Deciphering the Russian Code

Russia is in dire need of an ideology capable of fighting the enemy on the invisible battlefield.

Yeltsin destroyed the Soviet Union and with it the communist ideology. The ideologues of victorious liberalism—Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais—built a country that resembled an ugly caricature of the victorious Western civilization.

Russia ceased to be a civilization, ceased to be a country; the Russian people ceased to be a people, and a frenzied liberal broom swept across the once great expanse between three oceans, sweeping away everything associated with Russian uniqueness.

Now that Yeltsin’s Russia is facing a war in Ukraine and liberal ideology is gone along with its ideologues, Russia, robbed, exhausted, deceived, devoid of ideological meanings, is fighting the giant behemoth of the West, which, in addition to the space constellations of Ilon Musk and long-range Himars, has a powerful ideology, tested over the centuries, rooted in the mysterious depths of European metaphysics.

Russia, in dire need of shells and tanks, reserve battalions and divisions, is in dire need of an ideology capable of fighting the enemy on the invisible battlefield, in empires of ideological meanings.

And today a hunt for meanings has been announced in Russia. A lot of political scientists, political technologists, philosophers are looking for meanings. They look for them underfoot, find them, carry them to their laboratories, glue them together with something sticky that is secreted from their political science glands. They take their products to the Kremlin, offering to write history textbooks on the basis of these products, to build a new Russian state, to create public organizations, political movements, new symbols, new songs, a new Russian man capable of winning the battle for history.

But the products fall apart on the approach to the Spasskaya Tower. The sticky secretion of political scientists dries up, and the lumps of meanings found underfoot disintegrate—ideology does not stick together.

Meanings are not obtained in brainstorming sessions of political scientists, nor in discussion clubs of politicians. Meanings are obtained by the revelations of individual God-revealed people, who suddenly open the gates to those heavenly spheres where meanings dwell. Meanings are the inhabitants of high azure spaces, which the religious consciousness of thinkers reaches. Meanings are like nuggets stored in the depths of heaven.

The deep content of Russian civilization, changing its external forms, dressed from century to century in various vestments and robes, remained unchanged in its innermost essence. It was a dream of ideal existence, divine harmony, creating a just kingdom, where there is no violence, oppression, darkness, trampling of the weak by the strong, the rich by the poor. Where the most terrible injustice that haunts the human race is defeated—death is defeated.

The image of this kingdom has moved from pagan fairy tales to Orthodox Christianity, to the fantasies of cosmists, to the mysteries of poets and musicians, to the political declarations of Narodovites and Communists. This image even now lives as a dream in the depths of the people’s feeling, not allowing the people to disappear, encouraging them to fight and build, guiding them to perfection.

The Russian Dream of a just state is a precious treasure of the Russian World, which is conceived by the Creator as a repository of this marvelous idea.

To the achievement of this ideal, to the building of this marvelous kingdom, the Russian codes are the steps up which the nation rises, overcoming terrible difficulties, bitterness, fires and defeats, each time rising from the ashes, and with its charred, burnt hands continuing to build this marvelous edifice.

Russian codes are the meanings, the keyboard on which a great ruler creates a symphony of nation and state—Russian and Tatar, Chechen and Khanty. Great rulers, such as Vladimir the Holy, Ivan Vasilyevich the Terrible, Peter the Great, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, owned this keyboard, led Russia from great upheavals to greatness.

These codes are thousands. Such codes are Pushkin, Stalingrad, Baikal, Peresvet… “There was a birch tree in the field.”

But among these thousands of codes there are seven, without which it is impossible to build a sunny Russian state.

There is the code of exaction—the continuous striving for this state, begging for it, calling it out among the rubble of history.

There is the code of sacred labor, which is used not only to obtain daily bread, but also to build the state itself, and to obtain the Kingdom of Heaven, “which is given by works.”

There is the code of resurrection, which allows Russia to rise again after terrible historical defeats, and strive for the ideal bequeathed to it.

There is the code of the Russian miracle, which saves Russia when, it would seem, there is no salvation, and the abyss embraces the country and the people. Russia sinks into the dark depths of Lake Svetloyar to suddenly in the sparkle of the divine miracle to surface again from unknown waters, with its golden domes, marvelous palaces and churches to rise to greatness.

There is the code for a common cause, transforming the nation into a gigantic labor-artel, a vast invincible battalion. And the entrance to this ideal kingdom, to this heavenly Jerusalem, will be realized by all the people—both those who are still living on earth, and those who have already passed away, and those who have not yet been born.

There is the code of defense consciousness, when people defend their dream, their ideal, making colossal sacrifices for its preservation. Russia, defending its ideals, takes on all the darkness of the world, turning it into light. God entrusted Russia to defend this divine ideal, washing it with tears and blood.

There is the code of Russia—the soul of the world. For Russia invites to the historical campaign all kinds of people, wishes spiritual victory not only to itself, but also to all mankind, opens to each person of the Earth a gate to this delightful Russian garden.

The intimate knowledge of Russian codes is the essence of acquiring meanings. Obtained codes must be saved from the enemy.

The enemy, admitted to the storehouse of Russian meanings, destroys them, cuts off people from the sky, expels them from history. All conquerors coming to the Russian land strove for this. Demons of perestroika aspired to it. This is what today’s enemies are striving for, trying to reach with their long-range drones, their high-speed missiles, not just to reach the Kremlin chambers, but also to hit the repository of Russian meanings.

The Izborsky Club gathers into its spiritual brotherhood people with illuminated consciousness, clairvoyants to whom meanings are revealed. It is a school of spiritual knowledge, where the teachers are Russian clairvoyants, be it pagan skomorokhi or Dostoevsky, Seraphim of Sarov or Joseph Stalin.

The forum of the Russian Dream movement has just taken place. It was held in the Grebnevo estate near Moscow, where many confessors of this precious Russian faith came from all over Russia. They shared discoveries, fraternized, and gifted each other with their spiritual discoveries. There were singers, warriors wounded in the Donbass, philosophers and politicians.

At night, on a huge glade, they lit a fire, which blazed, sending countless golden sparks into the sky, and each of them was a prayer, a demand, a hope for the Russian miracle and for the Russian victory.

Sparks, mined by fiery, loving and fearless hearts open to the light.

The confessors of the Russian Dream, the discoverers of Russian meanings pay a huge price for their discoveries. Darya Dugina, her majestic father Alexander Dugin, the brilliant Russian writer Zakhar Prilepin. And now—Alexander Borodai, the hero of Donbass, has been hit by a Ukrainian tank. Wounded, he lies in a Donetsk hospital.

Sasha, get up soon from your bed, Russian meanings are waiting for you.

Alexander Prokhanov, a doyen of Russian letters, is a member of the secretariat of the Writers Union of the Russian Federation and has written more than 30 novels and many short story collections. He also edits the influentail weekly newspaper, Zavtra. This article comes through the kind courtesy of Geopolitica.

Featured: Evening Bells, by Isaac Levitan; painted in 1892.

Flos Triticum

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Wheat Flower erat in villa mea pulcherrima puella. Alta, bene erecta, pulchroque sui fiducia gradiens, Clara risum splenduit campis, alta viarum Vendée secat silvas. Cum primis tepidis veris diebus albedo lactea cutis, lentigines sidere punctis

Rustici dicebant: Dominus bonus manipulum furfure in faciem proiecit.

Furfur et farina, ut videtur, nam facies eius sub radiis solis tam alba manebat ac si tritico oppessato pulvere inspergeretur. Hinc cognomen fortasse, vel rufis fortasse capillis Debebat, fulvis magis aequantibus ocellis. Dedit unam impressionem omnium pulcri auri-brunnei toni maturi tritici. Wheat Flower pulcher erat, et hoc sciebat, quia sic tota die narrabatur.

Vir agris non longe abhorret. Sensus eius estheticus non est idem cum nostro. Non linea, forma, gratia formae moventis movetur, sed colore afficitur potenter, sicut omnes quos humanitas non excoluit. Wheat Flower igitur est coloris animali, voluptatem igitur audiendi se pulchram praedicabat, et ad propulsandam lasciviam, interdum robustiores blanditias, virilis iuventutis usque ab Sainte Hermine in Chantonnay. Florem, ubi vis, ibi congregabuntur apes. Ubicumque occurristi pulchritudinis, videbis homines ad pabulandum venientes, oculis et manibus et labiis. Inter urbem et patriam est sola differentia occasus.

Cuius fama ultra pagi fines propagata, Wheat Flower habebat admirantium turbas quae in vicinia per multos dies non visa sunt. Superbia eius in oculis suis praestringitur, et si ad Cleopatram, in quem spectata mundi obtutus dicta esset, non esset certum, quod regina Aegyptia plus prodesse putasset. Rus ancilla. Quam ob rem laudo, quod multam adorantium enumerare stulte lusum est. Regina autem mortua erat et puella rustica: optimum omnium argumentum.

Fabulae iucunda pars est, Wheat Flower, dum se ab omnibus admirari, et invidisse omnibus foeminis, animum suum fidum amico, qui noverat conciliare, in quo egregie a Cleopatra differebat. Ille autem amicus, quoniam ad confessionem tandem veniendus est, nullus alius fuit quam humilis servus tuus. Condonari possim istius advocationis superbiam: Wheat Flower amavi, et Wheat Flower sentiebat de me, quod exhibere minime nolebat. Sequebam eam circa prata cum cane suo “Rubrum Udones,” sic dicta propter quatuor fulvos manus, et dum grex nimis inepte pascebatur ultra limitem ruris custodiae, narravi ei omnia de Nannetensi, ubi. hiemem habui. Obstupui ex libris meis fabulis, aut mecum de animalibus, quid egerunt, quid sentirent, mecum locuta est; quae mihi narravit extraordinarias fabulas. Proximae sibi erant animae nostrae, non eadem pectora nostra dicam, nam tristis amor nostri pars erat, heu, viginti sex vel septem, si starem in gradu. Hoc non difficile est, alterutrum tamen alterum amplecti. Postmodum intellexi meam fortunam.

Nostri optimi dies erant in tempore messis. Nondum rus invaserat fumus arenae machinae nefandus. Scibis adhuc in usu erat. Luce prima viri ac feminae in partes divisae areae circuire incipiebant, motusque eorum numeroso impetu lignei flagelli, humi stramentis obvoluti; pars quadrille sensim cederet, media pars paulatim procederet. Necessitas observandi, et conatus silere deiectos. Sed quam cachinnus et cantus motus cum pice lignea subiguntur, positis paleis! Aspiciet instratam messoribus meridiana torva solis humum, fallaxque timet rusticus umbram. Ad ictum campanae, sonorus concentus scloporum iterum undique aerem replebat.

Ad vesperum erant choreae et carmina in quibus Wheat Flower excellebat. Sciebat omnis regionis illius cantus, et nasi, indocta voce canebat, delectamentum rusticae auris, poemata ingenua, in quibus “Filius Regis”, “Luscinia” et “Ros” in phantasmatibus apparuerunt; laeta vel tristis. Vatem loci etiam de Wheat Flower, carmen liberioris et liberioris dialecti, fecerat, cuius cantilena florem triticum sub messe flagelli dedere segetem dicebat. Wheat Flower sine pudore falso cantu celebravit se, et erant denique iurgia, si quidam adulescentuli per iocum crederent in agendo abstinentiam ponere.

Serius vel serius, Wheat Flower sub messoris flagello tenebatur. Atque hic lectoris animum ad hanc fabulam voco, cuius meritum est omnium fabulae. Nullius enim maioris erroris scio, quam ut singula- rum rerum casus opinari soleant, quae faciunt vitam iucundam. Si quis inspiciat, reperietur vere mirabilia ea esse quae nobis cotidie accidunt, eaque duella, sica, etiam autocineta, odio comitante, invidia, proditione, amore, perfidia, re vera vulgaria eveniunt. In enorme vitae communis a nativitate ad mortem.

Ut sine ulla nostra voluntate ad huius mundi conscientiam adferamus, fatali concatenatione gaudiorum ac dolorum subiaceat fortunae periculo, et finem in tarda corruptione, quae nos ad antecedentem statum reducit. Nostri, nonne hoc summum casus est? Quid magis opus est ut miremur? Quidam, qui pessimistae vocantur, quodam murmure accipiunt. Alii, optimates existimati, tantam fortunam considerant, ut ad eam per consolationem studiose addant somnium coelestis adventus, quem quisque liberet exornare quantum libet.

Wheat Flower eius mentem non ullo ex hoc vexavit. Viginti erat illa, eo occupatior. Audivit vocem adulescentiae suae sicut praegressae feminae et quae sequuntur eam in terra. In campis, natura tam propinqua, homines minime impediti sunt conventionibus socialibus magis minusve phantasticis, quae humanas necessitudines moderari incipiunt inter duas creaturas, inter se esurientes et sitientes.

Peculiare genus placentae, quae “échaudé” dicitur, praecipuum est fructus industriae meae villae: placentam ex farina et ovis, delectabilem recentem e clibano, sed gravem et gravem sititatis causa, tempore procedente per bracchium usque ad Niortum, Rupellam seu Fontenay. Noctu vehitur vectura longis bigis ab equina trahentibus, cuius tarda et stabilis incessus saxa somnos agitatoris et mulieris comitantis praeesset ad vendendum placentas. Hae plostra terribilia internuntius sunt. Odor filicis periculi plenus est. Iacent duo somno pariter, sub dio. Non semper dormiunt, etiam post longum diem laborem. Forum oppidum procul abest. Inhumani censoresque moenibus suis quattuor inclusi sunt. Temptatio augetur per succussos qui unum contra alterum proiciunt. Quare resistendum est, cum tandem cedendum sit?

Wheat Flower, qui in his liba locupletis domestici mangonis elaboraverat, diem unum egregium ei “dominum” duxit, postquam ei dedit, nemine mirante, duo certa argumenta dociliorum ad gaudium ac munia maternitas. Proximi ruri narrabunt nihil esse extra ordinem in vita. Vir eius tantum diebus dominicis post vesperas, quando nimium biberat, eam verberavit, nec plus vindicavit in eum, quam necesse fuit ut extraneis ostenderet quod ultimum verbum non haberet.

Post aliquantum temporis spatium iterum eam vidi. Manipulus farinae et furfures adhuc erat ibi. Lustrabant oculi, crinemque tenus ardentibus alis tena ardent. Sed mihi visus eius aspectus acutior, iamque labiorum curva taedium prodidit vitae. Pulchellus adhuc nomen ei adhaesit, sed flos florem amiserat. Illa adhuc risit, sed iam non canebat. Ad eam Fortuna venerat, annuli fibulae, torques aureae testatae. Diebus dominicis gerebat pallium sericum et praecinctorium ad ecclesiam, et librum deauratum portabat, rem utilem etiam ab iis qui legere non possunt, cum eis satisfaciat ad excitandam invidiam proximi.

