Thursday, 3 April 2014

Le mécréant - The non-believer, Georges Brassens, tests Blaise Pascal's thesis

In this song, Brassens purports to tell what happened to him when he assiduously adopted the Christian lifestyle that Blaise Pascal, in the 17th century, recommended to a friend, a Sceptic, whom he hoped to save from eternal damnation.  Brassens is typically Irreverential, but his well-informed interest in Pascal’s ideas, suggests that he felt admiration for the great man, who, though dead three hundred years before, is still his neighbour upstairs (line 5).

In a recent poll carried out among devoted Brassens fans, this song emerged as a top favourite.




Le mécréant

Est-il en notre temps rien de plus odieux,
De plus désespérant, que de n'pas croire en Dieu ?
J'voudrais avoir la foi, la foi d'mon charbonnier(1),
Qui est heureux comme un pape et con comme un panier.
Mon voisin du dessus, un certain Blais' Pascal (2),
M'a gentiment donné ce conseil amical :
Mettez-vous à genoux, priez et implorez,

Faites semblant de croire, et bientôt vous croirez.(3)
J'me mis à débiter, les rotules à terre,
Tous les Ave Maria, tous les Pater Noster,
Dans les ru's, les cafés, les trains, les autobus,
Tous les De Profundis(4), tous les morpionibus..(5).
Sur ces entrefait's-là(6), trouvant dans les orties(7)
Un' soutane à ma taille, je m'en suis travesti
Et, tonsuré de frais, ma guitare à la main,
Vers la foi salvatrice, je me mis en chemin.


J' tombai sur un boisseau(8) d'punais's de sacristie(9),
Me prenant pour un autre(10), en choeur, elles m'ont dit :
Mon père, chantez-nous donc quelque refrain sacré,
 Quelque sainte chanson dont vous avez l' secret ! (11)
Grattant avec ferveur les cordes sous mes doigts,
J'entonnai Le Gorille avec Putain De Toi (12).
Criant à l'imposteur, au traître, au papelard,
Ells veul'nt me fair' subir le supplic' d'Abélard(13),
Je vais grossir les rangs des muets du sérail,(14)
Les bell's ne viendront plus se pendre à mon poitrail,
Grâce à ma voix coupée j'aurai la plac' de choix

Au milieu des Petits Chanteurs à la Croix d'Bois.

Attirée par le bruit, un' dam' de charité (15)
Leur dit :"Que faites-vous? malheureus's, arrêtez !

Y'a tant d'hommes aujourd'hui qui ont un penchant pervers
À prendre obstinément Cupidon à l'envers, (16)
Tant d'hommes dépourvus de leurs virils appas,
À ceux qui en ont encor' ne les enlevons pas !"


Ces arguments massues (17) firent une grosse impression,
On me laissa partir avec des ovations.
Mais, su' l' chemin du ciel, je n' ferai plus un pas,

La foi viendra d'ell'-même ou ell' ne viendra pas.

Je n'ai jamais tué, jamais violé non plus,
Y'a déjà quelque temps que je ne vole plus,(18)
Si l'Éternel existe, en fin de compte, il voit
Qu' je m' conduis guèr' plus mal que si j'avais la foi.

1960 - Le mécréant,

The non-believer

Is there in our time anything more odious
Bringing more despair than not to believe in God?
I'd like to have the faith, the faith of my coalman 
Who’s happy as a pope and is daft as a brush.

My neighbour up above, a certain Blaise Pascal
Has kindly given me this friendly advice :
Get down upon your knees , pray and entreat the Lord,
Act as if you believe and soon you’ll be b’lieving.

I began to reel off, kneecaps down on the ground
All the "Ave Marias" and all the "Our Fathers" ,
In the streets, the cafes, on trains  and on buses,
All the De Profundis , all  the morpionibus

At this same point in time, finding left discarded
A cassock in my size , I changed my persona
With tonsure new-shaven my guitar in my hand ,
T'wards the faith that redeems I set forth on my way.

I bumped into a bunch of   zealot churchgoers.

Thinking me some-one else, in one voice they told me:
O Father, sing to us please some sacred refrain,


Some holy song of which you alone have the knack!
Feverishly strumming the strings neath my fingers ,
I intoned Le Gorille and then Putain de Toi .
Shouting "Get the traitor,  impostor,  hypocrite!"
They’re wanting to make me suffer Abelard's  fate.
I'm going to swell the ranks of harem eunochs.
No more will fair maidens come cling to my bosom,
Thanks to my high-pitched voice, I will be centre stage
Amidst the Little Singers of the Wooden Cross .

