- Bernanos: Polemicist and Prophet of Our World
In 1931, when he published La Grande Peur des bien-pensants, Georges Bernanos was part of a small group of writers promoting Catholic constitutional monarchy for his country. That strikes us as utterly aberrant for a twentieth-century political program, but we need to recall the devastating effects of the world war in which he participated for four years. It was the worst thing that could happen. Life in the trenches where Bernanos volunteered to serve was filth, disease, poison gas, and unprecedented massacre by artillery and machine gun fire; tactics were regularly misdirected by a highly incompetent military staff. The effect on people’s estimation of established political order was commensurately disheartening. Republican forms of government, popular democracies, began to appear to citizens all across the political spectrum as a recent, failed experiment. By the end of the thirties, four out of five European democracies, excepting France alone on the continent, succumbed to totalitarian regimes. Add Soviet Russia to that number along with a worldwide depression and you see the wave of the future in the darkest imaginable terms.
What Bernanos retained from a monarchist outlook was the value that the ancien régime attached to the notion of honor, which [End Page 62] he sometimes wrote with a capital “H.” It is a theme unique to him as a Catholic writer, and one that has a role, I think, in his recasting the Gertrude von Le Fort story as a play, Dialogue des Carmélites, for which Francis Poulenc composed the opera we celebrate here. “L’honneur” has a distinctly French resonance. The time of this writing marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Algiers, where the French paratroopers marched into the city to quell an anticolonial insurgency. They won the battle but lost the war, in no small measure due to the scandal of systematic torture authorized by the military in a ruthless search for information about the rebels, who did not hesitate to plant bombs in public places where the “Algériens français” regularly gathered. The conduct of the army nonetheless divided public opinion fiercely on the continent—François Mauriac wrote vigorously against it in the Bloc Notes he composed for Le Figaro—as many, right and left, felt that, in the words of that period’s best historian, “la France y perd son honneur.”1 It was the notion of honor, as we shall see, that fueled Bernanos’s criticism of his own Church during the Spanish Civil War; it motivated his early allegiance to the French Resistance headed by Charles de Gaulle, whom he identified very early on as the general saw himself, “chef et symbole de l’Honneur français” during the German occupation of his country.2
Throughout his writings, Bernanos repeatedly denies that he is a “polémiste,” just as he denies that he is a prophet, but he is both, I think, and it is in these roles that we are drawn to the nonfiction writer; that is, for the energy and urgency of his prose style, for its exquisitely modulated alternations of rage, sarcasm, tenderness, and passionate lyricism. This resonates even in the titles of some of his works, Sous le Soleil de Satan, Journal d’un curé de campagne, La Grande Peur des bien pensants, Les Grands Cimetières sous la lune: the words trip off the tongue alliteratively and rhythmically. When not writing novels, Bernanos is a great orator, perhaps France’s last, excepting, of course, Charles de Gaulle, with whom he felt a strong affiliation. We find him writing in the last age of public oratory, an age heroic and [End Page 63] demonic at once in this regard, for hosting Roosevelt and Churchill and de Gaulle himself, and also Hitler and Mussolini, whose mass rallies reinvented political theater of the kind that had not been seen since the French Revolution. And as Dialogues takes place during the more sanguinary events of that period, I will focus on its meaning for Bernanos, for whom it is the hinge pin of European history, holding out great promise and resulting in great tragedy.