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Léon Bloy & the Symbolism of History

[1]

Léon Bloy

2,551 words

I have spent a fair amount of time reading Léon Bloyʼs literary œuvre or output (articles, novels, monographs, pamphlets, etc.) over the last few years, a French writer who passed away in his home country in 1917, near the end of the First World War. He produced an inverted but cerulean abyss of works — resplendent works, works of great thought and shining intention; so great in fact and so powerful in expression were they, are they, that it is surprising how little of his work had been translated into English until recently.

He wrote about his experiences during the war, and captured the days and events leading up to it as well, in his published journal, On the Threshold of the Apocalypse: 1913- 1915.

I feel I have come to understand and appreciate the man and his thought, and I now feel in confident possession of a measure of his importance as a writer principally, but also as a French nationalist thinker, a European, a conservative, a Catholic, and finally as a human being — and most of all as a decent human being. We need more of them nowadays, and itʼs good to promote them when and where they happen to turn up.

As I may have said elsewhere, I believe, if the historical man were still alive today, I would fly to France on the instant merely to shake hands with him. And maybe drink a Pernod. I donʼt say that about every writer I read.

But it is surprising — unless one knows his background and has read some of the articles he wrote for the Chat Noir journal in the early 1880s; critical, negatively-critical articles on rather famous writers of the day and their work: Émile Zola, Alexandre Dumas fils, Catulle Mendès, Louis Veuillot, Richepin, etc. — and not surprising at the same time to learn how hated he was by his own much-loved (in his own way) and much-reviled co-nationalists and co-Europeans, fellow humans of the time, both secular and religious. The industryʼs hatred of him in fact ultimately secured what he often refers to as the perduring “conspiration of silence” against him. Not too long ago we called that blacklisting. Other means in the past of doing something similar were the gulag, or simply “erasure.” In this wonderful and wrongful gem of a world we live in today, which smells to low heaven, or purgatory or worse, we might call that being “cancelled.”

Léon Bloy, the poster-child or enfant terrible of the ripening effects of cancel culture operating as far back as the Belle Epoque. Nice. All that without even a single hangover or slap, and no television. Well, maybe one slap, but thatʼs another story.

He was blacklisted then — because I prefer the old terminology — and became persona non grata, not just because of the articles he had written in journals — mostly in the Chat Noir journal, but in other journals as well; a good number of the articles he had penned can be found in The Words of a Demolitions Contractor — but blacklisted also because of his thinly-veiled autobiographical novel and roman à clef, The Desperate Man, which was published in 1887 and which is ruthless and unforgiving in its scathing attack on the work and character of the then-famous men and publishers who made up the literary milieu he caterwauled in at the time.

The “conspiration of silence” that clung to him like a thick orange fog of napalm S (“S” for silence) had a half-life of more than 150 years, apparently, lasting throughout the twentieth century for the most part — if that half-life can be measured by the small, but growing, number of works of his that have only recently started to be translated into English [2].

So what does the man say finally, you ask, against his contemporaries, and what is his positive thought? What are his ideas? As for the former, one can read about it for oneself in The Words of a Demolitions Contractor, as mentioned supra. As for his positive thought, I would be coy and have a much simpler time of it, certainly, by arguing, or not arguing at all, that most readers come to and come away from his books on Napoleon, Columbus, or Joan of Arc confused. And I could leave it at that: their confusion, and leaving it up to the reader to read and understand for himself what Bloy was thinking — which isnʼt a bad strategy, honestly, and has precedent, being precisely what both Bloy and Barbey dʼAurevilly, his friend and mentor, critic, and another Catholic novelist sometimes did in their book reviews, aside from expansive ad hominems and eulogies or excoriations of the author whose work they had under review. But that does not really tell you anything.

Readers come to and, sometimes, away from Bloyʼs work often confused because they come with bias. That hasnʼt changed, by the way, from when he first “came out” to today (and by “coming out” I donʼt mean what it means today, but rather that he made a conscious choice of writing with “no more holds barred.” One can see intimations of this pivotal moment in his career at the Chat Noir journal in an article on Willet contained in his Demolitions Contractor, and having to do with a disagreement with his cousin, Émile Goudeau, the editor of the journal). The readersʼ confusion stems not from any inherent difficulty in Bloyʼs thought per se, nor for what he says or how he says it — and he says it rather forcefully and most clearly and eloquently — but for what they, the fair readers, had expected to read: in other words, history. More specifically, they approach his “historical” books on historical figures with a preconception of what they would read or wanted to read.