Visitatio mea ad pagum iam brevis et longe distans factus erat. Longe longe vixissemus, cum quadam die ei occurrisset, in una nostra alta via secat, ad pascuum ducentem vaccam. Senex, annosa, fracta, obsoleta mulier. Curabitur ut cessavimus. Mortuus est autem vir suus et reliquerat eam bonis, sed filii instarent ut omnia eis traderet. Dixeruntque “ad notarii” eius salarium se habituros.

“Debeo statuere animum ut faciam” finivit cum gemitu. “Credisne me heri verberare appropinquasse filium meum, eo quod nolui dicere necne?”

Decem amplius anni transierunt. Quodam die, cum per vicinum vicinum iret, mihi monstratum est gurgustium ruinae, et dicebatur “barbotte” ibi suos dies finire. Wheat Flower non fuit. Illa nunc erat “Barbotte” a nomine mariti sui Barbot.

Intravi. In media luce videre potui, sub reliquiis veteris pallii, caput quassans vetulae mulieris, facie siccante, retorrida membrana, oculis duobus flavis transfixis, in quibus obscurissima oculorum vestigia obdormierunt. Vicinus mihi narravit omnia de eo. Liberi non perstiterunt, quod nemo miratur. Res erat usitata. Aliquando, attulerunt ei frustum panis, interdum pulmentum, aut frusta ciborum die dominico, post missam. Anus infirma erat, et aegre se habebat. Putabatur autem servus semel in die venire et videre eam. Saepe oblitus est.

“Cur non querar?”, dixi inconsiderate.

“Dixit quodam die notarium mittere. Verberavit pro eo. Et quis vellet accipere nuntium suum? Nemo studet inimicis facere. Iam liberi eius nulli satis placebant ut quisquam intraret tuguriolum. Nolunt homines rebus suis miscere.”

Per hunc sermonem lacrimae lucebant in oculis nictantes flavo. “The Barbotte” me agnovit.

“Noli me turbari” dixit tenui voce timorem verberum prodidisse. “Nihil egeo. Pueri mei valde benigni sunt. Veniunt quotidie. Forsitan sis sicut ceteri, domine, putes me tempus grave in manibus meis invenire. Scisne quid agam, cum ego hic solus sum? Cano. In corde meo omnia carmina antiquitatis oblitus sum eorum et nunc revertuntur ad me tota die illa cantabo sine ullo sonitu et intus cano in medio eorum cum ego omnia complevi, iterum incipio. Est sicut grana mea narrans. Ridiculum est, annon?”

Et ridere conata.

“Monsieur le curé me obiurgat”, iterum sumpsit. “Vellet me dicere vota mea. Sed preces non prius institui quam carmina redire. Non possum. Meministine, nonne tu, Filius Regis?’ O filius regis! et ‘Luscinia?’ et ‘Rose?’ Tibi unum cantare volo, clare, pro meo animo. Quis? ‘Flos triticum!’ Flos triticeus! Ah… ” Cantare videbatur, sed inde fluens exclamavit: “Vexillum messoris venit. Frumentum sublatum est. Nihil restat nisi palea… et hoc male laeditur. Nimium trituratum est… Carissime domine, qui omnia nosti, potesne mihi dicere quare venimus in hunc mundum?

“Aliud dicam tibi, mi amice, cum iterum venero.”

Sed numquam recesserunt.


Featured: A Seated Peasant Woman, by Camille Pissarro; painted in 1885.

The Catholic Novel Today

From the birth of Barbey d’Aurevilly to the death of Julien Green, the question of the Christian novel has been the subject of more ink than you might think, and not just from Catholic writers. Is there such a thing as a Christian novel, just as Étienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain defended a Christian philosophy against Émile Bréhier and Léon Brunschwig in the last century? And if it does exist, is it enough for the writer to call himself a Christian for his novel to be baptized as such? These two contemporary quarrels each have their founding text: in one case, a magisterial document from 1879, Leo XIII’s Æterni Patris, which discusses philosophia christiana, i.e., Thomistic philosophy; in the other, Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly’s “Preface” to the 1866 republication of his novel Une vieille maîtresse (The Last Mistress), a short tract in response to the “Libres Penseurs” who forbad Catholics to touch art or literature. The reason? You cannot make good literature with good feelings, and even less so with Christian feelings: Catholics have “too pure” a hand to touch the novel. Barbey’s response: “What’s morally and intellectually magnificent about Catholicism is that it is broad, understanding, immense… Catholicism loves the arts and accepts, without trembling, their audacity. It accepts their passions and their paintings, because it knows that we can learn from them, even when the artist himself does not.”

Despite this Aurevillian clarification, there is no shortage of critics of the Christian novel. One need only open the most famous novel by one of the 20th century’s most renowned novelists (André Gide) to be convinced. In The Counterfeiters, he sternly states: “There are, strictly speaking, no Christian novels.” A “kind of tragedy,” the writer continues, a “moral tragedy” that touches “the very essence of being,” still eludes literature, including that which should have “transported the drama to the moral plane”: Christian literature. In 1925, the year Gide published his “first novel,” two novelists as different as Georges Bernanos and François Mauriac were working to contradict him. Under the Sun of Satan was published in 1926, and Thérèse Desqueyroux a year later. Catholic novels? The expression hardly appealed to the writers of the time, and even less to modern and post-modern readers, alien to any universal or absolute reflection on literature. Since the immortal Proust, the fashion has been for novels about the novel, for deconstructed sentences along which novelists ask themselves “whether to write the novel of the novel they will never write; whether to write that one can no longer write” (p. 796), notes Romain Debluë ironically. Tired of such chatter, readers of Barbey, Bernanos and Léon Bloy know that the works they hold in their hands possess a secret filiation, beyond the shared faith of their authors. Through a mysterious tour de force, these novels give the impression of being literature without being literature. Without in any way claiming to exhaust the question, La Chasse au Cerf (Hunting the Stag), a novel alla manera christiana by Romain Debluë, offers a welcome—because novelistic—insight into the miracle that is still a Catholic novel.

A Bildungsroman: The Conversion of a Teenager of Yesteryear

What is La Chasse au Cerf? Let’s start with the simplest: a Bildungsroman. The genre is as old as the Odyssey and as varied as Ulysses’ journeys. The masterpieces of the genre are by Goethe, Balzac and Dickens; in other words, novelists of “yesteryears” (p. 797). The novelistic genre is based on a number of propositions roundly rejected by what Debluë calls “individuals after all” (p. 16): the existence of a subject, the subject’s recognition of his or her primary ignorance, his or her desire to understand and, to this end, to be taught by another, whether a master or an event. Such is the situation of Paul Savioz, the hero of La Chasse au Cerf, at the beginning of the novel. As he reads and befriends students and teachers at the Sorbonne, the history student learns about his own ignorance (p. 76). This first discovery is accompanied by a second, without which he would have every reason to despair: the discovery of a hunger in him “whose object he [is] absolutely unaware of” (p. 118). Anxious to “structure his mind once and for all” (p. 38), the young man notes more and more each day “the presence within him of a burning desire to light his soul like a torch, in order to resist the assaults of the night; and at the same time the absence in his intelligence of the slightest kindling that would be fit to set himself ablaze” (p. 271). Hence his willingness to work and take pains to nourish what he knows, thanks to a medieval history teacher, to be a life: the “life of the mind” (p. 195). In an age when “effort is the enemy” (p. 1026), Paul Savioz is emboldened by a group of philosophy students who, like him, share a taste for truth and the “courage of intelligence” (p. 24). So far, so natural, one might say: a formative novel in which a young man intends to “humanize” himself, that is, “slowly take on human form” (p. 307), through a study that is certainly ascetic, but whose goal is only natural, and therefore attainable, beatitude.

Natural, of course, but of a nature that can no longer be taken for granted. Man’s nature must be given real consistency if he is to achieve any kind of growth. You can’t educate a ghost; you can’t sculpt anything enduring with water. But what does the deconstructed youth of today resemble, asks the novelist, if not precisely “poor specters” who “float on the surface of themselves?” “We can no longer say that they have either a good or a bad bottom: they have no bottom at all” (p. 300), writes Debluë. In this way, the characters in La Chasse au Cerf are made strangers to their time less by the answers they give than by the questions they ask, where their contemporaries have decreed in chorus: “there are no answers, therefore there must be no questions” (p. 1026). Paul Savioz is, in the words of the title of Mauriac’s last novel, an “adolescent of yesteryear.”

Debluë’s hero shares much with Mauriac’s: the same taste for books, which, says Alain Gajac, are “my whole life;” the same anger against the bourgeois, “the man who suffocates the philosopher within himself every morning” (p. 482); all of which is accompanied by numerous novelistic and stylistic correspondences: the presence of a mentor—Donzac or “Abbé Guillaume”—who guides the main character in his reflections, or the death of a child who introduces the reader to the mystery of evil; such a way of concluding a chapter, or such a reference to the last pages of Sentimental Education, which the characters would like to rewrite. Romain Debluë’s novel is undoubtedly best read in the light of Un adolescent d’autrefois (A Youth from Yesteryear, Mauriac’s last novel, translated as Maltaverne), populated with quotations from various writers—Verlaine and Bossuet in common—and reflections that, a priori, would be more at home in a philosophical treatise than in a novel. However, and this is what makes it so recognizable, the Catholic novel can allow itself such intellectual and spiritual confessions since, as a Bildungsroman, it is above all a novel of conversion.

The Christian novelist always scrutinizes a soul’s journey to God, the twists and turns that lead it to the truth of its life and the reason for its existence. Hence Romain Debluë’s metaphor of the “hunt,” borrowed from the Catholic spiritual tradition. To “think in pursuit of the Principle” (p. 371), as Paul Savioz does, is to seek God, if not to confront his angel like Jacob, or “like a hunter who at last flushes out his game, and ceases to see it as merely slipping away in front of him, in the thicket” (p. 679). The pursuit of truth, whether in creation or in one’s innermost self, might seem an infinitely proud attitude were it not for the fact that, inspired by God, man’s spiritual quest always ends in the ascent of Golgotha. Like Ahab pursuing Moby Dick, the soul that seeks God always discovers itself already sought by Him, like Adam in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:9). In this “conquest” and “vast adventure of truth” (p. 1027), man soon becomes exhausted and abandons himself to a God who never tires of wanting his good. Cowardice? Resignation? Once again, Mauriac opens us up to the authentic meaning of La Chasse, in the epigraph to the novel, or in Un adolescent d’autrefois: “as if the stag in bark were cowardly to enter the pond to escape the hounds!” (p. 112). No more than the normal philosopher converted on his deathbed from Augustine ou le maître est là, Paul Savioz has no sense of losing freedom or intelligence as he delves deeper into the Christian mystery. On the contrary, the young man knows how to “meet himself by meeting his Creator” (p. 380).

Typically, the hero of a Bildungsroman has no choice but to “knead and shape [his] own clay in order to give himself a form, but a completely different form from the forgotten one that will always remain his” (p. 138). Such is “the fatal option of those who abandon God”: “to undo or to make oneself, by dint of one’s own hands” (p. 139). And yet, thanks to his reading, Paul Savioz in La Chasse discovers “the immense territories of theology, where [he is] quite surprised to immediately find himself at ease” (p. 369). Paul gives credence to the adage that “man becomes in a certain way what he eats” (p. 370). If he is not “sure of the reality of this God of whom there [is] talk everywhere,” “the exactness of the reasoning [fascinates] him”: “all that in his head was mingling, all that was stirring, rolling in a bubbling of sparks and blazes” (p. 370). In the Christian regime, the play of intelligence encloses in itself neither fault nor merit. It is pure technicality: “The fault was not in concluding to the lights of your premises, but in not having enlightened elsewhere,” Joseph Malègue’s Augustin is heard to say. Therein lies the fault, the sin of pride: turning one’s back on the sun and refusing the light, as Debluë writes. “Man is so weak that all he has to do is close his eyes to stop believing in the light” (p. 252). There is no Pascalian humiliation of reason in La Chasse au Cerf, since “neither science is vain, nor especially metaphysics and fundamental ontology” (p. 338), but an integration of the rational into the spiritual, since there is “an active reason in faith, and in it a logic…. Disconcerted, but amazed, [Paul] discovered the rigorous arithmetic of dogma, and its inexhaustible power to provoke thought and arouse intelligence. Amazed, he experienced that belief does not require stupidity” (p. 371). The faith he receives from God and nurtures through the seven sacraments flanked by an eighth, that of Truth and Beauty, thanks to which divine grace often restores man’s nature; this faith is never fideism but, according to the Augustinian definition taken up by Saint Thomas, cogitare cum assensione, “to reason with assent.” The student then knows that “faith is a certain mode of operation of reason, no longer exercising itself on what it can understand, but turning back towards its own principle and source, by which it is understood” (p. 850).

Such an approach will seem overly intellectual to some, and the character’s metaphysical wonder at “the meaning and carnal flavor of such a simple expression: that is” (p. 605) will do little to convince less contemplative temperaments. Ne timeas, lector! La Chasse also includes lengthy meditations on the death of a child, the birth and decline of human love, the temptation of despair—all more immediately existential events. Best of all, one character gives a definition of faith that will suit the most spiritual: “You become a Catholic because you fall in love, because you discover that Truth loves you, and is Life, and that nothing will ever be the same again, neither yourself nor others, neither trees nor flowers, neither mountains nor summer skies, nor apple trees in blossom, neither friendship nor love, nor even the caress of bodies, nor even laughter and tears” (p. 338). This completeness is characteristic of the Catholic novel, which La Chasse au Cerf also teaches us is a universal and total novel.

From the Road to Thebes to the Road to Damascus: The Total Novel

Nothing is further removed from the Catholic novel than the “book about nothing” that Flaubert, in a famous phrase, called into existence: the “book that would have almost no subject, or at least where the subject would be almost invisible” (“Letter to Louise Colet,” early November 1851). One could easily be mistaken: the Catholic novel, because it deals, if not with God, at least with the coming of a man to God or the descent of God into a soul, could have been one of those books without a subject, or whose subject would be “almost invisible.” Yet, as Romain Debluë reminds us, this cannot be the case for a novel whose spiritual and literary architecture is based on the Christian creed. Insofar as he believes in the Incarnation—”the only interesting story that has ever happened,” according to Péguy—the Catholic novelist, close in this respect to the Christian philosopher, always relies on the sensible to know the intelligible, the visible to enter the realm of the invisible. The conversion of the character in La Chasse au Cerf is first and foremost a transformation of the gaze: “The invisible and the visible came together, and both made a totality whose heart sank in the direction of God, who is exactly at the center of the world, at the center of the soul and of everything around” (p. 604). A tale of conversion, the Catholic novel tells of a man’s openness to the totality of his being, to the being of things and, ultimately, to the source of being.

