Explore the theme of sacrifice in Le Feu by Henri Barbusse.
‘The self-sacrifice of individuals for the sake of the community, suffering made glorious - those two things which are the basic elements of the profession of arms - respond to both our moral and aesthetic concepts. The noblest teachings of philosophy and religion have found no higher ideals.’ (De Gaulle, 1960, p.10)
The concept of sacrifice is fascinatingly complex and multi-faceted. Whereas one individual may consider sacrifice as tantamount to glory, another may equally, and rightly, consider slaughter its greater suitor. Essentially, this seemingly paradoxical dynamic stems from the complicated relationship sacrifice has with the individual, where ‘sacrificing oneself’ would be synonymous with the former and ‘being sacrificed’ the latter. This dynamic is further complicated during times of crisis and conflict where the ‘necessity’ of sacrifice is often embraced as an ideal that will contribute to a worthy cause or resolution. (Griffin, 2007) Generally however, sacrifice can be considered as the act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy. (Oxford Dictionary) Although this is indeed a broad definition, it is one which will help establish a contextualising stepping stone for a much deeper analysis over the coming paragraphs.
This essay will explore the concept of sacrifice alongside a text which very much embraces its intricate and dynamic nature, Le Feu (1916) by Henri Barbusse. During this exploration we will consider the ways in which Barbusse both embraces and rejects the notion of sacrifice to highlight the ‘truth’ of war and underline key political and social ideas that have origin in his stance as a Pacifist-Socialist. As we analyse Barbusse’s interaction with sacrifice however, another question will emerge, why is the ideal of sacrifice so effective? What exactly does it do and why is this the case? The latter end of this essay will reveal that the period in which the text was written, one riddled with bellicose tension and conflict, is key to understanding why its sacrificial rhetoric was so readily accepted.
The French novelist Barbusse stands out as one of the exemplar writers of the Great War, indeed Le Feu remains to this day France’s most popular World War 1 novel. Perhaps what sets Barbusse apart from other emerging literary styles of the period, was his raw, visceral and emphatically naturalist descriptions of war, influenced primarily by Émile Zola. Barbusse’s style was so effective that soldiers adapted their own memories to conform with those of his novel, which helped soldiers see anew and feel more clearly about their own memories (Shapiro, 2005, p.91-101) However Micahel Sollars considers Barbusse’s life as paradoxical, describing him as ‘the pacifist in military uniform, the artist as social reformer.’(2008, p.54) It is a just criticism, one that challenges Barbusse’s ideologies and integrity as Barbusse did indeed volunteer as a regular soldier at the outbreak of the war and fought for two years before he was hospitalised for his injuries. Although this implies that Barbusse was fighting the same war as his comrades around him, a letter he wrote to the Director of L’Humanité on the 9th August 1914, suggests otherwise:
Voulez-vous me compter parmi les socialistes anti-militaristes qui s'engagent volontairement pour la présente guerre? [...] Cette guerre est une guerre sociale qui fera faire un grand pas — peut-être le pas définitif — à notre cause. Elle est dirigée contre nos ennemis infâmes de toujours : le militarisme et l'impérialisme, le Sabre, la Botte, et j'ajouterai : la Couronne. (P.9)
For Barbusse, this war was, above all, a social war; one being fought against an enemy far more complex than just Germany. As a socialist, the act of participating in this war was a prerequisite to condemnation, a worthwhile sacrifice to fulfilling his socio-political cause...
Bibliography: Barbusse, Henri. 1916. Le Feu: Journal d’Une Escouade, Suivi du Carnet de Guerre. Flammarion :1965.
De Gaulle, Charles. 1960. The Edge Of The Sword, trans. Gerard Hopkins. New York: Criterion Press.
Frantzen, Allen. 2004. Bloody Good. Chivalry, Sacrifice and the Great War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Griffin, Roger. 2007. Modernism and Fascism: The Sense of a New Beginning under Moussonlini and Hitler. Palgrave Macmillan Press.
Griffin, Roger. 2007. The Meaning of ‘Sacrifice’ in the First World War. Adapted from Modernism and Facism. New York: Palgrave Macmillian
Little Oxford English Dictionary (2006) 9th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Peguy, Charles. 1897. Jeanne d 'Arc. Paris: Librairie de la Revue Socialiste.
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