Georges Bernanos and Boredom

Georges Bernanos (1888 – 1948) is one of my favourite modern French authors. His best known work is Journal d’un Curé de Campagne, first published in 1936. One would almost see in him the heavy and nihilistic existentialism of Camus and Sartre, leading to the revolts of 1968. The thought came to me yesterday as I received comments to my posting about Clint Eastwood’s surprising comments on American politics. Boredom is something that is very difficult to define. Is it the Daemonium Meridianum or ἀκηδία known to mystical theology, that vice that saps the soul of virtue and energy? There is certainly a modern psychological explanation.

Bernanos lived through the dramatic movements of his time, between World War I, the fierce polemics between the Catholic Right and anticlericalism, the Affaire Dreyfus and the Occupation in 1940. France is a country of extremes, just like that erstwhile colony of George III across the Atlantic, a culture one both loves and hates. Bernanos has been compared with Dostoïevski in his profound portraits of human nature. I am not sufficiently an expert on either to comment further on such a view.

Bernanos grew up in a village in the Pas de Calais area, where the buildings are grey and sad, the farmland is flat and the people are hard and unwelcoming. The village of Fressin is like so many others in the north of France, colourful and picturesque in the summer, and deadly dull in the winter. Bernanos experienced this village as a place of solitude and sadness, and it certainly served as the inspiration of his novel.

The Journal d’un Curé de Campagne opens with a passage on boredom. It really needs to be read and appreciated in French. Translations of this work have been written, but will never do justice to this piece of writing. I prefer not to attempt it myself. The metaphors just don’t work in English. So, I ask an effort from my readers…

Ma paroisse est dévorée par l’ennui, voilà le mot. Comme tant d’autres paroisses ! L’ennui les dévore sous nos yeux et nous n’y pouvons rien. Quelque jour peut-être la contagion nous gagnera, nous découvrirons en nous ce cancer. On peut vivre très longtemps avec ça.

L’idée m’est venue hier sur la route. Il tombait une de ces pluies fines qu’on avale à pleins poumons, qui vous descendent jusqu’au ventre. De la côte de Saint-Vaast, le village m’est apparu brusquement, si tassé, si misérable sous le ciel hideux de novembre. L’eau fumait sur lui de toutes parts, et il avait l’air de s’être couché là, dans l’herbe ruisselante, comme une pauvre bête épuisée. Que c’est petit, un village ! Et ce village était ma paroisse. C’était ma paroisse, mais je ne pouvais rien pour elle, je la regardais tristement s’enfoncer dans la nuit, disparaître… Quelques moments encore, et je ne la verrais plus. Jamais je n’avais senti si cruellement sa solitude et la mienne. Je pensais à ces bestiaux que j’entendais tousser dans le brouillard et que le petit vacher, revenant de l’école, son cartable sous le bras, mènerait tout à l’heure à travers les pâtures trempées, vers l’étable chaude, odorante… Et lui, le village, il semblait attendre aussi – sans grand espoir – après tant d’autres nuits passées dans la boue, un maître à suivre vers quelque improbable, quelque inimaginable asile.

Oh ! je sais bien que ce sont des idées folles, que je ne puis même pas prendre tout à fait au sérieux, des rêves… Les villages ne se lèvent pas à la voix d’un petit écolier, comme les bêtes. N’importe ! Hier soir, je crois qu’un saint l’eût appelé.

Je me disais donc que le monde est dévoré par l’ennui. Naturellement, il faut un peu réfléchir pour se rendre compte, ça ne se saisit pas tout de suite. C’est une espèce de poussière. Vous allez et venez sans la voir, vous la respirez, vous la mangez, vous la buvez, et elle est si fine, si ténue qu’elle ne craque même pas sous la dent. Mais que vous vous arrêtiez une seconde, la voilà qui recouvre votre visage, vos mains. Vous devez vous agiter sans cesse pour secouer cette pluie de cendres. Alors, le monde s’agite beaucoup.

On dira peut-être que le monde est depuis longtemps familiarisé avec l’ennui, que l’ennui est la véritable condition de l’homme. Possible que la semence en fût répandue partout et qu’elle germât çà et là, sur un terrain favorable. Mais je me demande si les hommes ont jamais connu cette contagion de l’ennui, cette lèpre ? Un désespoir avorté, une forme turpide du désespoir, qui est sans doute comme la fermentation d’un christianisme décomposé.

