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Monday, 8:32 P.M.
Monday, May 24, 1999, 8:32 P.M.
Father Bertrand Beaulieu shut his office door behind him, considered the heaps of books, file folders, manuscripts, and newspapers in which other people would have seen ordinary disorder but whose meticulous order was clear to him, and concluded: yes, solitude was what he liked best. Every day, nearly every day, he asked himself the question: Was he happier in solitude, or in the company of his peers? Because his life required both that he be alone and that he never be alone. Evenings at seven-thirty, the dinner hour rang for him as a deliverance. He would work for five hours, six hours, in the afternoon (mornings he received visitors). Which did he enjoy more -- settling down to write, finally? or finally quitting for the day? Evenings, he was eager to join his companions at dinner. And at that moment the answer was beyond doubt: it was they who were his pleasure. Their mere existence, the sound of their voices, of their coughs, their smells, their wit, their culture -- the ever-fascinating shimmer of their collective knowledge -- their crazes, their quirks...
But the meal over, his coffee cup still in hand, Beaulieu could not suppress it -- he would be seized again with the desire to be off by himself. Inimitable coffee, pale and lukewarm, that existed only in "their houses," here in this land of utterly correct coffee; coffee that everyone joked about but no one managed to get changed; a mystery, a true mystery. Cup in a fake white porcelain glaze, inoffensive enough to look at, but distasteful to use. And every evening, at that saiting that tilted its outsize characters over to the left, practically laying them flat. That lunatic was back again. A Martin Something who ten times already had sent Beaulieu -- this same way, by mail -- proof of the existence of God. Ten different demonstrations, one day by logic, three months later through chemistry, once by way of semantics, another time by way of the absurd, each time argued over fifteen or twenty pages, which Bertrand read through to the end each time. Because he answered. Well, he had answered in depth at least three of those mailings, anyway. The big envelope slid under the pile. He would do the others first.
At ten o'clock, Father Beaulieu was still at it. He who had the knack of answering so neatly in three lines -- so very haiku -- this evening had had to spend ten minutes on the simplest response. Nothing but heavy questions. Eleven "To the Editor." Not one "Bertrand, old friend," not one "Dear Uncle B."
The abortion article alone was responsible for three quarters of the letters. About as many letters of support as attacks. Support that brought Bertrand no pleasure -- ideological, excessive: one might think they hadn't read the piece. Attacks that hurt. He should have ignored some lines. He'd certainly had to read them. "How does the Society of Casuists put up with a troublemaker like you in its midst?"..."They say job rotation is the rule with the Casuists, and that today's provincial works in the kitchen tomorrow. Sir, we ardently hope to hear that you have moved to the stoves. However execrable your cooking, it can never do the harm your writings do."
And offers to contribute to the magazine. Job inquiries. The table of contents for a thesis: the author pr oposed to publish it as is. A proposal -- from a woman, nice, actually -- to call the journal Jesus rather than Outlooks.
Ten twenty-five. Finally. Only the brown letter left to go. Beaulieu opened it, already exasperated. Dear God, the number of madmen You put into the world. The handwriting was dreadful, a kind of embroidery that left no margin right or left, top or bottom. There were only six sheets tonight, fewer than the other times. Beaulieu took a square of chocolate from the desk drawer and started reading.
Six pages farther, he was trembling. This time the proof was neither arithmetical, nor physical, nor esthetical, nor astronomical; it was irrefutable. The proof of God's existence had been achieved.
Bertrand was tempted, for a second, to toss the bundle into the wastebasket. The hour had come for the world's "great tribulation," as in Apocalypse VII:14. The powers of darkness were to launch their final battle against the manifest truth, and he was the voice, the tiny human voice, who must give the signal for the hostilities to begin.
But now he flung himself flat on his belly, his whole length, as on the day of his ordination.
How long did he stay on the floor? He sat up, looked at his watch: over an hour. He was suffocating, now, with something like joy. He had to talk to Hervé. Hervé was never asleep at midnight. Bertrand stood and picked up the telephone at the end of his desk. The intercom. Dialed 30. He was right: Hervé answered instantly.
