It’s been quite a month, hasn’t it?
I’ve started reading a new book by Alfred de Vigny, a French poet and soldier. The original title is Servitude et grandeur militaires; I’m reading the 2013 translation entitled The Warrior’s Life (different translators have translated the title as Lights and Shades of Military Life, The Military Necessity, The Military Condition, and The Servitude and Grandeur of Arms). It seems hard to translate the entire meaning of the French title into English.*
de Vigny was a poet who was born just after the French Revolution ended and grew up in Napoléon’s empire. He was an aristocrat who went to military school so he could fight for his king… and then he didn’t actually get to fight. He belonged to a generation of men who dreamed of finding glory through valiant military acts, but didn’t get it because they were serving a king who didn’t want to expand territory.
It’s interesting reading a Romantic work of literature that’s not fiction. The Warrior’s Life reads like a novel. For comparison, it was published around the same time as Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame). The stories talk about love and beauty and honor and duty. They read like some of my friends’ post-election Facebook posts: “What’s the point? Here’s a story about someone else. What makes us human?”
I’m mainly reading this on my lunch breaks, so I’m only about halfway through the book, but there was one story that I haven’t stopped thinking about. A bride goes crazy after witnessing her husband’s execution. She isn’t supposed to see it. She isn’t supposed to see the gunshots. But she does. And then the executioner adopts her because she has no family and no way to get food.
It sounds like a scene from Les Misérables. It sounds like a sad story written in beautiful language that never happened. But it did. This woman, and many other women, watched their husbands die during the French Revolution. He died, and so did she.
Writing that summary makes it seem less powerful. I read that recollection, and then I returned to work grieving for this woman who died 200 years ago.
I realize now that the books I love are all Romantic works of literature. The writers muse upon the roles of governments, human kindness, love, fear, and fame. They look for beauty in nature. They search for the sublime.
This encounter revealed to me a side of man’s nature which I had not known – of which the country knows little and which it treats so badly. From that moment I placed it high in my esteem. Since then I have often searched round me for some man comparable to him, capable of such complete and heedless abnegation of the self. And, during the fourteen years I have lived in the army, it was in it alone, and above all in the ranks of the poor and despised infantry, that I found men of this antique character, men pushing the sentiment of duty to its final consequences, having no compunction about their obedience nor shame for their poverty, simple of manners and language, proud of the glory of their country and careless of their own, happily shut up in their obscurity, and sharing with the unfortunate the black bread they purchase with their blood.
One moment I’m reading a tragic story that sounds like fiction, and then I remember that it’s true. It’s beautiful and sad and maybe too philosophical for a Black Friday lunch break, but it’s too good to let go.
*Biographical information and edition titles come from Wikipedia, the source of all knowledge and facts on the internet.