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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
11.2 (Spring 2011)
courtesy of artrenewal.org
Men of Less Will Than Whimsy: The Moral Non-Sequitur Within Jules Romains’s Epic Portrait of Europe (Part Two)
John R. Harris
continued from previous issue (11.1): numbering of sections and notes has been merged with Part One
III. Sex as Artificial Zeal and Artificial Paradise
In his unanimist quest to represent the entire vista of modern existence, Romains did not recoil from detailing the sexual habits of his characters. At issue here is not whether he proceeded too far in this direction (a question posed infinitely more often in his own day than now), 14 but whether such relationships present people as they truly are. Indeed, even that formulation of the question is somewhat misleading; for we need scarcely doubt that Romains reported the intimate lives of his set quite accurately, in view of his complete antipathy to the classical novel’s penchant for tidying up–for sweeping grit under the rug. Taken all in all, however, do Romains’s portraits of sexual life in the early twentieth century indicate that humanity is making progress? Do his most sympathetic characters, especially, conduct their sexual relations (whether progressive or not by some definition or other) in a way that concurs with a common-sense, inherently human view of fair play and decency? If the sexual conduct of his best and brightest should prove merely to be drawing them deeper into moral abuses and dangerous illusions, then the vector of Western humanity as a whole can hardly be pointing upward, as is the unanimist contention.
In the previous section, we saw that fascist adventurers like Nodiard were particularly disposed to aberrant sexual practice. Group sex with a large element of the random was calculated (no doubt with much accuracy) to render the participants irrationally devoted to the orgy’s leader, if not to the declared cause du jour. Of course, Romains had no sympathy for overt fascism, mostly for the very reason that style trumped substance–that no stable, preeminent cause reared loftily on the horizon, as it did among the communists. For such rudderless vessels as Nodiard, sex appears to provide that fervor which a noble cause would have imparted to a more genuine crusader. Sex is a kind of drug in these cases. Its ecstasies allow Nodiard to consider himself a mad genius dancing on bourgeois society’s bones and his minions to sense themselves running wild in a Nietzschean dream of utter liberation.
How, then, does the Bolshevik polarity of the spectrum make out by this measure? The intellectuals who are more compatible to (though not identical with) Romains’s views cluster here. The closest of the lot to being a communist revolutionary is Laulerque. Sexual fantasy certainly has its place in his busy mind, but not as ritualized hysteria. Rather, sex is quite casual and quite private, like a draught of one’s favorite brew at the end of an honest day’s work. Having delivered a secret message in Amsterdam, for instance, Laulerque proceeds to amuse himself with the following reflections about his comely contact:
He began to muse. These were more than his usual daydreams: they profited from a certain indulgence, a truce with responsibility, that seemed brought on by sleeplessness. The young man imagined that in the image he had formed of the heroic life, there was always a place–vaguely–for a woman. Not a woman in whose company one briefly forgot labors and perils, and who was ignorant of them, but a woman thrust into the same perils herself. Not the warrior’s moment of unwinding, but an interlude with a comrade–the girl who cleaned his weapons, who stood guard for him, who carried secret messages. “Why shouldn’t I fall in love with this one? She’s ‘mine’, after all–the one that destiny has assigned to me, through a peculiar process that I might think about more later? She isn’t terribly pretty–or she wasn’t a few minutes ago. Now she’s starting to turn me on. She’s one of those, I can see, who draw their beauty from their surroundings and become transfigured. And then, you know, a militant shouldn’t be cute as a doll…. This could turn into something a little freer, a little more heroic, without causing us to change our lives. She in one place, I in another, we meet from time to time… the kiss that awaits you along with the danger. Why not?” (Province, v. 2, 36)
Is the female figure in Laulerque’s daydream something essentially more than a tall, cool drink in whose fumes the brain discovers wings? He disallows intoxication–he insists on collaboration. Yet the woman’s services (cleaning guns, keeping watch, carrying messages) remain subordinate, just as her role in laying her body down for sex. The daydream does not elevate her as a comrade: it merely enhances the pleasure she provides by integrating it with the surroundings. A cool beer or glass of wine is also of that earth which the peasant has worked all day. It is fruit of the land rather than escapism. Laulerque’s “heroic” dream, then, is far more coherent and hence rational than Nodiard’s frenzied debauch–but it is scarcely more liberating to its female participant, who stagnates in her “tool of pleasure” function.
The whimsically imagined union fails to develop during the Amsterdam trip; but the girl–who eventually confides to Laulerque her exotic Eastern European name, Margaret Desideria–lingers in his mind for months (and thanks to an exchange of letters) after the secret mission. When they meet again in Paris, his daydreaming picks up where it left off: an estimation of Margaret’s likely value as a sexual partner endowed with a certain mystique.
Is she sufficiently pretty? Put together well enough that too much doesn’t depend on the face, and also that her somewhat strange ways aren’t a turn-off? Is she worth the decisive move from an imaginary romance to the real thing? Is she worth a full-blown love affair, with all its risks? Is she worth, for instance, as much as or more than Matilde–whom I haven’t had, whom I haven’t tried to have, but whom I could probably get right now if I really wanted to, with a little burst of charm and a dusting off of the “donkey and two thieves” script…. So, this Margaret who’s just started to notice me, who’s smiling at me, and who will lock my hand tightly in another minute–will she be my mistress a week from now? (Les Pouvoirs, v. 2, 414)
The reader may recall Clanricard, the fellow normalien whose intelligence and decency draw a respect from Romains equal to that bestowed upon Jallez and Jerphaanion. Mathilde will eventually become Mme. Clanricard: she is now already his acknowledged “girl”, if not fiancée. Hence Laulerque’s reference to the folktale: Mathilde is potentially serviceable as the donkey who will carry loads for two masters. She appears to be the gold standard with which Margaret competes. Is a bird in the hand really worth two in the bush… but is Clanricard really such an obstacle that he simulates the proverbial bush?
Juggling his private calculations of Margaret’s likely sexual firepower with a sustained verbal exchange about her experience of the Organization, Laulerque reaches a decision internally… more or less:
Your objective, for the time being, isn’t to stop the next war, but to get into bed at the next opening with this girl. For it turns out that she’s very bed-able. Our illustrious Jerphanion should serve as an inspiration. The misery of the times and his noble soul didn’t prevent him from picking Mathile out of that grand idealist Clanricard’s pocket, and… in fact, I wonder if they’ve actually already hit the sack? That’s the question. And which option would be the better one? In bed with Margaret, or in bed with Mathilde? Second question. Unfortunately, I think I know the answer… but sack-time isn’t everything. Margaret has a special savor, an exciting exoticism, a different personality from Matilde’s…. All the same, a little French number from the South has plenty of spice.” (Les Pouvoirs, v. 2, 420)
That both Mathilde and Margaret–and all sexually interesting women–exist for Laulerque on the level of succulent morsels need no longer be held in doubt. This passage also apprises us that Laulerque’s attitude extends to Jerphanion, with perhaps minor adjustments; and Jerphanion is without question (along with Jallez) Romains’s greatest exemplar of the “man of good will”. The progressive verdict on women, then, seems to be a thumbs-up for the faithful enemy of bourgeois hang-ups who can be trusted to drop her panties on cue as a “pal” would share a cigarette. Is this unfair? We may say generally of Romains’s female characters, after all, that they are sexual conquests for men (potential or actual)–conquests which, at their most sympathetic, possess sufficient intellect to hold up one end of a lively conversation. They can make good companions–but good subordinate companions, still and ever keeping watch and carrying messages. The coolly calculating and self-interested actress Germaine Baader, the obtusely pious and readily seducible Marie de Champcenais, even the lovably naive Françoise Maïeul whose mystical optimism is fulfilled by Jallez’s appearance… all play second fiddle to the men in their lives.
More of that anon. Before further transition, however, we should remark of Laulerque’s conversation with Maragret a fascinating passage which explains her sudden flight from Amsterdam. The leader of her communist cell apparently draws his strategies from the same manual as Nodiard. His personal inclinations, she reveals, were homosexual…
But his unnatural habits did not deprive him entirely of his taste for women. He would stage orgies at his place, framed as special committee meetings, where both sexes were represented. The precaution with which he surrounded his political activities created a convenient zone of shadow around his debauches. He also put his formal authority to dual use. He appeared to consider that the young women of the Organization, at least the ones with whom he was in direct contact, could refuse him nothing.
“One day, he summoned me for one of his orgies. And since I didn’t attend, he became furious. Oh, he probably didn’t even want me for himself–he had probably promised me to someone else.”
