15 May

Notes on Bernanos

Category: What We're Reading
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 05/15/03

Quotes, paraphrases, and other references in these notes are taken from the following sources:

--Kurt F. Reinhardt, The Theological Novel of Modern Europe: An Analysis of Masterpieces by Eigth Authors (Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1969)

--John E. Cooke, Georges Bernanos: A Study of Christian Commitment (Avebury Publishing Co., 1981)

--Gerda Blumenthal, The Poetic Imagination of Georges Bernanos: An Essay in Interpretation (Johns Hopkins, 1965)

Biographic Material

Georges Bernanos was born in Paris on February 20, 1888. His father was a petit bourgeois (member of the lower middle class, a servant to the middle class), he had an older sister, and he grew up as an avid reader. He grew up as a practicing Catholic (his father would read to the family the polemical works of the ultras) and never wavered in his faith. At his first communion the fear of death invaded his being—it never left him and decisively influenced his writing. He received his bachelor's degree in 1906 from the Junior Seminary at Bourges. He began writing short stories in 1907. Because of his father's and teachers' influence, and his own temperament, he became an ultra, i.e. a Catholic who wouldn't accept the democratic sentiments of the secularized masses and who wanted the monarchy and the Church's place in French society restored (in addition to being attached to the restoration of the monarchy, he was also attached to the myths of Eternal France and the memory of Joan of Arc). He went to law school in Paris and became a member of the political-religious party Action Française, which represented the Catholic right wing in France and championed the monarchist idea (and from which he withdrew in 1919, partly because of the lack of charity exhibited by the movement's intellectual leader, Charles Maurras). He assumed the editorship of the small polemic paper L'Avant-Garde de Normandie in Rouen, for which he penned the political editorials, and in which he published his first three novelettes. Bernanos married the chairman of the women's section of the A.F., Jeanne Talbert d'Arc, who was a direct descendant of the family of Joan of Arc; they had six children together and moved frequently. Bernanos served as an enlisted volunteer in WWI. He was ambivalent about war and his time in the war, which profoundly affected his spiritual development (it did not, however, alter his political allegiance); at the end of it, he realized the need for a steady income and accepted a position as a life-insurance agent in 1922. It is truly paradoxical to picture Bernanos, the fierce opponent of all bourgeois security, the advocate of risk and daring, a man who all his life never knew how to deal with money or with any practical household problems, traveling across the French countryside, trying to persuade people to buy life-insurance policies. Bernanos could make such an existence tolerable only by submerging himself ever more deeply in the world of his dreams. We see him at work, trying to translate his dreams into the written word, indefatigably writing, in railroad cars, in waiting-rooms, in hotel rooms, in the cafes (Reinhardt).

Much of his attention in the 1920s was taken up with his denunciation of Modernism, and his first novels, Under Satan's Sun, L'Imposture, and La Joie, were particularly inspired by this hatred. He was friends with the writer and lyric poet Robert Vallery-Radot, and his admired masters were Balzac, Léon Bloy, Barbey d'Aurevilly, Dostoevsky, Joseph Conrad, Charles Péguy, Pirandello, and Marcel Proust. He severed ties with the insurance company in the late 1920s, and published his first book, Under Satan's Sun, in 1926. It was soon followed by the double novel The Fraud and Joy.

Bernanos's first critical work was published in 1931 under the title The Great Fear of the Right-Thinking People. He had a bad motorbike accident in 1934 that left him crippled: Bernanos, the arch foe of modern technology, had been an enthusiastic motorcyclist. Near Montbéliard, trying to avoid a collision with a car, to spare the life of a child on the other side of the road, he threw himself and his motorcycle against a stone wall and broke both legs. Henceforth he had to walk on crutches (Reinhardt).

Bernanos left France in 1934 for Majorca and in two years produced a trilogy of novels, A Crime, An Evil Dream, and The Dead Community (aka Monsieur Ouine), which are his gloomiest works. He followed these with The Diary of a Country Priest, which he loved as if it weren't his own work.

