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This Extraordinary Diary Reminds Us Why Books Matter

Georges Menager/Paris Match via Getty Images

Diary of the Dark Years, 1940-1944 by Jean Guéhenno, translated by David Ball (Oxford University Press)

The twentieth century dealt a very harsh blow to the idea that moral clarity and courage can be learned from books. Never in history did more nations worship great books more fervently than in 1914. But over the following decades, this love for the humanities did little to prevent crimes against humanity. In fact, a shocking quantity of evil was done by cultivated men who sighed with pleasure at great novels, poetry, and music, adored the old masters, and boasted of their philosophical sophistication. Far too often they defended indefensible actions as necessary to preserve “civilization.” A taste for Kant and Goethe was no prophylactic against mass murder.

Given this dismal record, is there any point in searching for the intellectual roots of moral heroism? Surely, to explain the actions of those who have dared to take a stand against the slaughter and the tyrannies, we need to look to the mysteries of individual psychology, rather than to the content of reading lists. After all, the perpetrators had the same educations, committed the same passages to memory.

Every once in a while, however, an extraordinary document comes along to remind us that the books matter. In such a document, we can see how an individual’s preference for particular writers, and for particular themes in their works, did indeed shape an outlook conducive to moral clarity and courage. Yes, it may have been a quirk of psychology that led the individual in this intellectual direction in the first place, but what he or she found there nonetheless had a decisive effect. And while the perpetrators may have read the same books, the document also reminds us that there are better and worse ways of reading.

The diary kept by the French writer and critic Jean Guéhenno during the German occupation of France from 1940 to 1944 is one such document. Unlike most French intellectuals, Guéhenno steadfastly refused to publish openly a single word as long as France remained under the control of Germany, and of the collaborationist Vichy government of Marshal Philippe Pétain. Instead he wrote in his diary as an act of private resistance, and as a chronicle of his country’s “servitude.” For four years, with perfect clarity and often astonishing eloquence, he recorded his disgust with collaborators, his anguish at the horrors overwhelming the continent, and his belief in “my real country . . . that country which is only an idea, [which] has not been invaded and never will be.” Already fifty years old in 1940, Guéhenno did not take up arms for the Resistance. He did hold clandestine meetings with other writers, and contributed to and distributed underground magazines. And the diary itself, if discovered by the Germans, could have earned him a death sentence.

Published in full in France soon after the war, Diary of the Dark Years has long been familiar to the French public and to scholars of French history. It is not a record of Guéhenno’s daily activities, and it has little to say about the texture of life during the occupation, or about its author’s intimate relationships. Occasionally he does use startlingly vivid physical imagery, as when he describes a tree where the Germans had tied the victims of their firing squads: “It is really there. The tree has been sawed off, ripped apart by bullets at the level of a man’s heart. It was used all last winter, four or five times every week. The earth is all trampled down at the foot of the tree. It has lost its bark. It is black from the blood that has drenched it.” Mostly, though, the diary reads like a combination of a philosophical meditation and a political manifesto directed to an audience of one. Like most diaries, it can be frustratingly repetitive.

But this is a genuinely important and enthralling book, and its publication in English in an excellent, fluid, and expertly annotated translation by David Ball is a welcome and long overdue event. Its most famous passages have been endlessly quoted. Guéhenno was wittily critical of his fellow authors. “The man-of-letters species is not one of the greatest species in the human race,” he noted bitingly in November 1940. “[He] is unable to live out of public view for any length of time… ‘French literature must go on,’ he says. He thinks he is French literature and French thought, and they would die without him.” When describing his own situation, Guéhenno could turn deeply lyrical: “Here we are, reduced to silence, to solitude, but perhaps to seriousness as well. And after all, whether our cell is full of light or not depends on us alone.” Guéhenno deplored Vichy’s participation in the persecution of the Jews, applauded Charles de Gaulle’s defiance of Pétain, and repeatedly condemned the “shame” of collaboration.

But what made Guéhenno take this path? French intellectuals mostly had a less-than-pristine war record. Jean-Paul Sartre, although a résistant, submitted his plays to the German propaganda office, which barred Jews from all productions. André Gide published in collaborationist journals. Sacha Guitry and Jean Cocteau openly supported, and socialized with, the occupying authorities. Writers from the far right such as Robert Brasillach and Pierre Drieu la Rochelle wrote Vichy propaganda and called for the victory of fascism. (Brasillach’s writings earned him a death sentence in 1945.) The question of just what explains Guéhenno’s choices has received surprisingly little attention.

