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Artist of the Impossible

Charles Péguy: A Study in Integrity

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

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. This is why republican control over the educational system is of such surpassing importance. In a thousand French communities the local schoolmaster is the representative and custodian of republican orthodoxy.

IF ALL THIS IS CHANGING now, history becoming history, no longer present politics, the achievement is not only that of De Gaulle formidably conjoined to modern technology; it is also the achievement of the Editor of the Cahiers de la Quinzaine, one of the rare products of the Ecole Normale who contrived to be a worldly failure, the old Dreyfusard, the Catholic who didn’t go to Mass, the Socialist who revered Jeanne d’Arc, the controversialist who restored to the wonderfully lucid, but more than a little eviscerated, traditional French prose something of the power and complexity of Rabelais, the man who ended, failure that he was, not in a university chair or as a well-paid successful man of letters, an immortal of the Academy, but face down in a field of beetroots, a German bullet in his head: Charles Péguy.

Péguy’s writings are voluminous and the literature concerning him vast and, to most American and English readers, imperfectly comprehensible. There is, therefore, granted the intrinsic importance of Péguy, a crying need, as they say, for a book in English on him, a book that will do for him in the United States and England what Daniel Halévy did for the French in Charles Péguy et les cahiers de la quinzaine. Such a book would give an account of Péguy’s life and thought, placing him in the context of his own period and bringing out the intricate connections of his writings with the history of the Third Republic between the arrest of Dreyfus and 1914, and would discuss the problem of his continuing influence upon the French inside and outside the membership of the MRP. Mrs. Villiers has gone some way towards meeting this need. Her study is written with devotion and gives an account of most of the material. In particular, it succeeds in bringing out the charm of Péguy’s character, his simplicity, and his heroism. But it is nothing like a definitive study. The account of the Dreyfus case, central to the understanding of Péguy as of Proust—Mrs. Villiers misses a great opportunity to do a little comparative study here—is weakly done. She greatly underemphasizes the extent to which anti-Dreyfusism was a racket promoted by the Catholic establishment through the Catholic press and the religious orders. Her general approach is expository and she scarcely touches upon those issues concerning the analysis and interpretation of modern history upon which Péguy has so much of first-rate interest to say. Of course, it is a rather foolish reviewer’s trick to censure an author for failing to write a book of the kind the reviewer would have liked written. It is enough to say that Mrs. Villiers has written with affection the best book on Péguy so far to appear in English.

WE ARE THE LAST OF ALL,” wrote Péguy of his generation. He meant more than one thing by this. In the first place, he does no more than indicate the uniqueness of his youth, that uniqueness of youth that belongs to every man in every generation. Youth is the season of generosity, and if a man is fortunate in his time—in his family milieu and in the causes to which he gives himself—as Péguy was, then the charm of youth has an enduring power, never to be forgotten; and it is indeed true that life is not and cannot be what it once was. Péguy was, through and through, a man of poetic disposition and would have understood Wordsworth’s frustrated

I cannot paint
What then I lost.

The uniqueness belongs to the hard childhood in Orléans, helping his mother and grandmother to make the rush-bottomed chairs which provided them with bread; to the laborious schooldays, to the discovery of socialism, and to the early struggles for the vindication of Dreyfus. In so far as the bulk of his prose writing has an elegiac tone—perhaps the most effective and affecting of his prose works is entitled Notre Jeunesse—this is because he never ceased to celebrate a youth that was unique in the way the youth of all men is unique. Understood in this way, “we are the last of all” is a supreme truism.

But behind the formula stand two other theses. One is a thesis about the history of the modern world; one a thesis about the development of revolutionary politics.

Péeguy always had a strong conviction that in his childhood, especially through his companionship with his illiterate but eloquent and perceptive grandmother, he had come to know a way of life, an ensemble of human qualities, that belonged to a world that was old when, in his own phrase, “the cathedrals were white,” a world that was at last, in the new nineteenth-century world of industrialism, universal education, and parliamentary politics, disappearing for ever. Of course, Péguy’s thought in this matter has absolutely nothing to do with the chatter of such men as Talleyrand about the sweetness of life under the old regime, a sweetness that no one who grew up after 1789 could possibly understand. The way of life Péguy celebrates is the patient and laborious life of men and women, artisans and peasants, working with their hands in poverty, a poverty that, he always insisted, was qualitatively distinct from the destitution of industrial society. Those who lived in this way displayed a certain range of the virtues, industry, tenacity, a sober heroism and made possible a continuity of decent living that ran on generation after generation, whatever the vice of those who ruled. It was this quality of life he discerned in the young girl who kept her sheep at Domrémy and became, in all simplicity, the leader of a nation in insurrection; and was betrayed to her enemies by the rich and powerful. The riddle of Jeanne d’Arc is one he tries to read in his agnostic and socialist youth and in his Catholic middle age. He was haunted by the vision of a pure heroism that sprang not from the tradition of chivalry, not from the thin soil of the cult of honor, but from the virtually anonymous world of the laborious poor.