He had the additional nerve to cover his vices with flattering theories. He maintained, for instance, that the members of a secret sect should be bound to their chief–and even to each other in some cases–by sexual duties as well as the usual bonds of collaborators. Their solidarity would thus assume a sacred, mystical character. (Les Pouvoirs, v. 2, 420-421)
To be exact, the character of Nodiard awaits us on the other side of World War I. The notion of describing a secret cell in this Mansonesque manner, then, clearly occurred to Romains first during his portrayal of communist subversives. Once again, as we concluded in the previous section, we find that the tastes and habits of communists and fascists display only marginal differences. The transformation of society on the basis of an explicit blueprint rather than of dynamic personality turns out not to have distinguished the followers of Lenin from those of Mussolini so very much, after all. Women are used as means to ends by both: neither, therefore, seem likely candidates for Romains’s eponymous “good will”.
I shall also discuss later the disturbing possibility that Romains does not view the artificial mysticism of these fascist/Bolshevik sexual debauches with as jaundiced an eye as one might hope. His effusive portrayal of a truly uninamist exhilaration resonates all too harmoniously with the terms found in some of these scenes. My present method, though, is to use no more in analyzing the “moral viability” of his art (i.e., its realism in respect of essential human nature and values) than what may be found within that art itself. Let us therefore remain strictly within the context of his twenty-seven novels.
How, at last, do Jerphanion and Jallez, who consistently try to feel out a “third way” in the novels, treat their sexual partners? We have already seen Laulerque refer to the former as differing little from himself–high-mindedness notwithstanding–in this regard. Laulerque’s assessment does not seem invidious. In fact, we have the following testimony from Jerphanion’s own thoughts in an earlier novel:
… He wanted a girl like Hélène Sigeau [Jallez’s first great love], about eighteen years old, still virginal, yet whose femininity would have ripened without her being aware of it, to the point that a kiss would make her fall into your arms like a a fish reeled in. In addition to that, a heart incapable of calculation that would think only of the moment’s ecstasy–that would not be obsessed with eternal vows. He wouldn’t be displeased if this girl were also a cultivated comrade able to give her opinion (between a couple of squeezes) on the sincerity of Jean-Jacques or the profundity of Baudelaire, or to accompany him to the Louvre in order to experience the spiritual radiance of The Pilgrims of Emmaus. (They might meet Jallez there, and the three of them could discuss it all.) Nothing pedantic, mind you: nothing that smelled like one of [Professor] Honoré’s classes; nothing that would deviously draw you toward a marriage of two intellectuals. Jerphanion had to have his liberty for an indefinite period, because he was committed to high achievement. He owed it to his destiny to remain an agile athlete who, on the morning of the big contest, had no goodbyes to say to anyone. And he wanted, as well–why not?–a girl a little inclined to vice, whose flesh was as well filled out as a statue’s, who wouldn’t be shocked by the more daring games of love, and in whose company one could realize from time to time the most delirious dreams of humanity. In the interval, one could forget it all as one forgets some outlandishly steamy dream after waking… (Éros de Paris, v. 1, 591)
The reader might well protest that such patent absurdity typifies the daydreams of young men. Let us recall, however, that we have here a man in his early or mid-twenties–not a boy embarking upon adolescence. One might have thought that a brilliant intellectual, at any rate, could see the folly of desiring a woman at once virginal and possessed intuitively of the courtesan’s skills, at once quick-witted and too dull to “calculate” the morning-after’s invoice of payments due. One might have hoped, at least, that this moral beacon of the new age would view with repugnance a Sacripante’s taste for the excitement of harvesting virgin flowers, or Ricciardetto’s ambition to treat such frolics as a dream lest their consequences encumber him later. Romains is apparently no Ariosto, however, when it comes to detecting and exposing fine shades of male arrogance. Of Jerphanion’s conviction that he is duty-bound to keep himself free for a high destiny, we may say that this egotistical commonplace is older in the annals of rationalized male desertion than Aeneas and Dido’s affair. Yet that he should actually accept the “obligation” within such a pompous pseudo-sacrifice ought to cast him in a very dim light to readers of good will. Aeneas, at least, possessed proof that Jupiter hung closely over his shoulder. What evidence does this young Aeneas have that the world needs him to fulfill his mission? As we have already observed from the rooftops of Jerphanion’s college, the most important thing about his grand destiny is not that it includes specific content of vital benefit to humanity, but that it belongs to him. One would not be stretching a point too finely to remark that he visualizes the servant of his sexual fantasies with about as much regard for her personhood–her unique human talents and vulnerabilities–as he shows for the body politic’s special needs in his drive to grow famous.
It is immediately after this disturbing meditation that Jerphanion encounters Jeanne, an attractive young woman who sells dresses at a fashionable boutique. Jean and Jeanne strike up an acquaintance whose consequences escape Romains’s magnifying glass, yet whose nature is quite predictable from the passage above. Jeanne, while pretty, is not ravishing; and while intelligent, she lacks education. She is a good alternative for a single young professional to whom patronizing prostitutes would raise certain financial and hygienic concerns. Whether or not she makes any “calculations” in initiating the liaison is not clear; but her head is certainly turned, and a bourgeois hope in “things to come” is certainly implied. Perhaps this explains why she simply vanishes from the narrative: the little romance must have had an ending which would have proved tiresome to relate. Before we know it, Jerphanion has taken the intellectually and physically superior Mathilde into his orbit. Should we draw the conclusion that a deflowered Jeanne remains happy just to have shared a month of her life with Adonis?
Of course, even Mathilde turns out to be a little more–or a little less–than the ideal outlined in Jerphanion’s “want list”; for even she, it appears, is so tactlessly bourgeois as to believe that one thing might lead to another. While Jerphanion does indeed register some guilt about the situation, it is aimed strictly in the direction of Clanricard, whom the young man of destiny understands belatedly as owning Mathilde too much to share. Clanricard, after all, is another person of good will–a right-thinking comrade–and it was he who introduced Jerphanion to Mathilde, into the bargain, when admitting him into their weekly discussion group. Priorities, therefore, must be straightened out. “I’ve been thinking about you constantly this morning,” Jerphanion confesses to the teacher, who has just dismissed his pupils for the day. “It’s making me sick. I simply cannot accept the role that I’m playing in this business between us” (Les Pouvoirs, v. 2, 433). Clanricard seems dumbfounded by his amorous adversary’s complete withdrawal, delivered explicitly in the next few lines, from any competition for Mathilde’s affections (unaware, perhaps, of Jerphanion’s exacting destiny). At last he manages to stammer, “What you’ve just said to me… you’ve already said it to Mathilde?” And to Jerphanion’s brief “no”, he counters, “Perhaps that would have been a little too delicate… even cruel. Is that it?” Jerphanion’s answer: “Yes, maybe… but she would accept my decision… and without too many regrets, don’t you think?” (ibid.). Thus the cruelty involved in telling Mathilde outright that she is being returned to her owner–not because of any defect, but merely because the customer is not prepared to buy–will be averted by telling her nothing at all and leaving Clanricard to determine if he wants her back on these terms. If my language of buying and selling sounds crude, I would invite any objecting commentator to demonstrate wherein Jerphanion has not deserved the imputation of crudity. In what respect concerning Mathilde Cazalis does this “noble renunciation” not resemble a business transaction–a case of buyer’s remorse preceding any actual payment?
How exactly Jerphanion’s pursuit of his eventual wife, Odette Clisson, succeeds in following a different course–in particular, how it blunders its way to the altar–is a mystery whose resolution draws not so much as a hint from the author. Romains relates nothing whatever about meeting or courtship. Later details lead us to conclude that Odette is attractive, that her parents are respectable country people (the father engaged in commerce), and that she is well above the average in education and intelligence for a woman of her day. Most likely, then, Jerphanion must have concluded that he had come reasonably close to his ideal; and, indubitably, marriage occurred to him as an afterthought once plenty of momentary ecstasy and many a tasteful chat about art between cuddles had indeed led from one thing to another. Romains appears so averse to conclusions, here as elsewhere, that we are nevertheless forced into “likelihood” unsupported by real substance. Herein, I suggest, lies a vital hint of a different kind–a clue to the fatal inadequacy of the uninamist vision. Individuals–especially those of good will, of right-mindedness–are forever swept up in the great ascending tide of progress: they cannot, as individuals, make specific decisions which permanently alter their particular lives. They cannot “finish”. Basic existential transitions, such as from the single to the married state, from youth to middle age, and from childlessness to parenthood, prove immensely problematic–to the point, it appears, that they cannot even be directly portrayed. (Regarding the last of the transitions listed, Romains assigns several comments to Jerphanion explaining why the world is not a fit place for the introduction of more children: the conception of his first and only child–a son–is heavily veiled by The Great War, and Odette’s pregnancy is a narrative non-event.)
