Wednesday, December 16, 2009

les rides qui étaient pleines de joie

Hélène Berr was determined to live her life authentically. She wished to be true to herself, her family, her friends, and her colleagues at work. She believed that life should be much more than bare existence, than simple consciousness, than mere pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain. Her Journal shows us a woman committed to a life possessing meaning; she cares about life and its purposes, she believes in a Judeo-Christian God as a source of ethical percepts and believes that this God takes existence from people as a natural ending of their lives. She also believes that men can and have perverted this natural way of being and that such un-Godly men are unnatural in the extreme. Her attitude is much like Heidegger's, though her life could not have been much less like his than it was and though she thought most Germans to be incapable of fully appreciating the beauties of life or of experiencing a state that she unselfconsciously identified as joie de vivre.

These beliefs show in the Journal's celebration of a "great blue shimmering sky" over Paris on a glorious Spring day, of "water sparkling under [this] sun, its lapping and light ripples full of joy;" and — on the "dancing water," — "the graceful arcs cut by breeze-blown toy sailboats," with a cheerful mass of children and grownups all around. Here, on this day, she rejected a cynical and appallingly insensitive statement by an acquaintance that "the Germans will win the war," and, after all, "nothing will change." In her Journal she struggles to come to terms with "the fact of such beauty," which seems to reduce to "utter nothingness" all arguments about the war and its outcome, and she concludes that the experience of joy that she feels is not independent of her ordinary existence in the world. She tells her blithe friend that if the Germans win, the evil of Nazism will crush his, hers, and everyone's freedom to experience this beauty of light and water.

For Hélène Berr, living life fully was an act of resistance, not capitulation. Despite the horrors perpetrated by Germans and French collaborators which she observed and despite the indignities which the occupation caused her to personally suffer, she proudly continued her studies, continued her work as part-time librarian, continued to develop her skills as a classical violinist, and continued to seek and find joy in her Parisian life.

Here's the French of her expression of joy: she writes that she was fascinated by "l’étincellement de l’eau sous le soleil, le clapotis léger et les rides qui étaient pleines de joie – la courbe gracieuse des petits voiliers sous le vent, et par-dessus tout, le grand ciel bleu frissonnant." -- Journal entry for Thursday, April 16, 1942, in Luxembourg Garden, Paris

{Luxembourg Garden; source:}

{This photo was taken in Luxembourg Garden just a few weeks after Berr wrote her Journal entry; source: photo by André Zucca from an exhibit in Bibliotheque Historique de la Ville de Paris }

{Hélène Berr in the summer of 1942 at her family's country place with a fellow student at the Sorbonne with whom she would later fall in love; source: atlas shrugs blog}

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