Some people—even Anglophones—do still read Charles Péguy. Even write about him. Antoine Compagnon champions him, which is perhaps enough to locate Péguy in the contemporary field. Although see here. And why people do not read him is perhaps obvious. He’s so Catholic, a mystical nationalist—practically a fascist, it will be said, or a reactionary or conservative antimodernist, others will say. Then there is also the prose itself, the form, the problematic of argument and engagement, which is what most interests me here. When we say “the prose itself,” though, maybe the most serious problem has already been dodged. Péguy is above all a writer among other writers, a person among others in a certain place and time, intensely of his own place and time, wanting more than anything, I think, to make his own writing of and for his place and time.
I’m looking at Péguy at this particular moment because I have been running across (to me) surprising references to Péguy in the interwar. Walter Benjamin admired and read Péguy. Just after the First World War. Lines from Péguy serve as a mutually-recognizable badge of Frenchness in Marc Bloch’s narrative of French collapse in the next war, Étrange défait. At much he same moment as Bloch was writing, Aimé Césaire adopted and adapted Péguy in his own journal, Tropiques, under the Vichy-aligned government in Martinique. The appearance of Péguy in Tropiques is sometimes waved off as a sop to the censors, who were likely to find that poet more congenial than some others. But Péguy was, of course, much more than a poet, and it seems to me that one place to begin is by assigning the same weight that he did to the Cahiers de la quainzaine—certainly this aspect of Péguy’s life is relevant to any consideration of what Césaire was up to with the Tropiques. So here too we come back to the point that Péguy—in strong distinction from, for instance, Proust—is difficult to read disconnected from a worldly project, given flesh, as it were, in the Cahiers.
Thinking about all these things, I’ve picked up Notre jeunesse. Together with some of the poems and, perhaps, l’Argent, this is Péguy’s best known and most read work. Few and far between are the historians writing about the Dreyfus Affair who can resist Péguy’s distinction between mystique and politique, or his dictum that the former inevitably is consumed by the latter—to which I’ll return below. But the text itself is a great deal more than that, about 250 pages in a modern edition (I’ve been reading and marking up an old edition in the idées-nrf Gallimard series).
In general terms, we can characterize the text—and I think it is better to call it a text than a book—as belonging to the genre of post-Dreyfus score-settling. It is an explicit response to Daniel Halévy’s Apologie pour notre passé (Péguy doesn’t feel he has anything to apologize for), and the triptych is filled out by Sorel’s Mes raisons du syndicalisme—all three are from 1909-10. Péguy is also concerned to defend himself—to differentiate himself—from the younger intellectuals around the Action français. Jean Variot is just one acquaintance who is called out to by name in the text. It is easy to poke fun at the act of voting, at the “formalité grotesque, universellement menteuse” that is the modern election
Et vous avec le droit de le dire. Mais des hommes ont vécu, des hommes sans nombre, des héros, des martyrs, et je dirai des saints, -- et quant je dis des saints je sais peut-être ce que je dis, -- des hommes ont vécu sans nombre, héroïquement, saintement, des hommes ont souffert, des hommes sont morts, tout un peuple a vécu pour que le dernier des imbéciles aujourd’hui air le droit d’accomplir cette formalité truqué. Ce fut un terrible, un laborieux, un redoubtable enfantement. Ce ne fut pas toujours du dernier grotesque. Et des peuples autour de nous, des peuples entiers, des races travaillent du même enfantement douloureaux, travaillent et luttent pour obtenir cette formalité dérisoire. Ces élections sont dérisoire. Mais il y a eu un temps, mon cher Variot, un temps héroïque où les malades et les mourants se faisaient porter dans des chaises pour aller déposer leur bulletin dans l’urne. Déposer son bulletin dans l’urne, cette expression vous paraît aujourd’hui du dernier grotesque. Elle a été préparée par un siècle d’héroïsme. Et je dirai du plus français. (29-30)
This chunk of text, less than a whole paragraph, which I already feel to have cut off before the main thought really got out, is a fine taste of Péguy’s prose. It is, I want to say, oratorical, as though it is a formal address that simply goes on for days. Péguy wants to defend the republican tradition, but he wants to defend it in its heroism. Indeed the above passage comes just before the famous sentences on mystique and politique, the most famous of which—“Tout commence en mystique et finit en politique”—is worth putting into its context:
Vous [Variot] nous parlez de la dégradation républicaine, c’est-à-dire, proprement, de la dégradation de la mystique républicaine en politique républicaine. N’y a-t-il pas eu, n’y a-t-il pas d’autres dégradations. Tout commence en mystique et finit en politique. Tout commence par la mystique, par une mystique, par sa (propre) mystique et tout finit par de la politique. (31)
The point, Péguy goes in to say, is not that a particular politique has triumphed, but rather to figure out how what is essential to each particular mystique may be preserved from generalized politicization (not his word).
