Facts only go so far. Just as important as what happened—in historical events, in a single life—is what’s said about what happened. It’s there, in narration and interpretation, revisions and replies, where much of our knowing really lives. We can sift through evidence and dig through data, but understanding what we find necessarily implicates concepts, values, visions of the nature of things. When we say what is, we say what matters.
The writings of Charles Péguy, who lived in Belle Époque France and died on a battlefield in the opening months of World War I, could be read as an extended meditation on this truth. He came to political maturity during the Dreyfus Affair, in which a French Army captain was wrongfully convicted of treason in a storm of judicial malpractice and virulent anti-Semitism. Péguy knew from the start that the case would not be adjudicated simply on the grounds of Dreyfus’s culpability. Instead, he saw that the furor around this one Jewish man revealed the fault lines of modern life, the paths of damnation and redemption suddenly appearing when the representatives of a nation chose to condemn an innocent man, and the people—some of the people—took to the streets to demand justice.
Reflecting on his time as an ardent Dreyfusard, in terms it took him years to fully develop, Péguy writes:
Precisely our Christian mysticism culminated so perfectly, so exactly with our French mysticism, with our patriotic mysticism in our Dreyfusard mysticism that what must clearly be recognized is that our point of view focused nothing less than the eternal salvation of France.
Such a sweeping claim was typical of Péguy, who seemed determined to wrap the whole world around himself even as he insisted on the nearness of eternity. For Péguy, politics was metaphysics, and metaphysics was theology, all of it grasped in the flow of an active life he continually referred to as “mystical”—a term he adopted in his atheist student days and carried through his 1907 re-conversion to Catholicism.
Péguy lived with a profound intensity, and his writing, from long verse-dramas to polemical feuilletons, bears its mark. At times, he can come across as rather serious, bound to put people off—serieux meaning something particular in France, especially when applied to a young man. Péguy was the epitome of that not-unqualified honorific (even if, as Hans Urs von Balthasar pointed out, he also could be very funny). But the term doesn’t explain the extreme polarities of how his work has been received, both during his life and in the century since his death. Fascists and Christian anarchists alike have claimed his influence, and while Bruno Latour once deemed him the greatest stylist in French prose, François Mauriac greeted news of Péguy’s writing being translated into English with the suggestion that it first be translated into French.
Despite these wildly divergent interpretations of his work, the secondary literature on Péguy remains thin. There’s a cottage industry in French scholarship devoted to him, nudged along by praise from the likes of Gilles Deleuze, who placed Péguy among the ranks of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. In the broader French culture, he is a figure one knows, of course, though likely hasn’t read since school. But in the Anglosphere, Péguy can seem almost forgotten. There have been few translations of his voluminous works, and he tends to be mentioned as a “period” figure, or else as a case study in an academic monograph. (An exception that proves the rule is Geoffrey Hill’s long poem, The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy.)
Do the four reprinted editions of his work in English, a critical biography from a major scholarly press, and a new translation of his two final essays indicate a Péguy renaissance? Such a flowering seems unlikely: he is too strange to be of broad interest, too much himself to spur a movement. Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that he’s been denied greater recognition a little too easily—as if reading him demands a reckoning that few want to undertake. While much of Péguy’s writing was prompted by the fraught politics of his day, taken as a whole it constitutes an alternate report on modern life. He opted neither for the complacency of contemporary idioms (of progress, of self-making, of freedom) nor succumbed to nostalgic escape; instead, he deployed a distinct style of writing through which, by the challenge of seemingly endless repetition and the allure of a mystical view of history, he worked tirelessly to rethink not only this or that event, this or that opinion, but the very terms available to describe experience, the visible and vanishing foundations of living.