Bernanos returned to France in 1938, but left again in July (after being disgusted by the Allie capitulation at Munich and anticipating the Nazis invasion of France) for Paraguay and then Brazil. He was happy in Brazil, and there wrote for resistance papers while also working on one of his most beautiful books, Les enfants humiliés (published posthumously in 1949). His critical works from Brazil include Letter Addressed to the British, Meditations on the Present Age, and France against the Robots. In 1945 he left Brazil for Tunisia, and there he wrote his last novel, shortly before returning to France and dying. Bernanos' last and perhaps purest creation, The Dialogues of the Carmelites, which he completed shortly before his death and which was a great success on the stage. It is essentially an apotheosis of mystical anguish and love, set in the frame of the Carmelite pattern of spirituality (Reinhardt). He died in Neuilly, France, on July 5, 1948, from liver cancer. One of his friends wrote this about his: 'He died in a state of extraordinary peace. All his physical and mental anguish he had overcome in his faith. . . . He had once again become the child which in his innermost essence he had never ceased to be.'

Additional excerpts on Bernanos from the Reinhardt, Cooke, and Blumenthal books

"Bernanos' thought depended greatly upon a series of Christian assumptions about the nature and extent of human involvement in the process of Redemption and the way in which grace had an effect on the individual and collective experience. A natural extension of this simple belief was the conviction that there existed privileged beings who were specifically chosen by God to assume the task of saving the social organism from spiritual decay and whose personal salvation depended a great deal on the success of this wider vocation. Bernanos believed that the only worthwhile society—and the only one deserving the title of civilization‐was one which found its inspiration in the eternal order of Providence. Its masters were literally the agents of God, empowered to transmit constant spiritual values from one generation to the next.

"On the other hand, if the established elites were tempted to ignore this prime responsibility and to forsake the spiritual in favour of the ephemeral comforts of the temporal, the harmony of God's creation became threatened by the inevitable corruption of His Ideas, and the movement towards the Redemption was stifled. Bernanos' analysis of history led him to the conclusion that this process had taken place when the order of Christendom had given way to the impersonal domination of money and the stultifying conventions of the modern industrialized world. The ascendancy of the bourgeoisie, the advent of the mass society, and the growth of ideologies were in such contrast to his view of the harmony of the Middle Ages that he could only attribute the transformation to Satan's positive intervention in the world. Since the Industrial Revolution and the collapse of the old aristocracy, Europe had returned to the Dark Ages" (Cooke).

"Bernanos chose the literary form to realize and express his vision of man because it enabled him to imitate, however imperfectly, the creative dynamism of God's will. The artist's search for expression represents in a most tangible form the human search for the absolute, and the manner in which the spirit emerges from the image—the transmission of the Word into Flesh—provides his most important challenge" (Cooke).

Bernanos was a visionary who saw beyond the narrow horizons of his surroundings, and he expressed "the unconscious feelings of a generation caught in the cross-fire of harsh events which it could neither control nor even fully understand, and the lingering spiritual convictions and certainties of an earlier, and for some, more leisured age. [He searched] to reconcile tangible uncertainty with intangible certainty, and the confusions and dilemmas which this paradox produced in both spiritual and social attitudes . . ." (Cooke).

"Bernanos' primary concern remained man: man in his dignity, forever consecrated because Christ had become man. And man, himself redeemed, was called to redeem others. But to be able to do this he must be free: he must show forth what Martin Luther called 'the freedom of a Christian man.' And the ideal type of a free man was for Bernanos the Christian knight, or, in an even more purified incarnation, the Christian saint, the saint of the type of Joan of Arc" (Reinhardt).

"Most important, however, was for him the restoration and re-formation of the individual human being. Without this all attempts at social and economic reform will be doomed" (Reinhardt).

"The truth is that the faith of Bernanos was neither logical nor systematic but rather dynamic and synthetic. And his faith made it possible for him to envisage clearly and deeply the 'mystery of iniquity,' to penetrate with his glance into the depths of evil and sin. The characters of his novels emerge from the mysterious abysses of either iniquity or grace and thus completely lack the distinctness and transparency of Cartesian logical constructs" (Reinhardt).

"The novels of Bernanos are much more than mere narratives: they are authentic interpretations of human existence as it unfolds within the frame of contemporary life. The author asserted repeatedly and emphatically that he did not regard himself as a theologian and that for this reason (if for no other) faith could never assume the form of a tranquilizing intellectual systematic construct. He regarded the 'systematic mind' as a sort of insanity. When philosophers and theologians pretended to simplify matters by systematizing them, he thought that by making this attempt they merely confused everything. Life, contrariwise, which seems to confuse things, actually simplifies all complexities" (Reinhardt).

