Paul Claudel (1868-1955)


[L’Échange: At the edge of the Ocean in the United States, a young couple: Louis Laine, a native American Indian and his young wife Marthe, a French woman. They meet another couple: Thomas Pollock Nageoire, a rich self made-business man and Lechy Elbernon, an eccentric actress. An exchange takes place not only of spouses, but also between the cultures. The Exchange recounts the contradiction between money and spirituality.

L’Annonce Faite à Marie: Set at the time of the Crusades, it tells the story of love and tragedy, intermingled with mysticism. Jacques is betrothed to marry Violane, a beautiful and gentle woman. However, when she discovers that she has contracted leprosy after kissing the master builder Pierre de Craon, the marriage is off, and she retires to a life of prayer at an isolated hermitage. Jacques then marries her sister Mara. When Jacques and Mara's child dies shortly after birth, Mara implores her saintly sister to come out of isolation to bring her child back to life.]



Claudel’s plays have a kind of vague profundity which aspires to existential density through the use of open symbols. L’Échange is a good example of this technique. There are several editions of L’Échange. One takes place right after the Civil War in what Claudel calls an American Middle Ages. Our version takes place at the fin de siècle.

In Europe at the time America was seen as a country and a people that had completely rejected humanism for an extreme version of modernity. But L’Échange is not the usual European satire of American money-grubbing. Claudel resisted easy clichés and transcended the false dichotomies of the age. He was neither for nor against the modern world and this is one of the things that makes him great. In the final analysis we cannot judge our world because we participate in it.

Claudel tries to capture historical forces in his plays while also creating characters that have individuality and personality. Of the three Americans in the play Thomas Nagoire is the most vivid. Nageoire's character is based on the cliché of the American capitalist, but he becomes much more than that. Claudel gives him life as he often does to clichés.

Claudel despised French literary realism of Flaubert’s sort, which was entirely negative and exuded hatred for existence and matter. He preferred Balzac and in fact Nageoire is a little like Balzac with his enormous passion for exploiting and using the world. Claudel did not reject this passion. Despite his vulgarity and his typically American lack of roots, Nageoire still has a connection with reality. Claudel says he knows the value of things "more or less," not absolutely, but at least according to a definite standard of some sort. He also praises Nageoire for creating stability.

Even though he is absorbed with money Nageoire is able to recognize Marthe’s value. He is said to love the finite. This accords with Claudel’s affirmation of the finite world, a view consistent with Thomism. As a steward of creation, man is supposed to create something useful. Insofar as Nageoire is a good businessman he too has value. Thus Claudel can agree with Nageoire that one should "glorifie le Dieu qui a donné le dollar," but he also knows that this is only a small aspect of reality. Still it is at least something. Perhaps Claudel was thinking of the materialistic element in Marthe’s character when he matched her with Nageoire. At the end of the play they represent the positive aspect of existence.

This side of Nageoire’s character has a curious linguistic expression. For example, in French "faire de la monnaie" means to make change, but it is used in the play for making money. The verb “faire” here is significant. Nageoire thinks of money almost as a crop that he grows. As this example shows, Claudel is the opposite of a linguistic purist. Purism is a symptom of linguistic decadence, as for example in Gide. The extreme care with which Gide writes is the sign that he has nothing great to say and no natural style.

Louis Laine is also an American, his American-ness symbolized by his Indian blood. He is a certain type of pioneer who is basically a lazy vagabond. Like water he has no roots or will. He represents the nature-loving, nomadic aspect of America which is ill adapted to modern mechanical civilization.

Nageoire and Louis desire something they do not have, something completely other. Money is this possibility of otherness to which Louis succumbs. As the power to have things, any other things, money resembles the imagination; it signifies the unlimited. For a nomad like Louis money may seem the most concrete thing in the world since it is pure possibility, and for such a person possibility is more important than reality. By contrast Nageoire desires money not to find an escape from reality but to create.


An Unstable World

The world of L’Échange is unstable; human beings are divorced from reality, and man from wife. L’Échange begins with two unstable marriages and ends in the exchange of spouses. Money provides the catalyst for the exchange.

