From the September 1991 issue of Chronicles.
“Faith is required of thee, and a sincere life, not loftiness of intellect, nor
deepness in the Mysteries of God.”
—Thomas à Kempis
This is, in fact, a book about two men, since, due to his strong personality and his close relationship to Georges Bernanos, the author plays an important part in it. “I wanted to draw only a summary portrait,” he says, “but I know that even the most successful portrait reveals as much about the painter as it does about his subject. I do not deny the particularly subjective character of this book.” Therefore, and because biographical data concerning Bernanos is scarce, both men need to be introduced briefly here.
Georges Bernanos was born in 1888 in Paris and died in 1948 in Neuilly. He was married and had six children; one of his sons fought with Franco in the Spanish Civil War, two with the Allies in World War II. Bernanos left France in 1938 for Morocco, then went to Brazil. He returned to France in 1946. The minor fortune he had made with his early novels was soon spent, but thanks to a devoted friend the family managed to live moderately well. However, the fact that he had been absent from France during the time of her worst humiliation and that he had not been active in the Résistance seems to have troubled him in later years, although he never said as much. He was very much a man of the Right, a monarchist who was sent to jail as a camelot du roi; but he rejected the “divine right of kings” which, he said, monarchs began to claim only in the 15th century. De Gaulle admired him and wanted him to serve as his minister of education.
R.L. Bruckberger is a Dominican monk, born in 1907 in Murat (Auvergne) of an Austrian father and a French mother. Severely wounded in 1940, he was made a chaplain for the Résistance in 1944, and for the Foreign Legion in the French Sahara from 1948-1950. From 1950 to 1958 he lived in the United States, “exiled” by his Order under governmental pressure for having revealed, in a book, the savage excesses of certain parts of the Résistance. While in America, he was a contributor to the New York Times, Life, and other publications. He wrote and published many books and essays, and directed and co-directed several plays and films. He, too, is a man of the Right; in his latest book, Capitalisme? Mais c’est la vie!, he describes the New Testament as a message of human inequality.
“I am writing this book,” Bruckberger says, “to give evidence on the one who for me was master and friend, to say some of those things which a writer never writes, which he allows to slip obliquely into a conversation and which would be lost if an attentive ear did not catch them.” One hopes that it will eventually be translated, but until it is, readers will have to make do with my translations of passages quoted here.
Bruckberger met Bernanos for the first time in 1937, but he had been deeply impressed by his writings since 1926, when at the age of 19 he read Sous le soleil de Satan, Bernanos’ first book which was then just published. He felt that he had found “the man who would initiate him into the great things of the mind.” Their friendship can be said to have begun then, and continued until Bernanos’ death.
It irritated Bernanos to be called a “Catholic writer” or a “Catholic novelist” because he considered the term an amalgam of two, by nature different, elements. He felt himself first and foremost to be a Christian, a Catholic Christian, and only secondarily a writer. Though not much of a reader, he greatly admired Pascal, Dostoyevsky and, above all, Péguy. However, the only man who had a decisive influence on his reasoning and his spiritual style was a man who is today practically unknown, Edouard Drumont. Drumont’s fierce anti-Semitism, particularly prominent in his La France Juive, caused all his books to be banned, although some of them contain a profound and accurate analysis of the deterioration of French society, the failure of the French ruling classes—the higher clergy, the administration, the political microcosm, the intellectuals—to maintain their responsibility to the cultural mission of France, a concept the meaning of which they no longer understood. (Considering Drumont’s anti-Semitism of secondary importance, Bernanos planned a compendium of- his writings to be assembled by Bruckberger and prefaced by himself. The manuscript still exists, but given the events of that time—the Munich Agreement had just been signed—Bruckberger foresaw the consequences of publication and the book was never printed.)
