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Friendship & devotion

  • GEORGE SIM JOHNSTON

A review of "Exiles and Fugitives: The Letters of Jacques and Raissa Maritain, Allen Tate, and Caroline Gordon" (Southern Literary Studies) by Jacques Maritain.


friendshipmaritain Jacques Maritain at the Catholic Worker.
Photo: Catholic Worker

The 1870s, which is to say the final years of the long pontificate of Pius IX, were not a boom decade for the Catholic intellect.  There was, of course, John Henry Newman, but after Newman virtually nobody who merits attention today.  This broad retreat of Catholic art and philosophy had much to do with the state of siege, both political and intellectual, in which the Church found itself at the time. 

Although he began his pontificate as a "liberal," Pius became increasingly disenchanted with the materialism and secularism of the late nineteenth century and spent his final two decades trying to barricade the Church against their onslaught.  The locus classicus of this effort was the "Syllabus of Errors" of 1864, which condemned, among other propositions, the idea that "the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself … with progress, liberalism and modern civilization."  The Church, in other words, said "no" to the nineteenth century — something, it might be argued, that much of the world is just now getting around to doing.

Whatever the merits of this posture for guarding the deposit of faith, it put a decided chill on Catholic thinking.  Newman's own problematic relations with Rome after his conversion are an illustration of the difficulties that even a perfectly orthodox thinker could face in trying to cope with the rigid ecclesiastical norms of the day.  The siege mentality began to lift under Pius's successor, Leo XIII, who gave Newman a cardinal's hat and launched a revival in Thomistic studies with the encyclical Aeternis Patris.  (Aquinas, whom Lord Acton called "the first Whig," has always been a threat to reactionaries.) By the 1920s, a full Catholic intellectual revival was under way.  Its English branch included Belloc, Chesterton, Waugh, Christopher Dawson, Eric Gill, David Jones, Maurice Baring, and Graham Greene; while in France there were Mauriac, Claudel, Péguy, Bernanos, Léon Bloy, Henri Ghéon, and two world-class philosophers, Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain.

The Church, in other words, said "no" to the nineteenth century — something, it might be argued, that much of the world is just now getting around to doing.

The Church, in other words, said "no" to the nineteenth century — something, it might be argued, that much of the world is just now getting around to doing.

The striking thing about these names is the number of converts among them, as well as the number of novelists.  Writers who are born Catholic seldom have much to say about a creed to which they have not given fifteen minutes consecutive thought since grade school.  But in the case of converts like Waugh or Maritain, the faith, learned in adulthood, was very much involved in their struggle to come to grips with the modern world.  The novel, a post-Catholic genre, was the favored vehicle for dealing with this struggle, which was seldom easily resolved.  There is an "existential" note in many of these writers which simply did not lend itself to composing haiku or painting water lilies.

As is the case with most European intellectual trends, the Catholic revival made a delayed Atlantic transit.  Whereas previously there had been only the stray lapsed Irishman, such as John O'Hara or F. Scott Fitzgerald, in the 1940s there appeared on the American literary scene a number of notable Catholics (again, mostly converts).  A few of the names were Robert Lowell, Allen Tate and his wife Caroline Gordon, J. F. Powers, Flannery O'Connor, and Thomas Merton.  With the exception of O'Connor and the early, pre-political Merton, however, none of these writers can be said to have had the sort of deep engagement with the faith which characterized their more fervent European counterparts.

Lowell, for example, seems to have used Catholicism as an intellectual quarry for his early poems and then dropped it once it had served its purpose.  Powers's stories about priests were so on the mark that at least one critic surmised that he had once been a rectory cat; but in interviews he never seemed terribly excited about religion.  Merton, a Trappist monk with great literary gifts, appeared on the way to becoming a great spiritual master; but somehow every cultural virus that was in the air in the Sixties found its way into his monastic cell; he became obsessed with left-wing politics and Buddhism, went AWOL, and died in a freak accident in Asia while searching for Zen illuminations.

Despite the many asymmetries of faith and accomplishment, the mandarins on the European side of the revival were surprisingly cordial to their American counterparts.  Waugh, who once said that every American was born not only in Original Sin but also in "the extra sin of treason to the British crown," edited and wrote a foreword to the English edition of Merton's early autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, and made a pilgrimage to Merton's monastery in Kentucky.  Belloc and Chesterton made many friendships during their remunerative visits, although the latter in 1926 presciently remarked that "the madness of tomorrow is not in Moscow, but much more in Manhattan."  Perhaps the most intriguing and long-lasting of the transatlantic alliances, however, was that between two famous literary couples — all converts — the epistolary remains of which have now been edited by John M. Dunaway. Exiles and Fugitives: The Letters of Jacques and Raïssa Maritain, Allen Tate, and Caroline Gordon provides some interesting sidelights on both ends of the Catholic revival.

Both were disillusioned with the aggressive positivism which passed for truth at the university and made a pact that they would commit suicide if they did not find a reason for existence beyond the simple-minded metaphysics of their professors.

The extraordinary partnership between Jacques and Raïssa Maritain began when both were students at the Sorbonne, where they met protesting the Tsar's Jewish pogroms (Raïssa was a Russian Jew).  Both were disillusioned with the aggressive positivism which passed for truth at the university and made a pact that they would commit suicide if they did not find a reason for existence beyond the simple-minded metaphysics of their professors.  They were rescued from this drastic step, first by the philosophy of Henri Bergson, who taught that human consciousness is more than a mere secretion of matter, and then by the novelist Léon Bloy, who came as close as a modern can to being a man of the twelfth century.  Bloy took Jacques and Raïssa beyond Bergsonian intuition (which Bloy called "a too flimsy refuge" against the nihilism of the age) and into the Catholic Church.

