Writers who stood up for what they believed in
A century ago — on the April 10, 1919, to be precise — the French writer Romain Rolland posted a letter to the Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore. They had not met, but knew of one another. Each had a considerable reputation in their own country, and abroad. Both had won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In this letter, the first that he wrote to Tagore, the Frenchman asked the Indian to sign a statement on the “Declaration of the Independence of the Spirit” that he had drafted. The bloodiest war in human history had just ended; and writers and intellectuals had played their part in fomenting and furthering it. As Rolland put it, “The thinkers and artists have added an immeasurable amount of poisoning hatred to the scourge, destroying Europe’s body and mind.” Too many writers had made themselves “the instrument of the passions and egotistical interests of a political or social clan, of a State, of a fatherland, of a class”.
Appalled and shamed by the role that writers had played in the war, Rolland now drafted this statement urging them to free themselves from “compromises”, “humiliating alliances”, and “hidden subservience”. “Our role, our duty”, he insisted, “is to maintain a fixed point, to show the pole star amidst the storm of passions, in the darkness.” The statement asked writers to “commit ourselves never to serve anything but the free Truth that has no frontiers and no limits and is without prejudice against races or castes”.
Within the West, Rolland had got endorsements for his “Declaration of the Independence of the Spirit” from, among others, the great Italian historian Benedetto Croce, the great British philosopher Bertrand Russell, and the great German novelist Herman Hesse. He now wanted signatures from the East, hence this appeal to Tagore. The Indian wrote back saying he was happy to “join the ranks of those free souls” who had signed the declaration.
This exchange on the ethical responsibility of writers began a correspondence that lasted for many years. It has been brought together in a fine recent book, Bridging East and West, edited by the literary historian Chinmoy Guha (no relation of this writer). As this book demonstrates, Rolland and Tagore deeply loved their own country, yet found themselves at odds with the intense nationalist passions within it. Stifled by French chauvinism, Rolland moved to a town called Villeneuve in Switzerland. As he wrote to a Russian colleague, “If I have settled in Switzerland, it is to indicate that my thought-centre is not France, but outside all nations, in a cosmopolitanism which embraces all free men of all races and all countries.”
Apart from exchanging letters for many years, Rolland and Tagore met several times, in Europe. They got along very well; Rolland telling one mutual friend, the musician and mystic, Dilip Kumar Roy, that “no living artist has made on me such a pure and almost spiritual impression”. Meanwhile, Tagore told another mutual friend, the historian Kalidas Nag: “Of all men I met in the West, it was Romain Rolland who struck me as the nearest to my heart and most akin to my spirit.”
Tagore explained to Nag what it was about the Frenchman that most appealed to him: “Men like Rolland had accepted voluntarily the career of penance and purification (tapasya) for the welfare of humanity as a whole. For them there does not exist the distinction between their country and the Universe. That is why they are being hounded by the champions of patriotism and Nationalism. But my whole heart is with Rolland and his small band of colleagues. The ultimate victory is ours for we are on the side of Truth wherein lies real liberty and emancipation.”
This letter was written in May 1922. In the same month, Tagore wrote to Rolland himself: “There has been a great political upheaval as you know, in our country. It has, no doubt, roused the minds of the people, but has led it through a narrow channel, and by incessantly harping upon wrongs done to us and belittling cultures foreign to India has allowed their aim to get mixed up with passions that are evil. What hurts me deeply is the fact that this movement fails to draw its inspiration from a large vision of humanity but, on the contrary, deliberately obscures it in the minds of the followers in order to intensify to a glowing red heat the consciousness of national individuality.”
Romain Rolland once offered an intriguing comparison between Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi (whom he also knew and admired). “Those two great men”, he wrote, “have for each other esteem and admiration, but they are fatally separated from each other like the apostle and sage, like Saint Paul and Plato. On the one hand, the genius of faith and charity, which can be the seed of a new humanity. On the other, that of intelligence, free, vast, serene, which embraces the whole existence.”
As he aged, Rolland began to reconcile himself with his native country. In December 1937, he wrote to Tagore that “the resurgence (social, moral, intellectual) of the working and peasant class of France gives me great joy and enormous hope. Since especially the last two or three years, it has become aware of its unity and force, as well as its responsibilities towards pan-humanity.” The next year, Rolland moved back to France from Switzerland, settling in a small medieval town surrounded by woods and hills.
The correspondence between Rolland and Tagore makes for instructive reading now, a century after it was first initiated. One can absolutely appreciate writers being attached to the language, culture, and traditions of the country in which they reside. One can understand their intervening in public debates, taking a stand for (or against) certain policies or programmes. However, writers must nonetheless be wary of subordinating the Spirit to the Cause, of making themselves “the instrument of the passions and egotistical interests of a political or social clan, of a State, of a fatherland, of a class.”
Ramachandra Guha is the author of Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World.
The views expressed are personal