“If such a thing could be at all stated of a Christian… Bernanos could be called an ‘alienated man,’ somewhat in the sense in which Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Kafka were alienated. In reality, such a man is the least alienated of all….”—Thomas Molnar, Bernanos: His Political Thought and Prophecy
I recently checked out a copy of Molnar’s study of the French Catholic novelist, and read it in just two days. It is the epitome of intellectual biography. Although the book is long out of print, readers can still avail themselves of an essay by Molnar on the subject.
Bernanos was not a politician or a theorist; nevertheless, he was at the forefront of the ideological warfare which convulsed French society during the first half of the twentieth century. His involvement started with the nationalistic monarchism of Charles Maurras, though by the 1930s he had distanced himself considerably from that camp and eventually denounced the “fascist temptation” that grew to prominence with Mussolini and Hitler. He was offered a government post under the collaborationist regime of Marshall Petain (which he refused). He championed De Gaulle’s Free French movement. Yet, after the war, when De Gaulle proposed he head the Ministry of Culture, Bernanos passed that up as well.
I don’t agree with all of Bernanos’ viewpoints, but I respect his independence. He never became a close-minded party hack; neither did he accommodate himself to convenient fashions and ideas. As a critic of reactionary power seekers, he said of his erstwhile mentor: “How is it that at the same time that Maurras destroys the false ideas, he also sterilizes the right ones and empties them of their sap? There is only one answer to this mystery: the Maurrassian spirit is absolutely lacking in charity.” We are told that for all of Bernanos’ zeal, he avoided extremism because he saw it as a form of despair.
His career reflects the genuine diversity of conservatism in that, like many continental traditionalists, he was unsympathetic toward “bourgeois capitalism,“ though he equally derided any notion that his ideas could be annexed by the socialist left. I am perhaps skeptical enough (and experienced enough) to prefer the market economy to most alternatives, but at the same time to admit the damage caused by rampant consumerism and corporate and technocratic monopolies. Continued debate on the subject should certainly not be stifled.
Bernanos was a brilliant writer because of his perfectionism. He found authorship both a curse and a necessity. As a college student he declared, “If I do not read or write, things go badly for me.” It is a conundrum that all writers (even those of us far removed from his level of genius) must struggle with. Is writing merely a hobby and a distraction, or is it a true vocation? Even in his most polemical pieces Bernanos wanted “to revive in people the reflexes of good faith and sincerity.” This occupation of authorship is perhaps a fitting subject for meditation in the coming year….