Péguy and the Attempt to Preserve our Humanity From the Deformations of Modernity

July 28, 2021 Updated: July 28, 2021

Commentary

In the introduction to his magisterial “Essays on European Literature” (1950), E.R. Curtius remarked on his good fortune in having been a contemporary and an interpreter of “men like Gide, Claudel, Péguy, Proust, Valéry, Hofmannsthal, Ortega, Joyce, Eliot.”

Greatness calls forth greatness, so it is easy to understand Curtius’s gratitude. But what about his list?

Joyce and Eliot are self-explanatory.

Likewise Proust and Valéry, Ortega and Hofmannsthal.

Gide and Claudel are at least plausible, even if their reputations have declined in the years since Curtius wrote.

But Péguy? How did that unfamiliar name find its way onto the distinguished critic’s “A-list”?

In the English-speaking world, the French poet and intermittently Catholic polemicist Charles Péguy is barely even a name today.

He was born in modest circumstances in 1873 in Orléans, where, in 1429, Joan of Arc was instrumental in raising the siege of the city by the English.

Péguy’s father, a carpenter, died several months later, and Péguy was raised by his mother and grandmother. They eked out a living recaning chairs, a craft that Péguy also practiced occasionally in his youth to help maintain the family coffers.

Péguy later paraded his peasant background—rather overstating (or perhaps I mean understating) his origins, but he regarded an earthy provenance as a patent of authenticity.

Péguy early on displayed academic promise, won a scholarship to the École normale supérieure, but failed part of his examination and left without taking a degree. Overall, his academic performance was indifferent.

By the time he was twenty, Péguy had ceased practicing his native Roman Catholicism, declared himself a socialist, and worked running a socialist bookshop in the Latin Quarter.

When his closest friend died in 1896, Péguy determined that duty required him to marry his friend’s sister, which he did the following year.

They had four children, the youngest of whom was born in 1915, after Péguy’s death.

In 1898, Péguy used his wife’s inheritance to open his own bookshop, located near the Sorbonne, which he studiously mismanaged and brought to the brink of bankruptcy within a year.

‘Cahiers’

In 1900, he started the “Cahiers de la Quinzaine” (Fortnightly Notebooks), the journal that he ran until his death and in which most of his work first appeared.

Péguy’s journal was a distinguished but not quite indispensable publication—though to call it a publication tells only half the story.

It was almost a way of life.

Contributors included Maurice Barräs, Julien Benda, Anatole France, Daniel Halévy, Romain Rolland, André Suaräs, and Jean Juaräs—a respectable roster of semi-luminaries that, one notes, does not include such incandescent names as Gide, Proust, and Apollinaire.

At any one time there were only a few hundred subscribers, but the Cahiers seem to have formed the center of their intellectual universe.

Thursdays Péguy was at home to a dozen or so friends who dropped by to discuss the events of the day.

Controversy and contention were always in order. “A review only continues to have life if each issue annoys at least one-fifth of its readers,” Péguy wrote.

“Justice,” he added, “lies in seeing that it is not always the same fifth.”

For many years, I knew Péguy only as the author of the penetrating observation (found in a 1905 essay called “Notre Patrie”) that “It will never be known what acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of not looking sufficiently progressive.”

That observation, I would submit, should be inscribed on the lintels of every college and university, every news organization, and on the entrance to the U.S. Congress.

From about 1910 until around the time Curtius composed his tabulary homage, Péguy was regularly invoked as a modern master—a peculiar master, to be sure, but a master nonetheless.

He was, as the sociologist Irving Louis Horowitz noted in a book about Péguy’s friend-turned-enemy Georges Sorel, “perhaps the most significant voice in French social Christianity since Proudhon.”

Writing in “The New Statesman” in 1916, two years after Péguy’s death in action at the beginning of World War I, T. S. Eliot commended him as “one of the most illustrious of the dead who have fallen in this war,” “a national, a symbolic figure, the incarnation of the rejuvenated French spirit.”

The philosopher Henri Bergson, whom Péguy knew and whose work he wrote about, said that “he knew my most secret thought, such as I have never expressed it, such as I would have wished to express it.”

Similar encomia abound.

Capaciousness

In our own day, enthusiasts for Péguy’s work are much rarer.

One of the exceptions is the French philosopher Pierre Manent.

In “Charles Péguy: Between Political Faith and Faith” (1984), Manent extolled Péguy as “one of the most penetrating critics of the historical and sociological points of view which dominate modern consciousness.”

High praise. Manent acknowledges the “violently personal” character of Péguy’s work, his habit of lacing considered arguments with ad hominem attacks, of ending lyrical expostulations with “an insult.”

But Manent discerned “a luminous mind, eager to understand and to think,” behind the self-obsession and often bitter polemics.

Péguy, Manent argues, continues to be “of capital importance.”

Why? Above all because of his insights into the distinctive hubris of modernity: the curious modern tendency to substitute faith in technique for the cultivation of wisdom, the belief that a perfect administration of life could somehow relieve us of the burden, the unpredictable adventure, of living.

