Avoiding Idolatrous Friendships: Lessons from Burke and Claudel

Those religious who governed the West’s seminaries and monasteries before Vatican II stressed—whether specifically as part of their order’s constitution, or on a broader basis—the dangers involved with “particular friendships.” Contrary to what is often supposed, these dangers did not exclusively concern homoerotic attraction, never mind outright homosexual affairs. Nor were such cautions made in a spirit of trying to deny ordinary human preferences for Individual A rather than Individual B.

In certain instances the ruling went too far. Should a particular house of formation happen to have a boor with Jansenist grievances against the world as its principal authority figure, the ruling could be downright harmful in practice. That misfortune, nevertheless, did not and could not invalidate the soundness of the general principle behind the ruling’s establishment. How sound the principle remained did not grow fully obvious ’til after the ruling had been comprehensively junked: when seminaries turned more and more often into dumping grounds for predatory perverts, with what consequences even the stupidest Western Catholic has known since at least 2002, and the exposés of Boston’s horrors.

The fact is (and, unfortunately, it is a fact which all but a tiny handful of modern Catholics are given every reason to overlook, assuming they bother to notice it in the first place) that what remains true in the priestly and monastic spheres remains true in the lay sphere also. Namely, whilst friendship is a great good, it is not, and never can be, the supreme good. That Divine Master who told his disciples: “Henceforth I call you not servants, but friends” also told them, more conditionally: “You are my friends if you do what I teach.”

If we allow mere feelings of personal amity to metamorphose into the sole moral guide for conduct, we are effectively making friendship into our god. It is probably easier to commit this category error in 2016 than it has ever been before, now that the inescapable impact of social media has turned several million entire lives into cyberspatial equivalents of a more than usually hysterical school playground. We allow ourselves to be “friended” on Facebook by people with whom, in real life, we would cower in our bedrooms rather than associate. And these friends drag us, often well-meaningly enough, into their own obsessions. Day in, day out, we are bombarded with more slacktivist crusades, more emotional blackmail (how is “I dare you to share this!” much different from old-fashioned chain letters’ “If you break the chain bad luck will follow”?), more group-think, and more infantile sloganeering of the “Black Lives Matter” and “Je Suis Charlie” kind.

The outcome, especially when combined with Twitter’s destructive potential (a lynch-mob is no less a lynch-mob when it tweets calumnies against, rather than physically strings up, its victims), makes Heathers seem almost like the Desert Fathers. Such an outcome should never be mistaken for genuine friendship. Yet it bears a certain odious, debased, caricatured resemblance to genuine friendship, as the Mafioso’s code of blood-tie omertà bears a certain odious, debased, caricatured resemblance to genuine family life.

More than ever, then, are we in need of clear teaching about friendship’s ethical limits. Mere recyclings of C.S. Lewis’s reflections—however meritorious—on agape are not enough. We shall not get such teaching from our bishops. (These days we are lucky if we get any teaching whatever from our bishops.) Happily there are two outstanding lay instances of how, in true rather than false charity, to end a friendship when its continuation would be spiritually toxic. One of these is the well-known example of Edmund Burke. The other is the much less well-known—at least outside France—example of Paul Claudel.

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Burke’s association with his fellow Whig luminary Charles James Fox transcended differences of age (Fox was two decades Burke’s junior), social class (Fox’s father had been an English peer, Burke’s an Irish solicitor), and religion. (It is not clear that Fox had any lasting religious belief at all, let alone that he shared Burke’s Shakespeare-style secret Catholicism, a Catholicism which few serious Burke scholars now try to dispute, although for Burke to have confessed it would have annihilated his parliamentary career while the Penal Laws remained in force.) Both men had been among the most eloquent critics of Lord North’s administration during the War of American Independence. Furthermore, both men had also been on the same side in the post-1783 impeachment proceedings against Warren Hastings, former Governor-General of India. There seemed no reason why their alliance should not continue as long as both their lives did.

As it turned out, one conspicuous and overwhelming reason emerged. That reason was the French Revolution, the outbreak of which Fox had greeted with one of the most fatuous eulogies ever to emerge from the lips of an intelligent public figure:

How much the greatest event it [the storming of the Bastille] is that ever happened in the world! And how much the best!

Initially, Burke let such nonsense pass unrebuked. But it could not pass once, in November 1790, Burke had released Reflections on the Revolution in France. Too often overlooked in any discussion of Burke’s masterpiece is the earliness of its publication date: November 1790. In November 1790 all the atrocities which we have come to associate with French revolutionary terror—Marat; Robespierre; the September massacres; the regicide; the mass guillotinings; the exterminationist campaign against the Vendéens, and against faithful Catholics more generally; the formal re-consecration of Notre-Dame itself to the “Goddess of Reason”; the charge publicly leveled by Jacques-René Hébert (that one-man eighteenth-century Charlie Hebdo) of incestuous relations between Marie-Antoinette and her son—resided in a future which no one in England, least of all Fox, could suspect. No one, that is, save Burke.

