Monday, 24 June 2013

Silence is golden

I have on the coffee table beside my chair Georges Duhamel's Querelles de famille. It is a patchwork quilt of a book in which Duhamel, a now largely forgotten French novelist and essayist, sets out his case against the creeping encroachment of technology on life in the France in the 1930s. The picture is fascinating and alarmingly contemporary in all its resonances.

Duhamel had made his name just after WWI in which he served as a field surgeon. Fifty-one months on the front and over 3,000 operations gave him the raw material for two fictionalised accounts of his experiences, Vie des Martyrs 1914-1916 and Civilisation 1917. Like Querelles de famille, these works are a patchwork, or to use a more noble term, they are impressionistic. The author approaches his goal not using the sharp lines of rational discourse but rather through suggestion, allusion, example and juxtaposition. The particular stories are for another time. In Duhamel, what emerged from this war experience was a sound distaste for rationalisation and mechanisation. Months on end of removing shards of shrapnel from every nook and cranny of men's bodies will do that to anybody, even to one who applauded every new advance in surgery so as to be able to repair, or at least to palliate, the damage done by the awful mechanisation of war.

Querelles de famille was written just over ten years after the end of WWI and at a not dissimilar interval before the outbreak of WWII. The logic of Ford and the spirit of Taylorism were just beginning to have an impact on French industry. Rationalisation was a growing theme among a new generation of thinkers who would pave the way for the technocracy of the 1950s and beyond. On the home front, consumer society really started here also, the explosion of the 1950s being anticipated by the growing availability of disposable and quickly obsolete domestic playthings which, according to Duhamel, were beginning to fill up the poorly-managed rubbish dumps of the 1920s and 1930s.

I was going to tell you also about the noise pollution which Duhamel so strongly decried.... But that will have to wait. As if on cue, my eldest twin boy - on the left here - is currently yelling and, well, I cannot think straight! You would not think he could make such a din!

Oddly enough, all of a sudden, Duhamel's suggestion for a Parc national du silence seems strangely attractive ... unless you're four months old!

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