"More than any other modern Christian literary artist Bernanos was the poet and eulogist of both grace and freedom. Like Léon Bloy, he was 'a pilgrim of the Absolute.' He pictured himself as standing 'between the radiant and the dark angel,' as looking at both ultimately 'with a mad hunger for the absolute.' He thus embodied in his creations not only the praise of the grace offered human beings but also the demonian rebellion of those who stubbornly, yet freely, resist the offer. However, when he depicts the tortures of the sinner and the rebel, he does so to show in the extreme bitterness of a seemingly lost heart and soul a latent receptivity for the overwhelming sweetness of grace. What Bernanos wrote to a young French author applies to himself: 'If God demands that you bear witness, be prepared to suffer much, to doubt yourself unceasingly, in success and in failure. For thus understood—as a testimonial—the calling of a writer is no longer a trade but an adventure, above all a spiritual adventure. But all spiritual adventures are Golgathas' . . ." (Reinhardt).

"A Christian should try to look at evil not with his own eyes but, as it were, with God's eyes, that is, in that state of mind which is generated by prayer. Man cannot force evil to retreat by looking at it with a fixed stare, for if he does he will never escape its strange and seductive fascination" (Reinhardt).

"One problem which never failed to arouse Bernanos' interest and to evoke his comments is that of science and technology" (Reinhardt).

From one of Bernanos's letters: "The modern world has mutilated and disfigured art by concentrating on insignificant detail, reducing art and literature to ironic anecdotes, small confectionary. . . . What is lacking is the principle of incarnation. Art has no longer its home either in heaven or on earth or in hell. Our present day literature is a literature without a world; it is out of joint like everything else. It is without passion and without insanity, like the devil. It lacks the stormy majesty of great passion, and the deeper reason for this lack is that men have lost the vision of those immense spaces which are traversed by the Saints—the Saints who appear on the surface so tranquil, so waterproof. But there is hidden in all human inwardness an oceanic mobility, a striving for perfection, which is a way without end, the way of the entire creation, with eternity as the goal. It is a way of messages, of universal communications, of participations in truths, in beauties, in fruitful anxieties . . ." (Reinhardt).

"This then was what he called his 'impossible' task: to build lasting edifices with the most fragile and ephemeral material, to build monuments of the supernatural with the tools of a trade which like no other was marked by human vanity and pride. For he knew full well that he was only a writer, no saint, no extraordinary human being. He also knew that he was not of the race and type of those men whom he portrayed in his novels. He regarded himself as a 'street singer, living in exile in a land without streets' (in Brazil)" (Reinhardt).

He thought that ". . . the contemplative and the active life should be intertwined or, as other Christian mystics expressed the same thought, that 'Martha and Mary must work together' in a cooperative effort for the benefit of all" (Reinhardt).

One of his main images is water, and Blumenthal contends that he uses it to express two spiritual poles.

"It is that at the very heart of a world on the march toward the Kingdom of God, and most particularly in the soul of man himself, the Usurper is at work. With wrathful vigilance he exerts his immense power to arrest the dynamic movement of a steadily unfolding creation and to reverse the divinely inspired élan in which man and his earth struggle toward fullness of being in the Father by tempting them to turn back on themselves and slide or 'return' into the enredeemed and hence deadly abyss" (Blumenthal).

"The duel between the two movements of opening out and blossoming and of closing in and 'returning' to nothingness constitutes the fundamental Bernanosian dramatic conflict" (Blumenthal).

"Whereas his vision of the goal—the desolate human landscape redeemed by grace and become a flourishing land of fountains—has steadied him and deepened his resources, so the backward glance of self-reflection pries him loose from reality and pulls him back, unknown to himself, into the enveloping slumber and darkness of the world's and his own origin.

"The lure of this backward glance is Satan's greatest triumph. In the Bernanosian drama, it is the triumph of the tomb over creation, of the infinite, inimical water over earth" (Blumenthal).

"Between the evil infinity of the untamed sea and the pathetic finiteness of a barren, unwatered soil, the great bulk of Bernanos' humanity appears simply to miss its challenge and goal and to suffer an ignominious 'return'" (Blumenthal).

"In passing unharmed across the sea and in releasing the hidden fountains in the desert, these children of grace free both water and earth from the curse of death. Through them, Georges Bernanos expresses his hope for man. In the wholeness of their being, they are men in the full biblical sense of the word. They are like masterpieces of clay, firm yet pliable, strong yet tender, which resist both dissolution and petrification and at the same time respond to the slightest touch of their creator. Few as they are, they bind the world together, keeping the road open and mankind on the march toward the Kingdom" (Blumenthal). [Posted May 2005, ALG]