What is farther outside of one’s comfort zone than being completely displaced in time, transported chronologically backwards through space to find oneself adapting to a foreign historical environment? While I do not possess the ability to time-travel, this essentially represents the mental sojourn that I undertook in my French course last semester called, “Les Années Noires: Living through the German Occupation In Paris, 1939-1945.” Using the methodology of creative assimilation, my peers and I absorbed ourselves in the vie quotidienne of those who lived in Nazi-occupied France, creating and embodying a fictitious character and chronicling their memoirs throughout the war. We transformed our classroom into a portal through which we gained an understanding of what it was like to live in Paris after the French defeat and under the German occupation. What were the daily humiliations, the moral dilemmas, the political risks and confrontations that Parisians faced as they struggled to survive?
Thus, embarking on the feat of creative fictional memoir writing in a second language, I plunged myself into the imagined life of Ève Leroux, a young orphaned cabaret dancer. Ève’s life, spent struggling to survive day-to-day under conditions of paranoia, suspicion, and fear, was a far cry from my own life. In the creation of this character, I tested my ability to think beyond my own political spectrum, opting to inhabit the mind of a collaborator who supported the German occupation, someone who is vilified for posterity and someone whose narrative belongs to the “wrong” side of World War II history. Since I pride myself on my high standards of moral integrity, I grappled with this decision; could I really inhabit the mind of someone whose belief system contradicts the liberty and democracy for which I stand? How would it be possible to elicit sympathy for a coward, for someone who is neither likeable, courageous, nor full of integrity?
It was often paralyzingly difficult to immerse myself in Ève’s ideological mindset, and one hurdle I had to overcome was developing the complexities of Ève’s character. As a multifaceted young woman coming of age in a tumultuous era, her primary focus was her own self-preservation. Ève’s crimes stemmed from la banalité du mal (“the banality of evil”) — a term which describes ordinary yet insidious everyday activity that perpetuated pro-Vichy ideology. By paying attention to her own needs but ignoring the need of others, she enabled herself to be indifferent in the face of injustice and annihilation. In the name of self-protection, she obeyed pro-nazi général Maréchal Pétain and those at the reigns of power, causing her to condone anti-semitic and xenophobic attitudes of the day. She shielded herself by turning her own back and closing her eyes to the violence that was happening around her, thus absolving herself from blame.
When I stepped out of my comfort and into the shoes of someone with a completely opposite vantage point, I was able to investigate why and how, in the face of blatant repressive extremism, French citizens were culpable or complicit in the atrocious domination that claimed the lives of millions of people. I hope that Eve’s memoirs represented les Années Noires for what they really were: les Années Grises, full of moral ambiguity, where every person held a degree of responsibility that needs to be reconciled.
Despite the discomfort, the process of writing Ève’s memoirs helped me to reach an understanding of a perspective that completely conflicts with my own values. Given that we are in the midst of a global resurgence in fascism, writing these memoirs in French taught me an important lesson, that we need to comprehend the origins of this deep-seated extremism in order to effectively tackle it. Most importantly, this experience taught me that when we expand our worldview to address the multitude of perspectives that exist inside of every history, we can take steps towards establishing a more tolerant and peaceful future.
Claire Lane ’20 is a sophomore Global STRIDE Scholar double-majoring in Dance and French Studies. Last summer, she took French language courses and trained in contemporary dance in Brussels, Belgium, and she looks forward to continuing these two avenues of study next year while spending her junior year abroad in London and Geneva. She is passionate about how languages, both verbal and physical, shape identity and culture and can be a vehicle to bridge global divides in order to sustain a more compassionate world.by