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  • "Wir sind doch keinen Barbaren"Music, Musicality and Cultural Politics in Aragon's "Le Droit romain n'est plus"
  • Aparna Nayak-Guercio


In Philosophy of Modern Music Theodor Adorno writes: "All forms of music [. . .] are sedimented contents. In them survives what is otherwise forgotten and can no longer speak in a direct manner" (42). These "sedimented contents" are understood affectively, both at the personal level and at the collective level, be it in the form of popular or folkloric music or in "high" forms. Simon Critchley explains that "Music places us, locates us, within time and within a culture" (192). Beyond the artistic, aesthetic, and philosophical realms, then, music can also be seen as a cultural marker of national belonging.

The boundary between poetry and music, between the linguistic and the musical has never been decisive, given that they each affect and modify each other. Writing about Adorno, Andrew Bowie affirms that

[. . .] the best metaphors employed to talk about music do make us understand music better and [that], conversely, great music can reveal aspects of verbal art which may otherwise remain concealed. [. . .] If one makes the hermeneutic assumption that what we understand is the living, changing historical world that we articulate in language and not just statements that are supposed to represent that world, the distinction between metaphor and literal meaning ceases to be absolute, and we also become able to understand how music can affect our understanding of verbal language.

(Bowie, 255-6)

Music, then, not only influences our comprehension of language, but it can also be used in language, literally as well as metaphorically, to articulate "the living, changing historical world." The short story "Le Droit romain n'est plus" by Louis Aragon is a prime example of [End Page 21] such an attempt, and it can be read as a moment of transition between his Resistance poetry and his immediate post-war work, music being the link between the two. Music is a conspicuous part of Aragon's semantic field as manifested by his literary texts of the 1940s. Within this context, this article will explore three related facets of music in the period of the Nazi occupation of France: the importance of music in the cultural politics of the occupiers, the role of music in Louis Aragon's wartime writings, and finally the role of intermediality— that is to say, the participation of one medium in another, or in this case of the musical dimensions of a literary text—in Aragon's short-story, "Le Droit romain n'est plus."

Music, Cultural Politics, and Nationalism

In the course of the 19th century, particularly after the Franco-Prussian war, characterizing Germans as barbarians was a topos in French popular and political discourse.1 For example, in 1917 the Ministry of Public Instruction distributed Après trois ans de guerre to children at the end of the school year; this pamphlet served to explain the origins and progression of the war and to maintain a strong sense of patriotism among schoolchildren. In this text, Germany is characterized as the digne héritière des Molochs barbares.2 As we shall see in the discussion of Aragon's short story, the pivotal retort by the German judge to the résistants, "wir sind doch keinen Barbaren" underscores the continued use of the barbarian / civilised opposition during the Occupation and drives this topic into the forefront. In occupied France, cultural politics, especially the control of cultural production, played an important role in the agenda of the occupiers. It served to refute the image of Germans as barbarians by portraying them as civilized and refined. Music was the keystone of this plan.3

For the Nazi regime, occupation meant seizing political, economic, and social control in France; simultaneously, there was a clear understanding of the importance of cultural products and a concerted effort to control them. Indeed, Hitler visited the Paris Opera the very day after the Armistice was signed (Porcile, 28). Less than a month after the start of the Occupation, the need for well-defined cultural politics was proposed (Schwartz, 89). Shortly thereafter, a September 1940 report by the Propaganda Abteilung states: [End Page 22]

Pour l'Allemagne...


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