To have an authentic intellectual commitment, and certainly to be an artist, was fundamentally inconsistent with being a French academic. Despite his mordant criticism of the institution, the years at the ENS were ones of intellectual growth and self-discovery. While immersing himself in nineteenth-century Russian novels, particularly those of Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Goncharov, and above all Tolstoy, Romain Rolland conducted a probing self-analysis.
His earliest autobiographical renderings were of a young man "mystical and retired within himself. He was tormented by the notion that he would die prematurely, perhaps at the age of thirty-five. What Romain Rolland described as a "nihilistic crisis" was in fact a depression coinciding with his rupture with organized Catholicism. Disoriented by doubt, obsessed by feelings of his own fragility, desiring separation from and yet relationship to his parents, the adolescent Romain Rolland also experienced great pangs of conscience about breaking away from his mother's cherished beliefs.
His need for distance from her may have seemed like a betrayal, generating great guilt and remorse.
He projected his. The survival of France, of Europe, of culture, all seemed bound up with Franco-German reconciliation. Romain Rolland's earliest literary creations were dramatic. From to , he completed ten full-length dramas, including a trilogy called The Tragedies of Faith , and the first three volumes of a projected twelve-part dramatic cycle entitled The Theater of the Revolution.
The plays inaugurated his involvement in the people's theater movement. They were also his first sustained campaign in creating an engaged form of literature, and his first experience and defeat as a committed intellectual. In May , at the age of twenty-six, Romain Rolland jotted down some goals for his theater projects. He rejected the principle of art for art's sake and hoped to develop a life-affirming art that did not capitulate to the whims of the marketplace.
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Dramas with a popular form and content would mediate between the "imperishable" realms of art and a culture with democratic roots. The populist playwright was urged to speak in an idiom comprehensible to all classes. Romain Rolland's writings about popular theater oscillated between denunciations of anachronism in French theatrical genres and the desire to preserve what was valid in them. To an inquiry on the value of French dramatic criticism, he replied that its suppression would be useful to the public and to artists.
He provocatively suggested that artistic innovation would be the result of a "social movement. He condemned insincere idealistic thought, not on nationalist grounds, but rather for its rhetorical excesses and its sterile abstractions. False idealism was a poison that encouraged romantic illusions and enervated humanity.
It prevented clear-sighted observation from "real facts, real feelings. He always considered the divisions between art and society to be arbitrary. He became involved with the people's theater movement in order to combine creativity with action. As early as November , he told Maurice Pottecher, the founder of the People's Theater of Bussang in the Vosges,  that he regretted having no influence in the literary world. If he were better known, his support of the people's theater would carry more weight.
His writing would ultimately be inextricable from commitment: "I am waiting to have a more solid base to engage myself in struggle. The assertive, even abrasive, style of the engaged writer was in its first utterance hesitating and ambiguous. Before struggling, he needed to construct a "solid base. Long before he became attuned to ideological nuances, Romain Rolland was temperamentally a man of the left. However, to be a socialist with an oceanic sensitivity did not necessitate active participation in social or political struggles.
When the Dreyfus Affair exploded in France with the news of another inquiry into the case in June , Romain Rolland was thirty-one years old.
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He lived in Paris during the various stages of the crisis and he recorded these events as a continuous outburst of "frenzy" and "delirium. He had also inherited a petit-bourgeois fear of rapid social change and political disruption. Most of his literary and political friends were Dreyfusard or sympathetic to the Dreyfusards. Emotionally and ideologically, he appeared a natural recruit to the Dreyfusard cause. Nonetheless, he adopted a stance of silence and solitary distance from both camps.
His detachment reinforced feelings of repulsion for both "parties. Withdrawal from a clear choice. His failure to do so exacerbated dissatisfactions in his marriage and prepared the ground for a divorce in early He indiscreetly told Lucien Herr that he refused to take a position for "Zola-Dreyfus" because of his "anti-Semitic feelings. He was disgusted by the virulent anti-Semitism of Drumont, the demagoguery of the right-wing press, and the militaristic excesses and authoritarianism of the anti-Dreyfusards.
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France, he felt, was being ripped apart by the confrontation of two forms of fanaticism. He felt threatened by the transformation of the "bestial and murderous instincts" of the multitudes into collective pathology and mass hysteria. Romain Rolland was clearly appalled by the anti-Semitic riots and violent demonstrations in the streets. He thought that the mobilization of French intellectuals on either side of the political spectrum vastly increased the climate of hatred.
