December 9, 2008

Musings and Thunderings of Leon Bloy

on Bloy, Prince of Paupers

Musings and Thunderings of Léon Bloy
Collected by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert

This place stinks of God!

How could we know what God wants to do with us when we cannot even know what we are nor who we are?

There is no human being on earth capable of declaring with certitude who he is. No one knows what he has come into this world to do, what his acts correspond to, his sentiments, his ideas, or what his real name is, his enduring Name in the register of Light…History is an immense liturgical text where iotas and dots are worth no less than the entire verse or chapters, but the importance of one and the other is indeterminable, and profoundly hidden.

Love does not make you weak, because it is the source of all strength, but it makes you see the nothingness of the illusory strength on which you depended before you knew it.

The Eiffel Tower is a truly tragic street lamp.

My existence is a sad country where it is always raining....

My only recourse is the expedient of placing at the service of truth what has been given me by the Father of Lies.

We suffer from that which does not exist. That which is does not cause suffering.

There are places in the heart that do not yet exist; suffering has to enter in for them to come to be.

Suffering passes, but the fact of having suffered never passes.

Consider that Jesus suffered in His heart with all the knowledge of a God, and that in His heart there was every human heart and every form of suffering from Adam until the consummation of the world. Ah yes, to suffer for others can be a great joy if one has a generous soul, but to suffer in others is to really suffer!

Freedom is the respect God has for us.

The worst evil is not the crime committed, but the failure to do the good one might have done.

Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig.

I die of the need of justice.

I pray like a robber asking alms at the door of a farmhouse to which he is ready to set fire.

I am simply a poor man who seeks his God, sobbing and calling Him along all roads.


From Gilbert Alter-Gilbert:
One of the most intriguing, as well as overlooked, cultural figures of Belle Epoque France, Léon Bloy was a thwarted mystic, raging social reformer, and literary anarchist whose personal hardships were sublimated in dozens of novels, biographical studies, short stories, and poems, and in hundreds of articles, essays, and rants often circulated on the streets of Paris as scathing tracts and pamphlets. As a writer he was formed by many hatreds and humiliations. He spent his life in squalid poverty, waiting for a beatific vision which God denied him. His own suffering, and that of those around him, spawned in him a Hugoesque compassion for the downtrodden and the poor, and he became a savage critic of the prevailing order, the warts on whose epidermis he pointed out with a maniacal single-mindedness and a passionate intensity. Describing himself as a "grandiloquent wretch," Bloy was an outlandish medieval anachronism in the era of the newly erected Eiffel Tower, and managed to offend nearly everyone who was anyone in the Paris of his day. Behind his vilifications and vituperations, however, was not only an authentic genius fueled, like Juvenal's, like Swift's, by righteous indignation, but a genuine martyr, who wept in sympathy for the plight of "fallen humanity," and who felt himself the haunted conscience of all mankind. A great moral ironist in an age of negations, Bloy "called down the wrath of God upon the paltry convictions and the precarious equilibrium of a complacent society which put its trust in science and bourgeois virtues, while seeking the kind of tranquility that comes from silencing one's soul and forgetting God."


A-G. & I collected these passages about Bloy:

"Léon Bloy is a cathedral gargoyle who pours the waters of heaven down on the good and on the wicked." -- French novelist Barbey d'Aurevilly

Ed. -- I couldn't resist using this image of d'Aurevilly

"Léon Bloy possesses a fire that brings to mind the ardour of the prophets -- an even greater ardour, I should say. Of course that is easily explained: his fire is nurtured by the dung-heap of modern times." -- Kafka, from a letter to a friend (quoted in Manguel's Black Water)

Léon Bloy wrote "the only work of [his] day in which there are evident marks of genius, if by genius one means certain flashes 'in depth.' " -- Belgian Nobel-winner Maurice Maeterlinck

Bloy was "an abusive, ungrateful parasite, a past master of vituperation. . . ." -- late Irish critic Ernest Boyd

A-G. notes that Bloy was a singular influence for Flannery O'Connor!

From wikipedia: "In his novel The Harp and the Shadow, Alejo Carpentier excoriates Bloy as a raving, Columbus-defending lunatic during Vatican deliberations over the explorer's canonization." [Conversely, Huysmans praises Bloy's book about Columbus, The Man Who Revealed the Globe, in a letter to the author in 1884: ". . . what a lofty and sad book . . . You have created a beautiful, an absolutely beautiful book. . . . The Devil who explodes in those unforgettable passages is splendidly horrifying and, I would add, disconcertingly and terrifyingly supernatural."