For having read previous books of history or monographs on a particular historical figure, a reader approaching a new work on the same subject would likely have the expectation of reading yet another “normal” history by a professional or amateur historian — hopefully with a new spin, but history nonetheless, in the conventional acceptation of the word with all its accepted accessories or portmanteau and all its usual baggage — and a reader would come away, sometimes some readers anyway, possibly confused or disappointed by Bloy. Unless he didnʼt.

For Bloy is not a historian — not in the strict sense of the word. And he does not strive to be.

Marchenoir, Bloyʼs foil in The Desperate Man novel, says as much quite plainly.

[3]

You can buy Kerry Bolton’s Artists of the Right here [4].

He, Bloy, is a hieroglyphist or hieroglyphologist of men and events rather than of languages or the written word; not so much a philologist or even a classical orientalist, but a secular hierophant of Godʼs Providence in men and events. And by God I mean the One God of the One and Holy Roman Catholic Apostolic Church. Thatʼs right, he was a Catholic. And arch-Catholic.

“But Iʼve read Catholic works before,” a reader might say. “But what is his method and what is his procedure?” Bloy analyzes and interprets human puzzles of history — exemplars, to put it mildly, and Europeans mostly — to divine their meaning, the meaning of their events and choices. Ultimately they are simulacra or prefigurations of divinity. And he does this through what he calls a study of the “symbolism of history.”

I said earlier I would be coy . . . but Iʼve decided to be an exhibitionist instead, an exhibitionist of Bloyʼs work employing his own words and thus paying him respect. Itʼs much simpler that way, and better and best at this point, to let Bloy, or rather his mouthpiece, Marchenoir, speak for himself on the subject, with some small commentary by myself:

But what an oppressive, what a formidable subject! The Symbolism of History, in other words, providential hierography, finally deciphered in the innermost arcana of facts and cabala of dates, the absolute meaning of chronic signs, such as Pharsalia, Theodoric, Cromwell, or the insurrection of March 18, for example, and the conditional orthography of their infinite combinations! In other words, the linear calculus of the divine plan rendered as sensible as the geographic delimitations of a planisphere, with a complete corollary system of conjecturable apperceptions in the future!! . . . — Chapter 24, The Desperate Man

Julius Caesar (in the battle of Pharsalus, as discussed in the epic poem Pharsalia by Lucan), Theodoric, Cromwell . . . as well as Columbus (The Revealer of the Globe, Christopher Columbus . . . 1884), Napoleon (The Soul of Napoleon, 1912), Joan of Arc (Joan of Arc and Germany, 1915) . . .

He [Marchenoir] refused to billet himself once again in some corner of a century. He wanted, from now on, to envelope, in a single embrace, the history of the world . . . he dreamed of being the Champollion[1] [5] of historic events envisaged like divine hieroglyphs of a revelation by symbols, corroborative of another Revelation. It would have been a totally new science, singularly audacious, and which genius alone could save from ridicule . . . Based on Saint Paul’s sovereign affirmation that we see everything “as enigmas,” this uncompromising spirit had firmly deduced the symbolism of the universe from the symbolism in the Scriptures, and he had come to persuade himself that all human acts, of whatever nature they might be, worked towards the infinite syntax of an unsuspected book full of mysteries that could be entitled the Paralimpomenon of the Gospel. From this point of view, . . . universal history appeared to him like a homogeneous text, extremely connected, vertebrate, built on a framework, dialectical, but perfectly shrouded, and that it was just a matter of transcribing it in a possibly accessible grammar. — Chapter 34, The Desperate Man

The symbolism of history is, then, comparable to the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt. They require a Champollion type of man, yet another European hero, to decipher them.