Péguy repeats many times that “we are heroes” (cf 190). The first person plural here mostly refers to the subscribers to the Cahiers (although see p 99 for Louis Louis-Dreyfus unsubscribing himself). The Affair itself as a mystique was “une culmination, un recoupement en culmination de trois mysticismes au moins: juif, chrétien, français” (73). And he goes on, in one of many extraordinary statements about the “cahiers”:
Je suis en mesure d’affirmer que tous les mystiques dreyfusistes sont demeurés mystiques, sont demeurés dreyfusistes, sont demeurés les mains pures. Je le sais, j’en ai la liste aux cahiers. Je veux dire que tout ce qu’il y avait de mystique, de fidèle, de croyant dans le dreyfisisme c’est réfugié, s’est recueilli aux cahiers, dès le principe et toujours... (73-74)
But the real hero of the text is certainly Bernard Lazare. And the villain, the perfect embodiment of politique, is Jean Jaurès. I do not want to try to untangle the relations and events involved here—the apparent betrayals, the hysterical fidelities, all that. There are a number of monumental studies on the Cahiers to consult, and many involved, after Péguy’s death in the war, wrote about their relationship with him (Romain Rolland, for instance, and Daniel Halévy). But if we must set out a social location, this is it: on the outside, happily on the outside.
Péguy is, certainly, vocally anti-modern, and against what he identifies as modernisme in the Church, a tendency he defines, I get the sense, much more loosely and broadly than is usually done, as the mechanism that transforms mystique into politique within christianity. His socialism, too, is anti-modern, siding we might say with William Morris rather than Edward Bellamy (156, 167)--although he knew more than a little about Marx and German socialism, having learned both from Sorel and Charles Andler. And this critique of modernity is one route by which he attacks the Action français. They are decidedly modern, decidedly intellectualist, precisely what they claim to attack (193-4). And, more generally, “Les antisemites sont beacoup trop moderne” (209). The antisemites, Péguy goes on to say, don’t even know Jews. The divide between the wealthy and the poor is so great, that any difference in general between Jews and non-Jews is immaterial beside it. In particular the antisemites, at least their propagandists, are themselves wealthy and imagine all Jews to also be wealthy. “Nous qui sommes pauvres, comme par hasard nous connaissons un très grand nombre des Juifs pauvres, et même misérables” (205). The betrayals of the Dreyfus Affair have ruined an number of these lives. And, with Bernard Lazare, Péguy has learned to read the news, to read about pogroms in the east, to read about refugees betrayed by various states. Jaurès is here the great betrayer (with Hervé as a sort of familiar). Again I don’t want to go into the details of this, but will rather point to the extraordinary five pages in which Péguy, having laid out his attacks on the socialist leader, ventriloquizes Jaurès’ response: “Jaurès ici intervient, au débat, et se défend. Si je reste avec Hervé, dit-il, dans le même parti, si j’y suis resté...” (182-186).
Péguy is where we should look, his writing is what we should understand, if we want to understand what it is to take public language as morally serious. Péguy really believes in the moral consequences of public speech, of logical failures, of one’s alliances, their purity. More than that, the torrential quality of his writing, its constant repetitions and self-references, perform a sense of the weight of the act. I don’t know if there is an archive, if there are manuscripts for Péguy’s writing. But it is hard to imagine that these sentences were re-written many times. They are too earnest in their translation of the act of intelligence itself, of esprit made physical in the text. The final pages assert that the only motive for “our” action—and here, finally, we get a definition of sorts for mystique—is the pursuit of freedom, especially freedom of conscience or mind. Péguy then considers the AF’s orthography, for instance, mocking the republic by referring to Respubliquains. Péguy rejects this, for a number of reasons but especially because, “on ne refonde aucune culture sur la dérision et la dérision et le sarcasme et l’injure sont des barbarie. Ils sont même des barbarismes. On ne fonde, on ne refonde, on ne restaure, on resititue rien sur la dérision” (251-252). Finally, Péguy recounts Variot, or some other AF cadre, asserting during one of the famous Thursdays that “Nous serions prêts à mourir pour le roi, pour le rétablisement de notre roi”—this, he says, is something. And it merited a response from another, Michel Arnauld, who “interrompit, conclut presque brusquement: Tout cela c’est très bien parce qu’ils ne sont qu’une menace imprécise et théorique. Mais le jour où ils deviendraient une menace réelle ils verraient ce que nous sommes encore capables de faire pour la République, tout le monde comprit qu’enfin on venait de dire quelque chose” (254).
Much could be said about the distinctions Péguy draws, the theory of moral force that he elaborates, his understanding of the Third Republic, the kind of socialism, the kind of nationalism, that he unfolds in these pages. His approach to antisemitism, his way of thinking about Jewishness and Frenchness I think would be especially interesting to untangle. Certainly his own death—shot in the forehead in September 1914—gives a certain taste to the above declaration (which might as well be Péguy’s own) of willingness to die for the Republic in 1910. It seems to me, though that it is not so much the death as the desire “enfin...de dire quelque chose” that should really draw our attention today. The emphasis should be on the dire, and we should understand, like Péguy, that one cannot speak except among other people. So, finally, I want to try to think through Péguy about public speech, public thought, and the conflation of—overlap between—speech and action in what is taken to be a defective or failing democratic society. Much separates us from Péguy, but not perhaps as much as we would like.