The French Revolution was a cancer that metastasized and spread through Western societies, weakening them to the point of collapse.  Even the European and American right did not escape being contaminated by the forces they struggled against, and, certainly, by the end of the 19th century, it was increasingly difficult to frame a conservative argument that did not accommodate some basic principles of the Revolution.  

Even before the Revolution, there were two Frances, the France of ordinary people—of the rich countryside and its traditions, of Joan of Arc, of the Church—and the France of the intellectuals—the country of atheism, immorality, and class warfare.  After the Revolution, the gap widened and deepened.  On one side were all those republicans and revolutionaries who had profited from the Revolution and saw the murder of the king and queen as the fulfillment (or even the beginning) of human history.  On the other were not just supporters of the ancien régime but all serious Catholics and anyone who took seriously the social nature of man.  Even among the republicans, there were those who pined for the solidity of the old institutions of French community life, and, as Robert Nisbet showed in The Sociological Tradition, French social theorists, while repudiating the old monarchy, longed to recreate the stability of a world dominated by the certainties of the king and the Church.

Politically, the 19th century saw many swings of the pendulum from right to left, but the rightward swing was always shorter.  Increasingly, an official French national culture was recreated.  While perpetuating the myths of the Revolution and republic, this official history also tried to incorporate them into the previous history and to make them acceptable to Catholics.  And yet, despite the growing accommodation to Jacobin doctrines, every generation produced outstanding reactionary writers: Chateaubriand, in the decades following the Revolution; the novelist Balzac, who in early life was an unabashed monarchist and whose satires on the dreariness and greed of bourgeois republican France have sometimes been mistaken for leftist attacks.  Even such an avant-garde poet as Baudelaire, who reveled in immorality, was deeply dissatisfied with republican France and died a Catholic.

The counterrevolutionary tradition was still alive in the first three decades of the 20th century, and it is not too much to say that many of France’s greatest writers were reactionaries of one kind or another.  The greatest, perhaps, was Charles Péguy, a writer virtually unknown in America.

Ignorance of Péguy extends even to literary “scholars” who write essays on him.  In a condescending article in the New Criterion, neoconservative critic Roger Kimball quotes the poet’s most famous lines—the long passage of Eve beginning “Heureux ceux qui sont morts” and attributes them to the beginning of the poem, when, in fact, they come roughly a hundred pages into a poem that the scholar has obviously not read.

In his early years, Péguy was probably the outstanding socialist revolutionary intellectual in France at the turn of the 20th century, admired and feared by the Socialist Party leaders Jean Jaurès and Léon Blum, friend of the syndicalist Georges Sorel, collaborator with future Stalinist Romain Rolland.  In the second half of his career, Péguy was among the most brilliant and original Christian writers of the 20th century.

Péguy was born to a poor family in 1874, and he never lost the peasant qualities—both good and bad—of his ancestors.  Even as a child, his brilliance and independence were observable, and he was given a classical education.  Scholarships allowed this son of a poor working-class family eventually to attend a prestigious lycée in Paris and the École Normale.  Remembering his childhood, Péguy remarks that he was given two educations—one by the masters of his republican school, the other by the priests who taught him his catechism: “The young priests taught us exactly the opposite of what the young student-teachers taught us.”  And yet, as his friend and collaborator Daniel Halévy observed, “The forms of his belief never changed: they remained those he learned at school and in the parish.  His devotion shifted from one to the other, but there was no innovation and nothing was discarded.”

Although he was a nominal Catholic most of his early life, he stopped going to Mass in his teens, because he could not accept the doctrine of damnation.  As a student and young man, he gave his heart entirely to the world of the revolutionary republic and to the unfinished business of the Revolution.  As a student in Paris, he quickly attached himself to revolutionary and socialist circles, and his fellow students, who admired him intensely, were forever being hit up for money to support this strike or that leftist cause.

By the time he was a student at the École Normale, he was a known figure, associating with the leading socialists of his day.  He took a year off from studies and politics, however, to return home.  The pretext was a problem he was having with his eyes, but his real purpose was to write a verse play on Joan of Arc, his first attempt at a subject that would inspire his masterpiece La Mystère de la charité de Jeanne d’Arc.  He raised a subscription among his friends to publish the work handsomely, and it is known to have sold at least one copy.

Péguy’s leftist activism reached a fever pitch during the Dreyfus affair.  Some encyclopedias say that he was the leading Catholic supporting Dreyfus, the Jewish officer apparently railroaded on treason charges, but, in fact, he was not a Catholic at that time, only a revolutionary intellectual.  France in 1899 was a powder keg, and street clashes almost provided the lit fuse.  (The situation was so dangerous that a rightist coup was in the works.)  It was after Dreyfus’ vindication that Péguy started his most ambitious project, the publication of the Cahiers de Quinzaine—the Fortnightly Notebooks, whose first issue came out in 1900.  Funding came not only from his well-placed socialist friends but also from his wife and brother-in-law.

At this time, the poet was sympathetic to the ideals of Christianity, but he still could not accept the dogma on damnation, which he called “that strange combination of life and death . . . no man whose lot is cast with humanity can give his assent to this.”  The Cahiers was among the most influential periodicals of the 20th century, and, at the height of its popularity, its circulation climbed to 1,000, which made it a success in a country that weighs ideas instead of counting them.  (In America, this would be the equivalent of 6,000, lower than that of Chronicles.)

