Why We Need Paul ClaudelD. C. Schindler
“If the poet thus stands ‘before the Cross,’ as the title of one of his books has it, the mystery upon which he meditates is not just one possibility of many, but is in fact the sole mystery that allows him to celebrate the universe in its totality, which means the mystery that allows him truly to be a poet, as Claudel understands the vocation.”
According to Paul Claudel, there are three qualities that a poet must possess in order to stand among the world’s greatest: inspiration, intelligence, and “catholicity.”1 By this last term, which would no doubt surprise the average literary critic, Claudel intends the quality exhibited by those poets who “have received from God such vast things to express that nothing less than the entire world is adequate for their work. Their creation is an image and a vision of creation as a whole, of which their inferior brothers offer only particular aspects.”2 If a poet’s significance tends to be as broad as his vision, then a “catholic” poet, as Claudel understands him, would be one who speaks not only to his own country and age, but in some sense to humanity. To use Thornton Wilder’s term, we might call an artist of this scope a “world poet.”
However short the list of such world poets from the twentieth century would be, “Paul Claudel” is certainly a name that belongs on it. It is strange, then, that the name seems to be recognized only within small, specialized circles. Though he is a writer of undeniable talent and vision, Claudel—who was once called by Charles de Bois the greatest living genius of the West, ranked by George Steiner as one of the two greatest dramatists of the twentieth century (along with Berthold Brecht), and compared by Hans Urs von Balthasar to the likes of Dante—has never been granted an undisputed place in French literature. Moreover, the several attempts to introduce Claudel to English-speaking audiences have regularly protested his “unjust neglect.” “Either one is for Paul Claudel, or else one is wholeheartedly against him,” wrote one critic in 1968.3 The persistent ambivalence toward Claudel is due in part to the extraordinary demands his difficult language makes on the reader and the passionate intensity of his style, which some perhaps understandably find excessive. One cannot help but suspect, however, that the primary obstacle is the unabashed presence of his faith, the fact that, in his work, the worldly action passes so organically and immediately— one wants to say “naturally”—into supernatural drama, that it simply cannot be understood without reference to the great Christian mysteries.4 For Claudel, to be Catholic is to be catholic, and vice versa.
1. Paul Claudel, “Introduction à un poème sur Dante,” in Positions et propositions (Paris: Gallimard, 1928), 161–164. For an English translation, see “Religion and the
Artist: Introduction to a Poem on Dante,” Communio: International Catholic Review 22, no. 2 (Summer 1995): 357–367.
2. Ibid., 164.
3. Richard Griffiths, “Introduction: Claudel in all honesty,” in Claudel: a reappraisal, ed. R. Griffiths (Chester Springs, Penn.: Dufour Editions, 1968), 1.
4. Agnes Meyer claimed that the reason for Claudel’s lack of success in his native France is that he was too “Biblical in thought and language” and “too tempestuous” for the “petty, polished classicists” (Cahier canadien Claudel, vol. 6 [Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1969], 167–170, cited in Harold Watson, Claudel’s Immortal Heroes: A Choice of Deaths [New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1971], xi).