Leon Bloy was said to be the strangest yet most compelling of all men in France. A threadbare beggar, a pilgrim of the absolute, a man constitutionally incapable of compromise, Bloy was unable to make peace with a life premised on the idea of respectability, claiming that his vocation was to, “disclose the universal villainy of respectable people” Thus his eternal war on the Bourgeois. The war has many casualties but Bloy will not be stopped. The way the Bourgeois act and think is repugnant and he must, he simply must, speak out about it. He must also live out his ideals, becoming essentially an anchorite dedicated to seeking out poverty and suffering.
At some point, if you read his books, Leon Bloy will write something acerbic about a cliché you’ve uttered. He will exegete it at great length with an odd mix of gruff dismissiveness and luminous insight. He will turn on a dime from ironic cynicism, grasp a thread, and follow it all the way from the banal through the maze to locate the god hidden at the center. Go into one of his books with the right frame of mind, and it will be, by turn, delightful and challenging. He will verbally torch you. Accept it and laugh. You are Bourgeois. I am Bourgeois. God help us all.
Wiseblood Books recently sent me a copy of Bloy’s Exegesis of Commonplaces, in which his writing prowess is on full display. Translated by Louis Cancelmi, the prose sparkles with life and hides within it an assassin’s dagger. Cancelmi has done an admirable job explaining some of the more unusual commonplaces that have no equivalent in English, but what surprises me is that the majority of them are the exact same. All over the world, across the centuries, the cliches I utter on a daily basis like some sort of suburban buddha have been uttered over and over again, and shall continue to be uttered again and again, world without end.
Bloy isn’t disturbed so much at the existence of a common dialect as much as he’s disturbed by how, when examined closely, these commonplaces reveal a certain shape of the mind. This is what he means by “Bourgeois,” which he uses in the sense that Karl Marx used it, not to refer to the working classes but rather as a description of a middle-class, materialistic mentality. Cancelmi describes it as the “incarnation of the faithlessness, pride, self-justification, cleverness, obfuscation, and gluttony that mire us in the world and contaminate our relationships with other and with ourselves.” It’s a mentality that weighs up life in small-talk, beige religious sentiment, and the comforts of material acquisition.
It’s a worldview Bloy strenuously rejects, believing that one must either worship God or the Devil and there is no in-between. Our habits of speech ought to reflect this, always seeking out the ineffable goodness that is reality itself. Jesus Christ is the Word, and all subsequent words, in some shape or form, refer back to him and participate in his primordial speech. Unexamined speech, the type of phrase uttered simply because it’s unoffensive, is the worst of all uses of language.
So why do we utter these inane commonplaces? It’s a matter of survival, I suppose. Language that insists of drilling to the heart of existence with every single syllable would be a heavy burden to carry. I suspect I would say a lot less if I maintained a consciousness of the true weight to my words. Perhaps that’s Bloy’s whole point. It really is impossible, though, to pull apart every single word and phrase we utter, to examine our habits of speech mercilessly. To do so is a species of madness. Bloy, of course, is all for it.
Only saints and strange folk like Bloy should mess around with this stuff. It’s too dangerous, best for you and me activate the defense mechanism, spit out a cliché and move on. Reading Exegesis is like cracking open an egg, but instead of a yolk out pops an existential crisis. We crawl back into our skin and mumble a commonplace, thus giving the illusion of a genuine, authentic interaction with the great spiritual challenge before us but at the exact same time secretly buttressing our defenses and raising the drawbridge. Perhaps battle can be given another day, but this isn’t the time or the place, friends. The greeting line at the wake shoves us from our place at the front of the receiving line near the casket and we can gratefully take our place in the back by the cookie table. Soon enough, the danger recedes and some passing distraction grabs our attention. The cookies we’re clenching in both hands don’t hurt.
The yawning chasm of death, infinite loss, the hearthfire of existence. It burns. It stands like a white-hot monolith just beyond the end of the mind, just beyond the capacity of words to give it form. This we cannot accept. This is why poets keep writing. It’s well known, however, that the poets suffer greatly for attempting to name the unnameable. At the opposite end of the spectrum is more comfort, which is why we all continue uttering commonplaces. At least I said something. The grieving widow deserves at least that much.
Are commonplaces anti-poetry? If poetry is a stubborn gathering up of the shards of the Beautiful, an attempt to name and participate in a transcendent reality, what is a commonplace? Perhaps at one point it was poetry but now has gone stale. Perhaps it never was poetry, though. Perhaps it was always an attempt to close off avenues of inquiry by closing off language itself, directing it into a safe harbor, a Bourgeois line of thought? In this sense, the commonplace is anti-poetry and in discussing them Bloy is squeezing blood from a stone. The fact that he succeeds in his efforts is a minor miracle, but the exegesis must be violent. As Cancelmi says in the translator’s preface, “Bloy’s chief purpose with the present work is to divorce the language of the Bourgeois from its apparent or superficial meaning and lay bare its supernatural qualities.”
The commonplace, Bloy writes, is “a kind of escape hatch for fleeing…” We must not flee. We must not flinch. Read widely, read deeply, read this book, write poetry, speak authentically, and never compromise with comfort and mediocrity. Is Bloy excessive? Yes. But he’s not wrong. The limitation of language reveals a limitation of mind and feeling. Better to go deep, better to go too deep, than to have never lived, thought, or spoken at all.
Purchase Exegesis of Commonplaces at Wiseblood Books, first published in 1902 and recently appearing in English for the first time. It’s also worth it to check out the entire catalog at Wiseblood Books