But, here, I will bump up immediately against the bull of a skittish Liberty, impenetrable, totally misunderstood by the multitude that adores it . . . The fragmentary history, such as I see it everywhere, is a mirror for this liberty’s stupid pride, which congratulates itself without respite for having done what it wanted, — never anything else, — and the absolute synthesis, that I have a design of, confiscates, from the get-go, this toiletry, in order to constrain the old sensualist to contemplate himself in the very humble gutter water that is his homeland. — Chapter 34, The Desperate Man

The people of France, now (and then) a democratic nation, and the people of America and elsewhere in the “free world” (free from what?) will be in disagreement with his interpretation of events of history given that his works argue for predestination and fate, and against freedom and the freedom of will, which one might safely contend is todayʼs demosʼ bête blanche.

To tease out from universal history a symbolic ensemble, that is to say, to prove that history signifies something, that it has its architecture and that it develops docilely with respect to anterior data of an infallible plan, that is an operation that demanded the prerequisite holocaust of Free Will, so that, at least, modern reason can conceive it. There was no getting around it. — Chapter 34, The Desperate Man

To begin, Marchenoir asked for the divorce of Chance and Liberty… In his eyes, the word Chance was an intolerable blasphemy that, in spite of the experience of his contempt, he was always surprised to meet in the mouths of so-called Christians, — Nothing happens without His order or His permission he told the blasphemers . . . — Chapter 35, The Desperate Man

Now the narrator (or Bloy) begins to anticipate the imagined response to his works and to his proposal of a symbolism of history:

It was evident to him that one could not be Catholic, nor even flatter oneself with the infinitesimal pinch of a religious sentiment, if one did not give absolutely everything to Providence. When Providence takes all, it is to give herself over completely. Consult Love, if you do not understand, and go to the devil! — Chapter 35, The Desperate Man

In a hypothetical response to his contemners or those who will, and did, disagree with him, both yesterdayʼs and todayʼs blacklisting cancel culture, who argue for Free Will over Providence, because thatʼs what the demos is all about, freedom and no constraint, not even constraints of decency or commonsense, Bloy says:

He had, certainly, his hands full, what with the penitential labor that he had imposed on himself, for it had to do with reducing, by such a foreshortening of formulas, the universality of evidence so that it could be taken up in a ray of thought. Since it is always God who operates, ad nutum, over all the earth, it was necessary, of total necessity, to prejudge a single act, indefinitely refracted in his creatures. — Chapter 35, The Desperate Man

What we have here, essentially, is Marchenoir (Bloy) trying to figure out how to present his ideas, which are later encapsulated in Columbus, Napoleon, Joan of Arc to his readers, and so as to enjoy possibly some success by it. Monetary success, not just critical, for Bloy was monetarily poor.

But he realized the inevitable and did what he had to do anyway: writing what he had to write, saying what he had to say — come what will of it. One has to respect a man who acts thusly, even when — especially when — it affects his pocket. Much unlike most men or women (or something in between, alas) these days, or even back in the day, when things were simmering.

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Understanding Bloy, in the manner Iʼm suggesting that a reader may need to understand him, appreciating the man and his literary œuvre — at least some of his literary œuvre, and in particular reference to his books on historical French or European figures does not necessarily require that the reader believe in the same things that Bloy believes in, for that would be a gulf. Instead, it would merely require that the reader understand his thought and appreciate it, his argumentation — e.g., Bloyʼs, id est, the symbolism of history — for what it is.

By doing so, the reader of The Revealer of the Globe: Christopher Columbus . . ., The Soul of Napoleon, and Joan of Arc and Germany will have a better chance, a much better chance of understanding and appreciating the man, his thought, and his form of beauty, when and if the reader finally does approach him. Will the reader ever approach him?

There is a saying among professional software developers, which I happen to know a thing or two about, that might be correlative. They say that after working for a while in the IT industry, and particularly for Fortune 500 companies dotting the corporate landscape (America, Europe, Japan, even elsewhere), sooner or later one will have to work on a project that integrates with SAP (Systemanalyse und Programmentwicklung) software. Iʼll leave it to the software developers to chime in as to whether thatʼs a good or a bad thing.

I argue that the same is true for readers and Léon Bloyʼs work. Sooner or later, a serious reader of Western literature and thought of any importance will have to come around to Bloy and read his work. It is inevitable. In English, the opportunity to do so has arrived. And who knows? All this, too, might hold, uncannily, a place in the symbolism of history.

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[1] [7] Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832), a French Egyptologist who deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphs.