accepting pay for creating chaos, he remains his own master and can pick and choose among those who need his talents.

     In a passage which is literarily as artless as some of Jallez’s letters, Jerphanion brilliantly explains to a soiree of politicos and legal officials how Douvrin’s threat constitutes something new under the sun.  (The lack of artistry consists in the magnitude of the young candidate’s brilliance, which is quite the brightest thing in the room.) 9 

… But surely you all see that the conditions of our epoch, even in France, give to adventurers an entirely new range of options–a far greater freedom in which to play the game.  You must see that the adventurer, instead of remaining classed and filed as he used to be, can change category all at once.  Or, if you prefer, might not a certain gentleman who has vast ambitions–of the wildest sort imaginable–find it convenient to make his coup d’essai, his first campaign, as a simple adventurer, following for a while the rules of adventurism (which amount to renting himself out to Peter or Paul)… yet knowing all the time that such a game will not–not in our epoch–prevent him, at the right moment, from playing his own hand for major stakes?  (Naissance de la Bande, v. 4, 355)

If this sketch evokes Mussolini, the suggestion is deliberate.  Jerphanion himself declares in his next utterance, “The best example is that of Mussolini.  He has sold himself to all the world in succession” (355).  That the character of Douvrin, from head to foot, was intended by Romains to represent Mussolini is highly improbable.  (Romains’s biographer Olivier Rony believes that the nearest real-life inspiration for Douvrin may have been Jacques Doriot, founder of the Parti Populaire Français [the French fascist party]). 10  The essential point is that Jerphanion (with Romains at his back) treats such charismatic leaders as a type, and that the most prominent quality of this type may well be a chameleon-like ability to change affiliations at the bat of an eyelash.  Communist operatives like the young Laulerque easily navigate their way through a bourgeois society they detest in order to plant bombs at its foundations: fascist bad boys like Douvrin hide themselves, instead, within the “under-estimation” of petty-criminal profiles–the thug, the ruffian, the incendiary soapbox orator.  The utterly unknown enemy may indeed be less dangerous than the wholly misread enemy.  Something about the latter’s cynical hypocrisy, at any rate, appears to render him less “honest” than the former, just as the assassin who merely sidles through the theater’s aisles may seem less monstrous than the one who shares the stage with his target.

     The Machiavellian “adventurer”, of course, is legally sane.  In Romains’s novels, he is also not particularly well educated.  The truly insane species of fascist personality is apt to be society’s darling, endowed with altogether too much leisure and money (making him a natural enemy of the “honest” communist) and often somewhat “over-educated” (or educated to no end).  Gilbert Nodiard is the quintessence of this type.  Rumored to be the scion of an extramarital affair, shunned by his affluent father in favor of a second marriage’s progeny, the young Nodiard exerts a dark magnetism upon Paris’s most wealthy and most liberated during the turbulent decade after the war.  He indeed seeks out Douvrin and becomes one of his most intense admirers–yet with an adversarial twist that imbues all of his relationships, since he is determined to recruit Douvrin as a subordinate.  The purpose of recruitment–of cabal, of revolution–remains no less a mystery to Nodiard than it does to his often perplexed inner circle.  He can discern little more about his own motives than that he seeks the maximum amount of power possible, and that he wishes to enlist this power in the overthrow of virtually everything..  Pacing nervously before a mirror, he muses:

        “The main fear of us French is to become flustered, to be made a dupe, to take things seriously, to become an object of ridicule… irony is our fall-back position.  We introduce it everywhere.  No wonder I’m having so much trouble founding this group!  Loucheron thinks that I should have specified our ends.  Oh, sure!  What an immediate put-down that would offer to the ironist!  ‘Nodiard’s completely crazy!  He’ll get eight or ten of us together… and then one fine day he thinks we’ll manage to blow up the world!  That guy needs help.’  I’m well aware that, even this time, I can’t say what I want.  We have to start with actions.  Only afterward take up the “why”.  Yet the situation isn’t quite what it was.  This time actions will only have value if they’re accomplished in the light of a cause–not as a mere amusement, but a rite that will solder us to each other.  Gangs have always had rites of initiation and passage… sometimes crimes committed expressly for that end.  Frivolity… have to overcome the frivolity.  It would be so easy to explain all this to a bunch of Germans!”