Attracted by the noise, a good-hearted lady
Tells them: “What’s that you are doing?  Stop, you wretches!

There’re so many men now, perversely inclined

To obstinately take Cupid, turned back to front.
So many men deprived of all their virile charms.
From those who still have them, don’t let us cut them off ! "

These forceful arguments made a great impression,

They let me go away with rousing ovations.
But along heaven’s path, I’ll take not one step more
Faith will come by itself or it won't come at all.

I have not killed ever nor ever have I raped.
It’s already quite a while since I went thieving.
If the eternal exists, he sees,  in the end,
I hardly act worse than if I were a b’liever.



LE MÉCRÉANT TRANSLATION NOTES


1)      la foi d'mon charbonnier – coalmen had the traditional image of simple, primitive folk – originally they were charcoal burners away for long periods in the forests. Thus there are sayings such as: “Charbonnier est maître chez soi” – even the most humble is free to do as they wish in their own home.

2)        un certain Blais' Pascal  - Blaise Pascal (1623 -1662) was an outstanding French intellectual who made important contributions to mathematics and physics..  Later he became a convinced Christian and tried to use the logic of his scientific background to show why anyone should seek to live a Christian life.  In this poem, Brassens is putting Pascal’s proposals to the test in his own life.  I will look at these arguments in more detail in supplementary notes on Pascal at the end of this post.

3)      Faites semblant de croire, et bientôt vous croirez. – This line is a direct reference to what is now known as “Pascal’s wager” – in French “Le pari de Pascal “.  He made the claim that belief is logically justified because: Si Dieu n’existe pas, on ne perdra rien à croire à lui, alors que s’il existe, on perdra tout en n’y croyant pas.”

4)      Tous les De Profundis – This is a very appropriate text for Brassens to use as he begins to test the efficacy of prayer. “De Profundis” are the first words of psalm 130, which in the King James’s version reads:  “Out of the depths, have I cried unto thee, O Lord- Lord, hear my voice; let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.”

5)      tous les morpionibus.. – In contrast with (4) above, this is a totally inappropriate text for Brassens to use as a prayer.  In spite of the apparently Latin title, it is an excruciatingly obscene song.  I looked it up on the Web to find two lines to quote in contrast with the psalm above but found it too revolting.  “De Profundis Morpionibus” appeared in 1864 and the words were written by the famous poet, Théophile Gautier (1811 – 1872), who had been promised anonymity when it was published.  It was sung to a funeral march, written for an eminent contemporary.

6)      Sur ces entrefait's-là –«  Sur ces entrefaites-là » is a phrase that means « At that moment/ Meanwhile »

7)      trouvant dans les orties – Une ortie is a stinging nettle and jeter quelque chose dans les orties means to throw something  unceremoniously away.  As a cassock has been discarded there is an implication that some cleric had, voluntarily or otherwise, declined Pascal’s wager -see below.

8)      un boisseau – this is an old measure of dry materials and the English translation is a bushel- equal to about ten litres.

9)      d'punais's de sacristie – une punaise is a bug/ drawing pin.  Une sacristie is a sacristy/ vestry.  However une punaise de sacristie is an idiom which my dictionarry tells me means some-one too attached to religion/ a bigot.

10)   Me prenant pour un autre – The cleric with whom he imagines being confused with his new identity is probably the singing cleric, le Père Duval for whom Brassens had the nickname of « La calotte chantante ».  Brassens describes Duval’s very human extra- curricular activities in “Les Trompettes de laRenommée”.  In the 1950s several popular music hall acts emerged with a predominantly religious appeal and , sometimes shared the stage with him.  Later in the poem, Brassens mentions “Les Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Bois”, a children’s choir popular in the 1950s, 1960s and beyond.  They brought an audience different in taste from that of Brassens and it is possible that he felt some irritation.

11)   chanson dont vous avez l' secret  - When in English we congratulate some-one by saying « You really have the secret of doing or making something », there is no idea of secrecy but of doing things particularly well.  It is the same with “Vous en avez le secret” in French.

12)   J'entonnai Le Gorille avec Putain De Toi – These two songs would have had a moral content.  The first is a protest against the horror of capital punishment.  The second expresses indignation about sexual deceit and betrayal.  However the frank realism  of the two songs would cause offense to the narrowly religious.