In this respect, novelists have not invented anything: there is already a “book about everything.” “Liber scriptus proferetur, in quo totum continetur,” we read in the Dies iræ dies illa sequence: a book will be produced in which everything will be contained. In the Christian regime, the total book is not just the Bible, named βιϐλία by antonomasia, but Jesus Christ himself, Word incarnate, who knew the human condition in all things “except sin” (Hebrews 4:15). The encyclopedic ideal of medieval scholars and theologians thus originated in the theology of the Incarnate Word. If everything is indeed understood by and in Christ, then everything is comprehensible—in an imperfect way, here below—by man who configures himself more closely to Christ who understands everything. The Catholic novel is the literary site of this configuration, both in its biblical inspirations—the meeting of Abbé Donissan and Mouchette in Under the Sun of Satan is in a sense a rewriting of the dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4)—and in its own novelistic architecture which, like the cathedrals of stone and knowledge of the High Middle Ages, always lets light penetrate to illuminate the interior of the monument: “Paul suddenly saw before him, or rather within him, the eternal landscape of human questioning, gradually bathed in a new, unsuspected light, which transfigured every valley, every peak, every plain and every forest, without altering the slightest contour” (p. 277), writes Debluë of his character. One thinks of the “mystery” encountered by Saint Paul on the road to Damascus, as opposed to the “enigma” discovered by Oedipus “on the road to Thebes” (p. 162). Saint Paul, the Pharisaical Jew turned Apostle to the Gentiles—in other words, the man whose life and teaching embrace the two great human families of the Old and New Testaments. Like the Pauline epistles, the Catholic novel aspires to the “very unique universality with which the very word ‘Catholic’ is woven” (p. 461).

Like his contemporaries at the start of the novel, Paul Savioz is prey to the dictatorship of the particular, the multiple, the subjective: “The ambition to aim for universality in certain matters would never have occurred to him; and he used his words only as a self-indulgent expression of his poverty of spirit, never exceeding the limits of point of view and sentiment, never daring to go so far as to affirm anything other than oneself and the funeral procession of one’s falsely personal preferences” (p. 184). A universe that loses its sense of the universal immediately becomes “uninhabitable,” as the poet puts it. The Catholic doctrine of creation holds that “the entire Universe manifests God, and it is not for man to exclude anything within this unifying, ordered and total revelation” (p. 247). Romain Debluë’s Aurevillian intuition: “Catholicism is vaster than the universe. It is a marvelous enlargement of intelligence and sensibility” (p. 246). Like all Catholic novels, La Chasse au Cerf is a total novel in that its author places the universe he constructs under a gaze that embraces all things: the gaze of God. Thanks to the “formidable dazzling of Catholic dogma” (p. 930) experienced by the main character, the Christian does not have to defend the truth: “it is the truth itself that saves him and keeps him” (p. 931). In the eyes of the convert, becoming a Catholic means allowing oneself to be “assimilated” (p. 453) to a doctrine or truth that, far from being totalitarian, is “totalizing” (p. 458). “Paul] did not feel diminished by having reasoned within an ample symphony begun long ago, and continued through thousands of years; on the contrary, the impression gripped him powerfully of being augmented, and enlarged, and amplified by it” (p. 667). This demand for the universality of Christianity, the mystery that includes everything and through which everything is understood, justifies the demand for the unity of the Church, a central theme in the Catholic novel, from Bloy to Mauriac, since everything that is written and read, for a Catholic, is always in and by the Church, militant, suffering and triumphant.

Universal, the Catholic novel can address the whole of mankind, because it approaches man as a creature inscribed in creation, who always recognizes this divine filiation: “adsum! I am yours. There is no other way to be, fully and truly, than to be-to. To live in the dative, to live in the light of a response to this call, of a correspondence to this summons which is our vocation: to be God’s!” (p. 1039). In so doing, the Catholic novelist radically distinguishes himself from the proponents, in literature as in philosophy, of a “humanism without God” (p. 1001). We can understand the severity of the characters in La Chasse with regard to writers like Camus, “that Bogart of self-tanning journalism, who spent his life mystifying men of letters by writing little philosophical essays, high-school caliber, and tricking philosophers by writing bad novels in a deaf-mute style” (p. 273); or Gide, the “brave Huguenot imbecile” author of “devilishly well-written rubbish” whom, like Mauriac, we “all read…)during our adolescence” (p. 661). Such novelists perpetuate the humanist ideal of the Renaissance, a time when “the attention of humanity, always looking towards divinity, began to be literally distracted—for the first time since Greece, stopped at the opacity of creatures” (p. 555).

From its first Aurevillian expression to La Chasse au Cerf, the Catholic novel offers a literary, concrete response to the creature’s misguidance, which is matched by the misguidance of literature towards the shores of art for art’s sake, or the glorification of the human as human. Hence the famous invectives of Bloy and Barbey against the literature of their time, and the often-mocking use of the term “novel” by Bernanos and Mauriac. Romain Debluë’s characters storm the ramparts of truth one by one in a siege that is as carnal as it is spiritual—philosophy, literature, music, painting, cinema and so on. For the sake of universality rather than erudition, the novelist traverses the history of art and thought, from the Primitives to contemporary art, from Virgil to Chaplin.

Since the vocation of the Catholic novel is to cast a Catholic gaze on the world, and since, in the eyes of God and the Christian, “everything that is, is considerable” (p. 247), the novelist who believes in God always returns to the steps of humanity, in the long march that leads it to its Creator and Savior, despite its wanderings on the road to Thebes. Hence the tribute paid by Romain Debluë, after some welcome literary settling of scores, to the “writers sometimes far removed from [the] faith” whom the Catholic characters in La Chasse, “neither prudish nor beguiling,” read and love (p. 460). From “the grace and glory of the Aeneid” (p. 150) to certain twentieth-century writers, Céline and Malraux, Tzara and Beckett, Paul Savioz rereads the great novelists and poets of past times with Rimbaldian conviction that “through the spirit we go to God!”

Endowed with a new light, the hero of La Chasse, for example, finds in the author of Une saison en enfer “confessions of Christianity” (p. 464) on every page. The same is true of pagan philosophy, from Plotinus to Hegel to the latest Heidegger, all present in the novel, refuted by some and defended by others, as in a lively article in the Summa of Theology. The fate of this great architecture of knowledge, which derives its balance from the one and triune God, source and summit of all creation, depends essentially on the presence or absence of the lumen fidei that illuminates the whole: “Any metaphysics that does not end in a cathedral will never be anything other than an ice palace” (p. 386).

Joy Delivered, and the Novel’s Other Realism

Neither a collection of spiritual confessions nor a treatise on theological reflection, the Catholic novel is all the more Catholic for being authentically novelistic. Traditionally, the novel, like a council, has its canons: within a defined spatio-temporal framework, a narrator relates the life or death, the acta and passa, of several flesh-and-blood characters. To qualify a novel as Catholic, it is not enough to have Rubempré enter a church, and even less to bring him to his knees at the sound of Gregorian music or the sight of a stained-glass window, as Huysmans, according to some Christian novelists, was too prone to do. It is not—first and foremost—the fact of entering Saint-Étienne-du-Mont to the sound of Bach’s passacaglia that converts Paul Savioz. Debluë’s novel, unlike those by Bloy, Barbey, Bernanos and Mauriac, is conspicuous by its absence of priests, churches and sacraments. Mass is as rarely celebrated here as In Search of Lost Time, once or twice at most. What does this tell us? First of all, in the Catholic novel, the Catholic element integrates and embraces the novelistic element. Paul’s student friend, nicknamed “l’abbé Guillaume,” a theologian like no other, embodies Catholic dogmas. He does not limit himself to professing them in Latin with a bonhomie inherited from the Grand siècle—he lives them, giving them a human face, with a “serene smile… limpid and white…. It was this smile, from which the young man’s words seemed to flow as if from an inexhaustible source, and yet far away, far beyond men and the world, suspended in the shadows like a nearby stellar light, which shone among his radiant words, and almost ended up merging with them, becoming one with the serene certainty of his words” (p. 61). Paul finds the same “immense smile” (p. 340) in the young Françoise, pious but not devout, compared to “the theme of a perpetual fugue” (p. 389) or a “metaphysical thesis” (p. 330). Elsewhere, listening to a Bach cello suite, the hero, suddenly “invaded by eternity,” has the feeling of “hearing a smile come down from heaven” (p. 715). This smile makes manifest the Christian’s joy, a recurrent theme in the Bernanosian or Mauriacian novel, which sheds light on La Chasse’s final affirmation: “God is first and foremost the possibility of joy—which is not the opposite of unhappiness, nor even of drama, nor even of suffering and sadness. Joy is simply, so simply that no one thinks about it, the azure light that alone makes all these shadows possible” (p. 1041).

A sign of inner joy, the smile demands a certainty and serenity that only the Christian faith can provide, according to the hero. The certainty provided by dogmas, “super-powerful revelators of the fundamental structures of man” and “an outpouring of clarity that falls from heaven on the darkness of humanity” (p. 586). This serenity is conferred by the doctrine of creation and, more generally, by Catholic theology, such as that of Saint Thomas Aquinas, backed by a realist philosophy that refuses to make transcendence a “desertion of immanence” and rejects the identity everywhere established between “the real and the visible” (p. 484): “Could transcendence not be rather what the vanishing point is to the perspective of a painting? That place beyond all places, which alone orders as a totality the immanence of a scene which, without it, would be the unfolding of no space at all? Then… then perhaps the invisible would be at the very center of the visible—and everything would have to be rethought!” (p. 484). This revelation that reality is neither what we see nor what we do not see, but “what we see, all vibrant and full of what we don’t see” (p. 858), is not the object of dogma, any more than is the existence of an immaterial God who creates and acts in His creation. Having found it or rediscovered it through the exercise of his intelligence, Paul has concrete experience of this Catholic doctrine of creation as imago Dei and of the human soul conceived in the image of God. Discerning God’s presence in creation, though the fruit of a quest for natural reason, requires the grace of faith, the supernatural light that enlightens all things. To miss the gift of this grace, or to lack faith, leads man into the opposite opacity and immanence: “He could no longer distinguish the light of being; and it was as if the world lost its depth and intensity: things no longer radiated, they were massive and dark, all transparency suddenly absent. No divine ray pierced them” (p. 849).

A realist novel—because it is Thomistic—in an exclusively philosophical sense, La Chasse au Cerf restores the rightful place of man in creation, of the Cross in the mystery of faith, of Christ in the history of salvation and the life of the Trinity. The Catholic novel must always fight against the temptation of humanism and fideism, of exaggerated Christocentrism and of a theology that does without glory or the Cross. The debate on Pascal in La Chasse bears witness to this. One of the characters rightly criticizes the author of the Provinciales for his narrow conception of reason and the relationship between nature and grace, his inability to think of God “in himself” or as God, and above all his doctrine of original sin, which, among other “fideist failings” (p. 208), has led to a “complete erasure of the image of God in the soul” (p. 224). In truth, “Pascal did not make Christians, he undid libertines” (p. 217). Undoubtedly, better than any other man of his time, the convert is able to turn the hearts and minds of men towards Christ on the Cross. However, the Catholic novel cannot be merely Pascalian, otherwise it would miss a considerable dimension of the Christian mystery, in which the one and triune God creates the world and man in His own image, maintains him in being and makes Himself visible in His creation. The anxiety of the Augustinian who walks in the image or vestiges of God, combined with the anguish of the Pascalian who is often at a loss when it comes to explaining his faith, contrasts sharply with the serenity of Thomism, due to an analogy of being that makes all knowledge possible, and a doctrine of participation through which nature can truly act and be perfected by grace (p. 142). This rough-and-ready fresco of Christian temperaments contains a truth that Debluë’s novel brings to light: the concrete existence of individuals depends on certain fundamental options in theology and philosophy. Undoubtedly, the Catholic novel has until now been more Augustinian and Pascalian than Thomistic; undoubtedly, Bloy’s “tender fury, and Barbey d’Aurevilly’s mystical panache” (p. 413) spring more from the apologetics of the City of God and the Pensées than from the sacra doctrina of Saint Thomas. Is this to be regretted? Only when the lack of metaphysical rigor leads to serious errors, on the subject of God’s suffering for example, where “the old romantic scythe… even made Léon Bloy’s intelligence delirious” (p. 694), for whom Saint Thomas had not sufficiently “straightened the mind” (p. 693). In fact, La Chasse shines with an offensive, glorious Catholicism—not of itself, of course, but of its dogmas. Debluë’s characters dare to speak positively of God, to affirm with serenity the truths received by revelation and rediscovered, in some cases, by reason. This certainty gives rise to a joy that some Catholic novels have tended to overlook in favor of the mystery of the Passion, the source of all joy and the stuff of sanctity, since “every sadness is only ever a crucified joy” (p. 1038).

The many pages devoted to Thomistic metaphysics in La Chasse make clear this fundamental fact of the Christian Weltanschauung: there is no life outside God, as the Psalmist put it. In Thomist parlance, all being participates in Ipsum Esse subsistens. One of Romain Debluë’s characters puts it succinctly and convincingly, pointing out that unbelievers “are gnawed by the horribly false opinion that there can be for man an essential life outside God—whereas in truth, if God is God, in losing Him, man loses the very sense of his own essence, of his own core of being; and all that remains for him, to vegetate while awaiting death, is the thinnest surface of himself” (p. 627). Hence, “in one who has no faith, all events, both internal and external to existence, seem to take place only on the surface of him… As if nothing penetrated him to the center… Perhaps because he no longer has a center” (p. 628). This is what Barbey’s “Free Thinker,” Bloy’s and also and Mauriac’s “bourgeois,” Bernanos’s “imbecile” share; this, more commonly, is the characteristic of the many men of today and who always “never commit their being, their deepest sincerity” and “live on the surface of themselves,” to borrow a phrase from Journal d’un curé de campagne. Such are the ghosts of men pursued by Céline’s clumsy heroes and Dostoyevsky’s madmen and eccentrics; such are the specters that haunt Faulkner’s South and Musil’s men without qualities, at least whose qualities are all “accidental” and “fall away from them like dead leaves, without ever reaching their intimacy of soul” (p. 628). In short, “all those who do not belong to God belong, and can only belong, to death, and for death” (p. 631); all those who do not belong to being belong, and can only belong, to nothingness. In the Catholic novel, life reclaims its rights over death, and being over nothingness, since this is the vocation of art—to make visible that which, in nature, remains enclosed and folded in on itself; to make it visible, i.e., “to give the visible back to visibility as such” (p. 543). Knowledge of God transfigures the world that atheism had disfigured, and restores to every human being a consistency that, without the work of grace, would remain limited to natural ends alone. “Horror of a world emptied of You, that no longer illuminates with any meaning or sense the eternal Word, the Reason that made Creation in measure, and harmony and weight” (p. 753).

