18 October 2009

Paul Claudel, Defensor fidei & 'Evil Genius'

In my post on St Romanus the Melodist last week (here), I relied primarily on three sources: Egon Wellesz’s A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford U, 1971), the Introduction by Fr Ephrem (Lash) to his translation of St Romanus, ‘St Romanos and the Kontakion’, in Kontakia on the Life of Christ, by St Romanus the Melodist, trans. Archimandrite Ephrem (Lash) (SF: HarperCollins, n.d.), pp. xxiii-xxxii, and Fr Andrew Louth’s Foreword to the same volume, ‘An Invitation to the Christian Mystery’, St Romanus, pp. xv-xii. Wellesz, in a note on ‘the polemic spirit on the poems of Romanus’, writes:

We may, however, understand the attitude of Romanus better by comparing his passages against the Greeks [in the Kontakion on Pentecost, which I excerpted in my post] with those of a great contemporary poet, Paul Claudel, when the author speaks in his ‘Magnificat’ as defensor fidei in an age filled with the spirit of religious indifference: ‘Restez avec moi, Seigneur, parce que le soir approche et ne m’abandonnez pas!—Ne me perdez point avec les Voltaire, et les Renan, et les Michelet, et les Hugo, et tous les autres infâmes!’ Cinq Grandes Odes (1907), p. 108. (p. 190, n.1)

Unfortunately, je ne parle pas français, but one can see that Claudel refers to Voltaire, Renan, and the others as ‘infamous authors’.

Anyway, what was interesting to me was that when I skimmed through Fr Louth’s Foreword to the book of Kontakia for more material, I encountered a now-familiar name:

The Scriptures are used not so much as a collection of proof-texts (as became increasingly the case in the West in the wake of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation), but as a hoard of imagery (not so much an ‘arsenal as a treasury’, as the French poet, Paul Claudel, put it). . . . But, as Claudel also says, the faith of the Church acts like a ‘magnetic field’, in which the biblical and liturgical images find their true orientation and yield their profoundest meaning. (pp. xviii-xix)

Now although Fr Louth’s Foreword was certainly written later than Wellesz’s book, the former mentioned the same passages as in the Foreword to the Kontakia, taken from Claudel’s Du sens figuré de l’Écriture, in Fr Louth's 1983 book, Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology (reprinted 2007 by Eighth Day Press, Wichita, KS), which I reviewed Saturday. Indeed, in this book he gives more of the context of the ‘magnetic field’ comment:

As Paul Claudel put it, ‘thus around the imperative and literal sense we learn that there exists a field of figures (one could say a magnetic field), that is to say of resemblances and analogies oriented in a manner more or less direct and organic towards revealed and confirmed fact.’ (p. 121)

So, it seems to me that the references to Claudel in the context of two very different discussions of St Romanus the Melodist may simply be coincidence.

I’m fairly certain that I had never heard, or at least taken notice, of Claudel until encountering his name in that note by Wellesz (I'm afraid my familiarity with French literature is unusually slim). But a quick Internet search yielded an article on him here by a Fr John Saward called ‘Regaining Paradise: Paul Claudel and the Renewal of Exegesis’ that looks quite interesting, and makes perfectly clear why Fr Louth would have mentioned his name in Discerning the Mystery. Another article, ‘Evil Genius’ by Tim Ashley, here at The Guardian, lobs the unfortunate accusations of ‘misogynist, anti-semite, and Islamophobe’ at the old Frenchman (I fail to see what’s wrong with being afraid of Islam or Muslims, particularly if one is French!), but also mentions that George Steiner considered him, along with Berthold Brecht, one of the two greatest dramatists of the twentieth century.


Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Restez avec moi, Seigneur, parce que le soir approche et ne m’abandonnez pas!—Ne me perdez point avec les Voltaire, et les Renan, et les Michelet, et les Hugo, et tous les autres infâmes!

Stay with me, Lord, because the night approaches; do not abandon me! Do not lose me along with Voltaire, Renan, Michelet, and Hugo, and all the rest of the infamous!

[It's not as poetic, but functional!]

aaronandbrighid said...


The Ochlophobist said...

I really liked this post.

I am a longtime fan of Claudel and the French Catholic renaissance of the early 20th century.

I would love read more along these lines - Claudel, Mauriac, Péguy, Bloy, Rouault - and how they might be appreciated from an Orthodox point of view.

aaronandbrighid said...

Owen> I would like to read more along these lines too. Sounds like you'd better do the writing! Those guys are just names to me at best.

rsafley said...

I'm curious as to why Claudel includes Hugo in his list of the infamous - do you know?

aaronandbrighid said...

Good question! Off the top of my head, I didn't know the answer myself, but the Wikipedia article on Hugo says this:

'Hugo's religious views changed radically over the course of his life. In his youth, he identified himself as a Catholic and professed respect for Church hierarchy and authority. From there he became a non-practicing Catholic, and increasingly expressed anti-catholic and anti-clerical views. He dabbled in Spiritualism during his exile (where he participated also in seances), and in later years settled into a Rationalist Deism similar to that espoused by Voltaire. A census-taker asked Hugo in 1872 if he was a Catholic, and he replied, "No. A Freethinker".

Hugo never lost his antipathy towards the Roman Catholic Church, due largely to what he saw as the Church's indifference to the plight of the working class under the oppression of the monarchy; and perhaps also due to the frequency with which Hugo's work appeared on the Pope's list of "proscribed books" (Hugo counted 740 attacks on Les Misérables in the Catholic press). On the deaths of his sons Charles and François-Victor, he insisted that they be buried without crucifix or priest, and in his will made the same stipulation about his own death and funeral.'

I would say any of this would have been reason enough for the very pious Catholic, Claudel!

rsafley said...

Thanks, Aaron! What you reported saddens me - I had been under the impression that Hugo remained a faithful Catholic throughout his life. At his death, if I remember correctly, Hugo received a massive public funeral (though no Catholic burial?), an unprecedented event for an author. In the introduction to Claudel's Odes, I learned that Claudel was born 6 years after Hugo published Les Mis and in 1886, Claudel "underwent his sudden conversion" in Notres Dame. Lucie-Smith (the translator) writes, "It is worth recalling, perhaps, that in the France of this period, a conversion was not by any means an easy decision. Secularism was a powerful and aggressive force, often supported by the state". (p2) The translator's comment puts Hugo's funeral and Claudel's prayer in an interesting perspective.

rsafley said...

P.S. - Have you read W. H. Auden's comment on Claudel? "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" (Pt III) Not too complementary . . .

aaronandbrighid said...

rsafley (?)> Interesting indeed!

I've come across Auden's comment a few times, which seems to be frequently quoted in the online material on Claudel.

Btw, I looked at your blog, Xeniteia, and you've inspired me to keep my eyes peeled for Old Calendar St Crispin's day!

Oh yes, and may I ask your Christian name?

Xeneteia said...

Hi Aaron,

Forgive me, my name is Rebecca (Safley is my last name, pronounced safe-ly).
According to a Sarum Rite blog I found, the Old Calendar feast is listed as Nov 7 - http://sarisburium.blogspot.com/2008/11/sarum-calendar-oct-25nov-7-sts-crispin.html
There's a lovely post on the Saints, picture included!

aaronandbrighid said...

So, clearly, I missed the day, thanks to my ridiculous computer!