Boredom is compared with a disease, a kind of cancer that doesn’t kill but decomposes the victim from within. I remember my own childhood in northern England as he describes drizzle and the way it soaks into the most waterproof raincoats. The month is November. It might as well have been Dante’s Inferno, where the damned soul gives up hope on entering. The humidity reaches everywhere, even in the heated café where the men of the village drink their beer or Ricard and play board games or cards. All the people in that place become bored and boring. Boredom is like a kind of dust that enters your body with what you eat and drink, the air you breathe. The image is quite terrifying.

It would almost seem that boredom is man’s natural condition. It devours its victim like a deformed despair that ferments a decomposed Christianity. It is the perfect description of that acedia that was known to the monastic Fathers of the Church.

Bernanos’ language is plain and precise, yet the imagery is so evocative to our own experience of bored children on rainy days when no suggestion of occupation would relieve the boredom. The text is magic, and I would no more translate it into English than Shakespeare into Spanish!

The comparison between boredom and cancer is an early announcement of the priest’s death from that disease after having received absolution from the laicised priest looking after him. Rural boredom is something that kills the life of a village, brings out the sadness of solitude and the frequent causes of alcoholism and suicide. There are areas in France like the Yonne, that vast area to the south of Paris where Christianity faced the full force of hatred of the Revolution and the anticlerical era. The North is pretty deadening too, like the south of Yorkshire in the old mining areas, Liverpool and Manchester. People can be so small-minded and bloody-minded, so unwelcoming and closed in on themselves. It is no surprise that young rural French people flock to Paris and other metropolitan cities in their desperation to escape narrowness of mind. The process of gentrification of villages has its pros and cons. The desertification is being reversed by town people seeking a better quality of life – just as my wife and I did when we bought the old baker’s shop in Hautot Saint Sulpice in Normandy. The gentrified village becomes a dormitory, and one kind of narrowness can easily be replaced by another. There is nothing of the medieval romance of the community living around the church. Country parishes are now dead, a thing of the past, of which a locked and almost redundant building bears testimony.

We are brought to another understanding of boredom, one of nothingness, the ontological definition of evil. Evil is not only something against good, but coldness, emptiness, confusion, sadness, the loss of supernatural grace. Boredom is its ultimate expression.

The little French village is a microcosm of the world. The images of Prometheus being eaten from the inside by an eagle convey the same message, like Adam being returned to the original dust. Boredom is the loss of the supernatural, of transcendence, of the sense of wonder. Many people appear to devour themselves and suffer from emptiness, seeking agitation and entertainment. For many psychiatrists, these are symptoms of a disordered personality.

In the final paragraph of the text, the vision of bored humanity is taken beyond the French village to the whole of humanity as our “true condition” of fallen creation. At the same time, Bernanos speculates that it it is the modern (1930’s) world that Christianity crumbles in the face of increasingly widespread boredom, to the extent of causing a désespoir avorté (an aborted despair) that has lost its tragic character to wallow in anonymity.

La dernière disgrâce de l’homme, c’est le fait que le Mal lui-même l’ennuie. The final disgrace of man is the fact that Evil itself bores him. What an epitaph! It is truly terrifying.

Boredom is something we can do something about. The first thing is to decide that life has something other than feeding our boredom and ingratitude. There are things that provoke our sense of wonder, especially the marvels of nature, the forests, the mountains and the sea. It isn’t just a question of occupying ourselves to fill the emptiness, but rediscovering life.

I have no pretence at being special or “holy”, but I can honestly say that I do not suffer from boredom. I take initiatives and take interest in things, however insignificant. I used to get very bored as a child, because I could not adapt to changing conditions. When it rains, that means that you can’t go out and play in the garden. Either you look at the miserable weather out of the window – or find something indoors: play a game or draw a picture, sing or play music. It intensely irritates me when someone complains about being bored. They can damned well find their own way out of it. As Bernanos said, it is a “natural” state – of those who remain passive, uncurious and unable to make a decision.

I am intensely curious about things, even outside my habitual areas of interest. I have always been fascinated by science and technology, new discoveries. I love to make my own discoveries, go places with my boat and see things I have never seen before. My world is forever new and beautiful.

