The Annunciation of the Flesh: Bodily Mediation in the Work of Charles Péguy

Jennifer Newsome Martin

God waited.

She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

—Denise Levertov, “Annunciation”

 

1. A Certain Corpus, An Eternal Precariousness


It is nearly a truism that Charles Péguy (1873–1914) is a poet and a philosopher of the flesh. In Péguy’s poetry and prose there is nothing—from his deeply rooted French patriotism and political activism to his Christology, ecclesiology, Mariology, and theological anthropology—that is not radically mediated through some sort of “body.” According to Péguy, “a temporal form of flesh is needed as a material carrier, as the matter for an idea. We know of no historical movement of the spirit, be it political, social or even religious, that could become manifest without a certain corpus, a fleshly form of actualization.” In a recent interview, French philosopher and theologian Emmanuel Falque has suggested that Péguy’s most central and profound message is that, for Christianity, “everything is a matter of ‘corporeality’”; the “carcass,” and the “flesh and bone” of human existence is precisely the site “where God speaks to us and meets us.” For Catholicism in general and for Péguy in particular, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ as the paradigmatic instance of mediation is the condition of the possibility for the mediation of divine grace and its presence to human beings through natural, bodily media. The Incarnation is the real “inscription” of an extraordinary narrative into the language of flesh wherein the eternal is written into a “world of fecundity, of carnal perpetuity,” the infinite introduced decisively into the temporal and the fleshly; it is both a “welcome” and a “welcoming,” the crowning of flesh with the advent of “l’Éternel dans la chair.” In Péguy’s economy, this “inscription” of the words of Christ (and the Word that is Christ) into legible, pronounceable forms (syllables, sentences, Scripture) is not merely verbal, to be understood or heard in an intellectual mode. Rather, the words of Christ must be translated, “trans-carnated,” perhaps, into tangible, fleshly forms extended in time and space. We must not simply read the scroll; we have to eat it (Ez 3:3; Jer 15:16; Rev 10:10).

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