With a clairvoyance surely inexplicable except through some sort of divine intervention, and indubitably unavailable to the atheist mind (or indeed to the weak-tea Deist mind so common among Burke’s coevals), Burke discerned, from the seemingly humdrum events which he and the world in 1789-1790 had seen, the noisome inevitability of the outrages which he and the world had not yet seen. The impact of this clairvoyance may be comprehended, by a purely secular analogy, from the journalistic firestorm that greeted Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution more than a century and a half later (1963). Given the unpopularity which Arendt endured when she had the bad taste to prove that Bolshevism owed its totalist outlook and its Murder Incorporated methods to French Jacobinism’s prior ideology, readers may imagine the invective which greeted Burke among most of his original hearers, who could no more have imagined a Lenin and a Stalin than they could have listened to the radio.

Once Burke’s Reflections had appeared, his breach with Fox could not be avoided by either side; it could merely be delayed. Fox had become impossible, continuing to defend the Jacobins even after they had beheaded his old comrade, the Duc de Biron, on the last day of 1793. The more shocking the Jacobins’ behavior, the more excuses Fox found for it. By this stage, he and Burke had become wholly estranged. To Fox’s whispered parliamentary assurance that even after Burke’s denunciations of the Revolution there was “no loss of friendship,” Burke retorted, in words that, for all their freedom from rancor, permitted no misconstruing: “I regret to say there is; I have indeed made a great sacrifice; I have done my duty though I have lost my friend.” Tears flowed in profusion, but the two men could not be, and were not, reconciled.

In 1797 Fox heard, correctly, that Burke had not long to live. He tried to visit his old mentor’s deathbed, but Burke specifically instructed that Fox not be admitted. For this, Burke has been roundly criticized by certain sentimentalists. It is hard to know why. Fox had alienated most of his fellow Whigs by his immoderate enthusiasm for revolutionary massacre, an enthusiasm that always depended (since not the smallest blood-lust disfigured Fox’s temperament) on others doing the revolutionary massacring. Had Fox shown himself contrite over his eight-year exercise in utopian fantasy, Burke would gladly have forgiven him.

But absent such contrition by Fox, what else could the dying Burke have done? Would Burke have retained his impeccable moral standing, would Burke have retained any moral standing at all, if he had conveyed to the Revolution’s victims the following message: “Look, I’m terribly sorry for the fact that so many of you have been butchered and exiled; I’m on the record ever since 1790 as saying how sorry I am; but being buddies with the unremorseful Charles James Fox needs to take priority over everything else in the world, so…”—the anachronism is inescapable—“Je Suis Charlie”?

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Much of the foregoing will have been extremely familiar to numerous readers of these words. The breach between Paul Claudel and André Gide over the latter’s pedophilia and ephebophilia could well be less celebrated. Yet it is no less relevant for our purposes.

Born in 1868 and 1869, respectively, Claudel and Gide were almost exact contemporaries. The former had hopes of winning over the latter to Catholicism. The latter happily allowed the former to entertain such hopes; colloquialisms like “stringing him along” can be only with difficulty avoided. Each long admired the other’s authorial achievements, and their letters show that Gide admitted Claudel’s artistic as well as moral superiority.

Still more in his face-to-face talk than in his printed output, Gide possessed a persuasive power which will seldom be credited except by those who have witnessed at first hand what glittering prizes a rock-spider with a bad conscience, a polished culture générale, high literary gifts, and an impressive line in theological chattering can attain. In sexual matters Gide threw Claudel off the scent not once, but repeatedly. That Claudel should have spent so much time away from France in the diplomatic corps made it easier for Gide to do so.

Alas, it is the occupational weakness of the world’s Gides that, while extremely clever, they are rarely quite clever enough. Gide allowed his 1914 novel Les Caves du Vatican to appear in a leading Paris magazine, the Nouvelle Revue Française, and seems never to have predicted the anger that its undeniable pederastic content would cause his friend, or, indeed, cause any sincere Catholic at the time. The start of Claudel’s letter in response to the publication (he had tolerated the antics which Gide had earlier depicted in Saul and The Immoralist, but with this latest effort a line had been crossed) eschewed the usual friendly salutation in favor of the words “In heaven’s name, Gide [Au nom de ciel, Gide].” It continued:

How could you have written the passage which I find on page 478 of the latest number of the N.R.F.? Don’t you know that after Saul and The Immoralist, you had run out of imprudences to commit? Must we really believe, therefore, as I had never wanted to do, that you are yourself a participant in these monstrous practices? … If you are not a pederast, why this strange predilection for this type of subject? And if, unfortunately, you are one, then cure yourself and don’t show off these abominations.