In his useful and concise introduction, Ball looks mostly to Guéhenno’s background and politics for an explanation. He notes that, unlike most Parisian literati, Guéhenno came from a provincial working-class family; his father worked in a shoe factory. At the age of fourteen, Guéhenno himself left school to help support his family in Brittany, and never attended lycée. But moved by a passion for books, he studied at night, passed the Baccalaureate exam, and then made it into the elite École Normale Supérieure. He also embraced socialism. As a result, Ball writes, “he saw Pétain as the embodiment of the triumph of the reactionary bourgeoisie.” During the interwar years, bourgeois intellectuals and politicians, especially on the reactionary right, could display very high degrees of condescension and scorn to men like Guéhenno. It would be easy to interpret his wartime stance as a product, in considerable part, of social resentment. As he wrote in the diary in 1940, “I am . . . a scholarship student with no respect for the heirs of the earth, a free man with no reasons for being free since he is not rich.”

Yet emphasizing the resentment would mean not taking Guéhenno seriously enough as an intellectual. What breathes through the pages of the diary, far more than the occasional traces of class hostility, is Guéhenno’s absolute fervor for books and ideas. It was literature to which he devoted himself as an adolescent, literature that helped him escape the world of the shoe factory, literature that he adored teaching to high school and college-age pupils in the day job that he held throughout the occupation. All through the dark years he took refuge in books: his reading included Tolstoy, a biography of Mallarmé, Montesquieu, Valéry, and Michelet. He subjected the speeches he heard on the radio—Pétain’s, Churchill’s, even Hitler’s—to short, pungent analyses de texte. He clearly saw his diary itself as a work of literature, even if he could not count on it ever seeing the light of day. And it is, in fact, in literature that we can find some of the most important sources of Guéhenno’s moral heroism.

Guéhenno certainly had catholic and cosmopolitan tastes in literature. He adored Whitman and Goethe (whom he quoted in the diary in German), and took great pleasure in A Farewell to Arms. He invokes Chateaubriand and Benjamin Constant, Lamartine and Stendhal. But above all, it was the French classics of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries that enthralled him, and three writers in particular. The first was Pascal, and it is easy to see why the seventeenth-century thinker would matter so deeply to Guéhenno at this of all moments. Pascal’s wit, as sharp as any other in history, cut through pretense and hypocrisy with unmatched flair. Pascal could satirize his enemies (especially the Jesuits) with terrifying ferocity. But he also adored solitude, and willingly retreated from the world to contemplate eternal things in fear and trembling. Guéhenno admired, but also criticized, the mathematical rigidity of Pascal’s thought. “What eloquence! But what geometry!”

In the diary Guéhenno even more frequently invoked Montaigne. Like Pascal, the sixteenth-century essayist willingly cut himself off from the world. He retreated to his study to commune with great writers, to wander the corridors of his own mind, and to deplore the barbarities of his age. Guéhenno’s frequent use of the antiquated word “servitude” to describe Vichy France harkens back to Montaigne’s great friend Étienne de La Boétie, who wrote a Discourse on Voluntary Servitude exploring why people surrender their liberty to tyrants. Montaigne invoked La Boétie many times. “Now there’s a clean mind,” Guéhenno wrote in the diary of Montaigne. “He was horrified by all pretense, the ‘ceremony’ which . . . even prevents us from knowing what we are by filling us with reverence for false ideas about ourselves.” Seeing a world consumed by violence left Guéhenno musing about the horrific sixteenth-century civil wars between French Catholics and Protestants that Montaigne famously compared unfavorably to cannibal rituals. “I think of what a Montaigne would be like today, caught between the various ‘leagues’ that are drenching the world in blood.”

But above all, there was a third writer and thinker, with whom Guéhenno felt a personal bond, and whom he spent most of the war years systematically studying, in order to write a biography. This figure was Rousseau. Guéhenno himself made the connection between Rousseau and the occupation in the preface to the biography, which appeared in three volumes between 1948 and 1952, and stood for years as the standard French critical study. (An English translation was published in the 1960s.) “In 1941,” Guéhenno wrote, “in the somber and illusory leisure which servitude imposed upon writers, I looked round for some noble companion, of the kind who never gives in. Around us, all was falsehood. My thoughts turned once more to Rousseau; I opened his correspondence again and began to live in his company.”

The reasons for the personal identification could not be more clear. Like Guéhenno, Rousseau came from a lower-class provincial background. (His father was a Geneva watchmaker.) Like Guéhenno, Rousseau was largely self-educated, and lived largely on his own from an early age. Like Guéhenno, he had ambivalent relations with the Parisian literary establishment—hugely ambivalent, in Rousseau’s case. “There is surely no other writer in our literature into whose life I can enter so easily,” Guéhenno noted in the diary in 1942. “From fourteen to twenty, I had the same experiences, the same adventures, the same temptations, and the same humiliations. . .” Like Montaigne and Pascal before him, Rousseau detested artifice and hypocrisy, prized sincerity, and treasured solitude. He, too, made a deliberate choice to isolate himself, to commune with nature and contemplate his own character rather than to live amidst the glitter of Parisian literary society.