Chronic boredom saps our energy. We lose the will to live and cease being creative. We are interested in nothing. We might as well be dead, and suicide is often the consequence of boredom. Bernanos wrote in images like drizzle and dust. Boredom leaves us is a fog of waste and loss of our wasted lives.

Curiosity and imagination are the essential tools to live our lives. We should ask questions and look for answers. We should love our books and the knowledge they can give us. There is also the internet well used, documentaries on Youtube. We can have our hobbies and passions, but we should diversify as much as possible. We should be careful about getting steamed up about single issues.

We can learn how to do things like arts and crafts, making things out of wood, metal or anything. There are also sports that are as good for our bodies as our minds. Cycling is great fun, because it doesn’t take that much energy, and you discover lots of interesting things on your way. A bicycle can be parked almost anywhere – much easier than a car! I have often heard about adults deciding to learn a musical instrument, finding a teacher and some outlet for their new skills as their technique improves with work and dedication.

Being adaptable is also essential. I can’t go sailing in the winter, or can only do so in certain conditions. The boat needs maintenance at home, and turning the hull over will show that the gelcoat needs redoing with all the scratches. The spars need revarnishing and the sails may need some stitching. There are also things unrelated to sailing like doing some jobs around the house. Like not being to play in the garden because of wet weather, we need to be adaptable and shake ourselves out of the rut.

Spontaneity is vital. Life doesn’t always work to rule and plan. It’s wonderful to do something new without having planned it. Get the bicycle out and have a good long ride or get judo lessons, anything. For those of us who are religious, it must be fascinating to attend a service in a synagogue or with a community of Buddhists or Hindus. That doesn’t mean apostasy from our Christianity. Explore! Discover! Open your mind!

Christ taught us to value the present moment and cherish every part of each day. Look for the good in everything and add good things to what seems mediocre and in need of improvement. Life is a theatre, as Shakespeare once wrote. Even standing in a queue, there are things to look at, a book to read, people to talk with.

Georges Bernanos is an author we need to discover. His understanding of human nature was acute and impressive.

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3 Responses to Georges Bernanos and Boredom

  1. J.D. says:

    Ha! I am with you wholeheartedly on not ever being bored. There is so much too discover, so much to deepen. The only way to get bored is to allow yourself to be stuck in a rut.

    Spontaneity is key as you say. Do something different, break out of your comfort zone, challenge yourself. Life is profoundly short, especially when you work day in and day out with folks that are actively dying the way I do.

    Death is REAL, and it comes quickly. We can brood about it and feel sorry for ourselves or we can get on with our lives moment by moment, pushing our own boundaries a little.

    Interesting you mention other religions, as I have recently taken up meditation again, and restudying Zen Buddhism and Haiku the way I used to. I don’t really fear to lose my Christianity, I don’t think I will. I do like peering back into something different though, and seeing what, if anything I can learn from it.

    Once again an amazing little reflection here Father. Truly this is one of the best blogs out there. My prayers go with you.

  2. colinchattan says:

    I agree with your assessment of Bernanos. The conclusion to “Journal” is one of the most moving – and inspiring and encouraging (for me, it evokes the stone being rolled away from the tomb, viewed from the inside, on Easter Sunday) – I have read.

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Your “one of my favourite modern French authors” and “an author we need to discover” and their illustration are very encouraging – thanks! (And to colinchattan for his confirming praise.) Bernanos is someone I’ve heard well of, but without such detail – so, I buy his works (in translation), but have not yet read one! This may nudge me there, soon! Which prompts a question: would you like to say anything about Sous le soleil de Satan? And, would I do well to read him in chronological order?

    Perhaps you could essay a companion essay on laziness, sometime – I think I am too lazy to learn French (for instance: I tried a few years ago, and soon gave up), and so I basically confine myself to what survives translation (though I may try to puzzle away at a short poem).

    While reading this, I was struck by the memory of a detail of the characterization of Sir Giles Tumulty in Charles Williams’s War in Heaven, something about “a mind too swiftly bored”‘ – which in his case is met by a lot of baleful activity (‘activist boredom’?). Both boredom and different responses to it as not welcoming the proffered good? – or substituting misappreciated goods as sorts of idols? (Laziness tending to do this, too?)

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