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THE SOUL OF NATIONS
IN the admirable and touching pages in which Octave Mirbeau bequeaths his last thoughts to us, the great friend whose loss is mourned by all who in this world hunger and thirst after justice expresses his surprise at finding how in the supreme moments of its life the collective soul of the French nation differs from the soul of each of the individuals of which it is composed.
He had devoted the best part of his work to examining, dissecting, presenting in a blinding and sometimes unbearable light and stigmatizing -- with unequalled eloquence and bitterness the weaknesses and selfishness, the folly and meannesses, the vanity and sordid money-sense, the lack of conscience, honesty, charity, dignity, the shameful stains on the life of his fellow countrymen. And behold, in the hour of insistent duty, there arises suddenly, as in a fairy scene, out of the quagmire which he had so long stirred with rough and generous disgust, the purest, noblest, most patient, fraternal and whole-hearted spirit of heroism and sacrifice that the world has ever known, not only in the most glorious days of its history, but even in the time of its most romantic legends, which were but glorious dreams which it never hoped to realize.
I could say as much of another nation, which I know well, since it lives in the land where I was born. The Belgians, in the guise in which we saw them daily, appeared to give us no promise of a noble soul. They seemed to us narrow and limited, a little commonplace, honest in a mean, inglorious way, without ideals or generous aspirations, wholly absorbed by their petty material welfare, their petty local wrangles. Yet, when the same hour of duty sounded for them, more menacing and formidable than those of the other nations, because it preceded all of them in a terrible mystery; while there was everything to gain and nothing to lose, save honour, if they proved faithless to a plighted word; at the first call of their conscience aroused as by a thunderbolt, without hesitating or glancing at what they had to meet or undergo, with an unanimous and irresistible impulse, they astonished mankind by a decision such as no other people had ever taken and saved the world, well knowing that themselves could not be saved. And this assuredly is the noblest sacrifice that the heroes and martyrs who have hitherto appeared to be the professed exponents of sublime courage are able to achieve upon this earth of ours.
On the other hand, to those of us who had had occasion to mix with Germans, who had lived in Germany and believed that they knew German manners and letters, it seemed beyond doubt that the Bavarians, Saxons, Hanoverians and Rhinelanders, notwithstanding some defects of education rather than character which grated upon us a little, also possessed certain qualities, notably a genial kindness, a gravity, a laboriousness, a steadiness, an uncomplaining temper, a simplicity in their domestic life, a sense of duty and a habit of taking life conscientiously, which we had never known or had succeeded in losing. So, despite the warnings of history, we were struck dumb with amazement and at first refused to believe the early tales of atrocities which were not incidental, as in every war, but deliberate, premeditated, systematic and perpetrated with a light heart by an entire people setting itself of sober purpose and with a sort of perverse pride outside the pale of humanity, transforming itself of a sudden into a pack of devils more formidable and destructive than all those which Hell had hitherto belched forth into our world.
We knew already and Dr. Gustave Le Bon had demonstrated to us in a curious way that the soul of a crowd does not resemble the soul of any of its component members. According to the leaders and the circumstances that control it, the collective soul is sometimes loftier, juster, more generous and most often more impulsive, more credulous, more cruel, more barbarous and blind. But a crowd has only a provisional, momentary soul, which does not survive the short-lived and nearly always violent event that calls it into being; and its contingent and transitory psychology is hardly able to tell us how the profound, lasting and, so to speak, immortal soul of a nation takes shape.
It is quite natural that a nation should not know itself at all and that its acts should plunge it into a state of bewilderment from which it does not recover until history has explained them to a greater or lesser degree. None of the men who make up a nation knows himself; still less does any of them know his fellows. Not one of us really knows who or what he is; not one of us can say what he will do in unexpected circumstances which are a trifle more serious than those which form the customary tissue of life. We spend our existence in questioning and exploring ourselves; our acts are as much a revelation to ourselves as to others; and, the nearer we draw to our end, the farther stretches the vista of that which still remains for us to discover. We own but the smallest part of ourselves; the rest, which is almost the whole, does not belong to us at all, but merges in the past and the future and in other mysteries more unknown than the future or the past.
What is true of each one of us is very much more true of a great nation composed of millions of men. That represents a future and a past stretching incomparably farther than those of a single human life. We admit and constantly repeat that a nation is guided by its dead. It is certain that the dead continue to live in it a far more active life than is generally believed and that they control it unknown to itself, even as, at the other end of the ages, the men of the future, that is to say, all those who are not yet born, all those whom it carries within itself as it does its dead, play no less important a part in a nation's decisions. But in its very present, at the moment when it is living and putting forth its activity on this earth, in addition to the power of those who no longer are and those who are not yet, there is outside the nation, outside the aggregate of bodies and brains that make it up, a host of forces and faculties which have not found or have not wished to take their place, or which do not abide in the nation consistently, and which nevertheless belong to it as essentially and direct it as effectively as those which are comprised within it. What our body contains when we believe ourselves circumscribed is little in comparison with what it does not contain; and it is in what the body does not contain that the highest and most powerful part of our being seems to dwell. We must not forget that it grows stronger each day that we neither die nor come into being, in a word, that we are not wholly incarnate, and that, on the other hand, our flesh comprises much more than ourselves. It is this that constitutes all the floating forces which make up the real soul of a people, forces very much deeper and more numerous than those which seem fixed in the body and the spirit. They do not show themselves in the petty incidents of daily life, which concern only the mean and narrow covering in which a nation goes sheltered; but they unite, join forces and reveal their passionate ardour at the grave and tragic hours when everlasting destiny is at stake. They then lay down decisions which history inscribes on her records, decisions whose grandeur, generosity and heroism astonish even those who have taken them more or less unknown to themselves and often in spite of themselves, decisions which are manifested in their own eyes as an unexpected, magnificent and incomprehensible revelation of themselves.Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.