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|Charles Péguy (1873-1914) Pseudonyms: Charles Pierre Baudouin, Pierre Deloire|
French poet, essayist and philosopher, who first turned to socialism and abandoned Roman Catholicism, then "found faith again," becoming an advocate of anti-materialistic and nationalistic values. Péguy's last important work was the seven thousand six hundred forty-four lines long poem Ève (1913), a prayer-like vision of Christian history. Driven by patriotic fervour and a sense of heroic duty, Péguy joined the French Army at the outbreak of World War I, and fell in the Battle of Marne in 1914.
"Étoile de la mer voici lourde nappe
Péguy was born in Orléans into a family of peasant
craftsmen. His father, Désiré Péguy, was a cabinet maker, who died in
1874 as a result of wounds received during the Franco-Prussian war of
1870-71. Cécile, Péguy's mother, returned to her work as
a chair repairer, to support her family. She earned a limited but steady income. When not at school, Péguy helped his mother.
Basically Péguy's mother and
peasant grandmother, who lived with them, were both illiterate. They
worked tirelessly sixteen hours per day and taught him the meaning of
work at an early age. "All during my childhood," Péguy recalled in Cahiers de la Quinzaine
in 1913, "I saw chairs being woven with exactly the same spirit and the
same heart, and the same hand, with which the same people cut the stone
for its cathedrals." ('Bourgeois Sabotage of Dignified Work,' translated by Michelle K. Borras, Humanun, 2017, Issue Four)
A brilliant student from a modest background, Péguy won a
series of sholarships. After passing his baccalauréat in 1891, he
entered the Lycée Lakanal, Sceaux, and then did his military service in
1892-93. Péguy continued his studies in Paris at the Collège de
Sainte-Barbe. In 1894 he was admitted to the exclusive Ecole Normale
Supérieure on his third attempt. The next year he returned to Orleans
to learn typography and to work on his first play, Jeanne d'Arc.
Péguy failed in 1898 his final agrégation and gave up his plans
for a teaching career.
In 1895 Péguy joined the Socialist Party. From 1896 he was a contributor to the Revue Socialiste, where he published two utopian essays, and from 1899 the Revue Blanche. One of Péguy's early pseudonyms was "Pierre Deloire;" he took it from the river Loire that runs through the heart of France. Marcel, premier dialogue de la Cité harmonieuse (1898), Péguy's first prose work, was inspired by his school friend Marcel Baudouin, who had died in 1896. The next year he married Marcel's sister, Charlotte-Françoise Baudoin; they had one daughter and three sons, one of whom was born after Péguy's death.
Following the publication of Emile
pamphlet 'J'Accuse!' (1898), Péguy summoned other socialists
to support Zola during the Dreyfus affaire. Pégyu argued that, so long
as Dreyfus remained condemned unjustly, France was "living in a state
of mortal sin." From 1903 onwards, Péguy started to distance himself
from the dreyfusards, partly because he believed that the campaign had
become a conspiracy against the Church. "Everything begins in mysticism
and ends in politics," he once said. Péguy was deeply disappointed in
the reluctance of many socialist leaders to join the Dreyfusards.
In 1898 Péguy invested his wife's dowry and other funds into founding a socialist bookshop, the Librairie Bellais, in the heart of the Latin Quartier. The Librairie Bellais soon became the headquarters of the Dreyfusard campaign. After a year it was turned into a cooperative to avoid bankruptcy. Péguy broke with the cooperative, now named Société Nouvelle de librairie et d'édition, when he learned, that it would not print his writings without any interference.
After turning his back to the Société, Péguy founded in 1900
the bimonthly review Les Cahiers de la Quinzaine, in which he
could exercise his freedom of speech. Nearly all of his writings,
except certain poems, first appeared in the review. Basically it
served as Péguy's tool for social and moral reform, but also introduced
a number of important new authors. The contributors included such
prominent writers, journalists, and politicians like Anatole France,
Romain Rolland, the social philosopher Georges Sorel, and the socialist
leader Jean Juarès. Also Julien Benda's first
(1911-12), which was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt, was originally
published in the review.