La Chasse au Cerf is the novel of the conversion of a man who seeks to embrace reality with his eyes and discovers that he is already known and understood by the Source of this reality and of his own being. Far from disappointing him or taking away his freedom, this discovery restores to beings a density that sin and the darkness of ignorance had held captive: “The more God began to shine through in Paul’s eyes, the more the world, as it were, intensified in splendor” (p. 604). This is indeed the function of the Catholic novel, as Paul says of Bernanos’ novels—to give the feeling of a life “denser, more intense, where the colors are more vivid, the contrasts more marked—for better or for worse!” (p. 335-336). Just as, since Christ’s Resurrection, the righteous need no longer fear death or nothingness, which they know have already been conquered, so since creation and until the life of the world to come, man need fear neither the temptation of the world that is too big, nor the seduction of the world that is too beautiful: “For all these profane premises have a Christian and Catholic consequence. It’s our duty to draw it out, just as we draw out the new wine for the illumination within souls that ignore themselves, thirsting for the infinite, and gnawing like old bones at the debris of a broken world” (p. 1042).

Augustin Talbourdel: “Ridendo dicere verum quid vetat?” This article appears courtesy of PHILITT.

Featured: Vision of St. Eustace, by Pisanello; painted ca. 1436-1438.

“Preface” to The Last Mistress

The “Preface” to The Last Mistress (Une vieille maîtresse), by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, is a well-known defense of the Catholic novel. The work of Barbey (1808–1889) is exceptional for its depth and its beauty. He belonged to a Norman aristocratic family, was a firm Catholic, a monarchist, and also a man who stressed the importance of refinement (dandyism). He was a prolific writer, who consistently published novels, poems and essays. His influence on writers and thinkers has been profound.

“Preface” to New Edition of The Last Mistress

This novel was first published in 1851.

At that time, the author had not embarked on the path of convictions and ideas to which he gave his life. He had never been an enemy of the Church. On the contrary, he had always admired it as the greatest and most beautiful thing on earth, but only in human terms. Although a Christian by baptism and respect, he was not one by faith and practice, as he has now become, thanks to God.

And since he did not simply pull away his mind from the systems to which he had, in passing, clung, but that, to the extent of his action and strength, he fought philosophy and will fight it as long as he breathes, Freethinkers (Libre Pensée), with their customary loyalty and broad-mindedness, did not fail to oppose his recent Catholicism with an old-fashioned novel, which dares to be titled, The Last Mistress, and whose aim was to show not only the intoxications of passion, but also its enslavements.

Well, it is this opposition between such a book and his faith that the author of The Last Mistress intends to reject today. He in no way admits, whatever the Freethinkers may like to say, that his book, for which he accepts responsibility since he is republishing it, is really an inconsistency with the doctrines that are, in his eyes, the very truth. With the exception of a libertine detail of which he admits guilt, a detail of three lines, and which he has removed from the edition he now offers to the public, The Last Mistress, when he wrote it, deserves to be classed with all those compositions of literature and art whose object is to represent the passion without which there would be no art, no literature, no moral life; for the excess of passion is the abuse of our freedom.

The author of The Last Mistress was then, as he is now, no more than a novelist who painted passion as it is and as he saw it, but who, in painting it, condemned it on every page of his book. He preached neither with it nor for it. Like the novelists of the Libre Pensée, he did not make passion and its pleasures the right of man and woman, and the religion of the future. True, he expressed it as energetically as he could, but is this what he is being reproached for? Is it the ardor of his color as a painter that he must catholically accuse himself of? In other words, is not the question raised against him with regard to The Last Mistress much higher and more general than the interest of a book that was not being talked about all the time, for lack of a reason to throw it in its author’s face? And is not this question, in fact, that of the novel itself, which the enemies of Catholicism forbid us Catholics to touch?

Yes, that’s the question! Put like that, it is impertinent and comical. Take a look! In the morality of the Libres Penseurs (Freethinkers), Catholics are not allowed to touch romance and passion, on the pretext that their hands must be too pure, as if all wounds that spurt blood or poison did not belong to pure hands! They cannot touch drama either, because that is passion again. They must not touch art, literature or anything else, but kneel in a corner, pray and leave the world and Free Thought alone. I certainly believe that Freethinkers would want that! If it is buffoonish on the one hand, on the other, such an idea has its depth. I do believe they would like to get rid of us by such ostracism, to be able to say, having blocked all avenues, all specialties of thought: “Those wretched Catholics! Are they distant from all the ways of the human spirit!” But frankly, we need another reason than that, to accept, with a humble and docile heart, the lesson that the enemies of Catholicism are kind enough to teach us about the Catholic consequence of our actions and the fulfillment of our duties.

And to bring things out in the open, by the way, how do they come to know about Catholicism? They do not know the first thing about it. They despise it too much to have ever studied it. Is it their hatred that has surmised the spirit beneath the letter? What is morally and intellectually magnificent about Catholicism is that it is broad, comprehensive, immense; that it embraces the whole of human nature and its various spheres of activity; and that, over and above what it embraces, it still deploys the great maxim: “Woe to him who is scandalized!” There is nothing prudish, pompous, pedantic or restless about Catholicism. It leaves that to false virtues, to shorn Puritanisms. Catholicism loves the arts and accepts, without trembling, their audacity. It accepts their passions and their paintings, because it knows that we can learn from them, even when the artist himself does not.

There are terrible indecencies for impure minds in Michelangelo’s painting (The Last Judgment), and in more than one cathedral there are things that would have made a Protestant cover his eyes with Tartuffe’s handkerchief. Does Catholicism condemn them, reject them and erase them? Did not the greatest Popes and the holiest saints protect the Artists who did these things, which the austere Protestants would have abhorred as sacrilegious? When did Catholicism forbid the recounting of an act of passion, no matter how awful or criminal it may have been, the drawing of pathetic effects from it, the illumination of a chasm in the human heart, even though there might be blood and mire at the bottom of it; in short, the writing of novels, that is to say, of history that is possible when it is not real, that is to say, in other words, of human history? Nowhere! On the contrary, it has allowed everything, but with the absolute reservation that the novel would never be a propaganda of vices or a preaching of error; that it can never allow itself to say that good is evil and evil is good, and that it can never be sophistry for the benefit of abject or perverse doctrines, like the novels of Madame Sand and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. With this proviso, Catholicism has even allowed vice and error to be portrayed in their deeds, and to be portrayed in their likeness. It does not clip the wings of genius, when there is genius.

Catholicism would not have prevented Shakespeare, if Shakespeare were Catholic, from writing that sublime scene which opens Richard III, in which the desolate woman who follows the coffin of her husband, poisoned by her brother, after spewing appalling imprecations against the murderer, ends up giving him her wedding ring and surrendering herself to his false and incestuous love. It is abominable, it is dreadful, the simpletons even say improbable, because this hideous change of a woman’s heart takes place in the short duration of a scene, which is, in my opinion, one more truth; yes, it is abominable and dreadful, but it is beautiful in human truth; profoundly, cruelly, frighteningly beautiful; and truth and beauty, of whatever kind, are not subtracted or abolished by Catholicism, which is absolute truth. And, mind you! Shakespeare does not dogmatize. He exposes. He does not say or make the spectator say: “Richard III is right. The woman he seduces over the warm body of her murdered husband is right to let herself be seduced by the murderous brother-in-law who is now king.” No! he says: “Such it is;” and with the superb impassivity of the artist, who is sometimes impassive, he makes it seen, and in a way so powerful that the heart writhes in the chest, and the brain is struck by it as by a shock of lightning electricity.

Well, now, descend from Shakespeare to all artists, and you have the process of art that Catholicism absolves, and that consists in diminishing nothing of the sin or crime that was intended to be expressed.

But there is more, and Catholicism goes even further. Sometimes vice is amiable. Sometimes passion has eloquence, when it tells or speaks, that is almost a fascination. Will the Catholic artist shrink from the seductions of vice? Will he stifle the eloquence of passion? Should he refrain from painting either, because they are both powerful? Will not God, who has allowed them to man’s freedom, allow the artist to put them in his work in his turn? No, God, the Creator of all realities, forbids none of them to the artist, provided, I repeat, that the artist does not make of them an instrument of perdition. Catholicism does not shun art for fear of scandal. In fact, sometimes scandal is a good thing.

There is something (if you will pardon the expression) more Catholic than you would think in the inspiration of all those painters who have taken pleasure in depicting splendid beauty, like gold, purple and snow, of this butcheress, this Herodias, the assassin of Saint John. They did not deprive her of any of her charms. They have made her divine in beauty, looking at the severed head offered to her, and she is all the more infernal for being so divine! This is how art should work. To paint what is, to grasp human reality, whether crime or virtue, and bring it to life through the almighty power of inspiration and form, to show reality, to enliven even the ideal—that is the artist’s mission. Artists are catholically below Ascetics, but they are not Ascetics; they are artists. Catholicism hierarchizes merit, but does not mutilate man. Each of us has his own vocation within his own faculties. Nor is the artist a police prefect of ideas. When he has created a reality, by painting it, he has accomplished his work. Ask nothing more of him!

But I hear the objection, and I know it: But the morality of his work! But the influence of his work on the already shaken public morality! etc., etc., etc.

My safe answer to all this is that the artist’s morality lies in the strength and truth of his painting. By painting reality, by infiltrating it, by breathing life into it, he has been moral enough: he has been true. Truth can never be sin or crime. If a truth is abused, too bad for those who abuse it! If a living, true work of art leads to evil conclusions, too bad for the guilty reasoners! The artist has nothing to do with the conclusion. “He lent to it,” you may say. Did God lend to man’s crimes and sins when He created the free soul of man? Did He lend to the evil that men can do, by giving them everything they abuse, by putting His magnificent, calm and good creation in their hands, under their feet, in their arms? Come now, I have known imaginations so unbridled and carnal that they felt the fiery lash of desire as they gazed at the lowered eyelashes of Raphael’s Virgins. Should Raphaël have stopped to avoid this danger, and thrown into the fire his Vierge d’Albe, his Vierge à la Chaise, and all his masterpieces of purity, apotheoses of human virginity repeated twenty times over? For some people, is not everything a stumbling block, an opportunity to fall? Should Art expire defeated by considerations that support all failures? Should it be replaced by a preventive system of high prudence that allows nothing of anything that could be dangerous, i.e., ultimately, nothing of nothing?

The artist creates by reproducing the things God has made, which man distorts and upsets. When he has reproduced them exactly, luminously, he has, it is certain, as an artist, all the morality he should have. If one has a fair and penetrating mind, one can always draw from one’s work, disinterested in anything that is not the truth, the teaching, sometimes contained, that it envelops. I am well aware that we sometimes have to dig deeper, but artists write for their peers, or at least for those who understand them. And besides, is depth a crime? Surely Catholic wisdom is more vast, more rounded, more frank and more robust than the Moralists of the Libre Pensée imagine. Let them ask the Jesuits, those astonishing politicians of the human heart, who understood morality so greatly, who saw it from so high up, when on the contrary the Jansenists shrank it and saw it from so low down, making it so narrow, so silly and so hard! Let them question one of those Casuists with a spirit of discernment and relief, such as the Church has produced so many of, especially in Italy, and they will learn, since they are unaware of it, that no prescription rips from our hands the passion whose history the novel writes, and that the narrow, chagrined and scrupulous Catholicism they invent against us is not the one that has always been the Civilization of the world, both in the order of thought and in the order of morality!

And this is not a theory invented at pleasure for the needs of a cause, it is the very spirit of Catholicism. The author of The Last Mistress asks to be judged in this light. Catholicism is the science of Good and Evil. It probes the kidneys and hearts, two cesspools filled, like all cesspools, with an incendiary phosphorus; it looks into the soul—this is what the author of The Last Mistress has done. He has described passion and its faults, but has he apotheosized it? He has described its power, its interlocking, the kind of bar it puts in our free will, as in a distorted coat of arms. He has not narrowed either passion or Catholicism, while painting them. Either The Last Mistress must be absolved of what it is, whatever it is, or we must give up this thing called the novel. Either we must give up painting the human heart, or we must paint it as it is.

If only the gentlemen of the Libre Pensée, so devoted to social interests as we know, found The Last Mistress subversive. Her! But the author, in telling this sad story, could have been impassive, and he was not! He condemned Marigny, the guilty husband! He made him feel remorse and even shame! He made him confess to his grandmother and condemn himself. But his wife, to whom Marigny eventually begs forgiveness, does not forgive him! No novelist has been more the Torquemada of his heroes than the author of The Last Mistress. Yes, passion is revolutionary; but it is because it is revolutionary that it must be shown in all its strange and abominable glory. From the point of view of the Order, the history of revolutions is a good story to write.

That is what we have to say to the gentlemen of the Libre Pensée! Let us finish with a word from their Master. “There are vile decencies,” said Rousseau.

Catholicism knows no such thing.

October 1, 1865.

Featured: Portrait of Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, by Émile Lévy; painted in 1882.

Long Live the Humanities, Ever Living!

An invitation to reflect on the love for the Humanities.

The meritorious writer, Eduardo Aguirre Romero, who is an on humor in Cervantes and is very much a humorist in his own right, has written a remarkable book. humor Eduardo Aguirre Romero, himself very much a humorist, author of the remarkable books, Vivan las Humanidades, siempre vivas (Long live the Humanities, Ever Living). Previously, he has written, Cervantes, enigma del humor (Cervantes, Enigma of Humor), Cine para caminar (Cinema to Walk With), Blues de Cervantes (Cervantes Blues), and Entrevista a Cervantes (Interview with Cervantes). His latest book was brought to the stage as a “dramatized conference,” at the Aula Magna of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, at the University of León, during the institute’s joyful patron saint festivities for San Isidoro on April 18, 2023. The book includes a foreword by Professor José Montero Reguera, Dean of the Faculty of Philology and Translation at the University of Vigo.

The leading parts at the “dramatized conference” were played by:

  • Juan Matas Caballero, Professor and Corresponding Academician of the Royal Academy of Sciences, Fine Arts and Noble Arts of Córdoba, who has recently edited the magnum opus, Sonetos de Luis de Góngora (Sonnets of Luis de Góngora);
  • Marta Roa , the former Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, University of León, (who is actually the wife of Eduardo Aguirre Romero; this fact actually serves as a gag within a gag in the dramatized lecture);
  • Ángeles Rodríguez the renowned Mexican actress;
  • Juan Álvarez Iglesias, student at the Faculty and Letters;
  • Siro López Lorenzo, the essayist (such as, “Epilogue;” “Letter to Krzysztof Sliwa”), who is one of the most important Spanish graphic humorists and caricaturists;
  • Marcelo Tettamanti and Pedro Fergar, poets both of photography.