Bloy is quoted at the beginning of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, and
Greene wrote in 1939:
We read [Bloy] with pleasure to just the extent that we share the hatred of life which prevented him from being a novelist or a mystic of the first order (he might have taken as his motto Gauguin's great phrase -- "Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge") and because of a certain indestructible honesty and self-knowledge which in the long run always enables him to turn his fury on himself.

Jacques Maritain wrote in December, 1949:
The French writer Léon Bloy, who called himself the Pilgrim of the Absolute, and who was a dear friend of mine, took pleasure in telling the following story: Once, in his youth, he was sitting at the table of a café with another poet, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. A passer-by, who was a practical man, accosted the poet: "Hello, my dear fellow," he said to him with a patronizing smile, "always a poet, a beauty lover, always climbing in the clouds?" "And you," answered Villiers with a malicious smile, "you, my dear fellow, always going your way downwards?"

Léon Bloy liked also to comment on the sententious sayings used in the common language. Many people who are good heathens but want to be assisted by religion on their deathbed, are apt to say: "Je ne veux pas mourir comme un chien; I don't want to die like a dog." Léon Bloy commented: "I have never understood why a man who lives like a pig does not want to die like a dog."

From Patrick Kurp at Anecdotal Evidence:
..."Videmus nunc per specul[um] . . ." The Latin is the truncated beginning of I Corinthians, 13:12: "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face." Or "For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then I shall know even as also I have been known." In a fine example of literary resonance, of kindred spirits unknowingly echoing each other, another lover of learning, Jorge Luis Borges, devoted a brief essay to the same line from St. Paul. In "The Mirrors of Enigma," writing of Léon Bloy, Borges concludes:
"It is doubtful that the world has a meaning; it is even more doubtful that it has a double or triple meaning, the unbeliever will observe. I understand that the hieroglyphic world postulated by Léon Bloy is the one which best befits the dignity of the theologian's intellectual God. No man knows who he is, affirmed Léon Bloy. No one could illustrate that intimate ignorance better than he. He believed himself a rigorous Catholic and he was a continuer of the Cabalists, a secret brother of Swedenborg and Blake: heresiarchs."

Another Borges quote (which catapults Henry James back to the top of my reading list):
I have visited some literatures of the East and West; I have compiled an encyclopedic anthology of fantastic literature; I have translated Kafka, Melville, and Bloy; I know of no stranger work than that of Henry James. [p. 248 of Selected Non-fictions]
One more by Borges, from "Kafka and His Precursors":
My notes also include two short stories. One is from Histoires désobligeantes by Léon Bloy, and refers to the case of some people who amass globes, atlases, train schedules, and trunks, and who die without ever having left the town where they were born.
Remy de Gourmont in The Book of Masks [1888]:
...Bloy is one of the greatest creators of images who ever walked the earth; these images hold his work together, the way a rock holds eroding earth together; these images give his thought the sharp silhouette of a mountain range. To be a very great writer, Bloy lacks only two ideas, because he already has one -- the theological idea.

Bloy's genius is neither religious, nor philosophical, nor human, nor mystical; his genius is theological and Rabelaisian. His work seems to have been written by Saint Thomas Aquinas in collaboration with Gargantua. His books are scholastic and gigantic, eucharistic and scatological, idyllic and blasphemous. No Christian can accept them, but no atheist can take comfort in them.

In "Léon Bloy and Jacques Maritain," Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis quotes a passage which "distills for us the essence of Léon Bloy" Per Bloy:
At bottom, what should you do to avoid being an idiot or a swine? Merely this: you should do something great, you should lay aside all the foolishness of a more of less long existence, you should become resigned to the fact that you will seem ridiculous to a race of janitors and bureaucrats if you are to enter the service of Splendor. Then you will know what it means to be the friend of God. The Friend of God! I am on the verge of tears when I think of it. No longer do you know on what block to lay your head, no longer do you know where you are, where you should go. You would like to tear out your heart, so hotly does it burn, and you cannot look upon a creature without trembling with love. You would like to drag yourself on your knees from church to church, with rotten fish strung from your neck, as said the sublime Angela de Foligno. And when you leave these churches after speaking to God as a lover speaks to his beloved, you appear like those poorly designed and poorly painted figures on the Way of the Cross, who walk and gesticulate full of pity, against a background of gold. All the thoughts that had been pent up unknown within you, in the caverns of your heart, run out in tumult suddenly like virgins who are mutilated, blind, starving, nude, and sobbing. Ah! Surely at such moments the most horrendous of all martyrdoms would be embraced , and with what rapture.

