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About the Author
François Mauriac, 1885–1970 was a French writer. Mauriac achieved success in 1922 and 1923 with Le Baiser au lépreux and Genitrix (tr. of both in The Family, 1930). Generally set in or near his native Bordeaux, his novels are imbued with his profound, though nonconformist, Roman Catholicism. His characters exist in a tortured universe; nature is evil and man eternally prone to sin. His major novels are The Desert of Love (1925, tr. 1929), Thérèse (1927, tr. 1928), and Vipers’ Tangle (1932, tr. 1933). Other works include The Frontenacs (1933, tr. 1961) and Woman of the Pharisees (1941, tr. 1946); a life of Racine (1928) and of Jesus (1936, tr. 1937); and plays, notably Asmodée (1938, tr. 1939). Also a distinguished essayist, Mauriac became a columnist for Figaro after World War II. Collections of his articles and essays include Journal, 1932–39 (1947, partial tr. Second Thoughts, 1961), Proust’s Way (1949, tr. 1950), and Cain, Where Is Your Brother? (tr. 1962). Mauriac received the 1952 Nobel Prize in Literature.
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Letters on Art and Literature
By François Mauriac
Philosophical LibraryCopyright © 1953 Philosophical Library, Inc.
All rights reserved.
AFTER THE DEATH OF GEORGES BERNANOS
You have taken it upon yourself to write me, Sir, taking me to task for the fact that I kept silent when Georges Bernanos died. You pretend to believe that it was a low spirit of resentment that kept me from paying him the homage I owed him. On the one hand, you do me the honor of believing that I could have said about him things that escaped most of those who wrote in his praise; but on the other hand, you don't believe that I am capable of forgetting insults: "Especially," you add, "those that Bernanos heaped upon you, which perhaps shocked some readers of L'Intransigeant, but delighted a far greater number."
You remind me that in Figaro (which Bernanos, in one of his last articles, compared to a house of ill-repute), M. André Rousseaux did not hesitate to proclaim that so far as he is concerned, he never deemed his judicial fits of anger excessive. That is not going far enough. If Figaro's critic had been entirely sincere, he would have confessed that this anger delighted him more than anything else in Bernanos. Note that in this connection André Rousseaux gives way to what I may call a Sainte-Beuve complex. Following the example of this illustrious critic, he judges himself far superior in experience and knowledge to those of his contemporaries who have arrived and rest secure in their success. Too often, in a man of intellect whose task it is to judge other people's books, envy, that most ignoble of passions, is confused with a feeling of offended justice. Perhaps dear Rousseaux, in order to help himself live, has tucked away in some secret drawer, like Sainte-Beuve, secret notebooks filled with different poisons. But what good are these posthumous pleasures which we can enjoy only in advance, and of which our ashes will know nothing? The truth is that the fury of Bernanos pleased our friend Rousseaux by reason of an excess of that bitterness which imparts to everything he writes a rich jaundiced color. A great writer may think he is only venting his own spleen; but actually he may also serve as an outlet for less illustrious spleens; in this way, Bernanos did much good to many people.
Coming back to your letter, don't you think, Sir, that if I had dedicated to Georges Bernanos, the one of my contemporaries whom I perhaps most admired, the article which I alone, true enough, could have written about him (not necessarily better than others, but nevertheless irreplaceable), you would have written me a very similar letter, in which, however, you would have reproached me for taking advantage of the silence of a once mighty personage, now dead and therefore unable to speak in his own defense? However, know this: a man like Bernanos never passed on his colleagues, and particularly on me, an unequivocal judgment. In this respect we are all alike. There is something we hate in those we love, and something we like in our worst enemies; it is simply a matter of letting the light fall on one side or the other. So far as I am concerned, Bernanos often shifted the lamp. I am no collector of old papers, but without going into extensive research I can give you two examples which, I have no doubt, will come as a great surprise to you. If I were to go through my files I could certainly find others, but these, I think, will suffice. As you first glance at these texts, I fear you will accuse me of yielding to vanity, or at least to a sense of pride. Far from it: if you have the patience to read this letter to the end, you will see that on the contrary I have only sought to throw some light, for your sake and my own, on the reasons why Bernanos was at every turn offended and irritated by my sort of Christian.
