The French poet and philosopher Charles Péguy died in September, 1914 with a bullet through his head. He had anticipated the war that took his life—some say he even welcomed it, though his poetry resists that claim. He was a polemicist to the core and at odds with his temporal milieu, which was a modernity he described as the “decay of culture” and an “invasion of political and social corruption.” Péguy’s final poems, particularly La Nuit, published in the years just before the war, exhibit a negative aesthetic, as it were, in response to the positivism he associated with modernity—an aesthetic that privileges darkness, discontinuity, and shrouding rather than the supposed light of rationalism. For Péguy, the negative aesthetic contained the possibility of peace; it was a holdout against despair.
Péguy was not a believer in the pieties of modern progress which he thought were nothing more than “politically motivated intellectual betrayal.” It was specifically the vulnerability of individual people in the face of the totalizing claims of modern knowledge—scientific, rational, comprehensive—claims that Péguy thought insanely hubristic and rigid, that instigated Péguy’s acerbic tone in much of his prose. “Whilst the powers that be were united in celebrating the advance of progress, science, and democracy,” writes Bruno Latour, “Péguy foresaw that we were heading toward the abyss.” It was in that lurch of modernity toward the abyss of the Great War that Péguy, in seeking a way to live with the world, imagined another abyss—I don’t think the term is too strong—in which one’s humanity might shelter in war conditions or conditions of modernity (the difference for Péguy is not clear).
In La Nuit, Péguy speaks in the first person as God. It’s a bold move, but it establishes the religious foundation that is essential to Péguy’s negative aesthetic—his own via negativa through which to attempt reconciliation with the reality of the world. In La Nuit, God celebrates night with waves of repetitive contrasts and compliments:
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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O Night, you are the night. And all those days together
Are never the day, they are never anything but days,
Sown. Those days are never anything but lights,
Uncertain lights, and you, night, you are my great dark light.
Péguy emphasizes the contingency and instability of days and light while investing night with mythic proportions and deep ontological security as if it participated more directly with God as the source of being. Operating as it does in a religious register, La Nuit is a hymn to the special beauty of darkness, a ritual celebration of the natural phenomenon of night; but the poem is also a polemic leveled at what he saw as the naïveté of his milieu—a milieu, recall, that was embarking on a century of near-continuous industrialized warfare.
Part of Péguy’s polemic is simply not to celebrate modernity’s so-called progress, but he singles out history, or more specifically “the intellectual hegemony of scientistic historicism” for repudiation. Péguy objects to the rationalism that “authorizes so-called ‘scientists’ to mobilize ‘secondary causes,’” writes Latour, “which are wheeled out as a way of explaining consequences by antecedents.” It seems Péguy anticipated that all those war casualties (of which he was one) would be explained away by those “antecedents.” Then again, there is history as a weapon so that “what will happen in the future is already so determined by the past,” a situation in which control of history means control of the future. Péguy relishes night because it interrupts these constant agitations of restless human beings, those agitations that are the engines of the forward march of capital-H-History. Péguy figures man as “that monster of restlessness,” and Night as “you who succeed in putting to sleep man, / That well of restlessness.” For Péguy the narrative of scientistic historicism is the ultimate picture of restless man, controlling the world by proliferating narratives into which we are all written and accounted for without the mysteries that have enchanted us for millennia. Against the restlessness of history, Péguy’s night serves as a merciful reprieve. Night introduces a fundamental discontinuity in the passing of days and an experience of mystery.
But in his prose reflection on history, Clio I, Péguy adds a layer of complexity to the problem. He describes an inherent Christian anxiety regarding history that we can see in operation throughout his oeuvre, but particularly in La Nuit. In the cryptic voice of History itself Péguy writes that because Christ became incarnate, He became implicated in family life. If God Himself was a child and dependent, then for fathers of families, “[n]othing that happens, nothing historical, is a matter of indifference.” We should note that this includes God the Father, who, on account of the Incarnation becomes vulnerable to history in the way that every father with children is. This is the history of everyday reality in which knees are skinned, people are hurt, and even those with mystical missions confront violence and murder.
Erich Auerbach captures this anxiety with history in his chapter “Historical Introduction: The Idea of Man in Literature.” He writes, “the story of Christ is more than the parousia of the logos, more than the manifestation of the idea. In it the idea is subjected to the problematic character and desperate injustice of earthly happening.” It is this aspect of history, this “earthly happening” and its inevitable injustice, that generates the need for a response from Péguy—the need for some sort of resolution between the reality and physicality of history as it confronts the idea and ideal of transcendence. For Péguy, what is true for Christ, the model human, is true for all people, which means that simply historically speaking, one can expect torture and execution in exchange for charity. But if Christ’s life is the model of historical, physical disaster, it also offers hope in the form of the hereafter. Those three days in the grave, shrouded in darkness as they were, culminate in a resurrection that offers salvation. For Péguy the darkness of night is a reprieve precisely because it shrouds and enacts discontinuity from historical experience.
This discontinuity is at the heart of Péguy’s negative aesthetic. In the final lines of La Nuit God the Father recalls the agony of watching his Son hang on the cross while unable to go to Him and bury Him since Christ is incarnated in history and therefore subject to the terribleness of historical reality.
Now every man has the right to bury his son,
…And I alone, I, God,
Arms tied by that adventure,
I alone, at that moment,
…could not bury my son.
It was then, o night, that you came,
O my daughter, beloved among all, and I still see it, and I shall see that in my
It was then, o Night, that you came, and in a great shroud you buried.
It might be startling in a pre-war poem, but Péguy captures in these lines the trauma of the forced and prolonged vision of the body of a loved one for whom nothing can be done—a confrontation between the spiritually animated human and the uncompromising reality of history. Night breaks the traumatic vision, introducing the discontinuity of the shroud of darkness into the experience of vision. In the Great War, this experience would become widespread as bodies of comrades would remain decomposing in no-man’s-land for days or weeks as sentries on both sides maintained sectors of fire covering the casualties. It was finally only night that could provide a solution, however temporary, to the problem and pain of that kind of vision. Péguy encourages us to disengage from the garish illumination of modernity—an illumination that deceives through omission as much as commission as if it were a bare bulb throwing harsh light on only the surface turned toward it. Better to switch off that kind of light and simply wait for dawn.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Charles Péguy” painted by Jean-Pierre Laurens.