Thus Spoke Bernanos

In Latin countries and well beyond, Georges Bernanos fills today a role similar to that of C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton in the Anglo-Saxon world. Books by the two Englishmen have prompted innumerable soul searches and conversions — lucid and intelligent conversions, since in the last two decades new Catholics had no illusions about the turmoil into which they were stepping. Bernanos’s in­fluence is perhaps less compact and spectacular because, in the Latin world at least, his cure d’Ambricourt (in The Diary of a Country Priest) is, after all, an imaginary saint among a goodly number of flesh-and-blood saints of the re­cent past: Dom Bosco, the cure d’Ars, Maximillian Kolbe.

Yet this influence is deep and steady; it is both intellec­tual and spiritual. Last year, for example, several doctoral dissertations were written about Bernanos in South Korea and Japan, and the Dialogue of the Carmelites has been on the repertory of Catholic theatres even behind the Iron Cur­tain. Jean-Loup Bernanos, one of the writer’s sons and curator of his oeuvre, told me the following just a few months ago in Paris: In 1960, when post-insurrection repression was still savage in Hungary, a letter, sent in a cir­cuitous way, reached publisher Plon, asking for rights to translate and perform the Dialogue. The writer of the letter apologized for offering a very small sum for these rights, and the editors of Plon, in agreement with M. Bernanos, sent back a message that no payment would be asked from Catholics of a recently martyred nation.

Since Bernanos’s death in 1948, his works have been translated into some sixty languages. In francophone coun­tries several of them are steadily reprinted classics — not on­ly the novels, but also the essays: La grandepeur des bien­pensants; La France contre les robots; Le Chemin de la Croix-des-Ames; Les grands cimetieres sous la lune; the wartime articles and pamphlets; and generally what one may call the “prophetic writings.” The latter, to be found on almost all his pages, are so powerful, and many are so “outrageous” for the faint-hearted and the hypocrite (they ought to be collected in a florilegium like Pascal’s Pensees), that I remember, at a first reading almost forty years ago, I found them to be vast and somewhat forced exaggerations. As I saw them at the time, they pushed political and cultural pessimism beyond all limits. Yet, when I sat down to write a book, in 1959, I was won over to Bernanos’s way of seeing the modern world, which, as he said, was “a vast con­spiracy against man.”

I mention my own reaction because it may be, I assume, the reaction of many others all over the world who, seeking the key to our decadence, happen upon it in Ber­nanos — whom afterwards they cannot leave. Naturally enough, Bernanos’s style is not the Oxford-donnish of C.S. Lewis, nor the aphoristic-paradoxical of Chesterton. It is the eruptive and vaticinating thunder of Latin pamphleteers, like that of Leon Bloy, Edouard Drumont, or the sacred sarcasm of Peguy. The prophetic style of Bernanos does not pass too well in English, nor do his descriptions, with big brush strokes, of France’s politico-intellectual milieu. Yet, we have long ago concluded that Bernanos’s excesses are signs of a profound, inspired understanding of the modern spirit, and that his outre exclamations were those of the watcher in the night. When, for example, he wrote the terrible phrase, “The day will soon come when priests armed with machine guns push me, and people like me, to the wall,” he merely foresaw the present situation in South America. The d’Escotos and the Cardenals and the Camillo Torreses would not have surprised him. Hardly less frightening was this other sentence: “I foresee churches with their Jesuit bureaucrats open daily from 9 to 5, closed on weekends.” To his one-time secretary, Jean de Fabregues, who visited him at the Neuilly hospital a few months before he died, Bernanos thundered as he leaned heavily on the younger man’s shoulders: “Mon petit, tell them outside it is an insult to count me among Christian Democrats. They are gate­keepers to Marx. Je les emmerde!” He also called them rear-guard Catholics, and would have had a great time pack­ing them off in the company of some priests, theologians. bishops and popes, to hell, like Dante.

