I understand that workers at the twelve oil refineries on strike in France have now gone back to work. It is as I predicted a week ago. I cannot claim any credit, however. The fact is that since then the Senate voted in favour of the pension reforms that the strikers were taking action about. And, as the French says, c'est pas la peine de floguer un cheval mort' ... Okay, I made that up, but you know what I mean.
Still, their defeat, and the gloomy look that seems to accompany the Hexagon these days, only brings me back to my theme of a couple of weeks ago: one can only be disappointed by a lack of progress if you have some kind of mystical expectation or hope for its realisation. Gloom is the obverse side of the feeling that we DO indeed have here an abiding city. That at least was what Robert Hugh Benson thought, and he had a lot to be gloomy about!
Still, I want to make a distinction concerning gloom that I think is necessary here on the threshold of November. Whilst gloom can be a thoroughly worldly emotion, it can also be a thoroughly Christian mood. I'm not talking about the capacity for contrition or the necessity to practice it. I'm talking about the association of Christian feeling and compassion. One cannot be compassionate without sorrow. And that is the kind of sorrow which is neither directed simply towards God or neighbour (as is contrition) because of our failings, nor towards ourselves (as in self pity). It is rather something which helps create our solidarity with suffering humanity, and, if we are given this gift, with the suffering God-Man.
This thought goes back to a moment in class with my students this week. At the beginning of the class we had pretty much established that they had no interest at all in French politics or in what had been happening in France. Now remember these are people who have chosen to read French or take a French course during their degree. Subsequently the subject of coercion came up and whether torture could be used on prisoners. 'Right now,' I said, 'as we are sat discussing this issue, there are hundreds, probably thousands, of shivering prisoners across the globe, under one regime or another, just sat in dark cells waiting for their next beating. Is that right? Can the authorities exercise coercion in that way?'
To my distress, what I saw in my students was not the reaction I had hoped for but rather a kind of buffered indifference. Now indifference to physical suffering might seem a lot more serous than indifference to the political passions of others but they have this in common: they both denote an insensibility (which is insensitivity multiplied by wilful ignorance) to the experience which constitutes another person's concerns. Am I over egging this pudding? I don't think so. I happen to think that our culture's capacity to articulate the vicarious and to leave us meanwhile at a safe remove from danger is one of its most poisonous legacies.
Maybe this is just youthful shallowness. Maybe I'm being idealistic. But I only wonder what forces are at work these days that block the development of compassion. Maybe the students are all compassioned-out because of the charity culture. Maybe they just don't care any more after having all done A levels in Hitler Studies (because the sure don't know anything else about history).
In any case, I have decided I shall make it my business to make them all sad in November! It will be good for their souls and it will make me feel that solidarity has some chance in our cold, cold world. 'Telle est la vie des hommes. Quelques joies suivies d'innombrables douleurs,' wrote Marcel Pagnol. 'Mais il n'est pas nécessaire de le dire aux enfants,' he concluded. I rather think I'm coming to the opposite view entirely.