Wednesday, January 24, 2007

What's in a name?

'Chesteretté', you say dubiously when you read the signature at the bottom of these ramblings, 'who or what is that?'

Quite right. Who or what is the 'Chesteretté'?

Those familiar with Chesterton might know that George Bernard Shaw christened the partnership of Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc 'the Chesterbelloc'. In Joseph Pearce's admirable biography, The Innocence and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton, Pearce takes this even further by creating the 'Chesterblogg' (Chesterton married Frances Blogg) and even, Lord help us, the 'Chestershaw' to refer to Chesterton's friendship with GBS himself.

Hence, Chesteretté.

But why Chesterton, and why Retté? And, who is Retté anyway?

I'm nearly at the end of a thesis in which I have brought Chesterton and Retté together as test cases of the reaction to secularization in the Catholic literary revivals in England and France. At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century - a period of aggressive secularization in France and, it must be said, bumbling, piecemeal secularization in England - the literary constellations of both countries were graced by many individuals who decided to chuck in godlessness and try the Catholic Church for a change. The French Catholic literary revival boasts names like Charles Péguy, Paul Claudel, J.K. Huysmans and Jacques Maritain. The English Catholic literary revival includes such luminaries as Gerard Manley Hopkins, G.K. Chesterton, Robert Hugh Benson and Evelyn Waugh. My theory is that these two movements are fed by the same rejection of the various trends of secularization; through my test cases - from which are taken the soubriquet 'Chesteretté' - I try in my thesis to examine a small part of the map. A longer and more detailed study will one day have to be written, but, heck, give me a chance!

So, assuming you know who Chesterton was (and you'll get a million Google hits with Chesterton in . 0001 of a second), let me tell you something about Retté.

Adolphe Retté was born in 1863 into a largely disfunctional family. Raised mostly by his grandparents, he suffered from his mother's neglect and his father's prolonged absences. His two sisters died in childhood, and his grandfather in 1871. As a child Retté played on his own mostly, spending time inventing fairy stories in the woods and then eargerly recounting them at home. After leaving boarding school, where he had shown both precocious literary gifts and a willingness to get into trouble, he served in the French calvalry for five years.

His ambition on leaving the army in 1886 was to make it big as a writer, and after his arrival in Paris he fell in with the Symbolist poets whose manifesto had just been published. In the following years, he published several volumes of Symbolist poetry, shot through not only with the dreamy imprecisions and themes associated with that movement, but overcast by a nihilism borne of his continual disappointments in life. Everyone, it seems, to whom he ever got close, passed away. (It must get discouraging after a while.) He was subsequently a journalist on a number of literary reviews, an associate of anarchists, a friend of Georges Clemenceau who became President of France, and a fiery critic of writer J.K Huysmans who had converted to the Catholic Church.

As a devotee of extreme left-wing trade unionism, he preached to the proletariat about the coming socialist revolution, and about the happiness that Science and Reason would bring humanity at large. Little did he realize that this was the beginining of his conversion. Drinking with workers after such a lecture, he was stumped by their demanding to know how scientists explain the origin of the universe, a question he knew he could not convincingly or truthfully answer without admitting that the supposedly omniscient scientists didn't know. Cracks suddenly appeared in the walls of the temple he had built to Reason, as he relates in his autobiography. The workers were not happy either!

His conversion process to the Catholic Church in 1906 was as much a shock to him as to everybody else, and saw him at one point on the verge of suicide. After making his general confession to a priest of Saint Sulpice in Paris, he collapsed with tears of relief into the arms of the confessor whose own face was streaming with tears of joy. His writing talents were subsequently focused on generating a body of reflections, studies and memoirs, all inspired by this conversion. Notable among these are his spiritual autobiography Du Diable à Dieu (1907), the novel Le Règne de la Bête (1908) about an anarchist hoping to bomb Notre Dame cathedral, and Au Pays des Lys noirs (1913), an assortment of memoirs mostly concering anarchism. Several attempts to enter a monastery were unsuccessful, and, having abandoned his career as a literary journalist, he lived on the little money he made from his books, the occasional speaking engagement, and on a small independent income which of course was wiped out by the First World War. Before and after the war, he was associated somewhat with Charles Maurras's monarchist movement Action Française, but distanced himself from them after their condemnation by Pope Pius XI in 1926. His finally years were spent in penury. He lived in a small flat in Beaune, and he died alone on 8th December 1930, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, his health broken, but his spirit humbled and sanctified, and his mind peaceful and contented.

And that is Adolphe Retté. He and Chesterton never met, to my knowledge. It would have been something of a mismatch. The rolypoly, beer-swilling, joke-cracking Englishman would have undoubtedly taken an interest in the drawn, garret-living, ex-Symbolist poet. Retté would have savoured Chesterton's wit, and his philosophical depth. But would they have been friends? I doubt it. The French and English rarely get on!

Their meeting is probably a lot more felicitous on the page; this is why I have brought them together as standard bearers of anti-secularization. And having lived with them throughout my PhD, there's just enough of them both in me to justify the soubriquet.


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