Claudel, Paul Louis Charles Marie
CLAUDEL, PAUL LOUIS CHARLES MARIE
French poet and dramatist; b. Villeneuve-sur-Fèreen-Tardenois (Champagne), Aug. 6, 1868; d. Paris, Feb. 23, 1955. Claudel was not, as is commonly thought, of the peasantry of Champagne. His family, originally from the Vosges and Ile-de-France, were in public administration on his father's side; his mother came from one of those rural middle-class families, the Cerveaux, whose rise in status was promoted by the Revolution of 1789. The Cerveaux, who are important in the Claudelian psychology, are reflected in Toussaint Turelure, the principal character in L'Otage (1910) and Pain dur (1914); but if Paul Claudel was not "un paysan" (for his diplomatic career kept him constantly away from his native heath), he was nonetheless marked by his home region, even to its accent: that famous manner of grinding out his words between his teeth.
Roots and Early Formation. This background was important with respect both to his poetic genius and to his spiritual attitude, two qualities strongly bound together. The soil of Champagne, its rustic tales, and the local history and family tradition fed the imagination of the dramatic poet, and their influence is especially notable in one of his masterpieces, L'Annonce faite à Marie (1912).
It was particularly in the house at Villeneuve, the site of his vacations—although the family moved when he was two to Bar-le-Duc, where his father had been named to a new post—that the "child perched among the apples" in the top of an old tree discovered the world and foresaw, yearned for, a connection among all things, a complete meaning, "a catholic order." It was there also that at the age of 13 he witnessed the death of his maternal grandfather Cerveaux, a doctor, so ravaged by cancer that he died while suffering hallucinations.
With Villeneuve as its center, the family moved about as the father received various assignments, and the child passed from one school to another. The Claudels and the Cerveaux were Catholic by tradition, and there were several priests in the family, but the family maintained a respectful indifference. Young Paul received only as much religious instruction as was needed to prepare him for his first Communion (1880), and he soon abandoned all religious observances. He was 14 when his mother and the three children, at the insistence of the eldest daughter Camille, who was to become the very talented pupil (and a victim of the mental cruelty) of the sculptor Rodin, took up residence in Paris.
Paul Claudel entered the lycée Louis-le-Grand, where he won a first prize in oratory and, on that occasion, was "kissed on the brow" by renan. There he came under the influence of, and accepted as a disheartening reality, a philosophy that placed absolute confidence in science, at that time authoritative and triumphant. He spoke later of the "sad Eighties," of the "materialistic prison," and of "the state of suffocation and despair" he experienced as a student (1889) at L'École de Droit et des Sciences Politiques de Paris. For although the dogmatism of "science" seemed indisputable to young Claudel, there still remained within him the overpowering need to satisfy the urge he had experienced from earliest youth—to understand the "why" of life.
Literary and Religious Stirrings. In June 1886, after having been introduced to great literature—Aeschylus, Dante, Shakespeare—by his sister Camille, he read Les Illuminations and Une Saison en enfer by Arthur Rimbaud. In his own words, this was a "capital event," because the works of a "miserable poet" revealed to him that, in spite of the dominant philosophy, the universe was not a machine, obedient to the "laws" of nature, but that a limitless realm of the spiritual—in truth, of the supernatural—was a reality. In this frame of mind he went to Notre Dame de Paris for the Christmas services of the same year. In the famous story of his conversion he called his attitude "superlative dilettantism." He followed the high Mass with but moderate interest; he went again the next afternoon to hear Vespers. It was then, "near the second pillar by the entrance to the choir, on the night, in the direction of the Sacristy," that dilettantism dissolved in grace: "In one instant my heart was touched, and I believed."
A four-year struggle followed; the faith was there, but so were the convictions of his ingrained philosophy, intact and irreconcilable. On that first evening the convert opened a Bible belonging to his sister Camille and chanced upon a chapter in the Book of Wisdom. That voice "so sweet and so uncompromising" engaged him in a colloquy that lasted until his death. Some serious reading—Pascal, Bossuet, The Imitation of Christ, Aristotle, St. Thomas—contributed to the complete cleansing of his spirit: "I was before Thee as a fighter who yields." The final victory for God was won on Christmas Day in 1890 when Paul Claudel made his second Communion.
