The Catholic Novel Today

From the birth of Barbey d’Aurevilly to the death of Julien Green, the question of the Christian novel has been the subject of more ink than you might think, and not just from Catholic writers. Is there such a thing as a Christian novel, just as Étienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain defended a Christian philosophy against Émile Bréhier and Léon Brunschwig in the last century? And if it does exist, is it enough for the writer to call himself a Christian for his novel to be baptized as such? These two contemporary quarrels each have their founding text: in one case, a magisterial document from 1879, Leo XIII’s Æterni Patris, which discusses philosophia christiana, i.e., Thomistic philosophy; in the other, Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly’s “Preface” to the 1866 republication of his novel Une vieille maîtresse (The Last Mistress), a short tract in response to the “Libres Penseurs” who forbad Catholics to touch art or literature. The reason? You cannot make good literature with good feelings, and even less so with Christian feelings: Catholics have “too pure” a hand to touch the novel. Barbey’s response: “What’s morally and intellectually magnificent about Catholicism is that it is broad, understanding, immense… Catholicism loves the arts and accepts, without trembling, their audacity. It accepts their passions and their paintings, because it knows that we can learn from them, even when the artist himself does not.”

Despite this Aurevillian clarification, there is no shortage of critics of the Christian novel. One need only open the most famous novel by one of the 20th century’s most renowned novelists (André Gide) to be convinced. In The Counterfeiters, he sternly states: “There are, strictly speaking, no Christian novels.” A “kind of tragedy,” the writer continues, a “moral tragedy” that touches “the very essence of being,” still eludes literature, including that which should have “transported the drama to the moral plane”: Christian literature. In 1925, the year Gide published his “first novel,” two novelists as different as Georges Bernanos and François Mauriac were working to contradict him. Under the Sun of Satan was published in 1926, and Thérèse Desqueyroux a year later. Catholic novels? The expression hardly appealed to the writers of the time, and even less to modern and post-modern readers, alien to any universal or absolute reflection on literature. Since the immortal Proust, the fashion has been for novels about the novel, for deconstructed sentences along which novelists ask themselves “whether to write the novel of the novel they will never write; whether to write that one can no longer write” (p. 796), notes Romain Debluë ironically. Tired of such chatter, readers of Barbey, Bernanos and Léon Bloy know that the works they hold in their hands possess a secret filiation, beyond the shared faith of their authors. Through a mysterious tour de force, these novels give the impression of being literature without being literature. Without in any way claiming to exhaust the question, La Chasse au Cerf (Hunting the Stag), a novel alla manera christiana by Romain Debluë, offers a welcome—because novelistic—insight into the miracle that is still a Catholic novel.

A Bildungsroman: The Conversion of a Teenager of Yesteryear

What is La Chasse au Cerf? Let’s start with the simplest: a Bildungsroman. The genre is as old as the Odyssey and as varied as Ulysses’ journeys. The masterpieces of the genre are by Goethe, Balzac and Dickens; in other words, novelists of “yesteryears” (p. 797). The novelistic genre is based on a number of propositions roundly rejected by what Debluë calls “individuals after all” (p. 16): the existence of a subject, the subject’s recognition of his or her primary ignorance, his or her desire to understand and, to this end, to be taught by another, whether a master or an event. Such is the situation of Paul Savioz, the hero of La Chasse au Cerf, at the beginning of the novel. As he reads and befriends students and teachers at the Sorbonne, the history student learns about his own ignorance (p. 76). This first discovery is accompanied by a second, without which he would have every reason to despair: the discovery of a hunger in him “whose object he [is] absolutely unaware of” (p. 118). Anxious to “structure his mind once and for all” (p. 38), the young man notes more and more each day “the presence within him of a burning desire to light his soul like a torch, in order to resist the assaults of the night; and at the same time the absence in his intelligence of the slightest kindling that would be fit to set himself ablaze” (p. 271). Hence his willingness to work and take pains to nourish what he knows, thanks to a medieval history teacher, to be a life: the “life of the mind” (p. 195). In an age when “effort is the enemy” (p. 1026), Paul Savioz is emboldened by a group of philosophy students who, like him, share a taste for truth and the “courage of intelligence” (p. 24). So far, so natural, one might say: a formative novel in which a young man intends to “humanize” himself, that is, “slowly take on human form” (p. 307), through a study that is certainly ascetic, but whose goal is only natural, and therefore attainable, beatitude.