Andrew Mangravite, from The Book of Masks:
Characterized by Philippe Jullian as "the Catholic polemicist who shuddered in horror while reading Lautréamont" and yet created tales that are "a literary counterpart to Antoine Wiertz's pictures."

Léon Bloy was one of those writers who vividly embodied the paradoxical nature of "Decadence." He remained a devout, rather stiff-necked, Roman Catholic even when the content of his stories verged on the Luciferian: an illustration of Mario Praz's contention that "Sadism and Catholicism, in French Decadent literature, become the two poles between which the souls of neurotic and sensual writers oscillate."
From The Goncourt Journals (March 17, 1885):
Pelagie brought me a letter today which had been given her by a gentleman who was waiting downstairs for my reply. This letter was signed by Léon Bloy, the star writer of the Chat noir, who, less than six months ago, concluded an article on my brother and myself with these words: 'the survivor of the two blackguards.' In his letter he told me that seeing Henriette Marechal had brought about a change in his attitude to me, which had hitherto been extremely hostile, and he ended up by asking me, after a series of dramatic statements, for fifty francs, 'which he would pay back, if he could, or which he would not pay back.' Upon my word, I feel perfectly capable of giving these fifty francs to a literary enemy, however virulent he may be. But if I gave them to an insulter of that ilk, who showed no mercy to my dead brother, I would consider myself a coward -- and it seems to me that you must have tremendous cheek to come in person to ask for money from a man with every reason to slap you in the face.

R. E. Hager, from The Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature:
In his revolt against the turpitude and injustice of the world, Bloy momentarily became an active atheist and socialist, but under the influence of Barbey d'Aurevilly, his friend and literary mentor, he returned to his faith. The vehemence, bitterness, and scorn so often condemned in his work are, in fact, the outcry of a man of sorrow overwhelmed by the spectacle of a society indifferent to its spiritual destiny.... By nature a poet, totally oriented toward absolute values and intolerant of mediocrity, he sought through verbal violence to awaken his contemporaries to the reality of the supernatural combat in which their lives were involved. In his intemperate attacks on his fellow creatures, Bloy so antagonized both Catholics and non-Catholics that his work suffered from a conspiracy of silence. Yet many of his pages, for sheer power of language and poetic beauty, will always rank among the finest in French literature. Today, he has his admirers and might be considered to be the object of a cult.

Also see:

-- Gilbert Alter-Gilbert interview 1
-- "Lions of Literature: Léon Bloy" by Alter-Gilbert
--"Leon Bloy: Pilgrim of the Absolute" by Alter-Gilbert
-- "The Infusion," a story by Bloy, trans. Alter-Gilbert (coming tomorrow)

Hilarious illustration captions in this series courtesy A-G.!


  1. These are incredible! Thanks for this both of you!

  2. Thanks for this post. I am reading a copy of Bloys' THE WOMAN WHO WAS POOR that my wife found in a library dollar a book bin. I have looked for Leon Bloy for years, intrigued by references to him in Borges and Robbe-Grillet.

  3. Thanks Dan. Originally we were going to include "The Infusion" and "Lions of Literature" as a supplement to the second interview, but we just kept going (mostly Gilbert, but I did spend a couple days just looking up Bloy material -- good times).

    Lloyd, I'm still holding out for a reasonable price on The Woman Who Was Poor. Where did you find the Robbe-Grillet material? (Herbert Pfostl told me Junger also wrote about Bloy.)

    I may follow up these posts in a few months with excerpts from the Pilgrim of the Absolute anthology -- but only sentences in which Bloy uses the word "vomit." It will be a very long post. I'll illustrate it with a photo of "Captain Kangaroo."

  4. Will
    I guess I lucked out with my dollar copy of THE WOMAN WHO WAS POOR. Robbe-Grillet mentions him either in For a New Novel, or in some interview that I can't locate; though it is possible I am mistaken altogether and really only heard of him through Borges. In any case I am enjoying THE WOMAN WHO WAS POOR immensely.

    I wonder if you know of Jules Romains, another great French writer who seems unfortunately eclipsed. THE DEATH OF A NOBODY is one of the most unique and brilliant books I have ever read, a story told totally from the point of view of everyone but its subject. Onward to MEN OF GOOD WILL, which is 27 volumes!

  5. I'll try to find the Robbe-Grillet quote (even if it doesn't exist, the search will be fun).

    I haven't read Jules Romains, so thank you for the recommendation. I'll pick up "Nobody" immediately (you are on your own with those 27 volumes!, but I'm sure you suspected as much).

  6. Lloyd: Gilbert saw your comment and said he had already planned a "Lions" column on Jules Romains. He added that Death of a Nobody is one of his favorites.

