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the massacre of the peasants

An unusual coincidence in my reading, two days apart. On Thursday, I come across the following remark by the French philosopher Michel Serres in the preface to a book of interviews with French farmers, Ecoutons les agriculteurs raisonner (Let’s listen to how farmers think):

Until the first decade of the 20th century, in all countries like ours, the great majority of the population was engaged in agricultural labour or related tasks. By the year 2000, this section of the population was only 2.3%. This is probably the most significant event in the history of humanity, for it signals the end of the period inaugurated by another event of the same magnitude several thousand years ago — the dawn of the neolithic age. At that moment, the whole of the human race began to raise animals and cultivate plants. These activities became our primordial concern, so much so that the word “culture”, which serves to define the human sphere, derives from the term, “agriculture”. We are cultivated people, because we know how to cultivate the earth. Thus the end of agriculture as the majority occupation of homo sapiens sapiens represents a huge revolution, whose consequences we cannot begin to predict. (My translation).

Serres is an optimist, of course, and disinclined to demonise modernity on this account. Rather he seeks an intelligent convergence of farmer’s knowledge and scientific expertise, which leads him to adopt positions which cut across those we may be most familiar with: he is in favour of GMOs, yet supports a moratorium; decries the precuationary principle, and at the same time, is strongly opposed to patents on life. His reasoning seems to reflect a combination of philosophical lucidity and political naivety which are, in one sense, unsurprising, but which may also help shed light on subjects which a more ‘coherent’ mind might deal with more simply, but less effectively in the long run.

However, what struck me, and prompted this note, is the resonance between Serres’ observation of the simple fact that agriculture is no longer the majority occupation of human beings for the first time in many thousand years, and a remark, almost an aside, I came across today in an essay just published by the Belgian writer Michel Gheude. Le stylo d’Alexandre Villedieu (Alexandre Villedieu’s fountain pen) is a brief, intense reflection on war, and the function of war in the memory of a society supposedly at ‘peace’, prompted by the discovery of the body of a soldier killed in 1915 in a field in the Pas de Calais (northern France), and who was turned up by a farmer’s plough in 1996 with his Waterman fountain pen still intact and functioning.

Questioning his feelings about Armistice Day, Gheude writes:

The 11 November came round again — as rituals do — and it was impossible for me not to think for a few moments when, at the appointed hour, the flame was rekindled on the television screens. But as the years went by, its significance changed, imperceptibly. Or was it only in my mind that the figure of the patriotic hero gradually faded behind Henri Barbusse’s trench comrades and André Malraux’s German soldiers under “the assault of pity”, carrying the first Russian gas victims to the ambulances? In the return of 11 November, I now saw not a simple profession of pacifist faith, for there are times when war alone makes sense, but a protest against this war in which sacrifice, nobility, chivalry and patriotism had merely been the derisory, bloody masks of murder, stupidity and stubbornness. The generals on both sides had attached little importance to those millions of peasants so foreign to them, whom they doubtless held in contempt, perhaps hated, and whom they honoured only when dead, as if their sacrifice had been the condition for progressing from the archaic to the modern. As if they had wanted to bury the peasants in the earth and make them the fertiliser for the new technological and virile world sung by Marinetti. (tr. Ros Schwartz)

There was nothing at all innocent, or harmless, about the ‘revolution’ that defined the European 20th century. And many of its consequences were written in blood at the moment of its birth.

Perhaps Serres should have reached the conclusion implicit in his etymological induction: that once we cease to raise animals and tend plants, once we cease to be cultivators of the land — we, the ‘modern men’, the generals, the bureaucrats — then there is something in ourselves, something vital to our own humanity, which we also cease to nurture, and expose to atrophy and decay. And the cost of this neglect is, both literally and metaphorically, incalculable.