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Master of Fictional Modes
By Norma L. Goodrich
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1973 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
The Apocalyptic Mode
Le Grand troupeau (1931)
When Jean Giono composed his historical novel of World War I, he revealed not only by the point of reference from which he hid himself in order to narrate but also because of the prophetic nature of his view that he considered himself chosen and ordained to have seen that war and to have spoken of it. According to Revelation, Saint John the Divine was also commanded to bear witness:
"1. The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John:
"2. Who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw."
Therefore the hidden narrator, Jean Giono, witnesses the departure for war, suffers in war, and returns because he has been enjoined like his namesake to record that event.
Far from being the first novelist to interpret war as a catastrophe predicted in Apocalypse, Giono here follows at least two of his favorite novelists: Melville and Tolstoy. In the former's Israel Potter (1855) the naval battle is prompted by an evil agent or false Christ actually seen leering over the horizon's rim, and the bloody commander John Paul Jones represents another Satan insatiably evil. To Melville, the London where his hero Israel remains in bondage seems with its economic collapse, its fires, and its plagues as terrible a place as Babylon, Gomorrah, or Armageddon.
Tolstoy's War and Peace (1865-1869), like Melville's novel of Benjamin Franklin and the American Revolution, is to the same degree Christian, moral, and apocalyptic. On the opening page of his vast novel Tolstoy sets the tone by speaking of the Antichrist, while the idea of Apocalypse, as well as the continued allusions to catastrophe and the Napoleonic Beast, recur in both the fictional and historical passages. Although Tolstoy fails to identify a wicked city like Flaubert's Carthage, or Melville's "dirty Dis" or the coal-hued London near its River Styx, War and Peace does fulfill the prophecies of Revelation, where a reign of terror finally fades into a New Jerusalem and promised paradise of home and infants. Giono repeats this pattern, and his Natasha Rostov is called Madeleine.
Those historical novelists who could be separated because of their explicitly or implicitly apocalyptic theory of history certainly belong to the Judeo-Christian tradition or know at least one apocalypse text such as the book of Daniel in the Old Testament or the book of Revelation in the New Testament, no other texts besides these two having been admitted into the Christian canon. Such novelists comprehend themselves, their characters, and their worlds as facing a cataclysm directed by some unimaginably wicked monster of evil, after whose reign will arrive the heralded world of a peaceful and a New Jerusalem.
The novelists who betray or openly propound such apocalyptic doctrines must not be confused with the apocalypticists themselves, such as Saint John the Divine, author at Patmos of Revelation. The latter prophesy or, placing themselves in the past, look forward to future events like the destruction of Babylon and/or the fall of Rome. They speak in the future prophetic tense, then, of plagues and earthquakes that will arrive because they have been revealed. Most modern novelists — and Jean Giono, who actually also wrote an apocalypse, may perhaps be the sole modern exception — on the contrary, look back upon past history, which by apocalyptic vision they reconstruct, make to some degree clear, and explain in some measure.
Historical novelists of apocalypse tend generally, moreover, to envision history as divided into predetermined periods or ages. Since only God remains in control, such writers find supremely interesting the final and cataclysmic act within the world because it arrives by God's intervention. They see a long period of dominant evil, of abject fear and hideous suffering under such a totalitarianism as directly precludes the end of the world. At this moment events expand until they acquire a cosmic dimension or until they include universal significance on earth. At such a time in history no man dares rise to oppose; surely no man succeeds, Tolstoy would have observed, in opposing the Satanic Antichrist, Nero or some other Caesar, Hitler or some other Napoleon. Certain novelists proceed thus far, and then bog down in the meres of despondency.
As in 1931 Roger Martin du Gard still meditated upon World War I, he concluded that the future truly seemed to him laden with catastrophic events. That year Jean Giono published his apocalyptic novel Le Grand troupeau. Advancing beyond impending disaster, Giono sensed an inner and often forgotten affinity between philosophy and theology. Thus in the twentieth century, Judeo-Christian apocalypse furnished Giono an answer for the historical catastrophes of those days. Apocalyptic stipulates that what really "happens in history is salvation and disaster." The disaster may be "empirically apprehensible," which does not mean that it constitutes, if the salvation is neglected, the only "element of historical reality."
Theology contributed, as Giono composed, its component to empirical knowledge, or its means of cognition by unfolding or by revelation, the novelist knowing because he has himself experienced and seen others swept along like sheep in a flock, but also knowing because it has been prophesied by a divine, who knew without any experience whatsoever other than his vision. The truly Christian writer thus awaits the catastrophic end of history, accepts the whole dreadful creation, rises to great activity as he aids the divinity inside mundane reality, and fixes his eyes upon the promised salvation, which allows him to hope even in the midst of terrors. "(Seen from the body of experience afforded by our own epoch, is it so unlikely that the Church, although ultimately concerned with a salvation that cannot be grounded on intra-mundane considerations, might remain the sole champion of the natural dignity of man?)"
To a theologian in the Russian Orthodox tradition, E. Lampert in The Apocalypse of History — Problems of Providence & Human Destiny (London, 1948), the philosophy of apocalypse is properly and alone the philosophy of history; apocalypse is history defined, then, as "the disclosure and consummation of divine and human destiny" (p. 14). "It may be said that the problem of History in its apocalyptic and eschatological significance is the dominant issue in the contemporary world and the touch-stone of survival precisely because mankind has reached a stage in which nothing is sufficient to meet the challenge of History but the absolutely creative, complete, final, totally triumphant or totally disastrous, that is, the eschatological solution."
Such novelists whom we may also consider to have written masterpieces of modern apocalyptic fiction — Jean Giono in the 1930's, Andre Malraux in the 1940's, William Faulkner in A Fable of 1950, and William Styron in 1967 — seem to compose their historical fiction in two modes. On the one hand, as we shall presently see, they accumulate and absorb historical evidence, create characters, study persons and situations, recreate actual revolts or wars, and formulate answers to questions. Thus, they deal with empirical evidence, facts, dates, personages, and philosophy, an activity that becomes diurnal and cataphatic. Coexistent with such accumulations of data occur the philosophical considerations, however, nearer to creation and to end, born perhaps in darkness, possibly even revealed in night if ever unfolded at all luminously. Each author, then, lures his reader through the horrors of the predicted disasters, into the dark quietness of night, where by apophatic theology he draws him like Moses closer to God, both unknowable and undefinable, at least by affirmative and discursive statements.
Although Jean Giono was not the first veteran of World War I to associate his experiences at the front and in the trenches with the life and death of Christ, he may very well have written the first historical novel based throughout on apocalyptic in lieu of any other philosophy of history. Just before Le Grand troupeau of 1931, which has been translated into German, 10 Polish, and Czech and finally into English as To the Slaughterhouse but about which there has been otherwise virtual silence, Ludwig Renn in his famous novel War (Krieg, and New York, 1929) had equated a soldier-hero with Christ.
Giono's allusions to apocalypse resemble Ludwig Renn's thoughts of Christ crucified, but, contrary to this German contemporary (né V. v. Golscenau), Giono openly attacked war, in the manner of Tolstoy — and Henri Peyre has several times associated Giono and Tolstoy. There is, as far as war is concerned, neither ambiguity nor confusion in Giono's novel, which, of course, may have argued against it.
Maxwell A. Smith in his Jean Giono has, after André Gide, also spoken admiringly of this Giono novel with its memorable prologue (p. 63): "The most epic scene in the book, one of the most powerful and moving passages Giono has ever written, is the opening chapter which shows us the apparently endless procession of sheep and lambs coming down from the high plateaux and streaming painfully through the little Provencal town." As Smith argued, the theme of the great flock returns to furnish, at the recovery of the God-like ram and the birth of a son, or blessed Lamb of God, a lyrical conclusion that affirms a Christian hope of a new and peaceful realm. According to apocalyptic tradition, Jean Giono emphasizes four major points in Revelation: (1) natural disaster (the descent of the great flock, or the departure of its shepherds to war), (2) a period of Great Tribulation (when the Beast of war reigned), (3) the Second Coming of Christ (the birth of the Lamb, or child), and (4) the ending with a Christian, "inverted," or hopeful solution to catastrophe.
Solidly but unobtrusively documented by the author's own experiences in World War I, the book proceeds from the mobilization of France in 1914 through the Battle of Mount Kemmel in 1918, or through the Battle of Passchendale, also called the third Battle of Ypres. According to Giono's account, only two Frenchmen in his unit (140th Regiment?) survived. The ground was a heavy clay churned into mud by the long bombardment, and during the battle it rained heavily.
Giono begins his novel by describing the departure of men to war. That August night thick with the smell of wheat and the sweat of horses, the wagons drawn by work horses pulled up by the station and waited while the train loaded and then moved softly off into darkness, spitting sparks into the willows as it picked up speed. The horses moaned. Next morning the sheep, an ass and her foal, watched by old men, young women, and children, came down from the high pastures. A wounded ram lay down in the dusty road to die, swept aside by an irresistible current of dumb animals, no shepherd stopping them, no person healing. In houses where people could not eat for grief, a mother lay down to sleep in the place left vacant by the absent young husband.
In Chapter III the swift transition to a scene of three men lying beside a road jerks the reader abruptly into the actual world of war, where each man is totally expendable, for despite promises the ambulance will not return. Overhead a crow circles, waiting impatiently. As Smith has already observed, Giono alternates, via true Tolstoyan antinomies, home scenes with combat scenes: Julie and Madeleine at home fighting an evil force blindly bent on turning the cultivated fields back into wilderness, and a beast within themselves that longs to see them break the tenets of Christian morality and revert to lusting savagery. As the wounded soldier dies of gangrene, Joseph consoles him, with the tale of his happy home life with Julie. Ironically also, Madeleine skins a rabbit and wards off a hungry fly as she and Delphine talk desultorily of fly-covered corpses along the Marne.
On Olivier's last night in the village, the news arrives of the death of Felicie's husband, and old Jérôme fetches carefully home from school the stricken and orphaned son. Then follows in Chapter VII (Part II) the brilliantly composed wake for an absent body, which commences with ritual words and the ceremony of the salt on the table: "'I share your loss.' 'I thank you kindly.'" The chapter ends tenderly as old pappy walks his only son to the station. The mourning women tacitly believe Olivier too young to survive such a war. And all around, "la nuit est comme si rien n'était," the cosmos remains indifferent to man.
Jean Giono's many such pictures of war remain unforgettable even today: a passing ambulance losing meat like a butcher's wagon, Olivier's friend Regotaz turning back into a primitive woodsman, Joseph warning the heedless captain not to lead his men over a footbridge in enemy crossfire, the dead moving in their piles as crows and rats feast on them, an epileptic boy passed by medical officers and drafted forthwith. Only a captain, Olivier, and one sleeping man survive Verdun, after which experience Olivier, who saw Regotaz die, keeps nervously repeating, "Me. Me."
At home the fifth angel has sounded his trump, and the Great Whore revels in cheap flesh. The butcher finds his obese daughter copulating with the adolescent apprentice. Julie blooms like a girl in Proust. Even the pullets ovulate prematurely, while the washerwomen catch a boy in the wash water. After Julie and the butcher slide in blood as they slaughter a sow, Julie too wrestles with the apprentice, who has called her a sow. In her bed Madeleine wears, like the lady in the medieval romance of Coucy, Olivier's red wool sash under her nightgown. The waters turned gradually to wormwood, as Revelation foretold, by the time that Olivier returns home on leave.
In the wreck of a village called Santerre, soldiers go insane, try to borrow Olivier's love letter — an inestimably valuable treasure — become in their caves terrified at the mere ticking of a watch. One man even fabricates a slip-noose for a German, so that the prisoner will cruelly thrash about in slow and agonized strangulation, like a rabbit. Olivier again sees Regotaz, who brings him a gift, a pine cone in which one can hear lovely forest murmurs. He tells Olivier how much he would have liked to have brought him a little lizard just hatched from its egg, a little green lizard with water droplets on its tiny toenails, and with it some violets. Then too he would have brought a lovely new water snake which he saw swimming in the midst of a stream, like a water bird. As Regotaz talks, much as Giono's father will talk to him in our second apocalypse text, Olivier realizes that these sights were his own, that it is frozen winter all about. Finally he sees that Regotaz's face is merely a candle reflection on the shiny surface of a metal drum. Everywhere, men have suffered beyond their tolerance and are either slipping away into perpetual dreams or slyly returning to a crafty savagery.
In Chapter XIX, which is entitled "Le Grand troupeau," we return full circle to the commencement, or the structure of the book abruptly becomes apparent. Here near Ypres the French and British troops are deployed in northwestern Belgium for the defense of Dunkirk. The French army is the real great flock, then, which descended from its peaceful pastures, and the Biblical title of Chapter I, "Elle mangera vos betters, vos brebis et vos maisons," refers to war. Thus, Chapter I concerns flocks of sheep, but its title, referring to war, became clear only in the nineteenth chapter, which dealt with flocks of men. Between these two chapters Giono has arranged the intrigue chapter (house) by chapter (war) until this climax or flocklike war scene.
Excerpted from Giono by Norma L. Goodrich. Copyright © 1973 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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