There are many angles from which to view Léon Bloy (1846–1917), but only a very few that present him in a particularly flattering light—at least, as regards his personality. Concerning his almost uncanny gifts as a master of French prose, or concerning the great variety of his achievements as a writer, no one can entertain any serious doubts. In the full swell and surge of his voice, his language shines, flows, shimmers, thunders, sings. And his fiction, even at its most disordered or intentionally rebarbative, possesses a power and energy that more than compensate for any formal defects of narrative structure. But, for the great majority of those who made his acquaintance, to know him was to dislike him (if not at first, certainly in fairly short order), and even a great many of those who know him solely from his writings find him frequently insufferable. He may have been a prophet, in the most biblical sense, but he was not a saint (or, at least, certainly not any kind of saint recognizable to ordinary perception). He was a man of extremes—rhetorical, conceptual, artistic, religious, emotional—who was quite incapable of the safe and comfortable middle where most of us have to live out our lives and forge our accommodations with the world around us. It is a waste of time to look for moments of moderation or vacillation, either in him or in his work; there is none to be found. On the one hand, he was an indefatigable engine of theatrical rage—torrents of indignation, vituperation, objurgation, bitterness, and spite—and he gave vent to his hostilities with an extravagance so remorseless as to verge on the psychotic. On the other hand, he was an inexhaustible wellspring of fervent and genuinely tender pity for the sufferings of the poor and forgotten, and there was an undeniable innocence in his implacable anger against the rich and powerful who left the destitute to their misery. But one does not have the luxury of choosing one side of his character over against the other. They were not merely inextricable from one another; they were inverse but equally essential expressions of a single indivisible temperament. He abounded in love and hate, and was capable of the one only to the degree that he was capable of the other. There was a single Bloy, and he was an angelic monster.
Though, on second thought, a better way of putting this might be to say that he was French. Exquisitely French, even. Hyperbolically French, in fact. Certainly no other people in Europe is as prone to wild oscillations between extreme poles—emotional, intellectual, spiritual, artistic, political—or better able to hide the violence of their contradictions behind an appearance of elegant equilibrium. Despite the mythos of “Les Lumières,” the secret animating principle sustaining France’s majestic cultural supremacy is an almost total incapacity for sane moderation. Even the celebrated “rationalism” of the French Enlightenment was nothing more than a momentary fashion, an entirely irrational passion for a new vogue in desiccated abstractions (rather like an inexplicably insatiable taste for chiaroscuro etchings or charcoal brass rubbings). And this cultural habit of ceaseless polarity has often produced prodigies of glorious contradictoriness, of a sort that transcends mere paradox. Only the French, for instance, could have perfected a form of Christian literature consisting almost entirely in the negation of Christian piety. Call it a kind of Christian Tantra, or Aghori Catholicism, or Catholicism of the left-hand path. Baudelaire (1821–1867) provides perhaps the prime example, having so brilliantly succeeded at concealing his deep if eccentric faith in his journaux intimes while presenting the public with a façade of dissipation, wantonness, blasphemy, and even Satanism, as if hoping to shock bourgeois society into acknowledging the reality of the diabolical, and therefore (ineluctably) of the divine. Perhaps even Lautréamont (1846–1870) was a specimen of the type, though he died before the unveiling of his promised “devotional” sequel to Les Chants de Maldoror. Certainly, Bloy’s master Barbey d’Aurevilly (1808–1889) was, as also was Bloy’s (temporary) friend Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848–1907). And Bloy’s own literary imagination roamed many of the same “negative” spaces. His Sueur de sang (1893) and Histoires désobligeantes (1894) brought the fashion in “horrid” tales—pioneered by Barbey in Diaboliques (1874) and Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (1838 1889) in Contes cruels (1883)—to a kind of ghastly perfection. If anything, Bloy’s stories were more brutal in their unadorned hideousness; they established an entirely new standard for sordid fictional material: bizarre depravities, battlefield butchery, putrescent corpses, insanity, mutilation, infanticide, incest, sickly erotic fantasy, even a prostitute’s reanimated cadaver—all of it played over a basso continuo of morbidly repellant physical (and physiological) detail.
