Wednesday, May 2, 2007

“Love Your Enemies” – A Reflection on “Suite Française”

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says to his listeners: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44). In “Dolce,” the second novella in Irène Némirosky’s “Suite Française,” love of the enemy is exactly what happens among some French women left to cope with the German occupation of their village during World War II. With all their men dead or prisoners of war far away, the women of the village are deeply affected by the enemy soldiers in their midst. Some resist the attraction they feel toward the handsome, polite soldiers. Others remain implacable in their hatred of the enemy, while yet others fall in love, and tell themselves, and anyone who challenges them, that only love matters.
Lucile Angellier, the main character of “Dolce,” works hard against increasing mutual attraction to maintain a polite distance between herself and the handsome, cultured, French-speaking German officer, Bruno, who is billeted in Lucile’s mother-in-law’s house, where Lucile also lives. She married the son of the house, now a prisoner of war, in a loveless arrangement, much as Bruno did. They read to one another, take walks in the garden, and he plays the piano for her. They both endure the contempt of Lucile’s mother-in-law, who hates Lucile as unworthy of her son, whom she idealizes, as much as she hates the Germans.
Lucile realizes that to fall in love with Bruno is to collaborate with the enemy, but others risk being branded collaborators for love. In one of the most powerful scenes in this powerful novella, Lucile brings a piece of silk to a dressmaker to be made into a dressing gown and sees a German soldier's belt on the bed. Recoiling, she murmurs,

“How can you?”
The dressmaker responds, “So what? German or French, friend or enemy, he's first and foremost a man and I'm a woman. He's good to me, kind, attentive... He’s a city boy who takes care of himself, not like the boys around here; he has beautiful skin, white teeth. When he kisses, his breath smells fresh, not of alcohol. And that's good enough for me. I’m not looking for anything else. Our lives are complicated enough with all these wars and bombings. Between a man and a woman, none of that’s important. I couldn't care less if the man I fancy is English or black – I'd still offer myself to him if I got the opportunity. Do I disgust you? Sure, it’s all right for you, you’re rich, you have luxuries I don’t have...”
“Luxuries!” Lucile cut in, sounding bitter without meaning to, wondering what the dressmaker could imagine might be luxurious an existence as an Angellier: visiting her estate and investing money, no doubt.
"You're educated. You see people. For us, it's nothing but slaving at work. If it wasn't for love, we might as well just throw ourselves in the river. And when I say love, don't think it’s only about you know what. Listen, the other day this German, he was at Moulins and he bought me a little imitation crocodile handbag; another time he brought me flowers, a bouquet from town, like I was a lady. It’s stupid, I know, because there are flowers all over the countryside, but he cared, it made me happy. Up until now, to me men were just good for a tumble. But this one, I don't know why, I’d do anything for him, follow him anywhere. And he loves me, he does... Oh, I've known enough men to tell when there's one who's not lying. So, you see, when people say to me ‘He’s German, a German, a German,’ I couldn't care less. They're human, like us.”
“Yes, but my poor girl, when people say ‘a German,’ of course know he's just a man, but what they mean to say, what is so terrible, is that he's killed Frenchmen, that they're holding our relatives prisoner, that they're starving us..."
"You think I never think about that? Sometimes, when I'm lying in bed next to him, I wonder, ‘Maybe it was his father who killed mine’ (my dad was killed in the last war, you know ...). I think about it for a while then, in the end, I don't give a damn. On one side there's me and on the other side there's everyone else. People don't care about us: they bomb us and make us suffer, and kill us worse than if we were rabbits. And as for us, well, we don't care about them. You see, if we did what other people thought we should do we’d be worse than animals. Around town they call me a dog. Well, I'm not. Dogs travel in packs and bite people when they're told to. Me and Willy..."
She stopped and sighed.
“I love him,” she said finally.
“But his regiment will be leaving.”
“I know that, but Willy said he'd send for me after the war.”
“And you believe him?”
“Yes, I believe him,” she said defiantly.
“You’re mad,” said Lucile. “He'll forget you the moment he's gone. You have brothers who are prisoners. When they come home... Believe me, be careful. What you’re doing is very dangerous. Dangerous and wrong,” she added.
“When they come home...”
They looked at each other in silence. There was a rich, secret scent in this stuffy room, cluttered with heavy rustic furniture, that troubled Lucile and made her feel strangely uneasy.

Lucile feels uneasy, no doubt, because she can’t deny that she feels much the same about Bruno as the dressmaker feels about Willy.
If we are to love our enemies, how can we do it? The love Jesus speaks of in the Sermon on the Mount is agape. The love of the dressmaker is clearly eros. Although distinct, these forms of love are closely related. In his first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est,” Pope Benedict XVI makes the point that, as one receives love and gives it to another, the desire for (eros) is united to a desire for the good of (agape.) The more love grows, the more one wants to be present to the other – eros becomes agape and enriches the experience of love. Thus, the dressmaker proclaims, “I’d do anything for him, follow him anywhere.” She feels not only eros, but also agape, which has grown with the relationship.
Can we love our enemies without falling in love with them? If our emotions are involved, as they must be in love, it seems unlikely, and we risk the scorn – and worst – of our fellows. Love sometimes exacts a very high price.

1 comment:

Franklyn said...

In order to love our enemies we have to seperate the individual from the group. This becomes complicated since in many situations the individual has chosen to be part of a group: John is a Republican. In other cases he had no choice: John is a Frenchman. How one feels (could love) John the Republican and John the Frenchman are clearly different