Georges Bernanos (1888-1948)


[Journal d’un Curé de Campagne: The young priest of this novel has come from a background of poverty through seminary into this, his first parish experience, to which he is utterly dedicated. Aside from his daily ministrations and struggles, Bernanos offers us his view of French church and society through the the priest’s conversations with avariety of people, including the more relaxed older priest de Torcy and, most powerfully, the deeply wounded local countess who harbors bitter anger at God for death of her son.]


The Novel

One of the most important things about the novel as a genre is its ability to represent a multiplicity of viewpoints on things and people. The novel can bring one to the center of its characters, and give each of them an independent reality. To achieve this, some early novels were constructed out of fictional exchanges of private letters in which the characters revealed themselves. Balzac and Stendhal introduced the psychological novel. Their novels were narrated by an omniscient narrator able to get inside the minds of the characters. The curé in the Journal d’un Curé de Campagne is somewhat naïve and does not understand everything, but he gives us hints and details that allow us to make sense of what escapes him.

It is now much more difficult to write like Bernanos. For literature to be written the writer and reader must have a certain degree of confidence in each other, but this is no longer possible, especially for a certain avant-garde. The novel has destroyed itself as it has become self-conscious. Contemporary writers refuse to become gods to their characters. They are sure of so little that the novel is dead.


The Problem of Evil

Bernanos is less of a Christian humanist than Claudel. His is a world of crisis in which the absolute either/or of salvation or damnation is always present. This does not mean that Bernanos’ world is less Catholic, just that it concentrates on certain types of situations with which Claudel is less concerned.

Bernanos’ Christianity is much more somber than Claudel's. His great concern is the problem of evil, the why of evil. Evil is the result of man's revolt against God, made possible by human freedom, but God almost always triumphs in the end. In Bernanos’ everyone is either saved or damned. His intolerance stems from his existentialism: freedom is fundamental, the freedom to accept or refuse.

In Claudel evil is more episodic and less dangerous. By contrast, the Journal d’un Curé de Campagne  is about obstinacy in both good and evil. In Bernanos the presence and power of the devil is strongly felt; he even appears in person in one of Bernanos’s works. Sin for Bernanos is not the commitment of a bad action. Bad actions are a kind of superficial cover for a more profound structure of sin rooted in bad faith. According to Bernanos evil is a thing which joins sinners together. This thing is Satan.

The Journal d’un Curé de Campagne concerns a priest in a village in northern France. Bernanos believed that in our time the best thing a Christian could do was to become a priest. Hence his somewhat critical remarks about monks.

The world of Bernanos’ books is apocalyptic; it is a world of destruction, decomposing from beginning to end. The term “Christianisme” refers to Christian ideas and doctrines which, although no longer active, still remain influential in a post-Christian era. These surviving ideas are no longer satisfying. For the peasants, for example, money, avarice, becomes a substitute for religion and is therefore intensified.

In all his novels modern parishes represent the de-Christianized world in which the priest must fight for a sorely threatened good. This world is even worse than it was before it became Christian for retaining its Christianity after it has lost its faith. Christianisme becomes a kind of poison because under the influence of decomposed Christianity desires aim at the infinite and can never be satisfied.


Intellectuals and Priests

The identification of evil, ennui and sickness is fundamental in the Journal d’un Curé de Campagne. Ennui is a kind of metaphysical boredom. The novel presents the profile of the Church which, like certain persons, evades its mission in ennui or aestheticism. The curé’s sickness is the result of his assuming the evil of his parish. The cancer that kills him is the ennui, the sin, of his parish, of mankind. His spiritual crisis is not a flaw in his faith but is an integral part of his Christianity, the vision of evil from the cross. Faith and evil are thus intimately connected. The curé burns himself up in the agony with which he lives that connection. The value of the priest’s faith is based on its enormous risk, the threat which haunts it. This gives the novel much of its interest.

By contrast his colleague, the priest Torcy, is made for life. His opinions are those of the practical, solid Christian. He represents the point of view of the hierarchy which sees the church as a theocracy. Torcy is more of a collectivist than the individualistic curé. He helps the curé with his strength and stability but also envies the deeper passion with which the curé lives his faith in the parish. There is no criticism here of either type of faith. The Church needs both.

