Jazz Age Catholicism: Mystic Modernism in Postwar Paris, 1919-1933

Article excerpt

Jazz Age Catholicism: Mystic Modernism in Postwar Paris, 1919-1933. By Stephen Schloesser. (Buffalo: University of Toronto Press. 2005. Pp. xi, 449. $85.00.)

Jazz Age Catholicism offers an original, insightful, and penetrating analysis of an important moment in the cultural history of modern France. It argues that pervasive coEective bereavement in the aftermath of World War I prompted a profound cultural shift in elite French society that made Catholicism-dismissed only a few years earlier as retrograde, essentially out of step with the modern world, and archaic-a vibrant and consoling cultural option for many of France's most innovative and creative minds. But Stephen Schloesser's argument is more subtle still: not only did many within the avant garde turn to, and find in, Catholicism a vibrant cultural paradigm that offered solace and spiritual renewal; but prominent French Catholic thinkers and artists embraced modernity not by wholesale rejection of the past but by effecting a synthesis of medieval and modern philosophical principles and artistic forms. At the forefront of this experiment in Catholic renewal and redefinition were Jacques Maritain, Georges Bernanos, Georges Roualt, and Charles Tournemire. Refusing to abandon the philosophic and aesthetic traditions of the Catholic past-whether Scholasticism in philosophy (in the case of Maritain) or Gregorian chant in music (as was Tournemire's striking accomplishment)-each of Schloesser's subjects "formulat[ed] traditional Catholic ideas in modernist guise" (p. 15).Thus it is Catholicism's outreach to the modern-as much as modernity's embrace of Catholicism-that emerges most powerfully from this analysis.

One of Schloesser's most impressive qualities is his ability to write clearly, inteËigently and originally about cultural production in its many forms: literature, philosophy, and music are analyzed with equal ease and clarity. This facility is especially evident (and welcome, to this reviewer, at least) in his analysis of Charles Tournemire, composer and organist. Deeply familiar with the technicalities of musical composition, Schloesser successfully sets forth the formal characteristics of plainchant and explains how Tournemire, who harbored no political sympathy with the ultra-conservative, integralist appropriation of plainchant in the late nineteenth century, claimed it as a mode of modernist expression in his masterwork of 1927, L'Orgue Mystique. …