Rolland, A Universal Man


I was thirteen when my mother gave me “Jean-Christophe”. Since then his influence on my life has been profound. Here I will address  only one aspect of his work and personality – an essential aspect, namely his universalism.  Rolland had succeeded in overcoming the barriers of his own culture and in approaching the thinking of other civilizations, in accepting without condescension the other whoever he may be. He had glimpsed “human unity in the  multiple forms it takes” and accepted all peoples as equals. My own life has left me with no choice but to hold on to this idea of unity. Indeed, a non-francophone Indian, I grew up in France since the age of three and as an adult have lived in various countries. The work and example of Rolland are for me all the more important as many of the great reformers of the West have not been able to transcend the European framework.  I am thinking, among others, of Voltaire, Dickens, or Russell. Unfortunately, each time I found shocking pages about other peoples and each time it was a hard discovery that such men who have worked and thought so much for their fellow men and against multiple injustices could be so parochial.  Rolland realized early on that “we have to accept humanism in its widest signification, embracing all the spiritual forces of the whole world.”

In the age of globalization, the universal mind is in retreat. The strong hope, born in the first half of the twentieth century, of a possible rapprochement between peoples, is slowly disappearing.  Today for Westerners, India has become Bollywood and for Indians the West is only ‘pop music’, ‘discos’ and and ‘fast food’. During my childhood, there was a real interest for the foreign other.  Western audiences came to know the India of Satyajit Ray’s India and Indians the France of Renoir.  Now there is no curiosity on either side and less and less knowledge and understanding – or even the desire for mutual understanding.

This solely materialistic globalization in which all diversities are drowned generates real and imaginary fears of loss of identity, and tribal instincts such as nationalism are reappearing.   But now, as was already the case more than a century ago, we must choose between the “two great ideas : Fatherland, Humanity”.    It should be noted that sectarian nationalism and  love or attachment to one’s soil are quite distinct. On the contrary, in order to approach the thought of others without prejudice and therefore a fortiori without  holding on to one’s references,  it is necessary to have a certain comprehension of one’s own culture and the ability to analyse it.  I will go even further: to meet the thinking of others and reach the universal,  unlike  “the many misguided minds” who believe they can find superficially elsewhere what they they failed to find at home, it is necessary to be strongly anchored in one’s own culture. This is of course obvious  in many of Rolland’s works. Moreover, precisely because he succeeded in communicating with all, in overcoming cultural barriers, he could transmit to all his love for his own culture.

In our current times,  unconducive to universal values, I try to remain as best I can, between the India of Tagore, Gandhi and the Upanishads which are an integral part of my maternal culture, and the Europe of Rolland and Beethoven, holding on to those hands stretched over and above the West, across time,  and not lose sight of Rolland’s hope to build “a Burg of the international mind, frontierless, founded on a free, limitless, fearless individualism”.


(The original French was published in: Cahiers de Brèves, n° 24, 2009, p. 26)