A Serious Man

The militant mysticism of Charles Péguy
Photograph of Charles Péguy by Eugène Pirou, circa 1900 (Hirarchivum Press/Alamy Stock Photo)

 

Books discussed in this essay:

Carnal Spirit
The Revolutions of Charles Péguy

Matthew W. Maguire
University of Pennsylvania Press
$69.95 | 296 pp.

Basic Verities
Poetry & Prose

Charles Péguy
Translated by Julian Green
Cluny Media
$17.95 | 224 pp

Notes on Bergson and Descartes
Philosophy, Christianity, and Modernity in Contestation

Charles Péguy
Translated by Bruce K. Ward
Cascade Books
$35 | 304 pp.

Saints and Sinners
Poetry & Prose

Charles Péguy
Translated by Julian Green
Cluny Media
$17.95 | 182 pp.

The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc
Charles Péguy
Translated by Julian Green
Cluny Media
$17.95 | 256 pp.

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.

 

He came to grant enormous significance not only to his own background, but to the entire peasant class.

Péguy was born to a working family in Orléans in 1873. His father died while he was still an infant, and he was raised by his mother and grandmother. They made their living mending chairs—grueling work that nevertheless provided a measure of stability. He excelled in school, and was able to attend lycée, eventually making his way to the École Normale Supérieure (ENS), and Paris. It is, in basic outline, the entirely unremarkable story of a talented young person benefiting from the emergent social mobility of a modern state.

But the modesty of Péguy’s beginnings, so far from being merely a biographer’s inconvenience, is the crucial fact of his life and thought. He came to grant enormous significance not only to his own background, but to the entire peasant class. “Péguy was struck by the fact that he had learned his mother tongue from a peasant grandmother who could neither read nor write,” Matthew Maguire observes in Carnal Spirit. “He later wrote of how a past of ‘unlettered souls’ in a culture were like a ‘reserve,’ an ‘immense ocean,’ and a ‘secret treasure.’”

For Péguy, France was blessed with an especially fecund store of this secret treasure, and his lifelong devotion to its protection accounts for both his socialism and his late-in-life Catholicism. Indeed, it’s what united them, even if their marriage was an uneasy one, and to miss that is to misunderstand what both really meant to him. Despite his reputation as a revolutionary, even an anarchist during his lifetime, some rightists and anti-Semites, including his own sons, co-opted his language to support Pétain, Vichy, and Nazism in France, after which an association took hold that has never entirely gone away. Even now, when most accept that his afterlife in twentieth-century fascism was more a case of appropriation than genuine influence, the question of Péguy’s politics resists consensus. Correction and re-correction have followed over the years, but those who knew Péguy best, as well as those who have read him most carefully, always grasped that the relationship between his socialism and his Catholicism was not that of one enthusiasm giving way to another, let alone naïve optimism curdling into bitter reaction.

 

“Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.” This, the most famous line that Péguy ever wrote, comes from Notre Jeunesse, a late text published in 1910 as part of his long-running magazine-cum-book series, Cahiers de la quinzaine (Fortnightly Journal). It’s a long reflection on his own experience of the Dreyfus years: his disillusionment not with socialism, but with his fellow socialists; not with France, but with the French; not with the cause of Dreyfus, but with nearly all the Dreyfusards Péguy had once fought beside. Despite Notre Jeunesse being published when Péguy was only thirty-seven, it exudes the pathos and flashes of anger more characteristic of an older man reflecting on the disappointments of aging—sentiments that fed his ominous conviction that he had a role to play in the destiny of France and Europe.

These frustrations were driven by Péguy’s sense that his allies had become too much like his enemies: socialists were as priggish in their pieties as the worst Christians, the Catholic Church as destructive as the most nihilistic of atheists. The vigor, the lived history, the spiritual foundation—in his word, the mysticism—that he associated with the best of all of these traditions was being drained, and he felt sure that the situation could not last. For years Péguy predicted that a global conflict would transform the continent—and that he’d lose his life in one of its battles. Was this prophetic insight or cranky grumbling? Maybe both.