That he did me justice on the political plane you may gather from this dedication which he inscribed on my copy of Grands Cimetières sous la lune: "This book can enter only through the breach which you have so courageously and so nobly opened. May you not find it too unworthy of you! With all my admiration, and all my heart."
But there is a more explicit text that touches the heart of the matter. I quote from one of the last letters I received from him, undated, but subsequent to the Liberation. After outlining his reasons (none of them offensive to the Academy), why he did not wish to sit in that body, he adds: "It seems to me that many matters would be cleared up between us if only we knew each other better; but it also seems to me that in spite of the many things that draw us together, your youthful approach to life and mine, in the distant past, were so differently slanted as to preclude our ever understanding each other completely, even though we may be in basic agreement. However, I know from experience how often your name is linked with mine by many of our overseas friends, who perhaps know better than we what we mean to each other. We therefore find ourselves united in their hearts, even while we wait to be better joined one day in the gentle mercy of God, as in an everlasting morning. Believe that I feel with you deeply."
You will admit, Sir, that the Bernanos who speaks here comes closer to the author of the Journal d'un curé de campagne than to the writer who claimed in L'Intransigeant to André Rousseaux's delight, that in my writings he heard and smelled the sounds and odors of a water-closet. But do not fear that I may wish to take up arms against you, or above all against the Georges Bernanos of this admirable text; the charity that here overflows (and charity was the very foundation of his nature, while insult was only a fringe of foam) certainly touches, strikes and humiliates me, but neither offends nor degrades me.
THE GOOD SHARP ARROW AND ITS ENDURING KEENNESS
The truth is that there are two kinds of Christians (by Christians I mean people who try to live according to Grace). The majority of them do not refuse to adapt themselves to a world beset by evil, or to come to terms with it. They fully understand what the great Bossuet meant when he confessed that he could do nothing well "if he was at odds with his servant." They don't seek out posts and honors, but they accept them when they are offered, first because nothing seems more exaggerated to them than certain spectacular refusals, second because they figure that the best way not to think about the Institut or similar things is to be part of them; Barrès has taught them, from their early youth, that we can be entirely sure of holding in contempt only the goods we actually possess, and these are also the only things we can truly renounce; for how is one to renounce what he does not have? (They remember in this connection the infinite importance that Péguy, for instance, attributed not merely to the Academy, but to one of the Grands Prix which he was so shamefully refused.) When these Christians grow old they realize too late that it does them no good to shake themselves, for the accoutrements of the world cling to their skins and keep them apart from that humble and living part of mankind which they cherish, and by which they would have wished to be understood and loved.
But above everything else, these settled and secure Christians collaborate in an order which is in essence unjust. Evil and the mystery of evil do not deter them from trying to be happy in accordance with the ways of the world. To them, evil appears under the guise of a problem that the theologians skilfully solve by their subtleties, with which secular Christians pretend to be satisfied. It is part of Georges Bernanos' greatness that he thought, wrote and suffered in the very center of this drama of a creation which was once redeemed by the Son of Man, but which is now once more losing itself. He, too, knew to his dying breath the temptation to yield to despair, which wears out saints. But he never lost the will to believe. What a faith was his! If you were to ask me what I admire most about him, I would say that it is his faith, the fact that he never doubted God's mercy, although he was face to face with evil; that his work bears witness to the love of the Creator for His creatures; that in this murderous world in which he lived (and in which we continue to live), where this divine love is insulted, rejected, held in contempt by many, and completely ignored by many more, he held fast; that he did not lose heart when for him holiness remained crucified on the very brink of despair. Yes, all this helps me to understand why, in these last years of his life, he turned into an old molossus with bloodshot eyes, biting at the shins of fat sheep and foolish ewes.
As for France, he confused her with the image he had in his heart; that of a young girl, almost a child, betrayed into the hands of the official Church and the Sorbonne; a little Jeanne d'Arc. He never ceased viewing us, whether we wore a pectoral cross, green robes or red robes, as scheming wild beasts who tortured and martyred a child after having first attempted to bring shame upon her. In his heart and mind, he never ceased to contrast this adored little girl with the France of today, such as it is, or rather, such as it seems to be, the France of the profiteers, a France whose richest vein may well turn out to be the trench in which lie rotting the bodies of those Resistance martyrs of all parties who faced the firing-squads.
