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A fitting receptacle: Paul Claudel on Poetry and Sensations of God.

La parole signifie non seulement par les mots, mais encore par l'accent, le ton, les gestes et la physionomie.


PAUL CLAUDEL'S WRITING--poetic, dramatic, exegetical--testifies to the importance, for those interested in developing a relationship with God (poets or otherwise), of an attitude of awareness of and attentiveness to reality, over and against ideological considerations that would reduce reality for the purpose of imagining necessarily piecemeal alternatives to it. My goal here is to consider Claudel's particular attention to the ways in which the poet who has become a new man in Christ, the inner man born again through baptism, experiences reality with senses that Christ has transformed and brings this experience to bear upon the creation of a poetry that invites others in turn to d+iscover their own status as transformed or transformable. As a way to focus the discussion, I will analyze the role played by a particular image, that of a Japanese painted vase, as it appears at various moments in Claudel's poetry and exegetical prose. By looking at the various analogies Claudel develops through this image, I hope to make the case that the poet reveals himself as a major contributor in the twentieth century to the renewal of the notion, originating in spiritual theology, of the spiritual senses. Claudel's writing witnesses powerfully to what it means to say that a Christian life is one that is altered and formed by the event of a personal encounter, rather than by a discursive formula or lofty idea. (1) For Christians, Claudel urges, redemption takes place in an encounter with a new human reality, and thus, can be and is experienced. (2) Claudel's insistence upon the concreteness of Christian experience is important as a corrective to recent trends in scholarship on religious experience and religious literature alike that have overemphasized apophaticism (so-called negative theology) and experiences associated with ineffability, such that a false gap is opened between God and human life in its totality and concreteness. [3] As a result, a Christian poetry focused upon and anchored in the core Christian claim to a life redeemed in the finite hic et nunc has seemed strange to many. Confining ourselves to recent non-Christian examples, I would point to Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, writing almost midway through the last century, who assert that the Incarnation improperly makes the finite absolute, and to Mark Johnston, who in a book published just a few years ago claims Christianity falsely spiritualizes the natural. (4)

Paul Claudel is a poet who seldom uses apophatic language; and yet, he demonstrates a clear appreciation of God's transcendence because he is supremely attentive to the ways in which God creates in the finite world "the conditions of possibility of his own manifestation." (5) Claudel's writing witnesses to the believer's dramatic encounter with the incisive, in-breaking, incarnated God whose Spirit dilates the finite world, including finite human being, in such a way that the surprising dimensions of his redemption move the believer to desire and experience God's redeeming presence ever more deeply.

This exploration of Claudel's poetic witness to the drama of redeemed finitude will begin with a look at one of Claudel's earliest and shortest poems, supplemented by references to parts of his longer Odes (the fourth and fifth of his Cinq grandes odes); this poetry dates from the years 1893 and 1907-1908, respectively. I find the image of the vase contained in these texts, and especially the way in which this image serves as gift, to be exemplary of the redemptive drama that I claim is fundamental to Claudel's poetic witness. After exploring the image in these poetic texts, I will turn to some passages from Claudel's later writings on the Bible in order to consider how his thinking about spiritual senses sheds light upon the dynamic of experience evoked in the poetry and helps us to see the value in his preferred focus upon finitude.

A note concerning Claudel's biblical commentaries: these writings are voluminous--by the time of his death in 1955, the Book of Revelation alone had elicited from him 1,100 pages--but have not been studied very extensively. They represent a distinct stage in Paul Claudel's writing career: in 1928, at the age of sixty, Claudel decided to devote himself almost exclusively to interpretation of and meditation upon the Bible. He had recently (1927) completed his dramatic masterpiece Le Soulier de Satin (The Satin Slipper), and was in his first full year as French ambassador to the United States. The prose texts that I will draw upon are the "Traite de la presence de Dieu" (Treatise on the Presence of God), "Le sentiment de la presence de Dieu" (The Feeling of the Presence of God), also known as "La sensation du divin" (The Sensation of the Divine), and, briefly, "Du sens figure de l'Ecriture" (On the Figurative Meaning of Scripture); the first two were written in 1933 and published in 1941 as part of Claudel's book Presence et prophetie; the second was published in 1938 as the preface to the republication of a since-forgotten book, L'Introduction au Livre de Ruth by l'abbe Tardif de Moidrey. In these texts Claudel lays out a systematic account of his biblical hermeneutics. I do not make a study of that hermeneutics here; rather, I draw upon several key passages in order to characterize the particularly embodied, incarnated, incorporative nature of the poetic activity that defines Claudel's dramatic witness to his Christian experience of reality.

