Julian Green—A Turbulent Passage

The penultimate volume of Julian Green’s four-part autobiography, anglicized as Love In America, borrows its haunting epigraph from Francois Villon, “In my own country I am in a distant land.” Certainly, no writer’s personal situation was ever more appropriately limned by this striking verse than that of Julian Green. Born ninety-five years ago in Belle Epoque Paris to a genteel Southern family, Julian Green is an internal exile twice over. Another fact equally important for our understanding of Green’s literary art is his sense of being a pilgrim on this earth.

Following his demobilization from the French Army at the conclusion of the sanguinary 1914 War, young Julian Green takes ship for an unknown America where he is to matriculate at the University of Virginia. Green was remain there for three years with profound repercussions for his entire life.

His initial impressions of his ancestral country were none too complimentary. Julian Green believed that Americans were “barbarians.” For this mannerly, French-reared Southerner spending his first American night in brash New York City, surely the culture shock must have been immense—at the very least. On that same evening Green attends the fabled New York theater with his maternal uncle Walter and cousin Sarah, the vivacious Savannah belle who previously had lived with the Green family in Paris for five years.

As he watched the performance of La Befta, a swashbuckling melodrama starring John and Lionel Barrymore, Green recounts, “I could not understand a word…. It seemed to me that the actors were speaking in a foreign tongue, so different was their accent to the one I was used to.” Turning to his pretty cousin Sarah, Green tells her that the eminent Barrymores “spoke like Yankees.”

Fortunately, Julian Green experienced a change of heart about American visigothism when he and Uncle Walter crossed the Mason-Dixon line into Virginia. Green recalls his first reaction to being in the South: “This was my first night in my mother’s country, the South, and everything she had told me about it those long years ago came flooding back into memory. It was as if that whole world which she had loved were being offered to me in one simplified image because I saw it through the eyes of my mother. Within a few seconds, I understood everything: the Secession, the will to survive and not to be absorbed into a nation that was too vast.”

The school at which Green found himself a freshman in 1919 was like no other university in either the North or the South. It bore the indelible imprint of its remarkable founder, America’s renaissance man par excellence, Thomas Jefferson. Like so many students before him and after him, Julian Green would never forget his first sighting of Mr. Jefferson’s lovely box-trees, neoclassical pavilions, and the famous winding wall. Throughout the beautiful landscape of the University (which Green always capitalizes in French), one begins to appreciate symbolically the classical mind of Jeffersonian Virginia, which stood for what was truly best about the Old South.

Julian Green took in Mr. Jefferson’s academic village and thought that the Sage of Monticello must have known dreams in which he “must have walked among [Rome and Pompeii] through a forest of white columns, for I have never seen so many in my life: Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, they rose up on all sides to such an extent that one might think it was a hallucination.” It would seem that only a writer like Julian Green whose novels Andre Gide termed “visionary” could perceive the hallucinatory recesses behind the harmonious, classical facade of Jeffersonian architecture. One wonders how Edgar Allan Poe, another haunted alumnus of Mr Jefferson’s academic village, and a “visionary” writer favored by Green, might have responded to his kindred spirit’s singular comments.

It is, however, undoubtedly true that young Julian was terrified of being surrounded by so many Anglophones, even though they were fellow Southerners. In Paris, his schoolmates had taunted Green for being a member of a vanquished Southern nation that had disappeared from history. In Charlottesville, Green’s Virginian classmates regarded him as a Frenchman, or, at the very least, an eccentric cultural hybrid no doubt destined for the cloister.

Young Virginia gentlemen were expected to conduct themselves with studied nonchalance, something which Julian Green emulated with high seriousness. But as for the fraternity carousing that flavors much of Southern collegiate existence to the chagrin of deans of student affairs, the ever-fastidious Green condemned it as both “disgusting” and “bestial.”

Another Southern cultural lesson Julian Green acquired at UVA was the revered “Honors System.” Any student caught cheating at Mr. Jefferson’s University “no longer existed for either the authorities or the students.” Green notes that during the three years he studied at the University, there was not one reported case of academic misconduct. Our autobiographer makes this wry comment about Southern student mores: “In this way all the boys came to form their idea of what was known as ‘a Virginia gentleman.’ You could do whatever you wanted, except to cheat.”