I would not myself place Péguy in the exalted company of Proust, Eliot, and Co. His genius was too idiosyncratic, his achievement too diffuse.

Even Péguy’s admirers—most of them, anyway—acknowledge this. Eliot, for one, stressed Péguy’s genuineness and lack of “affectation.”

He also noted that “one would hardly call him a ‘thinker.’”

Péguy’s style, Eliot said, is “not a style to think in; it is too emphatic, too insistent.”

In 1928, writing about Péguy’s friend Julien Benda, author of “La Trahison des clercs” (“The Treason of the Intellectuals”), Eliot noted in passing that Péguy was “a remarkable example of a writer who managed to influence many people, largely because he had so confused a mind that there was room for everything in it somehow.”

One misunderstands Eliot, I believe, if one misses the element of admiration in that deflationary remark.

Order is admirable—Eliot wouldn’t want us to do without that—but capaciousness, too, he suggests, is an intellectual strength.

Earnest and Fierce

In any event, if Péguy has occasionally been rated rather too highly, he is unduly neglected today.

One reason for this is the temperament of Péguy’s work.

His combination of spiritual earnestness and rhetorical ferocity is currently out of fashion. (Ferocity there is aplenty, but generally sans earnestness, and vice-versa.)

In some respects, Péguy was very much a period piece.

Immersed in the controversies, prejudices, and emotional weather of his day, he took on their coloring.

This boosted his contemporary relevance.

It also assured that he would soon seem dated.

But Péguy was not only a creature of his time.

He was also a writer whose insights continue to resonate today.

Péguy was above all an apostle of the firsthand, the present reality, the rootedness in lived experience.

Hence his repudiation of all efforts to deal with things by proxy.

“The modern method,” he wrote in “Temporal and Eternal,” starts by “ignoring the text” and searching for “the exact vantage point which, though bearing some relation to the text, is the farthest removed” from it.

Anyone who has followed the divagations of contemporary literary criticism or museological practice will know what Péguy means.

That much of what he had to say about the modern world is unwelcome and falls on deaf ears is naturally another element in Péguy’s neglect.

The criticisms he formulated are unflattering to modern vanities, especially our apparently unassailable sense of self-importance and self-sufficiency.

But of course that is precisely why Péguy’s work is valuable and worth recalling.

If Péguy is susceptible to looking bizarre in our contemporary eyes, Manent notes, it is “only because he was much more concrete and real than we ordinarily care to be.”

There is also the matter of Péguy’s style. Eliot regretted its being “too emphatic, too insistent.”

But that’s only part of the problem. One of Péguy’s critics tartly remarked that Péguy lacked “the one talent that would have made him a great pamphleteer: brevity.”

In both his poetry and his prose, Péguy favored repetition. A word, a line, an image would be taken up over and over again, slightly varied, often repeated outright.

His style was at once accretive, like a pearl, and relentless, like a tidal wave.

It doesn’t work for everyone. When François Mauriac was told that someone was translating “Le Mystäre de la Charité de Jeanne d’Arc” into English, he said “What a pity someone does not translate him into French.”

Epigrams

To English readers, Péguy is mostly known—to the extent that he is known at all—as the author of one-liners.

I have already mentioned his marvelous observation about acts of cowardice motivated by the fear of not looking sufficiently progressive.

He has many others nearly as good:

  • Tyranny is always better organized than freedom.
  • Surrender is essentially an operation by means of which we set about explaining instead of acting.
  • Homer is new and fresh this morning, and nothing, perhaps, is as old and tired as today’s newspaper.
  • He who does not bellow the truth when he knows the truth makes himself the accomplice of liars and forgers.

Stalwart

But Péguy was more than a coiner of epigrams.

No one would accuse him of being a systematic thinker, but he was an unusually candid one.

In 1908, Péguy startled his friends by announcing his return to the Catholic faith (but not quite to the Catholic church: he remained hostile to the institution).

Péguy continued to regard himself as a socialist, but here, too, his allergy to parties and institutions made him an unreliable ally.

One admirer said that Péguy’s socialism was far more akin to the socialism of Saint Francis than to that of Karl Marx.

Perhaps. He liked to remind his readers that he was pursuing “none other than The Eternal Salvation of France,” and so on.

As various commentators have pointed out, it is probably a waste of time to try to label Péguy politically.

He was too idiosyncratic, not to say erratic.

Or perhaps it would be better to say that he was too stalwart in following his own conscience to make a good member of any party.

Lyricism

Until the last four or five years of his life, the vast majority of Péguy’s writing was polemical.

There was always a lyric strain in his sensibility.

But until 1910, when he fell in love with Blanche Raphaâl, a longtime friend, that lyricism showed itself sporadically.

Péguy remained faithful to his wife, but his new emotional attachment probably helps explain the huge outpouring of poetry in his last years.

Péguy was a lieutenant in the reserves; it is said that when war was declared in August 1914, he left off writing in mid-sentence to join the mobilization.

On the first day of the first battle of the Marne, about twenty-five kilometers from Paris, Péguy was felled by a bullet through the head.

