Robert Vallery-Radot (essay date 1914)
SOURCE: "The Renascence of Catholic Lyricism," in The Constructive Quarterly, Vol. 2, June, 1914, pp. 384-402.
[In the following essay, Vallery-Radot includes Jammes in a discussion of French-Catholic poetry.]
While politicians are persisting in serving up to the masses, in the name of the laïc spirit and of Progress, the pernicious puerilities of the Encyclopédie now superannuated, while certain professors of the Sorbonne are madly bent upon ruining our worldwide reputation for straight thinking and clear speaking, while the fashionable stage and fashionable fiction are rehashing in senile fashion their tiresome physiologies, while the reviews are leading opinion astray upon fictitious glories, and the magazines are exalting stage-players, mountebanks, dancers and courtesans, it is good to turn aside for a moment from all this din and grimacing and, entering into the silence that is within, to give ear to the new and mysterious sounds which are awakening from out of the very depths of the French soul.
It is indeed true that the atmosphere in the intellectual regions of our country is becoming purer and lighter; literature, in particular, seems to be shaking off the stifling yoke of naturalism, and aspiring to some sort of heroic state, which is transfiguring it. We must go back to romanticism to find such an effervescence, principally in lyrics, such an ebullition of restless, ardent forces. Now lyric verse is the very soul of a literature, its secret love. Thus may we say to a given epoch: "Tell me your company, and I will tell you who you are."
We find in the Traité de la Vraie Contemplation these words of Ruysbroeck:
The sons of nature are those who give themselves up to the elements and obey the movements of the firmament; as for the children of God, they dominate the course of the firmament and the planets, and all things obey them.
In the strange crowded, tumultuous medley of sounds which rise from the lyres of our time we can distinguish two choirs: on the one hand, that of the sons of Nature, prostrate before Life, Love and all the idols named with capitals which can be engendered by the pestilent mythology of the Unconscious; on the other hand, the sons of God, for whom the universe is not at all a matter of chance, but ruled and protected in every detail by its Creator, for whom every being is sacred, the glorious reflection of its eternal Beginning. Before giving our attention to the latter, even before separating the cockle from the good grain, we may assert without fear of contradiction that on every side rationalism is in headlong flight, that even among unbelievers the religious forces are awaking from their long sleep, and that, astonished at feeling as hungry for spiritual life as they were before, and with intuitions a thousand times more fertile than all the dialectics cut off short from an emancipated reason, they are asking themselves if those intuitions are not the very roots of the human tree, and whether cutting them away was not effectively drying up all the sap of that tree. And resting upon the world which for them has again become unknown, somewhat intoxicated with the new wine that is turning their heads, not measuring their language and yet well expressing by it their state of utter confusion, they repeat the strange cry of Zarathustra: "Deep is the night, deeper than the day thought." To avoid all misunderstanding let us say at once that this obscure and feverish exaltation conceals many dangers.
"The love of God," Angela da Foligno admirably says, "is above everything an object of suspicion to me. If it is not armed with discernment it goes to death and illusion; if not discreet, it runs to a catastrophe: that which begins without order cannot issue in anything."
Far be it from us, then, to rejoice unreservedly in this vaguely mystical current which runs through the lyricism of today. What we would first of all clearly deduce from it is, once more, that the religious realities, far from being contemned and ignored as they were forty years ago, are again becoming the primordial concern of all minds. Men are ranging over Catholic dogma, sometimes with sympathy, sometimes with fear, but always with respect. Already such phrases as "unconscious," "intuition," "the will to live" have been abandoned for another—very much perverted from its sense, indeed, but so very symptomatic. That other phrase is "faith," simply that; "faith," the word so discredited but yesterday, considered so un-scientific! Here is M. Romain Rolland, a free-thinker, naming one of his works Tragédies de la Foi and, for the purpose of incarnating the hero of religious faith, choosing St. Louis. It is a faith evidently besmirched with errors, but after all it is interesting to note that the word is coming back upon the lips of men, that it has reconquered its right of citizenship. M. G. Hanotaux, in his turn, does not hesitate to affirm, in his Jeanne d'Arc:
Between reason and faith there is neither contradiction nor necessary conflict. It belongs to the highest reason to accept faith, and faith incessantly appeals to reason. According to the scholastic formula, faith seeks understanding, and understanding finds faith.