Perhaps the first thing the pious Julian Green sought out besides textbooks was an islet of Catholicism within the Protestant realm of shady Charlottesville. At the time there existed in the old town a homely Catholic chapel made of wood. Green describes its “miserable little bell-tower… that would discretely summon the faithful to Mass.” During the weekdays, the “faithful” at Mass meant Julian Green who punctiliously attended the early Eucharist sleepily celebrated by a constantly yawning priest. The young would-be monk found much comfort within the chapel’s quiet walls. Green reminds us that “to be seen by God in silence is also a form of prayer.”

The Southern education of Julian Green reached a pivotal moment in Dr. Fitzhugh’s Latin class. It happened one day when Julian and his classmates busied themselves with the translation of a perplexing passage from Virgil. Professor Fitzhugh interrupted the students’ declensioning with words that silenced the classroom: “Gentlemen, it seems pointless for me to disguise the meaning of this passage: we are dealing with the shame of Antiquity.”

Professor Fitzhugh’s unambiguous explication de texte elicited an epiphany in Julian Green’s mind. Suddenly, the revelation about “Greek love” answered questions Green had regarding the unsettling desires troubling his whole being. Green recalls, “In a second I understood a thousand things, except for one which was essential. I realized that the strange passion of which Virgil spoke resided in me. A blinding flash that had clarified my entire life. I was frightened by this revelation which identified me with the young men of antiquity. So I bore the shame of Antiquity. I alone bore it.”

The epiphanic discovery of his own inversion made Green feel cut off from the rest of humanity, beginning with his Virginia classmates. His extraordinary sexual innocence compelled him to feel that he alone had inherited the shameful virus of Antiquity. Once more, Julian Green withdrew into the “interior homeland” of his Catholic faith. Green’s painful self-isolation due to his sexual discovery drove him to replay old conversations between himself and his erstwhile spiritual director, Father Crete. In his Charlottesville boarding house room, Green eagerly reread the good abbe’s letters of spiritual instruction. Father Crete’s great wish was for Julian to embrace the monastic vocation (Benedictine no less). Father Crete appreciated the fervent young convert’s spiritual qualities; moreover, the mature Green has intimated upon more than one occasion that his beloved confessor might not have been innocently unaware of Green’s private proclivities, which were to cause him so much future suffering. In desiring Julian’s embrace of a religious vocation, Father Crete hoped to see him saved.

A particular trait of Julian Green’s fictional characters is their frequent vulnerability to the coup de foudre, or love at first sight. Romantic love exists in Green’s universe as a powerful, ineluctable response to the beloved at first glance. The original French title of the third volume of Green’s autobiography is Terre lointaine, meaning “the distant land,” hence the Villon allusion. But when the book was translated by Euan Cameron, the title Love In America was chosen instead. We shall shortly understand the crucial reason for this, rooted as it is in Green’s experience of the coup de foudre at the University.

Early on in his collegiate career, Julian Green fell deeply in love at first sight with a handsome Virginia student identified pseudonymously as “Mark.” The event occurred one cold winter day as young Julian walked from Cabell Hall to the Rotonda. He remembers: “Suddenly, I was no longer a free man. Because of someone I had seen for only three or four seconds, I was now enslaved… Love, I could only see only too well, brought unhappiness.”

The Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality is unequivocable. Humana persona states that it is an unnatural and disordered condition. The Holy Trinity is best mirrored in the sacramental marriage of man and woman and the family God may bless them with. The Church, however, does not condemn an individual for having homoerotic inclinations. She simply disallows its sexual practice as “intrinsically disordered.” The road to salvation for the homosexual person will be achieved through embracing chastity for Christ’s sake. “By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom,” declares the Church, “at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.”

The Catholic Julian Green fully understands the Church’s distinction between nature and volitional acts. Of his love for Mark, Green writes, “It was all the more painful for me for I did not feel that I was to blame in any way. There was nothing carnal about this love. And that was the strangest thing in all this. In my own mind, love could only be pure. Desire was something quite different. Desire was a sin.”

