December 9, 2008

Leon Bloy: Pilgrim of the Absolute by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert

bloy mexican comic
Mexican comic book biography of L
éon Bloy intended for the moral education of youth by the Catholic Church; part of the Exemplary Lives instructional series, circa 1971. From the collection of Gilbert Alter-Gilbert.

Suffering "hunger and thirst, nakedness and oppression," never having a fixed abode, this was the fate which Bloy both lived and mulled over and over in his work. Bloy’s desperate effort to reach God, multiplied by the signs of His absence, manifested itself in a constant crisis of frustrated transcendance and its imperious necessity. The writer retraced the torments of an unbearable state of waiting, which he pushed to the point of blasphemy. So that, in his discourse, he substituted verbal violence, steeped in a rhetoric of excess, for demonstrable logic or apologetics; this aporia of exegetical speculations multiplied to infinity the spiritual tensions and ironic outcomes of his fictional stand-ins; Bloy’s subversive method mixed laughter with an inspiration both biblical and farcical; he neutralized contraries: the sublime and the grotesque, the scatological and the eschatological, Lucifer and paraclete. -- Pierre Glaudes


1846 Born Léon Henri Marie Bloy, the second of six rebellious sons of Voltairean freethinker and stern disciplinarian Jean Baptiste Bloy and his wife Anne-Marie Carreau, pious Spanish-Catholic daughter of a Napoleonic soldier.

1856 Young Léon is routinely whipped by his punitive father, whom he accuses of hypocrisy and of maintaining his household as if it were a prison; a moody and melancholy child, Léon often spends hours in his darkened room with his head in his hands, crying uncontrollably for no apparent reason.

1858 Each morning, Léon and his siblings are awakened by a large, ceiling-mounted bell rung by their father; they eat in silence, then are given their daily parental orders; Léon fantasizes about freedom.

1862 A truant and a nullity in the classroom, thoroughly indifferent student Léon is kicked out of school for "academic intransigence"; his exasperated father, thinking him an ineducable lunkhead and a layabout, finds a job for him at a train station where he daydreams and continually plots escape.

Léon Bloy by André Rouveyre,
from Visages des contemporains (1913)

1863 Passes through what he professes is a period of "pride, sensuality, laziness, and envy" and cultivates an intense hatred for the Catholic Church and its teachings.

1867 Makes his way to Paris where he is befriended by celebrated author Barbey d'Aurevilly, popularly known as the Constable of Letters, and is taken under the aging dandy's wing in what Bloy terms a period of avid "apprenticeship" during which his mentor relentlessly "gnawed away at the pig’s head" of his puberty; a willing pupil under the tutelage of d'Aurevilly, he undergoes a dramatic religious conversion, in the process of which he becomes an insufferable fanatic.

1868 A formative time during which he makes the acquaintance of Ernest Hello and corresponds with Blanc de Saint-Bonnet; looking back later, he describes himself at this period as a "communard before the Commune, a socialist, a revolutionary, and a demoniac."

1870 Enlists in the army, along with his five brothers, at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, during which he serves as a sniper.

Léon Bloy, woodcut by Felix Vallotton

1871 Returns to Paris; forsakes work as an office clerk for the life of a literary bohemian; frequents salons and coffee houses where he consorts with Coppée, Verlaine, Rolland, Mendès, Bouchee, Richepin, and Bourget.

1872 Bloy assumes the role of valiant crusader against injustice and hypocrisy; he adopts a unique stance as an anti-clerical Christian, and finds himself in the grip of a ceaseless inner struggle; something in him hatches out in the form of a fledgling writer and pamphleteer.

1873 Becomes editor of The Universe, a journal in which he manages to rankle almost everyone he knows by acting like "an inquisitor quick to denounce the chimeras of egalitarianism and progress and the spiritual shipwreck of society," even spoiling fecund friendships because of his severe, uncompromising criticisms; he declares that "every man, if he is to be honest, must be a persecutor – a persecutor of himself, of the human race, of God…"; he is ostracized, becomes more and more isolated and seriously considers joining a monastery.

1876 Carries on a "tumultuous and tragic" love affair with Anne-Marie Roule, a sometime prostitute who becomes his mistress – in a sort of supernatural frenzy, which has been described as an "out-of-control mystic adventure rich in manifestations and secret communications with the Other Side," they share a number of profound occult experiences, as a result of which she becomes insane and is permanently committed to an asylum.

The master seen exhibiting typical facial expression modulated
somewhere between
smoldering, simmering, scorching, and scalding

1877 Death of both parents; Bloy's struggles with doubt and faith intensify; he wrestles with self-recrimination; inconsolable over the wretched fate of his mistress, he delivers himself for an interval to a Trappist monastery; next he seeks the counsel of a mysterious Carthusian who advises him to resume his role as a combative author.