Natural, of course, but of a nature that can no longer be taken for granted. Man’s nature must be given real consistency if he is to achieve any kind of growth. You can’t educate a ghost; you can’t sculpt anything enduring with water. But what does the deconstructed youth of today resemble, asks the novelist, if not precisely “poor specters” who “float on the surface of themselves?” “We can no longer say that they have either a good or a bad bottom: they have no bottom at all” (p. 300), writes Debluë. In this way, the characters in La Chasse au Cerf are made strangers to their time less by the answers they give than by the questions they ask, where their contemporaries have decreed in chorus: “there are no answers, therefore there must be no questions” (p. 1026). Paul Savioz is, in the words of the title of Mauriac’s last novel, an “adolescent of yesteryear.”

Debluë’s hero shares much with Mauriac’s: the same taste for books, which, says Alain Gajac, are “my whole life;” the same anger against the bourgeois, “the man who suffocates the philosopher within himself every morning” (p. 482); all of which is accompanied by numerous novelistic and stylistic correspondences: the presence of a mentor—Donzac or “Abbé Guillaume”—who guides the main character in his reflections, or the death of a child who introduces the reader to the mystery of evil; such a way of concluding a chapter, or such a reference to the last pages of Sentimental Education, which the characters would like to rewrite. Romain Debluë’s novel is undoubtedly best read in the light of Un adolescent d’autrefois (A Youth from Yesteryear, Mauriac’s last novel, translated as Maltaverne), populated with quotations from various writers—Verlaine and Bossuet in common—and reflections that, a priori, would be more at home in a philosophical treatise than in a novel. However, and this is what makes it so recognizable, the Catholic novel can allow itself such intellectual and spiritual confessions since, as a Bildungsroman, it is above all a novel of conversion.

The Christian novelist always scrutinizes a soul’s journey to God, the twists and turns that lead it to the truth of its life and the reason for its existence. Hence Romain Debluë’s metaphor of the “hunt,” borrowed from the Catholic spiritual tradition. To “think in pursuit of the Principle” (p. 371), as Paul Savioz does, is to seek God, if not to confront his angel like Jacob, or “like a hunter who at last flushes out his game, and ceases to see it as merely slipping away in front of him, in the thicket” (p. 679). The pursuit of truth, whether in creation or in one’s innermost self, might seem an infinitely proud attitude were it not for the fact that, inspired by God, man’s spiritual quest always ends in the ascent of Golgotha. Like Ahab pursuing Moby Dick, the soul that seeks God always discovers itself already sought by Him, like Adam in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:9). In this “conquest” and “vast adventure of truth” (p. 1027), man soon becomes exhausted and abandons himself to a God who never tires of wanting his good. Cowardice? Resignation? Once again, Mauriac opens us up to the authentic meaning of La Chasse, in the epigraph to the novel, or in Un adolescent d’autrefois: “as if the stag in bark were cowardly to enter the pond to escape the hounds!” (p. 112). No more than the normal philosopher converted on his deathbed from Augustine ou le maître est là, Paul Savioz has no sense of losing freedom or intelligence as he delves deeper into the Christian mystery. On the contrary, the young man knows how to “meet himself by meeting his Creator” (p. 380).