For the first nine years, the Cahiers took up, more or less, the revolutionary side in French political struggles, though Péguy declared there were only two real sides: those who paid in to the community—the workers, producers, creators—and those who were paid—bureaucrats, government contractors, state-supported Church functionaries.  He declared himself on the side of those who paid, which makes him the French equivalent of a populist.  He became convinced, after the Tangiers incident in 1905, that the German kaiser was bent on war and that it was France’s destiny to defend her free and spiritual civilization against an amoral and regimented nation, and he warned his fellow countrymen not to think that a mobilization for war was a good reason to sacrifice their freedom or emulate the Prussian system.

When challenged by a friend to defend a sentence in which he said “events” would decide the future on the battlefield—events do not have a will, after all—he replied that he would have written “God,” but his republican readers would not understand.  Give me a couple of years, he went on, and I will write the name of God.  It was not, however, until 1909 that he did so, in his masterpiece on Joan of Arc.  Péguy “saw everything through her eyes,” says Halevy, and, when a Catholic intellectual accused him of rejecting scholarship and following popular myth, he replied: “What does this imply, if not that there is a Jeanne d’Arc for simple folk, who is a legend and a saint, and a Jeanne d’Arc for cultured people, who is the real one and no saint?”

Péguy’s growing conservatism and his declaration of Catholic faith attracted the attention but not the support of the leaders of the French intellectual right, Maurice Barrès and Charles Maurras.  Both were deeply suspicious of the poet’s leftist background—the Dreyfus case had divided all of France—and they may well have been made vaguely uneasy by his passionate conviction.  Maurras was more of a nationalist than a conservative Catholic, and there is more than a little evidence that his loyalty to the traditions of the Church did not entail either faith or even obedience to the Holy See.  Like most nationalists, Maurras spoke only of restoring the true France, even if it meant killing the ordinary people who were false-French, the citizens, as he put it, of Anti-France.

There is some truth in Maurras’ analysis.  Like Anti-America, which celebrates only the enemies of its traditions, Anti-France has done its best to marginalize or eliminate the greatest spokesmen for France.  Decades after his friend’s death, Daniel Halevy pointed out that official French textbooks had pronounced Valéry, Proust, and Gide the greatest French writers of this period—the first an atheist, the latter two homosexual degenerates—while the real France would award the prize to Paul Claudel, Barrès, Maurras, and Péguy—all Christian conservatives of one kind or another.

Péguy was never very clear or consistent in his politics.  He was a man of the spirit, a mystic who believed that Catholic France could be restored through his efforts and his poetry.  His entire life and imagination were bound up in the Church, and yet he did not attend Mass or overcome his wife’s objections to baptizing their children.  Asked what he would do to save his children, he made a vow to walk to Chartres and dedicate his family to the protection of the Blessed Virgin.  Péguy’s famous walk is the inspiration for the annual June pilgrimage to Chartres, though I am not sure how many of the pilgrims have his poetry.

His was a life of spiritual fasting, living only on the thin gruel of bread without the rich food of the sacraments.  Most Catholic conservatives had no use for him.  One of them, the academic Lavisse, cattily remarked that the poet “is a Catholic anarchist who has put holy water in his gasoline.”  Others said, according to Péguy, “I am on the side of the Jews, because with the Jews I can be the sort of Catholic I want to be, with the Catholics I couldn’t.”

Péguy responded to his critics with a series of vitriolic counterattacks, which (despite the unfair and often irrational arguments) are still read today, though his critics and enemies are long forgotten.  These denunciations were not rhetorical exercises.  He was, as Dr. Johnson would say, a good hater, and, in his hatred, his simple soul found it impossible to pray the Our Father.  He relied only on the Hail Mary, explaining that “Prayers to Mary are reserve prayers. . . . [I]n the whole [of] the machinery of salvation the ‘Ave Maria’ is our last resource.  With that you can’t be lost.”  His faith was that of a peasant child, but unlike the faith of intellectuals—Charles Maurras or Graham Greene—it cannot be lost or shaken or distorted.

In the end, Péguy, at the age of 40, volunteered to fight in the war he had been predicting for ten years.  In Paris, he carried on—campaigning in defense of philosopher Henri Bergson, whose works had been placed on the Index.  (I think Péguy was right: Bergson, though a nonbelieving Jew, professed a philosophy more usable by Christians than that of many so-called Christian philosophers, such as Descartes.)  He was mobilized in August 1914, at a time when his wife was expecting another child.  He asked an old friend, a Jewish republican, to go to Chartres every year to pray for him.  I thought this slightly mad until I heard a priest (Fr. Brian Bovee) explain that he was responsible for all the souls in his parish—Protestants, Jews, atheists, Muslims—which is why the Church is called Catholic.

As always, Lieutenant Péguy became the beloved leader of a band of brothers.  The regiment was withdrawn back into the Ile de France, toward Paris, into the forest near Chantilly.  Marching at night, Péguy called out “19th company on foot.”  Some wise guy called out from the dark, “There is no 19th left.”  “So long as I’m here,” replied the soldier-poet, “There’s a 19th.”  They marched toward Paris, and came to St-Witz toward Villeroy, where the battle of the Marne was just getting under way, ahead of schedule.  As the shooting began, Lieutenant.  Péguy was seen standing up and urging his men on.  Not one of them survived the advance.

The lines he had written a year earlier in Eve apply to the poet himself:

Happy are those who have died for the carnal earth

But provided it was in a just war.

Happy are those who have died for four corners of land.

Happy are those who have died a solemn death.