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Romain Rolland (1866-1944)

Romain Rolland (January 29, 1866 – December 30, 1944) was a French writer and dramatist, best known as the author of the novel series Jean-Christophe (1904-12). Photo right with Gandhi in 1931.

In 1928 he and Hungarian scholar, philosopher and natural living experimenter Edmund Bordeaux Szekely founded the International Biogenic Society to promote and expand on their ideas of the integration of mind, body and spirit and the virtues of a natural, simple, vegetarian lifestyle. (The Biogenic Society was continued by Szekely's widow after his death in 1979, but it is not known for how long)


In 1886 Rolland, still a student, read Tolstoy's 'What then must we do?' - at the beginning of Tolstoy's change from being a traditional aristocrat, to working with the peasants, and being vegetarian. Rolland wrote to him and was surprised to receive a lengthy reply.

In 1889 he went to Rome, where he met Malvida von Meysenburg, who was a friend of Richard Wagner and Freidrich Neitzsche. Her ideas, together with the teaching of Tolstoy, largely shaped his political, humanitarian, and internationalist ideas. She took him to Bayreuth on his way back to Paris in 1891.

In 1903 was appointed to the first chair of music history at the Sorbonne, retiring in 1913. Meanwhile Rolland produced a series of biographies: Beethoven (1903), Hugo Wolf (1905), Michel-Angelo (1906), and Tolstoi (1911).

  • Tolstoy (link to biography by Romain Rolland, 1911
  • Musicians of Today (link to google books) - includes Wagner and Hugo Wolf, 1915

Romain Rolland was a lifelong pacifist. He protested against the first World War in Au-dessus de la Mêlée (1915), Above the Battle (Chicago, 1916). In the spring of 1919 he invited George Bernard Shaw (well known as anti-war), amongst others to sign a petition for peace. R. S. Francis, in his 1999 biography of Rolland says: "...Bernard Shaw, allergic to what was sentimental and moralistic in Rolland's style, felt it would be hypocritical to sign. Shaw's refusal at least generated an interesting correspondence, which helped Rolland, he later claimed, to decide in what sense he was 'above the battle'".

Francis also tells s about Rolland and Albert Einstein : [1918] "He corresponded with German dissidents such as Einstein ... in 1926 he organized an anti-fascist committee with Einstein ... "

He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915 for his 10 volume novel Jean-Christophe, a work of fiction but including many of Rolland's own views. An extract:

He could not think of animals without shuddering in anguish. He looked into the eyes of the beasts and saw there a soul like his own, a soul which could not speak: but the eyes cried for it:
"What have I done to you? Why do you hurt me"
He could not bear to see the most ordinary sights that he had seen hundreds of times - a calf crying in a wicker pen, with its big protruding eyes, with their bluish whites and pink lids, and white lashes, its curly white tufts on its forehead, its purple snout, its knock-kneed legs: - a lamb being carried by a peasant with its four legs tied together, hanging head down, trying to hold its head up, moaning like a child, bleating and lolling its gray tongue: - fowls huddled together in a basket: the distant squeals of a pig being bled to death:- a fish being cleaned on the kitchen table ...
The nameless tortures which men inflict on such innocent creatures made his heart ache. Grant animals a ray of reason, imagine what a frightful nightmare the world is to them: a dream of cold-blooded men, blind and deaf, cutting their throats, slitting them open, gutting them, cutting them into pieces, cooking them alive, sometimes laughing at them as they writhe in agony. Is there anything more atrocious among the cannibals of Africa?
To a man whose mind is free there is something even more intolerable in the sufferings of animals than in the sufferings of men. For with the latter it is at least admitted that suffering is evil and that the man who causes it is a criminal. But thousands of animals are uselessly butchered every day without a shadow of remorse. If any man were to refer to it, he would be thought ridiculous. - And that is the unpardonable crime. That alone is the justification of all that humans may suffer. It cries vengeance upon all the human race. If God exists and tolerates it, it cries vengeance upon God.
If there exists a good God, then even the most humble of living things must be saved. If God is good only to the strong, if there is no justice for the weak and lowly, for the poor creatures who are offered up as a sacrifice to humanity, then there is no such thing as goodness, no such thing as justice.

In the 1920s he turned to interpreting the mystical philosophy of Asia, especially India, in works such as his biography of Mahatma Gandhi (1924). His book on Gandhi contributed to the Indian nonviolent leader's reputation and the two men met when Gandhi visited Rolland on his way back to India from London in 1931 (see photo above).

In 1926 Rolland also produced biographies of two Indian gurus, Vivikananda and Ramakrishna, and studied yoga in some depth.



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