Jacques & Raissa Maritain

Beggars for Heaven

by Jean-Luc Barré

Notre Dame, 528 pp., $50

Not long ago I met a young woman who is studying philosophy at Stanford, and when I told her I was reading a new biography of Jacques Maritain, she said she had never heard of him.

That the greatest Catholic philosopher of the 20th century should now be unknown on the very campuses where, just a generation ago, he was universally read and admired, is profoundly disheartening. The fact that he has been jettisoned from the curriculum to make room for the nominalism of Michel Foucault speaks volumes about the intellectual defeatism that holds sway over our academic elites. This biography, by the French journalist-historian Jean-Luc Barré, should help revive interest in the work of a man who still rewards study.

While not definitive, it provides a fascinating portrait of a special marriage, and shows how many disparate lives were enriched by the couple's passion for truth. Jean Cocteau, Allen Tate, Marc Chagall, Erik Satie, T.S. Eliot, François Mauriac, Georges Bernanos, Georges Rouault, and Charles Péguy were just a few of the people in the Maritains' enchanted circle. If this is not the critical biography for which one might have hoped, it nonetheless shows the extent to which love (there is no other word for it) animated all of Maritain's work.

Barré is particularly good at showing how indispensable Raissa was to Maritain's moral and intellectual development. She introduced him to the work of Thomas Aquinas, helped him confront the anti-Semitism that still degrades French society, impressed upon him the need for a universalism that could combat communism without neglecting Christian charity, and led him steadily onward in the life of contemplation. Without her, Maritain would never have written such compelling philosophy.

The book has serious omissions. It does not provide sufficient background on the Dreyfus Affair or Action Française, nor does it do justice to the moral malaise that led to the fall of France in 1940, or the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and Vichy. About the Maritain marriage, Barré says that it "proceeded less from pure chance than from a kind of inspired confluence, brought on by a similar intellectual precocity" and "a similar spiritual disquiet." Before converting to Catholicism, the two were so despondent that they seriously considered suicide. Two very different individuals, they were nonetheless "formed by the same desire for the absolute--an alliance against nothingness and the night, a fusion brought about by the most profound hope."

After converting, they vowed that their marriage would be celibate.The decision was not based on any disdain for nature. "In our journey toward the absolute," Maritain explained, "and in our desire to follow . . . at least one of the counsels of the life of perfection, we wanted to leave the field completely open to our quest for contemplation and union with God." Beaumarchais once said that of all serious things marriage is the most ludicrous. Maritain would have agreed. Yet the comedy he saw was divine comedy. As he observed in Reflections on America (1959), "Marriage is essentially spiritual in nature--a complete and irrevocable gift of one to another."

He continued:

In a free and unceasing ebb and flow of emotion, feeling and thought, each [spouse] really participates, by virtue of love, in that personal life of the other which is, by nature, the other's incommunicable possession. And then each one may become a sort of guardian Angel for the other--prepared as guardian Angels have to be, to forgive a great deal . . . Each one, in other words, may become really dedicated to the good and salvation of the other.

Born in Rostov in 1883, Raissa Oumancoff spent her first ten years in a Chagallian world of rabbis, beggars, fiddlers, and harlequins. The assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 led to reprisals against Russia's Jews that caused several hundred thousand of them to emigrate to America and Western Europe. What decided Raissa's father to emigrate was the czar's ukase stipulating that only a limited number of Jews would be considered for seats in the gymnasiums and universities. This solicitude for her education caused Raissa to remark that her parents "had understood, even before I could know it myself, that this was where I would find my life--the happiness of my life."

Before settling in Paris, the family stayed for a while with Raissa's maternal grandfather in Mariupol on the Azov Sea. "Their hospitality was proverbial," Raissa recalled. One of the great themes of Barré's book is how Jacques and Raissa would offer similar hospitality in the households they set up in Versailles, Meudon, and Princeton, where their faith and their charity became "a little bridge thrown across the abyss." They formed a little community, a lay apostolate dedicated to bringing the life of faith to those whom priests could not reach.