"Come on up," he said. Put the phone down. Stretched, with a huge creaking of the shoulder joints. At midnight, Hervé felt up to hearing confession from the whole population of Hell. A lot better than he felt after dinner, when he was completely knocked out, as people are who get up every day at six.
What a blessing, this friendship between him and Bertrand. Midnight, I've got something to tell you, come on up. And if it were two A.M. and you were getting me out of bed, same thing. The openness between them. The complementary meshing, the affection.
Bertrand the gentle, thin and fastidious in his velour suit, threadbare and indestructible like the man himself. The worried, the scrupulous. The man who would turn a thought over seven hundred and seventy-seven times in the hollow of his skull. The most reserved of men, now known even among the wider public for the boldness of his positions. It was unbelievable. The radical of moral theology. For the fundamentalists, the devil: to hear them tell it, a gravedigger of tradition, a violent man -- a real Protestant! Bertrand, who suffered so from the turmoil raised every month by his editorial in Outlooks. Who was floored by the attacks. Who you had to hold up bodily.
And his counterpart -- Father Hervé Montgaroult, me -- the fellow Bertrand called his bulwark. Physically sure, a rugby forward. But otherwise, not a single idea, not the slightest imagination. Capable at most of rehashing his course in cataphatic ontology, and of repeatedly setting about, then setting aside, his still-unwritten treatise on the subject.
"Come on in!" said Hervé loud and strong, just as Bertrand was about to knock.
He listened to his visitor without interrupting him, without making a move, and without his face showing a trace of his reactions.
Bertrand stopped talking. He had not let go of the six p ages. Exhausted, he handed them to his friend.
Hervé did not take them. He gave his sweet, rugby-champ smile.
"Calm down," he said. "No proof of the existence of God has ever held up."
These proofs and their grandiose and ludicrous history, the succession, since man began to think, of his efforts to prove God -- that was Hervé's domain. Each year, in late March, springtime brought back that chapter and with it one of the great moments of his course. The students -- 80 percent of them future priests -- would protest at first: What need was there of proofs? Happy age: they had just made the great plunge, leaving doubt behind them the way a diver lifts off the diving board. Someday the board was going to topple onto their heads. "So what?" they would always laugh. And then they would get caught up in the game, they would see the noble nature of the gamble by human intelligence to know God well enough to prove him.
Of course the proofs were no use, or not as proofs anymore. But as reflections on God, they went a long way. As answers, they could not suffice. As questions, they opened up some superb problematics.
Hervé stood up. Whenever he launched into a slightly learned disquisition he reverted to the peripatetic stroll.
"There are limits to reason; Kant established that once and for all. No reasoning, no theory, can demonstrate that God is -- nor that He is not. Careful, though: we can, and should, know what God is. Otherwise, how would we distinguish Him from the devil? The idea of God is not contradictory."
He looked delighted. In his little three-by-four-meter lair, even more cluttered than Bertrand's, he reversed course at the end of every sentence and, at every comma, he had to swerve around some obstacle.
"Science, which proceeds by proofs, cannot move beyond the world of phenomena. The good Cardinal Newman said it -- you won't get to God by a smart syllogism. How could a rational construction, which links known propositions into a logical sequence, possibly demonstrate the existence of an unknown object? How could it demonstrate its nonexistence?...And if a person claims to prove that God exists, or, similarly, claims to prove that He doesn't exist, it's not God he's talking about. It's about some faraway star, a physical or mathematical object like other objects. Not about the God who transcends space and time."
"Just read this!"
Bertrand stood up too. He was holding the manuscript in two hands before him, like an icon.
Hervé shook his head. "You're not listening to me. You're wrong. The story of proofs of God's existence through the centuries is the story of Sisyphus. In fact, there's cause to worry for our modern times, when Sisyphus has already given up at the bottom of the mountain."
He had pulled a thick book off the shelf and was looking through the table of contents.
"Read this instead!" Bertrand started up again.
"Here it is! You've got four main types of proof: there's Kant's 'moral' proof, which is actually a postulate; but before that come the proof-style proofs, which are supposed to be logically compelling. Listen to the gorgeous names: the 'cosmological' proofs, the 'teleological' proofs, and the 'ontological' proofs."
He laid his volume on an undiscernible surface on his loaded bookcase. He didn't need it.