All this and more came to mind as I was sitting across from Jean-Loup Bernanos in his Clichy apartment, and across from his father’s portrait. First, the contrast: the son’s calm appearance, easy and exquisite courtesy. Above his armchair, the ravaged yet beautiful and manly face of the father, with the burning eyes of a reader of souls. In other ways too, the apartment is a reminder of the novelist; it is a center of Bernanosiana where researchers, editors of cahiers, producers, translators, and biographers pay respects and address inquiries. The son himself plans the writing of a kind of definitive biography which, of course, will surpass them all, since in the case of Bernanos the per­son and his temperament, which nourished the style, are best known to the family. Indeed, he had to be known face-to- face; with six children and without resources life was not too comfortable, or peaceful. I heard once from Amoroso Lima (Brazilians do have such names), who was one of the butts of his anti-Christian-Democratic sarcasms, that a visit to Bernanos’s Brazilian farm meant exposure to cascades of vituperations, six or eight uninterrupted hours. But, Lima added, Bernanos could switch in one minute from an earth­shaking Zeus to an innocent child.

In spite of the apparent contrast in father’s and son’s temperament, Jean-Loup Bernanos is no less a fiery soul. In the fall of 1956, he related, he was serving as an officer in Algeria. It was the time of an intensification of the war there, but as soon as the radio brought news of the Hungarian insurrection, he and fifteen fellow-officers asked to be parachuted at once into Budapest. The commander refused to transmit their petition to Paris; instead he had them locked up for two weeks. He seriously feared that the idea would be catchy and affect the three hundred other of­ficers then serving in Algeria.

This story he offered by way of introduction to the Bernanos translations in Communist countries. I had just finished telling M. Bernanos that I found a surprising variety of foreign books in Hungarian bookstores, but that, natural­ly, such Marx-shattering works as those of his father were not published. He smiled as he walked to a shelf and handed me two slim paperbacks. Unbelieving, I read under Georges Bernanos’s name two titles in Hungarian, The Diary of a Country Priest and Under the Sun of Satan. On the inside cover: “The Saint-Steven Company, publisher of the Holy Apostolic See, Budapest” The year: 1985, in fact July — when I was there myself. (This is how one should believe on-the-spot reporters!)

Publication in Communist Hungary must be a kind of consecration; a sign of Bernanos’s works passing above all frontiers. A greater consecration, every French writer’s dream, is the Bernanos volume in Gallimard’s “Pleiade” collection, in the company of classics, local and foreign. It was not an easy thing, this publication in the “Pleiade,” since Bernanos had been a politically marked man from the beginning: militant of the Action francaise, discovered as a mighty and original talent by “reactionary” Leon Daudet (a close associate of Maurras), a lone wolf in the Parisian literary jungle heaping ferocious epithets on sinuous but popular Mauriac and on high society’s feted priests. Then came what many still interpret as a turn-about: the vehement attack on Franco, the post-Munich self-exile to Brazil. Albert Beguin, director of the left-Catholic Esprit, began the process of posthumous annexation of Bernanos as a sym­pathizer of the Left. We may regard this as a canonization in reverse; the words to Fabregues show the contempt in which Bernanos held the “Christian-Marxist tribe,” these men “with hearts like stone and soft entrails” for whom (pace pastoral-letter-writing bishops) “Christ’s message was about adequate wages and collective bargaining.”

Since those times, the storm around Bernanos has set­tled. Posterity has cleansed him of the political accretions, and sees him now in a truer light: as a great writer and a truth-telling prophet. The amazing thing is that, unaffected by his own volcanic temperament and consequent torrential denunciations of people, events, parties, and prelates (our age of pygmies would label him “negative”), Bernanos held the spiritual compass unchangingly to indicate the axis of sin and redemption. He penetrates to the core of the eternally bourgeois (see Cardinal Ratzinger’s “hedonistic and cynical upper bourgeoisie” in his Report), of the saint who dismantles Satan’s lair, of the unbelieving priest, of the sen­timental leftists, cold calculators underneath. Do you want a society without the poor? he asked Christian-humanist Jean Guehenno, Rousseau’s admirer. “When Caliban’s revolu­tion breaks out, I imagine you will want to put in a word, standing among the shirt-sleeved fellows, ‘for a humanism of labor and culture.’ But these men will be more interested just then in pillaging and shooting. Monsieur Guehenno is hoping that Caliban will wait until the intellectuals complete their discussions and formulate an ethics of the working class. But the question is: Will Caliban wait?”

In the flush of the first success in 1926 (the praise of Daudet who had also discovered Proust; the Prix Femina; money enough to lift the family out of economic malaise), he answered an interviewer’s question about how he saw the Devil. “I have a fair enough impression of the Devil when I picture him as an idealist who, in order to take in the im­beciles, baptizes with words from the Gospels the obscene forces which will, tomorrow, bathe the world in fire and blood.” This tomorrow is our today.

