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 irreverent, 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.
Est-il en notre temps rien de plus odieux,
De plus désespérant, que de n'pas croire en
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
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,
Is there in our time anything more odious
More despairing than not to believe in God?
I'd like to have the faith -rock-hard of my coalman
Who’s happy as a lark and stupid as they come
My neighbour there on high, a certain Blaise Pascal
Has kindly given me this counsel of a friend :
Get down upon your knees, pray and entreat the Lord,
Pretend that you believe and soon believe you will.
I started to pour forth, kneecaps upon the ground,
All the "Ave Marias" - all the "Our Fathers" ,
On the streets, in cafes, on the trains - upon buses,
All the De Profundis , all the morpionibus
At that very juncture, finding thrown on a tip
A cassock just my size, I dressed myself in it
And then freshly tonsured, with my guitar in hand ,
I set off on my way to the faith that redeems.
I chanced on a gaggle of strong church devotees
Thinking me some other, in chorus they told me:
Father, sing to us then some choice sacred refrain,
Some holy song in the way only you know how.
Strumming furiously the strings b‘neath my fingers ,
I intoned Le Gorille and then Putain de Toi.
Shouting “Get him the fraud, the traitor, hypocrite!"
They want me to suffer Abelard's torturous fate
I am about 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 get prime position
Among the Little Singers of the Wooden Cross
Drawn there by the noise, a charitable lady
Says to them them: “What ‘re you up to? Stop it, you wretches!
There're so many men now, who are oddly inclined
Obstinately to take Cupid, the wrong way round.
So many men deprived of their virile charms
From those who still have them, Let us not take them off! "
These forceful arguments made a great impression,
I was allowed to leave with a great ovation.
But on the path to heaven, I’ll take no further step
Faith will come on its own or it won't come at all.
I’ve never killed anyone, nor raped anyone either.
It’s a good long while since last I went a-thieving.
If a God should exist, he can see, all in all
I’m scarcely any worse than were I a believer.
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.