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Stefan Zweig: The bloody cloud-bank of war will give way to a new dawn

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Stefan Zweig: Selections on peace and war

Romain Rolland: Selections on war

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Stefan Zweig
From Romain Rolland: The Man and His Work
Translated by Eden and Cedar Paul

For us moderns, it is the overwhelming power of the state, organized political force, massed destiny, against which as individuals we stand weaponless; it is the great spiritual storms, les courants de foi, which inexorably sweep us away like straws before the wind. No less incalculably than did the fabled gods of antiquity, no less overwhelmingly and pitilessly, does the world-destiny make us its sport. War is the most powerful of these mass influences, and, for this reason, nearly all Rolland’s plays take war as their theme. Their moral force consists in the way wherein again and again they show how the individual, a Prometheus in conflict with the gods, is able in the spiritual sphere to break the unseen yoke; how the individual idea remains stronger than the mass idea, the idea of the fatherland – though the latter can still destroy a hardy rebel with the thunderbolts of Jupiter.

***

The Greeks first knew the gods when the gods were angry. Our gloomy divinity, the fatherland, blood-thirsty as the gods of old, first becomes fully known to us in time of war. Unless fate lowers, man rarely thinks of these hostile forces; he despises them or forgets them, while they lurk in the darkness, awaiting the advent of their day. A peaceful, a Laodicean era had no interest in tragedies foreshadowing the opposition of the forces which were twenty years later to engage in deadly struggle in the blood-stained European arena. What should those care who strayed into the theater from the Parisian boulevards, members of an audience skilled in the geometry of adultery, what should they care about such problems as those in Rolland’s plays: whether it is better to serve the fatherland or to serve justice; whether in war time soldiers must obey orders or follow the call of conscience?…These dramas, parerga as it seemed, were aimed, in an hour when peace still ruled the world, at the center of our contemporary consciousness, which was then still unwoven by the looms of time. The stone which the builders of the stage contemptuously rejected, will perhaps become the foundation of a new theater, grandly conceived, contemporary and yet heroical, the theater of the free European brotherhood, for whose sake it was fashioned in solitude decades ago by the lonely creator.

***

Rolland has known this long night of labor. When he assumed the fateful burden, when he took the work upon his shoulders, he meant to recount but a single life. As he proceeded, what had been light grew heavy. He found that he was carrying the whole destiny of his generation, the meaning of the entire world, the message of love, the primal secret of creation. We who saw him making his way alone through the night, without recognition, without helpers, without a word of cheer, without a friendly light winking at him from the further shore, imagined that he must succumb. From the hither bank the unbelievers followed him with shouts of scornful laughter. But he pressed manfully forward during these ten years, what time the stream of life swirled ever more fiercely around him; and he fought his way in the end to the unknown shore of completion. With bowed back, but with the radiance in his eyes undimmed, did he finish fording the river. Long and heavy night of travail, wherein he walked alone! Dear burden, which he carried for the sake of those who are to come afterwards, bearing it from our shore to the still untrodden shore of the new world. Now the crossing had been safely made. When the good ferryman raised his eyes, the night seemed to be over, the darkness vanished. Eastward the heaven was all aglow. Joyfully he welcomed the dawn of the coming day towards which he had carried this emblem of the day that was done.

Yet what was reddening there was naught but the bloody cloud-bank of war, the flame of burning Europe, the flame that was to consume the spirit of the elder world. Nothing remained of our sacred heritage beyond this, that faith had bravely struggled from the shore of yesterday to reach our again distracted world. The conflagration has burned itself out; once more night has lowered. But our thanks speed towards you, ferryman, pious wanderer, for the path you have trodden through the darkness. We thank you for your labors, which have brought the world a message of hope. For the sake of us all have you marched on through the murky night. The flame of hatred will yet be extinguished; the spirit of friendship will again unite people with people. It will dawn, that new day.

***

Rolland thus recognizes that there is another greatness, a profounder greatness, than that of action, the greatness of suffering. Unthinkable would be a Rolland who did not draw fresh faith from all experience, however painful; unthinkable one who failed, in his own suffering, to be mindful of the sufferings of others. As a sufferer, he extends a greeting to all sufferers on earth. Instead of a fellowship of enthusiasm, he now looks for a brotherhood of the lonely ones of the world, as he shows them the meaning and the grandeur of all sorrow. In this new circle, the nethermost of fate, he turns to noble examples. “Life is hard. It is a continuous struggle for all those who cannot come to terms with mediocrity. For the most part it is a painful struggle, lacking sublimity, lacking happiness, fought in solitude and silence. Oppressed by poverty, by domestic cares, by crushing and gloomy tasks demanding an aimless expenditure of energy, joyless and hopeless, most people work in isolation, without even the comfort of being able to stretch forth a hand to their brothers in misfortune.” To build these bridges between man and man, between suffering and suffering, is now Rolland’s task. To the nameless sufferers, he wishes to show those in whom personal sorrow was transmuted to become gain for millions yet to come. He would, as Carlyle phrased it, “make manifest…the divine relation…which at all times unites a Great Man to other men.” The million solitaries have a fellowship; it is that of the great martyrs of suffering, those who, though stretched on the rack of destiny, never foreswore their faith in life, those whose very sufferings helped to make life richer for others. “Let them not complain too piteously, the unhappy ones, for the best of men share their lot. It is for us to grow strong with their strength. If we feel our weakness, let us rest on their knees. They will give solace. From their spirits radiate energy and goodness. Even if we did not study their works, even if we did not hearken to their voices, from the light of their countenances, from the fact that they have lived, we should know that life is never greater, never more fruitful – never happier – than in suffering.”

***

The preface to Beethoven proclaims: “The air is fetid. Old Europe is suffocating in a sultry and unclean atmosphere. Our thoughts are weighed down by a petty materialism…The world sickens in a cunning and cowardly egoism. We are stifling. Throw the windows wide; let in the free air of heaven. We must breathe the souls of the heroes.” What does Rolland mean by a hero? He does not think of those who lead the masses, wage victorious wars, kindle revolutions; he does not refer to men of action, or to those whose thoughts engender action. The nullity of united action has become plain to him. Unconsciously in his dramas he has depicted the tragedy of the idea as something which cannot be divided among men like bread, as something which in each individual’s brain and blood undergoes prompt transformation into a new form, often into its very opposite. True greatness is for him to be found only in solitude, in struggle waged by the individual against the unseen. “I do not give the name of heroes to those who have triumphed, whether by ideas or by physical force. By heroes I mean those who were great through the power of the heart. As one of the greatest (Tolstoi) has said, ‘I recognize no other sign of superiority than goodness. Where the character is not great, there is neither a great artist nor a great man of action; there is nothing but one of the idols of the crowd; time will shatter them together…What matters, is to be great, not to seem great.'”

Source: 
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