April A-to-Z: must-read books
Under Satan’s Sun (1926)
By Georges Bernanos
In hindsight, why the hell (yes, hell; it’s appropriate here) did I unthinkingly include this book in my plan for this exercise? It was an extremely profound read but truthfully, I’m sure I didn’t understand much , or perhaps even most, of it and it is a must-read, by my accounting, only for small minorities of readers. Oh well. ‘O’ is a difficult slot to fill. We are stuck with it so, what the heck? Watch me struggle! I’m okay with that. Here goes:
Here is what I wrote on this blog in October 2007 following my first and only reading:
Under Satan’s Sun (1926) by Georges Bernanos, translated by J.C. Whitehouse. It’s very deep. I read it slowly, painstakingly, and still much of it went over my head. I believe I understand what he’s suggesting though. It concerns God, Satan and humanity and it’s clearly an honest interpretation of the divine landscape. And what it suggests is entirely shocking. Makes Da Vinci Code look like Curious George.
Now here is what I did not say (warning: spoiler alert. I have tried not to include any spoilage of—or even reference to—plot this month but Under Satan’s Sun strikes me as such an academic experience, I feel the plot is not overly relevant though this is admittedly a subjective opinion!):
Bernanos was clearly a poet of significant success in terms of grasping the human mind. He is also touted a devout Catholic and a gifted student of Catholicism. That said, Catholics, as with any tribe, religious or otherwise, cannot be expected to easily let go their claim to an esteemed member should he go astray, or otherwise evolve beyond the tribe. So where his true loyalties lay, at the time of this writing, if anywhere at all, I would not make assumptions.
It is said that one needs to thoroughly understand Catholic doctrine in order to properly grasp the intended messages in this book. That may be a perfectly valid point. Personally, I parted from Catholicism when faced with the Confirmation ritual choice at age thirteen. It is said that the meat of this book is in the question: What would happen if a proper saint appeared in the post-modern era? I don’t remember connecting much to that idea.
What totally intrigued me was my perception that the very basic nature of “God” and “Satan” were being called into question. And I admit: Perhaps Bernanos meant nothing of the sort. Or perhaps he meant precisely that but without expecting anyone to necessarily get it. For I’m reminded of this painting by Michael Pacher (c1975) which was recently pointed out to me by a young associate who was intrigued by the funny idea of a face on one’s bum. I was instead intrigued that the image garnered endless internet comments from Christians who were delighted that dumb ol’ Satan had been tricked into holding the Bishop’s (or whatever his rank is) scriptures for him. I find that point of view adorable and would bet any money the painter intended nothing remotely so goofy as that, regardless what currently-approved version of a Christian story might actually support that scenario. No. When I look at this painting I see something far more sinister going on; something far more worth painting. My point is: tribal addiction invites a conceit which blinds us to all but what we wish to see, no matter how lame.
I believe Satan’s Sun was written with much subtlety in the storytelling but with none in the writing. It is written fully in the tell style, not show, and rightfully so as the greatest usefulness lies in Bernanos’ exploration of the mind. Thus he leads us directly in to the consciousness of the character. There is simply great stuff for the reader to explore this way.
I suggest that this is a must-read for those with a fascination for the human mind or for Christian theory or for the concept of a superpower, or superpowers in the universe, divine or otherwise.
Some passages which were of magnificent comfort and consolidation to me:
No one ever discovers the depths of his own loneliness.
The human mind is constantly varying the shape and curve of its wings, attacking the air from every angle, from positive to negative, and yet never learns how to fly.
The simplest emotions are born and grow in impenetrable darkness, attracting and repelling each other like thunderclouds in accordance with secret affinities. All we see on the surface of the darkness is the brief flashes of the inaccessible storm. That's why the best psychological hypothesis can perhaps throw some light on the past but can never tell us what the future may hold. And, like many other conjectures, they merely hide a mystery that our minds find intolerable even to contemplate.
Will each of us, if he turns his head, see behind him his shadow, his double, the beast that resembles him, silently watching him?
And he also knew what man really is: a grown up child, full of vice and boredom.
What does the truth matter? Haven't we mothers all given our sons a taste for lies? Lies which from the cradle upwards lull them, reassure them, send them to sleep.
For the first time he contemplated, lovelessly but with pity, the lamentable human flock, born to graze and die.