Focusing on Paul Claudel, an Invisible Giant

Day Dedicated to a French Genius of the 20th Century

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ROME, FEB. 21, 2005 ( The 6th Day of Reflection on the topic «Catholicism and Literature in the 20th Century,» promoted by the Pontifical Council for Culture, will open in Rome this Wednesday.

This year’s edition will focus on the literary figure of Paul Claudel, on the 50th anniversary of the death of this important French writer. In this connection, ZENIT interviewed Andrea Monda, an organizer of the event.

Q: Why was Claudel chosen for this year’s edition?

Monda: The relationship with God and with the Christian faith are undoubtedly the profound root of some of the outstanding literary figures of the 20th century, and this is even more true of Claudel and his Catholicism, for whom, beginning with the remarkable episode of his conversion — which occurred at Christmas in 1886 in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris — it would be a constant source of inspiration.

It is interesting to note how Claudel came to his rocklike faith through an unusual journey.

In 1886, in fact, he discovered the «Illuminations» of a great, and controversial, poet, Arthur Rimbaud, and this discovery would prove decisive in Claudel’s poetic formation, who at last was able to come out of the «prison» of 19th- century determinism and turn to the supernatural.

In this sense, Claudel is a formidable symbol between those two dramatic centuries and, therefore, it seemed opportune not to allow him to fall into oblivion on the 50th anniversary of his death.

While in previous editions there was reflection in particular on the literary traditions of some geographic areas, such as France, Eastern Europe, or the Spanish-speaking countries, in the present edition reflection will be concentrated on an individual figure, whose enormous stature is already revealed in the title [of the event].

Q: What does the title, the «Invisible Giant,» mean?

Monda: Two things. On one hand, Claudel is a giant, a monument of 20th-century literature, but more than that, I would say of 20th-century culture and history. He was, in fact, a multifarious, polyhedral genius: writer, poet, dramatist, art critic and theoretician, and diplomat.

As French poet and professor Valerio Magrelli wrote in Il Corriere della Sera on February 16, Claudel is a sort of «inextricable knot.» The man of the theater and diplomat, the conservative and follower of Rimbaud, the intolerant Catholic and lover of Oriental cultures, the philosopher and friend-enemy of [André] Gide. It is impossible to try to harmonize such different aspects.

Moreover, by accentuating all these contradictions, he became the object of the Surrealists’ attacks, who said: «It is not possible to be a poet and, at the same time, ambassador of France.» Yet, Claudel was both.

I find this aspect very interesting: The man, every man, is a bundle of contradictions which cannot be simplified, radicalized, absolutized. To say it religiously: Every man is a mystery. A Christian knows this well because the Christian is an even greater mystery, and always represents an enigma for the world which often does not understand him, and does not accept him.

I remember what theologian Harvey Cox wrote 40 years ago in his essay «The Christian as Rebel»: «Christians cannot be explained with the world’s terms because they live for their class or race, for their national or sexual interests. They pose an enigma to the world, something inexplicable about which people must finally ask.»

Q: Why is this giant invisible?

Today, Claudel has become invisible. He is a transparent monument. A mountain which has been forgotten.

For many years Claudel and his vast work have lived in a state of forgetfulness and marginalization. If one goes to a bookstore today to get a book of Claudel, any book, the answer is always the same: «Claudel? Who is he?»

It is virtually impossible to find a book of his in circulation. Perhaps the «monolithic» character of the faith experienced and practiced by Claudel has caused this elimination, I wouldn’t know.

Claudel certainly represents in an effective way a whole great period of 20th-century French culture which not only reached the highest levels but which today seems somewhat antiquated, archaeological.

I am thinking of names such as Mauriac, Bernanos, Peguy, Bloy, but also philosophers like Marcel, Maritain, Mounier, Guitton and the theology of the great Frenchmen like Congar, de Lubac, Danielou.

It was an exceptional period whose legacy remains, but is as though buried by the ashes of indifference, a phenomenon that is perhaps more insidious than militant atheism.

I think of France today, which bans the veil and the crucifix and tries to erase every external trace of religiosity in the name of a misunderstood idea of secularity and I wonder: What has become of the lesson of those great French spirits of the first half of the 20th century?

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