The Devils of Loudun Page 32

Mme. Bovary came to a bad end because she imagined herself to be the kind of person she in fact was not. Perceiving that Flaubert’s heroine embodied a very widespread human tendency, Jules de Gaultier coined from her name the word ‘bovarism’ and wrote a book on the subject, which is well worth the reading. Bovarism is by no means invariably disastrous. On the contrary, the process of imagining that we are what we are not, and of acting upon this imagination, is one of the most effective mechanisms of education. The title of the most enduring of all books of Christian devotion—The Imitation of Christ—bears eloquent witness to this fact. It is by thinking and acting in any given situation, not as we would normally think and act, but rather as we imagine that we should do if we were like some other and better person, that we finally cease to be like our old selves and come, instead, to resemble our ideal model.

Sometimes, of course, the ideal is low and the chosen model more or less undesirable. But the bovaristic mechanism of imagining ourselves to be what we are not, and of thinking and acting as though that fancy were a fact, remains the same. There is, for example, a bovarism in the realm of vice—the bovarism of the good boy who conscientiously takes to drinking and whoring in order to be like some generally admired he-man or dare-devil. There is a bovarism in the field of hierarchical relationships—the bovarism of the bourgeois snob who imagines himself to be an aristocrat and tries to behave as such. There is a political bovarism—the bovarism of those who practise the imitation of Lenin or Webb or Mussolini. There is a cultural and aesthetic bovarism—the bovarism of the précieuses ridicules, the bovarism of the modern philistine who is converted overnight from the cover of the Saturday Evening Post to Picasso. And finally there is bovarism in religion—and we have at one end of the scale the saint who wholeheartedly imitates Christ, and at the other the hypocrite who tries to look like a saint in order the more effectively to pursue his own unholy ends. In the middle ground, somewhere between the two extremes of Tartufe and St. John of the Cross, there exists a third, hybrid variety of religious bovarists. These, the absurd but often touching comedians of the spiritual life, are neither consciously wicked nor resolutely holy. Their all too human desire is to make the best of both worlds. They aspire to be saved—but without going to too much trouble; they hope to be rewarded—but only for looking like heroes, only for talking like contemplatives, not for doing or being. The faith which sustains them is the illusion, half recognized as such, half earnestly believed in, that by saying “Lord, Lord” sufficiently often they will contrive, somehow or other, to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.

Without “Lord, Lord,” or some more elaborate doctrinal or devotional equivalent, the process of religious bovarization would be difficult, in some cases all but impossible. The pen is mightier than the sword in this sense: that it is by means of verbalized thought that we direct and maintain our efforts. But it is possible to make use of words as a substitute for effort, to live in a purely verbal universe and not in the given world of immediate experience. To change a vocabulary is easy; to change external circumstances or our own ingrained habits is hard and tiresome. The religious bovarist who is not prepared to undertake a wholehearted imitation of Christ contents himself with the acquisition of a new vocabulary. But a new vocabulary is not the same thing as a new environment or a new character. The letter kills, or merely leaves inert; it is the spirit, it is the reality underlying verbal signs, which gives new life. Phrases which, at their first formulation, expressed significant experiences, tend (such is the nature of human beings and their religious organizations) to become a mere jargon, a pious slang, by means of which the hypocrite disguises his conscious wickedness and the more or less harmless comedian tries to deceive himself and impress his fellows. As we should expect, Tartufe speaks and teaches others to speak the language of the sons and servants of God.

De toutes amitiés il détache mon âme,

Et je verrais mourir frère, enfants, mère et femme

Que je m’en soucierais autant que de cela.

We recognize a distorted echo of the Gospels, a parody of the Ignatian and Salesian doctrine of holy indifference. And how movingly, when at last he is unmasked, does the hypocrite confess his total depravity! All the saints have always believed themselves to be enormous sinners, and Tartufe is no exception to the rule.

Oui, mon frère, je suis un méchant, un coupable,

Un malheureux pécheur, tout plein d’iniquité.

Le plus grand scélérat qui jamais ait été.

It is the language of St. Catherine of Siena—and the language, when she remembers to speak it, of Sœur Jeanne des Anges in her Autobiography.

Even when he is making passes at Elmire, Tartufe employs the phraseology of the devout. “De vos regards divins l’ineffable douceur”—applied to God or to Christ, the words are to be found in the writing of every Christian mystic. “C’en est fait,” cries the indignant Orgon, when at last he discovers the truth,

C’en est fait, je renonce à tous les gens de bien;

J’en aurai désormais une horreur effroyable,

Et m’en vais devenir pour eux pire qu’un diable.

His more sensible brother has to give him a little lecture on semantics. Because some gens de bien are not what they seem to be, it does not follow that all are villains or comedians. Every case must be considered on its own merits.

In the course of the seventeenth century several eminent directors of souls—Cardinal Bona was one of them, the Jesuit, Father Guilloré was another—published exhaustive treatises on the problems of distinguishing false spirituality from the genuine article, mere words from living substance, fraud and phantasy from “extraordinary graces.” Subjected to tests of the kind proposed by these writers, it seems most improbable that Sœur Jeanne would for long have succeeded in ‘getting away with it.’ Unhappily, her directors were only too uncritically anxious to give her the benefit of every doubt. Sane or hysterical, but in either condition the consummate actress, Sœur Jeanne had the misfortune to be taken seriously on every occasion except, as we shall see, the one when she was doing her best to tell the plain unvarnished truth.

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