Friday, August 26, 2005 +

Bernanos’ Last Essays

Excerpts from The Last Essays of Georges Bernanos, translated by Joan and Barry Ulanov (Chicago, Henry Regnery Company, 1955):

I am not one to allow myself to be carried away by currents (“France Before the World of Tomorrow”).

If it is not true one time out of a hundred, or even once out of a hundred thousand or a million times, that’s enough to prove that man is a being capable of surpassing himself (ibid.).

It’s a question of knowing who will win, technology or man (ibid.).

A civilization that engenders catastrophes, at the same time, through suffering, produces in man the very interior life it believed itself capable of abolishing. We others, Christians or Moslems, realize that suffering is a redemptive force, a true super-creation [LW: however, some turn into devils] (ibid.).

The millions don’t care a bit about learning that we don’t despair of ourselves. What they want to know is if that they can place their hope in us. They care nothing about our optimism. Our optimism does not reassure them at all. Quite the opposite, it sends a shiver down their spines (ibid).

I realize that anyone who refuses to be deceived today must someday or other pursue his path all alone, as I have been doing for a long time. I’m used to it now. I even think that a little solitude is not too high a price to pay for certain modest privileges which no one dreams of trying to take away from me, such as the right to speak the way I do—with a tranquil frankness—in my own name alone (ibid.).

I [like H. G. Wells in his last book] also believe this world is full of despair, although it is bursting with optimism (“Why Freedom?”).

A great number of those who go to Mass on Sunday are no less despiritualize than the others [people who don’t believe in God], although they seem less so. . . . The hangmen of the so-called Spanish Crusade, for example, whom I saw in operation at Majorca, were suffering from the same malady as their enemies. Their fanaticism was simply the powerlessness that comes from not believing with a simple and sincere heart. Instead of asking God for the faith they lack, people of this kind have always preferred to avenge themselves on unbelievers for agonies, the humble acceptance of which would bring them salvation, and when they dream of relighting the pyres, it is less in order to throw the godless into the flames than in the hope of coming there to rekindle their own tepidity—that terrible lukewarmness which the Lord vomits out. No, the clerical opinion which justified and glorified the bloody farce of Francoism was not at all exalted. It was cowardly and survile. Engaged in an abominable adventure, these bishops, these priests, these millions of fools, in order to leave it, would only have had to pay homage to the truth. But truth frightened them more than crime (ibid.).

Speculation commanded machines, and thanks to machines commanded power as well. Thus, in a fabulously short time, by the single miracle of technology and of all techniques, including that which not only allows the control of worldwide opinion but also the making of it, it has created a civilization in the image of a prodigiously diminished and shrunken man, a man no longer made in the image of God, but in the image of the speculator—that is to say, of a man reduced to the two states, both equally miserable, of consumer and taxpayer (ibid.).

. . . not a civilization, but an anti-civilization, a civilization not made for man but to enslave man, to make man for itself, in its image and likeness and thus to usurp the power of God (ibid.).

No, it is not a question of destroying machines but of elevating man, of restoring in him faith in the freedom of his soul and an awareness of his dignity.

It is no more a matter of destroying machines than of destroying one by one the pimples of a person ill with smallpox. When one has conquered the infection, the pimples disappear by themselves. It is all very well to destroy dicatatorships. But in order to destroy two of them, we have just destroyed an enormous part of the patrimony of humanity. To destroy a third dictatorship, we risk the explosion of the planet; and if the planet escapes the explosion, the conquerers may find themsleves contaminated in their turn (ibid.).

It is necessary above all to re-spiritualize man. . . . It is right to put these ideas back into circulation, as formerly people took old coins and melted them down [LW: not repackaged] into gold and silver again (ibid.).

I am not sure I shall be able to make you realize the frightening solidarity that links certain complacent victims to the hangman who resembles them like a brother, for he often kills out of cowardice (ibid.).

Chesterton used to speak of Christian virtues gone mad. It is a fact the Christian virtues are going mad. But there is a furious madness. There is also senile decay. Christian resignation is a virile virtue, which supposes a reasoned choice between the refusal and the acceptance of injustice. It seems to me, therefore, very far from being within everybody’s reach. One usually encounters instead of it a kind of dull indifference to the unhappiness of others. Centuries ago, Christian resignation everywhere went toward the scaffold and stake with head held high, burning eyes, and hands soberly crossed over the heart. Today it sits by the corner of a fire which does not even warm it, with hanging hands and vacant eyes. I know very well that these truths are not to the taste of pastors who preach such resignation the way the priests of the catacombs used to preach martyrdom. So much the worse for them! When they repeat to us, as the bishops and archbishops of the Vichy collobaration used to, “Resign yourselves . . . ,” we are not fooled, we know very well that they mean to say, “Resign yourselves to having pastors like us. . . .” (ibid.).