Péguy’s edict about mysticism and politics, then, might be understood in two ways. First, as a diagnosis of the ravages of politics: human beings have an inborn awareness of the depths of reality and a capacity to live and work to mutual benefit, but this potential is suppressed by the power-hungry, the thoughtlessly violent, and perhaps most importantly, the complacently banal. Second, as an exhortation to develop society (including through politics) out from its mystical beginnings—reorienting it toward the expression of the divine presence within creation.

As his socialism grew more articulate, eventually finding full expression in Catholicism, it became even more central to his life.

Such double meaning is typical of Péguy’s mature thought. As Maguire notes, his earliest political statements were often recitations of the latest standard-issue progressivism, which retained much of the Enlightenment hope for “universal intellectual emancipation” through advances in philosophy and culture. This perspective would be replaced by something more sophisticated and more challenging, but Péguy never faltered in his conviction that the betterment of society’s worst-off was possible. To the contrary: as his socialism grew more articulate (and more idiosyncratic), eventually finding full expression in Catholicism, it became even more central to his life. This is why, as Balthasar argued, it is wrong to think of Péguy as “developing” from one position to another. Rather, we should think of his progression from youthful socialist to devout (if anticlerical) Catholic as an approfondissement, a deepening, a growing more profound.

Though firmly a member of the atheist set at the ENS—anti-talas as opposed to the talas, named for those who go to Mass, or, “vont-á-la-messe”—Péguy retained close friendships with religious and anti-religious students alike. He also fell in with a group of socialists under the tutelage of Lucien Herr, an ENS librarian. Among them was Jean Jaurès, future leader of the French Socialist Party. In response to both the arid positivism of Émile Littré as well as the extant varieties of “scientific” socialism, Jaurès argued for a non-religious but nevertheless mystical socialism, one that would counter the reductive materialism of the day with an openness to the full range of human hope, desire, and imaginative possibility. This early exposure to a political perspective that extended beyond the realm of procedure and power was, as Maguire argues, crucial for Péguy. He later broke decisively with Jaurès, and went on to find his own way of expressing the connection between mysticism and politics.

Another revealing aspect of the young Péguy’s political life was how ardently he pursued his duties and responsibilities (to be sure, as he understood them), and how far he would go to satisfy his own sense of right. A particularly vivid episode involved the 1896 death of a close friend, a soldier in training named Marcel Baudoin, that is repeated both by Maguire and Julien Green. (The latter’s 1942 introduction to his selected translations of Péguy is among the works recently republished by Cluny Press.) It has an aspect of legend or myth to it, with its strangeness, its near-unbelievability, the way it sets us on edge somewhere between admiration and puzzlement, with perhaps a hint of revulsion.

In short, Péguy assumed Baudoin had been murdered; Marcel would never betray him by simply dying. After gathering two friends, Péguy confronted the officer he suspected was responsible, intending to kill him. As Green tells it:

They made for the barracks and were soon face to face with the man whom Péguy wished to kill. He spoke quietly and it soon became obvious, even to Péguy, that he was almost as distressed as Péguy himself over the death of Baudoin, and just as innocent. It may have been then that he made up his mind to marry Baudoin’s sister in order to take the dead man’s place in the Baudoin family.... Thus, according to Péguy’s mode of thinking, was a grievous wrong partially righted.

Péguy would remain married to Charlotte, a frequently unhappy arrangement for them both, until the end of his life. When he returned to Catholicism eleven years into their marriage, she—a strongly anticlerical socialist like the rest of her family—refused to have the marriage sanctified by the Church or to have their children baptized. Rather than betray his wife’s wishes, Péguy chose not to receive Communion or even attend Mass, despite the pleas of Catholic friends such as Jacques Maritain.