Instead, the puerile idyll of new horizons continues even after decisive corners ought to have been permanently turned. The most stunning example of this escape from an ending (and from individual meaning) is Odette’s confession to Jallez, very late in the series of novels, that she has pondered finding a healthy little mistress for her beloved husband. In the wake of several political setbacks, “he has deeply worried me. He remains so gentle, so tender… but I could sense that this sad episode was still eating away at him. I very nearly said, ‘My poor Jean, if you had a cute young thing of twenty years in your arms, you’d quickly forget all about it'” (Françoise, v. 4, 892). Odette seems to have overcome her hesitation on other occasions and extended her generous offer openly, though Jean has not yet considered it to be a serious one. She insists to Jallez that she would far rather choose the lovely young surrogate herself than to “deal with some intriguer who will only respond to my friendly partnership as part of a game, and will hatch her own plans behind my back” (ibid.). One may take all this as the ultimate example of French common sense; but it also, I reiterate, allows the most robust and active of Romains’s heroes to keep a door open–quite without any villainy–which ordinary mortals in his condition are required to shut, on penalty of turpitude.
I might add, as well, that we do not know Odette well enough to assign any degree of psychological realism to her “generosity”. Wives do not commonly express a desire to choose mistresses for their husbands. Odette, then, must be an uncommon woman. Yet she acquires no identity in the novels independent of being the appreciative wife of Destiny’s Child. We are not assisted in understanding what formative circumstances could have made her so magnanimous. On the contrary, we appear, rather, to be back to cleaning guns, standing watch, and carrying messages: the typical female role in the progressive world (always secondary, of course, to clearing for action in the bedroom). Men conceive of lofty designs, one after another; women pick up around the edges when some degree of finish is absolutely necessary, moving in a tight orbit from chamber maid to harem concubine to ever-doting mother.
Much of what I have just written of Jerphanion can be repeated of Jallez to the power of ten. Curiously, Hélène Sigeau, Jallez’s boyhood flame (a girl slightly older than he who disappeared forever after her runaway father reduced the family’s circumstances), elicits adoring reverence and exquisite nostalgia from him. When Jerphanion muses that he wants a “girl like Hélène Sigeau”, then, he has in mind a use for her nothing akin to his friend’s… and yet, Jallez is keenly aware that what he worships in the girl is a golden mist blended of adolescent anguish and mysticism. Furthermore, he appears faintly mortified at not having pressed his adolescent suit of Hélène more vigorously (for this is one variety of finish which Romains’s heroes are usually eager to achieve). At any rate, in the narrative present of the series’ opening volume, we find Jallez kicking himself over having preserved a similarly chaste, ethereal approach with Juliette, the “second flame” of his life who is trying to re-kindle their relationship. “I’ve been, after my fashion, very sentimental,” he broods. “I’m still far too much so. The age of sentimentalism is past. This new century isn’t sentimental–not that that inhibits superior forms of exaltation: far from it! I must defend myself, then, from gentleness, from abstraction. I have to toughen myself up. Those recollections of Hélène Sigeau… what a sentimental orgy I just now permitted myself in that regard! Jerphanion was smiling as he listened to me…” (Éros de Paris, v. 1, 623).
Juliette, it seems, will be Jallez’s new Hélène. In renewing their acquaintance, he will quickly, almost vindictively sacrifice his loathsome virginity (loathsome to him)–a “hang-up” responsible for the previous parting of their ways (along with his Jerphanion-like opposition to marriage). Is this another brush stroke in the portrait of right-thinking–is the “superior exaltation” of grabbing sensual pleasure when and where one can find it an indicator of progress? Jallez is certainly correct in identifying it with the new Zeitgeist; yet if that impeccable Old Guard observer of humanity, Ariosto, were to view this young man in his present state, we would be directed again to Sacripante (who is determined to rape Angelica at the next opportunity, having danced chastity’s minuet long enough) and, perhaps even sooner, to Ricciardetto (the boy whose maxim is, “Always pursue your pleasure!”). Such thinking is not new: to suggest otherwise would be absurd. Jallez’s implying that its propriety–its morally obligatory character–as the discovery of the post-Nietzschean world is still more absurd, since he merely shifts us all back to a pre-Ariostan (and even pre-Homeric) state where we are no more capable of self-examination than hairy apes.
In an irony which appears to pass undetected to Romains himself, Juliette is married and can only initiate Jallez into the twentieth century by cuckolding her husband and lying to her lover. I say that the author could not have intended this touch of poetic justice because Juliette clearly bears the entire burden of guilt. She is presented as duplicitous and conniving from the start, hiding her old love letters under her husband’s nose and denying her new affair to his face. Her own thoughts also convict her of being an angler–what Odette would call an intriguer. “To think that if I hadn’t accepted this folly, that if I’d only had a little patience…” she agonizes inwardly. “He would have come back… he was going to come back. He would have loved me as he does now, and I wouldn’t be living through this nightmare. I would have given myself to him, as I’ve done–but to him first of all, to him alone. One day, we would have gotten married. Whenever he felt like it. He always said that he didn’t want to marry. But once he’d gotten to know me…” (Recherche d’une Église, v. 1, 1128). The marriage trap! Precisely the sort of woman that Jerphanion wished to steer clear of: the type who would have marriage in the back of her mind almost at once–not the kind (as Odette presumably was… but we can never be sure) who gives herself wholly to the moment’s ecstasy month after month and then finds marriage suddenly in her path like a pothole.
Jallez is outraged once he figures out his situation: “Liar! One of the biggest lies possible–one of the most shocking: an adulteress!” (ibid., 1206). And Romains continues to read his hero’s thoughts: “He had believed that he was in possession of his own little virgin–that this was his moment, finally, in accordance with all the ancient unwritten laws. He had deserved that gift more than most men, since he had exchanged for it more than the ancient unwritten laws demanded of a man: his own virginity” (ibid., 1207). There is apparently some urban myth laboring behind this text of a boy and a girl having their first sexual experience in an empty school room or under shrubs in the park. Jallez is indignant a) because his own experience was not optimal, after the myth’s blueprint; and b) because the chance for a first experience has now ended. To Romains himself, this is the great trespass, I would contend. Life in the brave new progressive world of unanimism–of human community evolving exponentially–must extend the optimal to ever more individuals, and it must accept no limits. Juliette has sabotaged progress.
The Gallimard editor of Romains’s series, Olivier Rony, stresses that Juliette’s proximity to the serial-killer Quinette in the early novels makes of her a kind of moral shadow or echo of the overt sociopath. Furthermore, “she is there to signify something else [besides a ‘dramatic purpose’ in her juxtaposition with Quinette]–a major theme in the novel: love tied to troubling and perverse aspects of personality, such as deception and crime.” 15 While Rony’s connection of these two figures is brilliantly perceptive, its terms also seem to me to let Jallez off the hook, since his own amorous practices now enjoy the “healthy” side of the spectrum by default. Is Juliette really a bigger liar than Jallez? If her deceptive, manipulative style of loving flirts with the criminal, Jallez’s truly does no less in several later instances. As much as he insists that his subsequent mistresses are punctiliously apprised of or implicitly initiated into the character of the “fling” (or “hook-up”, to use today’s parlance), such catechism is no more than a license to kill, at least when the “partner in pleasure” is as callow as the delicate Antonia.
Jallez’s seduction of this poignant figure, quite bluntly, shows an indigestible hypocrisy–yet I should like to see Rony or any other commentator adduce the narrative evidence that Romains has artfully insinuated any mean-spiritedness into his hero’s character. The Great War has come and gone. Jallez has no doubt mitigated his frustration over Juliette with many a second try, in the meantime. He has moved to Nice on the Mediterranean and has lavished weeks upon finding an apartment with an ideal view (so that he may have just the right panorama of the planet before him as he writes). He will shortly enter into an adulterous affair with the lovely aristocrat, Êlisabeth Valavert, which will endure for years; so even his aversion to married sweethearts, obviously, has eroded with time. Shortly before Mme. Valavert solicits his services, however, his head is turned by a young girl who sells newspapers from a kiosk. Perhaps he sees in her a chance to make good the losses incurred with Juliette: perhaps, after all, if his partner is virginal, he can pretend to be so himself and thus turn back the clock.
After some tactful skirmishing over the kiosk’s counter, Jallez invites Antonia to Falicon’s celebrated restaurant, situated romantically in the cliffs above Nice. The worldly-wise host, quickly assessing the pair, ushers them into a special room with a grand view of the sea but removed from the sight of other diners. It even possesses a unique apparatus for summoning service so that a waiter may not intrude at an inconvenient moment.
