Artist of the Impossible

Charles Péguy: A Study in Integrity

by Marjorie Villiers
Harper & Row, 412 pp., $6.50

Charles Peguy
Charles Peguy; drawing by David Levine

When, after the second War, the Republican court found Charles Maurras guilty of collaboration with the enemy, the old man cried out as he was being taken away: This is the revenge for Dreyfus. Years later, some of the gunmen conspiring to assassinate De Gaulle were flushed out of a Versailles apartment by the French police; and the name of the lady who had offered them hospitality turned out to be du Paty de Clam. (Du Paty de Clam was the Commandant who first put Alfred Dreyfus under arrest.) Clearly, past and present are intertwined in France to a degree unusual in most countries. If De Gaulle is so detested by the French Right, this is not only because he is responsible for the loss of Algeria, not even, at bottom, because he opposed the idolized Pétain, but because he is an anomaly, in the eyes of the French Conservatives, and an anomaly whose very existence provokes a boundless irritation, rather in the way a continually repeated mistake in grammar may drive the one who hears it to thoughts of murder. He is a Catholic, an officer, a gentleman; but he is also a Republican without qualification or inner reservation, a man of 1789 who sings the Marseillaise with gusto, one who loves without sentimentality the curiously dynamic society of bourgeois, workers, peasants, and technocrats that is the France of our day. In this the French Right is more acute than the sillier sections of the Left. For these latter too, De Gaulle is anomalous; but they conclude from this that a rigorous political analysis will dissolve the anomaly and reveal a Fascist face behind the Republican mask.

The deformation of French political thought, a deformation De Gaulle on the whole has escaped, is a consequence of two political myths each having the important property that the more it is believed the more likely it is that what is wrought politically in the light of the myth will confirm it. These myths are theses about the history of France. According to one myth, everything was well in France—the eldest daughter of the Church—until in 1789 and the years following a conspiracy of Protestants, unbelievers, and Jews seized political power and through the manipulation of republican institutions corrupted the simplicity and nobility of the old France. The catastrophes that have overcome France from time to time are Divine judgments upon her. This is above all true of the defeat of 1940; and the Pétain regime was, in intention, a kind of national penance for the follies and crimes of the Republic.

The counter-myth sees the history of France as the emancipation of the nation from the tutelage of cruel monarchs and aristocrats and crafty priests. But this emancipation is not something that took place once and for all in the past. The reactionary enemy is always waiting to undo the work of emancipation.…

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