Has Blaise Pascal (1623-62) influenced the cinema? This is a novel question – you could even call it oxymoronic. Yet there is a connection, a connection squared even, for two of cinema’s masters made confession of his significance: first, Robert Bresson said, “Pascal is of such importance for me, but he is important for everybody”; second, Roberto Rossellini, as part of his project to describe on film the history of civilization, devoted one of his films to recounting the life of Blaise Pascal in all its many-sidedness: mathematician, scientist, inventor, polemicist, philosopher.
Famously Pascal felt, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” For example number 424: “It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason.” Pascal is striking for his relentless attack on atheism on the grounds that it is inadequate as a response to the world’s wretchedness, and to read him now is to feel that he is writing quite as much for a twenty-first-century audience as for a seventeenth-century one. Take pensée 427 which is of comparatively extended length (six pages long, while many of the individual pensées are only a few lines in length) and is included in a group headed ‘Against Indifference’.
He starts with the idea that we do not have a clear sight of God, and “He will only be perceived by those who seek him with all their heart”. He then argues that the immortality of the soul is of such importance that not to care about it is to have lost all feeling, and whether it exists or not should decide all conduct. This leads him to distinguish between those who wrestle with the question, and those “who spend their lives without a thought for the final end of life”. “This negligence in a matter where they themselves, their eternity, their all are at stake . . . seems quite monstrous to me.” He then puts a speech into the mouth of his “extravagant creature” who expresses indifference to the momentousness of death. Such indifference serves to prove the corruption of the nature; it is “against nature”. Yet such people can be sensitive to quite minor things, such as “losing some office or at some imaginary affront to [their] honour”, while being insensitive to the greatest thing. Pascal calls this a state of “supernatural torpor”, which moves him to turn the description ‘reasonable’ on its head. The reasonable person is not the atheist, but “those who serve God with all their heart because they know him and those who seek him with all their heart because they do not know him”.
We come back then to Bresson, whose Fontaine in A Man Escaped (1956) wrestling with the prospect of damnation can well be described as a man “who seeks [God] with all his heart because he does not know him”. [For an exploration of this film in particular, click HERE.]
© Tim Cawkwell 2012
Blaise Pascal Pensées, translated by Alban Krailsheimer (Penguin Books, London 1966, revised edition 1995)
‘The Question’, interview with Robert Bresson by Michel Delahaye and Jean-Luc Godard, Cahiers du Cinéma no. 178, May 1966.