Miraculously, the Cahiers survived for 229 issues without advertising, although it rarely had more than 1000 subscribers. After he printed De la situation faite à l'Histoire dans le monde moderne in the Cahiers in the summer of 1907, Péguy wrote almost nothing for roughly two years. As a poet Péguy started late in life, six years before his death.
Never a full-blooded Marxist, Péguy was an socialist idealist, who believed that extreme collectivism or "anarchistic communism" will eventually lead to the freedom of the human spirit. Henri Bergson (1859-1941), whose lectures he attended with Jacques Maritain, and defended him later against Maritain in Note sur M. Bergson et la philosophie bergsonienne (1914), was for Péguy the most important philosopher. Especially Bergson's concepts of memory and time influenced his thought. For his disappointment, Bergson did not write the introduction to his Œuvres choisies 1900-1910, which came out in 1911.
Throughout his career, the figure of Joan of Arc provided
Péguy a constant spiritual and patriotic guide. Madame Gervaise, a
Franciscan Nun who teachers the young Joan of Arc, was the only
protagonist in Le Porche du Mystère de la deuxième vertu
(1911, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope). He created the character in
his initial version of Le Mystère de la charité de Jeanne d'Arc (1910, The
Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc). By embracing the symbol of the
nationalist Right, Péguy alienated himself from his leftist friends but
received applause from the anti-Semitic
journalist Édouard Drumont, who devoted an article to to him in Action française.
sought to prevent her memory being exploited
for political aims by all kinds of extremists. Curiously, although he
wrote extensively on Jeanne, he seldom brought into fore details of her
Péguy's first book on the peasant-soldier-saint was Jeanne
d'Arc (1897), dedicated to "those who have lived ... and who have
died for the coming of the Universal Socialist Republic." The
three-part play was some 800 pages long. Only one or two copies were
sold. After conversion he found poetry, and adopting it as a way to
express his faith, Péguy reworked the play into The Portal of the
Mystery of Hope, a mixture prose and free verse. About that time
Pégyu fell in love with a young Jewish woman, Blanche Raphaël, who
moved in the circles of the Cahiers.
remained faithful to his wife, but in his emotional agony, he even
contemplated suicide. Seeking escape from his desperate existence,
encourged Blanche to marry another man in 1910; the marriage turned out
to be unhappy. The pain of his love for Blanche he expressed in Ballade
de la peine, the first part of La Ballade du coeur,
which was not published until 1941; a complete version came out in
1975. The relationship was first revealed by Jérôme and Jean Tharaud in
Notre cher Péguy (1926).
Charlotte-Françoise, who was an atheist, refused to have their
children baptized, which Péguyaccepted.
However, when his son Pierre Marcel became seriously ill, he made in
June 1912 his first pilgrimage to the cathedral of
Chartres. Alain Fournier (1886-1914), the writer of the lyrical novel Le
Grand Meaulnes, followed him part of the way. By this action, the
custom of making a journey on foot to Chartres was revived once again.
Fournier did not accompany Péguy on his second pilgrimage at the end of
July 1913. However, he never took communion.
Péguy's mystic nationalism and religious conversion (the "leap of faith" into the unknown, as Kierkegaard would have said) alienated many of his socialist friends, Sorel included. Among his new acquaintances was the son of a former president of France, Claude Casimir-Périer, and his wife Simone.
In Un noveau théologien M. Fernand Laudet (1911)
Péguy declared that Jesus "is essentially the God of the poor, of the
suffering, of the workers, and therefore of those who no longer have a
public life." But instead of basing his revolutionary hopes on the
urban proletariat, Péguy idealized the values of the peasants. "Faith
is a great tree, an oak tree rooted deep in the heart of France," Péguy
wrote in Le mystère des Saints Innocents (1912, The Mystery of
the Holy Innocents).