The receiving and offering of gifts is central to Claudel's conception of Christian experience. In an essay entitled "The Offering of the World," philosopher Jean-Louis Chretien argues that the world "gives itself to speech" and "gives itself through speech" in such a way that the human offering of the world to God in "cosmic praise" becomes possible. (6) What exactly is meant by the word "speech" when we are talking about such giving? For Claudel, speech is the primary activity that links human beings as creatures of God to God's other creatures; indeed, human existence as speaking creature joins with the modes of existence of God's other creatures to constitute, according to Claudel, "the expression of God, the gesture of God, the language of God." (7) "This is not a mystery or an esoteric fantasy," says Claudel,
   but a common truth, the application of which jumps to our
   attention everywhere we look. Man is composed of a soul and
   a body, and nothing reaches his intelligence except through
   the intermediary of his senses, which correspond with one
   another. A certain sound, a certain assemblage of syllables,
   becomes for him the evocative sign of such and such an object,
   of such and such mode of movement and action, the
   reconstitutings of which depend only upon his imagination.
   The word is representative for us, not only of the object, but
   of the state within us that corresponds to the perception of
   that object. Thus held by the mind, detached and portable,
   this word becomes in its turn an instrument that allows us
   to seize upon other words, following a system of conventions
   [convenances], of dependencies, of relations, of nuances
   and of exclusions, such that an idea and a proposition can be
   formed. These ideas or propositions in turn can be combined
   by the mind in view to an end, and this is what we call a discourse.
   (PB 852)

When Claudel claims that certain sounds and groups of syllables become the evocative sign of various objects, events, and experiences in the world, he means that they establish a whole complex of at once sensual and intellectual allegorical relations or ties between the human subject and the world. In addition to their meanings, words have a mouth-feel, a resonance in many parts of the body, and require various lingual, vocal, and even gestural movements to be articulated. All of these aspects of speech constitute the primary means by which human beings grasp and take possession of the world, and become able to offer it to others. Speech for Claudel is an activity that involves the entirety of the human being, body and soul, and it is likewise a definitively and distinctively human activity because of the way in which it places man in human relation to the rest of creation.

Claudel's eight-line poem "Don du vase rond" (Gift of the Round Vase)" (1893) exemplifies speech as this sort of total human activity, disclosing the dynamic of human desire that motivates the process of receiving and offering of which Chretien speaks.
   "Don du vase rond" (8)
   Bois! Je te donne ce vase rond comme la lune.
   Et quand tu seras au milieu tu verras monter de la tasse la mer.
   Et a chaque coup elle entrera dans ton gosier avec ses eaux et l'on
      voit des voiles au loin!
   Et quand flechissant sur tes genoux tu humeras les dernieres
   La montagne recourbee qui depasse le bord avec ses neiges atteint
      le milieu de ton front.
   Et je ne dis point le breuvage, mais il sera pour ton cur comme les
      tenebres de la foret.
   Prends-la a deux mains, car etant profonde elle est pleine.
   Prends-la, te dis-je! prends-la! prends! prends!

James Lawler's translation is as follows:
   Drink! I give you this vase as round as the moon.
   And when you are in the midst you will see the sea rise from the
   And with each gulp it will enter your throat with its waters, and
      sails will appear afar!
   And when your knees begin to sag and you breathe the last drops,
   The humped mountain that tops the edge with its snows will touch
      the middle of your brow.
   And I do not call it a beverage, but it will be for your heart like
      the shadows of the forest.
   Take it with both hands, for it is deep and full.
   Take it, I say! take it! take! take! (9)

The poem's title announces a gift, urged upon the reader with one opening and five closing imperatives. We are being spoken to by a voice that very much wants us to have a certain experience. What is the nature of this experience, the possibility of which is stressed by the use of the future tense? First and foremost, it involves the incorporation of the gift: we are commanded to "drink ... this vase as round as the moon." There is no preposition telling us to drink from the vase (for it is indeed possible in French to say, "bois dans ce vase"). That is, the first several lines make no distinction between the vase and its contents. (10) The gift is the vase as a whole--round, complete, deep and full, planet-like ("like the moon").

By the second line, we find ourselves in the middle of the drama of drinking this vase, and this drinking is decidedly not a sipping--one has the feeling in reading the poem that to attempt to disengage from this drinking once it has begun will involve a dangerous spill, even a drowning. The only way to avoid being drowned in this "sea" that "rise[s] from the cup" is to keep gulping it in, to cooperate with its rush into the throat: the repeated use of the simple conjunction and in lieu of a paratactically structured narration emphasizes the sense that only our gulping cooperation will keep us afloat like the sails that appear in the distance. This drinking is, or will be, an athletic feat; but, in spite of the danger of the enterprise and the effort we will be compelled to undergo should we accept the invitation to drink, this gift will not cease being a gift and turn instead into a duty. As the one who offers the gift tells us, "When your knees begin to sag and you breathe the last drops, / the humped mountain that tops the edge with its snows will touch the middle of your brow. / [I]t will be for your heart like the shadows of the forest. "At some point, our gulping just to keep from drowning will turn into an inhaling or sucking up of the last drops ("you breathe the last drops"), a drinking no longer simply compelled by the force of the waters but instead motivated by our own desire to get to the bottom, to receive this gift in its entirety. And, having drunk the ocean, our forehead will be cooled by the snows of the mountain in the landscape into which our drinking has brought us, and from this nameless beverage our heart will receive calm and rest akin to the calm and restfulness of a forest's shadows: we will have drunk our way into this round vase, this sphere or world that accommodates us, and we will be able to verify this accommodation in experience. The desire to drink to the last drop will be fulfilled by the experience of a world that is made for us.