In his Prologue, the renowned Cervantes scholar Montero Reguera correctly observes that the role of a Dean of Humanities “is a very laborious job, not given to leisure, in which very curious and sometimes unthinkable things are dealt with… since it is up to us—philologists, philosophers, historians—to make our society capable of looking to the future with an open, expectant, curious, responsible vision.”

The Dramatic Conference.

Reguera rightly suggests that the “theatrical” Eduardo Aguirre Romero explains very well the role of a Dean of the Humanities in our very difficult times and alludes to his teacher the philologist Alonso Zamora Vicente (1916-2006)—who was also the teacher of the Peruvian writer, Mario Vargas Llosa (1936-) who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (2010), and from whom Reguera quotes these words:

The young Spaniard must always be in the flesh, before Cervantes’ criticism of the society in which he lives, and learn from him the position that an intellectual must maintain in the face of the ever-changing socio-political structures; he must be in the vanguard of them, in permanent constructive opposition, marking an ethic and an inextinguishable desire for improvement” (Vivan, pp. 14-15).

Reguera agrees with Aguirre, and states that

The humanities are fundamental for being human, enriching to the highest degree, but also fun, a lot of fun: the stuff composed by Matas and Aguirre that ended up becoming a gangarilla, with the intervention of a certain de Saavedra [Cervantes], in the guise of Ángeles Rodríguez proves it. Come in, come in and read Aguirre, you will have a good time, and yes, you will end up shouting, with conviction, ‘Long Live the Humanities!’ (Vivan, p. 15).

Moving forward in time, let us now focus on the “dramatized conference,” which is the heart of the play, and in whose theatrical representation the members participate. They are Juan Mata Caballero, Eduardo Aguirre Romero, the Lady (Marta Roa), Miguel de Cervantes (Ángela Rodríguez), and Pancracio de Roncesvalles (Juan Álvarez Iglesias). They profess the challenges of the Humanities in this way:

“They say that bad winds are blowing for our beloved Humanities… but when have good times ever blown for it?
“Tell me, which times have been good for the Humanities? And for the human?
“Finally, ask your parents or your grandparents about difficult times. Difficulty is part of the test, in studies and in professions, even in love and in life. This is what this minstrel of columns tells you.
“Who has seen many towers fall that I never imagined I would see fall. But I also see others rise. Raise your own towers, be builders of your reality and not mere passive objects of what they want to impose on you. It is not easy. But it never was.
“And yes, how can you deny it: an economic crisis that does not end… the conflict in Ukraine that puts it at risk.
“New totalitarian fascinations, right and left… a crisis of the Spanish educational system—not caused by teachers—that links with the previous one and the previous one and the previous one… the majority’s disaffection towards culture;
“All this is true, but it is not the only truth. Participate in the combat of values in which we have put you… and win it in our name” (Vivan, pp. 19-23).

Indeed, Aguirre emphasizes that “Humanities studies are the master pillar on which civilization has built the best of itself” (Vivan, p. 24). However, despite the crisis of the Humanities, Aguirre writes with elegance and appeals to students, teachers and amateur enthusiasts: “Yearn for excellence, as a first step to achieve that solid formation which must be the shield;” and “overcome the threats with the weapons of our values, but also of your academic formation” (Vivan, p. 26), because “a society without Humanities taught in public education would mean that the only criteria would be economic ones, in the name of what they call professional opportunities. Of course, and when there are not, create them. Let’s say it now, today Culture as we know it, which is not one but the sum of many, is also in danger. We cannot deny the obvious” (Vivan, p. 29).

Alongside this, in defense of the Humanities, Aguirre, who is a columnist for the Diario de León, resurrects Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, King of Spanish Literature, mentions some notorious examples throughout his work, and appeals to students in this way:

In this good fight, it is not enough to be enrolled, or to have tiptoed through it. Nor is it enough to save yourself by the skin of your teeth. Allow me to insist… yearn for excellence, yearn for it with joy and passion. Have a voracity for knowledge…. You are in a wonderful stage in which your main obligation is to train yourselves. You will never have so much time for it again. These years are your foundation for the future” (Vivan, pp. 29-31).

To further reinforce his opinion of the Humanities, despite the challenges, Aguirre (himself a member of the Cervantistas Association) teaches the reader the power of the Humanities, which are valuable not only valuable for men of letters, but constitute pearls of wisdom from the genius of universal literature. Thus, Aguirre deduces that “Cervantes and his most universal masterpiece have an enormous formative power, without the need to take it to nineteenth-century distortions or to mutate it into a lackey of May ’68” (Vivan, p. 49). Aguirre, with his deep curiosity, emphasizes a great honesty:

Aguirre: The Humanities are not only what you know, but also—or above all—what you do” (Vivan, p. 33);

and then he rightly recommends this course of action:

Cervantes- “TRAIN yourselves… CREATE yourselves… BUILD yourselves… WRITE yourselves… READ… LISTEN… In short, FIGHT… for what is yours, which belongs to everyone. And also, of course… LAUGH… LOVE… SING…” (Vivan, p. 38).

It is also important to state that it is a great honor and privilege for me to give you my sincere thanks for defending the Humanities through theater, and to congratulate the playwright Eduardo Aguirre Romero, sincere believer, effective observer of reality and versatile writer, for his magnificent theatrical work, a scenic landmark of the Humanities, which illustrates the fundamental values of sincere love and true sacrifice, won with love, pain and humor, oriented to all humanity. My congratulations I also extend to all the theatrical characters, and to the exemplary editorial achievement, in a work designed to be distributed free of charge among teachers and students, as it is already being done. My warmest congratulations to all!

It should be emphasized that the gag that closes the book, that the Quixote delivered by Aguirre to Cervantes for his signature is by mistakenly the apocryphal one (1614), so by Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda, at least in the edition of the Royal Spanish Academy, and is a tribute to the meritorious professor Luis Gomez Canseco, of the University of Huelva. At the same time, I emphasize that it is only right to be grateful for the dedication that the author makes to me and for the letter he sends me at the end of the book.

Without the slightest shadow of a doubt, Eduardo Aguirre proclaims unconditional love and aesthetic, human, personal, social and universal values through his unwavering pen for the Humanities, which contribute decisively to the more humane formation of the global citizen, but which gradually tend to be conspicuous by their absence in university classrooms.

Aguirre, who loves humanity, reflects the current situation of the humanities around the world through his characters and themes. He relies on wise and healthy humor, because weise Wörter sind gesund—thus he captures the reader’s soul, and invites us to defend the Humanities and make us better human beings.

In conclusion, the masterpiece, Vivan las Humanidades, siempre vivas, illuminates the path of our heart; it beautifies us spiritually, and proves that it is beneficial and indispensable to serve by leading and loving the Humanities and all Humanity. Congratulations to all!

Krzysztof Sliwa is a professor, writer for Galatea, a journal of the Sociedad Cervantina de Esquivias, Spain, and a specialist in the life and works of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and the Spanish Golden Age Literature, all subjects on which he has written several books. He has also published numerous articles and reviews in English, German, Spanish and Polish, and is the Corresponding Member of the Royal Academy of Cordoba and Toledo.

Featured: Cervantes writes the dedication of Don Quixote to the Count of Lemos, by Eugenio Oliva Rodrigo; painted in 1883.


If you would like to learn to speak and read Latin using the acclaimed Ecce Romani series, consider enrolling in Apocatastasis Institute, where Latin is anything but dead!

Homo, de quo hic sermo est, ditissimus ac potentissimus fuit in sua parochia; nomen ejus Thord Överaas. Apparuit uno die in sacerdotii studio alta et studiosa.

“Filium habeo”, inquit, et ego illum volo ad baptismum exhibere.

Quod erit nomen eius?

“Finn-post patrem meum.”

“Ac sponsores?”

Quibus commemoratis et probati sunt optimi viri ac feminae relationes Thord in paroecia.

“Numquid est aliud?” Quaesivit sacerdotem et vidit; Cunctatus paulatim rusticus.

“Per se ipsum baptizari,” inquit, “vehementer velim.”

“Hoc est dicere in hebdomade die?”

“Sabbato sequenti, hora sexta sexta.”

“Numquid est aliud?” quaesivit sacerdos.

“Nihil aliud”, et rusticus pileum volutabat, quasi iturus esset.

Surrexerunt ergo sacerdos. “Est tamen hoc, tamen.” Et ambulans versus Thord, apprehensa manu, intuens graviter in oculos suos: “Deus faxit ut filius fiat tibi benedictio!”

Olim sedecim annis post Thord denuo in studio sacerdotii stetit.

“Vere, admirabiliter aetatem tuam geris, Thorde,” inquit sacerdos; nihil enim videbat in homine mutandum.

“Id est, quia molestias non habeo,” respondit Thord. Ad haec sacerdos nihil dixit, sed aliquantisper quaesivit: “Quid placet hoc vespere?”

“Veni vesperi de illo filio meo cras confirmandus.”

“Ille puer clarus est.”

“Nolebam reddere sacerdoti, donec audivi quem numerum haberet puer, cum cras in ecclesia substitueret.”

“Stabit unus numerus.”

“Sic audivi; et hic sunt decem denarii sacerdoti.”

“Nihil aliud possum facere vobis?” percontatus sacerdotem intuens Thord.

“Nihil aliud.”

Thord exivit.

Octo annis amplius volvebatur, ac deinde quadam die extra sacerdotii studium strepitus audiebatur, multi enim appropinquabant, et ad caput eorum Thord, qui primus intravit.

Sacerdos intuens eum agnovit.

“Hoc vespere bene venisti, Thord,” inquit.

“Hic peto ut banna edantur filio meo: uxorem ducet Karen Storliden Gudmundi filia, quae hic iuxta me stat.”

“Quare, id est opulentissima puella in parochia.”

“Sic rusticus,” inquiunt, “comam manu gestans reduxit.”

Sacerdos aliquandiu quasi in profunda cogitatione sedit, deinde nomina in libro suo ingressus, nulla commentatione faciens, subscripserant homines subscriptis. Thord tria dollaria in mensa posuit.

Dixit sacerdos: “Unum est totum habeo”, ait sacerdos.

“Optime scio; sed unicus meus est; id pulchre facere volo.”

Sacerdos pecuniam sumpsit.

“Hoc jam tertium est, Thorde, quod propter filium tuum huc venisti.”

“At nunc cum eo sum”, Thord dixit, et sinum plicans vale dixit et abierat.

Milites eum tardius secuti sunt.

Quindecim post dies, pater et filius per lacum remigabant, una tranquillitas, adhuc die, Storliden ad nuptias ordinandas.

“Haec sedes remigis tuta non est,” inquit filius, et stitit ut sedem in qua sedebat corrigat.

Eodem momento sub eo delapsa tabula stabat; arma eiecit, clamorem dedit et excidit.

“Apprehende remum!” Conclamat pater, tendens ad pedes, tenensque remum.

Sed cum filius duos conatus fecisset, invaluit.

“Expectate paulisper!” exclamat pater, remigio filio coepit.

Tum filius supinus revolutus, longo vultu patri dedit, demersit.

Thord vix credere potuit; Ille navem tenuit, et in eo loco, quo filius eius descenderat, intuens, quasi ad superficiem rursus veniret. Surrexerunt aliquae bullae, deinde aliae plures, et tandem una magna quae rumpitur; et lacus ibi tam levis et splendens sicut speculum iterum jacebat.

Per tres dies et tres noctes patrem remigium circum circaque cernebant, nullo cibo aut somno adsumptis; ipse lacus corpus filii traxit. Et ad mane diei tertiae invenit eam, et portavit eam in brachiis suis super colles in villam suam.

Fuerat autem annus ab illa die, cum sacerdos, in sero uno autumnali vespere, audivit aliquem in transitu extra ostium, diligenter quaerens invenire foramen. Sacerdos ianuam aperuit, et ambulabat in alta, macilentus, inclinato forma et pilis albis. Sacerdos diu intuens eum antequam agnovisset. Fuit Thord.

“Esne tam sero ambulans?” dixit sacerdos, et stetit coram eo.

“Ah, Etiam sero est”, Thord dixit, et cathedram assumpsit.

Sacerdos quoque quasi expectans discubuit. Longum et longum silentium est. Tandem Thord dixit:

“Habeo aliquid apud me quod velim eleemosynis dare; volo in filio nomine collocari legatum.”

Et resurrexit, et posuit pecuniam in mensa, et iterum resedit. Sacerdos reputavit.

“Magna pecunia est”, inquit.

“Dimidium pretium agri mei est. Ego eum hodie vendidi.”

Sacerdos diu silebat. Tandem rogat, sed leniter.

“Quid nunc facere vis, Thord?”


Ibi aliquamdiu sederunt, Thordus demissis oculis, in Thord defixis oculis sacerdos. Mox sacerdos, lente ac molliter dixit.

“Puto tandem filium tuum veram benedictionem attulisse.”

“Ita reor ita me”, dixit Thord aspiciens, dum duae magnae lachrymae lento genas percurrebant.

Ex Björnstjerne Björnson (1838-1910).

Featured: The Old Fisherman, by Hans Heyerdahl; painted in 1891.

Codicillus Canonis Alberici

If you would like to learn to speak and read Latin using the acclaimed Ecce Romani series, consider enrolling in Apocatastasis Institute, where Latin is anything but dead!

S. Bertrandi de Commingis est oppidum corruptum in stimulis Pyrenaei, non longe a Tolosano, et propius vero Bagnères-de-Luchon. Erat sedes episcopatus usque ad Revolutionem, et habet cathedralem quae a nonnullis peregrinatoribus visitatur. Fons anno MDCCCLXXXIII Anglus ad hunc antiquum locum pervenit—vix possum insignire civitatis nomine, nam non sunt mille incolae. Is erat vir Cantabrigiensis, qui specialiter a Tolosa ad ecclesiam Sancti Bertrandi venerabatur, et duos amicos, qui archaeologos minus acerrimos erant quam ipse, reliquerat, in deversorio suo Tolosae se postero mane se venturum pollicebatur. Dimidia hora in ecclesia satisfaceret eis, et omnes tres tunc possent iter suum prosequi versus Auch. Sed Anglus noster primo die de quo agitur venerat, et sibi proposuit chirographum implere, et aliquot justos bracteas uti in describendo et photographando angulo mirae ecclesiae, quae monticulum Comminges dominatur. Ad hoc consilium satis exsequendum, oportuit vergere in diem ecclesiae monopolire. Itaque verger seu sacrista (malim hoc nomen, ut forte, inaccuratum) arcessitur a muliercula brusque, quae hospicium de Chapeau Rouge custodit; quo cum pervenisset, Anglus ex inopinato studiorum rerum studium invenit. Non erat in specie propria modici, sicci, venefici senis, usuras jacebat, erat enim justo justo aliorum custodum ecclesiasticorum in Gallia, sed in furtivis curiosis, seu potius exagitandis et oppressis, aere; habnit. Dimidiatus post se sempiternus fuit; dorsi atque umeri musculi continua nervorum contractione subruti videbantur, ut se in hostium lassa momenta exspectarent. Anglus vix noverat, utrum certam erroris infestam, an conscientiae noxam oppressam, virum intolerabili concitum virum deponeret. Probabilia, si recensentur, ultimam certe notionem demonstrant; sed tamen gravioris persecutoris etiam quam mulierculae impressum est.