Hope is a heroic virtue. People think it easy to hope. But the only people who hope are those who have had the courage to despair of illusions and lies in which they had once found a security they falsely took for hope (ibid.).

If someone were to ask me what is the most general symptom of this spiritual anemia, I would surely reply: indifference to both truth and falsehood (ibid.).

But what if man really was created in the image of God? Suppose there is in him a certain element of freedom—however small one may imagine it—to what would their experiments lead then, if not to the mutilation of an essential organ? What if in man there does exist that principle of self-destruction, that mysterious hatred of himself which we call original sin, which the technologists have not failed to observe, for it explains all the frightful disappointments of history? It’s true that they don’t attribute these disappointments to man’s sin but rather to an evil organization of the world. But what if they are mistaken? What if the injustice is inside man himself and all their constraints do nothing but reinforce the evil-doing? What if man can only fulfill himself in God? What if the delicate operation of amputating his divine part—or of systematically making this part atrophy until it falls off, dried up, like an organ in which blood no longer circulates—should turn him into a ferocious beast? Or worse, perhaps, a beast forever domesticated, a domestic animal? Or, even worse, something abnormal, deranged? (ibid.)

I do not wish to send machines to Nuremberg; the cost of the trial would be too high. Machines do not multiply according to the needs of man, but according to those of speculation; that’s the important point. . . . One can imagine . . . prosperous governments, princes who are patrons of the sciences (as so many others formerly were patrons of letters and the arts), encouraging engineers to build machines. Machinery would thus remain a means, not an end; it would not turn human life upside down and confiscate almost the whole of human energy; it would facilitate and even embellish life, without usurping the other arts, for it would itself be an art (“Revolution and Liberty”).

The worth of a civilization is measured by the security it gives people. Never before, since the first civilization existed, have people been reduced to the miserable status of temporary occupants of a planet which may tomorrow be at the mercy of any technologist that comes along. . . . (ibid.).

To be willing to accept this world is to be willing to become the passive objecct of a dreadful, irrevocable experiment (ibid.).

The man of machines is abnormal. When one speaks of an imbalance between spiritual necessities and the multiplication of machines, one reasons as if, in order to remedy the evils this imbalance creates, it would suffice to impose on man a better, mores rational use of time, following the rules of pedagogy: shorter recreations, longer classes. Alas, those are the ideas of a junior master. Modern man is not a lazy pupil who is playing with machines instead of learning his lessons or saying his prayers. Machines distract him, to take this word which has become banal, not in its accepted sense but in its exact etymological meaning: to divert, to separate. What he demands of these machines is the brutal destruction of the ancient, traditional, human rhythm of work; he wants machines to speed it up to such a point that dangerous pictures cannot be formed in his thought any more than ice crystals can be formed in water broken by a rock. Moreover, it isn’t only a question of utilitarian machines here. Those which the man of machines loves most—for which he never stops expending the resources of his inventive genius, the perfecting of which absorbs four-fifths of industrial human effort—are specifically those which correspond, or we might say are adjusted, to the natural defense reflexes of an anguished man: the movement which makes you dizzy, the light which is comforting, the voice which is reassuring (ibid.).

Oh, we are overwhelmed by lies, and there is no worse lie than a problem poorly stated. We are overcome by lies, but for a long time now we have been unable to distinguish our own part in these lies, for we are forced to use them; forced twenty times a day to endorse these worseless checks (“The European Spirit and the World of Machines”).

We are the dupes, but to use again the terrible words of Collot d’Hervois, whose favor was implored on behalf of the little seventeen-year-ld Marquise do Levis: “There are no innocents among the aristocrats” (ibid.).

Between those who think that civilzation is a victory for man in the struggle against the determination of things—and particularly against that part of the universal determinism in which man is caught up the way the tip of a bird’s wing is stuck with bird-lime—and those who want to make of man a thing among things, there is no possible scheme of reconciliation (ibid.).

