Again the grand drape rises, but now we find ourselves in the commune of Charmes-sur-Moselle, and in the presence of Maurice Barrès, the novelist, playwright, essayist, aesthete, nationalist, protectionist, member of the Académie Française, and elected deputy of the Seine as a member of the conservative Entente républicaine démocratique party. Léon Blum, writing in 1897, submitted that “if M. Barrès had not lived, if he had not written books, his age would be different and so would we. I don’t see any contemporary in France who has exerted, through literature, comparable or equal influence. Like Voltaire and Chateaubriand, he has created not the temporary scaffolding of a system but something more intimately bound up with our lives: a new attitude, a new cast of mind and sensibility.” Born in Charmes-sur-Moselle in 1862, Barrès spent his youth exploring the Celtic, Gallo-Roman, and medieval ruins of his native Lorraine, formative experiences that took on even more significance after the German Empire’s annexation of much of the region in 1871.
The historian Frederick Brown, in The Embrace of Unreason (2014), advanced the theory that the “name Barrès which derives from the Auvergnat word for pallisaded bastion, was well suited to this man, whose exclusionary creed rooted Frenchness in the soil and bound it to the dead. It’s as if his patronymic shaped his ends.” In fact the Barrès patronyme was likely derived from forebears who inhabited the commune of Mur-de-Barrez, which was in turn named after a Gallo-Roman latifundium called Bars. (The noble French Maison des Barres, or house of Barres, meanwhile, did get its name from the Old French bar, referring to the defensive wall protecting medieval Paris’ right bank, viz. the altogether charming Rue des Barres in the Marais district of Paris.) Still, it makes for an interesting story, and Barrès did maintain a particular affection for the Château de Vaudémont, a ruined pile that would serve as the setting for his masterpiece La colline inspirée (The Sacred Hill). The site of Vaudémont is now further graced by the towering Monument Barrès, erected in memory of the writer in 1928, five years after his death, with money from a public subscription backed by such luminaries as Paul Bourget and Anna, Comtesse de Noailles. After the monument’s inauguration ceremony, Léon Blum submitted a touching piece to the socialist journal Le Populaire, entitled “Le vrai monument de Maurice Barrès,” in which he praised the “glorious” and “masterful” Barrès, “the nonchalant and disdainful prince of my generation as well as his own.” Despite their vastly different politics, Blum declared that “before the name of Barrès I am neither a hostile critic nor even an impartial spectator,” for “his memory has remained dear to me like his person.”
One suspects that Barrès would have largely approved of his limestone memorial, on aesthetic grounds at least. It was designed by the landscape architect Achille Duchêne to be an almost exact replica of the celebrated Lantern of the Dead in Fenioux, built around the time of the church of Saint-Médard in Grisy-Suisnes. Like its inspiration, the Monument Barrès features 12 bundled columns, each crowned with acanthus leaves, supporting a pyramidal stone roof surmounted by a cross. Barrès was fond of such structures, writing movingly about “the beacon of the cemetery, the beacon around which the shadows swirl in the night, the most moving sign of the call made by the Church deep into the mysterious moors, and the mark of its goodness.” On the north face of the monument’s base is engraved “À la mémoire de Maurice Barrès, MDCCCLXII – MCMXXIII,” while the west face is inscribed with an apt passage from The Sacred Hill, which explores the tension between the infinite and the limits of human existence, between the need for a transcendent moral order and a recognition of man’s fallen nature:
L’horizon qui cerne cette plaine c’est celui qui cerne toute vie. Il donne une place d’honneur à notre soif d’infini en même temps qu’il nous rappelle nos limites.
[The horizon that surrounds this plain is the selfsame one that surrounds all life. It gives pride of place to our thirst for infinity, and at the same time it reminds us of our limits.]
Given that the core of Barrès’ philosophy could be summed up with the phrase “la terre et les morts,” the sight of a Romanesque lantern of the dead rising up out of the gleaming limestone plain of Vaudémont surely must have brought solace to his no doubt restive shade. It was this ardent devotion to the land and to the dead buried therein that would galvanize Barrès and his followers as they delved into the “mysterious grottoes of the past,” and sought to forge a more self-reliant and less “dissociated” and “decerebrated” republic. Yet such is the double-edged sword of organicist nationalism that Barrèsisme would also lead at various times to quixotic Boulangisme and virulent anti-Dreyfusard sentiment, though it should be noted that in Les familles spirituelles de la France, Barrès broke with nationalists like Charles Maurras and included the French Jewish community alongside the traditionalists, Protestants, and socialists as the four elements of “national genius.”