One cannot neglect these preliminaries, however anecdotal they may seem, because they set the course, simultaneously and organically, for a long life and prodigious work.
Full Religious Transformation. In the interval between the first touch of grace in 1886 and the decisive "capitulation" of 1890, Claudel wrote a play, a work of genius—making allowances for the fumblings of a 20-year-old author—and particularly indicative of his fundamental need: Tête d'or. He had already produced Premiers vers and had had a close association with Mallarmé, with whose pure aestheticism he was not satisfied. However, with Tête d'or, "a drama of the conquest of the earth," about a hunger for power that collides with the mystery of death, he found his own voice: "Here am I—foolish, ignorant—an inexperienced man before the unknown! O being, young and fresh! Who are you? What are you doing?" This question by the first person on stage, Cébès, and the inability of his friend Simon Agnel, nicknamed "tête d'or" because of his flaming locks, to reply to it, express the duality and the confusion of the young Claudel, and, at the same time, give us a clue to the continuous unfolding of Claudel's poetic and catholic creation and its fundamental unity.
This unfolding can be called a "development"—as Claudel said of the Church—following his experiences of the inner life. He has been accused—and not always without reason, on the artistic level—of repeatedly turning his works to the ends of moral enlightenment. From La Jeune fille Violaine (1892) to the final L'Annonce faite à Marie (1948) on the theme of sacrifice, one can count five versions of the same drama. There are two versions of Tête d'or; there were two versions also of La Ville (1890), its sequel, a work concerned with the temptations of a "paradise on earth"; and two of L'Échange (1894), a conflict between the desire for freedom, represented by an American actress, and the "passion for service," represented by a woman who was sold to a trader by her husband. There are also two versions of Père humilié, the last book of the trilogy that includes L'Otage and Le Pain dur, in which the upstart Toussaint Turelure forces marriage on the aristocratic Sygne de Coufontaine in exchange for the liberty of Pope Pius VII; and Protée, a lyric farce. There are also three versions of Partage de midi (1905), an echo of a serious emotional upset, of which the two versions of Soulier de satin (1921), truly the Claudelian "whole," became the amplified orchestration and the idealized transformation.
Claudel's veritable obsession to revise his work was motivated at first by the necessity for self-enlightenment, for reworking the first spontaneous creation into a perspective that would lend it a sense of the supernatural and the providential. However, his conviction that he was bound to use his gifts as an apostolate and to channel them toward moral enlightenment is not a sufficient explanation for the extent to which he felt compelled to revise.
In this respect, another keystone in Claudel's thought and art, a gauge of the mutual fructification of poetry and the faith within him, is to be found in his L'Art poétique (1907). The two treatises of which it is made up, De la Connaissance de temps and De la Co-naissance au monde et de soi-même, are based on the argument of Holy Writ that "things visible are only for the purpose of leading us to an understanding of things invisible." Accordingly, by analogy and metaphor, the poetic word echoes the divine word, permits the deciphering and ordering of the "holy truth," and becomes a religious act. No less than his dramatic works, the lyrics of Claudel, especially Cinq grandes odes (1910) and La Cantate à trois voix (1911), thus have some of the characteristics of a glimpse of the cosmos been rendered intelligible through the vision of faith. Yet both are firmly planted in the soil, not only through their concrete language and their "native tang," but also by all Claudel put there from his own experience: his taste for violent adventure, for extreme hazard, for the "savage mystic." This aspect of Claudel's psychology contrasts strikingly with his exemplary and fruitful career as a diplomat.
Public Career. Claudel took first place (1870) in a course on foreign affairs, and after some time in L'École des Langues Orientales in Paris he made his diplomatic debut as French vice-consul in New York (1893), then served as acting consul at Boston (1894). He was later assigned to China—Shanghai, Fuzhou, Beijing, Tianjin—until 1908. These were among his most productive years, the years of Connaissance de l'est (1900). He kept both irons in the fire—his diplomatic duties and his literary productivity—without diverting a single hour from the former to the benefit of the latter. Furthermore, he feared that his poetry might be injurious to his public career and published his work quietly, almost confidentially. He was recognized as a genius at once, but he long remained well known only to the literary coterie. In the course of a sojourn in France, in 1900, he made retreats at the Abbeys of Solesmes and Ligugé, but he felt himself "mysteriously rejected" (Partage de midi carries some evidence of this).
