Saturday, October 04, 2014

Loss of faith

This 1913 novel by Roger Martin du Gard may come across today as a somewhat curious project, a book that is not only a "novel of ideas" in the sense of being about ideas or structured around ideas but which in fact is largely composed of discussions of those ideas. The period is the late 1890s and early 1900s, a time of open conflict in France between the forces of traditional authority, both clerical and secular, and a vigorous positivism bolstered by scientific advances and by the undermining of religious faith by scholarly criticism. The book consists in large part of responses to that conflict, particularly as viewed through the life of the title character, who inherits both the scientific outlook of his physician father and the pious Catholicism of his mother. In the course of his own intellectual development, the young Jean comes to question and eventually to wholeheartedly reject Catholic teachings; his militant public atheism provokes a breach with his wife, Cécile, with whom he separates brutally shortly after the birth of their daughter. Barois becomes the editor of a prominent freethinking journal, Le Semeur, and is caught up in the Dreyfus Affair, during which he vigorously denounces the decisions of the military courts; later, as his health declines, he is overcome with existential horror at the thought of death and finally relapses into Catholicism. His daughter, whom he does not see again until she turns eighteen, becomes a nun, in part, it is suggested, to ransom her father's soul.

Martin du Gard was not religious, but for the most part he is too scrupulous both as a scholar and as a novelist to openly take sides. A broad range of views are put forward, each of them plausibly articulated, from the uncompromising materialism of Barois's middle years to his daughter's unshakable piety in the face of objections posed by science and reason ("Mais, père, si ma certitude était à la merci des objections ce ne serait plus une certitude..."). Ironies and subtleties abound. Barois, devastated by illness and personal estrangements, reverts to Catholicism; a steadfast friend and collaborator, Marc-Élie Luce, dies serenely an atheist, surrounded by his large and loving family. The priest who guides Barois in his return to faith, secretly troubled in his own convictions, is a longtime admiring reader of Le Semeur who, at the end of the novel, stands by as Cécile burns a document, penned years earlier, in which Barois, foreseeing the possibility of a deathbed conversion, had explicitly denounced it in advance. As the pages burn, the priest thinks of the Church, which had eased Barois's last days, and to which, he concludes uneasily, this sacrifice is due "— peut-être."

Jean Barois looks back at the Dreyfus era, but also prophetically ahead to the debacles of twentieth-century Europe. Before his final return to faith, Barois, like his allies, looks confidently forward to an age in which scientific progress would solve not only medical and technical problems but social ones as well. Martin du Gard foresaw that even as the disappointment of those expectations would lead some, like Barois, to reach for the familiar emotional comforts of faith, it would lead others — notably two young Catholic nationalists who debate with Barois near the end of the book — to an irrational politics that arguably prefigures Fascism. Some, like Luce, face the void bravely and with eyes open; others spiral into despair. One hundred years later the terms of the debate are very different, but the stakes remain the same.

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