The command to "take it with both hands" comes only at the end of the poem, and is repeated five times. The attention drawn to the use of our hands confronts us with the fact that in the present moment we are not drinking and that to start drinking we need to take what is offered. This step back from the projected plunge into the experience or event of drinking also confronts us with the mystery of the promised event: somehow, by drinking from this Japanese vase with its interior painted landscape, we will drink the world and, in so doing, drink our way into the world. To receive the gift of the round vase is to receive the world while in the world and at the same time to receive the way into the world. The drama of desire elicited, satisfied, and then elicited again on another, more intellectual plane--the path from a desire for a drink to a deeper desire for a beauty in which to live--animates or moves the recipient through these receptions.

The urgency communicated by this final series of commands, as well as the slight variation in the commands as the series proceeds ("Take it with both hands, for it is deep and full./Take it, I say! take it! take! take!"),draws our attention to the voice that is offering the gift of the round vase, or the world beyond the poem that is to be gained in an experience analagous to the one described. The promises contained in the future tense imply that this speaker has had the experience he now offers to us, and the urgency of his commands to "drink" and to "take" communicate a desire that we, upon finishing the poem, might likewise become filled with the desire to drain this vase to the lees, to take (take what? the world? reality?) with the same desire and dynamic that is evoked in the poem.

In subsequent longer poems, Claudel will employ this image of the vase as an analogy for the poet, so that what gives figure to the short poem becomes in the longer, later poems a figure for the poet himself. It is as if Claudel has drunk from the vase and is now prepared to become a vase for others. The fourth and fifth of the Cinq Grandes Odes ("La Muse qui est la Grace," 1907, and "La Maison fermee," 1908, respectively) unfold Claudel's view of the poet as the one who, in a paradox not unlike that of the vase that is both container and world, receives from God the "the inexhaustible and closed world," and in so receiving is moved to present the world as a gift to others. Underlying the drama recounted in the lines that follow is a dynamic according to which the divine dilates human desire and expands the human sensibility to the divine; here we find the poetic experience that forms the basis for Claudel's version of spiritual senses. Addressing the Muse who is Grace in the fourth Ode, Claudel writes:
   Tu murmures a mon oreille. C'est le monde tout entier que tu me
   Je ne suis pas tout entier si je ne suis pas entier avec ce monde
      qui m'entoure. C'est tout entier moi que tu demandes! C'est le
   monde tout entier que tu me demandes!
  (Ode IV, Po 274)

   You murmur in my ear.You ask the whole world of me!
   I am not whole unless I am wholly one with this world that
      surrounds me. You ask for the whole of me! You ask the whole world
      of me!

In asking for the whole person, God asks for the whole world--the offering of self to God is one and the same with the offering of the world to God. Jean-Louis Chretien, commenting on these verses, writes, "Our integrity does not reside in breaking away from the world, but in our community and our communion with it." (11)

In the fifth Ode, "La Maison fermee," this communion with the world is figured by the experience of Christopher Columbus, the Claudelian hero of circumnavigation who experiences the eternal in and through the constant giving and receiving of the finite. God's Incarnation in Christ has rendered the limitless "giveable" (donnable) and therefore receivable as and in worldly measure and human speech:
   Mon desir est d'etre le rassembleur de la terre de Dieu! Comme
      Christophe Colomb quand il mit a la voile,
   Sa pensee n'etait pas de trouver une terre nouvelle,
   Mais dans ce cur plein de sagesse la passion de la limite et de la
      sphere calculee de parfaire l'eternel horizon.
   Le Verbe de Dieu est Celui en qui Dieu s'est fait a l'homme
   La parole creee est cela en qui toutes choses creees sont faites a
      l'homme donnables.
   O mon Dieu, qui avez fait toutes choses donnables, donnez-moi un
      desir a la mesure de votre misericorde!
   Afin qu'a mon tour a ceux-la qui peuvent le recevoir je donne en
      moi cela qui a moi-meme est donne.
   O point de toutes parts autour de moi ou s'ajustent les fins
      indivisibles! univers indechirable! o monde inepuisable et ferme!

   (Ode V, Po 280-81) (12)

   My desire is to be God's assembler of Earth! Like Christopher
      Columbus when he hoisted sail,
   His thought was not to find a new world,
   But in that heart full of wisdom he held the passion for the limit
      and for the sphere that is calculated to complete the eternal
   The Word of God is He in whom God made Himself giveable
      to man.
   The created word is that in which all created things are made
      giveable to man.
   O my God, you who made all things giveable, give me desire to
      the measure of your mercy!
   That in turn I may give, to those who can receive it, what is given
      to me.
   O point on all sides around me where indivisible frontiers meet!
      seamless universe! O world inexhaustible and closed!