Born in Paris in 1882, Maritain never got to know his father, a lawyer, whom Barré piquantly describes as part "skeptical aesthete" and part "sensual playboy." His only passion seems to have been shopping for antiques. The many spiritual mentors to whom Maritain would later apprentice himself, from St. Thomas to Léon Bloy, Father Clérissac to Dom Delatte, were, to some degree, substitutes for his absent father. After a brief, unhappy marriage, his parents divorced. Geneviève Favre was one of the first divorcées in France, which only legalized divorce in 1884. In 1904, Paul Maritain died. Jacques experienced a childhood full of abrupt moves from ramshackle households where the only stability came from his schooling, first at the Lycée Henry IV and then at the Sorbonne, where he read Bergson and Spinoza.

It is amusing that his fiercely anticlerical mother should have insisted on his being initially tutored by a liberal Protestant. Maritain would entirely repudiate this tuition in his first book, Trois Réformateurs (1925), in which he took Luther, Descartes, and Rousseau to task for alienating the modern self from God. Later, he would include Kant, Schop enhauer, and Bergson in his criticism of what he called "the abdication of the mind," and insist that it was the mission of Thomism "to reconnect with being, to make fruitful all our bonds with human experience." This confidence in the mind's ability to apprehend truth is what has made him a pariah in a postmodernist ethos where the very idea of truth is rejected out of hand.

The seminal event in Maritain's development was the Dreyfus Affair. In 1899, when Georges Clemenceau called for the complete vindication of Dreyfus, Maritain rallied to the cause. To a friend he wrote that he was "ready to suffer anything--even the rude slamming of doors in my face--for the noble cause of the innocent and tortured prisoner." Thus did Maritain become aware, as Barré writes, of "his particular responsibility to his century."

Yet the incoherence of French politics often involved Maritain in positions that he would later regret, so much so that in 1935, in his Lettre sur l'indépendance, he insisted that he was neither right nor left wing: "At the heart of the suffering that all the earth is experiencing today, there is doubtless a divine necessity for breaking, not with the world, but with the old servitudes of this world--these are the hard demands of engaged liberty."

It is precisely his "engaged liberty" that has made Maritain, in the words of the philosopher William Sweet, "too liberal for conservatives and too conservative for liberals." This spirit of independence came partly from his mother, who, when warned by her concierge that she was borrowing trouble by entertaining Jewish women in her apartment at the height of the deportations, responded: "Not to worry. This is where the stars meet."

The man who converted the Maritains was Léon Bloy, a proudly penurious novelist, whose career Barré describes in suitably melodramatic terms: "This humiliated Christian, beat down by crushing poverty and handed over to the sneers of the multitude was a man at war. . . . Bloy held on by his faith and survived because of it." His impact on the Maritains was instantaneous. "Instead of being a whitened sepulcher like the Pharisees of any and every age," Maritain recalled, "he was more like a charred and blackened cathedral. The whiteness was within, in the hidden heart of the tabernacle."

One of the great puzzles of Maritain's career is why he associated himself with Action Française. Although supportive of the Church as an agent of order, this right-wing royalist movement was also determined to root out what it perceived to be the enemy from within, including Jews, Freemasons, Protestants, and métèques, or resident aliens. It was Maritain's spiritual director, Father Clérissac, who recommended that he join the movement, which Clérissac saw as a bulwark against the depredations of liberal democracy. In a letter of 1910 to another spiritual director, Dom Delatte, Maritain showed how much his Catholic mentors had soured him on the republican ideas that had inspired his youth: "We thank you for having pointed out so clearly to us the venom of liberalism and for having provided an irrefutable historical justification for [the] disdain that every Catholic should feel instinctively . . . for all the diminutions, concessions and vilenesses of modern times."

