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Claudel's way to the inexhaustible.

OVER SEVERAL MONTHS IN 1951 and 1952, the 83 year-old Paul Claudel engaged in a series of wide-ranging radio interviews with the poet and literary personality Jean Amrouche. At one point, discussion turned to a short sentence from Claudel's prose poem "La Derivation," a piece first published in 1897 and later collected into the masterly 1907 volume entitled Connaissance de l'Est [Knowing the East] .The sentence reads, "To enjoy is to understand, and to understand is to number / Jouir, c'est comprendre, et comprendre, c'est compter." (1) Amrouche, zeroing in on the association between understanding and numbering or counting, asks Claudel if this way of understanding something, whether Thomist or Cartesian in its inspiration, still satisfies him today? (2) Amrouche's implication is that it certainly could not be very satisfying, at least not for a poet, especially a religious poet like Claudel (or Amrouche himself, for that matter). Poets of that sort, it is assumed, prefer a mystical way of knowing, an ecstatic contemplation that melts away the separation between subject and object, a "direct participation" that dispels the "feeling of exile." (3) Amrouche even finds a passage from another poem in the same collection with which to confront Claudel, a passage that concludes, "Goodly elixir, where and by what mystic path shall I be allowed to partake of your rare waters? / Desirable elixir, par quelle route mystique, ou? me sera-t-il donne de participer a ton flot avare" ("Novembre": Lawler, 35; OP 54). Claudel seems to have been caught red-handed in self-contradiction. Amrouche pushes forward, respectfully but purposefully, to clinch the point: Perhaps I had misread this passage, he says, but it seemed to signal an abandonment and even a renunciation on your part of "this mode of understanding through counting, of this mode of purely intellectual conquest of the world, and this feeling that after all there was perhaps a direct way to reach the center, and that this direct way is the mystical way properly termed, the true way that nullified and outstripped all the others." (4) Despite the apparent evidence, however, Claudel is adamant: contemplation in no way requires the renunciation of the faculties of knowing and understanding; indeed, "the intellect is always there, even when it seems that the senses have pride of place," for "the senses do not work completely if the intellect is not behind them, and in the same way the intellect cannot operate if it forgets such elements as the memory, the will, the sensibility, etc." Claudel concludes the discussion with a summative judgment: "Man cannot be torn apart, that's all! and it is precisely the lesson of Connaissance de I'Est that there is never an abandonment of any of the faculties, especially the will. I am not a Hindu ascetic, I am not ready to dissolve myself, as the Hindu mystics would say, like a salt figurine in a sea of delights or an ocean of joys. That is not at all my feeling. I never lose the sense of my personality, you know?" (5)

This exchange on the privilege of measurement, number, and distinction in poetic knowing is worth mulling over when reading Claudel's poem sequence, "The Way of the Cross," translated here, because the poem shows how Claudel's attention to measure and correspondence--the fit of things--is perfectly suited to the disclosure of mystery, especially when the thing he wants to understand is the mystery of the Incarnate God. The work was written in 1911, and in 1915 added by Claudel as a kind of epilogue to his collection Corona Benignitatis Anni Dei (the title refers to the eleventh verse of Psalm 65: "Thou Crownest the Year with Thy Bounty"), one of Claudel's most important books of poems. "The Way of the Cross" devotes a poem to each of the traditional fourteen stations of the Cross, and each poem is written in rhyming couplets composed of lines of varying length. Although Claudel's poems and verse dramas usually do not rhyme, virtually all of the poems included in the liturgical calendar-themed Corona do. The reader will notice, too, that most of the poems in the sequence employ multiple points of view--one student of "The Way of the Cross" has identified no fewer than eight perspectival functions assumed by the lyrical speaker in the course of the poetic sequence. (6) Thus the formal aspects of the poetic sequence involve countable patterns, rhythmic as well as narrative, that subtly supplement explicit images, similes, and even outright statements in the poem, which, taken all together, lead the reader to view the events held up for meditation along Christ's Way of the Cross as involving both the measurement of a man who is God, and God's measurement of man. For Claudel, the properly mysterious qualities of the Passion and Death of Christ the God-man are disclosed most powerfully when we use our finite senses to attempt to know the events in their details, and then find our expectations exceeded in every way. As he stated in 1921, ten years after composing "The Way of the Cross," "The goal of poetry is not, as Baudelaire put it, to dive 'to the bottom of the Infinite in order to find the new,' but to go to the bottom of the definite in order to find there the inexhaustible." (7) Let me then, by way of introduction, consider just a few of the places in the work that exemplify Claudel's efforts to convey the inexhaustibility of the definite.