    The "Lions of Literature" column may run biweekly on AJRMS following the second interview. Very exciting.

  7. Excellent compilation; thanks!

    BTW, did Graham Greene misspell "Gaugin," or did you? I hope it's the latter! ;-)

  8. I'm blaming Gram Green! Wait...

    (Can you believe it's "Gauguin" with two "youse.")

  9. Oh jeez, what an idiot. I can't believe I so boldly dissed Gram Griene and/or you, and then went and typed "Gaugin." I swear it was a typo. No, really!!

    I must be spending too much time at the pumps. Damb.

    Anyhao, by wei of apology, I will severely praise your blog to all who dare listen. It's truly a fabulis websight! Srsly.


  10. tzigane: I seriously have nightmares about typos, so thank you.

    Your hilarious comment is pushing toward Allan Bryant territory (a composer with a strange system of phonetic spelling). Let me quote Hrvatski from the FE site:

    "...Booklet reprints prime Bryant rants on church/state separation ('TH' 10 GRAETST AMERICNZ WR AGENST ORGANYZD RLIJN (OR)'), questionable medical practices ('SRCMSIZHN(S)-ITS DUN FOR MNI($)!'), the IBM theft of Apple technologies ('Just lyc Bill Gates mest up 7 Mac sstm, wich hi stol, n Uzd a cAmplx DOS sstm t mc it a mes U had t go t school t lrn, n wth cn upgrEdz ($)'), and quantum physics ('invent betr fzcl-xpl'nESnz 7an PAW, jumps, chans Es, Its bcm a stuupid wrd.'). You really can't find more convincing MEV recordings than this, excellent field-scrape with low-frequency peaks & valleys (incorrect tape speed during mastering process? You be the judge) and solemn, sub-aqueous anti-gloss tones... Excellent."

  11. Bryants tkst iz vairee warez tha straynj sstm av faux netick spelng u mnshund??

    (I actually know who Bryant is, but I had no idea he notates verbal sounds, too. Good lord.)

  12. I was a bit obsessed with him for a few years until one of his albums gave me a panic attack.

    Now you have me trying to understand phonetics -- I might stay up for 72 hours and crash a Splunch (if it still exists).

    From the Splunch site I wound up reading about Uptalk Anxiety. It will be my new restless leg syndrome.

  13. Wow, what an incredible coincidence? Because I have, like, an old restless leg? Well, I actually have two old legs? But only one of them is, I don't know, restless? And now you're saying you have a new restless leg? And a syndrome that makes it sort of uptalk...or?

    That must be, like, so hard for you because "syndrome" means, you know, "to run together"? And, like, if your new restless leg is having a problem running together with your old restless leg because of all the uptalking, I mean.... Well, so how does that actually work?


    I'm totally bummed that my leg (the, you know, restless one?) is pretty much as far from Splunch as a leg could be while still standing in the U.S. Otherwise we (I, my restless leg, and my restlessless leg) would so be right there too, you know?

  14. I think I have anxiety of Uptalk Anxiety.

  15. Auwe! Po'ah ting! Hee'ah, tchry lissen dis fo' he'p you, Brah.

  16. I love Leon Bloy and have read everything I can get my hands on of his in English. I love his journals.

    This is a lovely blog, thank you for keeping Bloy "here."

  17. Junger also wrote about Bloy.)
    Oui, c'est dans son Journal, premier volume. Il adore littéralement Bloy, parle même de sa "très belle écriture" autographe devant un billet de la main de Bloy (je peux vous retrouver le passage).
    Kafka aussi était lecteur de Bloy. Max Brod rapporte cette phrase de son ami sur Marchenoir : "Son feu se nourrit de tout le fumier de notre époque." (voir in Dossier "H" spécial Léon Bloy, l'Age d'Homme éditeur).
    Vous savez qu'en France on est en train de sortir le Journal inédit de Bloy, au complet,avec tout ce qu'il avait coupé pour les volumes sortis de son temps? Passionnant.Déjà 3 volumes au Mercure de France.

    Vos traductions sont vraiment bonnes, surtout que Bloy n'est pas aisé, aisé. J'ai participé à un colloque Bloy comme intervenant en 2007, je ferai connaître à Pierre Glaudes, le grand spécialiste de Bloy votre passionnante initiative. Bravo.
    (pardon de ne pas user de l'anglais mais si je le lis à peu près correctement, l'é serait dommage de massacrer une si belle langue).
    Restif (pseudo mais je peux fort bien vous donner mon vrai nom au cas où...)