It is no longer fashionable to laugh at mysticism, to regard it as dreams. It attracts and holds men; they seek to derive heroic inspirations and wise lessons from its boldest flights. A Francis of Assisi is surrounded with fervent homage. M. Barrès seeks of St. Teresa and St. Ignatius lights for the discernment of the most complex spiritual states, and, while he transposes, only applies their methods in his Homme libre. Such a pagan as d'Annunzio is moved by the profundity of insight of a Catherine of Siena, by the manner, at once lyric and prudent, in which she draws on the most hesitating souls; the works of Ruysbroeck demand a Maeterlinck. An Angela da Foligno, a Tauler, are translated and read with avidity. A great publishing house has commissioned M. Henry Bordeaux to present to the public, in a series in which famous romances are chiefly to be found, the Introduction ála vie dévote, and has issued thousands of copies of it. The rival house has this year (1913) countered with an Imitation de Jésus-Christ.
Undoubtedly, the mass of readers interpret the mystics in their own way—that is, understand them very badly. To comprehend them, they lack the spiritual tradition of the Church. But are not these promptings of sympathetic curiosity indubitable evidence that at the end of its inductions contemporary reason finds itself obliged to see that there is an infinite reality which surrounds it, engulfs it, supports and nourishes it, and outside of which it cannot but fade away in unsubstantial visions? Is it not a way of confessing after all that to reason is not to create—that in presenting to us only the idea of things, whilst all our being urges us to embrace the reality itself, Kantian idealism gives us but stones instead of bread? Yes, reason understands that abstract metaphysics could never afford any nourishment, and that man must have a kind of revelation which shall place him in intimate relation with beings; reason confesses itself impotent to construct from the ground up a religion, a morality, a system of politics, and, remorseful at having ruined the whole heritage of mankind by laying down the most fantastic laws, it seeks its lost God, ranging through the most obscure manifestations of His will as to being and duration, manifestations which it names heredity, race and society. Once more, this is the bankruptcy of rationalism. Reason no longer seeks the pure idea, it seeks pure Being. It no longer cries out for an ideology, but for an ontology. It calls aloud for Him who is. How pathetic is the moment in which it is our lot to live! To whom is reason going to open the gates of the city? What God is it going to recognize as its sovereign?
Its salvation depends on this and on nothing but this. Now it would be foolish to deny the prodigious power of the modern false god who moves forward more terrible than Moloch. He is the son of the far-off dreamers of India, and the philosophers of Jena have but dressed him in their own fashion. He has a complete theology and a complete lyric poetry at his service: he is called the Unconscious. This dark and dangerous god has no personal life; he is the weird flower of the human soul, its limitless desire that wanders in all directions; it is the pride of man who believes himself deified because he is mad, and mistakes the vapours of the instinct which leads him astray for the inspiration of the spirit; it is he whom Baillard, in Maurice Barrès' Colline Inspirée, strives to possess by communicating with the creative forces which rise up from the fields, when he hugs only his own shadow; it is he, again, whom reason invokes when, failing to possess the true God, it gives itself over to a blind necessity which it calls by turns Progress, the Universe, Nature, Humanity, Justice, Liberty, Life, Love, and which attracts to its worship a religious feeling that has strayed away from its legitimate end. Read Romain Rolland's Tragédies de la Foi and you shall see how that lyric, carried away by its revolutionary mysticism, is led into parodying every sacred phrase, every rite, and dedicating sacrifices and whole burnt offerings to its idols. His speech quite naturally employs the terms Messiah, expiatory victim, martyr, cross, crown of thorns, and the like.