God is praised for making Himself and created things each giveable to man, and the poet's prayer is to be, as finite being in the image of God, the one in and through whom the giving and receiving of the world takes place. Toward the end of the fifth Ode, Claudel takes up again the image of the round vase as the figure for the poet's role in this divine giving. The poet, the one who grasps and measures creation, the one who is the finite image of God, is the vase that, paradoxically inexhaustible and closed, gives on God's behalf:
   Soyez beni, mon Dieu, qui ne laissez pas vos uvres inachevees
   Et qui avez fait de moi un etre fini a l'image de votre perfection.
   Par la je suis capable de comprendre etant capable de tenir et de
   Vous avez place en moi le rapport et la proportion
   Une fois pour toutes; car un chiffre peut etre change, mais non pas
      le rapport de deux chiffres: la est la certitude.
   Vous avez fait de mon esprit un vase inepuisable comme celui de la
      veuve de Sarepta.
   Non point pour moi seulement mais pour tout homme qui veut y mettre
      la levre,
   Comme le Japonais qui a mesure qu'il boit voit se decouvrir peu a
      peu le grand paysage natal peint sur la concavite du bol,
   Et le Fuji neigeux sur le bord qui s'eleve a mesure que la liqueur
   Et l'horizon complet avec le breuvage epuise.
   Poete, j'ai trouve le metre. Je mesure l'univers avec son image que
      je constitue.

  (Ode V, Po 284-85)

   Blessed are you, God, you do not leave your works unfinished
   And you have made of me a finite being in the image of your
   In this way I am able to understand because I am able to grasp and
      to measure.
   You have placed in me relation and proportion
   Once and for always; for a number may be changed, but not the
      relation between two numbers: certainty is there.
   You have made of my spirit an inexhaustible vase like the jar of
      the widow of Zarephath.
   Not for me only, but for every man who puts his lips to it,
   Like the Japanese who, as he drinks, discovers little by little the
      broad landscape of his native land in the curve of the bowl,
   And snowy Fuji on the rim rising in measure as the liquid goes
   And the whole horizon when the brew is drained.
   I, poet, have found the meter. I measure the universe with its
      image, which I constitute.

The poet's self-understanding as expressed here marks an achievement of great importance within the context of Claudel's life, as well as an important step for Christian thought of the period as it attempts to remain true to the facts of Christian experience. From one point of view, Claudel's insistence in the Odes and in the contemporary prose Art poetique that the poet is a cocreator with God can seem more Promethean than Christian. For instance, when Claudel speaks of finding the number of the world, we might be inclined to find here a poetic claim to knowledge of the verites eternelles, the mathematical equations that were thought by some early-modern thinkers (e.g., Kepler, Galileo) to give access to the very mind of God. (13) But when we see how Claudel links his poetry-making to God's gift of self in the Incarnation, we see that the poet's notion of himself as "image of the universe, which I constitute" results from his assent to God's incorporation of all that is human into the divine. Claudel's conversion stretched over a period of four years, marked at each end of the four-year period by a powerful religious experience in the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris: the first on Christmas Day 1886; the second, in which he returned to full participation in the sacraments, on Christmas Day 1890. The delay between the initial conversion and the complete return to life in the Church involved an intense period of self-examination, during which Claudel was preoccupied with the question of the compatibility of a literary career with the life of faith. (14) Ultimately, Claudel came to the realization that "the Catholic credo brings ... with it a growth in being, in life, in desire and in joy--and, in the poetic order, the supreme key to all symbols and to beauty itself." (15) Lines from the Vers d'exil put the point dramatically:
   J'ai fui en vain: partout j'ai retrouve la Loi. Il faut ceder
   enfin! ... il faut subir le maitre,
   Quelqu'un qui soit en moi plus moi-meme que moi. (Po 18)

   I fled in vain: I found the Law everywhere.
   In the end you have to give in!
   ... you have to be subject to the master,
   Someone in me who is more myself than I am.

This last line's echo of St. Augustine's Confessions brings me to the task of situating Claudel's poetic speech within the theological tradition of speech that witnesses to the experience of an encounter, rather than hovering over its object-spectacle. (16) Jean-Louis Chretien describes this distinction between witnessing and spectating in comments upon the famous passage from book X (c. xxvii, 38) of the Confessions, a passage that also happens to be one of the best patristic descriptions of spirtual senses:
   Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved
   you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and
   sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those
   lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was
   not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if
   they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at
   all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You
   were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You
   were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I
   tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched
   me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours. (17)

Focusing upon the phenomenon of God's beauty as spoken of here by Augustine, Chretien distinguishes between a spectatorial approach that "would claim to define and determine God's beauty in itself" and one, like Augustine's, that bears witness to the impact of the experience of beauty, a speech that never loses sight of the fact that it carries as an offering within its words "the desire that [this beauty] has opened in us, ... the wound that it has made in us." (18) Chretien's point is that "the experience in which we undergo the divine beauty really is an ordeal, and does not leave us separated from it, even

though this ordeal tries to match up to that beauty without measuring it, and even though it cannot appropriate it in such a way that we can grasp it entire." Claudel calls for attentiveness to the encounterability of God, what Chretien refers to as the "ordeal" of the experience of divine beauty. To recognize the presence of Christ in the here and now requires that one submit one's senses, including one's measurements, to God so that He can overflow and exceed them and so that we can experience being thus exceeded and bedazzled. For Claudel, the human activity of knowing, properly understood, involves this submission of sense and measure, not as a second-stage or moralistic addition that would come after the act of knowing proper, but as intrinsic to the very act of knowing: knowledge, connaissance, is for Claudel conaissance, cobirth of the I and the world being known: "Les choses ne sont point comme les pieces d'une machine, mais comme les elements en travail inepuisable d'un dessin toujours nouveau. L'homme connait le monde non point par ce qu'il y derobe, mais par ce qu'il y ajoute, lui-meme." (Things are in no way like the pieces of a machine; instead they are like the elements of an ever-new design, inexhaustibly at work. Man knows the world not at all by what he uncovers there, but by what he adds to the world, himself.) (19) Claudel is wary of any way of speaking about God or God's creation that might serve as an excuse to avoid wrestling with Him.

