Saturday, June 28, 2014

Reactionary Revolution,204,203,200_.jpgThe four decades preceding the outbreak of the First World War saw a phenomenon in French literature that would have seemed unthinkable only a short time before - a series of remarkable writers who embraced the Catholic faith and celebrated their identity as Catholics.  Authors including JK Huysmans, Leon Bloy, Paul Claudel, and Charles Peguy rejected both the materialist "naturalism" of writers like Emile Zola and Guy de Maupassant and the diabolism of the Decadents.
In their rebellion against modernity, the authors considered in this book took an inward turn, stressing the otherness and hard doctrines of Catholicism, romanticizing the Middle Ages as a contrast to the debased present.  Their writing is marked by an odd anti-intellectualism even as it overlapped with the beginning of the Neo-Thomist revival, as well as an unfortunate propensity for violent rhetoric and sympathies with nationalist political movements.  Their particular brand of extremism repudiated every form of compromise as it sought to inspire believers to ever greater levels of zeal, it rejected also every form of sentimentalism in this quest for holiness.  If many of the particular preoccupations of the revivalists seem strange today, their writings nonetheless served as inspiration to later writers such as Francois Mauriac, Georges Bernanos, Sigrid Undset, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy.

This book is worth reading for anyone interested in the authors or in the period.  The description of obscure ancillary figures such as Abbe Boullan is invaluable, and particularly benefits from Griffiths' sensitivity to the limits of Catholic orthodoxy.  Frequent, large chunks of untranslated French do pose a substantial (but not insurmountable) barrier for those who (like me) are not fluent in French, however.

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