“For God’s sake, push ahead!” are said to have been his last words. He was forty-one.

Dreyfus

At the center of “Notre Jeunesse,” as at the center of Péguy’s life, was the Dreyfus affair.

It is difficult for us to comprehend the riveting importance of this episode for French life at the turn of the century.

In its divisiveness, it was like the Vietnam War in American society, only more so.

The fate of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army captain on the French general staff who was falsely accused of spying, was a lightning rod, a catalyst, a test of will and political good faith.

Everyone took sides.

And, as Proust noted midway through “A la recherche,” “The waves of the two currents of Dreyfusism and anti-Dreyfusism divided France from top to bottom.”

The affair officially lasted from 1894, when Dreyfus was first courtmartialed and sent to prison on Devil’s Island, until 1906, when he was finally reinstated.

In fact, its repercussions lasted decades.

The army, the old guard of society, the Catholic church hierarchy were adamantly against Dreyfus; enlightened opinion was tirelessly on his side.

It was not simply a matter of anti-Semitism, a virulent species of which erupted throughout France.

The Dreyfus Affair was one of those world-defining, world-changing occurrences whose ramifications are all the more surprising because unexpected.

“There is nothing,” Péguy noted, “so unforeseen as an event.”

Modern Man

Péguy was from the beginning of the affair a passionate Dreyfusard.

By 1910, when he wrote “Notre Jeunesse,” he had invested the event with nearly cosmic significance.

For him the Dreyfus Affair did not merely dramatize an instance of justice violated and then set right.

It was the stage upon which the soul of modern man struggled for significance.

The Dreyfus Affair was bound up with the future of the French Republic and the future of France as a Christian society.

He saw in the Dreyfus Affair and its aftermath an emblematic movement of history in which the fate of society was at stake.

“Everything,” Péguy wrote in one of his most quoted aphorisms, begins in mysticism [la mystique] and ends in politics [la politique].”

For Péguy, it was not enough to be on the right side of the debate, because the debate was fundamentally about more than choosing the right side.

It was about the direction of the modern world.

He was “horrified,” he wrote, to discover that what was “to us an instinct has for the young become a matter of propositions … a matter of logic.”

Péguy hoped to show “what culture is, and how utterly different from (infinitely more precious than) science, archaeology, a doctrine, erudition, and, of course, a system. You will see what culture was like before the professors crushed it.”

In Péguy’s mind, the Dreyfus Affair had originally called forth a kind of heroism that had been sadly depleted by the institutionalization of its own success. He lamented

“the world we call … the modern world. The world that tries to be clever. The world of the intelligent, of the advanced, of those who know, … who have nothing more to learn. The world of those who are not had on by fools. Like us. That is to say: the world of those who believe in nothing, not even in atheism, who devote themselves, who sacrifice themselves to nothing. More precisely the world of those without a mystique. And who boast of it.”

‘La Mystique’

As far as I know, Péguy never attempted to define what he meant by “la mystique.”

Doubtless he would have regarded the exercise as an example of precisely the sort of degradation he was warning against: the movement of “organic” (a favorite word) plenitude to lifeless rationalism.

In part, I suppose, Péguy was issuing the same sort of admonition that Walter Bagehot, writing about the English monarchy, made about the fragile but indispensable charisma of the throne: “We must not,” Bagehot wrote, “let in daylight upon magic.”

Warning about the extent to which politics was devouring la mystique, Péguy was calling attention to the non-rational currents of life that nourish healthy institutions and preserve reason from rationalism.

Clearly, Péguy was a kind of romantic. Much that he had to say about the differences among nations, the French race, etc., seems curiously dated, even odious, to our twenty-first-century ears.

As Manent noted, “Péguy did not go so far as to say that a German saint was an impossibility, a contradiction in terms, but it must be said that he came close to it.”

Perhaps Péguy’s notion of la mystique is similar to what Kant meant by an “aesthetical idea”: a “representation of the imagination which occasions much thought, without however any definite thought, i.e., any concept being capable of being adequate to it.”

But I think there was more to it than that.

It is easy to dismiss a figure like Péguy.

His enthusiasms are embarrassingly frank, his rhetoric volatile, his categories clumsy.

But he saw something essential about the spiritual aridity of modern rationalism, the attempt to reduce life to a calculus of competing interests.

We live in a world increasingly determined by the administrative imperative Péguy recoiled from. In such a world, Péguy’s ambition to “introduce uneasiness” and open the door to commotion is a necessary corrective.

It is not the whole story.

But it is a part of the human mystery that we neglect at the cost of our diminishment.

Roger Kimball is the editor and publisher of The New Criterion and the publisher of Encounter Books. His most recent book is “Who Rules? Sovereignty, Nationalism, and the Fate of Freedom in the 21st Century.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Roger Kimball
Roger Kimball
Roger Kimball is the editor and publisher of The New Criterion and publisher of Encounter Books. His most recent book is “Who Rules? Sovereignty, Nationalism, and the Fate of Freedom in the 21st Century.”