13)   le supplic' d'Abélard - The love affair of the 12th century philosopher and theologian, Abélard and his student Héloise is one of history’s most passionate and romantic true love stories. We are told that  Héloise (1101-1164) was quite beautiful and was outstanding for her learning.  She fell in love with her much older tutor, Pierre Abélard (1079- 1142) and they became lovers. She bore him a child. Unfortunately, Héloise (1101-1164) was the beloved niece of an important cleric, Canon Fulbert.  He and the rest of her family strongly disapproved of the affair. It is suspected that Canon Fulbert paid some men to attack and castrate Abélard. After this mutilation, Abélard became a monk. The correspondence of the lovers has survived for posterity.  Brassens is no doubt suggesting that the righteous anger of religious zealots has always been capable of such extreme brutality.

4)   muets du sérail  - Brassens says flippantly that if the indignant crowd had castrated him, he would have been eligible to join the guard of eunuchs, who according to the history of the Ottoman Empire, were the only men permitted to come near the women in the harem of the Sultan.  Some of these eunuchs had also had their tongues removed so that they could not tell of the acts of strangulation on potential contenders for the Sultanate they had been required to perform.

15)   un' dam' de charité – This lady bravely speaks up for a man being brutally attacked by group of men.  She would seem to have charity in the sense of love for fellow creatures in need.  Some commentators refer to a Catholic organisation “Les Dames de Charité”, but Brassens does not use capitals.  I would have liked to convey the idea of a very proper lady to retain the humour of the incongruity of the grounds for her arguments against the castration - the wilful reduction of the provision of female sexual satisfaction!

16)   un penchant pervers à prendre obstinément Cupidon à l'envers -   These words are in inverted commas and are therefore those of the charitable lady.  Many commentators conclude that the lady and possibly Brassens was homophobic.  In mitigation, they point out that in 1960, when this song appeared, it was not yet politically incorrect to express hostility to same-sex love.  However, we should perhaps not be too ready to see these words as homophobic on Brassens’ part.  Living in the world of theatre, Brassens was constantly in the society of homosexuals and we have little evidence elsewhere that he felt such hostility.   More positive commentators say that we should not see any judgemental element in these words but recognise that Brassens is fulfilling his usual role as an observer of contemporary society.

17)   Ces arguments massues  -   Une massue is a club, i.e. the weapon of ancient man. Un argument massue = an overwhelmingly persuasive argument .

18)   Y'a déjà quelque temps que je ne vole plus – In 1939, when he was seventeen, Brassens got into bad company in his hometown of Sète.  He was convicted of theft and this caused great disgrace and upheaval in his life. See the full story at “Thestory of Georges Brassens and his Jeanne”.    

                                             
THE RELIGIOUS IDEAS OF PASCAL TO WHICH BRASSENS REFERS


The ideas of Pascal that Brassens is referring to in this song are found in one of the longer fragments of his “Pensées” that is often known as Pascal’s wager: “Le Pari de Pascal”.

Pascal maintains that it is not possible to prove the existence of God by rational means.  However, influenced by his years of research into probability theory in the sciences, he thought it useful to examine outcomes to be expected for persons who accepted to live the Christian life and for persons who declined.  He presented these alternatives as a wager that we are invited to make. All the same. Pascal believed that there was only one logical choice. 

His argument for making this religious wager runs as follows:

Accepting that no satisfactory evidence is available, the expected value of a belief in God is vastly greater than non-belief.  This is because, if one believes and commits oneself to a true Christian life  and it turns out that God really does exist, then the outcome for you is enormous good with the prospect of eternal life.  Yet if it turns out that God does not exist, you have lost little if anything.  Thus it is a matter of pure logic to adopt a belief in God and to live the way of life that goes with it.  Pascal therefore invites his libertine friends to place their bets on the existence of God.

His argument that religious conviction is  achieved after adopting a Christian way of life.

In his poem, Brassens says “Act as if you believe and soon you’re a believer - and Pascal said just that! The following explanation consists largely of sentences from Pascal's "Pensées"
  
Pascal recommended habit as a more effective path to salvation than the exercise of human thought.  Whereas intellectual proof  convinces only the mind, habitually leading a Christian life allows us to achieve the strongest and rawest conviction.  The explanation is that man is not only a mind but he is also an automaton and the discipline that comes through the machine removes the need for the confirmation given by reason.  Pascal asks what will happen to you once you have taken the decision to take the steps along this pathway and he gives his own reply that you will be faithful, decent, humble, grateful, beneficent, sincere and true. Thanks to the experience of the new life and the religious observance that you have adopted, you will rise up from the level of intelligence to a new order which is that of the heart.  This move will involve your growing closer to God.  Finally, through the transcendence of the heart and of love, the the ultimate conviction of the existence of God is achieved.