That he erred against justice is self-evident: there survived in him something of the old camelot du roi who, at the mere mention of Christian Democracy, went into a fit of alarm. (We must face the fact that Charles Maurras, who supplied a ready-made system, a sort of "national costume" for ordinary minds, also left an indelible imprint on some very keen intellects, even among those most violently opposed to him. Notice, for instance, André Rousseaux, who is never so much a follower of Maurras as when he puffs up and labors to admire André Breton or Miller; he, whose youth was nurtured on the hills of moderation in the shadow of Massis and his rod, watch him forcing himself to chew up and swallow the dead fodder of surrealism!)
When all is said and done, it is upon our faith and the quality of our faith that a man like Bernanos compels us to examine ourselves. Was not that slightly demented manner of his the manner of a Christian who not only has a notional idea of the verities defined by the theologians, but lives them and suffers from them almost unto death? If Satan were to us this creature of whom Bernanos speaks as of someone whose breath he feels in his face, would we be able, any more than he was, to resign ourselves to the rules of the social game? Would we too not be overwhelmed by the ridiculousness of man without God, which perhaps surpasses the ridiculousness of man who believes himself to be with God?
After the Liberation, what party, what newspaper, what academy did not dream of adding to itself this great virgin force? But Bernanos made it clear to us that he did not belong to the world. He finally came to this conclusion after having sought for years, in a very simple fashion, I imagine, a retreat where he could breathe, live and taste a humble human happiness. For there was nothing of the ascetic in him. It took him some time to realize that he would not find a place of refuge in this world, that there was no place for him, that he belonged to the wandering race of inspired objectors. Nevertheless, "the note of Eden-like purity, of infinite gentleness, of heartrending sadness" that Paul Claudel was the first to discern in Rimbaud is the same as the one that charms us in Bernanos. But while in La Saison en enfer it appears only at times, in the midst of the imprecations of an angry child, in Bernanos, whether shrill or muffled, it is sustained; and no cry of disgust ever masks it completely. Did he hold himself in less horror than he did us? Perhaps Bernanos took upon himself and bore in our place that unhappiness at not being a saint which hardly disturbs us.
You will admit, Sir, that I am far from feeling injured, as you thought I would be, by the caricatures of Christian Democrats and liberal journalists in which you think Bernanos excels. True, he is the novelist of the great inner void; he bears no resemblance to those novelists with monocles who "observe." Whatever opinion one may have of Christian Democracy, the modernistic and liberal worms that swarm in L'Imposture, for instance, give us no information save about Bernanos himself, just as the nightmare of a fever patient or a madman gives information to the psychiatrist. Bernanos comes close to Dostoievsky, who creates his own mental universe and fills it with creatures to his own image and likeness; not to Tolstoi, who rebuilds and brings back to life a world familiar to all of us. It is remarkable that even Bernanos' priests, despite their dazzling reality, resemble no living priest, and that no one, to my knowledge, finds that he resembles them. Those I have questioned on this matter, whether or not they admired Bernanos, have always rejected the idea that there was the least semblance of reality in his holy and terrible characters. Indeed, their disturbing presence is the presence of Bernanos himself, that priestly soul condemned to wander among us under the guise of a man of letters; for thirty years we have admired and loved from a distance that wild bird that hurled itself against the bars of a materialistic cage in which we all settled down as best we could, with the least inconvenience, and with that desire for comfort which no apocalyptic vision could discourage.
