7th June 1901: On Companionship

7th June 1901 Remiremont to the Ballon d’Asace

Belloc didn’t stop in Remiremont but chose instead to sleep that night underneath a beech tree in a neighbouring valley. Now, Alexander the Great is supposed to have said that only sex and sleep reminded him that he was human. Perhaps he said this because they both involve a surrender of the self. Belloc might have been sympathetic to Alexander’s negative view because he says,

In sleep there is something [which] diminishes us. This everyone has noticed; for who ever suffered a nightmare awake, or felt in full consciousness those awful impotencies which lie on the other side of slumber? When we lie down we give ourselves voluntarily, yet by force of nature, to powers before which we melt and are nothing.

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press 2003), pp.76-7

As a side note, while it might not be possible to have a nightmare when awake it is surely possible to experience a kind of wakening nightmare. For example, one day, a long time ago, I was walking down the street thinking my usual thoughts when another one occurred to me. It was such an evil thought that I felt utterly holed and in fear of myself and what I might do. For the next month, I lived in a state of terror. After a month, the fear died down but two more would pass before it went away more or less completely. I wouldn’t wish what happened to me on anyone – especially if like me back then – they were too ashamed and scared to speak to anyone and had no coping mechanism for dealing with intrusive thoughts. This is why it took me one month for the fear to die down – it took me that long to learn to say ‘these thoughts do not represent me; I do not give them my consent’.

So, with the greatest of respect to Belloc, I have to disagree with him; I think that while awake it is possible for one to suffer what approximates to nightmares. I take his point, though, about nightmares as usually understood.

To go back to Belloc’s quotation, given that night for him is a lonely and oppressive time, it’s no wonder that he has a negative view of sleep. Unfortunately, things did not improve for him in the early hours of 7th June 1901.

… I woke shivering and disconsolate, needing companionship…

The Path to Rome, p.77

The need for companionship – we’ve heard that before; I’ll be very surprised if we do not hear of it again on this pilgrimage.

For now, Belloc found companionship in unusual places today. That morning, he tells us, ‘the end of my companionship with the Moselle’ (The Path to Rome, p79) came. The river had now become a small stream and would soon, no doubt, disappear to its source.

Today, Belloc met few people, and has no particularly friendly encounters with anyone. He does, however, get to Mass. This is important as it is the Feast of Corpus Christi – a holy day of obligation.

But hold on; In 1901, Corpus Christ was on Thursday, 6th June – yesterday. What’s going on? I won’t dwell on the question here but will, instead, direct you to the article whose dating system I am following. It’s a really great post by Brendan Cutter on The Hilaire Belloc Blog here.

After Mass, Belloc retired to an inn where he spoke to a man about anti-semitism in the area. It is a crying shame that in Britain, 2019, this should still – still – be such a relevant topic.

Leaving the inn, Belloc returned to the countryside. He claimed the Ballon d’Alsace. The mountain was heavily wooded. Belloc says of the trees,

… I pushed upward through through [the] immovable host in some such catching of the breath as men have when they walk at night straining for a sound, and I felt myself to be continually in a hidden companionship.

The Path to Rome, p.92

‘[A] hidden companionship’ with, that is, the trees. It seems slightly ironic that they which were so visible should form an ‘invisible companionship’ with him. But the life of trees is, in a sense, ‘invisible’ – in that it takes place within them and underground – so maybe there is a certain logic to what Belloc says.

Either way, Belloc reached the summit of the mountain and continued on until he came to an inn run by a woman and her three daughters. There was no friendship here but the former at least gave Belloc a bed and a meal, and so we leave him resting there until the morrow.

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