IT IS ALSO TRUE that he found the same, or an analogous, purity and heroism in the great friend of his youth, his companion in the struggle for Dreyfus.Bernard-Lazare. For behind Bernard-Lazare there stood the other immemorial tradition celebrated by Péguy, that of Judaism. The portrait of his friend, who gave everything, his life included, to the Dreyfus agitation, is one of the finest things in Notre Jeunesse:

I can still see him, looking at me with his short-sighted stare, kind and shrewd at once, with his illuminated, illuminating, shining gentleness, with his unwearied, knowledgeable, enlightened, unaffected, incurable goodness. Because a man wears eyeglasses set firmly on an enormous nose, concealing behind the lenses a pair of big short-sighted eyes, the man of today fails to recognize, to perceive, the quality of his gaze, a gaze in which there burns a flame first kindled fifty centuries ago.

That Bernard-Lazare was an atheist never worried Péguy, for he was the least sectarian of men, respecting individual men in all their concreteness, and having only one rule as editor of the Cahiers, that each author should be free to write exactly what he wished. Naturally enough, this annoyed the socialist establishment who looked for an organ that would reflect their views and support their day-to-day policies. Collaboration with Jaurès, for example, became impossible. But the greatness of the Cahiers lay in the determination of their editor to serve only truth and justice.

A review only continues to have life in it so long as each issue annoys at least a fifth of its subscribers. Justice lies in seeing that this fifth is not always the same one…Just because they have observed these rules our Cahiers have slowly formed a link between all those who don’t cheat. We are Catholics who don’t cheat, Protestants who don’t cheat. This is why there are among us so few Catholics, so few Protestants, so few Jews, so few freethinkers.

PEGUY, THEN, is a man who celebrates those traditions that persist beneath the glittering surface of history, the tradition of the French poor, the tradition of the Jews of the Diaspora, and sees salvation, temporal and eternal, in loyalty to these traditions. It was this feeling for the solidarity of all men that for so long kept him outside the Church and that, even after he had announced to the astonished Lotte that he was once more a believer, kept him, so to speak, a proselyte of the gate.

The other thesis to which he committed himself has become a common-place: tout commence en mystique et finit en politique. Every social movement of any importance, that is, starts out as the embodiment of a mystique and ends up as a political job. His great example is the struggle against the condemnation of Dreyfus. The movement begins as an absurd, unfashionable movement of obscure men and suspected crackpots: Péguy himself, Bernard-Lazare, Colonel Picquart, and the rest. The point, the sole point, of their agitation, is that an innocent man has been condemned and that justice must be done even though the skies fall—or the General Staff is discredited. As the agitation grows in energy and scope, and as in the end it triumphs, the movement is transformed into a struggle for power within the Republic. The freethinking and radical factions in the Sorbonne and in the Chamber use the Dreyfus case as an instrument for paying off old scores and achieving political power. And as la république des professeurs fades into la république des camarades (to use Daniel Halévy’s categories), the grotesque result of Dreyfusism is the regime of Viviani and Combes, striving to impose upon France a metaphysical orthodoxy and persecuting the Catholics as the Catholics had persecuted the Dreyfusards. In the end, Péguy had to explain to men of a younger generation what the essence of Dreyfusism had been for those who had first engaged themselves in the struggle.

For Péguy politics was never the art of the possible. His demands were always for the impossible. In this he served the cause of decency in politics, as other impossible characters—Acton, for example, or Simone Weil—have done. But it is true that the politics of impossible men have their effect in a later generation. Some of the French have learned the lesson of Péguy. Even the Catholic bourgeoisie is no longer so enchanted as it was by the theses of Maurras. Even among the graduates of the lycées and les grandes écoles the sacred formulas of laicisme are losing their fascination. This is in part the work of the man who embodied all the conflicting loyalties, all the hostile traditions, of the French people in himself: a man whose dearest friends were Jews and unbelievers but for whom the best sight the world had to offer was of the towers of Chartres as they rise up for the pilgrim out of the great plain of the Beauce.

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