Ultimately, the student Péguy gives the sense of a young man intent not only on doing what was right, but on setting an example. This was not without some arrogance. (In the days of the Dreyfus Affair, he was well known as both an eloquent speaker and fearsome brawler, who with his comrades would fight off mobs that—at the behest of Charles Maurras, future editor of L’Action Français—would form to attack prominent Dreyfusards.) Péguy’s primary motivation, however, came from his understanding that what matters in life is not simply what happens, but the stories that grow around an event and make up the fabric of our shared imaginings. He knew, of course, that what is said, and how it is said, changed as people, and peoples, grew—which only underscored the need also to keep in view the eternal, the unchanging, the transcendent. That the truth could only ever  be expressed partially was proof of its overwhelming power, not a denial of its existence.

One figure stands out in this ever-expanding circle, a saint he returned to again and again, from his youth to his last days: Joan of Arc.

One way Péguy explored the relationship between truth and contingency was by creating, even before his return to the Church, a kind of personal pantheon of figures found in French and Catholic history. From Descartes to Dreyfus, Victor Hugo to Bernard Lazare, Péguy ruminated endlessly on the situation human beings find themselves in, caught between heaven and earth, able to see in each the reflection of others, however dimly. But one figure stands out in this ever-expanding circle, a saint he returned to again and again, from his youth to his last days: Joan of Arc. 

Though it’s not clear what first drew Péguy to Joan of Arc, we do know that, even as an anti-talas at the ENS, he had a trunk in his room marked, “Do Not Touch” containing a long-gestating three-act play about the warrior-saint. Undoubtedly her life must have resonated with him: both were from peasant stock and were more willing than most to put their bodies on the line. And while the young Péguy seemed to think that Joan’s Catholicism needed sifting through the secular mysticism of Jaurès, the later Péguy can be read, in part, as working through his own reconversion by more directly confronting her voice.

In 1910, eleven years after an effort he simply called Jeanne d’Arc, Péguy published The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc (the extended title an indication, perhaps, of yet further approfondissement). It was the first of a trilogy of long dramatic poems meditating on the spiritual heart of France, where a richly sacramental Catholicism met the grounded vitality of peasant life. Here, Joan is thirteen-year old Jeanette. We find her spinning in place, reciting improvised variations on the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary while tending her father’s sheep. Her two main interlocutors are Hauviette, a younger girl who is perplexed by Jeanette’s piety, and Madame Gervaise, a twenty-five-year-old nun who seems—as Maguire explores at length in Carnal Spirit—to be at once an antagonist for Jeanette’s earthy, idiosyncratic holiness, and a guide for the younger girl’s inchoate, even incoherent confessional statements. The story, such as it is, mostly follows the ebb and flow of the dialogue between Jeanette and Madame Gervaise, who in the course of the repetition, refinements, and refutations of each other’s points seem to nearly agree, but ultimately drift apart again: Jeanette remains the burgeoning warrior-saint, while Gervaise stays the more reasonable, perhaps even the more exemplary Christian, but certainly the less compelling of the two.

There is no question where Péguy’s heart was when he imagined these two women. Not only was he personally attached to the figure of Joan, but he was committed to her role in his own day: a French hero about whom new stories could be told to help form both an anti-chauvinist patriotism and an anti-materialist socialism. The story he wanted to tell would involve the necessity of struggle, even violent struggle against the forces draining Europe of its vitality, including but not limited to the oppression of reactionary government, the intrinsic theft of capitalism, and the violence of colonialism. It’s not surprising that he was thrilled by the prospect of a war in defense of France against a mechanized, militaristic Germany—a sign that he had finally entered an “epoch,” instead of the mere “period” through which he had been living. He happily marched into the battle that killed him, by all accounts running far out ahead of his men as the opposing line advanced, encouraging them to follow him until a bullet exploded his brain. Still, when reading the Mystery trilogy, one has the sense that somewhere within him remained the voice of Gervaise advising modesty, caution, quiet piety, even as he ultimately could not, or would not, heed that voice.