I had kissed her again, many times, on the cheek, in her hair (she had removed her hat), without seeking to touch her lips against her will. It was she herself who offered them to me, with a very serious expression on her face. I was a little distressed by it. I had murmured a few tender words to her, but always trying to allow nothing very emotional to slip into them–nothing that could have made us depart from a feeling of carefree pleasure.
A little later, she said to me as her fingers played with the creases of her napkin, “Why did you ask me if I had been here before… in this room?”
I answered, trying to handle the question as a sort of tease, “”Oh, no reason! Maybe because you would have every right to have been here… and because I would find that entirely natural. It doesn’t seem to me that anything very terrible goes on in this room.”
“No,” she said without the faintest smile, “I’ve never been here. I’ve never done what you think I have.”
She had said this with such a calm gravity! I was astonished by it. I caught her by the elbow.
“My sweet Antonia–come on, now! Why do you think that you have to defend yourself from any charge? As if I had the slightest right in the world to interrogate you about anything! If I made that remark just now–which I regret since it has caused you pain–it was simply as a joke, with no importance attached. Right? We’re good pals, right? We go around together for the fun of it, and not to give ourselves grief.” (La Douceur de la Vie, v. 3, 564)
It is difficult to believe that an author can have portrayed so well a gentleman acting badly and not have intended for his reader to share in the irony. This recounting of events, however, appears in Jallez’s journal: there is no narrative context within which to detect the “misfit” of an ironic gap. We must accept as fully well-intended, therefore–and even virtuous–Jallez’s protestations to this girl who knows herself being slowly, surely seduced that they are just “pals going around together”. As the two descend to the city on foot under the night’s cool veil, the account continues in the same vein.
Antonia forced herself to remain cheerful, yet I could feel her falling back into a certain brooding in spite of herself. I tried subjects of conversation designed to distract her. I talked to her about the various parts of Nice and its environs that I already knew, asking her about her own preferences all the while. Now that she was more free with me, she amazed me with the depth of her remarks. I discovered in her a very discriminating, very attentive soul: a spirit capable of humor, not easily duped by appearances. I talked to her also about future ambles that we could take together.
Perhaps she was grateful for the tone of levity and simple friendship that I was injecting into my remarks. After a silence that we allowed to linger, and with the same serious, almost poignant expression that her face had worn in Falicon’s special little room, she said, “You know, Pierre, you don’t need to worry on my account. You see, I know very well… yes, I completely get it.”
She stopped. I felt that she was afraid that she might break into tears. I held her tight against me.
“My dear, sweet, dear little Antonia! So reasonable! So wise! So you do understand that I would sooner cut off a finger than clumsily bring you to grief? I would so like to be sure that you would never regret our becoming companions.”
“No. I won’t regret it.” (La Douceur de la Vie, v. 3, 570-71)
I began this essay by citing Jallez’s ride with Bartlett in a pony-cart outside Rome as the first point in Les Hommes de Bonne Volonté that jolted me irreconcilably from the author’s value system. This scene administers to me the second such jolt. A novelist at the peak of his craft could scarcely represent any figure more subtly sympathetic than Antonia appears here. Yet Romains, incredibly, does not seem to take the full measure of the anguish that he has just captured in a bottle. Girls of eighteen with little education and no prospects do not experience any particular douceur–little enough in the present moment, far less later–as they begin to pile up episodes of dapper young professionals dining them, wining them, bedding them, and then sending “thinking of you” cards at an increasing distance of time and space for a couple of years. Jallez seems perversely to count upon such lower-class “street smarts” to prevent Antonia from growing emotionally tied to him. “Even in those rare instances when such girls lack experience in amorous affairs,” he reasons self-indulgently, “they know by tradition–by an abundant word-of-mouth teaching–that men, first and foremost, are out to amuse themselves with women” (ibid., 535). Antonia, then, will be just fine: the peasants all know what city-slickers do with girls of their class, so she will content herself with getting as much pleasure as she can of the same sort!
Romains, I must conclude, sees these situations wholly through the eyes of his heroes since he never dares to offer any complementary scene from the woman’s perspective that would either confirm or deny the man’s sunny forecast. Certain portraits are never painted in this vast series of novels: neither “girl smiling over former lover’s postcard from Hong Kong” nor “girl crumpling ex’s Christmas card in tears”; neither “woman recalling former lover’s embraces as she combs his child’s hair” nor “unmarried washerwoman beating child after returning late to squalid hovel.” The male quest of pleasure without limits in defiance of bourgeois suffocation enjoys a victory by default: there is no competing female view cluttered with consequences. The unending boyhood of men who “mean well”–whose will is good–is the reality of this novelist. Since Jallez most sincerely wants this pretty child of the streets to share in the romping good time that he intends to have with her, modern life is improving. What more could anyone ask of a man, especially in the Age of Progress?
Space is lacking to review the stages of Jallez’s spiritual awakening (or his moral meltdown) once he realizes, in his early forties now, that sex is a welcome distraction from the grim setbacks of the political world. I shall try to encapsulate his adventures. Returning from one of many trips abroad that has left him depressed over the international scene, Jallez registers a kind of epiphany to which Romains devotes hundreds of words in vague metaphor (a textbook case of overwriting) before converging upon sex:
Sometimes the image preserved a fixity momentarily and attained almost an individual clarity–was surrounded for a mere second with a framing halo that more or less centered it. Most often, it was scarcely more than the phantom of a woman, a young woman. The overall trimness of the body… the lightness and elegant tension in the curves… sometimes she was clothed in abstract dress, the presence of clothing communicated by a certain dark bristling of the body between knees and head and by a thickening of the curves…. [Fifty more words describing indications of the garment-mirage as they crystallize and then fade.] Sometimes the woman was naked. In a kind of mental hieroglyph, this circumstance was signaled by a certain pale phosphorescence of the silhouette, flowing from one quarter to plunge into the dark triangle of the lower belly, and from another to scintillate at the points of the breasts. (Comparutions, v. 4, 408-409)
And another two hundred words follow before the paragraph concludes, most of them dedicated to stressing the figure’s youth and bending her into various alluring postures.
From all that has preceded, this “revelation” hardly reveals anything to Romains’s readers about his own presumptions, though it seems to turn Jallez’s world upside-down. We have known since Jerpanion’s early insights on the subject that the ideal woman must be young, seductive, and largely “unused”; while Laulerque and no less an authority than Mme. Jerphanion have instructed us that this ideal is also related, in inverse and compensatory fashion, to the disappointments of manly political action. Yet even with the catechism of the twenty-three previous novels, a sensible adult is hard-pressed to comprehend how another sensible adult could hold such a “vision” in religious awe. Men who have completed long, arduous trips have been known to thumb through a copy of Playboy. Why on earth does Romains seek to sell us on the substance of Jallez’s second sight as scales rain from his eyes?
The absurd New Way does not lead Jallez far before it merges with the Old Way. Returning to his apartment in Paris, he is accosted by a pretty neighbor, Aimée Deffonds, who wants him (in his quality as writer and man of the world) to advise her concerning her wayward husband. Jallez undertakes to compose a letter or two and even to see the husband’s mistress–a luminously succulent woman of the people styling herself Mlle. Lucrezia (who hints that she and Jallez might meet again if she cannot re-assign the naughty husband to her own household). Well before that encounter, however–before his first meeting with Aimée concludes, in fact–Jallez grows aware of the situation’s possibilities, whose full exploitation he represents to himself as nothing less than a moral duty.
Let’s say that you have no desire for her, or that you don’t feel sufficiently sure of your ability to maintain your subsequent relationship within limits which you would be an idiot to go beyond (limits which, you may be sure, the lady herself perceives). Don’t try to hide behind chivalrous scruples, and don’t tell yourself that you’re acting from altruism. Genuine altruism toward a cute young wife abandoned by her man–who returns home after a long day at the office to deathly evenings without a word of loving conversation, without caresses, without anything that would prove to her that she isn’t already an old woman–genuine altruism would be to give her an hour of love from time to time. Our smart little Parisians aren’t fools. They well understand that situations like these don’t involve romantic passion or eternal vows. One day later on, this one will say to you, “I’ve met a young man at the firm where I take my typed copies, and he’s proposed marriage to me. I’d like to have your opinion about him…” (Comparutions, v. 4, 440-441)
Of course, Jallez does the “altruistic” thing, being a man of good will (just as he gift-wrapped many happy memories for Antonia). Note how his need not to be limited is rendered here in terms of the severe limits within which others must operate around him; and note, once again, the contemptuous reference to chivalry (i.e., genuine genuine altruism). Still again, the novelist, far from developing the ironic potential of this little drama, has events very vaguely unfold just as Jallez foresees them with his new second sight. We do not actually follow Aimée beyond a couple of “consultations” with her worldly neighbor; but future (and very brief) references to her suggest retrospectively that she has indeed advanced through a low-simmering affair to bourgeois stability in the fashion charted by Uncle Pierre’s charity. When endings cannot be avoided, the unanimist aesthetic appears to allow that they be supplied in a sentence or two of casual conversation dedicated to another subject.