In a sense, all trials involve the measurement of the accused. Claudel makes us immediately aware of the difficulties involved in Christ's trial with the first words of the poem, which alert us to the fact that our measures applied to God do not add up. "We" find ourselves saying: "It's all over. We have judged God and we have condemned Him to death." There is irony here, and it lies in the mismatch between what "we" wish were the case, and what actually is. The point of view conveyed certainly expresses the desire that it all be over with: there is nothing more to see here and nothing to discuss--an eccentric character said and even did some alarming things, but now the mess is on track to be cleaned up. And yet of course the whole "Way of the Cross" is just beginning! Indeed, the judgment that Pilate delivered, the poem goes on to reveal, did not finish things with justice, but rather with the attempted expulsion of an irritant: Christ bothers us ("He is getting in the way" / "il nous gene"), He is an irritant that needs to be gotten rid of ("Crucify Him if you wish, but get Him off our hands! Take Him away!" / "Crucifiez-le, si vous le voulez, mais debarrassez-nous de lui! qu'on l'emmene!"). He is a surd that mars the equation ("a scandal for the Jews" / "un scandale pour les Juifs" that is "to us [...] a nonsense"/ "parmi nous un non-sens"). In speaking the third line, "We no longer want any king but Caesar! No other law but blood and gold!" / "Nous n'avons plus d'autre roi que Cesar! d'autre loi que le sang et l'or!," we are implicated in clinging to "roi" et "loi" despite the fact that this figure, clothed in royal purple and crowned ("la couronne en tete et la pourpre sur le dos"), is found by Pilate to be no outlaw. Jesus's regal status, spelled out in what the poem calls a tri-lingual "sentence," amplifies the disproportion, regardless of the attempt to wrap it up by proclamation (and rhyme): "The sentence, moreover, is rendered, with nothing missing, in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. / And we see the crowd yelling and the judge washing his hands."/ "La sentence d'ailleurs est rendue, rien n'y manque, en langages hebraique, grec et latin. / Et l'on voit la foule qui crie et le juge qui se lave les mains."

Later in the poem, Christ is described being measured bodily and made to fit the Cross (the Eleventh Station). In describing the brutal manipulation of the Lord's body, Claudel takes the opportunity to awaken the reader to the exorbitant gift God offers in becoming Incarnate, making himself finite so that he could become intimate with us.
   Eternal Son, whose boundary is your Infinity alone,
   Here it is, then, with us, this narrow place that you have


   Here is the bed of our love with You, powerful and hard!
   It is difficult for a God to make himself fit our scale.

   You are caught, Lord, and can no longer escape.
   You are nailed on the cross by the hands and by the feet.
   I have nothing more to seek in heaven with the heretic and
     the madman.
   This God is enough for me, held between four spikes.

Much is communicated here by the word enough in the final line. Claudel shows us how God had to become enough, forcing himself to stay within our chalk lines, his "Omnipresent" reality tied down in a body "held between four spikes," before men and women could recognize that he alone is worthy of worship. He had to make himself available to our comprehension--to our violent numbering --before we could know him as unknowable.

In contrast to the measuring of the Eleventh Station, Claudel describes Mary, especially in the Thirteenth Station, as the most adept, because the most accepting, at the proper way of taking in the details of the events so as to contemplate the mystery within them. She thus appears in the poem as the best at understanding Christ. We see this especially in the line that tells us that by accepting everything (Fourth Station) promised to her son, she was made able to receive his consummation: "As she accepted him as promised, she receives him, consummated."

