Mauriac and the Writer’s Soul

An ordeal never turns toward us the face that we had expected. Something altogether different than we anticipated is demanded of us — something that is at once easier and, though we do not realize it, more suited to our measure. Our cross is less heavy than our imagination had envisioned; it remains nevertheless crushing, though not to the point where we cannot carry it. — Francois Mauriac (“Resurrection Without End”).

I am getting to know Mauriac the essayist, and have just finished reading Cain, Where is Your Brother? (1962). Although many of the pieces are retrospectives on France and the Second World War, of limited interest to the modern reader, a few comments stand out. In particular is Mauriac’s essay “The Catholic Writer,” which displays an acute psychological sensibility.

Let us guard ourselves from giving too much attention to… apparent intermittances of faith, of hope and of love in us. It is a facility for losing caste which some writers give themselves when, under the pretext of sincerity toward themselves, they marry, as it were, their own change and every day they destroy the image they formed of themselves the day before.

Is Mauriac here condemning that mercurial introspection that arose with the Romantic movement? After all, some authors seem to assume (and assume wrongly) that they are the only ones to experience bad moods, temptations, morbid thoughts, despair, etc. Yet for those who are patient, these “dark nights of the soul” eventually pass. And one draws strength from simply having waited out these transient shadows, learning to treat them as phantoms that haunt but cannot harm us.

To take the side of the soul, to be on the side of the truth against one’s self, depends on free will. From the moment that a man acquiesces to it, all his fatalities give way, and the conquered passions, stripped of their mask and knife, also collaborate in his spiritual triumph. How true it is that the truth shall make us free! It is the miracle of miracles. Grace has conquered necessity.

Mauriac is right to say that this change of soul can be seen even in changed features: “eyes that were formerly small and troubled open widely and are filled with light.” By contrast, the man who is continually perturbed is like the adolescent who parades his self-indulgent angst. He has not yet grown up. Ultimately the choice is ours, says Mauriac. The soul can “create its own destiny or passively undergo it.” I think it was Fr. George Rutler who said in a similar vein that saints aren’t simply better than other men, they are better than themselves.

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