Jallez’s newly energized explorations of the Joy of Sex greatly accelerate in The Magic Carpet (Le Tapis Magique), the name with which he dubs them in intimate chats with Bartlett and Odette. To Romains’s credit, it must be said that these adventures–too numerous to recount here–seem deliberately multiplied to produce a crescendo effect implying surfeit: that is, Jallez may finally have gone too far, in his creator’s opinion. His last recorded episode occurs when he decides to try his luck “blind” with a beautiful stranger encountered casually in a Viennese hotel’s elevator. A later knock at her door and the lamest of lines (“Just now in the elevator… you’re utterly ravishing, and if I had dared, I would have asked if we might have a chat…” [Le Tapis Magique, v. 4, 752)… and she is running to his room in her nightgown within fifteen minutes. The mistress of a married Austrian banker, this beauty’s almost speechless admission of Jallez into her intimacy, as if she were some Sibylline guide who could recognize the underworld traveler by a sign, may tempt some readers to conclude that he has stumbled over the brink of the forbidden. Yet he resists with disdain the strictly “moral” ground of his ensuing withdrawal from sexual fishing expeditions. In a chapter titled, “Goodbye to the Magic Carpet”, he muses:
If I’m bidding it [the Carpet] farewell after so brief a usage, the reason is that I’ve gotten out of it pretty much all that I expected, and that a prolonged usage would risk causing it to lose its special virtues while, at the same time, reducing me to servitude.
It most certainly demonstrated to me that it is capable of alleviating boredom, of stirring up the becalmed waters of life, of giving savor to the recesses of lived moments and imagined ones, of feeding a more or less continuous yet light intoxication that doesn’t leave a heavy hangover. The danger would be an eventual monotony, or–what amounts to the same thing–the necessity of increasing the drug’s dose, or concentration, or richness of essence, all the way to an impassible limit far too quickly attained.
Now that I know that the drug exists, I can come back to it if the need should arise and I can’t find anything better. The way to use such energetic treatments is to abstain from them for long intervals. They need to be abandoned when they’re not absolutely necessary. (Françoise, v. 4, 788)
The florid metaphorical ramble of the second paragraph reflects a rationalizing kind of self-indulgence characteristic of Romains’s intellectual heroes. It plainly does not sustain the interpretation that Jallez has definitively learned some sort of moral lesson. On the contrary, he seems more inclined to congratulate himself for having dared to open a dark cellar and investigate. Whatever effect his protracted foray has had upon him, it has not humbled him.
Several further generalizations might be made of these exotic encounters viewed as a bundle. Virtually all are related to Jallez’s work as a journalist cum politico laboring to keep the peace in Europe: he does not take trips exclusively to meet women–and indeed, on at least one occasion he curtails an adventure in order to keep to his schedule (Le Tapis Magique, ch. 35). The tidy little affairs in Jallez’s bag of joys are also all heterosexual and mere twosomes. None is infected with the bestial mania that degraded the fascistic Nodiard’s staged fantasies (though the Berlinese morsel Erna von Blaberg confides that she and her sister often arranged foursomes in the past [ibid., ch. 28]). Viewed beside samples of other private lives laid bare in the series, then, Jallez’s sexual odyssey is actually “conservative” in its range and ambition. 16 Remarkable, as well, is the degree to which Romains permits him to succeed in doing no psychological damage to any of his partners along the way. The reader will already have observed that he is punctilious about choosing only those who either play the game actively or who must have imbibed the rules from their surroundings. Jallez even reveals to Odette (whom he never touches, by the way–best friends’ wives are strictly out of bounds) that his long-term sometime mistress, Êlisabeth Valavert, takes a vicarious pleasure in the details of his conquests (Françoise, v. 4, 802). Women do not die of love in the works of Jules Romains: they do not even grow bitter from it–certainly not in the “caring” hands of a man of good will.
In short, there is no cautionary tale whatever concealed within the Magic Carpet’s folds–or no more than the heavy user’s realization that he might become an addict. The stage is now set, somewhat melodramatically, for the entry of Françoise into Jallez’s life; for the journalist’s eyes literally fall upon a letter from an unknown correspondent immediately after his “wise” resolve to sober up temporarily. Françoise, the letter’s author, comes very close to fulfilling Jerphanion’s description of the perfect female (the more spiritual terms of which the missive itself satisfies). She is well-educated, savvy, and sensitive; possessed of a refined beauty yet also endowed with all the physical necessities for exciting male senses and enjoying her own–a quality which she scarcely appreciates; for she is also a virgin in her early twenties. She is an Antonia from the proper social class, an Odette who–this time–will not suddenly materialize from nowhere as the hero’s wife. She has supplied all the deficiencies of Jeanne and Juliette (one must wonder what André Maurois would have made of the “J-echo” in these names). She is, in short, unique not in being different from Romains’s other females, but in realizing the ideal more explicitly than the others.
And herein, it seems to me, is the great lie within Françoise–the reason why she prolongs the fatal lack of realism in Romains’s unanimist panorama. Profuse background detail notwithstanding, Françoise is just another shapely comrade who cleans guns, keeps watch, and carries messages. What we have learned about her in the course of the series, while far exceeding our window upon any other woman’s past, reveals only generic detail. In the ninth novel, Montée des Périls, she is a newborn babe; in the thirteenth novel, Mission à Rome, she is a gravely ill toddler with an angelic face; in the twenty-third novel, Naissance de la Bande, she is a college student preserving her emotional integrity (and her maidenhood) from various young men unworthy of her in an almost mystical confidence that the future holds higher rewards. As Jerphanion divined a grand destiny from the rooftop of his college, so this immaculate scion of the haute bourgeoisie feels the future’s protective arms guiding her through Paris’s postwar decadence… to Jallez. For a female morph of Jerphanion’s gable-rapture would apparently be something like the fulfillment of Jallez’s vision: to become the perfect female companion for a man of good will–to be forever more “my little Françoise” for the profound thinker whose thoughts might otherwise torture him to death.
This destiny Françoise proceeds to accomplish in the penultimate novel, which bears her name. Her family having suffered greatly from the economic collapse of 1929 (as Hélène Sigeau’s family had plunged into poverty upon the father’s desertion), Françoise is “getting by”, a hard-working clerical employee dedicating her intellect to bare survival, still waiting for her destiny’s star to rise. That ascendancy begins when she reads Pierre Jallez’s moody novel about an enchanting quarter of Paris–a quarter she knows well, and whose enchantment she not only discovers through his words but reverts to for comfort in her strained circumstances. She is moved to write the novelist a letter of gratitude. In his turn, Jallez is so gripped by the note’s naive sincerity and unaffected sensitivity that he arranges a meeting. He has already conceived the hope of meeting the eidolon at the core of his Universal Female fantasy. Several chapters of long conversation follow. Yet not a single paragraph is ever offered to explain how Jallez actually brings things to that pass with Françoise which he so quickly reached with Erna, the beautiful Viennese, and others of his Magic Carpet days. One might infer that this affair indeed scales to unprobed spiritual heights in Jallez’s life by staying nobly Platonic. That inference would be mistaken, as Jallez intimates to Odette in yet another intense tête-à-tête via telephone:
… Odette appeared to hesitate. “Another thing. You are going to find me horribly indiscreet and indelicate, perhaps… but it’s just that I remember everything you told me earlier very well. You may recall that you spoke to me before of what you called a test. You wanted to be sure of being loved for yourself, not for the station in life that you might be able to offer…” [About three hundred words follow whose objective is to ask Jallez whether Françoise has slept with him yet.]