The highly intellectual Pascal was a very sincere Christian, whose belief, as he showed above, came from personal intuition rather than  from reasoning. It was a faith that he absolutely needed to cope with the trials of his life.  Pascal was permanently disabled from the age of eighteen and never passed a day without pain.  He was able to maintain the quality of his life with the help of the warm love of family and friends.  Had he lived a few years longer, his faith would have been cruelly tested by the destructive autocracy of Church and State.  I describe this in my biography of Pascal, the link to which I will be posting later.

Click here to return to the alphabetical list of the 75 songs in my collection.
 








Sunday, 1 December 2013

Pénélope -liberation of a woman alone


In this song, the “Penelope” mainly in Brassens’ mind is not the virtuous wife of Ulysses in the legend but the middle class wife, trapped by a rigid social code in a marriage gone stale.  Brassens suspects however that she might, on the quiet, get private relief through the sensual flights of imagination, often involuntary, which must occur to her.   These are able to give her an exhilarating freedom and offer her consolation away from the control of anyone else.  The theme is much the same as that in “Fernande” and as it is the female version, perhaps the great singer Barbara can best convey its undertones.









Penelope(1) 


Toi, l'épouse modèle, le grillon du foyer(2),
Toi, qui n'as point d'accrocs dans ta rob' de mariée,
Toi, l'intraitable Pénélope,
En suivant ton petit bonhomme de bonheur(3),
Ne berces-tu jamais en tout bien tout honneur
De jolies pensées interlopes(4)?
De jolies pensées interlopes...
 
Derrière tes rideaux, dans ton juste milieu(5),
En attendant l'retour d'un Ulyss' de banlieue,
Penchée sur tes travaux de toile(6),
Les soirs de vague à l'âme et de mélancolie
N'as tu jamais en rêve au ciel d'un autre lit
Compté de nouvelles étoiles(7)?
Compté de nouvelles étoiles...

N'as-tu jamais encore appelé de tes voeux
L'amourette qui passe, qui vous prend aux cheveux ?
Qui vous conte des bagatelles,
Qui met la marguerite au jardin potager(8),
La pomme défendue aux branches du verger,
Et le désordre à vos dentelles?
Et le désordre à vos dentelles...

N'as-tu jamais souhaité de revoir en chemin
Cet ange, ce démon, qui, son arc à la main,
Décoche des flèches malignes,
Qui rend leur chair de femme aux plus froides statues,
Les bascul' de leur socle, bouscule leur vertu,
Arrache leur feuille de vigne(9)?
Arrache leur feuille de vigne...

N'aie crainte que le Ciel ne t'en tienne rigueur,
Il n'y a vraiment pas là de quoi fouetter un cœur(10)
Qui bat la campagne et galope (10)!
C'est la faute commune et le péché véniel(11),
C'est la face cachée de la lune de miel(12)
Et la rançon de Pénélope,

Et la rançon de Pénélope.


You the model wife, domestic paragon,
You who have no flaws at all in your bridal gown
You, the intractable Penelope,
At your little fellow’s beck and call
Don’t you ever cradle in all honesty
Some pretty thoughts that just sneak in

Some pretty thoughts that just sneak in

Behind your curtains in your so correct world,
Waiting for suburban Ulysses’ return,
While engrossed in your needlework,
On evenings of emptiness and brooding
Have you ever, in dreams, on top a different bed
Counted stars quite novel to you?
Counted stars quite novel to you?
 
Have you never called out to the object of
Your desires, who chances by, grabs you by the hair?
Who comes out with all kinds of talk,
Who puts the wild daisy in the kitchen garden,
Puts the forbidden fruit onto  the orchard boughs
And gets your lace garments in a tangle
And gets your lace garments in a tangle

Have you never wished to bump into again
That angel, that demon, who his bow in hand,
Fires some cunning arrows
Which restore female flesh to coldest of statues
Rock them from their pedestal, topple their virtue,
Snatch away their figleaf’s cover?
Snatch away their figleaf’s cover?

Have no fear that heaven might punish you for it
There’s nothing in that to torment a heart
Prone to the silliest of frights
It’s just common error and mere venial sin
It’s the hidden side of the honeyed moon
And Penelope’s ransom

And Penelope’s ransom



Georges Brassens - 1960 - Le mécréant

Translation notes

 
1)      Pénélope – In greek mythology, Penelope is the wife of Odyseus (Ulysses in the Latin legend). After his victory in Troy, Ulysses’s journey home was constantly delayed and other men assuming his death, courted Penelope.  She resisted all pressure and remained faithful to Ulysses.  She has become the symbol of the ever-faithful wife.