Typically, the hero of a Bildungsroman has no choice but to “knead and shape [his] own clay in order to give himself a form, but a completely different form from the forgotten one that will always remain his” (p. 138). Such is “the fatal option of those who abandon God”: “to undo or to make oneself, by dint of one’s own hands” (p. 139). And yet, thanks to his reading, Paul Savioz in La Chasse discovers “the immense territories of theology, where [he is] quite surprised to immediately find himself at ease” (p. 369). Paul gives credence to the adage that “man becomes in a certain way what he eats” (p. 370). If he is not “sure of the reality of this God of whom there [is] talk everywhere,” “the exactness of the reasoning [fascinates] him”: “all that in his head was mingling, all that was stirring, rolling in a bubbling of sparks and blazes” (p. 370). In the Christian regime, the play of intelligence encloses in itself neither fault nor merit. It is pure technicality: “The fault was not in concluding to the lights of your premises, but in not having enlightened elsewhere,” Joseph Malègue’s Augustin is heard to say. Therein lies the fault, the sin of pride: turning one’s back on the sun and refusing the light, as Debluë writes. “Man is so weak that all he has to do is close his eyes to stop believing in the light” (p. 252). There is no Pascalian humiliation of reason in La Chasse au Cerf, since “neither science is vain, nor especially metaphysics and fundamental ontology” (p. 338), but an integration of the rational into the spiritual, since there is “an active reason in faith, and in it a logic…. Disconcerted, but amazed, [Paul] discovered the rigorous arithmetic of dogma, and its inexhaustible power to provoke thought and arouse intelligence. Amazed, he experienced that belief does not require stupidity” (p. 371). The faith he receives from God and nurtures through the seven sacraments flanked by an eighth, that of Truth and Beauty, thanks to which divine grace often restores man’s nature; this faith is never fideism but, according to the Augustinian definition taken up by Saint Thomas, cogitare cum assensione, “to reason with assent.” The student then knows that “faith is a certain mode of operation of reason, no longer exercising itself on what it can understand, but turning back towards its own principle and source, by which it is understood” (p. 850).

Such an approach will seem overly intellectual to some, and the character’s metaphysical wonder at “the meaning and carnal flavor of such a simple expression: that is” (p. 605) will do little to convince less contemplative temperaments. Ne timeas, lector! La Chasse also includes lengthy meditations on the death of a child, the birth and decline of human love, the temptation of despair—all more immediately existential events. Best of all, one character gives a definition of faith that will suit the most spiritual: “You become a Catholic because you fall in love, because you discover that Truth loves you, and is Life, and that nothing will ever be the same again, neither yourself nor others, neither trees nor flowers, neither mountains nor summer skies, nor apple trees in blossom, neither friendship nor love, nor even the caress of bodies, nor even laughter and tears” (p. 338). This completeness is characteristic of the Catholic novel, which La Chasse au Cerf also teaches us is a universal and total novel.

From the Road to Thebes to the Road to Damascus: The Total Novel

Nothing is further removed from the Catholic novel than the “book about nothing” that Flaubert, in a famous phrase, called into existence: the “book that would have almost no subject, or at least where the subject would be almost invisible” (“Letter to Louise Colet,” early November 1851). One could easily be mistaken: the Catholic novel, because it deals, if not with God, at least with the coming of a man to God or the descent of God into a soul, could have been one of those books without a subject, or whose subject would be “almost invisible.” Yet, as Romain Debluë reminds us, this cannot be the case for a novel whose spiritual and literary architecture is based on the Christian creed. Insofar as he believes in the Incarnation—”the only interesting story that has ever happened,” according to Péguy—the Catholic novelist, close in this respect to the Christian philosopher, always relies on the sensible to know the intelligible, the visible to enter the realm of the invisible. The conversion of the character in La Chasse au Cerf is first and foremost a transformation of the gaze: “The invisible and the visible came together, and both made a totality whose heart sank in the direction of God, who is exactly at the center of the world, at the center of the soul and of everything around” (p. 604). A tale of conversion, the Catholic novel tells of a man’s openness to the totality of his being, to the being of things and, ultimately, to the source of being.