        He found himself once again before the mirror.  “And it’s with that boyish face that I’ll have to explain everything to a bunch of Frenchmen!  With that pretty-boy face that I have to conquer frivolity!”

        His reflections made several rapid leaps.

        “Maybe I really am insane.  But that really doesn’t matter at all.  My instinct tells me that I’m right, and that if I give up on everything, it will only be through cowardice, through lack of ability to master others.  I believe in my instinct.  It’s never deceived me.  I believe in myself more than in others.  I must lead others to believe in me more than in themselves.  (Naissance de la Bande, v. 4, 292)

          The reader may well emerge from this passage with the impression that Romains is a fine sketcher of character as long as his “people” are not puppets for his own views.  I believe this impression to be entirely justified: Romains has a gift for representing pathological types.  His narratives are never more riveting than when they study a man on a mission; yet quite often, such mission-driven dynamos are unstable, if not (as here) insane.  The two war novels in the center of this series, Préface à Verdun and Verdun, made their author an international celebrity.  Wars, of course, are events within events–a dizzying succession of inter-connected events entailing major, irreversible consequences.  When writing about the great social disease which we call war, then, or about diseased individuals, Romains finds himself tracing characters who are committed to Action, evidently the only god Nodiard worships (and one with whom he aspires to fuse himself).  When scribbling through the eyes and mouths of more congenial characters, however, Romains dissolves into rambling letters and endless café chatter.  Men of good will sit, observe, and discuss: then they may spring into action, at last, by attending a conference or purchasing a ticket to a far-off point of interest.  Nodiard is indubitably unhinged, and his demented article of faith that action must precede reflection is the ultimate irrationalist formula.  Yet has not the normalien milieu of Jallez, Jerphanion, and their ilk created the environment wherein one might grow insanely devoted to action–wherein simply and finally to make a move must seem a supremely heroic feat?

     And the specific action Nodiard contemplates throughout this inner monologue is, in fact, frivolous and vile in itself if one compares it to the “cleanliness” of Laulerque’s kidnapper-compatriots or of Douvrin’s fist-flailing claque.  Nodiard is preparing to sell his “gang” (the closest English word to this sense of the French bande) on a ritualistic sexual orgy.  Every attendee will enjoy multiple partners in the course of the meeting, chosen through a combination of preference and blind chance.  He claims (in chapter 12, immediately following the one from which the citation was drawn) to have been initiated into this practice while in London; to have been aware already that the Germans were using homosexual rites of this sort to create group solidarity, but to have chosen the heterosexual variety so as to accommodate all members of his own cell.  (The females have been specially selected for their wealth or social attachments as well as for their unorthodox tastes: Nodiard well knows that money will be required to enlist the likes of Douvrin.)  No character in any of the novels is more exhaustively, even torturously active in his sexual life than Gilbert Nodiard.  Romains has finely identified the link–which is indeed recognized by gangs, to this day–between the sexual invasion of another and the melding of several wills into one.  In that regard, Nodiard’s projected “rite” is far from frivolous.  It has paved the way for such atrocities as the Manson murders.

     Then we have the deranged poet Claude Vorge (possibly patterned after Louis Aragon and André Breton). 11  Vorge lacks none of Nodiard’s qualities and quirks other than the desire to create a “group”: he seems more in search of a dark messiah than disciples.  Having heard a loose-tongued pro tempore police inspector discourse about unsolved murders over dinner, Vorge is energized to the point that he wheedles a peek at a few official files.  One case, in particular, rivets his attention, though he disguises his giddy excitement.  Almost at a glance, he has pieced a criminal puzzle together with the uncanny aptitude bestowed upon him by his perverted intelligence.  Soon thereafter, he visits the case’s key witness in the latter’s small book-bindery, convinced that this man is none other than the actual murderer.  And so he is: Quinette, a fascinating figure whom Romains would admit to having built around the infamous Henri Landru (a serial killer executed in 1922). 12  Vorge has been in the shop scarcely a few moments before he applies for discipleship:

      “… My name is Claude Vorge… actually my nom de plume, to tell the truth.  My real name is of no importance.  Yet that identity, too, is at your disposal if you need it.  I’ve completed my legal studies, and I can now practice law if I so choose.”  His head lifted in involuntary pride.  “Yet all the honorable professions inspire in me an unfathomable contempt, and I would make use of the one I just mentioned only if I saw a way to be of service to such a man as you.  Humanity as it currently exists is my chief enemy.  It’s a despicable and gigantic vermin.  It has just shown its true colors in this war where all the forms of stupidity and all the hideous impulses that it hides away came out at their leisure… and one could briefly hope that it would wipe itself out.  On many points, sir, your view of things and mine must coincide.  We will have the time, I hope, to compare notes in the near future.  For my part, the only poets of the past who interest me –and some more than others–are murderers like Villon or Verlaine, or sexual maniacs or sociopaths like Sade and Rimbaud, or confirmed madmen like Nerval and Lautréamont…”  (Vorge Contre Quinette, v. 3, 368-369)

Quinette, though an unusually thoughtful craftsman of middle age, is nevertheless a petit bourgeois, and the reference to poets is scarcely less mystifying to him than the broad invitation to confess his crimes to this young man eagerly hoping to collaborate in more.  Eventually, worn down by Vorge’s dogged (and, need one say, insane) persistence, Quinette tacitly admits the darkly clad, smooth-toned dandy into a kind of camaraderie.  The older man actually comes to enjoy some of the poetry to which he is introduced.  The younger man, in return, believes himself accepted into a sinister novitiate, which he consummates by attempting to strangle the woman currently being courted by Quinette’s rather prim attentions.  The murder is a failure: Quinette manages to revive the would-be victim and convince her not to press charges against his odd acquaintance.  He will later move to Nice with her, open a bookstore, and at last add her to his long list of women removed from society without a trace.

     Once again, the active party–the true killer–is a man of the people, while the dark-and-dainty Vorge remains on the outside looking in, unable even to see his long-anticipated throttling through.  Quinete’s murders also have distinct sexual undertones which are not lost on Vorge, who apparently combines the talents of a gigolo with those of the restless pet cat and the epigram-spouting misogynist.  As the novels wind down (leaving Quinette to expire in a deathbed half-confession that puzzles more than enlightens), Vorge has curiously–yet no doubt predictably–taken a communist rather than a fascist turn.  His talent leans more in the direction of describing vast slaughter poetically than of stabbing a mistress or drubbing a beggar.  Indeed, the Soviets are paying him not to wax lyrical about the bourgeoisie’s annihilation, but rather to sanitize Bolshevism with his limber pen and silken tongue.  At a public reading, “when he declared, ‘The celebrated Nevsky Prospect has recovered all of its splendor,’ or, ‘Moscow’s metro will be the most sumptuous in the world…'”

The discourse that he sustained inside was of an entirely different tone.  “You heads of cattle!  You useless bundles of garbage!  Eat my crap, all of you!  Open your elegant mouths!…  What we really need here is a machine gun, a bomb from an airplane!  God, for a nice little massacre!  These ugly mugs need to get what they have coming.  Now Quinette… there was a man!  A Quinette regime… oh, yes!  To quinettify all this social rabble, far and wide, all lined up to die… Hitler wouldn’t be so bad, either.  ‘If a Hitler had emerged in France, you would be with him,’ that clod of a Duparc said to me the other day.  ‘You would be his Goebbels.’  Of course I would!  And How!  A Goebbels with a little more allure, a better style…”  (Françoise, v. 4, 921)