One understands nothing of man if one imagines him to be naturally proud of what distinguishes him, or seems to distinguish him, from animals. The average man is not at all proud of his soul; he wants only to deny it and does so with great relief, as upon awaking from a terrible dream. He thinks, with a kind of incomprehensible pride, that he has just discovered that it really doesn’t exist. Metaphysical anxiety in the average man is almost always shown by this sly denial, this pride, the thousand tricks which only tend to lay aside some part, it doesn’t matter which, of this burden, this harassing consciousness of good and evil. . . . If only that soul didn’t exist! If it does by some mischance exist, if only it were not immortal! Very far from being the consoling illusion of the simple-minded and the unknowing, belief in liberty and in the responsibility of man has been for thousands of years the tradition of the élite; it is the spirit of civilization, civilization itself, transmitted through genius. For ages, billions of fools, fools without number, in languages without number, have said again and again, with a knowing look, “When you’re dead, you’re dead.” If they haven’t said these exact words, it was because they didn’t dare, because they were ashamed to say them; they preferred to trust in those more learned than they, the wise ones. But as soon as the prestige of the wise and the authority weaken, as soon as civilization gives way, the men of the masses begin again to look for a vacant lot, a street corner, on which to lose their immortal souls, with the hope that no one will bring them back to them. And suddenly now, in our time, this gesture held to be ignoble, until now, has been adopted by the wise men too. Those one always thought of as guardians of the highest traditions of the species have refused to keep it in their charge (ibid.).

There is something more in man than those deceivers think who believe him inspired only by self-interest. There is in man a secret and incomprehensible hatred, not only of his fellow men but of himself. One may cite for this mysterious feeling any cause or explanation one wishes, but one must explain it. As for us Christians, we believe this hatred reflects another hatred a thousand times deeper and more clear—that of the Unspeakable Spirit who was the most resplendent of the stars of the abyss, who will never forgive us for his terrible fall. Apart from the assumption of original sin, that is to say of a basic contradiction in our nature, the concept of man becomes clear, but it is no longer man. Man has passed byeond the definition of man, just like a handful of sand between his fingers (ibid.).

. . . a world without a god . . . will soon be a world without men. Thus, it makes more glorious still the mysterious solidarity of God and man which is the most august mystery of Christianity (ibid.).

It’s not question of creating free men at the expense of the masses—for the masses have put their confidence in their size and weight in vain; they will not survive free men. In a humanity without free men, the masses will not take long to fall away, just like the leaves of a tree derived of sap. Nor will it be a question then of destroying machines, but rather of saving them too. . . . The world will only be saved by free men (ibid.).

The Chruch is in fact a moving spirit, a force on the march, even though so many of her devout men and women seem to believe, even pretend to believe, that she is merely a shelter, a refuge, a sort of spiritual hostel, from whose windows one may enjoy looking out at the passers-by (the outsiders who are not paying guests of the house) walking in the mud. Surely there are outsiders among you who are deeply scandalized by the self-assurance of mediocre Christians, a self-assurance which resembles the legendary self-assurance of fools, probably because it’s the same. . . . (“Our Friends the Saints”).

I blush at the idea that [a non-Catholic] may think I address him from the depths of my security as a believer—as from a safe and warm resting place—that I hold myself apart from the risks he runs. It isn’t true, no, it isn’t true, that faith is security, at least in the human inflection of the word (ibid.).

What if life really were the free thought of this world, this world which appears to be controlled and determined? (ibid.)

The answer to the riddle of the world is in us—why not? Isn’t it the ordinary fate of people to search far and wide, and often at the risk of their lives, for what they have, without realizing it, within the reach of their hands? (ibid.)

The scandal of the universe isn’t suffering but freedom. God made His Creation free—that’s the scandal of scandals, for all others proceed from it (ibid.).

Right now, in our world, in some obscure church or some old house or at the bend of a deserted road, there is some poor man who is joining his hands and from the depths of his misery, without really knowing what he is saying, or perhaps without saying anything at all, is thanking the good Lord for having made him free and capable of loving. Elsewhere, it doesn’t matter where, there is a mother who is hiding her face for the last time against the little heart that no longer throbs, a mother, close to her dead child, offering God the moaning of an exhausted resignation, as if the Voice that threw the suns into the great void the way a hand disperses grain, the Voice that makes the earth tremble, had just sweetly whispered in her ear: “Forgive Me. One day you will know, you will understand, you will thank Me. But now, what I await from you is your pardon. Forgive Me.” Those people—the harassed women, that poor man—are at the heart of the mystery, at the core of the universal creation and even inside the secret of God Himself. What can I say of this? Language is at the service of intelligence. But what these people have grasped, they have understood by a faculty superior to the intelligence, though not at all in conflict with it, or rather by a profound and irresistable impulse of the soul which engages all the faculties at the same time, which thoroughly absorbs all that is natural in them. . . . (ibid.)

To engage all of oneself. . . . Most people, as you know, engage only the feeblest part of themselves in life, a ridiculously tiny part of their being, like those wealthy misers who will spend only the interest their income earns. A saint doesn’t live on the interest of his income, or even on his income; he lives on his capital, he gives all of his soul. In this, he differs also from the sage who hides inside his wisdom the way a snail hides inside his shell, seeking to find refuge there (ibid.).