It is fitting, then, that Claudel at the outset of one of his exegetical essays on spiritual senses entitled "Traite de la presence de Dieu" ("Treatise on the Presence of God," written in Washington, DC, in 1932, published in 1941), takes up the question of whether or not negation should be an exclusive or even a privileged path for speaking of God's transcendent infinity and of our creaturely relation to him. Returning yet again to the image of the human being as receptacle in a manner that elaborates further the poetic gift of the vase that we have encountered in the poems on which we have been focusing, Claudel, in this text, seeks to correct the tendency to employ speech about God's infinite transcendence in a way that overly or improperly disengages God from human reality.

Regarding the apophatic proposition (Claudel is referring to Dionysius the Areopagite) that we "can only know of God in this world that He Is and what He Is not," Claudel responds that "we must be careful not to exaggerate the meaning, and say that we only know God by negations, thus suspending Him, so to speak, in the void and disengaging Him from all relation (tous rapports) with this world that He has made" (PB 55). Claudel's point, however, is not that apophatic speech necessarily disengages God from His Creation. Indeed, apophatic speech can be a valuable rhetorical mode by which to account for the experience of finitude in front of God. When we affirm the positive knowledge of God as this very word that in us and in all created things serves as support to every one of the sensible and intelligible particularities, we also say "that we know what He Is not ... we enrich our knowledge of God according to the particular way in which He overflows or denies an insufficient receptacle." Drawing on a string of quotations from John 14 and 17, Claudel goes on to argue that because Christ himself promises in the present moment a wide and deep knowledge of God--knowledge in the sense of the possession of a speech with which to praise God and to signify or to be a sign of God (le signifier) (56)--the redeemed human being taken as a whole, "the new man, this mortal thing who nevertheless has put on immortality," (20) is indeed a fitting "receptacle" for God. God's grace takes the initiative to correct the insufficiency of the human receptacle causing the "risky material" of the repentent sinner to "begin to boil at the Commandment's heat" and "the shell of second [fallen] nature" to "dilate" and "burst apart" under the emerging pressure of the human being's "first Nature" as image of God (66). (21)

These are strong images, but Claudel dares to confront God with finite human measures, asking,
   Is it possible to go even further? Will [God's] residence at the
   bottom of our soul not carry with it consequences that are in a
   certain sense legal, so that when God seizes upon the whole of our
   being in order to "put it on" [Rom 13:14] according to his manner,
   which is to say not from the outside but from within, will he not
   bring with him all his rights and the fullness of his heritage as
   the Son coextensive with the Father? Will not the fact carry with
   it the title? The usage imply the right? The inspiration require
   respiration? Will the Word cease to be with God, because He is at
   the same time with us? (67)

Claudel allows Jesus himself to answer these questions: "What I see with my Father, says John [8:38], loquor, I say" (67); the reader is then addressed by Christ through Claudel, in a gesture whose effect is not unlike that of the imperatives in the 1893 poem "Don du vase rond": "Your turn, now, to accomplish in Time what in the depths of yourself I witness to, with these words that cannot pass away [Mt 24:35]" (67).

In this text, and especially in the related essay "Le sentiment de la presence de Dieu," Claudel, after having argued for the suitability of the human being as receptacle for the divine, proceeds to a detailed investigation of the five senses, in the course of which he makes startling and at times fascinating claims about the human ability to experience "sensations" of God.

We enter here explicitly into the theological topic of spiritual senses, which refers to the way in which various theologians, perhaps beginning with the third-century Alexandrian Origen, have developed from scriptural bases analogies between the five senses of the "outer man" and the spiritual sense or senses of the "inner" or "spiritual" man; (22) but as we have seen, Claudel strives consistently to go further, to heighten our attention to the capabilities of finite humanity renewed in Christ. As a result, Claudel's analogies always "strain to become total." (23) Indeed, the audacity of Claudel's positive accounts of the relation between finite creation and the infinite Creator has the capability to startle and disrupt habitual abstract thinking about the divine by eliciting a sense of wonder and amazement that is similar to that produced by apophatic speech when seen within the context of a complete spiritual theology. (24)

In "Le sentiment de la presence de Dieu," Claudel explores the ways in which God communicates his presence through the five senses in a manner that time after time disrupts the limits one might set up to mark off an exclusive realm for solely spiritual or nonbodily intellectual senses (the essay is thoroughly exegetical, scouring the Scriptures for suggestive passages, while at the same time it contains and refers at length to several schematic drawings of, for instance, the optic nerve and the pupil). In thus blurring the distinction between exterior and interior senses, Claudel is closer to a Bonaventurian than to an Origenist approach to spiritual senses: according to Mariette Canevet, Bonaventure understands the Incarnation to establish the possibility that faith in Christ can restore the fallen capacity of the senses to perceive truly and accurately both spiritual and corporeal objects. (25) As Claudel notes in Du sens figure, it is often said that the visible leads to the invisible, but "more often, we are led from the love and the knowledge of invisible things to the knowledge and the love of visible things." (26) The encounter with Christ truly renews life in the here and now.

