Spring 2007

Why We Need Paul Claudel

D.C. Schindler

Though a tension between faith and artistic creation has emerged in the Church from time to time since the beginning, the relationship between the two seems to be especially troubled in our age. The poet Dana Gioia recently observed that, while even nonspecialists would be able to name American Catholic writers from the middle of the last century, at the present time there is virtually no one in either literature or literary criticism who is simultaneously respected by the mainstream and a serious Catholic in a forthright, public manner.5 Balthasar also remarked that the flourishing of Catholic literature in Europe around the turn of the century “seems to have left no heirs.”6 While this split between religion and the imagination may be a function of the vagaries of artistic genius, it could also reflect a drift in the way both art and faith are understood and experienced, such that they are no longer compatible or at the least do not encounter one another in an essential way. But if this is the case, the split represents a crisis: it suggests that neither art nor faith bears any relation to meaning, to the great questions of human existence, and that both, then, have become impoverished.

Responding to this crisis requires not only forging new treasures but also recovering those that have already been given. It is in this spirit that we offer the following essay on Claudel, which intends to paint a basic portrait of the French poet. Because the name Claudel has become so obscure to English-language readers, we will give a brief account of Claudel’s life, a discussion of the meaning of poetry and the vocation of the poet as Claudel understands it, and suggest why, in spite of certain features contemporary readers might find outdated or irritating, he is particularly significant for us still now in the twenty-first century.

 

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5. The observation was made in the course of a lecture entitled “Faith Seeking Beauty,” delivered 30 March 2007 at Villanova University, as part of the
Humanities Department’s “Catholic Imagination” series.

6. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Bernanos: An Ecclesial Existence, trans. Erasmo Leiva (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), 17.