Sed mox nimis profundus erat in chirographo Anglicus (ut eum Dennistoun dicamus) et in camera sua occupatus plusquam occasionaliter ad sacristam daret. Quem cum aspexisset, haud procul reperit, revoluta se parietibus, aut in una splendidis praesepia accubans. Dennistoun post tempus magis morosus factus est Mixta suspiciones, quod senem a déjeunero suo teneret, quod cum baculo eburneo S. Bertrandi, vel crocodilo pulvere referto, quod fonti imminet, abolere videretur, eum torquere coepit.

“Nonne domum?” dixit tandem; “Meas notas solus conficere satis valeo; Si vis me cohibere potes. Plus saltem duabus horis hic petam, et tibi frigidum est, annon?”

“Boni!” homunculus, quem inenarrabili terrore iniecere suggestio videbatur, hoc momento cogitari non potest.

Recte, mi homuncule, inquit Dennistoun apud se: “Admonitus es, et consequentia debes accipere.”

Ante duas horas peractos, stabula, organum immane dilapidatum, velamentum Johannis Episcopi de Mauléon, reliquiae vitreae et plagulae, ac res in gazophylacio, bene ac vere examinata erant; aedituus adhuc in calcaneis Dennistoun detinebat, ac subinde quasi stimulus verberabatur, cum unus vel alter ex miris strepitus, qui magnum aedificium inane vexabant, in aurem eius incidit. Curiales strepitus interdum erant.

“Semel,” Dennistoun dixit ad me, “jurare potui” audivi vocem metallicam tenuem in turri alte ridentem. Ego ad aedituum meum percontando ieci. Ad labra erat candidus. ‘Ille est’, id est, nemo est; ostium clausum est, omnia dixit, et invicem perparum minutatim spectavimus.

Alius libellus incident multum perplexus Dennistoun. Inspiciebat magnam imaginem obscuram, quae post altare dependet, unam ex serie miraculorum sancti Bertrandi illustrantia. Compositio picturae prope inexplicabilis est, sed subest legenda Latina, quae sic se habet:

Qualiter S. Bertrandus liberavit hominem quem diabolus diu volebat strangulare.

Dennistoun ad sacristam subridens et ioculari quodam sermone in labra convertebat, sed confusus senem super genibus videre, imaginem supplicis oculis in agonia intuens, manibus arcte amplexus est et pluit lachrymis in genis. Dennistoun nihil se sensisse fingebat, sed quaestio ab eo non discederet, “Quare incrustatio talis aliquem tam vehementer afficit?” Is sibi visus est aliquam speciem acuendi rationem insoliti aspectus, qui eum toto die haesitabat: homo monomaniacus esse debet; sed quae fuit eius monomania?

Hora fere quinta erat; brevis dies appetebat, et ecclesia replere umbras coepit, dum curiosis strepitus, obvolutis gressibus et longinquis loquelae vocibus perceptibiles per totum diem, haud dubie propter evanescentem lucem ac per hoc vivificatus sensus videbatur. Auditus, incipere fortis et frequens.

Sacrista primum coepit festinationis et impatientiae signa ostendere. Susspiravit suspirium subsidii cum camera et libelli notarii tandem conferti et evulsi, et propere annuit Dennistoun ad occidentalem portam ecclesiae sub turri. Tempus erat pulsandi Angelo. Inviti funem pauca trahunt, et ingens Bertranda, alta in arce, loqui coepit, torsitque vocem Inter pinus et valles, magna cum montibus amnes, solos incolas colles. Ut reminisceretur et repeteret salutationem Angeli ad eam, quam vocavit “Benedictam in mulieribus.” Cum magna tranquillitas visa est primum illa die in oppidulum cadere, et Dennistoun et sacrista exivit de ecclesia.

Limen in sermonem inciderunt.

“Monsieur videbatur sibi interesse in veteribus libris choralibus in sacristia.”

“Utique. Rogaturus eram te si bibliotheca in oppido esset.”

Non, monsieur; fortasse unus erat de Capitulo, sed nunc tam exiguus locus. Huc accessit mira dubitationis mora, ut videbatur; deinde cum quodam immergito sic secutus est: Si vero monsieur est amateur des vieux livres, domi habeo aliquid quod interest. Centum ulnas non est.”

Statim omnes Dennistoun somnia in pretiosos codices inveniendi in intritis Galliae plagis emicuit, sequenti momento iterum mori. Probabiliter stupidum missale imprimendi Plantin anno circiter 1580. Ubi verisimilitudo fuit quod locus tam prope Toulousam a collectoribus olim non extortus fuisset? Sed ite ne stultum esset; in perpetuum se accusaturum, si negaret. Sic profecti sunt. In via curiosa irresolutio et subita determinatio aedituorum ad Dennistoun rediit, et miratus est turpiter an in aliquem furculum inauguraretur tanquam dives Anglicus. Incipere itaque cum duce suo nectere, et incondite, quod duos amicos exspectaret, altero mane sibi coniungendos esse. Miranti nuntiatio visum est, ut aedituus aliquarum sollicitudinum premeret.

“Bene,” inquit luculenter — id est optime. Monsieur una cum amicis ambulabit; semper prope eum erunt. Bonum est sic in societate aliquando iter agere.

Ultimum verbum pro retractu addendum videbatur, et secum reducendum in maerorem pauperculo.

Mox in domo, quae maior erat quam finitimis, lapidea fabricata, scuto supra januam insculpto, scutum Alberici de Mauléon, pronepotis collateralis, ut narrat Dennistoun, Johannis episcopi de Mauléon. Hic Albericus Canonicus Comminges ab anno 1680 ad 1701. Superiores mansionis fenestras conscendit, et totus locus, ut reliqui Convenarum, rationem deficiendi aetatis portabat.

Ad cuius limen accessit, aedituus momento constitit.

“Forte,” inquit, “forsitan tamen monsieur tempus non habet?”

“Minime temporis nihil ad crastinum faciendum est. Videamus quid habeas.

Apertum est hoc loco ianuam, et prospiciens facies longe minoris quam aedituorum facies, sed ferens aliquid ex eodem maerore vultu: hic tantum notum esse videbatur, non tam timoris quam salutis privatae. Acuta anxietas pro alio. Plane dominus faciei erat filia sacristae; et, sed quod dixi, satis formosa puella fuit. Illum multum inluminavit, cum patrem suum conspicuum cum valido agmine extraneo. Pauca inter patrem et filiam ducta sunt, e quibus Dennistoun haec tantum verba deprehensa, a sacrista dixit, “Ridemus in ecclesia,” verba quae sola aspectu formido puellae respondebant.

Sed in alio minuto erant in exedra domus parvae, altae cubiculi cum pavimento lapideo, plenae mobilibus umbris ab igne lignoso, qui magnum focum vibrabat. Aliquid de ratione oratorii ei collata fuit per altam crucifixum, quae fere ad laquearia hinc inde pervenit; figura naturalium colorum depicta erat, crux erat nigra. Sub hoc stabat cista alicuius aetatis et soliditatis, et, cum lucerna adlata esset, et sellis poneretur, sacrista ad hanc cistam ibat, et produxit inde, crescente tumultu et trepidatione, sicut Dennistoun opinabatur, libro magno involuto. Pannus albus, in quo pannus crux erat rudi filo intexta. Etiam antequam involutio sublata esset, Dennistoun magnitudinem et figuram voluminis considerare coepit. “Nimis ad missalem” cogitabat, non figuram antiphonis; fortasse aliquid boni post omnia potest esse.” Proximo momento liber apertus est, et Dennistoun sensit se tandem aliquid meliore quam bono accensum esse. Ante eum in magno folio, fortasse saeculo decimo septimo nuper adstrictum, cum armis Canonici Alberici de Mauléon aureis lateribus impressis. Fuerunt fortasse centum et quinquaginta folia chartacea in codice, et fere singula folium ex manuscripto illuminato affixa sunt. Talis collectionis Dennistoun vix in asperrimis momentis somniaverat. Hic folia decem erant ex exemplari Geneseos picturis illustrata, quae serius esse non potuit quam A.D. 700. In Psalterio, Anglica exactione, e pulcherrimo genere quae saeculo XII. Fortasse omnium optima, viginti folia unciae latine scripta erant, quae, ut pauca hic illic narravi, ad nonnullos vetustissimos patristicorum tractatos pertinere debet. Poteratne esse fragmentum exemplaris Papiae “de verbis Domini,” quod notum est exstitisse tam sero quam saeculo XII Nemausi? Ceterum animus eius confectus est; ille liber cum eo redibit Cantebrigiam, etiam si traheret totam libram suam de patrimonio suo, et manere apud Sanctum Bertrandum, donec veniret pecunia. Intuitus est sacrista, ut videret si quid emitteret ejus facies, librum venalem esse. Pallebat sacrista, et operabantur labia ejus.

“Si monsieur in finem vertetur,” inquit.

Monsieur igitur se convertit, thesauros novos occurrens in omni ortu folii; et in fine libri supervenit in duabus chartis, multo recentioris, quam quicquam adhuc viderat, quod eum aliquantum haesitabat. Eos esse coaetaneos statuit Albericus scelestus Canonicus, qui nimirum bibliothecam Capituli S. Bertrandi depraedavit, ut hunc inaestimabilem librum exiguo formaret. Kalendarum chartarum consilium fuit, diligenter extractum et statim cognitum ab eo qui terram noverat, porticus australis et claustra Sancti Bertrandi. Signa curiosa erant sicut symbola planetarum, et pauca verba hebraicorum in angulis; et in angulo aquilonis ad occidentem claustri erat crux aurea depicta. Infra consilium erant nonnullae lineae scribendi latine, quae ita se habent;

Responsa 12mi Dec. 1694. Interrogatum est: Inveniamne? Responsum est: Invenies. Fiamne dives? Fies. Vivamne invidendus? VIVIT. Moriarne in lecto meo? Ita.

“Bonum specimen recordi thesauri venatoris—unum satis commemorat apud D. Minor-Canon Quatremain in Veteri Sancti Pauli” commentarium erat Dennistoun et folium vertit.

Quae postea impressa vidit, ut saepius mihi dixit, quam ullam habentem seu picturam in se imprimi posse conciperet. Et, licet extractionem vidit iam exsistentiam non habet, photographica est eius (quod ego possideo) quod plene enuntiat. In pictura, de qua agitur, sepiae exeunte saeculo decimo septimo fuit delineatio, quae prima facie scaenam biblicam repraesentans diceret; Architectura enim (imago interiorem repraesentabat) et figurae illum semi-classicum saporem habebant circa eas, quas artifices ante ducenti annos exemplis Bibliorum aptam putaverunt. Ad dexteram erat rex in solio, thronus duodecim gradibus elevatus, conopeum supra caput, milites hinc inde, scilicet rex Salomon. Porrectis sceptris prone in imperio; exhorruit voltus et taedio, sed erat in eo quoque imperiosus et ferox. Sinistra pars picturae erat mirabile, tamen. Rem plane sitas esse. In pavimento ante thronum globi quatuor milites circumcirca curvum figurae momento describendae sunt. Quintus miles iacebat super pavimento, collo distorto, oculi globuli a capite; Quattuor custodes circumstantes regem aspiciebant. In vultu augebatur horror animi; immo vero per implicationem domini sui a fuga temperari videbantur. Totum hunc terrorem inter medios accubuisse. Omnino despero imperare quibusvis verbis hanc figuram in aliquem intuenti. Reminiscor semel monstrans imaginem photographicam extractionis ad lectorem de morphologia, hominem, dicturus sum, enormis sanae et unimaginativae mentis habitus. Solus reliqui vesperi illius esse omnino recusavit, et mihi postea narravit non ausum fuisse lucem ante somnum exstinguere per multas noctes. Praecipua autem figurae notae saltem indicare possum. Vides primo modo molem crassam, squalentem nigros; mox visum, quod hoc corpus formidolosae tenuitatis paene sceleti obtegeret, sed musculis instar filis exstantibus. Manus erant palloris ferruginei, obductis ad instar corporis, pilis longis, crassis, et tecte aduncis. Oculi fulvo tactus ardente, pupillas impense nigras habebant, et in solio regis vultu ferina odii defixa. Finge unum ex horrendis aucupiis aranearum aucupium in formam humanam in America Meridionali translata, et ingenio minus quam humano praeditam, et habebis conceptum aliquem languidum terroris horroris effigies. Unum illud universaliter fit ab illis, quibus imaginem demonstravi: “Ex vita ducta est.”

Ut primum impetum terroris intolerandi resederat, Dennistoun turmas suas rapuit aspectum. Manus sacristae oculis premebantur; Filia eius, suspiciens crucem in pariete, dicens ei precula febricitare.

Tandem quaesitum est, “Numquid hic liber est venalis?”

Eadem cunctatio, idem animus quem ante viderat, deinde gratissimum responsum, “Si placet monsieur.”

“Quantum rogas illum?”

“Ducentos et quinquaginta francos accipiam.”

Hoc erat confundens. Etiam conscientia collectoris interdum commovetur, et conscientia Dennistoun mollior quam collectoris fuit.

“Meum bonum virum!” Iterum atque iterum dixit, “Librum tuum longe pluris quam ducentos et quinquaginta francos valet, mehercules longe amplius.”

Sed responsum non variavit: “Ducentos et quinquaginta francos accipiam, non plus.”

Nulla erat facultas recusandi talem casum. Pecunia persoluta, receptaculum signatum, vitreum vini inebriatum super negotio, et tunc sacrista homo novus factus videbatur. Substitit, destitit, suspectos post se jactare voltus, Risisse vel ridere conatus. Dennistoun surrexerunt ad eundum.

“Honorem comitatus ad deversorium suum habebo?” dictus sacrista.

“O gratias! Centum ulnae non est. Viam perfecte novi, et est luna.

Oblatio ter quaterve premebatur, et toties recusabatur.

Tum me, si invenerit occasio; Mediam viam servabit, adeo aspera sunt.

“Certe,” inquit Dennistoun, qui praemium suum a se explorare impatiens erat; et egressus est in locum cum libro suo sub brachio suo.

Hic occurrit filia; illa, ut videbatur, parva negotia pro se facere cupiebat; fortasse aliquid accipere ab peregrino, cui pater pepercerat, ut Giezi.

“Crucifixus argenteus et cathena pro collo; Monsieur fortasse satis esse accipio?”

“Bene, re vera, Dennistoun his rebus non multum usus fuerat. Quid pro eo mademoiselle vis?”