Maritain only repudiated the movement after Pius XI condemned it in 1926. Why he continued marching under the Action Française banner for 17 years remains a mystery. Barré suggests that one reason might have been Maritain's desire to convert Charles Maurras, the movement's leader, who, by all accounts, was a brilliant, confused, unsavory man. (To judge from the amount of time and effort that Maritain spent trying to convert Gide and Cocteau, this might well have been the case.) In all events, it is not as though he did not recognize or, indeed, understand anti-Semitism. In "The Mystery of Israel" (1939), a pivotal essay, he wrote: "It is difficult not to be struck by the extraordinary baseness . . . of anti-Semitic propaganda. . . . To a mind sufficiently alert, this baseness itself seems disquieting: it must have a mystical meaning."

Despite his interest in the world around him, Maritain always recognized that his real role must be played out in his work. In 1925, he published his brilliantly provocative Art et Scholastique, which summoned artists to find "once more the spiritual conditions of honest work"--a revolutionary summons at a time when Tristan Tzara was launching the Dada movement. In 1927, he published his groundbreaking Primauté du spirituel, which gave eloquent expression to his vision of a renewed Thomistic universalism. "It is to a universal expansion of the intelligence that we are called by love," he wrote. "The time is now. The soul demands pure adherence to the absolutism of truth and charity."

In 1936, he published Humanisme integrale, which, taking stock of "the liquidation of four centuries of classical culture," exhorted Christians to undertake "the most true and perfect heroism, the heroism of love," to "work toward the establishment of a new temporal order of the world." Here was a true Christian humanism. In 1932, he published what many consider his masterpiece, Distinguer pour unir: ou Les Degrès du savoir, which rejected the nominalism of Kantianism, idealism, pragmatism, and positivism and asserted, instead, that the mind can know what really exists.

Barré is good on how the fall of France affected Maritain. No sooner had the Germans taken possession than the Gestapo went looking for him. They requisitioned his Meudon villa, removed his books from the bookstores, and suspended his classes. Addressing Maritain as "My dear Teacher," Charles de Gaulle urged him repeatedly to join his exiled government in London. Maritain wisely stayed in New York. Most French intellectuals chose to collaborate. The French episcopate embraced Vichy wholeheartedly. Maritain spent much of his time in New York helping Jewish professors who had fled the Nazis find teaching positions with American colleges.

In A travers le désastre, one of the first great works of the Resistance, secretly distributed throughout France in 1942, Maritain boosted morale by instilling solidarity. He called a spade a spade. "The Vichy government is in fact prisoner of the enemy in a trap where it threw itself and all of France along with it." Some historians continue to see nuances in the occupation; Maritain saw only "abominable betrayals everywhere." He was particularly savage about how Pierre Laval and Marshal Pétain had dishonored their country: "To betray her traditional laws of political hospitality, to accept for herself and for her own laws the bestial ignominy of Nazi racism, to hand over foreign Jews welcomed by her since 1935 as into a human and faithful land, to hand over even those who fought for her and in her army in the course of the present war, never in all history has such an infamy been imposed on France."

After the war, Maritain served as de Gaulle's ambassador to the Vatican. Ronald Knox, the English Catholic convert, once advised that "He who travels in the barque of St. Peter had better not look too closely into the engine room." Maritain saw altogether too much of the engine room and concluded that "Catholics are not Catholicism. The mistakes, the clumsiness, the inefficiencies, the lack of concern of Catholics do not involve Catholicism itself. It is not the responsibility of Catholicism to furnish an alibi for the shortcomings of Catholics."

When Maritain returned to Paris after the Second World War and found that he was practically forgotten, he received a letter from his fellow Thomist, Etienne Gilson, who took the liberty of advising his old friend on what Samuel Johnson once referred to as "the justice of posterity."

"Whether you realize it or not, you are great," Gilson told him, "and this is something for which you will never be forgiven." Gilson continued: "Go on with your work, which is irreplaceable, and don't worry about anything; the rest is of no account." Judging from what Maritain once said about his own mission, it is probable that Gilson's advice did not go unheeded. "I feel like a man walking on a slippery slope," he said, "carrying a very heavy weight in his arms. He must beware of the slightest misstep. What can one do? When it is a question of God's grace, one can only close one's eyes and let it work."

Edward Short is at work on a study of John Henry Newman and his contemporaries.

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