It was not, however, his taste for the macabre (which savored more of the moralist’s bitterness than of the voyeur’s relish) that caused Bloy’s detractors to find him so obnoxious. It was the man himself, or at least the indelible impression he gave of himself in his writings. To be honest, a maliciously exhaustive catalogue of Bloy’s moral faults would be all but indistinguishable from a simple dispassionate account of his personality. While he attempted to live the life of a holy renunciant, he excelled chiefly at subjecting his friends and acquaintances to unremitting financial importunities; and the sanctimony with which he demanded, rather than asked, for assistance earned him the title of “the Ingrate Beggar.” True, as Bloy acutely observed more than once, Christians should give freely, without any expectation of gratitude (lest the left hand become aware of the right hand’s largesse). Even so, he might have attempted an occasional decorous expression of thanks, just to appear gracious. Moreover, while his piety was undoubtedly deep and ardent, it frequently degenerated into delusion, and of the most self-aggrandizing kind. Not only did he imagine that this sinful world lay under the threat of some imminent moment of divine reckoning; he seemed convinced that he himself would have a prominent role to play in the final settling of all accounts. And his faith was often little more than militant credulity. He was especially susceptible to the deliverances of religious visionaries, so long as the revelations they proclaimed were sufficiently suffused by an air of divine wrath. It was typical of him that he should become a truculent champion of the Marian apparition reported at La Salette in 1846 by two peasant girls, according to whom the Blessed Virgin had not only confessed herself scarcely able any longer to restrain the impetuous rage of her Son against the people of France, but had also threatened famine as heavenly retribution for the profanities regularly uttered by provincial cart-drivers. To Bloy, the comic rusticity of the tale was rendered believable by the very vindictiveness of its message. Then again, by his own account he himself had a positive genius for hatred, and it seems never to have occurred to him to draw any kind of distinction between the sinner and the sin. Why then would God? It is genuinely chilling at times to observe the unalloyed glee with which Bloy contemplated the misfortunes, sufferings, and even deaths—the eternal damnation, in fact—of those he disliked, either personally or as a class. He was especially overjoyed by news of the deaths of the wealthy—wealthy women most of all. The sinking of the Titanic or of any other luxury liner, though a tragedy for the poor wretches making the crossing in steerage or laboring below decks, filled him with delight. He could not contain the ebullience of his mirth when a fire at the Opéra Comique in 1877 resulted in the “cremation of four hundred filthy bourgeois.” Again, when a fire at the Charity Bazaar in May of 1897 killed a great number of society ladies and their privileged daughters, he rejoiced at the thought of all those “chaste lilies” and “tender roses” being trampled to death under the feet of the panicked crowd, and of their charred remains being swept up into dustpans the following day. And, of course, he was a French chauvinist and bigot, even while despising the complacency and moral lethargy of his fellow countrymen. He adored Napoleon with an almost idolatrous passion. He ventured out of France only once, for a brief sojourn in Denmark, concluded that the Danes were scarcely human and that their religion was a barbarous parody of Christianity, and returned home for good. The British he hated with a vehemence bordering on the genocidal. Russia he would have happily seen reduced to a sea of blood spreading around high mountains of corpses. He was bellicose and choleric, splenetic and vicious. His resentments were madly disproportionate to any wrongs he had ever suffered. His prejudices were impregnable to any assaults of charity. He was not merely irascible—he was cruel.
And yet . . .