In this respect, novelists have not invented anything: there is already a “book about everything.” “Liber scriptus proferetur, in quo totum continetur,” we read in the Dies iræ dies illa sequence: a book will be produced in which everything will be contained. In the Christian regime, the total book is not just the Bible, named βιϐλία by antonomasia, but Jesus Christ himself, Word incarnate, who knew the human condition in all things “except sin” (Hebrews 4:15). The encyclopedic ideal of medieval scholars and theologians thus originated in the theology of the Incarnate Word. If everything is indeed understood by and in Christ, then everything is comprehensible—in an imperfect way, here below—by man who configures himself more closely to Christ who understands everything. The Catholic novel is the literary site of this configuration, both in its biblical inspirations—the meeting of Abbé Donissan and Mouchette in Under the Sun of Satan is in a sense a rewriting of the dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4)—and in its own novelistic architecture which, like the cathedrals of stone and knowledge of the High Middle Ages, always lets light penetrate to illuminate the interior of the monument: “Paul suddenly saw before him, or rather within him, the eternal landscape of human questioning, gradually bathed in a new, unsuspected light, which transfigured every valley, every peak, every plain and every forest, without altering the slightest contour” (p. 277), writes Debluë of his character. One thinks of the “mystery” encountered by Saint Paul on the road to Damascus, as opposed to the “enigma” discovered by Oedipus “on the road to Thebes” (p. 162). Saint Paul, the Pharisaical Jew turned Apostle to the Gentiles—in other words, the man whose life and teaching embrace the two great human families of the Old and New Testaments. Like the Pauline epistles, the Catholic novel aspires to the “very unique universality with which the very word ‘Catholic’ is woven” (p. 461).

Like his contemporaries at the start of the novel, Paul Savioz is prey to the dictatorship of the particular, the multiple, the subjective: “The ambition to aim for universality in certain matters would never have occurred to him; and he used his words only as a self-indulgent expression of his poverty of spirit, never exceeding the limits of point of view and sentiment, never daring to go so far as to affirm anything other than oneself and the funeral procession of one’s falsely personal preferences” (p. 184). A universe that loses its sense of the universal immediately becomes “uninhabitable,” as the poet puts it. The Catholic doctrine of creation holds that “the entire Universe manifests God, and it is not for man to exclude anything within this unifying, ordered and total revelation” (p. 247). Romain Debluë’s Aurevillian intuition: “Catholicism is vaster than the universe. It is a marvelous enlargement of intelligence and sensibility” (p. 246). Like all Catholic novels, La Chasse au Cerf is a total novel in that its author places the universe he constructs under a gaze that embraces all things: the gaze of God. Thanks to the “formidable dazzling of Catholic dogma” (p. 930) experienced by the main character, the Christian does not have to defend the truth: “it is the truth itself that saves him and keeps him” (p. 931). In the eyes of the convert, becoming a Catholic means allowing oneself to be “assimilated” (p. 453) to a doctrine or truth that, far from being totalitarian, is “totalizing” (p. 458). “Paul] did not feel diminished by having reasoned within an ample symphony begun long ago, and continued through thousands of years; on the contrary, the impression gripped him powerfully of being augmented, and enlarged, and amplified by it” (p. 667). This demand for the universality of Christianity, the mystery that includes everything and through which everything is understood, justifies the demand for the unity of the Church, a central theme in the Catholic novel, from Bloy to Mauriac, since everything that is written and read, for a Catholic, is always in and by the Church, militant, suffering and triumphant.

Universal, the Catholic novel can address the whole of mankind, because it approaches man as a creature inscribed in creation, who always recognizes this divine filiation: “adsum! I am yours. There is no other way to be, fully and truly, than to be-to. To live in the dative, to live in the light of a response to this call, of a correspondence to this summons which is our vocation: to be God’s!” (p. 1039). In so doing, the Catholic novelist radically distinguishes himself from the proponents, in literature as in philosophy, of a “humanism without God” (p. 1001). We can understand the severity of the characters in La Chasse with regard to writers like Camus, “that Bogart of self-tanning journalism, who spent his life mystifying men of letters by writing little philosophical essays, high-school caliber, and tricking philosophers by writing bad novels in a deaf-mute style” (p. 273); or Gide, the “brave Huguenot imbecile” author of “devilishly well-written rubbish” whom, like Mauriac, we “all read…)during our adolescence” (p. 661). Such novelists perpetuate the humanist ideal of the Renaissance, a time when “the attention of humanity, always looking towards divinity, began to be literally distracted—for the first time since Greece, stopped at the opacity of creatures” (p. 555).