1878 Returns to his proper calling, and takes up the pen with a vengeance; he pitilessly scourges Gambetta, Zola, Renan, and Victor Hugo and lambasts the traditional Catholic bourgeoisie with disconcerting and inopportune wholesale attacks; he is despised for his nasty humor and beastly fervor and is spurned by the Academy and rejected by literary officialdom; he watches with wistful envy as his old confederates, one by one, are heaped with accolades, tributes and high honors.

1885 Has attained widespread notoriety as an explosive personality and a verbal catapultist always at the ready to sling loads of righteous ire against the "Great Vermin" of the press and public he perceives as arrayed against him in a conspiracy of silence; he resolves to write for "no one but God."

1889 Death of friends and colleagues Barbey d'Aurevilly and Villiers de L'Isle-Adam; Bloy tones down his fiery outbursts, and the violent coloring of his writing subsides to some degree; new meditations result in several major works stemming from his visionary interpretation of human history as transcendental and divinely inspired; every event is seen as an enigmatic mirror within which God is reflected by contingent realities and historical facts constitute the lexicon of a sacred text which craves decipherment; because he considers life itself a book authored by God, Bloy rails against his literary brethren as "profaners of the Word"; he strives to interpret the symbolic significance of major historical upheavals and to translate the language of the Book of Life into one that can be understood by men; he circulates pamphlets which formulate a view of history as part of a Divine Plan; he depends on the forcefulness and beauty of his prose to win over readers and snatch an occasional kindred soul from his native darkness, so as to propel him on the path to the Absolute.

1890 Marriage to Jeanne Molbech, daughter of a Danish poet who is a friend of Ibsen; though she knows Bloy to be a beggar, Molbech is drawn to him, captivated by a strange charisma and what she perceives as his "superiority"; ever devoted, she will publish, after his death, the love letters he wrote her during their courtship; Bloy enters a phase of prolific creativity, but his dazzling output is all but ignored.

1894 Bloy refuses to participate in a duel to which he is challenged by a hothead he has insulted in an argument; Bloy regards dueling as a barbaric practice, but his refusal results in accusations of cowardice, which bring him still greater isolation, including expulsion from the pages of Gil Blas, the journal where many of his stories have appeared.

1895 Bloy has become a pariah and the misery of his existence hits a new low; his family subsists on handouts and his two young sons die of malnutrition; his wife and daughters, too, are afflicted with infirmity and hunger.

Ed. -- I'm not sure what it is, but I want it.

1898 The publication of The Ungrateful Beggar is met with reserved approbation and receives the enthusiasm of Jacques Maritain and his wife, who are deeply impressed with Bloy and quietly become his torchbearers.

1906 Bloy continues to churn out volume after masterful volume; his spirit is never subjugated, even if intermittently subdued.

1910 A begrudging world finally comes to recognize his greatness and acknowledge the impassioned sincerity and steadfastness of his convictions; his destitution persists.

1914 When World War I breaks out, Bloy writes his most pessimistic work, including Among the Shades, feeling that his interpretation of history and his predictions for the consequences of man’s misdeeds have been vindicated.

1917 November 3, in the house once occupied by Charles Péguy, Bloy dies peacefully at the hour of the Angelus, seeker, soothsayer, sinner, saint.

Also see:

-- Gilbert Alter-Gilbert interview 1
-- "Lions of Literature: Léon Bloy" by Alter-Gilbert
--"Musings and Thunderings" of L
éon Bloy
-- "The Infusion," a story by Bloy, trans. Alter-Gilbert (coming tomorrow)


Ed. -- I also compiled a list of English-language translations

Book length:
  • Pilgrim of the Absolute, ed. Raïssa Maritain; intro. Jacques Maritain; trans. John Coleman and Harry Lorin Binsse (Pantheon, 1947). [Ed.: This is the one to get, and luckily it is the easiest to find. In "Léon Bloy and Jacques Maritain," Leiva-Merikakis quotes from Bloy's journal concerning Bloy's first impressions of the Maritains: "The young man is one of those idealists who do not know God but who let themselves be dragged by the hair or feet up the staircase leading to the Light... The young woman is a very charming and frail being in which there dwells a soul capable of making the oak trees kneel."]
  • The Woman Who Was Poor: A Contemporary Novel of the French 'Eighties, trans. I. J. Collins (Sheed & Ward, 1939).
  • Letters to his Fiancée, trans. Barbara Wall (Sheed & Ward, 1937).
  • She Who Weeps: Our Lady of La Salette; an anthology of Bloy’s writings on La Salette, trans. and ed. Emile La Douceur (Academy Library Guild, 1956).
Stories: I happened to have these in my collection (a little surprising, actually). I recommend all of these anthologies. There are probably a few more Bloy stories in English, buried in dusty anthologies.


  1. Great stuff... thanks for taking the time to post...

  2. The book that you don't know what is it. It has published in first time in Argentina with a Jorge Luis Borges's introduction. It's an antologie of Cuentos desagradables by Leon Bloy. The collection name was: La torre de Babel (Babel's tower). Excuse my bad english.

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