Gide neither ignored this open challenge nor denied his fiction’s autobiographical provenance. He abdicated responsibility altogether by protesting that his sexual orientation was as such because “God made [him] that way.” This early and portentous attempt at the whole “gay gene” mythologizing with which we have become so drearily conversant in our time failed to impress Claudel: “No, there is no physiological determinism! Where will you draw the line? If one person claims to justify sodomy, another will justify onanism, vampirism, the rape of minors…” Claudel begged Gide, at the very least, to remove the offending passage in the novel before further editions of it appeared. This Gide refused to do.

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Very occasionally Gide and Claudel corresponded thereafter; from 1926 they ceased even those limited contacts. If Gide already found it impossible to let the rent-boys alone in 1914, he could hardly have been expected to acquire such self-discipline in 1926, once he had won for himself an entire generation of international disciples. Malcolm Muggeridge encountered the 75-year-old Gide loitering with intent around Paris in 1944, still able to turn on the charm:

We found Gide [Muggeridge wrote] sitting by an open window, and looking down at the Rue Michelet, up and down which G.I.s were endlessly passing, rolling their buttocks inside their tight uniform trousers in a way which is very characteristic of North Americans—so much so that even strangers settled briefly among them soon acquire it. For Gide, the spectacle, for obvious reasons, held a special attraction. I was aware at once of his grey, coldly luminous face; almost priestly in style—an impression enhanced by a skull-cap that he wore. But priestly on the Devil’s side; the sanctity somehow fetid, the luminosity unearthly without being heavenly—studio lighting rather than light, an effect. Nonetheless, there was something enchanting about his words, as he chose them and used them, the timbre of his voice … When I thought of his grey, cold face, and his exquisite words rising out of it, like a clear spring out of stony ground, it seemed more than ever fitting that the Devil should be a fallen angel.

Nor did Muggeridge find the Frenchman’s putative disillusionment with communism at all convincing. Later in the same chapter he reflected:

The impression I had was that Gide now regretted the break with the Soviet authorities that the publication of his second book about the U.S.S.R. had caused, and looked back nostalgically on his first visit, when he was treated as an honored guest, like any Bernard Shaw or [the once-famous French Marxist] Henri Bar­busse. His disillusionment, in any case, seems to have resulted rather from the changed attitude to pederasty in the U.S.S.R., making its practice a penal offense, as it had been before the Revolution, than from any outraged sense of the injustice, inequality and cruelty Soviet rule involved for its ostensible beneficiaries.

Well, if Gide lost against Claudel one particular battle, he well and truly won the culture war, as Muggeridge came to realize. The notionally conservative erotomania that Gide preached and exemplified in the spirit of a wild heresy, has now become the true religion for Western Enlightenment Inc. And the Bible of this religion, as we have all now been compelled to appreciate, is Charlie Hebdo.

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What fortifying lessons can we derive, in everyday terms, from the examples of Burke and Claudel? Surely, above all, two.

First, the absolute necessity to avoid in our own lives the antics that we rightly reprehend in otherslives. Burke would have been universally acknowledged as a confounded hypocrite, if evidence had emerged to show that he was in fact secretly supporting the Jacobin cause, which he publicly execrated. Likewise, Claudel would have been laughed to general scorn if Gide had been able to use the tu quoque argument against him, and had been able to indict Claudel as a fellow pederast. (From Boston and its sequelae we know how, for every outright sex-criminal padre in the American Catholic system, there were at least a half-dozen other individuals consciously covering up—often, doubtless, with good intentions—for said padre. As for British Catholicism, it has probably never recovered from the revelations of Eric Gill’s utterly and protractedly disgusting carnal life. Shameful to relate, there remain certain British Catholics who seek to minimize the obscenity of Gill’s crimes.)

Second, the need to depersonalize the eventual chastisements. Neither Burke nor Claudel ever fell into the trap of playing the victimology card. Their complaints against their targets operated, not from the trivial and subjectivist basis of “You have offended me,” but instead from the rather more significant basis of “You have offended God.” Always both men held out the possibility of absolution if their targets repented. Only when such a possibility had disappeared did the severance become total.

It is embarrassing to witness the reputed conservatives among Fox’s and Gide’s present-day spiritual descendants having apparently forgotten everything they had ever been taught about Solzhenitsyn and Richard Weaver, and about ideas having consequences. Would it be unduly harsh, though, to stress the painful circumstance that, while the Founder of our own Church arose from the grave at Eastertide, no such resurrection has been attributed to Charlie Hebdo’s deceased deities, or even, sadly enough, to Gide himself?

Perhaps indeed such observations would be too uncharitable. We might be better advised simply to echo Burke’s words to Fox: “I have indeed made a great sacrifice; I have done my duty though I have lost my friend.” To put it bluntly, what mere human friendship is worth “the fires of hell” from which Catholics, every time they say the rosary, beg to be spared?

R.J. Stove


R. J. Stove is a Catholic convert and resident of Melbourne who, for several years, edited the quarterly Organ Australia. His most recent book is César Franck: His Life and Times.