Bettina L Knapp
Writer, world traveler, and government official—vice-consul in Boston, consul suppléant in Shanghai, consul in Prague and Frankfurt, ambassador to the United States, Belgium, and Japan, chargé d'affaires in Rio de Janeiro—Paul Claudel was always stirred by a desire to engage in a life of excitement and mystery. He was born in the town of Villeneuve-sur-Fère in the Aisne region of France. “Nothing is more bitter, or more religious, ” he wrote in Mémoires improvisés (13), than Villeneuve. Its character is marked with duality: a “dramatic struggle” between serenity and a “terrible wind” that beats about violently, intransigently. Because his sister Camille, a talented sculptor, decided to pursue her studies in Paris, the family moved there in 1881. That the father remained behind was catastrophic for the lad, whose life was torn apart by his parents' separation. He attended the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris, wrote a satire/farce, L'Endormie, received a law degree, and enrolled at the prestigious Ecole des Sciences Politiques, taking it for granted that he would eventually work for the government. But the intellectual atmosphere in Paris—the reign of Positivism, naturalism, scientism—corroded his spirit and crushed his enthusiasm for the future. The scientific determinism of Hippolyte Taine and the relativist historical works of Ernest Renan did nothing to relieve his anxiety. The year 1886 was momentous for Claudel: he discovered Arthur Rimbaud's Illuminations, poems that opened him up to “the supernatural world.” In the same year he “converted” to the faith of his fathers, becoming deeply religious.
Drama seemed to him the most expressive of creative forms, allowing him to quell the antagonism breeding within him and to expel it in palpable creatures. The protagonist of Tête d'or (1889) was a conqueror—a rebellious, active being who rejected the status quo, fomented divisiveness, and aroused fresh ideas and ideals. La Ville (1890), a dramatic presentation set in the Sodom and Gomorrah