Readings — From the June 2014 issue

Voltaire in Vichy

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By Jean Guéhenno, from Diary of the Dark Years, 1940–1944: Collaboration, Resistance, and Daily Life in Occupied Paris, out this month from Oxford University Press. Guéhenno (1890–1978) was a writer, editor, and teacher. Translated from the French by David Ball.

february 14, 1941

My profession as a teacher is the main part of my life, and I blame myself for noting nothing or almost nothing about it here. It’s the time of year when I begin to talk about the eighteenth century, for my work is regulated in such a way that every year I must go through the same cycle, following France in its revolution like a heavenly body. Ten centuries are condensed into ten months. Toward the month of February we enter — France enters — the sign of liberty at the same time as the sun is entering the sign of Aquarius. It’s the finest moment there is. It’s springtime for France. The “nation” begins to know itself and stir. Writers are going to celebrate that moment. From now on they belong to the “nation,” and not to the king or a grandee. They are men of letters in the same way there had been men-at-arms.

Yesterday, for the first time, we heard the laugh of Voltaire. We were discussing a fragment of his Letters Concerning the English Nation and were watching freedom being born from the alacrity of a mind and the feeling for the public good. Around four o’clock, I suddenly realized that the classroom was filled with an astonishingly serious silence. All the students were pale with attention. None of them were even thinking of taking notes anymore. They were completely bound up in listening. Was it the circumstances? Were we all watching the birth of something that is perhaps dying now? I left at five with my heart full of joy, and yet I was on the verge of tears.

As I came out of Lycée Henri-IV, I met Monod, who told me the occupation authorities had just arrested a teacher of German at Lycée Janson de Sailly; he had been denounced by a student. It seems the authorities pay a hundred francs for such denunciations. What, one wonders, have I deserved for reading those fragments of Voltaire? How will I teach, in the coming months? The star of France is going to continue its revolution. There is really nothing I can do to stop it: Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Danton, Robespierre, Chénier, Hugo, Michelet. I have nothing to discuss but suspects.

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