When that sensational issue of Collier’s came out on October 27, 1951, in which articles by prominent writers described the course of World War III as if it had already taken place, there was a roar of outrage. Though the issue was titled “The War We Do Not Want,” it seemed to most observers that quite an opposite impression would be conveyed, especially to the peoples of Europe and Asia. There was a general feeling that the magazine had somehow committed an unpardonable offense, though few seemed inclined to judge it in terms other than Realpolitik: it would dishearten Europeans, frighten Asiatics, etc. Here, André Prudhommeaux gives one European’s reaction to the Collier’s episode, not as it affects the strategy of the cold war, but as it involves certain values intrinsic to Western civilization that contemporary journalism appears willing to dispense with. This article is translated from the French by Waldemar Hansen.

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Homer expressed the rather revolting notion that the wars and ills of mankind are the raw material of poetry and, consequently, of that poetic pleasure which is the supreme delight of the gods. In this sentiment we detect the first symptoms of that professional deformation which makes journalists greet a juicy crime or an international crisis with joy, and which makes their readers eagerly look forward to blood on the front page.

Still, we must also take into account the cathartic function that art had for Homer, even if he is a little too self-conscious about being the one who, after the event, transmutes massacres into beauty, and human suffering into an enjoyment that, thanks to the poet, is not reserved for the gods. Moreover, there is an extenuating circumstance here, in that the poetic treatment of human misfortune is confined to events that have already happened—and constitutes the revenge taken, after the fact, by intelligence and sensibility on the blind and inscrutable Fate which is a closed book for the gods themselves. Homer does not at all invite men to enjoy the story of future wars; and it is by this token that he remains for us a citizen of our world, a civilized person. For one of the tacit and essential conventions of “civilization” is that the future belongs to nobody, that reality should not be staged in advance: for Nero to burn Rome simply to provide himself with a literary subject seems to us the very symbol of barbarity.

Civilized good taste has regarded speculation about the future as proper only in the detached, remote, and schematic form of an apocalypse or a Utopia; and has barred, as essentially inhuman, any factual, realistic description of a future that involves us and depends on what we ourselves do. The vision of the future as expressed in either apocalypse or Utopia pertains to an ultimate end, the end of history, and the unreality of that end is obvious to the living. But the day when a television camera man waits in ambush on a ledge in order to present us with the possible spectacle of a workman falling off a roof—on that day something irreparable will have happened, since it will then take only an infinitesimal psychological step to actually provoking the workman’s fall. Therefore it is real cause for scandal when a magazine, having apparently exhausted the means of attracting readers that current events and free-floating fantasy offer it, tries to cash in, in advance, on the terrors and massacres of tomorrow, borrowing details from future holocausts with which to stage a sensational spectacle, and extracting morbid entertainment from a drama that still lies in the womb of time.

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I am well aware that Collier’s venture (“Preview of the War We Do Not Want,” October 27, 1951) was armed with handy pre-texts, such as that it was meant as a warning addressed to everybody, friend and foe alike-, and those responsible may also have felt subconsciously justified by the popular superstition to the effect that once an evil event has been foreseen, a kind of preventive magic insures that it can’t actually happen. For all that, the project is nonetheless revealing of how barbarism has entered ethical and aesthetic fields where certain norms used to prevail. Worse yet, it reveals the unconsciousness with which these norms can be violated by certain members of the intellectual elite in the West—for there were a number of the most respectable names involved in this piece of literary degradation.

Although many voices were raised in censure of Collier’s, I listened in vain for the note I was waiting for: a condemnation in the name of the essential aesthetic basis of civilized life. The rules that separate reality from fiction, art from nature, the thing from its representation, style from crude fact, form from substance, subject from object—it is these rules alone that sanction and govern the adventure of being human, and in this case they were obviously violated. A total failure to recognize distinctions abolishes all values by abolishing that which irreducibly distinguishes one value from another. And, indeed, life is stripped naked of all meaning when one is confronted by these pages, where scenes of future carnage, future victory, and future demoralization—conjured up with the heightened caricature of comic strips, with the super-real, gaudy trappings of technicolor and the glare of flood-lighting, with all the minute details of a wax museum—alternate with advertisements, more real than life, that present the fetishistic objects of American culture: automobiles, frigid-aires, whiskey, beauty soap, deodorants, depilatories, sanitary napkins, and life insurance. . . . On one page, Philadelphia is atom-bombed; but on the opposite page, in an ad, a beaming, smiling model upholds the only tooth powder that hardens the gums; the inmates of Siberian prison camps revolt; the musical comedy A Thousand Guys and Girls is playing at the Moscow State Theater—and everything winds up with a free handout of nylon stockings.

