Introductions and Prefaces are important when looking at books. Never skip over them. In the introduction by the translator Jonathan Geltner to this wonderful new book from the ever more valuable Angelico Press I found a first key to grasping the topic.
“Paul Claudel was among the last artists of the Christian civilization of Western Europe: an artist who wrote from the heart of that civilization, not as an isolated survivor of it living on in an altered world.”
Paul Claudel: Five Great Odes.
US HERE – UK HERE
Claudel, fascinating man. Contemplative, but active as a diplomat, with his own checkered past that fueled his writing with auto-referential authenticity. You might know of the story of his conversion. The young Claudel had an epiphany moment in Notre-Dame during the singing of the Magnificat during Vespers of Christmas
“In that moment an event happened that dominates my whole life. In an instant my heart was touched and I believed. I believed with a force of adhesion so great, with such a lifting of all my being, with a conviction so powerful, in a certainty that would not leave room for any kind of doubt that, from that point onward, no reasoning, no circumstance of my agitated life could either shake my faith or touch it.”
Back to the introduction:
“With the poetry of Claudel’s cogenerationist and coreligionist Charles Péguy, the Odes have little in common superficially, though they share much in the way of a feeling that is uniquely both French and Catholic. I would call that feeling fierce and con?dent, with an eye to the etymology of those words connoting, respectively, legitimate pride or bravery, and faithfulness. There is a certain swagger to the Odes, something brazen yet Christian insofar as rooted in humility conceived as a virtue, the paradoxical strength of weakness.”
“I will return to Claudel as man of religion/desire in a particular and infamous respect, but I wish first to draw a better comparison with our French writer than any of the foregoing. Of all twentieth-century literary artists I believe it was J.R.R. Tolkien who would, after Claudel, most embody a sacramental poetics in his work. … It is perhaps worth noting that both Claudel and Tolkien produced their literary work on the side while fulfilling the duties of family life and careers as a diplomat and a philologist. But the affinity between the two artists is no doubt difficult to perceive, so disparate are their efforts, one in a lyric mode going back to the Hebrew Scriptures (at least in the Odes) and the other in a mode—high fantasy—so new that he had largely to invent it for himself. Yet the affinity is there: they were both catholic. I intend the aural and typographical pun, for both men were members of the Roman Catholic Christian communion and their work was obviously and thoroughly governed by that membership.”
You might see what I am getting at.
Once there were men who, when they wrote, wrote from the Christian Catholic viewpoint because they were still in a Christian and Catholic milieu. At least Christian. At least something like the Western Civilization born from Hellenistic, Roman and Judeo-Christian roots. At from the vestiges or the embers of Western Civilization.
I wonder if in our day the viewpoint has finally become the large graffiti vulgarities spray-painted the walls of downtown Seattle… er… CHAZ… er… more ironic… CHOP. Those graffiti being to the large character posters of the Cultural Revolution what the cave-flickerings are to Plato’s forms… or to keep with the Tolkien line, what Peter Jackson’s movies are to the real thing.
Translation of poetry run the risk of being only shadows of the original too. But I’m not going to let that stop me from enjoying this book.
I was rather surprised to Tolkien as a reference through the whole introduction. He had such such a foundational influence on my whole like. But I get with the commentator, Claudel’s translator is driving at, which is precisely why I am eager to settle slowly and patiently into Claudel’s poetry, which I have never read. O, that I could first read it in French without a hesitation of vocabulary or idiom! But in French read it also I will, but I’ll be riding this pony as I do.
We need to read and rest in Christian Catholic minds. Now more than ever are their books like salves for the soul.
In a time wherein more and more people seem to – for real – take themselves as the arbiter of truth not just for themselves in their own little fantasy world, but now also for everyone else… “OR ELSE!”… how refreshing to read:
“I believe without changing one point / what my fathers believed before my time.” (p. 118)