All of us? No, here I am yielding too much to the fascination of this intractable brother. Admit, Sir, that there are men for whom "living in accordance with one's period" involves no compromise; Bernanos' refusal to compromise, however noble it may seem to us, nevertheless partakes of a certain sterile pride. This inspired soul, who was able to create saints, infusing into them his own breath, was also able to transmit some elements of his own deep nature to creatures molded by hate. In the first pages of L'Imposture(one of his least successful books, but still my favorite, for the most peculiar qualities of beauty appear in it: the Abbé Cénabre stands out as the only great Luciferian figure in all our literature), you will recall that terrible priest torturing a little liberal journalist in the confessional; there is not a word uttered by this terrible abbé in which I do not recognize the voice, the accent, even the vocabulary of Bernanos when he was carried away by his emotions, and in which there does not vibrate a hatred as supernatural as is the admirable love which he retained until the very end.
But that is enough to put us on our guard. In spite of Bernanos' advice and all his words of execration, men must stay in their native land and consent to work in the mud; the seeds sown by generations of democratic priests, at whom he scoffed, have to bear their fruit in the byways; simple Christians must be willing to dirty their hands in politics, they must wear themselves out laboring in the holds of the dismantled ship so they may repair all the leaks in them. Let us not yield to the easy temptation of placing the real nation on the level of Joan of Arc, the holy curate of Ars, and Péguy, so that we may have the right to kick aside the other France, as though it were a rotting boat. The real France is the one of which we are a part. We may be ashamed of it in this long period of waiting, but we still want to look into its ravaged face with love. That is the France to which we choose to remain loyal, not the excessively sublime image that Bernanos holds up above our reach through the centuries and into the heavens.
You will reply that Bernanos hardly ran the risk of creating a school of followers, and you are right; that he was one of those men through whom a race, even when dishonored, preserves the consciousness of its mission, and I grant you that, too; that in the shadow of the huge materialistic beast that each day stretches farther over us, he remained, until death and after, a witness of the Love which is no longer loved, and here again I say that you are right.
Believe me, Sir, it pleases me to let you have the final word.CHAPTER 2
WHAT DO YOU EXPECT OF A PRIEST?
Your Reverence, I must confess that my first impulse was to crumple up your letter into a ball and throw it into the waste paper basket. "What does a priest mean to you?" you ask me. "What do you expect of a priest?" People who ask such questions, especially when they are canons, are extremely rash; they don't realize that they are helping to revive the custom of public confession. It is true that they address themselves specifically to men of letters whose trade it is to tell their life-story to every comer. Just how far the men of letters have gone in this direction since the days of Jean-Jacques can be seen today, when husbands publish household chronicles that elicit from their readers a laughter of disgust unknown to our fathers, while single men tell even more concisely what they do when they are alone. In fact, eroticism itself is surpassed by this love of self-abasement for its own sake. The erotic person does not take delight in what degrades him, because he does not feel degraded, while the self-abaser resembles the patient who eventually comes to love the smell of his own bandages.
You wonder, Your Reverence, what I am getting at? I am merely trying to say that like most of my colleagues I have done nothing all my life except to talk about myself; not, of course, in the direct fashion of those who discuss their wives, their vices, or their manias. Discretion, even prudence perhaps, are not heroic virtues. But who can definitely assert that a self-abaser does not possess a sort of corrupt virtue, or that we should not give him credit for this need he feels of being henceforth known for what he really is, this certainty he seems to crave that he is no longer fooling anyone? One might say that his corruption stems not from his confession, but rather from the pride he takes in it, and from his utilization of the worst and dirtiest qualities within him, which is the particular trick of the man of letters when he feels incapable of reinventing or even of transposing anything.
Excerpted from Letters on Art and Literature by François Mauriac. Copyright © 1953 Philosophical Library, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Philosophical Library.
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Table of Contents
ContentsI - AFTER THE DEATH OF GEORGES BERNANOS,
II - WHAT DO YOU EXPECT OF A PRIEST?,
III - TO ALBERT CAMUS,
IV - TO A LADY WHO WANTED TO SEND ME "THE DICTIONARY,
V - CONCERNING A CRIME AGAINST "CARMEN",
VI - TO A "ROUND TABLE" SUBSCRIBER,
VII - CONCERNING THE CLAUDEL — GIDE CORRESPONDENCE,
VIII - SCOUTS AND GUIDES,
IX - MORE ABOUT SCOUTS AND GUIDES,
X - TO JEAN COCTEAU, ON THE SUBJECT OFBACCHUS,