From its first Aurevillian expression to La Chasse au Cerf, the Catholic novel offers a literary, concrete response to the creature’s misguidance, which is matched by the misguidance of literature towards the shores of art for art’s sake, or the glorification of the human as human. Hence the famous invectives of Bloy and Barbey against the literature of their time, and the often-mocking use of the term “novel” by Bernanos and Mauriac. Romain Debluë’s characters storm the ramparts of truth one by one in a siege that is as carnal as it is spiritual—philosophy, literature, music, painting, cinema and so on. For the sake of universality rather than erudition, the novelist traverses the history of art and thought, from the Primitives to contemporary art, from Virgil to Chaplin.

Since the vocation of the Catholic novel is to cast a Catholic gaze on the world, and since, in the eyes of God and the Christian, “everything that is, is considerable” (p. 247), the novelist who believes in God always returns to the steps of humanity, in the long march that leads it to its Creator and Savior, despite its wanderings on the road to Thebes. Hence the tribute paid by Romain Debluë, after some welcome literary settling of scores, to the “writers sometimes far removed from [the] faith” whom the Catholic characters in La Chasse, “neither prudish nor beguiling,” read and love (p. 460). From “the grace and glory of the Aeneid” (p. 150) to certain twentieth-century writers, Céline and Malraux, Tzara and Beckett, Paul Savioz rereads the great novelists and poets of past times with Rimbaldian conviction that “through the spirit we go to God!”

Endowed with a new light, the hero of La Chasse, for example, finds in the author of Une saison en enfer “confessions of Christianity” (p. 464) on every page. The same is true of pagan philosophy, from Plotinus to Hegel to the latest Heidegger, all present in the novel, refuted by some and defended by others, as in a lively article in the Summa of Theology. The fate of this great architecture of knowledge, which derives its balance from the one and triune God, source and summit of all creation, depends essentially on the presence or absence of the lumen fidei that illuminates the whole: “Any metaphysics that does not end in a cathedral will never be anything other than an ice palace” (p. 386).

Joy Delivered, and the Novel’s Other Realism

Neither a collection of spiritual confessions nor a treatise on theological reflection, the Catholic novel is all the more Catholic for being authentically novelistic. Traditionally, the novel, like a council, has its canons: within a defined spatio-temporal framework, a narrator relates the life or death, the acta and passa, of several flesh-and-blood characters. To qualify a novel as Catholic, it is not enough to have Rubempré enter a church, and even less to bring him to his knees at the sound of Gregorian music or the sight of a stained-glass window, as Huysmans, according to some Christian novelists, was too prone to do. It is not—first and foremost—the fact of entering Saint-Étienne-du-Mont to the sound of Bach’s passacaglia that converts Paul Savioz. Debluë’s novel, unlike those by Bloy, Barbey, Bernanos and Mauriac, is conspicuous by its absence of priests, churches and sacraments. Mass is as rarely celebrated here as In Search of Lost Time, once or twice at most. What does this tell us? First of all, in the Catholic novel, the Catholic element integrates and embraces the novelistic element. Paul’s student friend, nicknamed “l’abbé Guillaume,” a theologian like no other, embodies Catholic dogmas. He does not limit himself to professing them in Latin with a bonhomie inherited from the Grand siècle—he lives them, giving them a human face, with a “serene smile… limpid and white…. It was this smile, from which the young man’s words seemed to flow as if from an inexhaustible source, and yet far away, far beyond men and the world, suspended in the shadows like a nearby stellar light, which shone among his radiant words, and almost ended up merging with them, becoming one with the serene certainty of his words” (p. 61). Paul finds the same “immense smile” (p. 340) in the young Françoise, pious but not devout, compared to “the theme of a perpetual fugue” (p. 389) or a “metaphysical thesis” (p. 330). Elsewhere, listening to a Bach cello suite, the hero, suddenly “invaded by eternity,” has the feeling of “hearing a smile come down from heaven” (p. 715). This smile makes manifest the Christian’s joy, a recurrent theme in the Bernanosian or Mauriacian novel, which sheds light on La Chasse’s final affirmation: “God is first and foremost the possibility of joy—which is not the opposite of unhappiness, nor even of drama, nor even of suffering and sadness. Joy is simply, so simply that no one thinks about it, the azure light that alone makes all these shadows possible” (p. 1041).

