Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

A Fitting Receptacle: Paul Claudel on Poetry and Sensations of God

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

A Fitting Receptacle: Paul Claudel on Poetry and Sensations of God

Article excerpt

La parole signifie non seulement par les mots, mais encore par l'accent, le ton, les gestes et la physionomie.

MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY, PHENOMENOLOGIE DE LA PERCEPTION, 1945, 176

PAUL CLAUDEL'S WRITING--poetic, dramatic, exegetical--testifies to the importance, for those interested in developing a relationship with God (poets or otherwise), of an attitude of awareness of and attentiveness to reality, over and against ideological considerations that would reduce reality for the purpose of imagining necessarily piecemeal alternatives to it. My goal here is to consider Claudel's particular attention to the ways in which the poet who has become a new man in Christ, the inner man born again through baptism, experiences reality with senses that Christ has transformed and brings this experience to bear upon the creation of a poetry that invites others in turn to d+iscover their own status as transformed or transformable. As a way to focus the discussion, I will analyze the role played by a particular image, that of a Japanese painted vase, as it appears at various moments in Claudel's poetry and exegetical prose. By looking at the various analogies Claudel develops through this image, I hope to make the case that the poet reveals himself as a major contributor in the twentieth century to the renewal of the notion, originating in spiritual theology, of the spiritual senses. Claudel's writing witnesses powerfully to what it means to say that a Christian life is one that is altered and formed by the event of a personal encounter, rather than by a discursive formula or lofty idea. (1) For Christians, Claudel urges, redemption takes place in an encounter with a new human reality, and thus, can be and is experienced. (2) Claudel's insistence upon the concreteness of Christian experience is important as a corrective to recent trends in scholarship on religious experience and religious literature alike that have overemphasized apophaticism (so-called negative theology) and experiences associated with ineffability, such that a false gap is opened between God and human life in its totality and concreteness. [3] As a result, a Christian poetry focused upon and anchored in the core Christian claim to a life redeemed in the finite hic et nunc has seemed strange to many. Confining ourselves to recent non-Christian examples, I would point to Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, writing almost midway through the last century, who assert that the Incarnation improperly makes the finite absolute, and to Mark Johnston, who in a book published just a few years ago claims Christianity falsely spiritualizes the natural. (4)

Paul Claudel is a poet who seldom uses apophatic language; and yet, he demonstrates a clear appreciation of God's transcendence because he is supremely attentive to the ways in which God creates in the finite world "the conditions of possibility of his own manifestation." (5) Claudel's writing witnesses to the believer's dramatic encounter with the incisive, in-breaking, incarnated God whose Spirit dilates the finite world, including finite human being, in such a way that the surprising dimensions of his redemption move the believer to desire and experience God's redeeming presence ever more deeply.

This exploration of Claudel's poetic witness to the drama of redeemed finitude will begin with a look at one of Claudel's earliest and shortest poems, supplemented by references to parts of his longer Odes (the fourth and fifth of his Cinq grandes odes); this poetry dates from the years 1893 and 1907-1908, respectively. I find the image of the vase contained in these texts, and especially the way in which this image serves as gift, to be exemplary of the redemptive drama that I claim is fundamental to Claudel's poetic witness. After exploring the image in these poetic texts, I will turn to some passages from Claudel's later writings on the Bible in order to consider how his thinking about spiritual senses sheds light upon the dynamic of experience evoked in the poetry and helps us to see the value in his preferred focus upon finitude. …

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