Drumont had been traumatized by what happened in Paris after the Commune, when fierce and bloody vengeance was taken; Bernanos suffered a similar traumatization when, early in the Spanish Civil War, he witnessed in Majorca the brutal treatment of not only Republican fighters but of civilians. In Les Grands Cimetières sous la lune he wrote: “I have been taught to fear crime in the service of evil, but I have seen it in the service of the only order I both recognize and love.” That Franco called his insurrection a “crusade” amounted for Bernanos to blasphemy. Back from Spain, he was bombarded with demands for his impressions, but as usual he took his time. In the solitude of his Toulon domicile, he wrote Les Grands Cimetières sous la lune. Unlike Maritain and Mauriac who, Bruckberger says, were concerned only with the superficial appearance of the upheaval, Bernanos probed its depths. His support of the Republican side and his total condemnation of France’s movement on the strength of what he had seen in Majorca, caused Simone Weil, an ardent socialist, to write him a long letter pointing out the horrors committed by the Republicans. But the trauma went too deep for the letter to make an impression.
From distant Brazil, Bernanos saw in the much-celebrated Munich Agreement the confirmation of his worst presentiments of the threat to France. The events of May and June 1940 proved him only too right. In his Lettres aux Anglais (Rio de Janeiro 1942, Paris 1946) he says, “I am fed up, dear Mr. Roosevelt, with hearing—even from M. Maritain—about democracies as opposed to dictatorships. Democracy constitutes no defense whatsoever against dictatorships. Every democracy can, from one moment to the next, undergo a dictatorial crisis, whatever its national character.”
If the larger parts of Bernanos’ writing are in their nature critical-polemical, a devastating judgment of what is commonly called realistic politics (i.e., the cynical betrayal of a given word or the sacrifice of values to a nation’s immediate needs), this is owing not so much to an inner revulsion as to “the indignation, the fury, the pity felt by an old salt at the presumptuous ineptitude of a youngster who proclaims his intention to sail around the world alone and begins his preparations by throwing his compass into the sea and breaking his rudder.”
Between Bernanos and the modern world no compromise was possible. Ever since the completion of his first book, he had his position fixed, his territory staked, his limits drawn. The fate of France, so intricately connected with Christianity, never ceased to preoccupy him. He saw the beginning of all evil in the Renaissance, in the usurping of power by the evolving bourgeoisie; the break caused by the Renaissance he considered worse than the one produced later by the French Revolution. The Renaissance had sterilized and deprived of its very substance the greatest attempt to revitalize the spirit of the Gospels—the spiritual upheaval begun by St. Francis of Assisi. After the Poverello’s death, “the gilded and purpled scum breathed a sigh of relief” and everything returned to normal.
In an interview given by Bernanos to Les Nouvelles Littéraires in 1926, he put his views in a nutshell. They were a profound shock to Bruckberger, since they contradicted everything the young monk had been taught. For Bernanos, Catholicism is not just a set of rules imposed from outside; it is the rule of life, it is life itself A profound analysis of the human passions presupposes the concept of sin; without this, “moral man” remains a monster in the literary sense of the term, and a “decent man” is a well-functioning mechanism, a Cartesian animal. And this, undeniably, is what the Renaissance led to, by trying to make of the Devil a simple spectator who only intervenes either to applaud or to boo: the next step is his total elimination. But with the Devil removed, the moralist’s power is short-lived, for he is soon replaced by the hygienist. No Devil, no moral, only hygiene.
Like Péguy, Bernanos was not afraid to speak of Christianity, of the crusade in its original meaning of pilgrimage. And for this, at least, the modern world makes long voyages by land or sea unnecessary: the partes infidelium, like the Kingdom of God, are within us, in our minds and in our hearts, and it is there that we must fight our battles, launch our crusades. Péguy’s definition of what one might call “the Christian condition,” as against Malraux’ condition humaine, perfectly expresses Bernanos’ own conviction: “Those safely assured of their daily bread, the beneficiaries of social security, the civil servants, the monks, they all cannot lead truly Christian lives. These can be led only by those whose daily bread is not assured, by gamblers, by adventurers, by the poor, the destitute, by industrialists and businessmen, by married men and fathers, those great adventurers of our modern world.”
Having so far spoken mostly about Bernanos the polemicist and controversial critic, I turn now to his fictional work, created entirely between 1926 and 1937 with the exception of Monsieur Ouine, published in 1946. In the case of Bernanos it is difficult to draw a clear dividing line between the novelist and the theorist, between his fiction and the rest of his oeuvre, because both are concerned (one could almost say obsessively) with the two most significant components in their author’s character, his devotion to his faith and his love for France.