The other epochal event of Jacques' life was his discovery of Thomas Aquinas and the other great Scholastics.  He found in their realist philosophy an antidote to what he considered the gravest defects of modern civilization: the flight from metaphysics and the exaltation of private whim over objective truth.  Maritain's Thomistic critique of modernity struck a chord with a number of thinkers, ranging from T. S. Eliot to Walter Lippmann, who had no interest in becoming Roman Catholics.  But it did influence the conversion of the poet Allen Tate, whose classicism already disposed him to the neo-Scholastic world view.  Tate followed his wife, the novelist Caroline Gordon, into the Church in the late 1940s.

In 1944, Tate, who had just become editor of the Sewanee Review, wrote to Maritain asking for a contribution.  The Maritains at the time were living in New York as exiles from Vichy France.  The usual exchange of politeness followed, which quickened into friendship, for which both couples had a kind of genius.  In France, the Maritains had turned their home into a "centre de rayonnement" for a generation of artists and writers.  The Tates, more in the American manner, had allowed their place to be a crash pad for literary nomads.  (Lowell, for example, turned up uninvited one summer and pitched a tent on their lawn.) So the meeting of the two couples resulted in a kind of summa in the art of friendship.

Reading these letters, we get the odd impression of freshness and vitality in the Old World rather than the New.  The Maritains were a much deeper pair than their American friends.  Jacques liked to quote Aristotle to the effect that the magnanimous move at a slow step.  He and Raïssa seemed to manage this (and so were extremely productive), while at the Tates' end there is constant fuss and self-preoccupation.  The intellectual mentorship was strictly one way, moreover, with Jacques and Raïssa gently encouraging and praising the efforts of Tate, a not quite major poet, and his wife, a definitely minor novelist.  (Gordon, like Percy Lubbock, was better at helping other novelists with their craft than practicing it herself.)  And, of course, there was the contrast between Allen's philandering and ultimate divorce from Caroline (he ended in marrying a twenty-six-year-old former nun, getting excommunicated along the way) and the Maritains' mariage blanc.  In 1912, when both were about thirty, Jacques and Raïssa made a private vow to abstain from sexual relations, an ascetical practice which they never recommended to others and which the Tates probably never suspected.

Reading these letters, we get the odd impression of freshness and vitality in the Old World rather than the New.

Given the absence of an English biography of the Maritains and the likelihood that readers don't know much about the Tates, one wishes that Dunaway had given these letters a more informative textual apparatus.  His footnotes, moreover, are alarmingly whimsical.  Malcolm Cowley, whose one steady full-time job was Associate Editor of The New Republic from 1929 to 1944, is identified as "a film critic for the New York Times."  Another note tells us that Josef Pieper "has taught and written in the United States since World War II," which would be news to the University of Münster.  I don't wish to dwell on editorial lapses in a book coming out of a university press, however, as the only literary professionals who seem to take pains to be accurate anymore are the writers of the backs of baseball trading cards.

The correspondence ends with an exchange between Caroline and Jacques after the publication of the latter's The Peasant of Garonne, a remarkably vigorous book from a man of eighty-five.  In it, Maritain, who had always been identified as a political liberal, attacked leftist theologians who took the Church's turn to aggiornamento as meaning that it would toss away two thousand years of doctrinal teaching.  This, along with a critique of the mytho-scientific nonsense of Teilhard de Chardin, sent Maritain's reputation into eclipse for at least two decades.  It was a disillusioning period for Maritain and his great contemporary, Gilson, who saw their work to build a bridge between classical philosophy and the modern world widely rejected in favor of a spurious "relevance."  It shows the greatness of spirit of Maritain, who after Raïssa's death eventually took the habit of the little brothers of Toulouse, that he was not at all bitter — simply tired.

Then, as now, the intellectual establishment willfully cut itself off from the accumulated wisdom of the past.

Jacques, who described himself as "a European long immersed in all the rotten stuff of past events," found obvious refreshment in a country which enjoyed a "deliverance" from history.  Yet, in the perspective of this volume, even forty years ago the degradation of the American academy was well under way.  Caroline Gordon writes that Maritain was "treated shamefully by Princeton University" in the early Fifties.  The head of the philosophy department "urged him 'not to give the boys so much Plato and Aristotle but more Bertrand Russell and Whitehead.'  He delivered the lectures which were finally published as Creative Intuition to a bunch of housewives."

Then, as now, the intellectual establishment willfully cut itself off from the accumulated wisdom of the past.  So, while these letters contain much enjoyable information (what, we wonder, became of the peacock feather from Flannery O'Connor's farm that Caroline sent to Jacques), they ought not to be an occasion for excessive literary nostalgia.

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Acknowledgement

newcritGeorge Sim Johnston.  "Friendship & devotion."  The New Criterion (February 1993).

Reprinted with permission of The New Criterion.

The New Criterion, founded in 1982, is a monthly review of the arts and intellectual life. 

The Author

johnstonGeorge Sim Johnston is a writer living in New York City. He graduated from Harvard with a B. A. in English literature and was an investment banker with Salomon Brothers in the seventies and early eighties. Since then he has been a free-lance writer, publishing with The Wall Street Journal, Harper's, Commentary, Harvard Business Review, National Catholic Register, World Catholic Report, and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Journalism Award from the Catholic Press Association. He teaches marriage preparation and CCD for the Archdiocese of New York and is the author of Did Darwin Get it Right?: Catholics and the Theory of Evolution.

Copyright © 1993 The New Criterion
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