In this third installment of our summer series, we consider the possibilities and pitfalls of belief in God with the help of two European classics: the Danish novel Havoc (1930) by Tom Kristensen and the French New Wave film My Night at Maud’s (1969) by Eric Rohmer.
Catch up on our first installment, on Italian fascism, here, and our second installment, on race in America, here. Check back in a few weeks for our final conversation, on Simone Weil’s landmark essay “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force” and Costa-Gavras’s Greek masterpiece, Z.
If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s the sordid social practice of “getting drinks.” It’s not just because I don’t drink much myself, or because I despise the dark, cacophonous locales where people typically imbibe. It’s that “getting drinks” almost always transforms people into the worst versions of themselves: they gossip, snipe, and dissimulate, performing a parody of real communion.
So imagine how I felt reading Tom Kristensen’s Havoc, first published in 1930. I confess I struggled to make it all the way through the 500 pages of this Danish cult classic, much of it set behind the thick drapes of Copenhagen’s debauched Bar des Artistes. It’s a dive, a wretched hive of scum and villainy if there ever was one: “The room was obscured in a thick blue cloud of tobacco smoke...and the sound of crackling ice came incessantly from the cocktail shaker.” What a depressing space, bleary with booze, populated mainly by balding, overweight men: “Red and glistening bald pates. Craniums with twenty white hairs, carefully parted...men and more men...only men.”
At the center of this manly swamp is the book’s anti-hero, Ole Jastrau, a young, successful Danish poet and literary critic who (at least at the start) has everything he could conceivably want. But for reasons we’re never really told, at some point his beautiful wife, Johanne, his young son, Oluf, even his spacious Copenhagen apartment and plum job as literary editor at Dagbladet (like the Danish New York Times) cease to satisfy him. Anxious, afraid, and unhappy, Jastrau wakes up one day and decides, of his own free volition, to “very quietly—and very slowly—go to the dogs.”
Kristensen’s depiction of Jastrau’s downfall is brutal and unflinching. (In his introduction, critic Morten Høi Jensen aptly describes the book as “a Danish Inferno, a tortured descent through every circle of hell—and then some!”) At various points we witness Jastrau spend the night in jail, run a character’s head through a glass door during a drunken fistfight, and sleep with a colleague’s wife in broad daylight. It’s awful, yet Kristensen somehow manages to render it compellingly, even giddily attractive. That’s partly because Jastrau’s drunken antics are often hilarious—as when, hoping to be converted instantaneously, he bangs down the door of a local Catholic church in the middle of the night. It’s locked, and the Jesuit pastor is asleep. So Jastrau jumps the fence, smashes a window, then retreats, ending up with nothing more than a “Catholic rip in his pants” before heading back to the bar—unconverted and unrepentant.
Still, it’s not all silliness, and there’s a deeper dynamic at work in Havoc too. The title comes from a verse written by Jastrau’s younger frenemy (and temporary roommate), a poet named Stefan Steffensen: “I have longed for shipwrecks / for havoc and violent death.” It’s an ode to the creative power of chaos, and as Kristensen repeatedly makes clear, for Jastrau the disintegration wrought by his drinking and carousing is tinged with the theological, providing “peace, peace” and respite from “all this emptiness.” What’s more, it’s evidence (to him, at least) of his union with Christ: “He is close to me,” Jastrau declares, “in all this havoc.”
Christ is a constant presence throughout the book, popping up in Jastrau’s evening blitzes and morning hallucinations alike. Sometimes the visions are funny, as when Jastrau glimpses his pudgy face and bloodshot eyes in a mirror and sheepishly declares “Ecce homo!” More often, though, they’re frightening, as when he awakes to find a triune “Jesuitical hydra” standing over him and spitting, the face of Christ more demon than human: “a young pale-faced man with a distinguished oval face and dark ecstatic eyes—a reproduction of one of El Greco’s idealized male figures.”
If Jaustrau is haunted by competing Christs, he’s also caught between two other rival doctrines, capitalism and communism. What these two ideologies (and their caricatured representatives in the novel, the business writer Herr Kryger and the aptly-named student revolutionary Bernhard Sanders) have in common is that both, at least for Jastrau, distort reality by simplifying it, paving the way for repression and unfreedom. Christianity, though, is otherwise, since it breaks down categories and distinctions (human-divine, secular-eternal, living-dead) and prioritizes the utter inviolability of free will. And that’s just what Jastrau’s after. His hard-won “freedom to go to the dogs” becomes a kind of spiritual practice—a path, however imperfect, to the infinite. As he puts it: “There is something I want. And when I drink, I sometimes feel for a moment I’ve captured it. Liquor is the only substitute for religion.”
It’s hard to know whether to take Jastrau seriously, since the whole book unfolds as a kind of parodic anti-hagiography, with Jastrau’s deliriums and depravities and comic exploits all mixed together in a cocktail of contradictions and ironies and double entendres. Reading the book isn’t just metaphorically “intoxicating.” Havoc’s disjointedness, and its recursiveness, actually makes you feel as though you’re drunk.
