The Cold-War Christian Humanism of Francois Mauriac

Article excerpt

One would be hard-pressed to find an era more inhospitable to either Christianity or humanism than that of the nascent Cold War in France, which severely tested affirmations of both perspectives. First, and doubtless most formidable, was the challenge of history. The devastating carnage of World War II and the Nazi genocide was stamped indelibly on the minds of all who had lived through the cataclysm. Humans had given a chilling demonstration of their capacity for destruction and, in the process, shattered eighteenth- and nineteenth-century notions of perfectibility through universal enlightenment, science, and technology. In the face of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, it seemed not only ingenuous but also indecent to affirm that humanity enjoyed some special dignity or unique status.

The stark political alternatives appearing at the outset of the Cold War in 1947 also fueled an intellectual hostility to Christianity and humanism. For the French literati, the postwar ideological fault lines were simply too wide and too deep for genteel musings in the Renaissance tradition of "humanities" or the twentieth-century aestheticism consecrated by Andre Gide and La Nouvelle Revue Francaise (Sirinelli 141-49, 153-60). France's crushing defeat and humiliating occupation by the Germans had definitively discredited the witty, eclectic, skeptical yet optimistic humanism so prominent in the prewar philosophy of Alain and in the plays of Jean Giraudoux. History had trumped aesthetics: from the staunchly communist Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard, to the fiercely independent (if fellow-traveling) Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and even to those such as Albert Camus and Jean Paulhan who sought to transcend bipolar ideology, writers found themselves penning vehement editorials and arguing over the fate of collaborators and the future of a planet dominated by the Soviet Union and the United States. Francois Mauriac was no exception in addressing all these issues.

Without serving as a standard-bearer for any political group or school of thought and without elaborating any general philosophy or ideological system, Mauriac nevertheless consistently articulated a Christian humanism in approaching a wide range of subjects. Amid the intellectual disarray of a world no longer rotating around the political, cultural, and economic axes of Europe, and much less France, he continued to place human beings at the forefront. In the face of unspeakable degradations by which humans had violated every recognized standard of moral behavior and profaned all notions of dignity and worth, Mauriac persisted in affirming the individual person as the locus of value, the basis of ethics, and the focus of knowledge. Confronting the uncompromising ideological and political rivalries taking shape not only in the Cold War but also in bloody colonial conflicts, he affirmed a common, universal humanity transcending ideological allegiances, national origins, and religious creeds.

Moreover, Mauriac grounded his universal humanism in Christianity. Tzvetan Todorov has recently maintained that Christianity proves to be incompatible with a humanist perspective because it values human thought, action, and love only to the extent that they serve as stepping stones to the divine (Devoirs 226). Taking the contrary view, I shall explain how Mauriac's Christianity not only is compatible with universal humanism but also structures his portrayal of humankind's predicament in the later 1940s and early 1950s.

After receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in 1952 largely on the basis of his psychological novels, Mauriac achieved even greater notoriety through a series of highly influential press articles known as the Bloc-notes (literally "notepad"), for which he is now widely recognized as France's most distinguished editorialist of the twentieth century. My focus here is the set of editorials from the dawn of the Cold War, edited and republished in 1999 by Jean Touzot. …