The Unexpected Flash
of an Encounter
At the age of eighteen, on Christmas night, Claudel experienced the unexpected grace of conversion. He tried to resist it but, “in the end, it was necessary to give in!” During a life spent traveling the world as consul, his literary passion led him to write many works, because “if a mission has been given me, it is that of bringing anew to the world corroded by doubt and uglied by materialism the idea of joy and love, in the certainty of and faith in a personal God”
by Mauro Grimoldi
Paul Claudel died fifty years ago, on February 23, 1955, at almost 87 years of age. Every man bears on his shoulders the burden of the era in which he lives. Claudel’s generation journeyed the entire trajectory leading from the noonday of existence to its twilight, through the agonizingly hot hours of war, violence, and totalitarianism. Strong shoulders were needed to withstand the weight, and Claudel’s were strengthened through the vital gift of love called education, the infinite work of art that develops and confirms the heart of man and that, for Claudel, took the form of a sudden flash of encounter, followed by a long battle, before extending into a wounded and dramatic peace that “whoever knows it, knows that joy and pain compose it in equal parts”(Anne Vercors in The Annoucement Made to Mary).
Claudel was born in Villeneuve-sur-Fère, a small village on the Ile de France, on Thursday, August 6, 1868. “It was an extremely austere town, a town where the wind blew continually and the rain, I believe, was much more constant than in any other region of France. There was nothing more severe, more bitter, or more religious than the village of Villeneuve-sur-Fère.” He was the last of four children. After the death of his older brother, Henri, his mother gave birth to two daughters, Camille and Louise. Paul, named in memory of a maternal uncle who committed suicide at the age of 23, was baptized on September 8th of that same year, and consecrated to the Virgin Mary. His mother came from a landowning family, and his father served the government as a real estate registrar. It seems that Paul Claudel’s early years in the countryside were rich with decisive encounters, first of all with the beauty of the earth, the sky, the landscape, and all of creation. “I can see myself again, perched up in the highest fork of an old tree, in the wind, a child rocked among the apples. Like a god on a throne, I could be a spectator at the world’s theater, immersed in deep consideration and study of the earth’s outline and conformation, the composition of the slopes and plains. With a fixed eye like a falcon, I discovered the face of the countryside laid out under my nest, my gaze following the road that appeared twice on the crest of the hills, to be lost then in the forest.” Glad because of the presence of things, “Everywhere I turn, I see the immense octave of creation!”(Fives Great Odes), and also thoughtful, because of the piercing rift of death(perhaps more struck by witnessing the long and agonizing death of his beloved maternal grandmother, when he was thirteen years old, than by knowledge of his brother’s early demise), and because of evil (“I remember the village people among whom I lived for so many years. The most characteristic thing about these people was their hatred. Everyone hated everyone, especially among relatives. Violence, resentment, long-premeditated revenge, and, every now and then, horrible scenes. Who thinks of God in all that?”) Nonetheless, it seems that this setting saw the formation of his disposition to openness that was to dominate his entire existence. “I have never been tempted by introspection. I have never found myself particularly interesting. I’ve always regarded the exterior problems I had to resolve as much more interesting than intimate observation of myself. So nothing seems more false to me than the Socratic maxim, “Know yourself”! It’s absurd, because you can’t know yourself on your own. The bottom of yourself is nothing; and for that matter, the only way to know yourself is to forget yourself! Forget yourself, and be absorbed by the spectacle that reaches out to you and that, to my mind, is much more interesting.” So, “the world exists! I exist! Being: this is beautiful, this is joyful!” But everything appears precarious, “a landscape full of latent tragedy,” beset by a mortal danger (“threats, presages, tears”), when one cannot find grounding on a solid rock of certainty.
Move to Paris
“My sister [Camille] succeeded in dragging the entire family to Paris. She wanted to be a sculptor, and it appears that I wanted to be a writer.” Paul was thirteen years old, and unhappy. It was the beginning of the “sad eighties.”
