Carnal Spirits: The Revolutions of Charles Péguy
By Matthew W Maguire University of Pennsylvania Press, 296pp, £58/$69.95
The paradoxes of the French Catholic poet Charles Péguy continue to entrance readers. Péguy (1873-1914), who was killed at the start of the Battle of the Marne in the First World War, was inspired by three figures: the Virgin Mary, Genevieve, patron saint of Paris, and St Joan of Arc. Yet despite his ardent belief, he was not observant.
Péguy wrote lengthy (and sometimes prolix) poems to express patriotic feelings and premonitions of war. As Eugène Jolas noted in 1940, Péguy’s poems “introduced a vigorous new style, half liturgical, half colloquial, which emphasised an incantatory emotion through the repetitive formula found in the Laurentian litany”.
Reading Péguy today requires the imaginative variety of a great actor to enliven the repetitions, as the French Catholic performer Michael Lonsdale demonstrated in 2015 during his much-praised stage show incorporating Péguy’s writings, Between Heaven and Earth. The show alluded to Péguy’s humble birth in Orléans, where he was raised by a family of labourers whom he likened to medieval cathedral builders. His mother was an upholsterer, exemplifying diligence and piety.
These and other background facts are explicated in a densely argued, empathetic new book by Professor Matthew Maguire, who teaches History and Catholic Studies at DePaul University. He deftly addresses such subjects as Péguy’s socialism, which had nothing to do with Karl Marx, but derived from an earlier Gallic source, Charles Fourier, who prophesised a pleasure-based society where libido was a motivating element in work and societal interactions.
Péguy was a social being, uniting willing friends to support Captain Alfred Dreyfus during the Affaire, in which a French Jewish artillery officer was convicted on charges of treason, only to be pardoned later. As Maguire reminds us, Péguy explained in a memoir, Our Youth, excerpts from which were translated by Alexander Dru (Liberty Fund, 2001), that he fought to overturn Dreyfus’s conviction out of a sense of universal justice, as well as passion for the image of France in the world.
Had he lived a normal lifespan, would Péguy have resolved the apparent contradictions in his life and work? He refused to have his children baptised and may never have received Communion. Yet in 1912, when his youngest son fell ill, he walked from Paris to Chartres on a three-day personal pilgrimage. As soon as he planned this expedition, his son’s health improved. Péguy faithfully carried out the plan, and to this day, French Catholics follow in his footsteps in an annual Péguy pilgrimage to the cathedral.
In addition to unsettled complexities, there have also been multiple misreadings of Péguy’s works. Due to what can be read as nationalism and militarism in his books, during the wartime German Occupation of France, Péguy was misrepresented as a precursor of Nazism by Fr Paul Doncœur, SJ, who would be sidelined by the Jesuits in 1943 for collaborating with the enemy as leader of the French scouting movement in the Vichy regime.
The title Carnal Spirit alludes to yet another enigma, that of Péguy’s stance on the incarnation. As Maguire interprets the poet’s view, “In Christianity, God is incarnate … Why, then, is Christianity about a rejection of the body and carnal life?”
Indeed, Pope Francis has repeatedly cited Péguy in recent years. In October 2019 at the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, the Pope advised Catholics to avoid intra-ecclesiastical debates, thereby erring in ways comparable to those scorned by Péguy in 1914: “Because they don’t have the courage to be with the world, they think they are with God. Because they don’t have the commitment to the choices that people make, they think they are opting for God. Because they don’t love anyone, they think they love God.”
In a timely way, last year Cluny Media reissued Péguy’s poetic play The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc. Péguy’s long poem The Portal of the Mystery of Hope was reprinted in 2003. Even so, further translations would surely be illuminating.
When Péguy died, the English author Richard Aldington sniffed in Poetry magazine in December 1914 that he “wasn’t a personality which appealed to me, though I knew him perfectly well by repute. His work always seemed to be more political and socialist than literary.”
Aldington called Péguy’s Ève (1913), a 400 page-long book in which Jesus discourses to Eve about human history before and after the Fall and after Redemption, a “rather peculiar and epic effect … a poem which quickly bores; nevertheless it has its points.” With books like Carnal Spirit to help clarify these points, Péguy’s works should continue to win new enthusiasts for this endlessly complex, challenging, and rewarding author.