2)       Grillon du foyer –The tiny chimney cricket lived in the ash of the wide chimneys of olden times  its chirping was believed to be a sign of good luck and happiness in that household. The perfect wife in the poem is the representation of the same.

3)      En suivant ton petit bonhomme de bonheur,  This phrase tells us that she was happy to take a subservient role letting her husband take the lead.

4)      De jolies pensées interlopes? – Interlope comes from the English word « interloper”, which is some-one who enters secretly, illicitly and is unwelcome

5)       Juste milieu.  There could be two meanings for milieu.  Firstly it could mean her sense of moderation.  I have chosen a second meaning of «  le milieu social ».  The setting is behind the discreetly closed curtains of a middle class suburban home.

6)       Penchée sur tes travaux de toile – In the 1930s and 1940s, conscientious wives would spend a lot of time sewing, repairing and making clothes and furnishings.  The relevance to Penelope is that she made her sewing an excuse for refusing the proposals of her many suitors, saying that she had first to complete the sewing othe shroud she was making for her elderly father-in- law- and she was careful to make very slow progress

7)      Compté de nouvelles étoiles?  Compter les étoiles – In the dictionary,  le Littré, we read that «  Compter les étoiles » means to waste your time on an unprodutive remote task.   In this poem, the stars were on the canopy over the bed that she shared with her husband and her conventional sexual routine was performed lying on her back looking up, counting the stars and paying little attention to what was happening to her down below. 

8)      Qui met la marguerite au jardin potager, - In his song « La non-demande en mariage », Brassens once again associates the daisy and domestic life:
A aucun prix moi je ne veux
Effeuiller dans le pot-au-feu la marguerite.
The daisy is the symbol of love and the vegetable garden is the symbol of domesticity and the home.  The context of both poems is extramarital relationship.

9)      Arrache leur feuille de vigne? – In English we talk of the fig-leaves and in French of the vine-leaves, which were superimposed on works of art out of prudery. 

10)  Here we have a contraction of two expressions (a): "il n'y a pas de quoi fouetter un chat" to say that it is something of no great importance et "un esprit qui bat la campagne" to give the impression of some-one who gets misled by unreasonable arguments.

11)  C'est la faute commune et le péché véniel, - These are sins as defined in the Catholic Church, which teaches that people who die while burdened with mortal sin will be sent to burn forever in Hell.    This could leave a discontented housewife regarding boredom as a better choice,  However, as Brassens advises, this is an irrational fear, To create naughty fantasies in the mind, with no intention of actual deeds with another person are classed by the Church as « Sins of the mind ». It would seem that these are normally treated as venial sins, which implies excusable sins.

12)   C'est la face cachée de la lune de miel – I am not sure whether, in English, we have any picture of an actual moon when we talk about the honeymoon.   In French there seems to be an awareness of moon + honey, so that Brassens can make this image of the visible side of the moon and the dark side of the moon, representing our public lives and the private lives of our thoughts and imaginings. It cannot surprise us that Brassens, the great libertarian is making the case, in this song, that prisoners of circumstance, symbolised by Penelope, should be allowed to soar totally free in their personal space.

Footnote - from the newspapers


In the week when I was translating this poem, a survey was published, which stated  that couples in relationships had less sex than couples used to have 20 years ago.  The Times columnist, Janice Turner, in her article on November 28th 2013, commented on these findings, and in her last paragraph suggested an explanation of private sex that seemed to be relevant to this poem.  She wrote:

Modern couples are exhausted, working on their laptops and smart phones, claims the study. Or maybe with their shiny devices, high-speed broadband and websites for the most specialised peccadillos, they have sex, just on their own.

A Times photo of Janice Turner



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About Me

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Notes on the classics of French literature. During my years of teaching, I wrote thousands of pages for my students. Preferring not to discard all these years of work, I am posting them on the Internet as a resource for teachers and students and I am using my blogsite as the portal in order to give access to the individual books. During my university course, I was an Assistant for one year in Arras and my nostalgia for Georges Brassens stems from these happy days- now long gone- when his songs were first being recorded and he was all the rage among the student surveillants. When I opened this Blogsite many years ago, I used David Barfield, my maternal family name, as my Internet alias. My actual name is David Yendley and if any of my past students come across this site, I send them my best wishes. They were great company to be with.