Such parodies scandalize, at first sight, every soul that loves Christ and His Church. But we must remember the dying words of Jesus: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Without their knowing it, thinking to advance the evolution of the human soul, as they say, poor things, they are simply beginning over again the eternal rebellion of the fallen archangel. It is the supreme temptation, to wish to attain Being, the first principle of our essence, of our acts, and of all things—even Him whom we call the Father—without any intermediary or mediator; the temptation to be one's own Redeemer, to be the incarnation of God. It is a doctrine full of sorceries, seducing the best. It is not only Romain Rolland who bows before this phantom, there is Maurice Barrès, who speaks to us
of that admirable vision of the Divine in the world which, under the most modern name, the Unconscious, Philip found in Le Jardin de Bérénice.
It is Maeterlinck who in his latest book, La Mort, delights in hiding himself from death in the fog of this most barbarous of names, which they call the most modern; it is the Comtesse de Noailles who, in her Les Vivants et les Morts, a work so unspeakably moving, cries out with magnificent ingenuousness to what she thinks to be God:
I cannot explain it, but Thy supreme brightness seems like my reflection in the lake of a Paradise. One evening I saw Thee like myself, on the road where my body was grown large through the shadow.… It is ever oneself that one seeks when one thinks to escape oneself; one would wish to repose in its blessed arms …
A terrible annihilation, at the end of which one would but hug death! But there precisely is the stumbling block of the lyricism of the Unconscious, the wall against which it is fated to dash itself to pieces. After reaching the extreme point of its desire, it will have to define its object; there remain but two alternatives for it: either a mortal doubling-back upon itself, the raving, anarchic delirium of all the powers of humanity, or the cry of deliverance to the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, Whom Pascal invoked, the personal God, the eternal Being distinct from us, Who frees us from ourselves. This dilemma our generation is actually living. It is the pathetic drama which has been enacted in all of us, and which is still being enacted in thousands of young minds. Happy are they who have slowly but surely freed themselves, through Catholic theology, from the horrible slavery in which this doctrine of shadows holds us—those who have already turned to the pure, true voices which rise swelling, and who will in the end, we are certain, dominate all the other voices. It is such as Claudel, Jammes, Le Cardonnel, Péguy that give back in the face of the astonished century imperturbable testimony to the Incarnate Word, unsealing our eyes to the abyss that yawns at our feet. The whole of their work proclaims that Christ alone can save us from ourselves and make us live, that He alone can pronounce over the tomb of Lazarus the liberating words: "Come forth, come forth from the cult of your Ego, and come to us, the Father and Son in the unity of the Spirit." Their work proclaims that Christ is the light that enlighteneth every man that cometh into this world, that he who thinks himself wise apart from Christ, he who thinks to find the truth outside of Him through whom all things were made, he who refuses Him His real, incarnate, eucharistic existence,—he repulses all the light, extinguishes all understanding in himself, and annihilates himself in a pantheism from which there is no issue.
In presence of this sublime hymn, some are disconcerted by the new technic employed in its interpretation, smile and shrug their shoulders. Nevertheless, the young, who go deep into things, for whom literature is no simple, banal display of elegance—those who lean over their books eager for, and unsatisfied by, the teaching or, rather, the absence of teaching, that falls from the official chairs—the young hasten to listen to these voices with inexpressible emotion; they feel their purer infancy reawakening in them, and as it were the eternal youth of the world. This lyricism persuades them, it gives them the orientation of their hearts which have for so long been lost in inextricable shadows. Here they find, for the first time, lyrics which offer them no disquieting potions, no deadly philters, but the bread and wine of the family table.
It is not difficult to find—in Lamartine or Hugo, for example—beautiful religious inspirations, but they come as it were by accident; at one moment their lyre vibrates to the wind from the everlasting hills, but the next moment they will be singing, with just as much earnestness, of passion or of pantheistic dreams; their prayers and meditations are often directed to a perfectly abstract In-finite; God is an idea of perfection, of goodness, of justice, not a living being present in us. They sing of God from outside the temple. On the contrary, open the Magnificat of Claudel, listen to these new accents or, rather, these revived accents:
O my God, you have called me by my name, as...
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