In his recent book, Les problèmes de la vie, the distinguished University of Geneva professor, M. Guyénot, has gone back to the distinction between body, mind, soul. If one accepts this hypothesis, which Saint Thomas did not reject, one tells oneself, with horror, that innumerable men are born, live and die without even once making use of their souls, really making use of their souls, even if only to offend the good Lord. To what extent are we not of the same species? Won’t Damnation be the tardy discovery, the discovery much too late, after death, of a soul absolutely unused, still carefully folded together, and spoiled, the way certain precious silks are when they are not used? Anyone who makes use of his soul, however clumsily, participates in the life of the universe, becomes a part of its great rhythm, and at the same time enters on a level with the saints that communion of the saints that which is the communion of all the men of good will to whom Peace was promised, that Holy Invisible Church which we know includes pagans, heretics, schismatics or non-believers, whose name God alone knows (ibid.).

The communion of saints. . . . Which of us is sure of belonging to it? And if we are granted that happiness, what rôle will we play in it? Who are the rich and who the poor in that astonishing community? Those who give and those who receive? What surprises! For example, doesn’t that venerable canon, piously deceased, who was pompously eulogized in the diocesan bulletin in the style peculiar to those publications—doesn’t he risk learning that he owed his vocation and his salvation to some notorious unbeliever, secretly tormented by religious anguish, to whom God incomprehensibly refused the consolations of the faith but not the rewards? (You wouldn’t look for Me if you didn’t already know Me.) (ibid.).

Oh, nothing seems better ruled, more strictly ordered, more according to degree and better balanced than the external life of the Church. But its interior life overflows with the prodigious liberties, one almost wants to say with the divine extravagances, of the Spirit—the Spirit that bloweth where is listeth (ibid.).

When one thinks of the strict discipline which almost implacably maintains every member of this great ecclesiastical body in his place, from the modest curate right up to the Holy Father with his titles and privileges (one almost feels like saying, with his own vocabulary)—when one thinks of these things, don’t those sudden promotions really seem extravagances, those most sudden promotions of obscure nuns, of simple laymen and even of beggars, abruptly made patrons, protectors and sometimes even doctors of the Universal Church? (ibid.)

It isn’t a question of opposing teh visible Church to the invisible Church. This visible Church is not only the ecclesiastical hierarchy, it’s you, it’s me. It isn’t always agreeable (ibid).

For, after all, it is as easy for us to recognize what the Church has of the human in her as it is difficult to know what she has in her of the divine. How else then would you explain the oddity that those most entitled to be scandalized by the mistakes, the deformations, or even the deformaties, of the visible Church—I mean the saints—are precisely those how never complain about her? (ibid.)

A hero gives the illusion of surpassing humanity. The saint doesn’t surpass it, he assumes it, he strives to realize it in the best possible way. Do you see the difference? He strives to approach as nearly as possible his model, Jesus Christ; that is, to come as close as possible to Him who was perfect man, with a simplicity so perfect that in reassuring others He disconcerts the hero, for Christ did not die only for heroes—he died for cowards too. . . . cowards too. . . . The man with a firm and fearless hand can at the last moment look for support on His shoulder, while the man with a trembling hand can be sure of finding His trembling hand. . . . (ibid.)

The people who have so much trouble understanding our faith are those who have an all too imperfect idea of the eminent dignity of man in Creation, who do not put man in his place in Cration, in the place to which God elevated him in order to be able to come down to him. We are created in the image and after the likeness of God because we are capable of loving. . . . (ibid.)

The saint is the person who knows how to find in himself, and to make gush forth from the depths of his being, the water of which Christ spoke to the Samaritan woman: “Those who drink of it will never thirst.” The water is there in each of us, the deep cistern open under the sky. Undoubtedly the surface is cluttered with debris, broken branches, dead leaves, from which arises the smell of death. On it shines a cold and hard light, that of the rational intelligence. But immediately under that pernicious layer, the water is so limpid and pure! Still a little lower, and the soul finds herself again in her native element, infinitely purer than the purest water, in that uncreate light that bathes all Creation—in Him was life, and the life was the light of men—in ipso vita erat et vita erat lux hominum (ibid.).

Of course, one may believe that this isn’t the era of the saints, that the era of the saints has passed. But as I once wrote, it is always the era of the saints (ibid.).

The Last Essays are really speeches. The Appendix to the book contains “Asides to the Audience[s]” which are really preliminary remarks. Here are three excerpts:

For there is something which is worse than dying—it is to die deceived.

Never have I had less desire to speak of literature.

To sum up, it would not be enough for me to obtain your approval; I want to try to convince you.