“I can say that I suffered morally a great deal in that period. I was extremely unhappy. And then, this fear of death, this sense of complete abandonment, this Parisian life that I disliked, this lack of people with whom I could confide or to whom I could give advice. Nothing! The most absolute solitude, and the need to count on myself alone.” He attended the Louis-le-Grand High School, a dive into the very heart of rationalism and scientism dominant in that period.
Suddenly, an unexpected change occurred that marked the beginning of a bond, an affection that would accompany Claudel for the rest of his life. In May 1886, he bought an issue of the magazine La Vogue, with the first series of A. Rimbaud’s Illuminations. All at once, those few fragments of poetry literally crumbled the absurd and rigid philosophical system the eighteen-year-old was clinging to at that time of his life. More than twenty years later, he wrote, “Rimbaud had a capital influence on me.… I finally got out of the horrendous world of Taine, Renan, and the other Molochs of the XIX century, that life imprisonment, that shocking mechanicalness entirely governed by perfectly inflexible laws that, worst of all, are knowable and teachable. I had a revelation of the supernatural. Genius appeared in its purest and most sublime form, like an inspiration truly come from who knows where.” Even though the discovery of this new breath (“the supernatural that continually accompanies the natural”) was frail and ambiguous, incapable of supporting the full urgency of Claudel’s soul, it nonetheless represented for the young man a kind of entrance song, a door thrown open through which would burst the eternal actuality of the Incarnate Word.
In the Cathedral of Notre Dame
Christmas, 1886. Claudel went to Notre Dame for Vespers, and while children were singing the Magnificat, the unexpected happened. “I was standing in the midst of the crowd, next to the second pillar at the entrance to the choir. At that moment, the event that would dominate my entire life happened. In a split second, my heart was touched. I believed. I suddenly perceived the piercing feeling of innocence, the eternal infancy of God.” This conversion was not without its labor pains, and several long years of struggle preceded his receiving the Sacraments. “This resistance lasted four years. I dare say that I put up a good defense and that the fight was fair and complete. Nothing was left out. I used all my means of resistance, but had to abandon one after the other the weapons that proved worthless.” Evidently, his was an encounter in the true sense of the word, and the content of the faith must have appeared to him not as a doctrinal system, no matter how coherent, but as a person. “God exists, God is here, God is someone: He is a person like me. He loves me, He calls me. Je crus!” The door was opened, and Claudel opened the door: “In the end, I had to give in! O door, you must let the guest in; trembling heart, you have to let in the owner. Someone who is within me, more me than myself.”
Traveling the world
“I consider myself a religious and Catholic writer. If a mission has been given me, it is that of bringing anew to the world corroded by doubt and uglied by materialism the idea of joy and love, in the certainty of and faith in a personal God, bound to us by a religious contract.”
Paul Claudel participated in a Foreign Affairs Ministry competitive examination and began the long diplomatic career that would bring him from one end of the earth to the other. He also began his career as a writer, poet, and playwright. He woke daily at six and wrote until ten, then spent the rest of his day on his work. Named Vice-Consul for the United States, he worked first in New York, then in Boston. It was 1893. He had already published two plays, Gold Head (two editions, 1890 and 1894-95) and The City (in two versions worked on between 1890 and 1898), and in America he composed a third, The Exchange. At the age of twenty-seven, he was sent to China for his second position, and remained about fifteen years, residing in Shangai, Han-Ko, Fu-Ciu, Peking, and Tien-Sin. He returned to France in the spring of 1900, passing through Palestine. He contemplated becoming a Benedictine, and presented himself first at the Solesmes Abbey, then, in Ligugé for a spiritual retreat. He asked God to show him the path: “I remember that in that moment. I entered the novitiate chapel and remained there, perplexed, to find out what I had to do. Then I received a very clear answer, categorical and absolutely simple: No.”