The word consummation is of great importance in Claudel's efforts to communicate what the Cross reveals to us about the Incarnation: he uses the verb "consommer" to translate Christ's final word on the Cross--"Tout est consomme" / "All is consummated"--and intends it to sum up the salvific act accomplished there. In his later prose meditation on the Cross, Un Poete regarde la Croix, published in 1938 and structured by the Seven Last Words of Christ, Claudel describes this consummation in the following terms, terms that allow us to identify Mary as she is presented in the poem as, indeed, the seat of human wisdom about the incarnate God:
   The cross is that Act in the midst of the world through which
   everything is consummated in the Word. The word consummated unites,
   calls together two ideas. The first is the idea of a peak, a
   summit: God, in this visible man made of flesh and a soul and in
   whom He has hypostasized Himself, furnishes the world with His end.
   It is the flame for which all surrounding matter is fuel, drawing
   it right up to this tongue, right up to this eloquent and luminous
   manifestation. God needs the whole world, all the words of this
   vast vocabulary that He has constituted, in order to explain
   Himself fully to the Father and in order to tell Him that He loves
   Him. [...] And the second idea is that of not only a co-existence,
   but of a cooperation of everything with everything, toward a common
   end and in a common desire. [...] Everything on the cross is
   consummated, not in the constitution of an inert figure, but in
   desire, in cooperation, and in a unitive and organic activity. What
   was broken is restored. Communication is re-established with God,
   something beats beneath the seventh rib of the new Adam through
   which we are fitted to Him, the whole world through the mouth of
   Jesus Christ breathes in the Spirit from the lips of the Father,
   and speaks the Word to Him. (8)

Loving to the point of death, the Son of God "consummates" all of creation in summative union with the Father, but not in a fusional manner. "Cooperation" between creation and Creator is restored as a "unitive and organic activity" that respects the distinctness of the participants. The Thirteenth Station states, "What is of God, and what is of the Mother, and what the man has done, / All this under her mantle is with her forever." Mary knows distinctly and intimately the elements of the hypostasis, and, like the Tabernacle, shelters for us the union between God and man consummated on the Cross.

The poem concludes with a glimpse of the Risen Christ, who in rising out of the tomb has restored a deep openness to men and women, an openness to communion with God that is at the same time a renewed compassion for their fellow suffering men and women.
   Now that His heart is open and now that His hands are pierced,
   There is no longer a cross among us that His body could not fit,
   There is no longer any sin in us to which the wound would not
   Come then from the altar where you are hidden, come toward us,
     Savior of the world!
   Lord, how open is your creature and how profound!

Here the poem recalls us to the human suffering evoked in the second half of the Tenth Station, where all was stripped from Christ, and yet "there remains the bursting wound," "there remains the man of pain," "There remains my brother, crying!" The wounded Christ, or "all those who are torn and rent." The final line of the poem, in referring back to suffering human beings, places an "open" and "profound" creature precisely where we would expect to read the word wound. (9) In following him along his way, down to the bottom of the definite, down into death itself, we are surprised by the Risen Christ, who from now on will fit himself to any cross and allow his wounds to correspond to any sin. Claudel's poem has led us to rediscover God's inexhaustible mercy.


(1.) Paul Claudel, Knowing the East, trans. James Lawler (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 42; Paul Claudel, Quvre poetique (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliotheque de la Pleiade, 1957), 60. Subsequent citations of this edition of Claudel's Quvre poetique and this translation will be noted parenthetically in the text by the abbreviation OP and Lawler, followed by the respective page numbers.

(2.) Paul Claudel, Memoires improvises, assembled by Jean Amrouche (Paris: Gallimard, 1954), 129: Amrouche asks, "cette espece d'ivresse de comprendre par le denombrement, de comprendre par le moyen de saint Thomas sans doute, mais aussi par le moyen d'un principe tout cartesien qui est celui du denombrement et de la distinction des choses, est-ce que cette fa9on de comprendre vous satisfait pleinement aujourd'hui?" The discussion continues through page 132. (Unless otherwise indicated, translations are my own.)

(3.) Ibid., 130: "vous parlez de comprendre comme d'une pure operation de l'intelligence et des sens qui la servent. Vous pensez que comprendre, c'est seulement prendre avec soi, et que ce n'est pas en meme temps, et dans le meme mouvement, etre soimeme compris, se confondre a, sans etre pour autant confondu, bref que la veritable comprehension serait celle de la contemplation et de l'extase ou cesse la separation, le sentiment de l'exil." [You speak of understanding as of a pure operation of the intellect and of the senses that serve it.You think that understanding is merely taking something to oneself, and that it isn't at the same time, and in the same movement, a being understood, a merging with (yet without becoming identical)--in short, that true understanding would consist in contemplation and ecstasy, where separation, the feeling of exile, ceases.]