Do these unmistakable words, epithets, invectives, flashing analyses in a nutshell, make of Bernanos a reac­tionary? Perhaps, and why not? Think, however, of the prelate in the Diary (1936) telling the cure that the church’s concern must be social order; then think of the many passages, entire pamphlets, even novels like L’Imposture, where Bernanos dissects the false notion of social stability as the frozen projection of desiccated souls, such as the Abbe Cenabre, or the solemn dignitaries around Chantal in La Joie. You will find that the writer is absolutely impartial, that politics for him was only a way of concretizing — as Left and Right — two temptations of the Christian soul. Ber­nanos transcends politics, using it only, as prophets are wont, to lift his listeners’ soul above it, above the “Tartufes of the Right who did not forgive us for telling the truth, and the Tartufes of the Left who reproached us bitterly for tell­ing it from A to Z.”

The simple truth about Bernanos is that he was a Catholic writer, at a level of writing where that profession becomes a vocation. In the midst of laboring on the Diary, he wrote a friend that he was preparing “a masterpiece”; not a boastful statement but the sign of a lucidly shouldered mission. The ten years of novel writing, from 1926 to 1936, take all their significance from the period of militancy that had preceded it, and from the prophetic zeal that followed. We may speak of a progression, a gradual entering into a state of artistic grace. Like the cure d’Ambricourt, Bernanos divines the world with a sense of supernatural realism that comes to those who have overcome the temptation assailing serious Christians: “What is the use?” Bernanos’s answer (in Brazil) was that the hope of saving modern man had to be abandoned. Yet, at the end, he chose despair transcended (desespoir surmonte): the ultimate secret of his heart.

Hardly anything helped him in this respect when he returned to France. Bear in mind that Bernanos never regarded himself as an oracle for the universe like some PEN Club scribbler; he was “Christian and French,” nothing else, and refused to “rise above” this twin source of passionate involvement. By this measuring rod he had first rejected Petain’s regime, and later de Gaulle’s (who offered him the Ministry of Culture, later occupied by Malraux) as those of a France in perdition. Man’s soul was at stake, he said, against the Machine which deprives society “of its natural reflexes.” At the time, in the post-war years’ stupid optimism, this could not be understood. Today, we have become pilgrims to Bernanos, who foresaw, not the com­puter, the video, the nuclear bomb, but the mechanical for­mulas by which we are compelled to live. The dreariest despots.

To speak of the “relevance” of Bernanos to our world would be using a shopworn term, not suitable for the prophet’s voice. It is better to say that his soul had a stupen­dous ability to move ours: an ability that only genuine men possess: Plato, Augustine, Pascal, Dostoevsky. Jean-Loup Bernanos spoke of the many study circles sprung up in the past decade, the Cahiers bernanosiens, the new books and those planned — in short, a network of men choosing Ber­nanos as their point of crystallization. There is here more than a question of academic credits or instant success. Since Bernanos will never be popular, he will always remain suspect to the pompous and the Pharisee: reactionary, anti-modern, a non-democrat. The gatherings around the Bernanosian spirit have their explanation in a clandestine elite that has come to agree with the writer’s diagnosis of the human condition in industrial mass society. As he wrote, ours is now the freedom of empty or half-furnished minds to turn to destruction and nihilism, or the vulgar forms of commercially devised distractions. We are not fully in the times when “committees of psychologists will argue with committees of theologians until the citizen’s every last in­defeasible right will be warranted by half a score of govern­mental offices.” And then: “The only sort of inner life these experts will authorize is a modest and guided form of in­trospection, tending to produce an optimistic state of mind.”

Wouldn’t you agree that life around us has become the nightmare Bernanos foresaw — and that, as he also knew, only the saint can show the way out? The saint and perhaps the artist. One day, at the Sorbonne, he told students that, after all, civilization is not in advance prescribed, it is not a locomotive launched on rails, but rather a work of art that the artist begins to shape every morning.


  • Thomas Molnar

    Thomas Steven Molnar (1921-2010) was born in Budapest, studied at Columbia University, and was a Catholic philosopher, historian and political theorist.

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