Hello and happy summer. Last year, looking for a reading project that would sustain us through the season, we took on the first volume of Marx’s Capital together. We didn’t have any particular training in Marxist thought and even less knowledge of the history of political economy. But we figured two interested readers would find a lot to talk about in such a rich text. The result was occasionally ridiculous (sorry to those friends and family members who had to listen to us talking endlessly about “socially necessary labor time”), but more often intellectually transformative.
Our friendship has grown out of such conversations, and this summer we thought we’d share our talks with Commonweal readers. Over the next several months, we’ll be having a series of discussions about world literature and film, centered around a book from NYRB Classics—a favorite series of ours that features underappreciated work from different historical periods and different national traditions—and a movie from the Criterion Collection, another favorite series that also focuses on wildly varying works. Sometimes the film will be an adaptation of the book we’ve chosen; at other times, it’ll simply be something we thought paired nicely.
We’re hardly experts on any of these works, but that’s part of the fun of this exercise. We’re hoping that our exchanges will draw attention to some great works of art. We know that we’ll find the books and films interesting; we’re hoping that you’ll find our conversations about them interesting, too. Griffin’s mom has already been spotted in the pool reading Mouchette, our first book, so the series is bearing fruit before it even begins. Alongside this 1937 novel by Georges Bernanos, we’re viewing Robert Bresson’s 1967 film adaptation.
Please feel free to continue the conversation with us on Twitter! And, if you want to read and watch along with us, we’ll next be pairing Gillian Rose’s 1995 memoir Love’s Work with Peter Weir’s 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock.
It’s a beautiful summer day in New Haven, with the holiday just having wrapped up. So what better way to start our summer conversation series than with the anti-beach read of anti-beach reads, Georges Bernanos’s slim and devastating 1937 masterpiece Mouchette? Because nothing says it’s summertime like a novel that opens with darkness (“The dark west wind, the sea wind, was already scattering the voices in the darkness”) and that closes with “the smell of the grave itself”!
I joke, of course, but Bernanos’s compact novel really is a perfect introduction to some of the questions we’ll be thinking about together over the summer: What role can art have in the spiritual life? How can theology and aesthetics (and theological aesthetics) help us to understand our experience of suffering? Where is meaning, and where is God, in the darkness?
The plot of Mouchette can be briefly summarized. Mouchette, a poor young girl and “proper savage” from the north of France, meets a drunken, epileptic trapper named Arsène in the woods one afternoon. It’s pouring rain, and the two take shelter in Arsène’s hovel. There, Mouchette suddenly sees the man with complete love and tenderness: “Looking at his face, which she knew well, she seemed to be seeing it for the first time; or, rather, it seemed to be the first human face she had ever really looked at.” (In this and several other moments, Bernanos, amidst literal and figurative darkness, gives us a glimpse of grace’s unbidden light.) Arsène responds to Mouchette’s loving gaze by raping her. Soon after, the girl’s sickly mother dies. Humiliated, despairing, and hopeless, Mouchette drowns herself, the novel’s final vision “the insidious flow of the water along her head and neck, filling her ears with its joyful sound.”