Adopting the role of a prophet, Péguy's advocated spiritual and cultural values of the old France, which he believed were threatened by materialism, positivism, and right-thinking Catholics. His poems took on a slow, repetitive rhythm of a holy procession or gently waving cornfields, affirming the author's belief in the sacred unity between faith, blood, and soil. "The arms of Jesus are the Cross of Lorraine / Both the blood in the artery and the blood in the vein, / Both the source of grace and the clear fountain" (from La Tapisserie de Sainte Geneviève, 1912). Noteworthy, during World War II the Cross of Lorraine was used as the symbol of the forces of Free France. Both the Resistance and the Vichy government cited Péguy's patriotic writings.
Starting from Notre patrie (1905), Péguy spoke of the
coming of the European conflict, but especially he warned France of the
German military menace. In Ève
he wrote: "Happy are those who
die for the carnal earth / but only if it be for a just war." After the
outbreak of WW I, he bid farewell to his friends, and went into war as
if attending a holy rite. Péguy was killed in the first battle of the
Marne on September 5, 1914, near Villeroy, when leading his company as
a lieutenant. He got shot right through his head. According to some
sources, his last words were, "For God’s sake, push ahead!" Péguy was
buried in a mass grave on the battlefield. Before his departure for the
front, he had asked Blanche to pray for him every day.
Péguy was a creation of his time, the world of Belle Époque France and modern West before the Great War, in many respects. As the author of one-liners, he is still often quoted. ("Tyranny is always better organized than freedom.") In the English-speaking world, his name is still relatively unknown, although there are translations and studies of his work. In 1943-44 Ann and Julien Green published first time in English collected fragments of Péguy's writings, and in 1984 the British poet Geoffrey Hill devoted to him the poem The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy. A polemic social thinker and independent religious writer, Péguy's legacy has been ideologically contradictory. It has been even suggested, that Péguy -- an active opponent of anti-Semitism - can be counted among the "fathers" of French literary fascism. Péguy's French critics have concluded, that he "is a unique man of letters, and unclassifiable writer," and that his genius is "to force admiration in his very faults."
For further reading: Charles Péguy et ses Cahiers by François Porché (1914); 'Charles Péguy,' in The Essentials of Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill (1920); Péguy: soldat de la vérité by R. Secretain (1944); Péguy by Romain Rolland (1944); Charles Péguy: The Pursuit of Salvation by Yvonne Servais (1953); Connaissance de Péguy by Jean Delaporte (1955); Péguy by Alexander Dru (1957); Péguy, l'homme et l'œuvre by B. Guyon (1960); Charles Péguy: A Study in Integrity by Marjorie Villiers (1965); Charles Péguy: The Decline of an Idealist by Hans A. Schmitt (1967); La Ballade du cœur by J. Sabiani (1973); Péguy l'inchrétien by Jean Bastaire (1991); Charles Péguy, biographie by Marc Tardieu (1993); Charles Péguy, la révolution et la grâce by Robert Burac (1994); Jews and Christians on Time and Eternity: Charles Péguy's Portrait of Berhard-Lazare by Annette Aronowicz (1998); 'Charles Peguy,' in Some Catholic Writers by Ralph McInerny (2007); The Passion of Charles Péguy: Literature, Modernity, and the Crisis of Historicism by Glenn H. Roe (2014); Philosophie de Péguy, ou, Les mémoires d'un imbécile by Camille Riquier (2017); Carnal Spirit: the Revolutions of Charles Péguy by Matthew W. Maguire (2019). - Suomennoksia: 'Viatomien lasten mysteerio,' suom. Saima Harmaja, teoksessa Ranskan kirjallisuuden kultainen kirja, toim. Anna-Maria Tallgren (1934); Chartres'n tie, suomentanut Anna-Maija Raittila, toimittanut Osmo Pekonen (2003).