Thus he returned to China. During his trip he met a Polish woman, Rosalie Vetch, called Rose, married and the mother of four children, and began a tormented and controversial love affair. After almost four years, Rose left Claudel and China, an event he was not soon to forget. In 1905, Claudel learned that he was a father (Rose was living in Belgium with a third man); in 1917, on August 2nd, he would receive a letter from her. Two plays, Midday Crisis (1905, but not published until 1937) and The Satin Slipper (1919-24), bear the marks of this experience.
Another important year for Claudel was 1906, the year he married Reine Sainte-Marie Perrin. In the course of a decade, the two had five children. “In effect, the year 1906 marked a radical change in my existence that can be likened to a change in course: I got married. This means that, for the first time, I began looking ahead with a long-term perspective.” But 1906 was also a painful year. His sister Camille, alone, desperate, and with few commissions, fell apart, destroying all her works and falling ever more deeply into a vortex of madness and misery, to the point of being committed to an insane asylum in 1913, the year of their father’s death. Claudel saw her for the last time in September 1943: “Only the sound of my voice reached her, arriving from farther off than that same moment. And I can still hear her over the distance, ‘My little Paul. It’s over.’”
Claudel and his wife departed for China. In 1909, Claudel was once again in Europe, first in Prague, then Frankfurt, and finally Hamburg, as Consul General, until the outbreak of World War I. In 1910, in Prague, Kafka met him for the only time and left us a brief but significant portrait: “The Consul Claudel, the splendor of his eyes taken in and reverberated by his wide face, wants to take his leave continuously, and manages to do so in particular, but not in general, for as soon as he says good-bye to one person, another appears, and is then followed in line by the person who has already been dismissed.”
Blessed Lydwina of Schiedam
“In a man who has come to mid-life, there are various currents running somehow one over the other, flowing onwards and away without ever mixing their waters. In a certain sense, a man who has a deep wound takes a long time to heal, but you mustn’t believe that this work of healing fills his entire life.”
In this period, he was finalizing The Annoucement Made to Mary, his dearest work, his deepest play, in process for over twenty years, since he began working on La Jeune Fille Violaine before departing for the United States. In 1890, the Church beatified a Dutch virgin, Lydwina of Schiedam, who died on Easter Sunday, 1433, after enduring terribly painful physical suffering for many years. Among the many miracles attributed to her, one in particular struck Claudel: on Christmas Day, Ludwina was caught up into heaven and obtained a special grace, mamilla eius miro modo lacte abundat, says her hagiographer. This milk, miraculously flowing from the breast of the suffering saint, nourished a sinner woman who was then born again to new life, converting. Ludwina died at dawn on Easter, and sweet fragrances rose from her corrupted body. Claudel drew from this story in creating Violaine, who appeared later in The Announcement Made to Mary, published and presented in France in 1912 and awarded recognition by the Academy of France. This version, the most poetic and complete, was followed by two others, one in 1938-40, and one in 1948, both retouched and reworked in many sections–more than fifty years of work.
Following the path of The Announcement Made to Mary, Claudel wrote three new plays that someone has defined his “Catholic trilogy,” each held together by the desire to restaurare omnia in Christo. The Hostage (1911), Hard Bread (1913-14), and The Humbled Father (1916) deal with the cross, as did The Announcement Made to Mary and the epilogue of The Satin Slipper. The two main characters of the latter, Don Rodrigo, appointed viceroy, and Donna Prodessa, after a long, never consummated love (she was married and, in the beginning of the play, deposited her satin slipper in the hands of the Virgin Mary, saying, “Never let me be a cause of corruption in this home, where you guard over the door, august keeper of the tower”) finally encounter each other.