“My dear Odette, do not torment yourself like this. We’re not anarchists, you and I, in the matter of morals. But I would hold us both in a little contempt if conventions obliged us to act out this kind of comedy when we’re all alone. I’ve freely chosen to confide in you. And I know that your curiosity has always been stirred either by your friendship for me or by the sympathy which this unknown little girl named Françoise inspires in you. So no need of excuses. You have the right, even, to say to yourself, ‘Love has made him abandon some of the wise resolutions that he made before. He’s allowed himself to be led down the traditional path, like everyone else.’ No, Odette. We’ve done a better job than that of preserving the the excitement–I may even say the purity–of love, which naturally desires society’s sanction, but which insists on safeguarding the notion of owing its force only to itself. Is your curiosity satisfied?” (Le 7 Octobre, v. 4, 958-960)
This indigestible utterance seems to parse into a “yes” under persistent analysis (one shudders to imagine how evasive it might have been if Jallez and Odette had not been quasi-anarchic best friends alone in the phone’s confessional). Yet I find Jallez’s pomposity more vexatious than humorous. Not only are we still deprived of any vibrant, directly represented evidence that Françoise is not just one more port of call for the Magic Carpet: her unique qualities (for we must suppose her to possess some) have been entirely sublimated into the eternal, immutable demands of Jallez’s precious creed. She has not changed his life by representing something new under the sun to him; she has validated his inflexible (and inane) checklist by achieving the first perfect score. Recall that the right-thinking woman must surrender herself body and soul with complete trust at the proper moment–the moment to wring maximal ecstasy from the moment–rather than drive a hard bargain like a tight-fisted little shopkeeper. Françoise has passed every test: to Jallez, this is the central issue, the facet of their affair which thrills him. His love song has the lyrics of an ideological anthem, with a robust scorn of bourgeois society occupying the lines usually devoted to some such tired but endearing cliché as, “I’ll sacrifice anything for her!”
At the end of this long conversation, the ever-curious Odette (like many of Romains’s readers, no doubt) still seems to solicit the recitation of a Road to Damascus experience from her husband’s bosom friend. “But surely, when you spoke of marriage to your little Françoise, she must have thought that… that you had been touched by grace,” she prods (Le 7 Octobre, v. 4, 962). Jallez fields the question with the blandest of responses, once again–almost as if Romains assumed his narrative’s inadequacies to be successfully dispelled once he himself had drawn them into the open. Without a climactic turn-around in thinking, however–without an instant of legitimate insight, of “grace”–and knowing that the Magic Carpet could come out of the closet again whenever Jallez needs it strong medicine–we must conclude that Françoise simply “interviewed” better than any of her predecessors. From her perspective (which is no more clearly defined than most female perspectives in Romains), Françoise cannot have been thinking of marriage early on, despite her family’s near-destitution, because such vicious “calculation” would disqualify her as a suitable match. We are invited to believe, apparently (or left to believe in the absence of alternatives), that a few conversations with Jallez about life–not about politics or literature in particular, but about the renowned poet’s anguish and yearning over an indiscriminately mingled stew of public and private crises–somehow signal for her the new day so long awaited. Neither Jallez’s financial stability, his solid reputation, nor the dependable habits of his greater years could have had more than the faintest influence on a pure heart.
V. Unanism: No Sense of an Ending
Romantic? <span”>Sentimental? Anything more so (in the sloppy pejorative vein) is difficult to imagine. 17 Yet in such folderol is to be located, as well, the omega point of the new anti-sentimentalism. In his phone conversation with Odette, Jallez employed the word romanesque, which I understand as “exciting; characteristic of a rambling, active adventure”. He had much earlier equated the romantic with the sentimental and had dismissed them both (along with the chivalrous). There is no inconsistency here: sensitive people do indeed tend to think longer and act less precipitately, whereas Jallez’s twentieth century is committed to action first and foremost. The folderol lies not in this distinction, but in the further claim that people who act upon impulse and then fashion a rear-guard ethical system to vindicate their surges and lurches are somehow of good will. The deliberation which characterizes good will is, by definition, thought; and virtuous thought inspires humane sentiment. In contrast, a creature of impulse who wills not to be constrained by thought or sentiment cannot lay claim to a good will as a way of avoiding the consequences of headstrong egocentricism–i.e., of refusing to bridle his impulses. Good men do bad things, to be sure; but they are not good at the moment when they choose to be thoughtless, and a good man cannot persistently so choose.
Romains surely must have realized as much, at some level: hence the reluctance expressed (through his favorite characters) to give free rein to subversive political action or to wholly unnatural sexual debauch. What does this reluctance amount to, though, but a desire to cultivate a rather good will–a will not all that bad? We return to the initial lolling about in the balcony seat which was my point of departure in criticizing the moral fiber of Jallez and his fellow scribblers and conferees. Is the New Age, then–the Progressive Era–reduced to calling a good man that person who does not act quite as impulsively as others around him? Does he garner special points for not actually bloodying his hands in the human sacrifices viewed from his balcony–a setting where no truly good man would ever be found unless as a pinioned sacrifice?
Obviously, I believe no such credit to be due. This is my personal judgment, as one reader, of moral reality. Within its strictures (what I regard as very rational strictures), I cannot perceive any sort of progress–and little enough good will–in the sexual morals, especially, of Jules Romains’s creations. On the contrary, I find the narcissism latent in how the most admirable and exemplary characters–Jallez and Jerphanion–exploit the opposite sex to be as old as the hills, and far less lofty. A Freudian, it seems to me, would enjoy picking apart the need that these men manifest to be loved with impeccable devotion, with intellectual stimulation, and with exquisite physical titillation (the last in the strongest measure) by women whose breeding, whose mental acumen, and whose provocative physique (especially that last) must rank very high–all of this without any reciprocal demand’s being levied upon them. I invoke Freud because this equation’s imbalance strikes me as, above all, childish. Every boy dreams of winning gold medals without having to train. Every boy, furthermore, wants his mother to praise him like a god while staying out of the way of his pranks and silently indulging his little vices. In this respect, even the variety of sexual service which the Jallez/Jerphanion mentality expects of its conquests is maternal: that is, gratification is to be perfect, ultimate, supernal–a veritable birthday cake with candles blazing over thick icing–while all the labors of preparation and of clean-up are to be concealed discreetly from the the Dauphin’s notice.
I cannot conceal, from my own critical kitchen, a contempt for this paradigm as a model for progress. I find myself mildly outraged, even, that an author of such talent and depth as Romains, and whose solicitation of the reader’s time presumes so far, should do no better than this in drafting the blueprint of “good will”. Let us be very clear. I, as a reader–and hence as a perceiver of the art object who also possesses certain moral convictions–will certainly not deny that many men resemble the sketches in Romains’s gallery. What is not framed anywhere along this wall is the ideal of conduct after which good men strive and which, almost always in some degree, they fail to reach. I do not fault Jallez for his failure: I fault Romains for not representing Jallez’s conduct as flawed. I fault the author’s realism because it shows us no more than men behaving poorly–never a man aware of his poor behavior. The result, to me, is not real since it lacks the Angst of shortcoming–the guilt of having exploited someone vulnerable, the self-reproach of having surrendered to one’s lower nature, etc. Moral complexity is missing, or at most is accorded a blank canvas amid the other portraits, titled “Jallez Dutifully Confirms That Partner Is Emotionally Null.”
I personally know this vein of reasoning well from my ample experience of large campuses in the seventies and eighties. The popular mind has chosen to mingle golden memories of sexual liberation in those years (and even more in the sixties) with lofty ambitions of overthrowing oppressive political institutions. Indeed, one important lesson we may draw from Les Hommes, taken in its vast entirety, is that anti-rational political movements and radical sexual liberation are two sides of the same coin. These are not simply two themes loosely adrift in the twenty-seven novels: they are the two major themes. (Ironically, the central pair of Verdun novels which brought the series to international attention is unique in having left little space for the author to examine the public and private phalanxes of the progressive movement.) Not that Romains himself considered his heroes’ elusive “third way” political views as anything less than sensible or their “no promises, no harm” sexual practices as anything less than wholesome: within this conviction of “good sense” opens the very gap which separates him from stark reality. The two positions (i.e., on sex and politics) are in fact the same general position diversely applied. Both fail to acknowledge blunt human truths at the same points. Both claim that the past has mired the human spirit in mindless routine and hierarchy (as in marriage and party or national alliances). Both present breaking free of tradition’s yoke as courageous and predominantly righteous (e.g., love purely for erotic pleasure or subversive plots such as political kidnappings), though clumsiness and excess may occur in small doses. Both fashion a dizzying “virtue”–something like trust, or even faith–out of not promising any preconceived tomorrow (cf. the religious packaging of ecstasy in the moment or of utter confidence in the good will of the liberated). Both require the individual to surmount “selfishness” and to drown all “hang-ups” within a trend or movement’s wave (as when rejecting the bourgeois cult of virginity or banning all expression that might leave someone “feeling bad”). Both actually celebrate the absence of logical objective in their programs, since progress, by definition, requires an ever invisible next horizon (cf. ignoring the possibility of pregnancy in sexual relationships or creating new social programs despite exhausted material resources).