Returning to the poem "Don du vase rond," we can now see how Claudel's audacious insistence upon the redemptive transformation of the senses in Christian experience underlies the experience of the poem as a sort of premise. In the dynamic between giver and receiver or speaker and reader that the poem generates, the movement among gifts--vase, poem, and world, as well as the gift of desire itself--is accompanied by movement within and even across the five senses. The heard command to drink leads to the drinking; in the course of drinking, the desire that the invisible scene painted in the bowl become visible augments alongside the desire to breathe in the last drops of the drink--here we have a focus upon the senses of taste and of smell. Then, once the drink is finished, the invisible now become visible exerts a touch like a blessing upon the forehead. A reader who properly understands the poem is awakened by its witness and the gift it offers to the possibility of becoming fully alive to the world in and through the senses.

I'll close with the following passage from "Le sentiment de la presence de Dieu," a meditation upon the sensations redeemed through the Eucharistic presence of Christ. It suggests how the event of Christ's incarnation underlies the sensual, desire-driven dynamic of giving and receiving that the poem instantiates:

If God had only wanted to illuminate our minds, He had no need to make Himself man and die on Calvary. A perfect book would have sufficed.... If he had only wanted to satisfy our imaginations, it would have been enough to spread before our eyes a rich tapestry of illusions [prestiges], like that which kept the pagan peoples amused for so long. But His object was different. He did not come to embellish us, He came to save us. He did not come to reform but to transform us. He did not come to make Himself understood, He came to take us with Him. It is the flesh that sinned in Paradise, and so it was into intimacy with this very flesh that He wanted to push. The revelation that He came to bring us is an incarnation. And even that was not enough for Him. Under the flesh itself and under its sensible appearances, He wanted to reach in and touch substance. He reduced himself to substance in order to pass into ours. It is there, beneath the senses as well as the spirit, that the mystery of communion was accomplished: what makes Christ becomes what makes Saint Peter and Saint Paul and Sainte Therese and each of these children who return from the holy Table with their hands joined. He has become for us real food and drink, something directly accessible to our corporeal organs, to our physical comprehension. He has placed himself within us at the place where life is made and drawn forth. The role of raison d'etre was not enough for him. He wanted to become our means of existence. And the least insufficient expression for this immediate commerce that He wanted to maintain with the most intimate aspect of our operations is not that of knowledge, in the purely intellectual sense one generally gives to that word, but instead physical contact. Infinitely more has been accorded to us than what was asked for by the apostle Saint Thomas when he audaciously declared: Unless I put my fingers in the holes in His hands and His feet, unless I place them into the wound in His side, I will not believe [Jn 20:25]. (PB 392-93)

Claudel writes that "infinitely more"--a "knowledge" that is "physical contact"--is given by God in a nourishment that is good for the whole of the human being, body and soul. God's infinity is miraculously present in reality in a way that may be consistently encountered by the finite human creature in the flesh. To allow that presence to take place, and to take word, such that the life communicated there overflows in allegories that can take hold of others and be taken hold of by them: this, it seems, is what is offered by Claudel's "Gift of the Round Vase."


Permission to reprint "Gift of the Round Vase," by Paul Claudel, trans. James Lawler, from Knowing the East has been granted by Princeton University Press.

(1.) John Paul II, Novo Millenio Ineunte, writes: "We shall not be saved by a formula but by a Person, and the assurance which he gives us: I am with you?" (29); similarly, Benedict XVI begins his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, with the words: "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a Person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction" (i).

(2.) For a striking contemporary account of Christian experience, much in tune with the thought of Claudel as I will develop it here, see Luigi Giussani, Lafamiliarita con Cristo. Meditazioni sull'anno liturgico (San Paolo: Cinisello Balsamo, 2008), 69-70; English translation, Luigi Giussani "'The Risen Christ: the Defeat of Nothingness,' Notes from a talk by Luigi Giussani at the Memores Domini Ascension Retreat, Riva del Garda, Italy, May 16, 1992," Traces, April 2006:
   It is both true and not true that the "Mystery" is a visible
   reality, because this is the characteristic of the Christian
   concept of Mystery.... The Mystery is not unknown; it is the
   unknown that makes itself the content of a sense experience....
   This is why we speak of the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery
   of the Ascension and the mystery of the Resurrection. God as
   Mystery would be an intellectual image if we were to stop at the
   phrase as it is, "God is Mystery." The living God is the God who
   revealed Himself in the Incarnation, in the death and Resurrection
   of Christ. The true God is He who came among us, became a sense
   experience, tangible, visible, audible. It is quite true, however,
   that the Mystery cannot be possessed--it is the object of
   experience, but it cannot be possessed, that is, measured,
   comprehended, embraced in its totality. But, at the same time, it
   is true that it is possessed. The Word of God, having become a seed
   in Our Lady's womb, was possessed by Our Lady; He became a child, a
   youngster, a man, and, as a mother, Our Lady possessed Him; as the
   woman who was His mother, she possessed Him. It is an inexorable
   possession and, therefore, cannot but be lived in humility, that
   humility which was to reverberate--and it is the only source from
   which it can reverberate--between the human "I" and "You"--between
   one person and another, because the other arises from God.