A sign of inner joy, the smile demands a certainty and serenity that only the Christian faith can provide, according to the hero. The certainty provided by dogmas, “super-powerful revelators of the fundamental structures of man” and “an outpouring of clarity that falls from heaven on the darkness of humanity” (p. 586). This serenity is conferred by the doctrine of creation and, more generally, by Catholic theology, such as that of Saint Thomas Aquinas, backed by a realist philosophy that refuses to make transcendence a “desertion of immanence” and rejects the identity everywhere established between “the real and the visible” (p. 484): “Could transcendence not be rather what the vanishing point is to the perspective of a painting? That place beyond all places, which alone orders as a totality the immanence of a scene which, without it, would be the unfolding of no space at all? Then… then perhaps the invisible would be at the very center of the visible—and everything would have to be rethought!” (p. 484). This revelation that reality is neither what we see nor what we do not see, but “what we see, all vibrant and full of what we don’t see” (p. 858), is not the object of dogma, any more than is the existence of an immaterial God who creates and acts in His creation. Having found it or rediscovered it through the exercise of his intelligence, Paul has concrete experience of this Catholic doctrine of creation as imago Dei and of the human soul conceived in the image of God. Discerning God’s presence in creation, though the fruit of a quest for natural reason, requires the grace of faith, the supernatural light that enlightens all things. To miss the gift of this grace, or to lack faith, leads man into the opposite opacity and immanence: “He could no longer distinguish the light of being; and it was as if the world lost its depth and intensity: things no longer radiated, they were massive and dark, all transparency suddenly absent. No divine ray pierced them” (p. 849).

A realist novel—because it is Thomistic—in an exclusively philosophical sense, La Chasse au Cerf restores the rightful place of man in creation, of the Cross in the mystery of faith, of Christ in the history of salvation and the life of the Trinity. The Catholic novel must always fight against the temptation of humanism and fideism, of exaggerated Christocentrism and of a theology that does without glory or the Cross. The debate on Pascal in La Chasse bears witness to this. One of the characters rightly criticizes the author of the Provinciales for his narrow conception of reason and the relationship between nature and grace, his inability to think of God “in himself” or as God, and above all his doctrine of original sin, which, among other “fideist failings” (p. 208), has led to a “complete erasure of the image of God in the soul” (p. 224). In truth, “Pascal did not make Christians, he undid libertines” (p. 217). Undoubtedly, better than any other man of his time, the convert is able to turn the hearts and minds of men towards Christ on the Cross. However, the Catholic novel cannot be merely Pascalian, otherwise it would miss a considerable dimension of the Christian mystery, in which the one and triune God creates the world and man in His own image, maintains him in being and makes Himself visible in His creation. The anxiety of the Augustinian who walks in the image or vestiges of God, combined with the anguish of the Pascalian who is often at a loss when it comes to explaining his faith, contrasts sharply with the serenity of Thomism, due to an analogy of being that makes all knowledge possible, and a doctrine of participation through which nature can truly act and be perfected by grace (p. 142). This rough-and-ready fresco of Christian temperaments contains a truth that Debluë’s novel brings to light: the concrete existence of individuals depends on certain fundamental options in theology and philosophy. Undoubtedly, the Catholic novel has until now been more Augustinian and Pascalian than Thomistic; undoubtedly, Bloy’s “tender fury, and Barbey d’Aurevilly’s mystical panache” (p. 413) spring more from the apologetics of the City of God and the Pensées than from the sacra doctrina of Saint Thomas. Is this to be regretted? Only when the lack of metaphysical rigor leads to serious errors, on the subject of God’s suffering for example, where “the old romantic scythe… even made Léon Bloy’s intelligence delirious” (p. 694), for whom Saint Thomas had not sufficiently “straightened the mind” (p. 693). In fact, La Chasse shines with an offensive, glorious Catholicism—not of itself, of course, but of its dogmas. Debluë’s characters dare to speak positively of God, to affirm with serenity the truths received by revelation and rediscovered, in some cases, by reason. This certainty gives rise to a joy that some Catholic novels have tended to overlook in favor of the mystery of the Passion, the source of all joy and the stuff of sanctity, since “every sadness is only ever a crucified joy” (p. 1038).

