No Catholic should object to honouring the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death this year (the occasion of an Apostolic Letter on the Feast of the Annunciation). Obviously Dante is the greatest of all Catholic poets. Next year we will honour St Francis de Sales, patron saint of writers, on the 400th anniversary of his passing. But we should be cautious about how we honour the memory of less holy authors, particularly when they ended up opposing or even undermining the faith.
2021 marks the 200th birthdays of two of the most gifted and influential of all French writers: the poet Charles Baudelaire (9 April), and Gustave Flaubert (12 December), the novelist. Both men were literary radicals: it could be argued that all major artistic movements from the 1870s through the mid-20th century begin from their work. But you can enjoy them simply as masters of language: as with all the finest writers you need nothing more than literacy and an attention span to find pleasure in their writing.
But these were men for whom pleasure mattered more than virtue. Flaubert lived a life of sullen comfort in his mother’s country house; Baudelaire squandered a large inheritance in his twenties, and spent his life struggling with debt, illness and humiliation. Both were prosecuted for obscenity in 1857, Flaubert for his first novel Madame Bovary, Baudelaire for his book of poems Les Fleurs du Mal. Flaubert was acquitted; Baudelaire, his publisher and the printer were fined.
Baudelaire was too honest to ignore the vice and squalor that surrounded him; in his essays, art criticism, prose poems and (above all) verses he attempts to find beauty, sensual satisfaction and peace without ignoring death, mediocrity and other triggers for his angst. Corruption obsessed him. As with his hero Edgar Allan Poe, he could never quite escape guilt, melancholy or horror. His view of the world was a morbid parody of Catholicism, without forgiveness, redemption or salvation.
Flaubert’s was a divided soul. Half of him was a coldly objective bourgeois materialist, seeking to represent reality as he saw it in classical form; the other half was a self-indulgent pagan voluptuary forever dreaming of vice and exotic luxuries. Like Baudelaire, he suffered throughout his life from syphilis. Flaubert was attracted to pantheism, but in practice his views were those of an old-fashioned Whig, except that Flaubert was too pessimistic, disillusioned and lazy ever to dream of reform.
Neither Flaubert nor Baudelaire could ever escape Catholic culture. They tried to create something new within what they viewed as a hollow shell. The modernists of the 20th century did likewise: the novelists James Joyce and Marcel Proust are only the most distinguished of their disciples in this respect. The filmmaker Luis Buñuel was another example of an ex-Catholic who claimed to reject the Church, yet could not create any work without scavenging what he thought to be a carcass. These men claimed Christianity was dead; yet it provides the only really living elements within their work, which can be repellently inward-looking.
Baudelaire, Flaubert, Proust, Joyce, Buñuel: all were geniuses. Anybody who doubts the fact should read Flaubert’s short story The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller or the first chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses: nobody else could achieve results like this. There is always a joy in watching the talented exercise their skills. But did any of these men accomplish work of genuine importance? In the eyes of intellectuals, or other writers, of course they did. A poet like Baudelaire can give pleasure purely with a string of words. There is genius in their art, but no wisdom. Ultimately you lose nothing by not experiencing their work.
For more than a century and a half, Catholic culture has provided a treasure chest to be raided by those who reject the Church. Catholic writers have too often abandoned their duties to uphold and defend the faith. Or if they have tried, they have been terrible at it. Rotten 20th-century theology has not helped. But now, literary modernism is dead. It turns out there was nothing genuinely durable in the vision that Baudelaire and Flaubert introduced to literature. Our future lies with Dante after all: uncompromising orthodoxy, the classical virtues, and constant meditation on the Four Last Things. Nothing else lasts. We must relearn the lessons of Dante, and commemorate Flaubert and Baudelaire by praying for their salvation. This is how we honour lost souls.
This article first appeared in the June issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.