“Nihil—nihil est in mundo. Monsieur plus est quam acceptum est”.

Tonus, quo hoc et multo plura dictum est, haud dubie genuinus fuit, ut Dennistounus ad gratias profusas redactus sit, et catenam e collo evolutam submitteret. Videbatur tamen, si patri et filia aliquod officium reddidisset, quod reddere vix scirent. Cum proficisceretur cum libro suo, steterunt ad januam spectantes eum, et adhuc quaerebant quando ultimam bonam noctem agitabat a passibus Chapeau Rouge.

Prandio suscepto, Dennistoun in cubiculo suo solus inclusit cum acquisitione. Familiaris eius peculiare studium declaraverat, cum ei indicasset se uisitare ad sacristam et librum antiquum ab eo emisse. Existimavit etiam, quod audivisset colloquium inter ipsam et dictum sacristam in dicto loco extra salle a presepio; nonnulla verba ad effectum ut “Petrus et Bertrandus in domo dormientes” sermonem clauserant.

Toto hoc tempore ingravescentem animi molestiam super eum obrepit—nervus motus, fortasse post eius inventionis delectationem. Quidquid erat, fiebat in persuasione aliquem post se esse, et multo commodius a tergo ad parietem esse. Haec omnia, scilicet, perpendebantur in trutina tamquam contra notum valorem collectionis acquisitae. Et nunc, ut dixi, solus erat in cubiculo suo, de thesauris Canonicis Alberici, in quo omne momentum revelavit aliquid suavius.

“Benedictus Canonicus Albericus.” dixit Dennistoun, qui inveteratam loquendi consuetudinem secum habuit. “Miror ubi nunc est? Cara mihi! Utinam domina disceret laetiore modo ridere; hoc sentit sicut aliquis mortuus in domo; Dimidium tibia plus, ais? Puto fortasse recte. Miror quid illa crucifixi est virgo institit dare mihi? Superiore saeculo, credo. Ita verisimiliter. Magis molestum est rem habere circa collum – nimis grave est. Verisimile est pater eius annos induta est. Puto me mundum dare priusquam abstulero.

Crucifixo abstulerat, et super mensam posuit, quando intentus fuit ab obiecto iacente super sinum rubeum a sinistro cubito. Duae vel tres notiones quidnam possit per cerebrum suum inaestimabili velocitate volitare.

” Calamus lautus? Non, nihil tale in domo. Mus? Nemo etiam niger est. Magna aranea? Non—nulli bonitati confido. Deus bone! Manus quasi manus in illa pictura!”

Alio mico infinito ceperat. Pellis pallida, fusca, nihil tegens nisi ossa et tendines horrendi roboris; pilis crassioribus nigris, in manibus humanis longioribus quam umquam creverunt; ungues ab extremitatibus digitorum ascendentes et incurvi acrius deorsum et antrorsum, cinerei, cornei et rugosi.

Volavit e sella funereo, corde prensa incomprehensibili terrore. Figura, cuius sinistra in mensa requievit, in stantem post solium stabat, dextera supra verticem incurvata. nigrum erat et lacerum perlucidum; crinis crassus texit eam sicut in Cn. Maxilla inferior tenuis erat—quid dicam?—vadis, bestiae similis; dentibus atra labra ostendebant; nasus non erat; oculi, ignei flavi, contra quos pupillae atros et intensos ostendebant, et exultans odio et siti ad destruendam vitam, quae ibi fulgebat, in tota visione horrentissima erant. Erat in eis intelligentia quaedam, ultra intelligentiam bestiae, infra hominis.

Affectus quos hic horror in Dennistoun excitaverat, vehemens erat timor corporis et altissima mentis fastidium. Quid fecit? Quid faceret? Numquam satis constat quid dixerit, sed scit quod loquutus sit, quod caeca prehenderit ad crucifixum argenteum, quod sibi conscius sit motus ex parte daemonis, et quod voce vociferatus sit. animalis in deforme dolorem.

Petrus et Bertrandus, duo servitores robusti, qui irruerunt, nihil viderunt, sed se retrusi per aliquid quod inter illos transivit, et in deliquium invenerunt Dennistoun. Sederunt cum eo nocte illa, et duo amici ejus erant apud Sanctum Bertrandum per horam tertiam in crastino. Ipse vero, licet adhuc perculsus et timidus, prope se ab illo tempore fuit, et fidem suam apud eos invenit, sed non prius, quam viderat extractionem, et loquebatur cum sacrista.

Fere prima luce homunculus ad diversorium per simulationem venerat, et audiverat cum summa cura fabulam a familia distraxit. Nec mirum.

Ille est, ille est. Ipsum ipsum vidi, unicum eius commentum fuit; et ad omnes interrogationes unum responsum est: Deux fois je l’ai vu; mille fois je l’ai senti.” Nihil de provenientia libri, nec de singulis experimentis indicabat. “Mox dormiam, et requies mea suavis erit. Quid me vexas?” dixit.

Quid ipse vel Canonicus Albericus de Mauléon passus fuerit, numquam sciemus. In tergo fatalis illius tractus nonnullae lineae scriptionis erant, quae locum illustrare existimari possunt;

Contradictio Salomonis cum demonio nocturno.
Albericus de Mauléone delineavit.
V. Deus in adiutorium. Ps. Qui habitat.
Sancte Bertrande, demoniorum effugator, intercede pro me miserrimo.
Primum uidi nocte 12(mi) Dec. 1694: uidebo mox ultimum. Peccaui et passus sum, plura adhuc passurus. die 29 dec.
“Gallia Christiana” diem mortis Canonis dat die 31 decembris 1701, “in lecto repentinae captionis.” Singularia huiusmodi non sunt communia magno opere Sammarthani.

Numquam satis intellexi quid de his rebus quas narravi inspiceret Dennistoun. Retulit ad me semel textum Ecclesiastici: Quidam sunt qui in vindictam creati sunt, et in furore suo impingunt plagas. Alio tempore dixit: “Isaias vir sapientissimus fuit; annon dicit aliquid de monstris nocturnis in ruinis Babyloniae habitantium? Haec magis extra nos in praesentia sunt.

Alia fiducia ejus me magis impressit, et compatiebatur. Fuimus superiore anno, Comminges, ut videremus sepulcrum canonis Alberici. Est magna marmorea erectio cum effigie Canonis in amplo celatus et soutano, ac elaborata ejus eruditionis laude infra. Vidi Dennistoun cum Vicario S. Bertrandi aliquandiu loquentem, et abeundo dixit mihi: “Spero non errat: scis Presbyterum me esse, sed credo futurum esse dicens. de missa et cantu naeniae’ pro requie Alberici de Mauléon. Deinde addidit, Septentrionalem Britannici sono tactum, “Nihil tam chari noti”.

Liber est in Wentworth Collection procul Cambridge. Detractio photographatae et ab Dennistoun eo die incensa est, qua occasione visitationis primae Commings discessit.


Featured: Dennistoun sketches the cathedral, illustration by James McBryde, 1904.

Paul Valéry, A Magnificent Jack-of-all-Trades

Paul Valéry (1871-1945) was a writer, poet and philosopher, elected to the Académie française in 1925. An eminent figure in the world of letters, he left a rich and varied body of work that is always worthy of interest. Here’s a brief overview.

Paul Valéry is unclassifiable. He eludes us all the time: neither quite novelist, nor philosopher, and really at ease in verse, given to ideas, epitomizing that last race of masters we call “men of letters.” When people try to give him credit for the arts or literature, Valéry shirks, dodges and sabotages. He hates history, loathes philosophy, reviles literature and reviles the novel. He excelled everywhere; prodigious, he cavorted with and surpassed everyone else by way of a single idea. Antiquarian, he mingled with the modern, foresaw, gifted with a talent for anticipation, like a soothsayer.

This illustrious writer, sometimes a Faustian scholar, sometimes a dandy, bow tie tied and ringed little finger, nicknamed the “civil servant of literature” by Paul Nizan, for his acts of resistance and his glory as a writer, was entitled to national homage in 1945. He was first and foremost a remarkable orator, whose speech in honor of Goethe, model “among all the Fathers of Thought and Doctors of Poetry, Pater aestheticus in aeternum,” is a perfect illustration of his talent. His eulogy for the “Jewish Bergson” is a measure of his courage under the Occupation, in 1941. This modern Bossuet, under the wings of the eagle of Meaux, paid tribute to his ancestor in Variété II (1930), praising his grandiose prose, the strength of his style, his talent for saying everything, his brilliant orations, monuments of what remains, in language, when the ideas of a time are outdated and men, distant from their tributes, end up unknown.

Valéry had no theorized philosophical system, unlike the dominant German thought. We find him somewhere between Descartes, rigorous in method, and Leonardo da Vinci, edified by the architecture of intelligence. Still inhabited by the Greeks, he used the form of dialogue, Eupalinos (1923) and L’idée fixe (1932), like Plato, and returned to the simple idea that philosophy is a quest: a quest for the absolute, for truth and purity. In his Cahiers (published, 1973-1974—Ed.), he writes: “I read philosophers badly and with boredom, as they are too long and their language is unsympathetic to me.” Sensitive to the sentence, the maxim, that make up the French charm of thought, he went everywhere, said what he wanted, constrained his free thought, meandered through ideas under the strict arches of art, in fragments and leaflets.

First there was that famous night in Genoa. On a night that resembled a crisis, he was converted. Thereafter, he devoted himself to intelligence, to the realm of the spirit, to the quest for precision. In 1896, at the age of twenty-five, this mystic of the Idea wrote La soirée avec Monsieur Teste, a strange novel-essay in which, through the intermediary of his double, Monsieur Teste himself, high priest of the Intellect, Valéry begins to think about the detachment of the soul and sensibility, in the wake of Méditations métaphysiques. And nothing but that.

Austere and Solemn?

Among the innumerable papers, texts and published thoughts, Valéry is, in Tel quel (1943) or in his Cahiers, haunted by the idea of a hidden God: “The search for God would be man’s most beautiful occupation.” The importance and quality of these notes show that a project to write a “Dialogue des choses divines” (“Dialogue of things divine”) preoccupied Valéry all his life. “Everyone keeps his own mysticism, which he jealously guards,” he insisted. Man finds himself only insofar as he finds his God.

All too quickly, Valéry’s austere, solemn character is attributed to his poetry, which is frozen and mumbling. What is taken for gelid is icy other than a classical demand taken to the heights. “Most men have such a vague idea of poetry that the very vagueness of their idea is for them the definition of poetry,” Valéry, obsessed with perfection, wanted this “holy language.” This quest, resolutely, detached him from the world of letters, novelists and journalism: “The writer-whore exists only to surrender himself. To this class belong those who claim to say what they are, think and feel;” and he adds in Tel quel: “There is always something fishy about literature—the consideration of an audience. So, there’s always a reserve of thought in which lies all the charlatanism of which every literary product is an impure product.” Then to finish off literature as if in the arena: “A novel is the height of crudeness. We’ll see one day. Those who look from the deep, rigorous side already see it.” So much for that.

Behind his reputation as a pure wit, Valéry was a great sensualist. His poetry is a perfect demonstration of this. The charm of bodies, the trance of music, long, delicate movements, the sign of the hand, the form of the dance, the praise of water—this is the Valéry universe. In Album des vers anciens (1920), inspired by Mallarmé, we find, under the appearance of a solid poetic arch, lascivious and moving, volatile and light figures and forms taking shape, as in “Baignée” (“Bathing”) which, through a play of periphrases, makes us guess a young woman in the water:

A fruit of flesh bathes in some youthful pool,
(Azure in trembling gardens) but out of water,
Singling curls with strength of the casque,
Gleams the golden head which a tomb slices at the nape.

Above the Fray

Later, Valéry wrote La Jeune Parque (1917). In this song of love and death, where life mingles with mythology, we can admire these lines: “island… summit that a fire fecundates barely intimidated, woods that will hum with beasts and ideas, with hymns of men filled by the just gift of ether.” These rhymes sound like onomatopoeia, making us believe for a moment that Valéry, a musician, is moving from the Académie to a jazz club.

At twilight, in Corona & Coronilla (published in 2008—Ed.), the old man writes a few poems to his young lover, Jeanne Voilier, whom he knows to be far from his arms:

You know it now, if you ever doubted
That I could die by the one I loved,
For you made my soul a leaf that trembles
Like that of the willow, alas, that yesterday together
We watched float before our eyes of love,
In the golden tenderness of the fall of the day.

This poem, written on May 22, 1945, two months before the poet’s death at the age of seventy-four, denotes a tenderness, a touching intimacy, not devoid of flowery lyricism. It’s a far, far cry from the night of Genoa.

Bruised by the horrors of war, Valéry descended from the clouds, returning inter homines, deluded by certain illusions. He no longer believed in history, as he wrote in Regards sur le monde actuel: “History justifies whatever one wants. It teaches rigorously nothing, because it contains everything, and gives examples of everything… The danger of letting ourselves be seduced by History is greater than ever.”

With History out of the way, Valéry seemed to turn to mathematics, as he murmured in his drafts: “Simple solutions, expedients, that’s all-human conduct, in politics, in love, in business, in poetry—expedients, and the rest is mathematics.” He confessed in 1944 in Le Figaro: “Politics is the maneuvering of the more by the less, of the immense number by the small number, of the real by images and words; in other words, it’s a mechanics of relays.”

Paul Valéry was above the fray. Neither stupidly left-wing, nor fatally right-wing. He was a circumspect observer of nations. He was an eminent member of intellectual Europe, like Rilke in Trieste, Zweig in Vienna or Verhaeren in Brussels. Like the others, Valéry saw the great Europe of letters and sovereign nations, shattered by the appalling world war. Did he already see the post-war era? “Europe will be punished for its policies; it aspires to be governed by an American commission”—that’s for sure.

Europe, according to Valéry, is inhabited by tradition. This Europe, saved from technocracy and finance, is a civilization, “Romanized and Christianized, subject to the disciplinary spirit of the Greeks,” starting from Jerusalem, Athens and Rome. The grandiose axis. Yet this remarkable Europe, shaped by a superior spirit, remains no less fragile. This is Valéry’s despairing assessment of a Europe whose ancient parapets have been overcome by technology, the mass of a fin de siècle: “We civilizations now know that we are mortal.”

This tension between the order of civilization went hand-in-hand with a defiant and suspicious view of governments. We owe him this simple, trenchant phrase, mingled with cynicism and raw lucidity: “War, a massacre of people who don’t know each other, for the benefit of people who know each other but don’t massacre each other.” Sounds like Bardamu at the start of Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night)! Who’d have thought Valéry an anarchist?

Nicolas Kinosky is at the Centres des Analyses des Rhétoriques Religieuses de l’Antiquité and teaches Latin. This articles appears through the very kind courtesy La Nef.

Featured: Portrait of Paul Valéry, by Georges d’Espagnat; painted in 1910.