"The cosmological family of arguments sees God as the first cause of the world. The teleological arguments make Him the supreme end. The ontological arguments look to neither the causality principle nor the finality principle: from the idea that the notion of God is innate in all men, it deduces the existence of God."
"I know," Bertrand cut in. "That's not what I'm talking about."
"Plato gives us the ontological: all things share in the eternal Ideas, which in turn share in the unique Idea, sovereign Good, original Beauty, and world Spirit.
"Aristotle proves God by the scientific method. He considers reality, and ponders its efficient and final cause.
"I'll skip ahead here. It's Kant I want to get to, and his masterly demonstration that the proofs of God's existence cannot be scientific.
"For Augustine, only an original and eternal Truth could explain the truths the human mind experiences. Only a divine Artist could explain the beauty of the world. Only the supreme Good fulfills man's aspiration to Beatitude.
"Anselm, the great Anselm of Canterbury: he bypasses both empirical experience and scientific method. You recall his ontological argument: man carries within him the idea of a perfect Being; because he is so imperfect, he cannot have got the idea on his own; thus the idea itself implies the existence of the Most Perfect. It's absolutely simple!"
"Just read!" moaned Bertrand.
He moaned for two hours. "Read what I've got here! You'll forget your fancy speeches the instant you do!"
It was as if Hervé didn't hear him.
But when, at two in the morning, the exasperated Bertrand told him, "I'm leaving. More to the point, I'm leaving you the proof, in black and white," and when the door had closed behind him, Hervé Montgaroult stopped short in the middle of his room, staggering -- a great bear at the sight of fire. His eyes were on the brown envelope in the middle of his writing table.
He could no longer keep away. All his efforts for the past two hours to put off the hand-to-hand combat with the Angel, that great display of verbal magnetism he had from time to time almost got caught up in, had been possible only because of Bertrand's presence.
Now began for Hervé the night he was always to remember as his night of struggle with the proof.
Copyright © 1996 by Éditions Gallimard
English language translation copyright © 1999 by Linda Asher
"If nothing is serious," Oscar Wilde once wrote, "then nothing is funny." Laurence Cossé must take the God-question seriously, for she has written a hilarious God-novel. God appears in it only by way of a proof for His existence, whose unexpected discovery disrupts church and state alike, but just that much turns out to be enough.
Cossé has a wickedly keen eye for the foibles of both churchmen and statesmen. If she were a sculptor or a painter instead of a novelist, she would be Daumier, for with a caricaturist's economy, she does in a sentence what others cannot do in pages. Laughter is not the only pleasure she provides, however. The local color in this novel, mostly Parisian, is as agreeable and as effortlessly brought off as anything in Simenon and will charm American readers as much as that master of mystery ever did. As for suspense, Le Coin du Voile [A Corner of the Veil] has the elegance of a slender, perfect necklace -- a thin chain from which hangs just a single, dazzling diamond. Try to take your eyes off it. You can't.
Cossé's "Casuists" -- transparently, the French Jesuits -- are brought off with an attention to droll detail and an understated affection that recall the short stories of J. F. Powers about American Catholic priests in the 1950s. The distinct deshabille of a certain kind of no-longer-young cleric, still wearing old sweaters from his preordination years. The crotchety brilliance of a priestly intellectual who specializes, as one of her Casuists does, in refuting proofs for the existence of God. In these characterizations,Cossé makesthe serious and the comic dance memorably together.
And finally, there is this writer's language. Le Coin du Voile was reviewed in Paris on the same day as the French translation of a book of mine entitled God: A Biography. I was amused by the review of Cossé, and my French publisher kindly bought me a copy of her book to read on my flight home. To speak simply, I was entranced. Perhaps because I have read too much French theory in recent years, I had come to think of late-twentieth-century French prose as terminally arch and vague. Cossé made me fall in love with the language again. Reading her, one remembers why le mot juste is a French phrase. She makes the language glow -- as she makes the whole of this irresistible little book glow -- with equal measures of clarity, intelligence, humor, and warmth.
January 15, 1999
Copyright © 1996 by Éditions Gallimard
Foreward copyright © 1999 by Jack Miles
English language translation copyright © 1999 by Linda Asher