Utterly dedicated to preserving French cultural patrimony and honoring the resting dead, Barrès was not about to let the enormities taking place in Grisny-Suisnes pass without protest, and so we follow along as he respectfully but passionately conveys in neat, sloping handwriting his deep-seated concerns to Prime Minister Aristide Briand:
January 4, 1910.
Monsieur le Président du Conseil,
The mayor of Grisy-Suisnes has just put the remains of his commune’s church up for auction. This is only the beginning. Year after year, we will see religious buildings collapse from one end of France to the other. Will you bear witness to this transformation of the face of our country with your arms folded?
I can anticipate your response: you answer me that this is all the Pope’s fault. I don’t want to enter this debate. You are in power to safeguard all French wealth and interests. Our churches are at the forefront of these civilizational riches. We have received them from our ancestors, and we must pass them on to our sons; we do not have to be bludgeoned by those who declare them useless. All men of culture in France and abroad refuse to admit that there is a government barbaric enough to destroy these sources of spiritual life. Don’t tell me that you are safeguarding the most precious of the churches. Who can judge their price, and isn’t the most modest one infinitely precious in its context? What does it matter to me if you keep a more beautiful church in Toulouse, if you throw down the church in my own village?
I don’t want to believe that you accept with indifference the beginnings of an era of vandalism. It is not possible that such great things, which concern the history and soul of France, will be sacrificed despicably in a political quarrel.
Please receive, Monsieur Monsieur le Président du Conseil, the expression of my very distinguished sentiments.
Within a week, Barrès receives words of encouragement — and warning — from Henry Cochin, a fellow writer and politician.
January 10, 1910.
My dear colleague,
It was with emotion and gratitude that I learned that you had decided to question the President of the Council regarding the demolition of the church of Grisy-Suisnes. Your protest could not be more timely. The danger you report is general. It is not the only village of Grisy that will in the coming months see its bell tower torn down and its church razed to the ground. In the department of Yonne alone, there are five demolitions completed or in the process of being completed. One of the five churches, that of Taingy (canton of Courson, arrondissement of Auxerre), is a remarkable monument from the late fifteenth century; it has maintained until the present day, in its portal, in several windows and various architectural details, all the beauty and finesse of the charming flamboyant Gothic.
This character of art and antiquity has not served as a safeguard, nor has it been reported at a recent archaeology congress, described in special collections (Répertoire archéologique de l’Yonne), or even noticed by the Touring Club.
All attempts to save the church of Taingy have failed. The pickaxe is there; the tiles are already removed.
I hastily send you this sad news, my dear colleague, and I ask your permission to advertise my letter, given the urgency of making such facts known.
I add the names of three communes of the Yonne whose churches have recently been demolished: Noé, Saint-Maurice-Thizouailles, Arthonnay, and another municipality where demolition has been decided: Mélisey.
Please accept, etc.
Henry Cochin, député
Churches all across France were being reduced to rubble, falling victim to pickaxes, dynamite, and ideological animus. It must have come as quite a shock at the time, and should remain shocking even in this desensitized age of ours, to encounter the series of photographs documenting the demolition of the church of Saint-Martin at Cinqueux that were published in the January 29, 1911 edition of Les Annales. In three successive panels, we see the spire of Saint-Martin intact, then erupting in a cloud of dense black smoke, and finally reduced to ruin. It is a concatenation of events haunting in its own right, and all the more so as a harbinger of the untold destruction that would engulf churches in Maurepas, Sailly, Arras, Reims, and elsewhere along the Western Front as those religious sites were pulverized by German long-range siege guns. But the damage done in Grisy-Suisnes, Cinqueux, and Taingy was all the more tragic for not being the result of external aggression, but instead the product of a kind of spiritual autophagous or auto-immune disorder. Barrès, in a fit of righteous indignation, describes the dynamiting of Saint-Martin:
It took three successive loads of melinite, from five to six kilos each, And now, in the punctured and gaping nave, the passerby sees with astonishment the stained glass windows and Renaissance woodwork reduced to crumbs, the inverted altars, the broken statues. This was without a doubt brought about legally. But this “legally” is a robust adverb; it supports many different outcomes. Centuries, tempests, the Jacquerie revolt, the wars with the English, revolutions had all spared Cinqueux and its old Romanesque church and eleventh-century bell tower, one of the oldest in France. But the so-called rule of law is what destroyed it.