This final predisposition somehow contains or implies most of the others (and I have simply recorded the list as it occurred to me, without imposing causal subordination). Of course, fixation with progress is also the central feature of Romains’s unanimism. In the penultimate chapter of the last novel, he indeed overtly draws his huge series into orbit around an overarching view of world history wherein progress grows increasingly luminous as the focal point. Chapter 24, “Présentation de l’Europe en Octobre 1933,” is sui generis, not quite in its style (for Romains allows himself three or four other such editorial intrusions into his epic), but certainly in its length, which exceeds three thousand words. It is a veritable lecture or sermon unto itself, without reference to any specific characters or events in the novels. In it we find the essential (though, nowadays, always suppressed) progressive doctrine of the White Man’s Burden. Graced by her physical location and her history, Europe has enjoyed a unique position in the vanguard of technological development. Now she needs to show herself generous with her blessings by ushering the more backward nations of the planet into the new dawn.
The only way to embark them upon this journey toward a future equality of rights, toward this ideal communion of equals, was to teach them–a little rudely if necessary–the ways and procedures of a civilization which all the evidence proved to be no longer just one among many, but the supreme result and convergence of the human spirit’s efforts, the highest attempt of the species to distance itself from its primitive beginnings… (Le 7 Octobre, v. 4, 1079)
To be fair, one must recall that some of the time’s political and literary figures who bask in undiluted esteem today–Woodrow Wilson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, G. B. Shaw, H. G. Wells–gave themselves to expressions of racial/cultural mission far more presumptuous than Romains’s above. 18 To be doubly fair, the reader should even notice the excerpt’s past tense, which reflects the author’s attempt to offer the dominant intellectual view of his day rather than merely his personal opinion. Yet this view was also Romains’s. Rony directs us to a poem written long before the first word of Les Hommes:
White Man is an epic about the constructors of the European race, their many conquests, and their progressive domination of the universe–which, however, is beginning to show its first cracks in the form of doubts about its mission in the present century. It concludes with a call to that universal republic destined to illuminate mankind in rays of reason and justice. 19
The holy mission of progressive countries to spread their gospel around the world is actually the second of two empowering discoveries which Romains attributes to Europe. The first is that the mission is indeed holy, for such evangelism reflects the new faith of our era. Romains apprises us that “religion makes its appearance in the evolution of societies with all the characteristics of an historical event; and that, hence, the common methods of history and criticism are applicable to it, whether in matters concerning the formation of dogma or in those concerning a text’s dating, its contamination, and its variants…” (ibid., 1077-1078). This observation is not exactly tantamount to an announcement that God is dead. Certainly, however, the notion of God as immutable, resistant to man-made advances, and not subject to dissection by human techniques has been ruled outdated. As Romains had much more fervently expressed himself in another poem that predated Les Hommes,
And yet, I’m in a hurry. Let’s go. My heart is starved,
Not for ideas–it sickens me, The Ideal; what I need
Is Being. A real god. We must have gods that work!
Not spirits lost in clouds who shape insipid forms.
We need gods made of flesh, alive–who are ourselves!
Whose substance pulses strongly beneath our fingers; gods
Who suffer for our bodies and look out through our eyes,
Respiring creatures for whom nose, lungs, hands are us! 20
The new god, of course, will be progress, tout court: the irresistible tsunami of technological adaptation and enlightened social hygiene which carries the torch of the decrepit Church’s charity. Romains actually deals with dedicated social workers operating under the Church’s rubric quite admiringly (e.g., Father Jeanne–another “J” hero, for those who are keeping count–and often the dynamic Father Mionnet). The Church’s conventional objectives, though–her “insipid forms” (causes blêmes)–no longer have sufficient connection to here and now. The commitment, as the verses above well convey, is truly charismatic and (in the word’s original sense) enthusiastic. Indeed, Romains’s first conception of the unanimist vision of oneness supposedly occurred at a certain time and place, like a saint’s rapture: “an October evening , as he ascended Amsterdam Street” in Paris. 21
Naturally, the idea that the Christian God lives on in progressive social causes is also not original with Romains, but indeed had come to be almost cliché after the turn-of-the-century Great Awakening. One may say that it infuses (or infects) most forms of organized Christianity in the West to this day. Yet Romains’s personal commitment to this progressive-state-as-god was quite as sincere as his belief that Paris could be the central character in his great opus–a pair of unrecognized tropes that work together, I would stress, to efface the individual’s place in reality. Writing after most of the series was complete, the mature novelist proclaimed, more cryptically is less giddily, “The divine [as defined by unanimism] was no longer the human carried to perfection or to its outermost limit: it became the next stage of reality.” 22 What exactly does this mean? It can mean nothing other than that the individual endeavor to serve virtue and resist sin (“the human carried to perfection”) has been supplanted by the progressive state’s success at alleviating poverty, supplying healthy working conditions, bestowing free education upon the masses, etc. Virtue is now collective: salvation is now collective. Human lives are now Human Life, souls now The Soul.
Yet again, I invite the reader to recall how very characteristic such views were of the twentieth century’s first half, at least among the intelligentsia (where they still tend to dominate all discussion). To his credit, Romains was no facile propagandist. The wealthy and aristocratic Saint-Papoul family is far more benign than villainous, while the wartime profiteer Haverkamp is little other than a “working stiff” trying to survive however he can. The war itself, one would think, might be best avoided to whatever extent possible by any salesman of progressivism–yet Romains makes of it the centerpiece of his epic. This speaks well of his intellectual honesty… up to a point. I am afraid, though, that it also indicates the depth of a certain “religious fanaticism”. If the Great War itself cannot discredit progress, then surely nothing can. One finds precisely the same attitude among progressives toward the slaughters executed at the behest of Lenin and Stalin in Russia: they were unfortunate, but we mustn’t therefore lose the faith! (And Romains is among these apologists: on 1092 [ibid.], he adumbrates an extended parallel between the Communist International and the Catholic Church which, without heaping disrespect upon the latter, shows much to the former’s advantage.)
To the extent that the war cannot be dismissed simply as progressive Europe’s growing pains, Romains’s concluding unanimist homily warns us that something is wrong with the German people. “Wickedness is not the same thing as ferocity,” he explains, exculpating the natural excesses of fierce animals. “Sometimes it links itself to ferocity, stirring in its own bitterness. Yet it lingers after the other has receded” (Ibid., 1089). Germans have a wicked streak unknown to naturally savage creatures. “In the greatest works of their literature, it’s hard to find a single page that has been softened by a spontaneous surge of simple kindness” (ibid.). 23 Progressivism is Manichaean. It must absolutely have a devil or race of demons to explain why the advance of enlightened thinking is so slow and fitful. Thus Romains continues to conform himself to the profile of this rather inflexible and uninstructive vision.
Yet here, more importantly, we come by a roundabout backstreet to the heart of unanimism’s aesthetic ineptitude. I have persistently noted two flaws in Romains’s narratives above: that no individual narrative is ever concluded in the classical fashion (i.e., leaves a sense of full happening), and that the rich array of characters (especially females) shows a disappointingly stereotyped look upon close inspection. Both of these flaws root in the progressive mindset. Closure, first of all, can only occur in any narrative on an individual scale, since the forward-moving collective will never reach its terminal stage. Yet individuals in the progressive vision no longer hold the key to good and evil, right and wrong: their single lives are sacrificed to the End That Never Comes even as a hyperbola is pledged to chase an asymptote. Character, in the second place, must obviously be stereotypical for writers proceeding from such assumptions. Dynamic characters must work through several stages to a crisis that radically alters them, leaving behind them a sequence of meaningful time; a unanimist character can only keep on keeping on, ever doing his little bit as the planet trundles into the rosy future.
I may further observe that both of these fatal aesthetic limitations affect both of the major themes identified above: politics and sexual relationships. Any sort of forward-looking political view cannot possibly be discredited–only a need of further tweaking may be revealed. Fascism, with its pose of turning to a mythic past–though the pose is indeed entirely staged–quickly grows intolerable on this ground. It claims to lead out of the wilderness but is only leading in circles, renewing the march just to revisit a familiar wasteland. Other forms of revolutionary overhaul, however, always need just a little more dedication from their votaries for a little longer; and the servants of the cause themselves cannot provide the sense of an ending, because their falling away would only indict their moral stamina or their original sincerity. It would not lead to any broader understanding of the human condition, which itself (in this view) is fluid and depends upon the stamina and sincerity of humanity’s servants.