His last years
After 1913, Claudel left the Hamburg Consulate at the outbreak of World War I, and traveled twice to Italy. In 1917, he departed for Brazil as a plenipotentiary minister. “You can say anything about Brazil, but you cannot deny that it is one of those countries that penetrates and impregnates the soul, leaving I don’t know how to describe what certain tone, or effect, or salt, that you can never undo.” Every Sunday, he met with two other people on a mountain ridge overlooking Rio, for a kind of picnic of ideas, music, and drawings, and from this was born Man and His Desire, “the eternal dance of longing, of desire, and of exile, that of prisoners and abandoned lovers; what makes feverish men, tormented by insomnia, walk back and forth on the veranda in the middle of the night. Then from the depths of the shadows that precede day, one of these women returns and circles around the man as if fascinated. Is she dead? Is she alive?” In 1921, after a period in Denmark, he worked as Ambassador to Japan, in Tokyo. He reformulated Man and His Desire, publishing Woman and Her Shadow, and wrote A Glance at the Japanese Soul and One Hundred Sentences for the Fan (one-line poems in true Japanese spirit). In this land, where “all nature is a temple, ready and open for religious practice,” he also experienced the frightening and tremendous tragedy of earthquake.
His diplomatic career brought him anew to the United States in 1927 as Ambassador. From here, before retiring, he moved on to Brussels. These were difficult years. At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, he sided against the Republicans in favor of the party of Catholics. He rejected Action française and unambiguously opposed Hitler’s national socialism, working at the League of Nations to preserve the rest of Europe from Nazism. In particular, he followed with heartfelt worry the vicissitudes of the Jews, writing Rabbi Schwarz, “I feel urged to write you to express the disgust, the horror, the loathing, and the indignation that all good Frenchmen and in particular the Catholics feel about the iniquity, the despoliation, and the unjust treatment of every kind of which our Israelite compatriots are currently victims.”
In 1935, he withdrew from diplomatic activity and spent his retirement years between the Brangues castle and Paris. His last years, beginning in 1943, were dedicated to writing. His works were presented in Paris and drew interest and acclaim. He was called to the Academy of France, for the seat that had been Jean Racine’s, but he never stopped working. He studied the Bible and wrote eleven volumes of “poetic” exegesis. “When the Bible draws from created things to designate eternal realities, it doesn’t do so like a thoughtless writer who draws haphazardly from his repertoire of images, but in virtue of an intimate and natural appropriateness, since from the mouth of God, who created and named every being, there could issue nothing but the Eternal.” And now, more than ever, Claudel directs himself to the eternal, certainly aware of the imminence of his definitive departure, but also of the fact that the world he is preparing to enter forever has never been extraneous to his earthly existence as a pilgrim.
At two in the morning on Ash Wednesday, February 23, 1955, five days after the Paris debut of The Announcement Made to Mary, attended by the President of the Republic, Paul Claudel, after receiving communion, died of a cardiac crisis. “I am not afraid,” were the last words his eldest son was able to distinguish in his father’s last death struggle.
Made to Mary
Objectively, The Announcement Made to Mary is one of the greatest works written this century. It hasn’t been much acclaimed, because it hasn’t been understood, but it is a concentration of the genius of Catholic Christianity. For me, it represents the greatest poem of this century. Its theme can be defined thus: love is the generator of the human according to the total dimension; that is, love is the generator of the history of the person, inasmuch as it is a generation of a people. The central figure of the play is complex, and is translated into three characters: Peter of Craon, Violaine, and Anne Vercors. … The common denominator of these three characters is love, but not love as expression of one’s own will, not as reactivity, not as “mawkishness.” Mounier, in his book, The Christian Adventure, says that the young generations no longer know the distinction between love and tenderness. … Love is being for, being for the Ideal, being for the total design, where beauty and justice are whole. The theme of The Announcement Made to Mary is the creative love of totality–in fact, the person can be conscious of total reality, of the universe. Understanding these things, you can understand the text.… These pages contain the ideal of everything. Their theme is love, that is, the conception of one’s own being in function of the total design. The design has a name, it is a man, Christ, through whose being, through burning pain, the exceptional impetus of generosity operates, the normality of daily obedience. The alternative is pettiness.
(Luigi Giussani, My Readings, “The Books of the Christian Spirit,” BUR, Milan, 1996.)