This is the infuriating and baffling mystery of Bloy. All of this is true, and all of it truly deplorable—and yet Bloy was a man of extraordinarily sensitive and fierce conscience. His prophetic affectations were not, after all, completely delusory. Underneath the searing fevers of his prose—the gleaming floods of its lyricism, its vividly hallucinatory imagery, the chaotic opulence of its phrasing, the sheer delirium of its verbal beauty—and even underneath the unabated ferocity and malice to which it gave such overwhelming expression, lay a bottomless reservoir of sincere compassion and incorruptible integrity. When one encounters Bloy not in his role as a moralist but simply as a moral man, one has to conclude that even his rhetorical savagery was an overflow of a deeper and uncompromising spiritual purity. In those moments, it seems clear that his polemical voice came from another age—perhaps early antiquity, or even perhaps the days of the prophets of Israel—cursing in order to bless, calling down God’s wrath in order to redeem. Even in its most extreme registers, there is an audible tone of desperate, apocalyptic urgency, an almost frantic desire to rouse Bloy’s contemporaries from their contented slumbers. Certainly Bloy often seemed to speak out of a sense of God as the Lord who is wrapped in the cloud and fire of Sinai, who dwells among his people only in the impenetrable darkness of the tabernacle or of the sanctuary, or in the unapproachable and deadly holiness of the Ark of the Covenant. His, moreover, was the Johannine Christ, whose presence in history is already the final judgment, separating light from darkness, life from death. And he clearly felt a certain contempt for those of his readers who did not understand that Christian charity sometimes can—and occasionally must—express itself in gall, indignation, sarcasm, even enmity. Or rather, to put the matter somewhat differently, genuine love must often entail a concomitant hatred. One is unlikely quite to catch the music of Bloy’s rages unless one knows what it would be like to stand among the poorest and most abused human beings, to see the neglect and heartlessness with which the great world passes them by, and while standing there, amid that needless and ignored human desolation, to imagine with satisfaction the rich of the earth made into carrion for crows, and yet to do so out of a heart overflowing with charity. It requires a very rare, delicate, and volatile temperament to be such a person; but that is who Bloy was.
Something of the man’s measure can be taken from his vociferous detestation of the anti-semitism of his time and place, especially the newly fashionable variety promoted by the political journalist and pamphleteer Édouard Drumont (1844 1917), but also the traditional, casually vicious French Catholic variety. Even when the Dreyfus affair strained his loyalties from every side (he sometimes seemed to resent Dreyfus for embarrassing his beloved France by his innocence), and even when his rhetoric lapsed into the sort of conventional supersessionism that his own more considered theological writings rejected, Bloy never ceased to defend the Jews against persistent calumnies, and to insist upon God’s special love for his people—indeed, for his kin. To Bloy’s mind, it was not enough for him as a Christian merely to denounce lies about the wealth and usurious ways of international “Jewry”; it was necessary to proclaim ever and again “Le Salut par les Juifs” (to cite the title of his book of 1892), and to insist that every Jew, being a cousin of God incarnate, owned a divine dignity to which gentiles had no natural claim, and in regard to which the proper attitude of any gentile was one of grateful humility. In fact, there is no other Catholic thinker of the nineteenth or early twentieth century who better understood Paul’s arguments about God’s enduring covenants in the ninth through eleventh chapters of the Letter to the Romans, or who was more immune to the traditional Augustinian misreading of the text. For him, Christians are saved only by being grafted into a vine that is eternally the vine of Israel. To appreciate just how extraordinary all this was for a pious Catholic of Bloy’s time, one need only compare his views to the noxious bigotries that pervade the writings of Catholic apologists of the time—even some still held in high esteem today.
No less extraordinary, however, was Bloy’s profound and really rather magnificent mysticism of poverty. —Poverty, that is, as opposed to destitution: The former, he claimed, was the chief of Christian virtues, the most Christlike, the most beautifully in keeping with the Son of God’s self-impoverishment in his incarnation among the nameless of the earth; the latter is an abomination in God’s eyes, the inexcusable sin of the rich against the poor, the condition of the world’s suffering servants to whom—and to whom alone—Christ came to bear glad tidings. There is no element in Bloy’s thought more purely biblical than his conviction that true love for the poor must express itself as, among other things, an unyielding condemnation of the wealthy. Here he proved himself an heir not just to the prophets of Israel, with their ringing denunciations of the predatory rich, but to the evangelists and the apostles. Of course, Christian culture has spent the better part of two millennia studiously avoiding the plain meaning of the New Testament’s numerous pronouncements on the spiritual state of the wealthy, and refusing to acknowledge Christ’s more or less exclusive concern for the ptōchoi, the abjectly destitute. To Bloy, this willful forgetfulness was perhaps the greatest scandal of Christian history; and he adopted a rhetoric toward the rich that, for all its fierceness, is no more terrifying than the language of the New Testament: the Magnificat’s prophecy of the condign downfall of the privileged (Luke 1:53); Christ’s explicit prohibition upon storing up earthly treasure (Matthew 6:19–20); his command that his disciples divest themselves of all possessions (Luke 12:33); his assurance that no one who clings to his property can be his disciple (Luke 14:33); the deprivations that he promises will befall the rich in the age to come (Luke 6:24–25; cf. 16:25); James’s fiery accusations of the rich as oppressors of the poor now facing the wrath of God (James 1:9–11; 2:5–7; 5:1–6); and so on.
