War, Literature and Democracy
Notes de la rédaction
Excerpts from the paper delivered by Prof. Antoine Compagnon
Source: La lettre, no. 39, March 2015
- 1 Under Fire: The Story of a Squad, New York: Penguin Books,  2003.
—“Tell me, you writing chap, you’ll be writing later about soldiers, you’ll be speaking of us, eh?” —“Why yes, sonny, I shall talk about you, and about the boys, and about our life”. “Tell me, then—he indicates with a nod the papers on which I have been making notes. With hovering pencil I watch and listen to him. He has a question to put to me. —“Tell me, then, though you needn’t if you don’t want—there’s something I want to ask you. This is it; if you make the common soldiers talk in your book, are you going to make them talk like they do talk, or shall you put it all straight—into pretty talk? It’s about the big words that we use. For after all, now, besides falling out sometimes and blackguarding each other, you’ll never hear two poilus open their heads for a minute without saying and repeating things that the printers wouldn’t much like to print1.
1Barbusse added this page to his novel Under Fire after a dispute with the editorial staff of the newspaper L’Œuvre, which published the novel as a serial and earned it popular success. Though left-wing, this newspaper censored his poilu slang words. Slang words were of course found in French literature before Barbusse (in Balzac, Zola and Lucien Descaves), but they were rare, isolated and concealed, and Barbusse’s novel was a turning point in this matter. Céline long thought he could do no better, before Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932) which, like all the best French novels on the Great War, was published much later, in the early 1930s, after the end of the post-war years and at the dawn of the pre-war years. It may seem naïve to say that the democratization of the novel materialized through slang words.
- 2 Doctors Louis Huot and Paul Voivenel, Le Cafard, Paris: Grasset, 1918.
2Yet even though social mixing was limited in the trenches, it transformed language. Many common French words come from the war, for example and among many others cafard and pagaïe, unknown before 1914, and ubiquitous after 1918. Cafard, meaning boredom, spleen, the melancholy of inactivity, was used in the Army of Africa posted far off in the desert. This evil was also called saharite, soudanite or biskrite, and it suddenly invaded our language. In 1918 two doctors published a book entitled Le Cafard, their second volume on the psychology of the soldier after Le Courage2. Boredom [cafard] appears throughout war books, as the epidemic of the front that replaced bleakness [à la place du noir].
- 3 Adolphe Javal, La Grande Pagaïe, 1914-1918, Paris: Denoël, 1937.
3The other term, pagaïe, meaning disorder, agitation, chaos, anarchy, came from sailors, for mettre en pagaïe meant “dropping the anchor in an emergency”, and the term soon became synonymous with the war itself: from the parade to the pagaïe, it is what happens when a squad, a section or a company attacks and the ranks come undone. The concept of war, for a foot soldier who sees it from below, is pagaïe. The word is found in all the books. So much so that a book on the war could be entitled La Grande Pagaïe, in 1937, the same year as the film La Grande Illusion was made, without the reference raising the slightest ambiguity3.
- 4 Albert Dauzat, L’Argot de la guerre, d’après une enquête auprès des officiers et soldats, Paris: A. (...)
4The Great War democratized French language, in that it made it less controlled, less censored, less restricted, and several superb dictionaries immediately recorded the transformations of spoken language through speech from the trenches4. But what did it do to literature? It has often been pointed out that the first effect of the war was to bring French literature back to tradition, poetry to Alexandrines and novels to naturalism, after the year 1913 had seen the triumph of international modernism: Apollinaire’s Alcools, Cendrars’ The Prose of the Trans-Siberian, Braque and Picasso’s collages, Russian ballets and Igor Stravinski’s Rite of the Spring at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann, the Armory Show in New York, etc. Yet in the army, writers preferred convention, before another modernity, that of surrealism, surfaced after the war and overshadowed it (Breton, Aragon, and Éluard denied that the war had inspired them).
The full paper is available at www.college-de-france.fr/site/colloque-2014/symposium-2014-10-16-15h30.htm
1 Under Fire: The Story of a Squad, New York: Penguin Books,  2003.
2 Doctors Louis Huot and Paul Voivenel, Le Cafard, Paris: Grasset, 1918.
3 Adolphe Javal, La Grande Pagaïe, 1914-1918, Paris: Denoël, 1937.
4 Albert Dauzat, L’Argot de la guerre, d’après une enquête auprès des officiers et soldats, Paris: A. Colin, 1918; Gaston Esnault, Le Poilu tel qu’il se parle. Dictionnaire des termes populaires récents et neufs employés aux armées en 1914-1918, étudiés dans leur étymologie, leur développement et leur usage, Paris: Bossard, 1919.Haut de page
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Antoine Compagnon, « War, Literature and Democracy », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 9 | 2015, mis en ligne le 28 septembre 2015, consulté le 23 avril 2017. URL : http://lettre-cdf.revues.org/2195Haut de page
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