Léon Bloy: “Lost in the Modern World”
Léon Bloy, one of the great Catholic figures of late 19th century French literature, but also one of the most controversial, passed away on November 3, 1917.
Léon Bloy was born in Périgueux in 1846. He arrived in Paris in 1864 like another Rastignac, full of illusions and with the ambition of becoming a painter. A close friend of Blanc de Saint-Bonnet, he frequented Barbey d’Aurevilly, Ernest Hello, and Villiers de l’Isle-Adam often.
Towards 1870, Léon Bloy became the “absolute” Christian he never ceased to be. His spiritual adventure was one of epic proportions. He set off to become a Carthusian, but a during a retreat it became clear that he was not made for the religious life.
Bloy left the Carthusian monastery with the intention of being, in the words of Maritain who owed him his conversion, “a wandering knight of Christianity whose mission was to crush all the enemies of God singlehandedly.” It was in this state of mind that he wrote Le Désespéré (The Desperate Man), a book full of a strange Christianity that has not yet been purified of a spirit of romantic revolt.
At the time, the book caused a scandal, for the author, with information from Huysmans, violently denounced all the writers and influential journalists of his generation. He then found himself as it were “excommunicated” from the literary world, and he lived this exile as a sort of conspiracy of silence that would last until his death. Condemned to great poverty, as his books were unknown to the public and thus scarcely sold, he lived on alms.
In 1890, he married a Danish Protestant who had converted to Catholicism, Jeanne Charlotte Molbech. He had met her at François Coppée’s home. She had felt drawn to him because he considered himself “a beggar.
A Hard Life of Poverty
Léon Bloy’s life played out in pain, solitude and destitution. Because of his terrible poverty, he lost two sons. In the midst of epic quarrels provoked by his obdurate character, he was animated by the fervor of a magnificent faith and deep piety, above all towards the Blessed Virgin.
He never missed receiving daily Communion. Maritain adds that he could not “recall without intense emotion the childlike gentleness with which this savage recited the rosary or the Magnificat, weeping from beginning to end”.
Léon Bloy died quietly on November 3, 1917, after receiving Holy Viaticum two days earlier, on the morning of All Saints’ Day.
An Unclassifiable Work
In a reference book published in June of 2017, by the Belles Lettres editions, Léon Bloy, la literature et la Bible, Pierre Glaudes, agrégé in modern literature, professor of literature and director of research at the Sorbonne, presents a study of the writer’s literary complexity.
The first reason for this complexity is Bloy’s manner of exaggerating his militant Catholicism in his literature: “he is very much a pamphleteer and ‘crazy about Christ’, which makes him doubly singular,” points out Pierre Glaudes.
The second reason for this complexity is his language. “One of his passions,” explains Glaudes, “was to read the dictionary from A to Z, and to learn very scholarly words,” which gave his writings their hyperbolic and incomprehensible style that characterizes his works.
With him, even insults were “conceptualized”: when Bloy said that Emile Zola is an “acephal”, he was reproaching him for his materialistic philosophy that refused any idea of grace and refused to grant any value to the supernatural. When he called Paul Bourget a “eunuch,” it was because he considered him an impotent writer, that is to say, an opportunist with no sense of literary requirements.
Léon Bloy’s faith was that of a Christian who wished to live in radical conformity with Christ who was poor and destitute. But scandal was also a part of his ideal: in a world that no longer listens to Him, God has become scandalous, even in the eyes of routine Catholics, clergy included, who have been insidiously won over to modern ideas. The violence of his invectives and his insults, sometimes against the papacy, shocked the public and won him some solid enemies.
Thus it was that Bloy suddenly appeared as “an anticlerical Christian,” as Pierre Glaudes writes. One of his last texts was entitled Pilate XV, it was a pamphlet against Pope Benedict XV in which he reproached him for his pro-German position during the war.
It is no surprise that after his death, a request was made for the writer to be put on the Index. The accusation came from a lawyer in Nice, Raymond Hubert, who had already published in 1915 a work explicitly entitled: Léon Bloy, sa doctrine, son paraclétisme, ses blasphemes, ses outrages envers la Papauté, ses insultes à son Eminence le cardinal Amette, archévêque de Paris, etc (Léon Bloy: His doctrine, his paracletism, his blasphemies, his outrages to the Papacy, his insults to His Eminence Cardinal Amette, archbishop of Paris, etc.).
The Holy Office then had to examine the presence of “paracletism” in Léon Bloy’s work, in other words, the fact that in some of his book the writer seems to see a temporary failure in the work of Redemption that needs to be confirmed, or reenacted, by the third Person of the Blessed Trinity who has not yet entered upon the scene: the Holy Ghost. “I am waiting for the Cossaks and the Holy Ghost,” he wrote in his journal during the Great War.
Several consultors examined the writer’s work, including Dom Janssens, Fr. Le Floch, Fr. Maignen, the Dominicans Lehu and Janvier, and the Jesuit Rouvier. In the end, an instruction condemning “mystical-sensual” literature but without mentioning any names was sent to the Ordinaries on May 3, 1927. Maritain, who had intervened with Cardinal Billot, was relieved (see Jean-Baptiste, Léon BLoy devant le Saint-Office, Actes du colloque sur les écrivains catholiques marginaux, H. Arendt Center, 2009).
A Unique Writer
Léon Bloy is often considered as an anti-modern writer. While he resolutely sought to be an innovator on the esthetic level, with his heart set on inventing a new literary style, on the level of religious and political ideas, Bloy “vomited his times” and stood up as a determined enemy of modern values.
He died almost entirely forgotten in 1917. But Léon Bloy nonetheless had an abundant literary posterity. Among the most well-known are Bernanos, Kafka, Jünger and even Roland Barthes who saw in Bloy’s “verbal opulence” the “mirror image of his poverty”. Even Pope Francis, in his 2014 Lenten message, quoted the last phrase from The Woman Who Was Poor, a work published by the author in 1897: “There is only one misery . . . NOT TO BE SAINTS...”
We shall allow his friend Jacques Maritain to conclude this article: “In truth, Bloy did not work for himself. Like a beggar sitting on the steps of a church, he clamourously showed all the passers-by his bleeding wounds and glistening rags, and thus drew to the house of God others more destitute than he, but capable of seeing his greatness under his misery, who embraced him on the doorstep, then entered and went in to the altar of the living God.”