The Pursuit of Happiness

Charles Dudley Warner (1829—1900) was a widely read American essayist and novelist. He was a friend of Mark Twain, with whom he collaborated in writing the novel, The Gilded Age: The Take of Today.

His essay, “The Pursuit of Happiness,” was published in the Century Magazine (December 1900), and deserves to be read in our own age.

The Pursuit of Happiness

Perhaps the most curious and interesting phrase ever put into a public document is “the pursuit of happiness.” It is declared to be an inalienable right. It cannot be sold. It cannot be given away. It is doubtful if it could be left by will.

The right of every man to be six feet high, and of every woman to be five feet four, was regarded as self-evident until women asserted their undoubted right to be six feet high also, when some confusion was introduced into the interpretation of this rhetorical fragment of the eighteenth century.

But the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness has never been questioned since it was proclaimed as a new gospel for the New World. The American people accepted it with enthusiasm, as if it had been the discovery of a gold-prospector, and started out in the pursuit as if the devil were after them.

If the proclamation had been that happiness is a common right of the race, alienable or otherwise, that all men are or may be happy, history and tradition might have interfered to raise a doubt whether even the new form of government could so change the ethical condition. But the right to make a pursuit of happiness, given in a fundamental bill of rights, had quite a different aspect. Men had been engaged in many pursuits, most of them disastrous, some of them highly commendable. A sect in Galilee had set up the pursuit of righteousness as the only or the highest object of man’s immortal powers. The rewards of it, however, were not always immediate. Here was a political sanction of a pursuit that everybody acknowledged to be of a good thing.

Given a heart-aching longing in every human being for happiness, here was high warrant for going in pursuit of it. And the curious effect of this ‘mot d’ordre’ was that the pursuit arrested the attention as the most essential, and the happiness was postponed, almost invariably, to some future season, when leisure or plethora, that is, relaxation or gorged desire, should induce that physical and moral glow which is commonly accepted as happiness. This glow of well-being is sometimes called contentment, but contentment was not in the programme. If it came at all, it was only to come after strenuous pursuit, that being the inalienable right.

People, to be sure, have different conceptions of happiness, but whatever they are, it is the custom, almost universal, to postpone the thing itself. This, of course, is specially true in our American system, where we have a chartered right to the thing itself. Other nations who have no such right may take it out in occasional driblets, odd moments that come, no doubt, to men and races who have no privilege of voting, or to such favored places as New York city, whose government is always the same, however they vote.

We are all authorized to pursue happiness, and we do as a general thing make a pursuit of it. Instead of simply being happy in the condition where we are, getting the sweets of life in human intercourse, hour by hour, as the bees take honey from every flower that opens in the summer air, finding happiness in the well-filled and orderly mind, in the sane and enlightened spirit, in the self that has become what the self should be, we say that tomorrow, next year, in ten or twenty or thirty years, when we have arrived at certain coveted possessions or situation, we will be happy. Some philosophers dignify this postponement with the name of hope.

Sometimes wandering in a primeval forest, in all the witchery of the woods, besought by the kindliest solicitations of nature, wild flowers in the trail, the call of the squirrel, the flutter of birds, the great world-music of the wind in the pine-tops, the flecks of sunlight on the brown carpet and on the rough bark of immemorial trees, I find myself unconsciously postponing my enjoyment until I shall reach a hoped-for open place of full sun and boundless prospect.

The analogy cannot be pushed, for it is the common experience that these open spots in life, where leisure and space and contentment await us, are usually grown up with thickets, fuller of obstacles, to say nothing of labors and duties and difficulties, than any part of the weary path we have trod.

Why add the pursuit of happiness to our other inalienable worries? Perhaps there is something wrong in ourselves when we hear the complaint so often that men are pursued by disaster instead of being pursued by happiness.

We all believe in happiness as something desirable and attainable, and I take it that this is the underlying desire when we speak of the pursuit of wealth, the pursuit of learning, the pursuit of power in office or in influence, that is, that we shall come into happiness when the objects last named are attained. No amount of failure seems to lessen this belief. It is matter of experience that wealth and learning and power are as likely to bring unhappiness as happiness, and yet this constant lesson of experience makes not the least impression upon human conduct. I suppose that the reason of this unheeding of experience is that every person born into the world is the only one exactly of that kind that ever was or ever will be created, so that he thinks he may be exempt from the general rules. At any rate, he goes at the pursuit of happiness in exactly the old way, as if it were an original undertaking. Perhaps the most melancholy spectacle offered to us in our short sojourn in this pilgrimage, where the roads are so dusty and the caravansaries so ill provided, is the credulity of this pursuit. Mind, I am not objecting to the pursuit of wealth, or of learning, or of power, they are all explainable, if not justifiable,—but to the blindness that does not perceive their futility as a means of attaining the end sought, which is happiness, an end that can only be compassed by the right adjustment of each soul to this and to any coming state of existence. For whether the great scholar who is stuffed with knowledge is happier than the great money-getter who is gorged with riches, or the wily politician who is a Warwick in his realm, depends entirely upon what sort of a man this pursuit has made him. There is a kind of fallacy current nowadays that a very rich man, no matter by what unscrupulous means he has gathered an undue proportion of the world into his possession, can be happy if he can turn round and make a generous and lavish distribution of it for worthy purposes. If he has preserved a remnant of conscience, this distribution may give him much satisfaction, and justly increase his good opinion of his own deserts; but the fallacy is in leaving out of account the sort of man he has become in this sort of pursuit. Has he escaped that hardening of the nature, that drying up of the sweet springs of sympathy, which usually attend a long-continued selfish undertaking? Has either he or the great politician or the great scholar cultivated the real sources of enjoyment?

The pursuit of happiness! It is not strange that men call it an illusion. But I am well satisfied that it is not the thing itself, but the pursuit, that is an illusion. Instead of thinking of the pursuit, why not fix our thoughts upon the moments, the hours, perhaps the days, of this divine peace, this merriment of body and mind, that can be repeated and perhaps indefinitely extended by the simplest of all means, namely, a disposition to make the best of whatever comes to us? Perhaps the Latin poet was right in saying that no man can count himself happy while in this life, that is, in a continuous state of happiness; but as there is for the soul no time save the conscious moment called “now,” it is quite possible to make that “now” a happy state of existence. The point I make is that we should not habitually postpone that season of happiness to the future.

No one, I trust, wishes to cloud the dreams of youth, or to dispel by excess of light what are called the illusions of hope. But why should the boy be nurtured in the current notion that he is to be really happy only when he has finished school, when he has got a business or profession by which money can be made, when he has come to manhood? The girl also dreams that for her happiness lies ahead, in that springtime when she is crossing the line of womanhood—all the poets make much of this—when she is married and learns the supreme lesson how to rule by obeying. It is only when the girl and the boy look back upon the years of adolescence that they realize how happy they might have been then if they had only known they were happy, and did not need to go in pursuit of happiness.

The pitiful part of this inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness is, however, that most men interpret it to mean the pursuit of wealth, and strive for that always, postponing being happy until they get a fortune, and if they are lucky in that, find at the end that the happiness has somehow eluded them, that; in short, they have not cultivated that in themselves that alone can bring happiness. More than that, they have lost the power of the enjoyment of the essential pleasures of life. I think that the woman in the Scriptures who out of her poverty put her mite into the contribution-box got more happiness out of that driblet of generosity and self-sacrifice than some men in our day have experienced in founding a university.

And how fares it with the intellectual man? To be a selfish miner of learning, for self-gratification only, is no nobler in reality than to be a miser of money. And even when the scholar is lavish of his knowledge in helping an ignorant world, he may find that if he has made his studies as a pursuit of happiness he has missed his object. Much knowledge increases the possibility of enjoyment, but also the possibility of sorrow. If intellectual pursuits contribute to an enlightened and altogether admirable character, then indeed has the student found the inner springs of happiness. Otherwise one cannot say that the wise man is happier than the ignorant man.

In fine, and in spite of the political injunction, we need to consider that happiness is an inner condition, not to be raced after. And what an advance in our situation it would be if we could get it into our heads here in this land of inalienable rights that the world would turn round just the same if we stood still and waited for the daily coming of our Lord!

Featured: Fröhliche Sangesrunde mit einer Donaulandschaft (Merry Round of Singing, with Danube Landscape), by Rudolf Alfred Höger; painted ca. 1930.

Mirum-Vultus Homo

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Parvus vicus inter montes villae iacebat, ex qua quadriennio ad pugnam egressi sunt. Primo ierant optimi viri, deinde senes, deinde iuvenes, postremo pueri ludi. Videbitur neminem in villa remanere nisi pervetustis ac imbecillis corporis, qui mox exstinctus est, propter rei publicae belli rationem, ut pereat inutilis quo plus escae esset utilior.

Contigit autem omnibus hominibus praeterquam quod remanserant in tarta fame, pauci redierunt, pauci vero debiles et variis modis deformati. Iuvenis unus tantum partem faciei habebat, et pictam larvam stanneam induerat, sicut festus fabricator. Alius duo crura habebat sine bracchia, alius duo bracchia sed non crura. Vix unus a matre aspici poterat, exstinctis oculis de capite, donec instare morti aspiceret. Non bracchia, non crura, furens insuper aerumna, totumque diem in cunis velut infans iacebat. Erat autem ille senex admodum, qui nocte ac die strangulatus a veneni vapore; et alius juvenculus, qui, sicut folium in alto vento, a concharum concussione concussit, et ad sonum clamavit. Et ipse quoque manum et partem faciei amiserat, etsi non satis larvam ei sumptum ad warantizandum.

Hos omnes, praeterquam qui sui horrore extorres erant, ingeniosis adjumentis instructos, ut partim se sustentarent, et de tributis, quae victae genti onerabant, satis mereretur.

Ire per illum pagum post bellum erat quasi perambulans viculum vitae mediocris cum omnibus figuris mechanicis glomeratis et strepitantibus. Tantum pro figuris novis, hilaresque et bella, quassata et deridicula et inhumana.

Forent molendinum, et ferrariam, et domum publicam. Ordo casularum, villa, ecclesia, cataractae scintillantes, campi multicolores diffunduntur instar collium panniculorum, volucrum pompae, caprae et vaccae, etsi non multae postremae. Fuerunt mulieres, et cum eis aliqui pueri; perpaucae tamen, quia rationabiles feminae erant, et iam nollent habere filios, qui eis inermes ac furiosi aliquando remitti possent, in cunis gestari, fortasse multos annos.

Adhuc juniores, molliores impulsu, pepererunt aut duas. Horum unus, secundo belli anno natus, tribus admodum flavis et globulus scelestus fuit, truculento aere et piratico ingenio. Sed eae notae pueris satis teneris annis ineunt, et fuit quasi ludicra vicus, hic, illic, et ubique, in familiarissimis belli naufragiis, quod reipublicae gubernatio fecerat.

Ille in stagno quaesivit larvam et crus pistoris mechanicum ludebat, ita indulgens illi libidini suae; et saxum superflue oblectabat cunabula hominis, qui sine membris erat, et patrem.

In ac foras cucurrit, et flexis adsuevit. Alii amisisset filium, alii filium habere posset, si mundus aliter discessisset. Aliis brevis umbra futuri sine spe evasit; aliis tamen diversitas horae. Hoc maxime verum erat de caeco, qui ad fores suae veteris matris casae scopae ligaturae sedit. Praesentia pueri visa est ei sicut calidum solis radium per manum incidens, et eum ad morandum alliceret permittens tentare magnas caeruleas goggles quas in publico optime gestare invenit. Nulla tamen deformitas vel deformitas homunculi hominem terrere visus est. Haec ab infantia prima ludibria.

Quodam mane, mater, lotis vestibus occupata, eum solum reliquerat, confidens se mox aliquod fragmentum militis amicissimum quaesiturum, et usque ad meridiem et inedia se oblectaturum. Aliquando autem pueri habent notiones impares, et contrarium eorum quae quis supponit.

Hac aestate praeclaro mane puer solitariam vagari in ripa montis fluvii existimabat. Vage lacunam altius sursum petere voluit, et in eo lapides ejicere. Nunc in parvas valles, vel anates vias persequentes, lente errabat. Ante decem, quam virides nitentes spumeusque lacusque desuper adeptus erat, canae saxi delapsus in umbram, ter cui pinus in novo vertice plana flectitur aura. Sub illis, aspiciens puerum quasi nubem albam in viridi coelo, stabat juvenis pulcher, qui divei in meram ripam libratus. Vno momento ibi constitit umbra et sole obsita, proxime ita perite ediderat ut vix aquam circum se spargeret. Tum atro rorante caput constitit, micatque bracchia fixo navit ad litora. Alius divei scopulum conscendit. Has actiones in puro lusu et vitae laetitia repetivit toties ut spectatoris eius vertiginis excubiae fierent.

Tandem ille satis procubuit abiectis vestibus. Hos in occultiore loco gerebat, celeriter indutus, puer luscus et mirabundus, quippe qui multa in animo haberet.

Duo bracchia, duo crura habebat, totum vulto oculis, naso, os, mento, auribus, plenum. Videbat enim eum vestitum perstrinxisse. Loqui poterat, magna canebat. Audire poterat, nam cito ad stridorem columbarum alarum post se deflexerat. Pellis eius toto orbe teres erat, nusquam in eo atro coccineo tabulae, quas in brachiis, facie, et pectore exustis puer reperit. Non omne strangulavit pusillum, aut insano tremit, et ad sonum clamat. Vere inexplicabile, ideoque terribile.

Incipiente puero ad nutantem, tremefacit, matrem suam circumspectat, adulescens eum animadvertit.

“Bene!” avide clamabat, “si puer non est!”

Accessit per pontem peditem gratissimo risu, hoc enim primum illo die, quem puerum viderat, et mirum putabat, tam paucos natos esse in valle, ubi, cum haberet. Ante quinquennium ita fuerat, ut vix tot denarios invenire potuissent. Itaque “Salve,” inquit, “laete, et in loculos scrutatus est.”

At stupefactus puer flavos puerulus perterritus exclamavit in arma propere ad puellam confugit. Illa eum evidenti subsidio amplexa est, atque in eum modum objurgationis et deliciarum largiebatur, cum viator accessit, quasi laesus affectus.

“Mana mehercules,” inquit, “me modo filiolo tuo hos denarios dare voluisse.” Inspiciebat se admirationis. “Quid in terris est de me ut puerum terreat?” queritur quesiuit.

Utroque indulgens risit rustica virgo, ingemuitque puer, vultumque in oram abdidit, et in puero perplexum et formosum adulescentem.

“Est quia invenit Herr hospes tam inusitatus,” inquit, flectens. “Parvus est,” inquit, exiguitatem gestus ostendit, “et est primum totum hominem videri.”


Featured: Untitled, by Gustav Wunderwald; painted ca. 1940s.