        In Claude Vorge, then, whatever contrast seems to have opened up between communists and fascists closes in a completed circle.  Not that Romains’s traces of sympathy with the former are to be dismissed because of this one character… yet Romains shows himself, in Vorge, fully aware of how attractive any species of revolution may be for incurable social misfits.  Quinette, a small-time craftsman, actually belongs to that class which originally composed the bulk of the fascist constituency, though he himself never entertains a political thought.  Perhaps Vorge’s ludicrous inability to put down a defenseless woman after having stirred so much witch’s brew so noisily for so long was his turning point: perhaps his mortified egotism thereafter steered him away from Douvrin’s world of knuckles and cudgels to another where his noise itself could masquerade as action.  Of course, the differences between Hitler and Stalin were always more in the minds of their academic apologists than in their despotic practice.  While Vorge is too deranged to parse the principles of ideology, there is a good chance that Romains himself realized the meagerness of wiggle room between the massacre of impure tribes and the massacre of impure classes (a dichotomy which Mussolini narrows even further).

     What, then, is Romains’s “third way”?  We know what Hitler’s was, only too well: the “neither communism nor capitalism” alternative of coordinating every effort for the Aryan race’s triumph.  If Romains’s “men of good will” triangulate communists and fascists with their own ni l’un ni l’autre, in what sense–I ask again–is their alternative other than fence-sitting?  Jerphanion and Clanricard are to be praised for risking their lives to keep the Teutonic onslaught of 1914 from wiping out humane civilization.  Jerphanion and Jallez are also to be praised for not adding their sedentary conferencing to either tyrant’s–or any tyrant’s–side of the balance, as Vorge does.  Yet they scarcely hold aloof on pure principle.  Jerphanion even seeks out an older, wiser Laulerque in Les Travaux et les Joies expressly to ask him, “Does it seem to you that, without ignoring other means, one might still place confidence at a critical hour in a means more or less similar to your former one?  You know what I’m trying to say: a secret organization, carefully recruited…” (v. 4, 90).  Laulerque anticipates Nodiard’s confession before the mirror, in the following novel: “I liked to hear my friends say that I was a little crazy.  I knew that what they meant by ‘crazy’ was precisely my ability to believe completely in an idea and to act accordingly” (92).  He concludes, in his newfound wisdom, “You can’t beat them [the forces of madness] except by a counter-madness.  A massive dose of counter-madness.  In France, we’re not inclined to that kind of behavior” (93)–yet another anticipation of Nodiard, who finds his countrymen too ironic, too fearful of being duped, for a collective grande passion. 13

     If Romains’s third way is not exactly irony, perhaps it is something akin to good humor: a sense of perspective, a Shakespearean reluctance to follow any ideology so far that innocent victims perish.  When such nebulous “common humanity” cannot converge upon certain inviolable principles, however–when it remains ever titillated (as Romains’s novels plainly are) by the Vatican’s back rooms, Freemasons and Knights Templar, and various other options that might permit the elite to “save” the masses–then at what point can a moral imperative be teased from a subjective protest?  What beacon of salvation shines forth from conversations blended of, “This might stop a war, if we could pull it off,” and, “That’s going a bit far, though, don’t you think?”  If the choice is between airborne warfare and peasants dying of malaria, is the more “beautiful” alternative the better one–and what human being gets to remain outside of the canvas and be the judge of that order composed by his fellow beings?     



1  The term praelectic now seems to me a superior version of haeretic, both because it evades the irrelevant but unfortunate connotations of “heretic” and because it is actually closer–just slightly Latinized–to the original Greek verb for “to make a deliberate choice; to exercise moral judgment”: προαιρειν.     return

Here and in all ensuing references to Romains’s work, I shall cite by using the title of the particular novel or secondary source to be found within the four-volume Flammarion edition (in the “Bouquins” paperback series) of Les Hommes de Bonne Volonté, published in 1958 and republished in 1988.  This title will be followed by the relevant volume number, and then by a page number within that volume.  Thus the present citation is drawn from a concluding selection of the author’s papers titledDocuments, v. 4, 1155.  All citations were originally in French, and their translations are my own.     return

