Representation of the Divine: God and Satan as Fantastic Characters in the Modern Novel

By Loddegaard, Anne | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Representation of the Divine: God and Satan as Fantastic Characters in the Modern Novel


Loddegaard, Anne, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Introduction

Georges Bernanos' first novel Under Satan's Sun (Sous le soleil de Satan) from 1926 contains a twenty-page fantastic episode: on his way to a neighbouring village a young priest, Donissan, meets a local horse dealer. As night falls, his nocturnal fellow traveller reveals himself to be Satan, and in the subsequent terrible combat against the Devil, God himself is also present, invisible, but definitely there. This fantastic episode is surprising, first because the popular genre of the fantastic may seem strangely out of place in a novel by Bernanos, whose serious works, extensively drawing on Catholic theology, belong to the combat literature of the Catholic Revival movement in France. (1) Secondly, it is important to underline the novelty of this direct representation of the supernatural in the Catholic novel which, as a genre, is deeply rooted in realism. The first novelists of the Catholic Revival, such as Karl-Joris Huysmans and Leon Bloy, as well as interwar Catholic novelists like Francois Mauriac and Graham Greene, shun the incarnation in concrete space and time of God or Satan. Maintaining a realistic, non-magical world, Catholic fiction dealt with God and Satan in the form of discourse as abstract, theological concepts and spiritual phenomena which can be talked or thought about by narrators or characters, but never be represented directly. Divine intervention in the universe of these novels is indirectly represented as signs, interpreted as such by the Church.

The goal of this paper is to show that in spite of the above-mentioned departures from the conventions of the genre, the fantastic Satan episode in Under Satan's Sun is neither a break with the seriousness nor with the realism of the Catholic novel because Bernanos uses the traditional fantastic tale in quite unprecedented ways. In Introduction a la litterature fantastique, Tzvetan Todorov defines the traditional fantastic tale of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the following way. The beginning of the tale baffles the readers by playing on their hesitation between two options in that, "the text obliges the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of real people and to hesitate between a natural explanation and a supernatural explanation of the described events". (2) Todorov categorises the natural, rational explanation, such as illusions, dreams, or madness, as the strange, while the supernatural explanation, i.e. events taking place in a magic world, is classified as the marvellous. At the end of the fantastic narrative the reader's hesitation comes to an end when the narrator either chooses the rational explanation (the fantastic-strange) typical of the gothic tale, or the supernatural explanation (the fantastic-marvellous) typical of the fairytale. (3)

My analysis shows that the beginning of the Satan episode follows Todorov's definition, as it plays on the reader's hesitation between the strange and the marvellous. But concerning the choice of final explanation I show that Bernanos chooses neither of the two Todorovian explanations, which indeed are incompatible with the genre of the Catholic novel. The fantastic-strange explanation does not fit because it denies the existence of the supernatural while the fantastic-marvellous one does not apply because a magic fairytale universe breaks with the realism of the Catholic novel. Instead Bernanos invents a new category of the fantastic which is a synthesis of the strange and the supernatural. This new fantastic mode is simultaneously Christian and realistic, as it maintains the existence of the supernatural and locates the supernatural forces within the human mind.

What is the point of writing in the fantastic mode in a solemn Catholic novel? In the secular world of the 1920s the Catholic novelist can no longer presuppose reader responsiveness to abstract theological language, and I argue that Bernanos' choice of the fantastic mode is a rhetorical strategy (4) addressed to modern readers.

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