(4.) Ibid., 132: "J'avais peut-etre mal lu, mais il m'avait semble trouver ici, dans ce texte, comme un mouvement d'abandon et aussi comme un mouvement de renoncement, de renoncement a ce mode de connaissance par le denombrement, a ce mode de conquete purement intellectuel du monde, et ce sentiment qu'apres tout il y avait peut-etre une voie directe pour atteindre le centre, et que cette voie directe, c'est la voie mystique proprement dite, etait la vraie voie qui rendait nulles et non avenues toutes les autres."

(5.) Ibid.; the original reads: "Au point de vue thomiste, comme je l'ai toujours cru, la contemplation n'exige aucune espece de renoncement. L'homme n'a jamais trop d'aucune des ses facultes. L'intelligence est toujours la, meme la ou il semble que les sens aient la premiere place. Mais jamais les sens ne travaillent completement si l'intelligence n'est pas derriere, et de meme l'intelligence n'a pas son jeu si elle oublie des elements comme la memoire, comme la volonte, comme la sensibilite, etc. L'homme est indechirable, somme toute, et c'est justement la lecon de Connaissance de l'Est que jamais il n'y a abandon d'aucune des facultes, et en particulier de la volonte. Je ne suis pas un ascete hindou, je ne suis pas pret a me liquefier comme une poupee de sel, comme disent les mystiques hindous, dans une mer de delices ou une mer de joies. Ce n'est pas du tout mon sentiment. Je ne perds jamais le sentiment de ma personnalite, n'est-ce pas."

(6.) Ramon Suarez, "Perspectivismo en 'El Camino de la Cruz' de Paul Claudel," Revista Chilena de Literatura 46 (April 1995): 85. The points of view, respectively, are those of the accuser, the witness, the victim, Mary, a mother, the hopeless person, the preacher, and the supplicant.

(7.) "Le but de la poesie n'est pas, comme dit Baudelaire, de plonger 'au fond de l'Infini pour trouver du nouveau,' mais au fond du defini pour y trouver de l'inepuisable"; from Claudel's "Introduction a un poeme sur Dante," in Paul Claudel, Quvres en prose, ed. Jacques Petit and Charles Galperine (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliotheque de la Pleiade, 1965), 424.

(8.) Paul Claudel, Un Poete regarde la Croix, in Paul Claudel, Le Poete et la Bible, 1:1910-1946, ed. Michel Malicet, with Dominique Millet and Xavier Tilliette (Paris: Gallimard, 1998), 547-48, 550. The original reads: "La croix est cet Acte au milieu du monde par quoi tout est consomme dans leVerbe. Le mot consomme reunit, appelle ensemble deux idees: la premiere est celle d'une pointe, d'un sommet: Dieu fournit au monde en cet homme visible fait d'une chair et d'une ame en qui Il S'est hypostasie Sa fin. C'est la flamme a qui toute matiere alentour est aliment et qui l'attire jusqu'a cette langue, jusqu'a cette manifestation eloquente et lumineuse. Dieu a besoin de tout le monde, de tous les mots de ce vaste vocabulaire qu'Il a constitue, pour S'expliciter pleinement au Pere et pour Lui dire qu'Il L'aime. [...] Et la seconde idee est celle non seulement d'une coexistence, mais d'une cooperation de tout avec tout a une meme fin et dans un meme desir. [...] Tout sur la croix est consomme, non pas dans la constitution d'une figure inerte, mais dans le desir, dans la cooperation et dans une activite unitive et organique. Ce qui etait rompu est restaure. La communication est retablie avec Dieu, quelque chose bat sous la septieme cote du nouvel Adam en quoi nous Lui sommes adaptes, le monde entier par la bouche de Jesus-Christ aspire aux levres du Pere l'Esprit et Lui parle le Verbe."

(9.) This is Suarez's beautiful insight--see "Perspectivismo en 'El Camino de la Cruz' de Paul Claudel," ibid., 84.
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Title Annotation:Re-considerations: Historical (and often neglected) texts in the Catholic intellectual tradition with contemporary comment and reflection; Paul Claudel
Author:Lewis, Stephen E.
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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