So what did you think, Tony? Maybe Jastrau’s on to something? Do you, too, want to “go to the dogs?” And how does Jaustrau’s understanding of Catholicism compare with that of Jean-Louis, the French bachelor (and devotee of Blaise Pascal) from Éric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s?
A few weeks ago, Tropical Storm Isaias left me without power for three days. The faint smell of rot coming from a fridge that I was afraid to open; the sweltering heat of my fanless apartment; the maddening sound of my neighbor’s generator running day and night: yes, I was ready to go to the dogs.
Luckily, my descent was short-lived. By contrast, what makes Havoc such a discomfiting read is the seeming endlessness of Jastrau’s journey to hell. Jastrau’s decision to go to the dogs remains a mystery, as you say, but it surely results in part from his sense of a world evacuated of beauty and meaning. He looks at existence and finds it barren: “The emptiness was audible, and the sound of the ventilator took on a symbolic significance. Emptiness. Emptiness!” Jastrau tries to fill this void with drink; drink turns out to be so much more nothingness.
Toward the novel’s end, Jastrau thinks, “It was the same thing over and over—a constant recurrence. It was hell.” In Havoc, actions recur: Jastrau gets blotto, wakes up hungover, then heads back to the bar. Images repeat and refrains do too (“Ecce homo!”; “Greetings to all good fellows from Peter Boyesen”). What a genius formal decision by Kristensen: to court boredom and disgust in an attempt to get us to feel what the unsympathetic Jastrau feels. If only the next drink would bring me to a new, better place, the drunk hopes; if only this book would display forward momentum, the reader of Havoc wishes.
In his introduction, Jensen connects this notion of eternal recurrence to Nietzsche. Also relevant is Kristensen’s fellow Dane, Søren Kierkegaard, author of the 1843 book Repetition and master of, as you put it with regards to Kristensen, “contradictions and ironies and double entendres.” Throughout his work, Kierkegaard contrasts living a life aesthetically, in which one values variety above all else (a repetition of novelty), to living a life ethically, in which one commits to certain responsibilities (a repetition of obligation), to living a life religiously, in which one turns towards God (a repetition of faith). For Kierkegaard, faith in God is an absurdity, as is Christ himself, and the believer must boldly, absurdly choose Christ anyway, again and again and again.
Havoc’s vision of religion generally and of Catholicism specifically is far from flattering. In Kierkegaard-like fashion, Kristensen subverts, even undoes, all systems and ideologies, including those of religion. The novel, like the best spiritual writing, strips things away until we are left in a space of emptiness—not the emptiness of modern life with which Jastrau began but the purgative emptiness with which he and the novels ends, a space in which something new might emerge: “Hush now! Be quiet and behave yourself, Kjaer. Do you hear?”
Kristensen’s Havoc is a Dostoevskyean novel of ideas: messy, debauched, exhausting. Éric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s (1969) is a French New Wave film of ideas: coolly and meticulously composed in black and white, committed to the beauty of ideas while at the same time aware of how life exceeds our theories of it. Havoc is filled with noise. Jazz is always playing in the background while one drunk halloos another and the city roars outside the barroom door. My Night at Maud’s is filled with talk, serious, playful, exhilarating conversation. The film’s sound is diegetic; there’s no added music to tell us how to feel or what to think. We listen with Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant) as his alarm clock rings, as his car starts up, as church bells ring, as the priest intones the consecration during Mass (we can even hear the breaking of the bread), as he discusses Pascal’s wager and the meaning of fidelity with his friend Vidal (Antoine Vitez) and Vidal’s friend and one-time lover Maud (Françoise Fabian). My Night at Maud’s attunes us, sensually and intellectually, to the sounds and sights and ideas of this particular story taking place in a provincial French town.
Here’s the story. Jean-Louis, a Catholic engineer intrigued by math and religious faith (hence the interest in Pascal), goes to church, where he sees a blonde woman played by Marie-Christine Barrault. After Mass, we follow Jean-Louis as he drives through the wintery streets of Clermont-Ferrand; in an unexpected voiceover, he declares that the woman, Françoise, will become his wife. Next, Jean-Louis runs into an old friend, a Marxist philosophy professor named Vidal. It’s Christmas, and they attend midnight Mass together. (“Every man and every woman is asked tonight to believe in a fresh, pervasive joy,” the priest declares; more homilies like this, please.) Afterwards, they visit Maud’s apartment. There, the trio discuss God (in a Kierkegaardian line, Vidal declares that “Christianity’s inherent contradictions are fascinating”), as well as love and contingency, while smoking cigarettes and lounging on and around Maud’s bed. Jean-Louis stays the night, continuing to talk about fidelity and chance, almost but not quite sleeping with the recently divorced Maud. Soon thereafter, Jean-Louis seeks out the mysterious blonde from church. They go to Mass together (I can’t remember a movie with so many lovely liturgical scenes), and Françoise tells Jean-Louis that she’s been having an affair with a married man. After so much leisurely pacing, the film’s conclusion is startling: a flash forward, a revelation, and the decision of what to do with this revelation.