(3.) See Angelo Caranfa, "Silence and Spiritual Experience in Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Claudel," Literature and Theology, vol. 18, no. 2 (June 2004), 210. Angelo Caranfa registers disappointment at the discussion of apophatic language and negative theology that took place among Jacques Derrida ("How to Avoid Speaking: Denials," in Languages of the Unsayable: The Play of Negativity in Literature and Literary Theory, eds. S. Budick and W. Iser [New York: Columbia University Press, 1989]), Mark Taylor ("Think Naught," in Negation and Theology, ed. R. P. Scharlemann [Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1992]), and Kevin Hart (The Trespass of the Sign: Deconstruction, Theology and Philosophy [New York: Fordham UP, 2000]) during the 1980s and 1990s, because, as Caranfa puts it, even though "these studies allow the unsayable to be spoken through negativity, nevertheless ... nothing in them speaks of the love, of the beauty, and of the joy of the incarnate Word in the silence of one's personal encounter with God's sensations or touches: they seem ... texts or languages of concepts or thoughts, not of the heart of feelings." For a way forward that responds in a certain sense to Caranfa's desires, see Jean-Luc Marion, "In the Name: How to Avoid Speaking of It," in In Excess, trans. Robyn Horner and Vincent Berraud (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002), 157. Marion proposes a "pragmatic theology of absence" that would correct both deconstructive overemphasis upon apophaticism and the equally false overemphasis of a "metaphysics of presence" upon kataphatic theological language. Marion writes that the pragmatic theology of the Fathers offers God's Name
   no longer ... by inscribing God within the theoretical horizon of
   our predication but rather by inscribing us, according to a
   radically new praxis, in the very horizon of God. This is exactly
   what baptism accomplishes when, far from our attributing to God a
   name that is intelligible to us, we enter into God's
   unpronounceable Name, with the additional result that we receive
   our own. This pragmatic theology is deployed, in fact, under the
   figure of the liturgy (which begins with baptism), where it is
   never a matter of speaking of God, but always of speaking to God in
   the words of the Word. The Name above all names therefore
   de-nominates God perfectly, by excepting God from predication, so
   as to include us in it and allow us to name on the basis of its
   essential anonymity. The Name does not serve knowledge by naming
   but by including us in the place de-nomination clears out.... In
   this way, mystical theology no longer has as its goal to find a
   name for God but rather to make us receive our own from the
   unsayable Name. Concerning God, this shift from the theoretical use
   of language to its pragmatic use is achieved in the finally
   liturgical function of all theo-logical discourse.

Marion's book on St. Augustine offers an in-depth description of the Bishop of Hippo's language of confession, in which he speaks to, rather than of, God. See Jean-Luc Marion, Au lieu de soi: L'approche de Saint Augustin (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 2008), 29-88; In the Self's Place: The Approach of Saint Augustine, trans. Jeffrey L. Kosky (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012), 11-55.

(4.) Theodor W Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1991), 177; Mark Johnston, Saving God: Religion

After Ideology (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 40.

(5.) Jean-Louis Chretien, The Ark of Speech, trans. Andrew Brown (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), 93; L'Arche de la parole (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1998, 1999), 126.

(6.) Ibid., trans. Brown, 113; French text, 154.

(7.) Paul Claudel, Le Poete et la Bible 1:1910-1946, eds. Michel Malicet, Dominique Millet, and Xavier Tilliette, SJ (Paris: Gallimard, 1998), 852. Subsequent references in this text are noted parenthetically with the abbreviation PB. All translations are my own, unless otherwise indicated.

(8.) Paul Claudel, uvre poetique, ed. Jacques Petit (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliotheque de la Pleiade, 1967), 955. Subsequent references in this text are noted parenthetically with the abbreviation Po.

(9.) Paul Claudel, Knowing the East, trans. and intro. James Lawler (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004), v.

(10.) "Don du vase rond" was never published as part of a collection by Claudel during his lifetime; in notifying bibliographer Benoist-Mechin of its existence many years after it was written, Claudel remembered the title as "Un poete boit dans une tasse et voit dans lefond se lever le Fuji-Yama"--a title employing the very prepositions that are so effectively absent from the actual poem (Po 1195).

(11.) Chretien, The Ark of Speech, 131 ; French text 179.

