Pierre Loti was a highly acclaimed French author and member of the French Academy in the last years of the 19th century. He and I have at least one thing in common (it is not literary talent) : outsiders to the Basque Country, we both fell in love with it. Loti’s major novel, “Ramuntcho”, is proof enough of his Bascophilia. The quotation below is not untypical of the enchanting beauty of his prose, but also of the insights that sometimes surface in his account of the simple pleasures of life in this terrestrial paradise which straddles the French-Spanish border. But first a word on its context.
The novel’s hero, Ramuntcho (Basque for “Raymond”) was eighteen, his fiancée (!), Gracieuse, fifteen. He devoted his life to her and to two of the favorite activities of Basque peasants : the game of Chistera and the profession (much admired by Loti) of smuggling. The region’s signature sport continues to be not only spectacular entertainment for spectators like me but an opportunity for its champions with an international career to achieve quasi-deification and even considerable financial prosperity. The young Ramuntcho, with the makings of a champion, was, for the moment, content to earn his living smuggling goods of every description either by foot across the mountains or by boat across the Bidassoa, the river that separates France and Spain.
Ramuntcho had just spent the latter part of the afternoon on the village’s Chistera court, proud of the admiration of the spectators, especially that of Gracieuse, for the prowess he displayed. The setting of the sun brought an end to a perfect day, and occasioned this reflection of the author :
“Who will say why there are on earth the evenings of Spring, such lovely eyes to contemplate, the smiles of the young girls, the bursts of perfume the gardens offer us as the nights of April fall, and all this delicious beauty of life – since all of this is destined to end with separations, decrepitude and death …” (“Traduttore traditore”).
Loti had another trait in common with me : he was an atheist. I would say almost a disappointed atheist. He would so much have preferred to be able to believe, to answer, for example, his own question with the believer’s affirmation that death is not an end but a beginning. I believe I can understand his disappointment. It is, after all, pretty absurd that we and everyone and everything around us are condemned to death. It does not make sense. Surely the God who is said to have created us meant us to live forever (Genesis says this was in fact His original intention, until we blew it), to enjoy eternally moments like Ramuntcho’s post-match euphoria. Pascal’s wager may not be so stupid after all.
Atheists can only express regret that wishful thinking won’t make heaven happen. We come into existence thanks to an astronomically improbable fluke. For better or for worse, we get to live and either to enjoy life or to suffer pain and misfortune, or more probably to experience a good dose of both. No deity decided to put an end to our pleasure or to our misery. It’s just the way things are. But I sometimes find it hard to blame people for believing otherwise.