Perhaps the major theme underlying Green’s literary work besides that concerning the hell of a loveless self-isolation from God and other people, is the unceasing war between the desires of the flesh and the yearning for God. Obviously, this dualistic theme provides the central matrix of Julian Green’s emotional life.

The explosive awakening of sexual yearning during a normal adolescence produces sufficient trauma, but when this desire is identifiably homoerotic and felt by an unusually sensitive Catholic intelligence such as the one possessed by Julian Green, the ensuing pain must reach the highest decibels of inner agony. Young Julian reeled from acute bouts of melancholy. The mature author somberly confesses to his readers: “Now I know that until my dying day, my desires will always be forlorn ones.”

This remarkable self-knowledge is missing from the debate over homosexuality in our disordered age. By its very nature, homosexuality is sterile and unfulfilling because it cannot attain the right complementarity found within the sacramental relationship between a man and a woman. For Julian Green the Christian, his strong attraction toward handsome young men became an unending torture. He cries out, “How did people manage to live, if, like me, they had this strange craving? What did the future hold for me? I did not wish to know, and this was where religion eventually intervened powerfully and irresistably. There was quite enough evil in a single day.”

The crescendo passage of Green’s Southern autobiography is played on one April evening. It was following supper that Green walked in a trancelike state along East Gallery. Mustering up his courage, Green knocked on the door of number 34 directly across from Poe’s old room. The door opened to reveal Mark. The young Virginian smiled warmly and invited a nervous Julian to come in. After the two had settled themselves comfortably, Mark explains to Green that he had heard about him and was “glad” to see “Julian.” For the two seated students, this moment was the debut of a lifelong friendship. They saw one another daily. Julian agonizes over the lost years of friendship that he might have enjoyed with Mark. This young Virginian who was Green’s first great love seems to have been a truly kind, upright Southern gentleman able to put people quickly at ease, even people as self-conscious as the young Julian Green.

Green admits, “I was in another realm, that of perfect passion which lies beyond our physical bodies. I had been purged by the purity of Mark’s expression. I loved someone of my own sex without having committed any sin against the flesh.” Being only human, Green discretely asks Mark one evening if he had ever loved a woman. His friend replied, “No one from here, but I was in love with a girl from home who died last winter.” Of this kind, generous, and deeply ethical human being, Green makes the following pronouncement, “There was something aloof about his manners. I have never known anyone who so typified all that is best about the South.” Mark’s avatars reappear in several Green novels “as the person to whom no one declares his love, and he is a cut above anyone else.” Apparently, Mark came to his own judicious conclusions about the nature of Green’s affection for him; however, this did not cause him ever to withhold his friendship from his unusual Southern friend from faraway Paris.

The time eventually came for Julian Green to quit Virginia for France. By now he noticed that, despite his inner sufferings, he had become quite attached to the University and to the South. Moreover, there would also be the painful separation from Mark.

Once more Julian Green found himself at home in the family drawing-room. Finally he was back in the Paris for which he had so long yearned. Except during the years of the Second World War, Green would never again be separated for such an extended period from his cherished France.

“Everything,” Green observed, “was still, or so it seemed to me, in order that I should receive that silent voice, not a voice that emanated from books, but one that came from much further away. The Lord was giving a pledge.” God would thus grant Julian Green “the one cross which, had the choice been given to me, I would have taken care not to adopt.”

According to Humana persona, individuals in Green’s moral situation are “called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and… unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross.” By taking up the cross of the Lord he loved, Julian Green created original works of literary art. His autobiography, Love In America, is a courageous and elegantly written confession of the moral education of a great Christian writer who delineates the struggles that all human beings must face regardless of their sexual orientation if they are to achieve Christ-like holiness. However difficult it may have been for Julian Green (he spent a decade during the thirties outside the borders of the Church), a day would come for him in God’s good time, when a spiritual spring appeared following what had been an unusually long, hard winter of the soul.

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