The mayor of Cinqueux is unrepentant, and by way of explanation serves up a banquet of anti-clerical socialist vomit. He tells Barrès that while the ancient structure was admittedly part of the “patrimony of our ancestors,” it was also a reminder of those times “when our fathers had to suffer the yoke of an authoritarian and cruel clergy. If the church was indeed from the twelfth century, then it existed at the time of the Inquisition, St. Bartholomew’s Day, the Dragonnades, etc.” “Lord,” despairs Barrès, “why did you make them so stupid?”
We know from Schiller’s Die Jungfrau von Orleans that “against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain,” but Barrès is prepared to confront the folly of his insensate age, and in the years between the destruction of Saint-Médard and the onset of the First World War, he will campaign tirelessly against the cultural destruction taking place across the length and breadth of the French Republic. He sets forth legislation that would safeguard all churches built before 1800, and delivers three impassioned speeches on the subject before the Chamber of Deputies. He meets individually with the prime minister to press his case. He submits articles to L’Écho de Paris, Le Gaulois, and Le Temps. And he produces La grande pitié des églises de France, a bold and sparkling polemic aimed at vandals like the mayors of Grisy-Suisnes, Taingy, and Cinqueux. His efforts are tireless, and though his opponents in the lower house of parliament prevent any amendments to the Law on the Separation of the Churches and State, public opinion starts to turn in his favor. On December 31, 1913, a new Law on Historic Monuments comes into force, protecting any and all “sites of an artistic, historic, scientific, legendary, or picturesque nature,” thereby providing a mechanism by which ancient places of worship could be protected from the depredations of socialist municipal authorities.
Dominique Poulot and Richard Wrigley, in their 1988 essay on the birth of the French cultural heritage movement, commented that “the success of Maurice Barrès’ campaign to have all French churches classified on sentimental, rather than historical or artistic grounds” confirmed that “if the nineteenth century was the century of historical value, the twentieth century seems to be that of the value of oldness.” I suppose that was meant to be disparaging, but when Jean-Philippe Lecat, the French Minister of Culture, proposed during the 1980 Year of Heritage that “a priori everything should be considered an element of heritage,” he was wisely following Barrès’ lead. If the concept of heritage is not sufficiently inclusive or expansive, and instead becomes restricted to heavily-curated tourist sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List, the battle will already have been lost. In La grande pitié des églises de France, Barrès defended not only the grand cathedrals of major urban conurbations, but the more modest parish churches that, regardless of their size or stature, represent “souls cemented by the same belief, the communion of the living and the dead, a high house built to proclaim, affirm, and maintain the faith, in short a creed, one of strength and momentum, placed in the center and above our cities.” Such churches are symbols of a living faith, loci religiosi where “cult value,” to borrow Walter Benjamin’s phrase, still outweighs the “exhibition value” of religious architecture and artwork primarily consumed by sightseers, or secularized by their placement in sterile, lifeless museum galleries.
For Barrès, the very future of the republic depended on the outcome of this struggle to preserve the cult value of religious sites: “Those who conspire against churches, calvaries, and cemeteries, against all the monuments of spiritual life on our land, knowingly propose to cast down principles and certain laws of the soul from which our whole life flows. These conspirators will themselves be terrified by the lowering of dignity and reason in the unhappy lands where they claim victory.” Thanks to the strenuous efforts of Barrès, the “putrid and wicked Beast” was ultimately dealt a setback, and local politicians were no longer boasting of their campaign of vandalism. On June 24, 1920, a decade after Barrès’ campaign began in earnest, the National Assembly even adopted his bill to establish a national celebration of Joan of Arc, while his efforts to hold together the “sacred French union,” “without which France might have lost the war,” William Scheifley suggested in a 1924 obituary in the The Sewanee Review, “probably contributed [to the victory] more than any other citizen. Small wonder that his funeral should have been regarded as an event comparable to that of Victor Hugo’s.”
On the south face of the Monument Barrès in Vaudémont is inscribed another one of Barrès’ felicitous phrases, taken from the manuscript of Le mystère en pleine lumière, which he was working on in the last days of his life:
Honneur à ceux qui demeurent dans la tombe les gardiens et les régulateurs de la cité.
[Honor to those who abide in the tomb, the guardians and overseers of the city.]
TO BE CONTINUED