Henri Barbusse: Revived the power of art to influence popular opinion
Henri Barbusse’s Hell – much like Jean Paul Sartre’s – consists of other people. Only Barbusse’s Hell is devised to show us that man’s desire for solitude cannot be reconciled with his desire to live to the utmost degree of fulfillment. Written in 1908, Hell is considered Barbusse’s first significant book and one most closely identified with neonaturalism, which later came to define his work. It wasn’t until 1916, however, that Barbusse gained critical acclaim with the publication of Under Fire, a novel comprising evocative first person vignettes about his experiences of World War I. Barbusse enlisted in the French Army in 1914, at the age of 41, and served in the war until the end. Much of his subsequent work consists of visceral and unsparing accounts of the carnage of trench warfare, which have earned him a reputation as the definitive voice of soldiers in combat. By taking an uncompromising look at both politics and conflict in his fiction, Barbusse revived the power of art to influence popular opinion, enter national debate and transform society, which he had unapologetically shocked eight years before with the publication of Hell.
The book – about a young bachelor, who moves into a lowly boarding house and inadvertently begins spying on his fellow boarders through a crack in the wall – sparked a scandal and was deemed a work of gratuitous voyeurism and moral aberration. The latter due to the fact that Barbusse’s anonymous Peeping Tom witnesses all manner of human behaviour contravening social conventions. Highly realistic and detailed in its portrayal, Hell is narrated by a rather average and “rather short” but “quite correctly dressed” man of 30, who speaking for the first time hastily asserts his theological proclivity, saying he believes “in many things,” but “above all, in the existence of God, if not in the dogmas of religion”. As a believer, he declares himself to be a moral man, with an absolute “sense of good and evil,” who could not commit “an indelicacy even if certain of impunity”. Barbusse, very cleverly, fashions his protagonist as the everyman, honourable and decent and self-righteously affirmed in his belief until his belief is tested and found wanting. There is clearly a biblical element to Barbusse’s story of forbidden fruit and man’s subsequent downfall, which makes the appellation of the book all the more significant. But there is also another hell, which Barbusse is keen to illustrate, namely that of man’s perdurable yearning “for something infinite and something new,” and the tragedy of this on-going inner conflict.
After peering through the crack into the Room and discovering life in all its varying forms, Hell’s protagonist, who has led an unremarkable humdrum existence, is suddenly and unexpectedly stirred by inexplicable avarice. And thus he finds himself immodestly longing for glory, love and success; all this in spite of the fact that he has nothing to offer “no genius, no mission to fulfill, no great heart to bestow”. He laments his predicament, saying: “I thought I was wise and content with my lot [but]…I longed to take everything that was not mine…God, I was lost! I prayed to Him to have pity on me.” But his God does not have pity. Nor does he intervene in the “frightful, regular crisis” strewn in man’s way or “preserve man from having to mourn the loss of all his dreams,” as the protagonist gradually discovers. Transfixed by life in the Room, he watches it unfold day by day, revealing the suffering and the struggle innate in the human condition. “Suffering,” Barbusse writes, “leads us to the heart of reality. It is an error to believe that we can be happy in perfect calm and clearness, as abstract as formula. We are made too much out of shadow and some form of suffering. If everything that hurt us were to be removed, what would remain? Happiness needs unhappiness. Joy goes in hand with sorrow.” This Jungian idea of cosmic equilibrium and the notion that sorrow is balanced out by joy, tears by laughter, death by birth, constitutes a significant part of the narrative, illustrated skilfully through the changing scenarios taking place in the Room. And as the story progresses it also serves to eliminate the notion of a Divine being. The novel’s moment of peripeteia arrives when the protagonist, formerly a religious sort, having seen the whole spectrum of human experience comes to the realisation that “man is the only absolute thing in the world”.
In drawing this conclusion, Barbusse unveils “a frightfully difficult truth”. A truth he unwaveringly believed and later propagated in several other works, including The Judas of Jesus (1927), a portrayal of Christ as an early communist revolutionary. Barbusse joined the French Communist Party shortly after the war and became a leading figure in the campaign of French leftist intellectuals to combat fascism and improve workers’ rights. He later set up a literary journal by the name of Monde, which served as a vehicle for his ideas. Much of his ensuing partisan writing was subjected to very harsh criticism, but for Barbusse there was no division between politics and art and the later served merely as a tool to achieve the aims of the former. Barbusse’s progressive social role for literature, however, was becoming increasingly incompatible with other newly emerging aesthetic attitudes, especially those about the place of political discourse in the creative sphere. And while he endeavoured to continue to write about the past in order to shape the outlook of the future, the likes of the Surrealists and the Dadaists sought to destroy it in order to begin anew.
Somewhere along the changing literary landscape Barbusse fell out of favour, mainly due to his astringent political activism and communist sentiments. In January 1918, he left France and moved to Moscow where he married, joined the Bolshevik Party and wrote a book about Stalin, for which he was objurgated along with his propagandistic activities on behalf of Soviet Russia. While writing a second biography of the Russian leader, Barbusse fell ill with pneumonia and died on 30th August 1935. All this long after the publication of Hell, a revealing first look at Barbusse’s fledgling social, religious and political dissidence. In the introduction to Hell, Edward J. O’Brien asserts that despite being a “tragic book” it demonstrates its writer’s hope and belief in the future. I’m not sure about Barbusse’s belief in the future but I would argue that Hell is a triumphant rather than tragic book, which reads like a bold rejection of philosophia Christiana and a homage to secularism, daringly rendering God obsolete. “We are divinely alone,” Barbusse declares toward the end, “the heavens have fallen on our heads…And God Himself, who is all these kinds of heavens in one, has fallen on our heads like thunder, and His infinity is ours,” and thus we hold “the place that God used to occupy” sure in the knowledge “that there is no paradise” and “there is no hell, no inferno except the frenzy of living”.
Publisher: OneSuch Press
Publication Date: September 2011
Paperback: 136 pages