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Nor is this sensational and grotesque farce improbable or unrealistic, either: there is always “business as usual,” and the true music of war is usually made up of such discordant notes. But in this case the unforgivable crime was to try to monopolize the future, the hopes and private dreams of men alive today; the unpardonable thing was to offer them, on the one hand, the hope of being loved or of being happy—symbolized by shampoo and electric ranges—and then to mix this with the murder of one half of the world by the other half, and the unconditional surrender of humanity to blind history.

As though this weren’t enough, the hypothetical nightmare is given a blatant veneer to make it seem like actuality, like crude reality itself. On this level, Collier’s is unprecedented. When Captain Danrit, in France back in the 1880’s, described the War of Tomorrow in thirty-two illustrated volumes, the naive, Utopian, absurdly optimistic character of his bayonet battles, cavalry charges, balloons grappling in mid-air, and naval victories with warships ramming each other—all this looked like Jules Verne and his school; moreover, Danrit took good care not to use real names, not even his own. When the French magazine Vu published an issue anticipating poison-gas warfare, the gas masks guaranteed that the entire dramatis personae would remain as anonymous as robots; and the whole issue amounted to little more than statistics on the number of quarts of poison that would be necessary to wipe out all life in a square city mile. In short, both publications could offer the excuse of being a kind of didactic outline with practical aims: the one setting forth the virtues of a new and joyous kind of warfare, the other tending to mock a perfectly mechanical and stupid massacre. Collier’s had no aim. Neither sincerely warlike nor authentically pacifist, the issue was a pure circulation and advertising stunt, a spectacular and technocratic expression of contemporary nihilism.

This can be seen from the way in which the odds and ends and rubbish of the present were juggled to make them fit into Collier’s museum of horrors. The refinement of detail was like that in an exhibition of wax figures, on which real teeth, hair, and even skin are used. The details belonged to a tableau vivant: some of the actors would appear to be real corpses, others dolls, and others tortured criminals about to die, or their torturers themselves—all simply obeying the command to hold the pose. One thinks of those late Roman spectacles in which slaves declaimed the roles of Hercules or Oedipus and were then burned alive at a real stake, or were actually blinded in the last act.

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If memory serves me right, there was a documentary film on Africa in which a native fled before a lion, was caught, torn apart, and authentically eaten; and mean-while the whole scene was calmly filmed, later to be projected on public movie screens. The general idea was that this was supposed to be a “tragic accident” occurring suddenly in the course of a hunt, but one had the strong impression of its having been premeditated by the white b’wana who, when he spotted some game, sent the young native to get his rifle. In any case, the mere fact of seeing the camera passively follow, through its lens, the victim’s final desperate spurt from death, was enough to make any spectator feel like the accomplice of a murder. What is one man more or less on a dangerous expedition, when so many die without ever having a camera there to give them new life on the screen? The nihilist perhaps would say something like that; but any civilized man—and I am thinking now, above all, of the dead man’s relatives and fellow tribesmen—knows only too well that “it isn’t the same thing.”

There are limits to human pastime, limits that are those of civilization itself. Aesop isn’t played by a hunchback in our theaters, nor Philoctetes by a cripple. Any element of reality, brutally injected into a fiction, kills art and causes nothingness and darkness to explode in the midst of the world of forms that makes up culture. The man who puts a single lock of real hair in a portrait, or makes a war movie with a real dead horse in it, swollen, its hoofs in the air; the man who exhibits a true monster in a side show, who shows death masks together with sculpture, who nails a living man in the form of a cross on some processional crucifix; the man who cheats in terms of creation and truth—that man does something more than kill his own work: he kills faith in the human venture and in its profoundest rules. He brings the death of society just as surely as though he held between his fingers the fuse that would plunge it into darkness and chaos.

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