In the concluding volume of his trilogy, Chemins de la Liberte, Sartre notes the futility of ascribing war to individuals as if it were some sort of moral choice. In a conversation with his comrade Pinette, the protagonist Mathieu thinks to himself: “Everything is asking us for our opinion. Everything! We are encircled by questions: the whole thing’s a farce. Questions are asked of us as though we were men, as though somebody wanted to make us believe we are still men.”
Mathieu’s attitude of moral agency, even if ambivalent, grates upon his companion. Pinette, with whom the professor will later be killed, retorts: “What’s the use of having an opinion? You’re not going to decide.” And here Sartre, via his protagonist, ignites a trail around the idea of defeat.
“He [Mathieu] stopped talking. He thought suddenly: life has got to go on. Day after day we have got to gather in the rotten fruit of defeat, to work out in a world that has gone to pieces that total choice I have just refused to make. But, good God! I didn’t choose this war, nor this defeat; by what phony trick must I assume responsibility for them?
“He was conscious within himself of the panic fury of the trapped beast, and, looking up, saw the same fury in the eyes of his comrades. Let them clamor to the skies: ‘We have nothing to do with this mess! We are guiltless!’ His passion ebbed; oh yes, to be sure, innocence was in the morning sunlight, you could touch it on the blades of grass, an almost tangible presence. But it was a lying presence: what was true was the indefinable fault that they had all committed, our fault. A phantom war, a phantom defeat, a phantom guilt.” It is only after following Mathieu through this furious line of thought that one realizes he never responds directly to Pinette; there is, ultimately, no use in having an opinion. [pp. 59-60].
Now, to contrast this with Chinese resistance literature! Village in August is a classic specimen, and also served a function in China’s international propaganda during World War II via its translation into English in 1942. (And it is one hell of a translation, to my recollection.) In Village, a certain futile strain exists, but it has to do with the impacts of attacking the Japanese locally, not the savage absurdity of the war itself.
Lao She’s series of novels, “Four Generations Under One Roof /四世同堂” (about a family living under Japanese occupation) is now being made into a mini-series in China; it has also been the subject of an academic conference.
The fantastic-mind-of-our-time Friedrich Spotts (author of Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics) has a new book, commented on here by poet Ron Slate, on French artists under Nazi occupation.