In 1905 he married Reine Sainte-Marie Perrin, who bore him five children. He was consul at Prague (1908), consul-general at Frankfurt (1911) and Hamburg (1913), chargé of the Economic Mission at Rome, minister plenipotentiary to Brazil (1917) and to Copenhagen (1919), and ambassador to Japan (1922), to Washington (1927), and to Brussels (1933). After retirement (1935), he divided his residence between the chateau at Brangues (Isère) and Paris, where he died, full of years, work, and honors. A most unusual honor was accorded when a reading of his poetry was given by the artists of the Théâtre Hébertot de Paris before Pius XII, with Claudel present, on April 29, 1950.
Claudel's recognition by the general public was long delayed; his theatrical successes date only from World War II, and his election to the French Academy, from 1946, but his influence on the elite goes back a long way, and the most recalcitrant (foremost among them André Gide) toward the severity of Claudel's Catholicism have acclaimed, and still acclaim, the imposing work that stands as witness of that Catholicism.
In addition to the works cited above, the following must be mentioned: for the theater, le Livre de Christophe Colomb (1933), Jeanne au bûcher (1939); for poetry, Corona benignitatis anni Dei (1915), Ode jubilaire pour le sixième centenaire de la mort de Dante (1919), Cent phrases pour éventails (1942); for prose, Le Chemin de la Croix (1915), Correspondance avec Jacques Rivière (1926), Positions et propositions, 2 v. (1928–34), Conversations dans le Loir-et-Cher (1929), Introduction à l'Apocalypse (1946), L'Oeil écoute (1946), and Correspondance avec André Gide (1949).
Bibliography: Oeuvres complètes, ed. r. mallet et al. (Paris 1950–), the first 9 v. ed. under direction of Claudel, 23 v. pub. to 1964. j. riviÈre, "Paul Claudel, poète chrétien," Études 3 (Paris 1911) 61–129. f. de miomandre, Claudel et Suarès (Brussels 1907). j. de tonquÉdec, L'Oeuvre de Paul Claudel (Paris 1917). p. lasserre, Les Chapelles littéraires (Paris 1920). e. sainte-marie perrin, Introduction à l'oeuvre de Paul Claudel (Paris 1926). f. lefÈvre, Les Sources de Paul Claudel (Paris 1927). j. benoistmÉchin and g. blaizot, Bibliographie des oeuvres de Paul Claudel (Paris 1931). p. petit, "Bibliographie claudélienne," La Vie intellectuelle (Dec. 1931–Feb. 1932). j. madaule, Le Génie de Paul Claudel (Paris 1933); Le Drame de Paul Claudel (Paris 1936). e. friche, Études claudéliennes (Porrentruy, Switz. 1943). c. chonez, Introduction à Paul Claudel (Paris 1947). f. mauriac, Répose à Paul Claudel (Paris 1947). l. barjon, Paul Claudel (Paris 1953). s. fumet, Claudel (Paris 1958). p. a. lesort, Paul Claudel par lui-même (Paris 1963). g. c. rawlinson, Recent French Tendencies from Renan to Claudel (London 1917). f. casnati, Paul Claudel e i suoi drammi (Como 1921). h. hatzfeld, Paul Claudel und Romain Roland (Munich 1921). e. r. curtius, Die literarischen Wegbereiter des neuen Frankreichs (Potsdam 1923); Französischer Geist im zwanzigsten Jahrhundert (Bern 1952). r. grosche, Paul Claudel (Hellerau, Ger. 1930). h. dieckman, Die Kunstanschauung Paul Claudels (Munich 1931). e. francia, Paul Claudel (Brescia 1947). m. ryan, Introduction to Paul Claudel (Westminster, Md. 1951). j. vila selma, André Gide y Paul Claudel frente a frente (Madrid 1952). h. u. von balthasar, epilogue to Claudel's Der seidene Schuh (Salzburg 1959).