As a young man, Bernanos had hesitated between three vocations: the priesthood, medicine, and law. Whether as priest, doctor, or lawyer, he knew that he would devote himself to others to the point of self-abnegation. Of the many great writers of his age, he is probably the only one, Bruckberger says, who lived up to his vocation totally and unequivocally. To Bernanos, it was evident that the vocation of a novelist is as exacting as that of a Trappist monk. Opening his schoolboy’s copybook every morning and faced by its blank pages, he felt at a loss. Would he be able to probe deeply enough into his inner world to discover the persons waiting there to be brought to life? What were they going to do, what was going to happen to them? He looked and listened, trying not to intervene: “I try to think otherwise than I feel.” But he loved all his characters, as God loves his creatures and permits them to act freely. Bruckberger gives neither a complete nor a chronological list of Bernanos’ writings, from which he quotes more or less at random. An interested reader will find the translated works in any public library, and a young person might do well to begin the discovery of Bernanos through his fiction. Those who read French should, of course, try to get hold of the original texts.
Even more so than Dostoyevsky, Bernanos drives situations and characters to the extreme, anything less seeming hardly to interest him. In Les Enfants humiliés, a collection of essays, he says: “I have dreamed of saints and heroes, neglecting the intermediary forms of our species, and I have become aware that these forms hardly exist, that saints and heroes alone count. The intermediary forms are a gelatinous mass; if you take a handful at random you know the rest, and this jelly would not even deserve to be given a name if it were not for the saints and the heroes to whom they owe the right to be called human.” Although Bernanos did not read much and knew hardly any authors of his or, for that matter, of any other time, he would have agreed with Anatole France, who said: “Il n’y a de supportable que les choses extrêmes“—”only extremes are bearable.” In his fiction Bernanos reestablished, in its authentic dimension, the moral order of the universe threatened by the ever-accelerating disintegration of bourgeois society; the only order in which we can rediscover our consciences as well as the taste, the lust for life, for the effort and the risk proportionate to our dignity as human beings created in the image of God. In Bruckberger’s estimation, neither Proust nor Céline, neither Stehdahl nor Flaubert measures up to the temerity of this matador in the literary bullring. He had not many male friends because, says Bruckberger, “men are frivolous and not aware of the risks Bernanos undertook . . . not physically, but spiritually, knowing that one wrong word could have disastrous effects. Women are more sensitive, they have a feeling for the dangers underlying every venture in the course of its trite, day-to-day procedure.”
Due to his (as usual) straitened circumstances, Bernanos published his second novel in two parts, L’Imposture and La Joie. But although these early works are among his best, the one that reveals most about this unique man is La Nouvelle Histoire de Mouchette, the last of his novels written before the nonfiction period. It was composed under the impact of horrors committed by Franco’s supporters in Majorca, but coming from a professed Catholic Christian this story of apparently unredeemable despair is an enigma; not a word in the entire book is about either God, the Church, or religion. And yet it is not a glorification of suicide but, as Bernanos told Bruckberger, an attempt to save his faith and his sanity in the face of dreadful crimes committed in the name of what he valued and cherished above all else. One year earlier his Journal d’un curé de campagne was published and there, according to Bruckberger, we find in the main character a close resemblance to Bernanos. “It is the peculiarity of children, heroes, and saints not to be able to draw a clear line between what is possible and what is not. This applies to Bernanos the man and to the fascinating, exuberant, fraternal character of his work to which the only means of admission is a certain candidness, the candidness of Alice in Wonderland which allows her to see people as they are, no matter how surprising this may be.”
The unusual testimony to a great man and a great friendship introduces the reader to the many-splendored work of Bernanos, to his spirituality and his realism, to his love of God and His world. In the second volume of his published letters, one finds the following words: “When I am dead, tell the sweet kingdom of this earth that I loved it more than I ever dared to say.”
[Bernanos Vivant, by R.L. Bruckberger (Paris: Albin Michel)]