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Light by Henri Barbusse

Part 6 out of 6

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You who shake your head or shrug your shoulders as you listen to
me--why are we, we two, we all, so foreign to each other, when we are
not foreign?

I believe, in spite of all, in truth's victory. I believe in the
momentous value, hereafter inviolable, of those few truly fraternal men
in all the countries of the world, who, in the oscillation of national
egoisms let loose, stand up and stand out, steadfast as the glorious
statues of Right and Duty. To-night I believe--nay, I am certain--that
the new order will be built upon that archipelago of men. Even if we
have still to suffer as far as we can see ahead, the idea can no more
cease to throb and grow stronger than the human heart can; and the will
which is already rising here and there they can no longer destroy.

I proclaim the inevitable advent of the universal republic. Not the
transient backslidings, nor the darkness and the dread, nor the tragic
difficulty of uplifting the world everywhere at once will prevent the
fulfillment of international truth. But if the great powers of
darkness persist in holding their positions, if they whose clear cries
of warning should be voices crying in the wilderness--O you people of
the world, you the unwearying vanquished of History, I appeal to your
justice and I appeal to your anger. Over the vague quarrels which
drench the strands with blood, over the plunderers of shipwrecks, over
the jetsam and the reefs, and the palaces and monuments built upon the
sand, I see the high tide coming. Truth is only revolutionary by
reason of error's disorder. Revolution is Order.

* * * * * *



Through the panes I see the town--I often take refuge at the windows.
Then I go into Marie's bedroom, which gives a view of the country. It
is such a narrow room that to get to the window I must touch her tidy
little bed, and I think of her as I pass it. A bed is something which
never seems either so cold or so lifeless as other things; it lives by
an absence.

Marie is working in the house, downstairs. I hear sounds of moved
furniture, of a broom, and the recurring knock of the shovel on the
bucket into which she empties the dust she has collected. That society
is badly arranged which forces nearly all women to be servants. Marie,
who is as good as I am, will have spent her life in cleaning, in
stooping amid dust and hot fumes, over head and ears in the great
artificial darkness of the house. I used to find it all natural. Now
I think it is all anti-natural.

I hear no more sounds. Marie has finished. She comes up beside me.
We have sought each other and come together as often as possible since
the day when we saw so clearly that we no longer loved each other!

We sit closely side by side, and watch the end of the day. We can see
the last houses of the town, in the beginning of the valley, low houses
within enclosures, and yards, and gardens stocked with sheds. Autumn
is making the gardens quite transparent, and reducing them to nothing
through their trees and hedges; yet here and there foliage still
magnificently flourishes. It is not the wide landscape in its entirety
which attracts me. It is more worth while to pick out each of the
houses and look at it closely.

These houses, which form the finish of the suburb, are not big, and are
not prosperous; but we see one adorning itself with smoke, and we think
of the dead wood coming to life again on the hearth, and of the seated
workman, whose hands are rewarded with rest. And that one, although
motionless, is alive with children--the breeze is scattering the
laughter of their games and seems to play with it, and on the sandy
ground are the crumbs of childish footsteps. Our eyes follow the
postman entering his home, his work ended; he has heroically overcome
his long journeyings. After carrying letters all day to those who were
waiting for them, he is carrying himself to his own people, who also
await him--it is the family which knows the value of the father. He
pushes the gate open, he enters the garden path, his hands are at last

Along by the old gray wall, old Eudo is making his way, the incurable
widower whose bad news still stubbornly persists, so that he bears it
along around him, and it slackens his steps, and can be seen, and he
takes up more space than he seems to take. A woman meets him, and her
youth is disclosed in the twilight; it expands in her hurrying steps.
It is Mina, going to some trysting-place. She crosses and presses her
little fichu on her heart; we can see that distance dwindles
affectionately in front of her. As she passes away, bent forward and
smiling with her ripe lips, we can see the strength of her heart.

Mist is gradually falling. Now we can only see white things
clearly--the new parts of houses, the walls, the high road, joined to
the other one by footpaths which straggle through the dark fields, the
big white stones, tranquil as sheep, and the horse-pond, whose gleam
amid the far obscurity imitates whiteness in unexpected fashion. Then
we can only see light things--the stains of faces and hands, those
faces which see each other in the gloom longer than is logical and
exceed themselves.

Pervaded by a sort of serious musing, we turn back into the room and
sit down, I on the edge of the bed, she on a chair in front of the open
window, in the center of the pearly sky.

Her thoughts are the same as mine, for she turns her face to me and

"And ourselves."

* * * * * *

She sighs for the thought she has. She would like to be silent, but
she must speak.

"We don't love each other any more," she says, embarrassed by the
greatness of the things she utters; "but we did once, and I want to see
our love again."

She gets up, opens the wardrobe, and sits down again in the same place
with a box in her hands. She says:

"There it is. Those are our letters."