Writers on the left and right seemed oblivious to logic, evidence, and the complexity of the issues.
They took refuge in invention or inflated verbiage; their slogans pandered to the worst prejudices of their partisans and thus intensified the confusion and spread the fear. Unable to provide direction or clarity to the masses, French intellectuals responded to the anarchic situation injudiciously, by obscuring profound principles and juggling language to the detriment of ideals. The mystique of social justice and of democratic rights for all French citizens had been twisted into vulgar politics.
Romain Rolland would not let his name be exploited by either side. In an apocalyptic mood, he yearned for the intervention of a "great conscience," an impeccable man of honor, someone of the stature of Victor Hugo. He asserted that a disinterested critic presumably himself could not deny "the chaotic grandeur and benefit of the struggle.
These are sanctimonious rationalizations. Romain Rolland's perception of and reaction to the Dreyfus Affair represented a great evasion of its central issues, a failure of historical imagination. This was a regressive moment in his own emerging style of intellectual engagement. His refusal to take a position during the period — was a singular instance of nonengagement and retreat in a career of social and political responsibility. Neutrality contrasted vividly to his strong anti-Boulangist position during the s, as a student, when he opposed the demagoguery and mass hysteria generated by that dubious military hero.
In a judicious self-criticism written June , Romain Rolland commented on his own political and intellectual immaturity during the Dreyfus crisis and reproved himself for having neglected a just cause. The play failed to communicate his advocacy of an intermediate, conciliatory position. It reflected the ambiguous—and ultimately bankrupt—nature of his aloof stance.
In a letter, he complained that "it is difficult to be independent in a milieu of fanatics. Standing self-consciously alone, his intention was to avoid sullying himself in the muck of mass politics and collective emotion. Romain Rolland's preoccupation with the French Revolution grew out of his historical training, the populism generated by the Dreyfus Affair and the international socialist movement, and his crusade to rejuvenate the French dramatic tradition.
He once referred to the French Revolution as the "Iliad of the French people. To capture the panoramic sweep of the revolutionary decade, Romain Rolland conceived an epic cycle. This work, The Theater of the Revolution , reflected the potency of the revolutionary heritage among French intellectuals; the revolution could still raise, in a cultural framework, unresolved social and political questions unleashed a century before.
In a daring stance for his period, he insisted that one could not dismiss the Terror as an aberrant period of revolutionary violence or unfettered tyranny. Rather, its cultural assumptions were positive and worthy of emulation. His interest in socialism arose from his fascination with history particularly the French Revolution , collective psychology, populist aesthetics and ideology, and individual morality. As early as , Romain Rolland recorded the imprint, often against his will, of socialist ideas on his consciousness.
He described himself as a "Socialist of the heart" or, more paradoxically, as an "individual Socialist.
This stance was complicated by his unequivocal sympathies with socialist goals and by the perception of himself as a man of the left. Despite his knowledge of German culture, Romain Rolland, like most Frenchmen of his generation, had read neither Marx nor Engels nor the early French translations of Marxist works. In a rhetorical formula that crystallized his pessimistic idealism, he prophesied that "Europe will be socialist in a hundred years, or it will not be. The semi-clandestine worker unions and cooperatives, with their hostility to bourgeois politics, were a "formidable subterranean movement.
In the period —, Romain Rolland aligned himself with the "extreme left" of the French Socialist Party. He attended sessions at the Chamber of Deputies both to observe and collect im-. The Socialist Party leadership furnished a direction and lent a "grandeur" to the cause that the rank and file lacked because of their inexperience and immaturity. Not least of all, he loathed the political enemies of the socialists in France, associating them with the obsolete tyrannies and mindless superstitions of the past.
Never one to take his role lightly, he agonized over his relationship to socialism. During one of the most difficult personal crises of his life, the breakup of his marriage in , Romain Rolland seriously considered affiliating with the French Socialist Party. Socialism might be a necessary ingredient in constructing a nonalienated and modern society, but the oceanic feeling was absolutely essential in maintaining a fundamental respect for individuals, artistic independence, and a personal sense of justice. His oceanic feeling made him a socialist, allowing him to feel bonded to the French working class.