Guéhenno’s Rousseauism was evident long before the war. As early as 1928, he published a lyrical essay called “Caliban Speaks,” in response to the philosopher Ernest Renan’s play that had cast Shakespeare’s monster as a symbol of democracy in all its imperfections. Caliban, as channeled by Guéhenno, spoke in unmistakably Rousseauian accents. Like Rousseau, he insisted that his homely exterior concealed an “overly honest” spirit that admittedly made him “an impossible man.” And “Caliban” argued that what he had objected to, in his famous tirade against Prospero—“the red plague rid you for learning me your language!”—was not learning itself, but sophistry. “We must not confuse culture with knowledge,” he wrote in words that directly echoed Rousseau’s First Discourse. “If the more knowledgeable person were also the more cultivated, then a student in our primary schools would be more cultivated than Plato.”

In fact, the diary shows that Guéhenno did not wait until 1941, but committed himself to the biography from the very first moments of the occupation. “I will definitely write a Rousseau,” he declared to himself in July 1940, praising “the exemplary life of a man who does not surrender.” He would sometimes take a day of his own to work through a day of Rousseau’s, reliving the adventures of the philosophe at a two-hundred-year remove. “Experiencing as I do the life of my hero day after day, I am sometimes as curious about the next day as he might have been myself.” Guéhenno fantasized about traveling back in time to meet Rousseau, “to go back along all the paths of his thought with him and find the living intuition that guided him.” This was an intense identification indeed.

For a man deliberately setting himself against the world, in times of turmoil and persecution, it would be hard to find a better inspiration than Rousseau. Arguably, the great themes of his work were independence and self-sufficiency. How can men (women, alas, were a very different case for him) free themselves from subjection to others? Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality speculated as to the origins of subjection—political, economic, and psychological. His Emile imagined a program for raising a child to become a fully self-sufficient adult. His Social Contract is often read, incorrectly, as a manual of collectivism, when it is in fact a profound meditation on the dilemma of how to live as a free and independent person, and still join with others in a political society. The leitmotif of Rousseau’s great autobiographical work, The Confessions, is his own inability to live with others, his anger at the corruptions and betrayals of society, and the solace that he finds in solitude and isolation. The late, lyrical Reveries of a Solitary Walker beautifully celebrates this solitude. In his final years, Rousseau succumbed to what often reads like clinical paranoia, but this tone strangely suited Vichy France, where the line between madness and sanity had become difficult to trace. As Guéhenno wrote in his diary in September 1940: “My thoughts seem to me those of a madman. It is the world which is mad around me. But the effect is the same. The connection between it and me has been destroyed.”

Just as Rousseau’s work could teach the courage to live independently, so it also provided a witheringly strong diagnosis of the corruptions of social life in general, and literary life in particular. As Rousseau recognized, even egotism is a form of subjection, since it enslaves us to the opinions of others. He mercilessly dissected the vanity of his fellow authors, and deplored their readiness to accept support from the autocratic government of France’s Old Regime, fearing that it would ever so subtly bind their thought. Guéhenno’s own comments on “men of letters” (the phrase itself is redolent of the eighteenth century) might almost have been taken straight from The Confessions: “The piercing eyes of a man of letters preoccupied by his reputation: whether he’s leafing through a book or a newspaper, eager to find his way instantly in the confusion of the page, he can always see and recognize his name like a sun.”

Among the writers of the Enlightenment, none has received harsher criticism in modern times than Rousseau. He has been blamed for everything from the French Revolutionary Terror to modern child-rearing fads. The Israeli historian Jacob Talmon called him the father of totalitarianism. These theories sometimes have a surface plausibility. Before Guéhenno, another French scholarship boy, cut off from his parents early on, who developed a similarly fierce bond of identification with Rousseau was Maximilien Robespierre. But Rousseau—like Nietzsche, like Jesus—cannot be held responsible for the way he has been misread.

Jean Guéhenno was a superior reader. He knew, instinctively, that in the case of great writers it is not the explicit prescriptions that matter. Even the greatest writers can make for woefully inaccurate historians, shockingly bad commentators on current events, and terrible planners in almost every respect. The history in Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality is invented, the ideal republic of his Social Contract is a fantasy, the child-rearing program of his Emile is absurdly unworkable. These books are speculations, and what matters is not the literal programs they lay out but what they tell us about the human condition. In Guéhenno’s case, what he found in Rousseau and the other writers he adored not only helped him to justify the courageous choices he made under Vichy, but quite clearly guided him to these choices. In the case of this heroic man, books helped to engender exceptional moral clarity and courage. “Anyone with the determination to live continuously and conscientiously according to the truth is assured of tremendous power,” Guéhenno wrote in his biography of Rousseau. He might have been describing himself and his extraordinary book.