"Our letters, our beautiful letters!" she goes on. "I could really say
they're more beautiful than all others. We know them by heart--but
would you like us to read them again? _You_ read them--there's still
light enough--and let me see how happy we've been."

She hands the casket to me. The letters we wrote each other during our
engagement are arranged in it.

"That one," she says, "is the first from you. Is it? Yes--no, it
isn't; do you think it is?"

I take the letter, murmur it, and then read it aloud. It spoke of the
future, and said, "In a little while, how happy we shall be!"

She comes near, lowers her head, reads the date and whispers:

"Nineteen-two; it's been dead for thirteen years--it's a long time.
No, it isn't a long time--I don't know what it ought to be. Here's
another--read it."

I go on denuding the letters. We quickly find out what a mistake it
was to say we know them by heart. This one has no date--simply the
name of a day--Monday, and we believed that would be enough! Now, it
is entirely lost and become barren, this anonymous letter in the middle
of the rest.

"We don't know them by heart any more," Marie confesses. "Remember
ourselves? How could we remember all that?"

* * * * * *

This reading was like that of a book once already read in bygone days.
It could not revive again the diligent and fervent hours when our pens
were moving--and our lips, too, a little. Indistinctly it brought
back, with unfathomable gaps, the adventure lived in three days by
others, the people that we were. When I read a letter from her which
spoke of caresses to come, Marie stammered, "And she dared to write
that!" but she did not blush and was not confused.

Then she shook her head a little, and said dolefully:

"What a lot of things we have hidden away, little by little, in spite
of ourselves! How strong people must be to forget so much!"

She was beginning to catch a glimpse of a bottomless abyss, and to
despair. Suddenly she broke in:

"That's enough! We can't read them again. We can't understand what's
written. That's enough--don't take my illusion away."

She spoke like the poor madwoman of the streets, and added in a

"This morning, when I opened that box where the letters were shut up,
some little flies flew out."

We stop reading the letters a moment, and look at them. The ashes of
life! All that we can remember is almost nothing. Memory is greater
than we are, but memory is living and mortal as well. These letters,
these unintelligible flowers, these bits of lace and of paper, what are
they? Around these flimsy things what is there left? We are handling
the casket together. Thus we are completely attached in the hollow of
our hands.

* * * * * *

And yet we went on reading.

But something strange is growing gradually greater; it grasps us, it
surprises us hopelessly--every letter speaks of the _future_.

In vain Marie said to me:

"What about afterwards? Try another--later on."

Every letter said, "In a little while, how we shall love each other
when our time is spent together! How beautiful you will be when you
are always there. Later on we'll make that trip again; after a while
we'll carry that scheme out, later on . . ."

"That's all we could say!"

A little before the wedding we wrote that we were wasting our time so
far from each other, and that we were unhappy.

"Ah!" said Marie, in a sort of terror, "we wrote that! And
afterwards . . ."

After, the letter from which we expected all, said:

"Soon we shan't leave each other any more. At last we shall live!"
And it spoke of a paradise, of the life that was coming. . . .

"And afterwards?"

"After that, there's nothing more . . . it's the last letter."

* * * * * *

There is nothing more. It is like a stage-trick, suddenly revealing
the truth. There is nothing between the paradise dreamed of and the
paradise lost. There is nothing, since we always want what we have not
got. We hope, and then we regret. We hope for the future, and then we
turn to the past, and then we begin slowly and desperately to hope for
the past! The two most violent and abiding feelings, hope and regret,
both lean upon nothing. To ask, to ask, to have not! Humanity is
exactly the same thing as poverty. Happiness has not the time to live;
we have not really the time to profit by what we are. Happiness, that
thing which never is--and which yet, for one day, is no longer!

I see her drawing breath, quivering, mortally wounded, sinking upon the

I take her hand, as I did before. I speak to her, rather timidly and
at random: "Carnal love isn't the whole of love."

"It's love!" Marie answers.

I do not reply.

"Ah!" she says, "we try to juggle with words, but we can't conceal the

"The truth! I'm going to tell you what I have been truly, _I_. . . ."

* * * * * *

I could not prevent myself from saying it, from crying it in a loud and
trembling voice, leaning over her. For some moments there had been
outlined within me the tragic shape of the cry which at last came
forth. It was a sort of madness of sincerity and simplicity which
seized me.

And I, unveiling my life to her, though it slid away by the side of
hers, all my life, with its failings and its coarseness. I let her see
me in my desires, in my hungers, in my entrails.

Never has a confession so complete been thrown off. Yes, among the
fates which men and women bear together, one must be almost mad not to
lie. I tick off my past, the succession of love-affairs multiplied by
each other, and come to naught. I have been an ordinary man, no
better, no worse, than another; well, here I am, here is the man, here
is the lover.

