Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

A "Third Way" Catholic Intellectual: Charles Du Bos, Tragedy, and Ethics in Interwar Paris

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

A "Third Way" Catholic Intellectual: Charles Du Bos, Tragedy, and Ethics in Interwar Paris

Article excerpt

"There has never been a less political being."1 Such was the way in which Gabriel Marcel described his close friend and fellow convert, the French Catholic literary critic, Charles Du Bos (1882-1939). Marcel attributed Du Bos's "radical disinterest in all that occurred in the public realm" to a certain "spiritual agoraphobia," which suggests an overt avoidance of political or social engagement on account of his Catholicism.2 But as Marcel himself conceded, this "agoraphobia" was not absolute, for political matters could impress themselves upon him when they became strictly ethical problems. This article goes further and explores how Charles Du Bos's intellectual and spiritual sensibilities provide an insight into the construction of a particular Catholic intellectual form of engagement during the interwar period, one that can be broadly defined as "third way."

Multiple Catholic intellectual identities competed for space at this time, ranging from the right-wing actors of Action Française and the Jeune droite, through to the Christian democrats grouped around the Dominican journals and press engines La Vie Intellectuelle (1928) and Sept (1934), the daily L'Aube (1932), and the left-leaning personalism of Emmanuel Mounier and those progressives around the Communist review Terre Nouvelle. A particular strain of political Catholicism shared an ideological minimum with thirdway discourse in France. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, a young generation of intellectuals, whom Zeev Sternhell famously defined as "neither right nor left," occupied a middle ground or third way precisely because they sought to overhaul traditional political forms and ideologies.3 This third way, composed of "neo-socialists, "young turks," non-conformists, and neosyndicalists," is striking for the sheer variety of ideological positions it embraced, but these positions were nevertheless characterized by a shared ethical imperative in terms of a certain degree of rejection of parliamentary liberalism and capitalist disorder, a disavowal of the extremes of Fascism and Communism, and by a desire to rehabilitate spiritual values through the person.4 During the interwar years, Jacques Maritain, the neo-Thomist philosopher and commandeer of Christian humanism, dominated Catholic third-way discourse in his attempt to forge a viable alternative to totalitarian statism and laissez-faire individualism. Certainly Du Bos did not elaborate any clear political vision based on a refusal of extreme ideological positions and radical renewal of society as Maritain did with the publication of his seminal work, Integral Humanism (1936). Rather this paper focuses on the ways in which Du Bos is representative of the necessary intellectual disposition underpinning a third way. It argues that this disposition rests fundamentally upon a notion of the "tragic." For Du Bos, the tragic animated a certain agnostic attitude. This agnosticism was integral to his Catholicism and his political position: it signalled the importance of recognizing the insufficiency of human understanding in faith and the uncertainty of absolute truth -claims in political engagement. This submission to ambiguity finds its theological counterpoint in the uncertainty of Jesus on the soteriological significance of his death.5 Du Bos's third-way disposition is explored through an examination of the role of the tragic, firstly, through a consideration of his personal spiritual journey both before, and beyond his conversion in 1927; secondly, by suggesting that his accommodation of the tragic was central to his embrace of an "ethic of responsibility;" and thirdly, by a discussion of his meditations on the Munich Agreement of 1938, in which this ethic and the tragic converge.

I. CHARLES DU BOS: THE MAN AND PERSONAL TRAGEDY

Charles Du Bos was born in Paris in 1882 into an extraordinarily rich familial and educational European heritage. An easy affinity for English, German, and Russian as well as French writers, and a natural appreciation for the variety of creative impulses, bestowed upon Du Bos the reputation of a "literary cosmopolitan. …

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