Louis traveled in France and there he married a peasant girl, Marthe. Marthe represents stability, reason, domesticity. She is a solid woman who loves reality, the voice of reason to which Louis pays no attention. Her name is significant. In Catholic belief Martha is the patroness of householders. Marthe resembles the Biblical Martha in her dedication to serving, to keeping house. These two characters thus represent the impossible marriage of spirit and reason.

The fluidity that Louis has in the natural order, Lechy has in the order of appearance and Nageoire in the world of money. But Louis and Lechy fail to touch reality at any point. Louis has a poetic nature; he is a metaphysical being, a kind of American Rimbaud. He resembles those poets Plato expelled from his ideal state. With such people human inadequacy is felt more strongly; it is either hated or answered in God. Louis tries to satisfy his metaphysical vocation with finite things, but when that proves impossible he rejects reality.

From an external viewpoint, sanctity and what Louis Laine represents appear very similar. Saints, Claudel believed, were closer to these completely lost souls than ordinary people. Claudel's notion of himself as a poet was the exact opposite of what he represents in Louis, but he too was a kind of nomad. In fact he lived away from France most of his life.

Lechy is the least incarnated of the characters. She is all appearance, uprooted like all Americans, but worse than most, living only in a place that is no place, the theater. Lechy takes Louis away from Marthe because she wants to uproot him too and bring him into her world of appearance. Louis is a spectator in her theatre and, like Rimbaud, profoundly subversive. He represents the dangerous sterility of the imagination.

Louis and Lechy are the metaphysical characters of the play, and represent its negative pole. They have no constructive qualities and destroy each other. They exemplify Pascal’s remark, “qui veut faire l'ange fait la bête.” Louis Laine’s death could also represent the death of a certain wild world that is tamed in modern times.

For Claudel human desire reveals man’s fundamental inadequacy. Fulfilled desire, happiness, is not a Claudelian notion. Marthe, for example, finds disappointment in following Louis in search of romantic fulfillment. Louis judges things exclusively on the basis of his own desires and this creates complete instability. He and Lechy hate reality because it is inadequate to their desires. Nothing can satisfy them. Ultimately, Louis and Lechy desire death, nothingness. Marthe and Nageoire desire being, Nageoire indirectly through money, and Marthe because she lives within a traditional universe as the typical Catholic, neither ange nor bête; but realistic, with her roots in the earth, incarnated.

In Claudel’s world people receive grace through evil, which is therefore in some sense necessary for salvation. Marthe sinned by following Louis. There is something sordid about the way Nageoire buys Marthe, but good comes of it in the end. The union of Marthe and Nageoire has no sacred character but is an exchange. Nevertheless, money is at least a reality on which to build, although a narrow one. Louis and Lechy, by contrast, represent appearance as opposed to reality and consequently have no future. At the end of the play Nageoire understands what he needs truly to create and is willing to give up his money for Marthe. The play ends by inverting the situation with which it began. The ending is not idealistic but acknowledges the necessity of compromise in the real world.

Romanticism is rejected at the end of the play. For Claudel Romanticism resembles a medieval heresy. His spiritualism is not opposed to the material world. He despised that sort of spiritualism which he identified with Flaubert, among others. All his works aim to prove that a systematic division of matter and spirit is false. To paraphrase Claudel: to have one's feet planted firmly on the ground it is necessary to have one's head in the sky. The Claudelian poem must grasp all reality from earth to heaven.



With L'Annonce Faite à Marie Claudel tried to write a poem with more ties to the epic than to symbolist poetry, a poem of denotation rather than evocation. He wrote several versions of this, his most important play. Originally the play was called La Jeune Fille Violaine. That early version takes place in modern times while L'Annonce Faite à Marie is situated in the Middle Ages. As the versions of the play succeeded each other it became more and more about salvation, treated against a traditional background. The play is not a tragedy, but a drama, a miracle play in the medieval sense.

Claudel wanted this play to be accessible to ordinary people as well as to the literary public. The division between high literature and the literature of the masses is characteristic of decadent periods. Claudel always tried to bridge this gap in his work, to transcend cultural differences. This shows in his use of language. He believed L'Annonce Faite à Marie to be the one play he had succeeded in writing for everyone.

In La Jeune Fille Violaine Craon builds bridges. In primitive societies bridges have a sacred character and many medieval bridges are dedicated to Saints. In ancient Rome the bridge builder became a kind of public figure. In Latin he was called a pontifex, a priest. Pontifex was the word for Bishop in the Middle Ages.