The many pages devoted to Thomistic metaphysics in La Chasse make clear this fundamental fact of the Christian Weltanschauung: there is no life outside God, as the Psalmist put it. In Thomist parlance, all being participates in Ipsum Esse subsistens. One of Romain Debluë’s characters puts it succinctly and convincingly, pointing out that unbelievers “are gnawed by the horribly false opinion that there can be for man an essential life outside God—whereas in truth, if God is God, in losing Him, man loses the very sense of his own essence, of his own core of being; and all that remains for him, to vegetate while awaiting death, is the thinnest surface of himself” (p. 627). Hence, “in one who has no faith, all events, both internal and external to existence, seem to take place only on the surface of him… As if nothing penetrated him to the center… Perhaps because he no longer has a center” (p. 628). This is what Barbey’s “Free Thinker,” Bloy’s and also and Mauriac’s “bourgeois,” Bernanos’s “imbecile” share; this, more commonly, is the characteristic of the many men of today and who always “never commit their being, their deepest sincerity” and “live on the surface of themselves,” to borrow a phrase from Journal d’un curé de campagne. Such are the ghosts of men pursued by Céline’s clumsy heroes and Dostoyevsky’s madmen and eccentrics; such are the specters that haunt Faulkner’s South and Musil’s men without qualities, at least whose qualities are all “accidental” and “fall away from them like dead leaves, without ever reaching their intimacy of soul” (p. 628). In short, “all those who do not belong to God belong, and can only belong, to death, and for death” (p. 631); all those who do not belong to being belong, and can only belong, to nothingness. In the Catholic novel, life reclaims its rights over death, and being over nothingness, since this is the vocation of art—to make visible that which, in nature, remains enclosed and folded in on itself; to make it visible, i.e., “to give the visible back to visibility as such” (p. 543). Knowledge of God transfigures the world that atheism had disfigured, and restores to every human being a consistency that, without the work of grace, would remain limited to natural ends alone. “Horror of a world emptied of You, that no longer illuminates with any meaning or sense the eternal Word, the Reason that made Creation in measure, and harmony and weight” (p. 753).

La Chasse au Cerf is the novel of the conversion of a man who seeks to embrace reality with his eyes and discovers that he is already known and understood by the Source of this reality and of his own being. Far from disappointing him or taking away his freedom, this discovery restores to beings a density that sin and the darkness of ignorance had held captive: “The more God began to shine through in Paul’s eyes, the more the world, as it were, intensified in splendor” (p. 604). This is indeed the function of the Catholic novel, as Paul says of Bernanos’ novels—to give the feeling of a life “denser, more intense, where the colors are more vivid, the contrasts more marked—for better or for worse!” (p. 335-336). Just as, since Christ’s Resurrection, the righteous need no longer fear death or nothingness, which they know have already been conquered, so since creation and until the life of the world to come, man need fear neither the temptation of the world that is too big, nor the seduction of the world that is too beautiful: “For all these profane premises have a Christian and Catholic consequence. It’s our duty to draw it out, just as we draw out the new wine for the illumination within souls that ignore themselves, thirsting for the infinite, and gnawing like old bones at the debris of a broken world” (p. 1042).

Augustin Talbourdel: “Ridendo dicere verum quid vetat?” This article appears courtesy of PHILITT.

Featured: Vision of St. Eustace, by Pisanello; painted ca. 1436-1438.