'Rolland, Gandhi and Madeleine Slade: Spiritual Politics, France and the Wider World'

Ruth Harris (Professor of European History and Fellow of New College, Oxford)
16 January 2013

Between 6 and 11 December in 1931, a remarkable meeting occurred between Mahatma Gandhi, the French intellectual and international pacifist Romain Rolland, and Madeleine Slade, the daughter of a British admiral. The encounter took place in Switzerland, after Gandhi had left the unsuccessful second Round-Table Conference on India in London. They came together through the good offices of Slade (re-named Mira Behn by Gandhi), who had been given as a 'gift' by Rolland to the Mahatma, and who now lived at the centre of Gandhi's intimate entourage.
I will use this meeting to explore how the protagonists sought spiritual and aesthetic solutions to the encroaching global crisis, and to analyse the place of French intellectual culture in a worldwide interwar context. Rolland's analysis of European and world affairs was ultimately ignored or misunderstood by the leader of the Indian national struggle, while the Frenchman also misconstrued Gandhi's doctrine of non-violence (ahimsa). Although they shared many spiritual hopes, Rolland wish that Gandhi would take up the pacifist struggle against European fascism was proved a fantasy. In addition, neither man could appreciate the intimate yearnings of the aristocratic English woman whose personality was effaced by their explicit desire to make her a human bridge between East and West.
The connections between Rolland, Gandhi and Slade provide a way to examine the many links between world political systems, novel social experiments and individual spiritualities. Rolland's privileged place as Gandhi's French (and European) interlocutor reveals their mutual attempt to recover spirituality in order to bring the globe back from the brink of self-destruction. Their inability to align their efforts demonstrates the minefields of shifting political alignments and the problems posed by immense cultural divides.

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