11th June 1901: A Black Day

Today, Belloc walked from just before Burgdorf to an inn just before the Brienzergrat

11th June 1901 was Hilaire Belloc’s most difficult day on his pilgrimage to Rome. At the end of yesterday’s ‘entry’ in The Path to Rome, he describes how he thought he was suffering from ‘fatigue’ (Belloc The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press 2003) p.188) whereas it as actually ‘a deep inner exhaustion’ (Ibid).

I have read The Path to Rome several times but only really took in that line – ‘a deep inner exhaustion’ – when I read the book last year. What caused it? Is Belloc close to a nervous breakdown?

To answer the latter question first, no; if The Path to Rome is a true account of his pilgrimage, he is nowhere near it.

To answer the former question, Belloc has only been on the road for eight days, so I would rule out the stress of travelling as the cause for the exhaustion. It is more likely the symptom. To my mind, Belloc’s ‘deep inner exhaustion’ has its roots in his life before his departure from Toul.

Belloc left the inn where he had spent the night and began walking.

All that day was destined to be covered, so far as my spirit was concerned, with a motionless lethargy. Nothing seemed properly to interest or to concern me…

The Path to Rome, p.189

Part of the problem was certainly that Belloc felt intensely lonely.

I had the feeling that every one I might see would be a stranger, and that their language would be unfamiliar to me, and this, unlike most men who travel, I had never felt before… I had no room for good-fellowship. I could not sit at tables and expand the air with terrible stories of adventure, not ask about their politics, nor provoke them to laughter or sadness by my tales.

The Path to Rome, pp.189-90

As for being among strangers whose language one cannot not understand – I can relate to this. I took my first solo holiday abroad in 2002. It was to Tuscany, Italy. Upon my arrival at the hotel, I had a two hour panic attack because here I was now in a strange land surrounded by strangers whose tongue I did not speak. There was no one here to help me; I was entirely alone.

Eventually, I forced myself out of the hotel*. Belloc continued walking. He had breakfast at the Burgdorf railway station where he lamented the sight of tourists just as my friends and I did with the ‘tourist pilgrims’ at Sarria when we did the Camino this year.

[It was] a day without salt. A trudge. The air was ordinary, the colours common; men, animals, and trees indifferent. Something had stopped working.

The Path to Rome, p.193

‘Something had stopped working’. This line gives me the chills. When applied to the spirit, it seems so profound. It seems to go much beyond just feeling blue or a bit sad. Again, it takes me back to my panic attack described above, and the time I felt ‘holed’ (see post here).

Nothing went right for Belloc today. He was in a deep funk; to make matters worse, he was also let down by those around him. Case in point – a peasant asked him to hold his horse while he – the peasant – went into an inn. Belloc, being a horse lover, was happy to do so, but on the understanding that the peasant would bring him a drink. The peasant did not speak English or French so this understanding was only implicit. It was also not known, or ignored. The peasant went inside and stayed there. Belloc grew more and more irritated at being ignored; finally, he lost his temper; he gave the horse a whack and sent it galloping down the road. Now the peasant – and his his friends – came tumbling out of the inn. Belloc took hold of his staff and resumed his walk.

That evening, he was cheered up by the sight of children dancing. They gave Belloc the strength to continue walking. The weather deteriorated, however, and it began to rain. Fortunately, he was able to find a hotel, and there he stayed the night.

*I’m happy to be able to tell you that once I left the hotel, all was well. I had a brilliant holiday

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