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Title: The imaginative exploitation of theological doctrines in the work of Leon Bloy (1846-1917)
Author: Birkett, Jennifer
ISNI:       0000 0001 3465 1504
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 1973
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The first section studies the history of the conflict of the Church and the French Republic which provides the political context of Bloy's work. It analyses the statements and forms of the early polemic articles in which he expressed his rejection of the mediocrity and banality of contemporary Republican society, from which religious idealism provided a refuge. Of the religious options available, Bloy rejected those which seemed to him no more than compromise with secular ideals - Liberal Catholicism, or the uncritical orthodoxjr of the mass of Catholic society, which reflected all the vices of the secular state - and gave his adherence to intransigent Catholicism. The traditionalist philosophy on which this was ba.sed confirmed his own denunciation of the ha.bits of secular society and offered a new context in which the individual could create for himself a heroic existence within this society. This would take the form of a morally responsible engagement in practical experience (necessarily ascetic, given that the context must by definition negate present values). The justification and the motivation for the heroic option were found in c, revision and renewal of the full dogmatic structure of traditional Catholicism. The second section considers the importance of the dogmatic structure in Bloy's work. Like the Catholic hierarchy at this period, he became increasingly absolute in defensive response to positivist attacks on dogma (the Catholic supernatural). This can be seen with particular force in the campaign against Zola which he inherited from Barbey d'Aurevilly. The supernatural realm was presented bv tho intransigents as a transcendent order which restored to human personality the dignity which had been denied by materialism. Bloy defended by reference to this the concepts of human freewill and responsibility and the validity of human reason which acknowledges its ontological source in God. Despite his frecuent appeals to the authority of intransigent philosophy (chiefly that of Blanc de Saint-Bonnet and Ernest Hello) his defence was not intellectually convincing, but one which relied on specious rhetoric to present its own case and crude polemic to discredit its opponents. In an attempt to establish the depths of human mind and experience, he appealed also to the example of the mystics - the Christological mysticism of Emmerick, Pascal, Angela di Foligno, Faber and Hello, and the via negativa of Dionysius the Areopagite. Heroic suffering, which denied the values of this life, was the basis for the accession to Truth (defined as intimate knowledge of God achieved through contemplation, initiated by God alone). Bloy's novels described the human condition which this implied; the truly conscious man, who is the man of religious convictions, must live in contradiction to the secular world, with all his forces and energies deriving from and tending to the supernatural. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Bloy can sometimes be seen to acknowledge the unsatisfactory nature of this division. A study of his treatment of the symbols encountered on the unitive way, compared with thr-t of the Areopagite, shows that his ascetic renunciations arc not always wholehearted. Much of Bloy's apologetic is based on the reinstatement of the dogmatic images by which Catholicism represents the supernatural. In this he followed a movement already present in the Church which recognised the appeal of the image to the imagination and emotions, which was more effective than one to discursive reason. He rejected the symbolist interpretation which reduced the specificity of dogma to the abstract moral truth it enclosed. He restored the traditional formulae expressing God's providential intervention in human history: on the general plane, introducing into history a sense of coherence and finality, and on the particular, using the contradictory nature of the image to carry his own ironic challenge to contemporary values. (The movement between the two moments of Fall and Second Coming is used to press for moral revival in individuals and society, and the need for national and moral unity to effect this revival. The imminent apocalyptic catastrophe is a vehicle for specific attacks on avaricious landlords and wartime profiteers as well as on general religious apathy.) Bloy's exegesis of the Catholic image includes references to other contemporary interpretations more familiar to his readers, as in his relation of the Second Coming to the Third Reign popularised by the Romantics and, more recently, by Lévi and Vintras. These, however, have only the status of imaginative supports to his Catholic propositions, and are in no way intended to detract from the orthodoxy of his doctrine. Less direct methods of incorporating the concept of the supernatural include the use of Biblical and liturgical, and the exploitation of techniques also used by the secular poet. Here Bloy's treatment of the theme of death is especially important. The central point of Catholic doctrine for Bloy was its enrohasis on suffering. Suffering was the state which corporalised the ideal, mediating the supernatural into natural existence. He was brought to the theme by personal experience and by tho general tendencies of his period, which are considered in detail. A chronological account of the formation of his doctrine shows him indebted to de Maistre and Faber for the religious interpretation of suffering as expiation, having a co-redemptive function in conjunction with the sufferings of Christ, and to Blanc de Saint-Bonnet and Hello for the Romantic concept of suffering as the basis of heroic personality and of genius. These several elements were pulled together by Bloy around the theme of La Salette, where the meaning of suffering is set in the Passion of Christ in which humanity participates through the mediation of the Compassion of the Immaculate Conception. Bloy's doctrine is related to the secular experience which motivated its formulation (especially that of war) and to the contemporary formulations of tha Church in the doctrines of the Sacred Heart and the Communion of Saints, which provided the background for the theology of the literary Revival. It is emphasised that this Revival in no sense exaggerated the contemporary sense of the Church; that stress on expiation and reparation often considered its peculiar property were commonplace in the theology of this period. The last section studios Bloy's adaptations of his doctrine to his particular experience in the contexts of love, poverty and art. In the first, he created for himself an independent position detached from both a permissive literary milieu and a prudish Church. He was concerned to adapt to the ascetic doctrine the needs of his own passionate temperament; in this, he was strongly influenced by the work of Barbey, whose themes and attitudes he incorporated into his own work. An account of his experience and its transposition into imaginative forms (through Le Désespéré, the Lettres à sa fiancée and La Femme pauvre) shows Bloy exalting the idea of carnal passion as the medium through which man accedes to spiritual love, and the creative rôle of the couple as the image of the Church's redemptive co-operation with Christ - in terras, however, ultimately ascetic, and within a framework whose high degree of elaboration suggests a recognition of the instability of the; conjunction he has effected between the two concepts. A like pattern emerges from analysis of his treatment of the theme of poverty. Bloy perceived more clearly than many of his contemporaries the modern social problem of destitution, and was more willing to acknowledge the claims of the poor to recognition. At the same time he refused to relinquish the existing social order and dependent moral values which prevented the fulfilment of these claims.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Criticism and interpretation ; Theology in literature