 

This dynamic played out again and again in Péguy’s writing and in his life. Though ardent in every cause he committed himself to, he was also drawn to contemplation, and had always sought a philosophical perspective that could sharpen and ground his fiery poetic imagination. It was therefore with some astonishment that he discovered the thought of Henri Bergson.

Bergson, the most famous philosopher of his day, ascended to a professorship at the ENS in 1898. It was around this time that Péguy abandoned his pursuit of a degree, but he remained a faithful attendee of Bergson’s lectures. When Péguy turned to writing nearly full time, along with running a socialist bookshop and editing the Cahiers, he made frequent mention of the philosopher, which in turn led to a correspondence and even friendship between the two. When the bookshop or the Cahiers ran into financial trouble, as they so often did, Péguy was most frequently kept afloat by Geneviève Favre (daughter of politician Jules and mother of Maritain) and Bergson himself.

Péguy was particularly interested in Matter and Memory, the second of Bergson’s four major works. Published in 1896, it attempts to reconfigure Descartes’ dualism of body and mind into a new dualism of matter and spirit. But whereas the former constitutes a strict divide between the knowing and the unknowing, the latter allowed for the intuitive knowledge of things by identifying the act of knowing equally in things themselves and in knowing them. The dualism Bergson advocated, then, was a provisional, even heuristic dualism, which accepted the experience of discontinuity between human reason and reality, but does not from that basis assume an essential division between thinking and reality, or how they relate to each other. He argued that knowing is essentially memory—which is, as Bergson put it, “the intersection of mind and matter.” The apparent dichotomy is thus subsumed into the experience of being itself.

When Péguy rails against modernity, as he so often does, his target is the culture of ready-mades.

Péguy took this as an eruption in thought so profound that it offered the possibility of renewal for the whole of European culture. He was not alone in his enthusiasm: many other intellectuals and writers at this time, especially those drawn toward Catholicism, understood Bergson as an essential resource in the fight against both scientistic materialism and neo-Scholastic Catholic thought. In the years that followed their meeting, Péguy watched his teacher reach astronomical heights of fame and prestige, lecturing to thousands in Paris and other European centers. But with each achievement and added laurel, Bergson was subject to more vociferous attacks. Far-right groups, including Action Française, decried his attack on Cartesianism as an attack on a French icon and thus on France itself, and Bergson’s Jewishness (sometimes implicitly, often explicitly) was taken to disqualify him from this prominent perch. Péguy frequently wrote in defense of his former teacher, both on philosophical grounds and as a continuation of his lifelong fight against anti-Semitism. When rumors began to circulate that the Vatican planned to add Bergson’s works to the Index of Banned Books, Péguy wrote what is perhaps the most illuminating text of his life, Note on Bergson and the Bergsonian Philosophy, now translated in its entirety for the first time.

The Note showcases Péguy’s mature style, which blends meditative poetry with stinging polemic in a swirling, sometimes dizzying recursiveness. At its heart is the distinction he takes from Bergson between the ready-made and the being-made. The former, in Péguy’s reading, is a consequence of a culture driven by compartmentalization, the division of reality into ranked and ordered components. The ready-made comes into being already fitted for its assigned place, utterly distinct from its surroundings, which he compares to a prop cut-out of a tree used for the stage in contrast to a tree growing in nature: “Trees of the theater are not trees diminished, spent, grown old and no longer good for anything else. They are trees of another order. They are other trees. They are trees that came into the world flat.” This can refer to everything from governments to social orders to relationships between two people. As he wrote in Notre Jeunesse, any affiliation can mask the ready-made, just as any can retain the mysticism out of which life flows. When Péguy rails against modernity, as he so often does, his target is the culture of ready-mades.