Craon builds real bridges, but he is also the mediator, the bridge between divine and human love. He tries to give Violaine a divine vocation. Craon is a saint in the early version of the play, but not in L'Annonce Faite à Marie. In that play he builds cathedrals. He is an artist who mediates between the people and God but who is not himself saintly. He has leprosy, a symbol of the separation of the artist from the people. The ambiguity of a metaphysical vocation shows up in this play too, as in L’Échange.

Craon is a Louis Laine living and participating in a Christian world. He is almost but not quite on the right path. The extent to which he is more of an artist than a Christian is the extent to which he is a romantic figure. For Violaine Craon is like Dante’s Virgil. Claudel saw himself in Craon. Like Craon Claudel was devoted to art as a means to bring people to the truth, not for its own sake.

Claudel believed that it is very difficult for intellectuals to get in touch with reality. Art is insufficient by itself. For him religion is the only way to avoid romantic escape. As we see from the example of Marthe, ordinary people find this less of a problem.

The equilibrium of the play is based on the relation between Violaine and her sister Mara, with Craon as the dynamic force between them. Like Louis Laine, Craon tempts and seduces Violaine. In L'Annonce Faite à Marie Violaine kisses Craon, catches leprosy and becomes a saint. At first people think she is evil. The kiss Violaine receives from Craon reflects Claudel's belief that there is no opposition between human and divine love. But just as the Song of Songs has been interpreted as a piece of erotic literature, Mara misunderstands what she sees as erotic and sinful. Although Mara resembles Nageoire, unlike him she is essentially evil. While opposing God she serves His ends in spite of herself. She is thus a very dramatic character. Nevertheless, she is saved in the end along with everyone else.

Violaine returns to life blind. Her inner light is too strong for her to see the outside world. Spiritual and physical vision are opposed in this ancient image which appears already in the Bible. She must abandon the physical world to enter the spiritual world. Her condition represents the renunciation of the world of the flesh. This is an image of sanctity. But although Violaine sacrifices herself to God, her concern with Mara’s child shows that she does not abandon her family.

Violaine represents Mary in a way similar to Marthe’s resemblance to Martha in L’Échange. Violaine has a vocation which allows her to become a saint without knowing evil. She refuses earthly love for divine love. She exemplifies this transcendent love and so can also be compared with Dante’s Beatrice. Women as divine mediators is a great Western theme that is not exclusively religious. There is something similar in Platonism and, according to de Rougemont, among the troubadours who divinized women idolatrously.


Claudel and Criticism

Great writers are inspired by one great problem which they try to draw out of their own obscurity. They are totally involved in the problem they deal with in their works. Each writer makes a kind of psychoanalysis of himself to find this inner problematic. The later one gets in Claudel’s work the more he is able to discover what he has to say. He grew closer and closer to the Bible as his life went on. His last plays are increasingly biblical. He considered the Bible the truest and the most beautiful sacred book. Claudel’s religious thought and imagery are inseparable. All his poetry is a kind of exegesis of the Bible which is the source of his great images. In fact he ended his life working on a Biblical commentary.

Allegorical interpretation was a way of understanding the Old Testament as anticipating the New Testament. This correspondence was considered very important until the 15th century. In the Renaissance historicism replaced allegory. Claudel despised historical methods and offered his own allegorical interpretations. He tried to understand the Bible from within without reference to any historical background, a method he extended to literature. This is surprisingly like new criticism but there is a difference in that Claudel’s method at least involves understanding the author’s basic ideas from correlations in his whole literary production.

The new critics think of history in such mechanistic terms that they are afraid it threatens the work of art. They reject the idea that history has a meaning and therefore exclude it from their interpretations. Their attempt to concentrate on pure aesthetics fails because there is no such purity. No artist limits himself to aesthetics. There is a kind of anti-intellectualism, a denial of truth, in the new criticism. Great literature is always in search of truth as well as beauty.

The work of art is a structure within the existential structure of the individual which itself must be understood within the existential structure of the times. Everything must be interpreted as though it were a work of art. Extraneous information must not be brought into the interpretation of the literary work, but we must understand the problems with which the writer was concerned by studying his works in relation to his historical setting. The critic must integrate the life and times of the author in the interpretation.