For Bloy, the rich man seeking admission into the Kingdom really did have only about as good a chance of gaining entry as the camel had of passing through the needle’s eye; and more than once he limned hilarious psychological portraits of those decent prosperous Christians who are absolutely convinced that God truly adores the rich, and that any apparent scriptural statements to the contrary have been misunderstood or distorted in transmission. One of his most brilliantly acid and yet oddly moving witticisms was his suggestion that the builders of the Tower of Babel were seeking to storm heaven not merely by rising to its threshold, but chiefly ascending high above “the naked angels” thronging the streets below. To Bloy’s mind, the most witheringly contemptuous name he could assign to the devil was that of Le Bourgeois—the eternal Bourgeois, in fact, who is a murderer from the beginning. To be honest, his language at times verges on a kind of Manichean or gnostic dualism, with the rich cast in the roles of the Archons of this aeon, under whose power the whole cosmos languishes in torment and darkness. To his mind, the disproportionate wealth of the fortunate few, having been extracted from labor and common resources, is not theirs by right, even if it is also the product of their industry and ingenuity; still worse, to the degree that it is withheld from the poor it is nothing less than theft and slaughter. This is a moral, not an economic, claim; Bloy did not speak as if the world’s wealth were some sort of fixed quantity, or as if one man’s surfeit is necessarily another’s scarcity; he merely believed that those who are wealthy and who keep their wealth for themselves, even as the poor continue to suffer and perish, are in God’s eyes the murderers of their brothers and sisters. It is in this sense only that he claimed that the joy of the rich is the suffering of the poor, and that—to cite one of his most famous images—the gold of the rich is the blood of the poor, flowing through the institutions and estates of the propertied few. Great wealth is the ultimate vampirism, the most ubiquitous of cannibalisms. And yet, says Bloy, from the diabolical vantage of this age it is poverty that is the greatest shame, the one truly immeasurable guilt; and so Christ in becoming a man assumed also the real material poverty of the forgotten and exploited, and thereby assumed also the “guilt” of all men and women. In his reading of the parable of Dives and Lazarus, Lazarus is Christ himself, left to die in the dust, pitied only by the dogs. And this mysticism of poverty plumbs the deepest fathoms of Bloy’s faith. More to the point, his picture of our social world as a Satanic economy of sacrifice, fed by the ceaselessly spilled blood of the destitute—as astonishing as it may be in its sheer uncompromising intensity—is an expression not only of his “genius for hatred,” but also of his heroic capacity for love. And (for what this is worth) it also happens to be true.
In any event, there is no need to say more. Bloy is more than able to speak for himself, and in all his books he pours out the full range of his passions and rancors, loves and hates, prophetic inspirations and narcissistic delusions. It is a voice like no other, so eloquent and earnest that even its moments of pettiness can seem sublime. Above all else, it is the voice of a man who was hard to love but impossible to ignore precisely because he was apparently incapable of lying about his convictions, of temporizing in order to avoid causing dismay, or of seeking to evade the consequences of his beliefs. And such men, rare as they are, invariably offend. Happily, Bloy was able to delight as well.
David Bentley Hart is a contributing writer at First Things and a fellow at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study. This essay appears as the introduction to a new edition of The Pilgrim of the Absolute, a collection of Léon Bloy's essays selected and edited by Raissa Maritain.