I can see that she has half-risen, in the little bedroom which has lost
its color. She is afraid of the truth! She watches my words as you
look at a blasphemer. But the truth has seized me and cannot let me
go. And I recall what was--both this woman and that, and all those
whom I loved and never deigned to know what they brought me when they
brought their bodies; I recall the fierce selfishness which nothing
exhausted, and all the savagery of my life beside her. I say it
all--unable even to avoid the blows of brutal details--like a harsh
duty accomplished to the end.

Sometimes she murmured, like a sigh, "I knew it." At others, she would
say, almost like a sob, "That's true!" And once, too, she began a
confused protest, a sort of reproach. Then, soon, she listens nigher.
She might almost be left behind by the greatness of my confession; and,
gradually, I see her falling into silence, the twice-illumined woman on
that adorable side of the room, she still receives on her hair and neck
and hands, some morsels of heaven.

And what I am most ashamed of in those bygone days when I was mad after
the treasure of unknown women is this: that I spoke to them of eternal
fidelity, of superhuman enticements, of divine exaltation, of sacred
affinities which must be joined together at all costs, of beings who
have always been waiting for each other, and are made for each other,
and all that one _can_ say--sometimes almost sincerely, alas!--just to
gain my ends. I confess all that, I cast it from me as if I was at
last ridding myself of the lies acted upon her, and upon the others,
and upon myself. Instinct is instinct; let it rule like a force of
nature. But the Lie is a ravisher.

I feel a sort of curse rising from me upon that blind religion with
which we clothe the things of the flesh because they are strong, those
of which I was the plaything, like everybody, always and everywhere.
No, two sensuous lovers are not two friends. Much rather are they two
enemies, closely attached to each other. I know it, I know it! There
are perfect couples, no doubt--perfection always exists somewhere--but
I mean us others, all of us, the ordinary people! I know!--the human
being's real quality, the delicate lights and shadows of human dreams,
the sweet and complicated mystery of personalities, sensuous lovers
deride them, both of them! They are two egoists, falling fiercely on
each other. Together they sacrifice themselves, utterly in a flash of
pleasure. There are moments when one would lay hold forcibly on joy,
if only a crime stood in the way. I know it; I know it through all
those for whom I have successively hungered, and whom I have scorned
with shut eyes--even those who were not better than I.

And this hunger for novelty--which makes sensuous love equally
changeful and rapacious, which makes us seek the same emotion in other
bodies which we cast off as fast as they fall--turns life into an
infernal succession of disenchantments, spites and scorn; and it is
chiefly that hunger for novelty which leaves us a prey to unrealizable
hope and irrevocable regret. Those lovers who persist in remaining
together execute themselves; the name of their common death, which at
first was Absence, becomes Presence. The real outcast is not he who
returns all alone, like Olympio; they who remain together are more

By what right does carnal love say, "I am your hearts and minds as
well, and we are indissoluble, and I sweep all along with my strokes of
glory and defeat; I am Love!"? It is not true, it is not true. Only
by violence does it seize the whole of thought; and the poets and
lovers, equally ignorant and dazzled, dress it up in a grandeur and
profundity which it has not. The heart is strong and beautiful, but it
is mad and it is a liar. Moist lips in transfigured faces murmur,
"It's grand to be mad!" _No_, you do not elevate aberration into an
ideal, and illusion is always a stain, whatever the name you lend it.

By the curtain in the angle of the wall, upright and motionless I am
speaking in a low voice, but it seems to me that I am shouting and

When I have spoken thus, we are no longer the same, for there are no
more lies.

After a silence, Marie lifts to me the face of a shipwrecked woman with
lifeless eyes, and asks me:

"But if this love is an illusion, what is there left?"

I come near and look at her, to answer her. Against the window's still
pallid sky I see her hair, silvered with a moonlike sheen, and her
night-veiled face. Closely I look at the share of sublimity which she
bears on it, and I reflect that I am infinitely attached to this woman,
that it is not true to say she is of less moment to me because desire
no longer throws me on her as it used to do. Is it habit? No, not
only that. Everywhere habit exerts its gentle strength, perhaps
between us two also. But there is more. There is not only the
narrowness of rooms to bring us together. There is more, there is
more! So I say to her:

"There's you."

"Me?" she says. "I'm nothing."

"Yes, you are everything, you're everything to me."

She has stood up, stammering. She puts her arms around my neck, but
falls fainting, clinging to me, and I carry her like a child to the old
armchair at the end of the room.

All my strength has come back to me. I am no longer wounded or ill. I
carry her in my arms. It is difficult work to carry in your arms a
being equal to yourself. Strong as you may be, you hardly suffice for
it. And what I say as I look at her and see her, I say because I am
strong and not because I am weak:

"You're everything for me because you are you, and I love _all_ of

And we think together, as if she were listening to me:

You are a living creature, you are a human being, you are the infinity
that man is, and all that you are unites me to you. Your suffering of
just now, your regret for the ruins of youth and the ghosts of
caresses, all of it unites me to you, for I feel them, I share them.
Such as you are and such as I am. I can say to you at last, "I love

I love you, you who now appearing truly to me, you who truly duplicate
my life. We have nothing to turn aside from us to be together. All
your thoughts, all your likes, your ideas and your preferences have a
place which I feel within me, and I see that they are right even if my
own are not like them (for each one's freedom is part of his value),
and I have a feeling that I am telling you a lie whenever I do not
speak to you.

I am only going on with my thought when I say aloud:

"I would give my life for you, and I forgive you beforehand for
everything you might ever do to make yourself happy."

She presses me softly in her arms, and I feel her murmuring tears and
crooning words; they are like my own.

It seems to me that truth has taken its place again in our little room,
and become incarnate; that the greatest bond which can bind two beings
together is being confessed, the great bond we did not know of, though
it is the whole of salvation:

"Before, I loved you for my own sake; to-day, I love you for yours."

When you look straight on, you end by seeing the immense event--death.
There is only one thing which really gives the meaning of our whole
life, and that is our death. In that terrible light may they judge
their hearts who will one day die. Well I know that Marie's death
would be the same thing in my heart as my own, and it seems to me also
that only within her of all the world does my own likeness wholly live.
_We_ are not afraid of the too great sincerity which goes the length of
these things; and we talk about them, beside the bed which awaits the
inevitable hour when we shall not awake in it again. We say:--

"There'll be a day when I shall begin something that I shan't finish--a
walk, or a letter, or a sentence, or a dream."

I stoop over her blue eyes. Just then I recalled the black, open
window in front of me--far away--that night when I nearly died. I look
at length into those clear eyes, and see that I am sinking into the
only grave I shall have had. It is neither an illusion nor an act of
charity to admire the almost incredible beauty of those eyes.

What is there within us to-night? What is this sound of wings? Are
our eyes opening as fast as night falls? Formerly, we had the sensual
lovers' animal dread of nothingness; but to-day, the simplest and
richest proof of our love is that the supreme meaning of death to us
is--leaving each other.

And the bond of the flesh--neither are we afraid to think and speak of
that, saying that we were so joined together that we knew each other
completely, that our bodies have searched each other. This memory,
this brand in the flesh, has its profound value; and the preference
which reciprocally graces two beings like ourselves is made of all that
they have and all that they had.

I stand up in front of Marie--already almost a convert--and I tremble
and totter, so much is my heart my master:--

"Truth is more beautiful than dreams, you see."

It is simply the truth which has come to our aid. It is truth which
has given us life. Affection is the greatest of human feelings because
it is made of respect, of lucidity, and light. To understand the truth
and make one's self equal to it is everything; and to love is the same
thing as to know and to understand. Affection, which I call also
compassion, because I see no difference between them, dominates
everything by reason of its clear sight. It is a sentiment as immense
as if it were mad, and yet it is wise, and of human things it is the
only perfect one. There is no great sentiment which is not completely
held on the arms of compassion.

To understand life, and love it to its depths in a living being, that
is the being's task, and that his masterpiece; and each of us can
hardly occupy his time so greatly as with one other; we have only one
true neighbor down here.

To live is to be happy to live. The usefulness of life--ah! its
expansion has not the mystic shapes we vainly dreamed of when we were
paralyzed by youth. Rather has it a shape of anxiety, of shuddering,
of pain and glory. Our heart is not made for the abstract formula of
happiness, since the truth of things is not made for it either. It
beats for emotion and not for peace. Such is the gravity of the truth.

"You've done well to say all that! Yes, it is always easy to lie for a
moment. You might have lied, but it would have been worse when we woke
up from the lies. It's a reward to talk. Perhaps it's the only reward
there is."

She said that profoundly, right to the bottom of my heart. Now she is
helping me, and together we make the great searchings of those who are
too much in the right. Marie's assent is so complete that it is
unexpected and tragic.

"I was like a statue, because of the forgetting and the grief. You
have given me life, you have changed me into a woman."

"I was turning towards the church," she goes on; "you hardly believe in
God so much when you've no need of Him. When you're without anything,
you can easily believe in Him. But now, I don't want any longer."

Thus speaks Marie. Only the idolatrous and the weak have need of
illusion as of a remedy. The rest only need see and speak.

She smiles, vague as an angel, hovering in the purity of the evening
between light and darkness. I am so near to her that I must kneel to
be nearer still. I kiss her wet face and soft lips, holding her hand
in both of mine.

Yes, there _is_ a Divinity, one from which we must never turn aside for
the guidance of our huge inward life and of the share we have as well
in the life of all men. It is called the truth.


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