There is a certain anti-intellectualism in Torcy. He points out the danger threatening the romantic artist: to sing a song for oneself alone. He warns the curé not to follow this path. In this we see Bernanos’ opposition to pure literature. He believed that prayer is the only authentic form of thought and that all thought directed toward God is in some sense prayer. All other thought leads to the result Valéry depicts in Monsieur Teste.

The priest is an intellectual and this endangers his faith. The danger is clear from the example of his friend, Dufrety, a romantic intellectual. He and the priest are very similar but make opposite choices. The more metaphysical, the more developed a person is, the more he risks confounding pride and charity, attributes that are closely related.

The priest’s greatest danger is his desire to be loved for himself. This arises out of his self-hate. He succeeds in so far as he conquers his self-hate and desire for love and forgets himself in fulfilling his mission.


Charity and Justice

The priest’s triumph is to save the Countess and perhaps Seraphita Dumouchel. In many other respects he appears to be a complete failure, but he actually did wonderfully well. The inner spiritual history of his life shows that although he was incompetent in small things, he succeeded in the real crises.

The heart of the book is the scene between the curé and the Countess. She is always bored and in pain, but during this scene she is actually in anguish. This anxiety, the consciousness of the absolute either/or, is ultimately a good thing. The curé acts in anguish too, as whenever he does something right.

The problem of communication is central for Bernanos. The curé appears to be an intruder during his conversation with the Countess. He actually knows very little at the start of the scene. The Countess places as many obstacles as she can in the curé's way, age, social position, etc. Politeness and social customs encourage lying and the refusal of communication, the rejection of union. What the curé is able to learn he tears from the people involved at the expense of breaking the social rules that protect mauvaise foi. In Bernanos as in Sartre pride is the root of bad faith, which is a complicated way of hiding the truth from oneself.

The atmosphere of the family is surrounded by unrecognized bad faith. The curé breaks through by making them see and speak. Deep down the Countess is happy about the horrible relations between her daughter and her husband. There is no communication at all between them. Everything is ambiguous, nothing is certain because nothing is said. As in a psychoanalytic situation, telling the subject the truth causes hatred which must be overcome. The Countess revolts against the curé because he refuses to condemn her daughter, but he brings her beyond the level of condemnation.

Bernanos uses the priestly clichés she repeats to condemn bad priests for making bad Christians. Bernanos is profoundly anti-bourgeois and hates nothing more than bourgeois morality which judges people at a human level. The priest’s statement that he is not a professor of morality indicates the opposition in Bernanos between metaphysics and morality. The Countess almost defeats the curé in terms of justice, but not in charity and charity wins in the end. She finally begins to admit that she wants her daughter to leave.

In Bernanos, death always follows conversion. After renouncing her pride there is nothing left for the Countess but to die. Violaine also dies after she becomes blind, at the height of her sanctity. All metaphysical people are drawn toward death although there are differences in the significance of their death.


The Meaning of History

The Judeo-Christian conception of history is irreversible, not a cycle of events as in antiquity. Society follows the same metaphysical development as the individual. Bernanos saw the Middle Ages as the childhood of Christianity, and the Renaissance as its adolescence. As with individual life, history has an end. Christian thinkers in every troubled age have expected mankind to undergo the great metaphysical tragedy of the apocalypse. Bernanos believed that the evil of the world was reaching an apocalyptic climax.

In Christianity history has a meaning related to the deepest reality of man. Bernanos believes that all attempts to transform the Judeo-Christian tradition into a Hellenic Christianity forget that the beauty of the Greek world was the fruit of slavery. He identifies slavery with original sin, the necessity of labor.

There are certain similarities between Bernanos and Malraux. Malraux believed that communism would one day destroy the Chinese equivalent of slavery. Bernanos speaks of Christianity in similar terms. Like Malraux, he saw ahead of his time. Both grasped the apocalyptic nature of the modern world before the Nazis and the atom bomb made it obvious to all. Malraux was influenced by Spengler’s pessimism. But Bernanos’ apocalyptic vision was not pessimistic since it gave a meaning to evil.