“The Atheist’s Mass”, a short story by Honore de Balzac was published in the year 1836. Centuries later, this short story finds its relevance today as we observe our lives entangled with the paradox of information and misinformation, belief and disbelief, structures and disruption. But unlike the assumption, this paradox is not dichotomous.
If we had to choose one word to define our age, we would choose ‘doubt’. The isolation of our experiences through hollow categorizations of sentimentality vs rationality and scientific vs religious has reduced our lives into generic binaries, laid out with biased context and for the benefit of the few. Challenging these binaries imposed on our existence, our age is trying to find the essence of humanity by navigating the grey zone where all these categorizations disperse and wherein acquired compassion finds its dominance over man-made institutions.
The short story by Balzac tells the tale of a doctor, Desplien. The oxymoronic title was the biggest reason when I chose the book from the shelf but it turned out that this prose does not address or justify one’s expectations. Instead, it serves us with a commentary that goes beyond the debate of belief and atheism. The narrative explores two kinds of relationship – between Desplien and his disciple Bianchon and his friend Bourgeat.
While with the first, he maintains his view of atheism but with the second, he takes a different turn. Exploring the complexity of human relationships, Balzac puts his protagonist in a compromising position. The paradoxical construction of the title which might trigger the curiosity of many other readers like me finds its way within the novella when Bianchon finds his atheist supervisor not only attending the mass but also organizing it.
Desplien, stricken by poverty throughout his youth is an atheist due to his scientific practice, an area that demands logic. Determined to make it into the society strewn with treachery but that doesn’t recognize poverty, he only relies on his books and practices. He cannot afford religion. At the lowest point of his life, the financial crisis hit him hard and he is not able to carry out his studies anymore:
“In Paris, when certain people see you ready to set your foot in the stirrup, some pull your coat-tails, others loosen the buckle of the strap that you may fall and crack your skull; one wrenches off your horse’s shoes, another steals your whip, and the least treacherous of them all is the man whom you see coming to fire his pistol at you point-blank.”
Enters Bourgeat, who gives up on his own dream to make sure Desplien achieves his. Tending to him like a parent, Bourgeat provides the practitioner with both financial as well as emotional support. Completely opposite in the way they conduct their lives and professions, the only thing that connects Bourgeat and Desplien is one’s empathy towards other’s crisis.
Fulfilling former’s wish of having a mass for his ‘Christian’ Dog, the doctor organizes the mass four times a year. Unaware of this fact, Bianchon, like the 19th-century society that could not view an individual beyond their adherence to the religious structure, considers Desplien as a hypocrite. Confronting him for this atypical behaviour, Bianchon seeks the reason for his supervisor’s religious leaning, to which the doctor says:
“I am like many pious men, men who appear to be profoundly religious but are quite atheistic as we are, you and I.”
In one simple sentence, Balzac establishes a strong argument: we must respect each other, even if we have a difference of beliefs and opinions. Desplien’s mass is a payback to Bourgeat’s compassion but in his effort, there is no judgement, the similar manner in which the latter did not think twice of Desplien’s ideology for lending him a helping hand.
“The Atheist’s Mass” is well-written prose that gives us yet another glimpse into Balzac’s genius. The author of critical works like “Old Man Goriot” that explores our sensibility as people, the writer has immortalized his place in the literary canon. The short story is a must-read.
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