A Beggar to the End


Invective seldom harms the reputation of a writer. “A Frenchman must be always talking,” Samuel Johnson said, “whether he knows anything of the matter or not.” We love Dr. Johnson for saying so whether we agree with him or not. And we sense that he is playing with words rather than with people’s lives.

Other writers are not so gentle. When D. H. Lawrence—a master of invective—called the critic John Middleton Murry “a dirty little worm,” or when he told Bertrand Russell, “You are too full of devilish repressions to be anything but lustful and cruel,” he wasn’t glancing over his shoulder for knowing nods. He was deadly serious—as was Murry, who said he planned to hit Lawrence in the face the next time he saw him. And Russell said he contemplated suicide. Ezra Pound played it safer for all concerned, saying of Walt Whitman that “his crudity is an exceeding great stench.” Long dead, Whitman could not rise from the grave, cane in hand, to flatten Pound.

But both Lawrence and Pound seem tame beside Léon Bloy (1846–1917), the great French Catholic writer whose eight volumes of journals, running from 1892 to 1917, are almost an anthology of invective, and a classic in a literature where the journal is honored. In keeping with his belief that everything modern is the work of the Devil and that the thirteenth had been the greatest of centuries, he condemned the phonograph (it ruins conversation...

To read the rest of this article please login or become a subscriber.

About the Author

Harold Bordwell is a retired editor living in Evanston, Illinois.