(12.) In a letter to Jacques Riviere (January ii, 1908) Claudel explains himself further on Christopher Columbus and the infinite:
   Cette idee d'un monde fini et ferme, d'une terre seule habitee par
   des etres vivants et intelligents, que j'ai trouvee dans Coventry
   Patmore et qui m'a ete confirmee scientifiquement par Wallace, est
   pour moi une source de lumiere. Cette idee de l'infini dont Renan
   s'enorgueillit si betement comme d'une conquete precieuse n'est au
   contraire que l'imagination de cerveaux barbares et enfantins.
   C'est ainsi que les anciennes cartes peuplaient les informes
   confins du monde de monstres et de prodiges. Christophe Colomb a
   ete plus que le decouvreur d'un monde, il a ete le reunisseur de la
   terre. Linfini est partout pour l'esprit la meme abomination et le
   meme scandale (Je parle de l'infini dans les choses qui sont de
   nature finie). L'objection: qu'est-ce qu'il y a ou le monde
   commence et finit, est aussi enfantine que celle qui niait la
   sphericite de la terre par le fait que nous n'avons jamais la tete
   en bas. Quand on lit un traite d'astronomie, par exemple la
   description des travaux de Lagrange sur les perturbations
   planetaires, on est saisi d'admiration pour les precautions prises
   pour que chaque planete garde son orbite avec une precision
   exquise. Le ciel est une extase mathematique, et l'infini qui n'est
   que l'imparfait n'y a aucune place. (Po 1074).

Another similar reference to Columbus and Vasco da Gama occurs in Ode V at Po 289. Claudel wrote his play about Columbus (Le Livre de Christophe Colomb) in 1927, and it was first performed in 1930.

(13.) See Jean-Luc Marion, Questions cartesiennes II: Sur l'ego et sur Dieu (Paris: Presses universitaires de France), 1996, 2002), 228-33.

(14.) Gerald Antoine, Paul Claudel, ou l'enfier du genie, nouvelle edition augmentee (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1988, 2004), 70-71. See Claudel's comments on this period in his Memoires improvisees, quarante et un entretiens avec Jean Amrouch (Paris: Gallimard, 1954), 51.

(15.) Ibid. 70: "le credo catholique lui apporte un accroissement d'etre, de vie, de desir et de joie-et, dans l'ordre poetique, la supreme cle de tous les symboles et de la beaute meme."

(16.) Caranfa, "Silence and Spiritual Experience," 204, note 40, states that Claudel read St. Augustine's Confessions in 1905, thus during the composition of several of the Odes.

(17.) Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 201.

(18.) Chretien, The Ark of Speech, 93 ; French text 127.

(19.) Po 133; see Anne Ubersfelds' succinct account of Claudel's conception of the reciprocal relation of cobirth/knowing between the "I" and the world, put forward at length by Claudel in his 1907 Art poetique: Anne Ubersfelds, Paul Claudel, poete du XXe siecle (Arles: Actes Sud Papiers, 2005), 170-71.

(20.) 1 Cor 15:54, translating from Claudel's translation from the Vulgate.

(21.) This passage bears a certain resemblance to another passage from St. Augustine's Confessions, XI xxix (39)--xxx (40), in which Augustine asks God to give his soul a new form that will allow him properly to receive the truths regarding the Creation:

The storms of incoherent events tear to pieces my thoughts, the inmost entrails of my soul, until that day when, purified and molten by the fire of your love, I flow together to merge into you. Then shall I find stability and solidity in you, in your truth which imparts form to me. I shall not have to endure the questions of people who suffer from a disease which brings its own punishment and want to drink more than they have the capacity to hold. They say "What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?," or "Why did he ever conceive the thought of making something when he had never made anything before?" (trans. Chadwick, 244).

(22.) Andrew Louth, "Spirituelle (Theologie)," in Dictionnaire critique de theologie, ed. JeanYves Lacoste (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1998), 1102-103.

(23.) This tendency to push the capacity of the finite to hold or host what it would seem incapable of holding or hosting is clear in Claudel's expansive understanding of the use of language as a whole-life-encompassing activity. See Marie-Anne Lescourret, Claudel (Paris: Flammarion, 2003). She offers a good summary: for Claudel, the relation between poem and world is an
   allegorie [qui] se veut totale. Elle fonctionne entre les choses et
   le verbe, se double de la representation auditive propre aux mots,
   et se complete des implications gymnastiques de leur emission. ...
   Le choix des mots repose sur la sensibilite particuliere du poete:
   non pas tant sur sa faculte specifique d'etre personnellement
   atteint par les evenements du monde, que sur sa capacitee a gouter,
   a tater, a respirer, afaire usage de ses cinq sens pour apprecier
   la composition des elements, et a retranscrire ces impressions dans
   une langue dont il mache les composantes elementaires, les mots,
   avec autant de gourmandise qu'il attend Dieu et jouit de son
   avenement continu dans cette creation dont il imite la pulsation
   dans le rythme de son vers (204).

Claudel's Art poetique is the reference point here (see in particular Po 149).

(24.) As Alexander Golitzin has argued so persuasively, this is the whole point of Dionysius the Areopagite's negative way: to allow Christ's "sudden" irruption into the world to be recognized (Golitzin, "'Suddenly, Christ': The place of negative theology in the mystagogy of Dionysius Aeropagites," in Mystics: Presence and Aporia, eds. Michael Kessler and Christian Sheppard [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003], 8-37); see Pseudo-Dionysos, "Letter 3" in The CompleteWorks, trans. Colm Luibheid (NewYork: Paulist Press, 1987), 264.

(25.) Mariette Canevet, "Sens spirituel," columns 598-617 in Dictionnaire de spiritualite ascetique et mystique, vol. XIV (Paris: Beauchesne, 1990). I refer here to col. 608.

(26.) Chretien, The Ark of Speech, 132; French text 180.
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Author:Lewis, Stephen E.
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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