Sexual relationships, likewise, cannot be stabilized as social constructs, since modern society is on the move. The failure of a certain variety of relationship (an adulterous or polygamous arrangement, or a two-year non-renewable marriage) could prove nothing more than that society’s views (as expressed by outward condemnation or the characters’ inward preconditioning) had not yet sufficiently evolved to countenance a new sort of happiness. For their part, the characters’ response to such situations would indicate a) their openness to social evolution, or b) their tragic subjection to outdated categories. To create a dynamic character in such a medium would be possible only in one very limited sense: that is, if a certain previously inhibited character were to recognize through experience the absurdity of his or her hesitancy. Such a vector, though, would bring us to the eventual recasting of all characters into new stereotypes, since whatever model the progressive society might dictate for their health and happiness would be their complete identity, sooner or later.
I will applaud Romains to this degree: he creates no character of the sort just described. We are made to sit through no propagandistic pantomime, that is, wherein the foolish virgin realizes at last that she is much happier sleeping around or the brat of social privilege discovers that true meaning lies in delivering shoes to poor children. Does this tasteful abstention from facile moralizing reflect a mature decision on the author’s part, however, or rather a chronic impotence? In Bernard de Saint-Papoul, eldest son of a marquis and the young Jerphanion’s first pupil, we indeed seem to encounter the type of the enfant dorloté whose conscience awaits a salutary shock; and in the final novel, Le 7 Octobre, Jerphanion is approached by an earnest young man who turns out to be Bernard–a penitent and reformed Bernard, now a card-carrying communist. Yet the scene from Les Humbles (the sixth novel) to which the youth attributes his conversion–a tour of Paris’s most squalid section wherein the tutor plays Virgil to Bernard’s Dante–has no trace of transformative awakening. On the contrary, Jerphanion is struck at the time by how little effect this journey to the Underworld appears to have on the boy.
The truth is that Les Hommes does not offer the prospect of a single dynamic character whose transformation is actually narrated. Quinette was already a sociopath before chance introduced him to the fascination of murder. Laulerque and Douvrin were already constitutional rebels before the communist party’s hierarchy caused them to rebel against its style of rebellion. Jerphanion and Clanricard seem stunningly unaltered by their years in the trenches of Flanders: no irrational fits of rage, no drinking problems, no tendency to suicide. Jallez’s near-execution at the hands of the Soviets shakes him up philosophically no more than his exotic sequence of one-night stands. Over the course of twenty-five very eventful years, none of these people undergoes any profound change of heart whatever.
As a matter of fact, I am unaware of any dynamic character that Romains ever created in any sort of work. Les Copains is one of the most delightful short novels ever written, and Donogoo-Tonka one of the most robustly provocative plays. Yet the main character of the former must truly be said to be the group of friends, whose innocent invasion of the French countryside with bicycles and wine flips dormant communities upside-down; and in the latter, although a man actually transitions from almost drowning himself in the Seine to becoming a millionaire developer, all of the change is undertaken by the society around him.
That, of course, the unanimist kerygma: societies change. Individuals, too, may change–but not as individuals: only by participating in a changing society. If a man or woman might radically alter from within–if the prostitute were to turn celibate and scrub floors, if the crooked judge were to wake up in a cold sweat and resigns his office the next day, if the poverty-loving minister were to become a demagogue after a quarter-hour’s exposure on Sixty Minutes–then society’s grand advance would melt away like last winter’s snows. For if the life of one could so change, then the lives of all might so change; the principle would have been admitted that change proceeds through the individual heart. Some would advance, some fall behind; and the percentages of both would remain about the same, regardless of how much education or health care was offered free. The single soul would once again become the human universe’s building block, and the god of that universe would once again sit shrouded in mystery, the inscrutable engineer of temporal contradictions.
Romains styled his resistance to dynamic characters a taste for “verisimilitude to the ordinary” (vraisemblance quotidienne) and the competing taste for dramatic character development an addiction to “theatrical thunderclaps” (coups de théâtre). 24 He was clearly aware of his creative tendencies: they had clearly been pointed out to him by critics. And perhaps he was right that such detractors were simply trapped in the habits and expectations of earlier times. Yet moral coherence is one of those expectations. The human race will have to fuse with robots before the only change of significance is the transition from launching pad to space station to landing module.
In the meantime, it remains a genuine absurdity that a string of twenty-seven novels–a textual mass little short of two and a half million words–should have less closure than a short story of five or six pages. Art requires limit, and one of the major limits within which narrative art must work is human nature. This nature, to be sure, operates through human collectives as well as through individuals; but it varies widely in the two conditions, and basic moral reason tells us that good and bad are only discoverable in the individual’s condition (or at least that right and wrong, if equated with good and bad, must be chosen, and that free will can only exist within the individual). A story-teller who rejects these premises from the outset must indeed write forever, for an ending will never fall within the reach either of the moral reality he seeks to convey or of the aesthetic coherence he wishes to fulfill. The last lines of his exhausted labor are likely to die in an unfinished sentence, like Jallez’s:
“All the same, this modern world would be something really impressive, if…”
None of the others had any need for him to explain the “if”. None of them, either, had any answer at hand. (Le 7 Octobre, v. 4, 1124)
14 In an introduction to the eleventh novel, Recours à l’Abîme, which was never actually included in the volume, Romains accuses certain critics of speaking in bad faith when they charge him with “conferring preferentially upon the wicked, the horrifying, or more simply upon the sexual element, a role superior to that which they have in the lives of individuals and societies” (Documents, v. 4, 1163). One must wonder if the author would have extended the same defense to his Psyché trilogy–a beautifully crafted sequence of short novels whose term of composition overlaps that of Les Hommes, yet whose erotic odyssey is scarcely representative of mainstream sexual experiences, one would think. The young married couple therein grows so mystically inspired by physical love-making that the wife’s figure subsequently begins to crystallize before the husband–materially–during his long trips! return
15 Olivier Rony, Introduction, v. 1, lxvii. return
16 It is vexing to observe how unaware the general public remains of the progressive dynamic after so many generations. Because the front line is always thrusting farther forward, yesterday’s avant-garde is always falling farther behind the lines into the ranks of the “safe”. In matters of sexual conduct, the reader of over fifty years in age can easily find applications of this lubricious relativism within his or her memory. return
17 In fact, Romains’s eventual second wife, Lise Dreyfus, initiated their acquaintance through just such an admiring letter as Jallez receives from Françoise (see the Biographie Chronologique concluding the Introduction compiled by Rony, v. 1, cxv under “1933”.) Yet the real courtship was to last three years, and Romains was an international figure of far greater celebrity than his fictional author’s representation. Hence the real model, though it existed and was very close to the fiction, was trimmed both to enhance what might be called an “ideological romance” and deprived of individual poignancy. Such work-overs are not uncommon in Romains’s opus. return
18 Jonah Goldberg’s recent Liberal Fascism (New York: Broadway Books, 2009), though it may incur scholarly dismissal for being a popular best-seller, makes many historical connections that are unimpeachable and demonstrable from a variety of sources and directions. That Shaw and Wells were champions of eugenics, for instance, is a matter of very open public record–neither was in the least reticent about his views on the subject, but rather promoted them vigorously. Wilson and Holmes subscribed to these views with somewhat more discretion, yet their correspondence and sometimes their public utterances reflect the same enthusiasm. See especially Goldberg’s seventh chapter, “Liberal Racism: The Eugenic Ghost in the Fascist Machine.” return
19 Rony, Intorduction, v. 1, xv. return
20 From La Vie Unanime (Paris: Gallimard, 1925), pp. 146-147. return
21 See the Biographie Chronologique (op. cit.), cx. This is the only entry for 1903. It is remarkable, of course, that Romains himself (who was still Louis Farigoule at the time, his name not yet legally changed) could know such transports and yet fail to reproduce them in any of his characters, with the near-exception of the fascist lunatic Nodiard. return
22 From p. 196 of Jules Romains, “Essai de Réponse à la Plus Vaste Question.” Nouvelle Revue Française, v. 311 (August 1939): 177-196. return
23 It should be noted that Romains’s apartment in Paris was pillaged by the Gestapo, whose members carted off a small fortune in art works, signed first editions, etc. (the German officers who quartered in his country house treated it much better), and that his mother died while being deported from France in a vengeful response to the author’s vigorous anti-Nazi activity in New York and Mexico City return
24 Cited from Romains’s comments in the 1964 volume, Ai-Je Fait ce que J’ai Voulu? partially reproduced in Documents, v. 4, 1170-1187; see 1186 specifically. return
Dr. John Harris, The Center’s founder, is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Texas at Tyler, where he teaches World Literature and Latin.