This prescient insight foreshadowed later European thought on how modern life in the West became trapped between violence and banality in equal measure. But Péguy found in Bergson an alternative to, say, Heidegger, who might see revealed in the ready-made’s short circuiting of human creativity a pre-existing tendency toward self-alienation. If instead, as Bergson suggests, our immediate experience is composed of memory, then life itself is ultimately an act of interpretation—that is, the sustained attempt to articulate a situation that is a combination of inheritance and innovation. The attempt to discover the being-made, then, is not a matter of simply replacing the ready-made, as if by fiat, but the recognition that the ready-made is only a habit that has developed, a particular variation of a condition that can be otherwise. For Péguy, no policy proposal could undo the damage of modernity if the ready-made remains its basic principle. However much his French nationalism was amenable to blood-and-soil twisting, the essential suppleness—a word he came to use frequently—of his thought can only be seen as an antidote to the authoritarians who sought to appropriate it. As he writes in the Note: “The true philosopher knows very well that he is not situated opposite an adversary, but alongside an adversary, in the face of a reality always greater and more mysterious.”

The Note had little of Péguy’s intended effect, though on the strength of Notre Jeunesse and other publications, he had finally become a consequential figure both in France and internationally. Bergson’s works were placed on the Index and remained there until its abolition in 1966, despite his international fame, epochal debate with Einstein, and his Nobel Prize. Péguy’s Note did, however, draw the attention of the Vatican—at the time of his death, the Sacred Congregation of the Index was considering banning his works, too. As one friend wrote, “there is in Rome a Péguy question.” And so there remained for some time, but the attention had unintended consequences: through readers like Henri de Lubac, Péguy had an immense influence on the ressourcement—a term he coined—that guided Vatican II.

 

Péguy’s words remain, but how should they be understood? He was not, after all, a philosopher in the usual sense, any more than he was a typical journalist or critic. Perhaps “poet” is the best word after all. There is little that can be called systematic in his thought: he repeats himself, again and again, tarrying with themes, questions, and claims through their minutest variations, unfolding these over hundreds of pages. It’s enough to exasperate even a sympathetic reader (as his personality did even his dearest friends). Still, reading these long poems (be they in verse or prose) offers the insight that in striving to understand and articulate meaning in our lives, we are not reaching for a perfection that will forever elude us. There is no conclusion, no fact that will save us from the work of attentiveness to our own moment. Instead, we must participate in the production of meaning, which, so far from being compromised by its relativity, is an aspect of divine creativity. The endlessness of interpretation is a reflection of eternity.

His final text, the Conjoined Note on Descartes and Cartesian Philosophy, is a continuation of the Note on Bergson, but it is bolder, deeper, and more radical exploration of both the ideas driving him and the style he felt was necessary for their expression. In it there are long excursuses on Corneille, the French monarchy, his beloved Joan, Jesus, the Gospels, a range of philosophical and theological perspectives from classical stoicism to modern materialism, and the rise of a monetary society. It is a thrilling, difficult, monstrous work that retains a sense of unity not so much through coherence of argument as through strength of voice and clarity of vision. This is what the sanctity of the world means for Péguy: that every person, every event, every thing is imbued with infinite significance, every utterance, a sacramental offering. To produce such offerings is the task not only of the poet, or the philosopher, or the politician, but of every person in a shared history of creation. His own writings offer us, as Bergson’s did for him, not so much propositions on the good life but a style for finding it, a mode of engagement that guides but does not instruct.

Péguy wrote the Conjoined Note while awaiting mobilization to the front, and it was only published a decade later. As though he had dropped his pen to rush out into the world—the world he knew would kill him, but which he nonetheless, perhaps incomprehensibly, embraced—the manuscript cuts off mid-sentence, incomplete.

This article has been updated to clarify its references to Matthew Maguire's Carnal Spirit.

Published in the May 2021 issue: 

Jack Hanson is a doctoral candidate at Yale University. His writing has appeared in the Hopkins Review, Kenyon Review Online, PN Review, the Times Literary Supplement, and elsewhere.

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