By no accident, the texts of romantic/progressive authors lend themselves quite handily to the methods of deconstruction, whose founders are almost invariably expert in such authors and have carelessly extrapolated from their area of expertise to all literary creation.  The romantic mind essentially rejects the limitations within which rational thought is required to labor (cf. Pierre Laserre’s classic, Le Romatisme Français).  It is therefore always straining, lurching, swooning, pining, and questing after that which it cannot conceivably obtain.  The result makes beautiful poetry, thrilling mysticism, and very deadly politics.  The novel, as a projection of morality into aesthetics, significantly overlaps the political.     return

4  Cited by Olivier Rony, Introduction, v. 1, xx; and see within original context in Documents, v. 4, 1175.     return

5  Cf. the following passage from a small volume about Les Hommes which the author published in 1964, Ai-Je Fait Ce Que J’ai Voulu: “To sum up, people have too often identified the character, the worldview, and the literary tendencies of Jallez with my own character, my own worldview, and my own literary tendencies for them to dare maintain at the same time that Jallez conveys no profound truth [in the novels]” (cited in Documents, v. 4, 1184).   return  

6   Romains would write in 1964, “As for Jallez and Jerphanion, they formed the privileged fibers within the bundle.  I accorded them this role primarily because I granted them at the same time the largest measure of conscience.  If other characters were representative [of my views], these two were so to a superior degree” (ibid , 1178).  As well, Rony, Introduction, v. 1, xxix-xxxi, discusses in detail the connection between these two characters and their author.  He also cites André Maurois’s De Proust å Camus on the subject, a passage worth repeating: “Jallez and Jerphanion represent two aspects of the author, the one his lyric side, the other his realist side.  It could hardly be an accident that both of their names begin with the ‘J’ of ‘Je’ [‘I’].  A conversation between Jallez and Jerphanion is a dialogue between Jules Romains and Jules Romains” (xxix).     return

In fact, consider Bartlett’s own remark about North Africa in the final few dozen page of the entire series of novels: “It’s not in winter that you should see Muslim Africa, but summer.  For then is when it truly acquires its character” (Le 7 Octobre, v. 4, 984).  Of course, the utterance is absurd unless viewed as a condescending praise of these lands at their most “aesthetic” from the Western traveler’s point of view.    return 

8  Rony (Introduction, v. 1, lxxxv-xciii) offers a benevolent discussion of what he calls Romains’s “theme of the terrace”, his conclusion about Jallez and Jerphanion apparently being that their author employs the eagle-‘eye overviews to integrate them into the human masses around them.  The reader can decide if the kind of passage I have cited suggests an extroverted, uncritical integration.     return

At other points, as well, Jerphanion is the brightest of the bright: cf. the praise lavished upon one of his formal speeches at the beginning of ch. 23 in Le 7 Octobre (v. 4, 1057-1058).     return 

10  Romains’s editor, Olivier Rony, admitted into Flammarion’s inclusive edition of Les Hommes a Fichier des Personnages (near the fourth volume’s conclusion) compiled by Romains’s wife, Lise Dreyfus Romains.  In these useful pages, Mme. Romains proposes Doriot as an inspiration for Douvrin (1301).     return

11  Mme. Romains is quick to point out in the Fichier des Personnages (ibid.) that the similarities consist of “certains traits, mais rien de plus” (1304).  The caveat is perhaps more diplomatic than justified.     return

12  See Romains’s own account of his acquaintance with Landru–who regularly serviced his car for several years–in Amitiés et Rencontres (Paris: Flammarion, 1970), 68-75.     return

13  Both characters were wrong in their assessment of their countrymen’s level-headedness, if we may admit as evidence the energy with which the PPF set about rounding up Jews in Occupied France.  The number of Italian Jews sent to death camps was negligible beside the number packed off from France by Frenchmen (the Germans not having the manpower to spare for such an unnecessary labor).     return


Dr. John Harris is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Texas at Tyler and founder of The Center for Literate Values.