The film is morally complex (it’s the third in Rohmer’s famed Six Moral Tales), and it’s intellectually elegant. There’s a freedom and inventiveness to the dialogue, especially in that bravura forty-five-minute sequence in Maud’s apartment, even while there’s aesthetic rigor in every frame. It’s a talky movie, certainly. It’s also a very Catholic film, sacramental in its attention and investment in the holiness of the material world. While Jean-Louis, Maud, and Vidal talk, they also eat and drink: “Pascal paid no attention to what he drank,” Jean-Louis complains, finding Pascal’s austere form of Christianity unappetizing. (“The Jansenists are a mournful bunch,” he says.) If Havoc tries to deconstruct things, My Night at Maud’s seeks to integrate them. The erotic leads to the religious and the religious to the erotic; ideas are sexy and sex brings with it philosophy. “The physical and the moral are inseparable,” as Jean-Louis proclaims.
What do you think about the film’s sacramental aesthetic, Griffin? And what did you make of the film’s vision of moral choice: “What counts is not one choice but an entire life”?
About My Night With Maud’s sacramentality, I wholeheartedly agree. You note the film’s attention to the Eucharist, marriage, and priesthood (“You’ll end up becoming priests,” Maud teases both Jean-Louis and Vidal). But there’s another important, if less obvious, sacrament on display here: confession and reconciliation.
In fact, I’d argue that confession (and grace, which both precedes and follows it) constitutes the structuring principle of the whole film. As you point out, Rohmer’s aesthetic choices are uncommonly rigorous: every frame, every cut is carefully planned, and nowhere more meticulously than in the long titular sequence in Maud’s apartment. After Vidal leaves Maud and Jean-Louis alone, Rohmer quietly dispenses with the steady pans and medium shots that had tracked the three characters as they moved restlessly about the space. He also abandons the standard sequencing of the “shot reverse shot,” a formal device we’d otherwise expect as a trio of characters is reduced to just two. Instead we get sustained, smoky close-ups; these often last minutes at a time, allowing us to deeply concentrate on Maud’s and Jean-Louis’s every subtle shift in posture, every minute facial expression. The result is an arresting intimacy, where their initial witticisms and petty deflections give way to real introspection about things of primal (and ultimate) importance. It feels a bit like a movie screen test, unvarnished and “confessional” in the best sense: two people, breaking with societal (and cinematic) convention in a rare moment of communion.
For that moment to happen, though, there first has to be a jump (this is French New Wave cinema after all!) which, like Pascal’s wager or Kierkegaard’s leap of faith, throws caution to the wind and begins something new. Rohmer’s single, linear interruption—Jean-Louis’s long night at Maud’s—is the opposite of the infinite, circular loop that confines Jastrau in Havoc. You rightly contrast Havoc with My Night at Maud’s, but in some ways their protagonists are quite similar: Jastrau and Jean-Louis are the same age (34), enjoy comfortable middle-class social positions, and chafe against societal convention. They also want the same thing, lives of meaning and purpose, grounded in free choice. In another life, Jean-Louis very well could have ended up in the gutter like Jastrau. He loves bars and women, and has a good deal of baggage. But he also goes to church, repeatedly, even if he doesn’t feel particularly holy. “I believe in the possibility of conversion,” Jean-Louis asserts. How different from Jastrau! Such a statement, deceptively simple, holds the key to the radical novelty, the surprising newness of life mentioned by the priest at Christmas Mass, that he experiences in the film’s final scene.
This can make My Night at Maud’s sound pious, but it’s really not. Instead the film is, as you say, Catholic, and nowhere more so than in Rohmer’s “catholic” understanding of romantic love: messy, painful, flawed, but also a sure path to God. “Every one of my affairs posed a different ethical dilemma; and each one taught me something important about morality,” Jean-Louis tells Maud. It doesn’t matter that his relationships ended or how they did; what counts is the way love has shaped him, preparing him for the marriage he ultimately chooses. Sure, Rohmer is vulnerable to feminist critiques here (it’s hardly a woman’s duty to help wayward men find God), but he’s also right about a broader point, one that should be more broadly understood by Catholics today: every human friendship and relationship, “successful” or not, is always at the same time an encounter with a loving God. Success and failure are simply the wrong categories.
In the end, I found Rohmer’s vision of human relationships and of the Catholic Church deeply consoling. The parish where Jean-Louis attends Mass—evidently energized by the liturgical and pastoral reforms of Vatican II—is a place where words actually matter, where life and faith are one. It’s ancient (they worship in a beautiful medieval Romanesque building) but also new (the priest faces the congregation and speaks French). And it’s full of young people. How different from the Catholic Church today, scandalously politicized and often, as even the Church admits, irrelevant for a growing number of young adults.
You asked about the vision of morality expressed by Jean-Louis, who holds that “what counts is not one choice, but an entire life.” I think that’s right, and for me (and I suspect for Rohmer, too), that’s what Catholicism is at its best. “Christianity is not a moral code,” the priest declares in his homily during Christmas Mass. “It’s a life.” To which I’d simply say, amen. Faith is a matter of joyful, loving relationships, of curiosity and open exploration, not rules and rigidity. I just wish more Catholics believed that.