Max Jacob, a Saintly Sinner

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March 5, 2019, will be the 75th anniversary of the death of Max Jacob (1876-1944), a figure somewhat on the margins of the renouveau catholique, a literary renaissance marked by expressions of the Faith among a broad range of novelists, poets, playwrights, and essayists in early twentieth-century France. Born to a secular Jewish family in Bretagne, the young Jacob was a brilliant lycéen and dreamt of following his seafaring heritage into a life of colonial administration and adventures. But a frail constitution consigned him to law school in Paris, which he quickly abandoned for a Bohemian life in the Montmartre district. In this animated quartier, Jacob determined to become an artist, but could scarcely decide between poetry, music, and painting. Supporting himself by sketching portraits and giving lessons in piano and French, Jacob was befriended by Picasso, Cocteau, Braque, Modigliani, and many other luminaries of the era.

Were it not for the experience of October 7, 1909, Jacob would doubtless have remained a rather obscure writer. That evening, returning from the Bibliothèque Nationale, Jacob entered his apartment to behold a vision of Jesus as a young boy—an apparition that gave dramatic coloring to the rest of Jacob’s life and works. His own description of the moment has a Pascalian intensity:

I put down my book bag and fetched my slippers. When I raised my head, there was someone on the wall! There was someone! There was someone on the wallpaper! My body fell to the floor! I was completely undone, as if struck by lightning. Oh, imperishable instant! Oh, truth! Truth! That celestial body was on the wall of my meager room! Why, Lord! Oh, forgive me! He was in a landscape I had sketched long ago … but Him! What beauty, elegance and sweetness! His shoulders, his bearing! He wore a robe of yellow silk with blue trim. He turned around and I saw his peaceful and shining face.

Jacob recognized the vision as a call to conversion, but found the act harder than accepting the inspiration. His first approach to a Catholic priest was scornfully rebuffed, as the cleric apparently believed he was being mocked by Jacob, well-known as an accomplished reveler in a neighborhood famous for revelry. Nevertheless, Jacob began to haunt Catholic churches and read theological and spiritual works. But keeping the same friends led him to succumb to the same temptations that had always tormented him, especially homosexuality. After a second vision in 1914, Jacob sought baptism with greater resolve and found a sympathetic priest of Notre-Dame de Sion, an order founded for the conversion of Jews. In one of the great ironies of literary history, standing as godfather for Jacob’s baptism was Pablo Picasso, which surely proves the ex opere operato of the sacrament if anything can.

 

After a few more years of struggle in Montmartre, Jacob realized that his life as a Christian would be impossible as long as he lived in Paris. In 1921, he left the capital for the small village of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, spending almost all his remaining days in proximity to the Abbaye Fleury in prayer with the Benedictines. “This is the only place,” said Jacob, “where I can live without sinning seriously every day of my life.” His many friends in the worlds of art and literature would visit him there, where conversations that began on art, poetry, or cinema would always end on religion and in prayer. Jacob became famous for his letters and spiritual advice to friends, students, and acquaintances. He was especially known for his many hours a day at Mass and in prayer as well as his works of charity. During the worst days of the Nazi Occupation, he sent relief packages to Jewish friends at the internment camp at Drancy, thereby handing the Gestapo a road map to his location.

Apart from the devotional writing that occupied much of his later life, Jacob’s works consist mostly of plays, essays, and prose poems. He is today considered a link between two equally difficult schools of literature—the symbolists and the surrealists. As such, his more obscure works will never have broad appeal. However, he did write a large number of simpler, devotional poems that retain his typical love for word games, puns, and surprises. I present one of them here, with my feeble attempt at a translation:

PAST AND PRESENT

Poet and tenor
Oriflamme to the North
Of death I sing.

Poet and drum
Colliour I’m from
Of love I sing.

Poet and mariner
Pour me some wine
Pour!  pour!  I disclose
What the algae knows.

Poet and Christian
Christ is my store
I’ll say nothing more.

In this brief verse, Jacob runs through the itinerary of his life, both real and imagined. Always a poet and raconteur, he enjoys the role of mariner and invites us to buy him a drink. And why not? When you get a sailor to drinking, he might just divulge his greatest secret—the location of a sunken treasure. But, in the end, Jacob reveals that the only treasure he has ever discovered is Christ.

On February 24, 1944, Jacob served the early morning Mass in the crypt of the church. At eleven o’clock, the Germans, who had already seized his sister and brother-in-law, finally caught up with Max. As he took leave of his parish priest, Jacob is reported to have said: “I give thanks to God for the martyrdom that begins now.” Less than two weeks later, he died of pneumonia at Drancy. On his death bed, he asked his Jewish friends for a Christian burial—“you see, I have given my life to that Passion”—in words that only his Christian friends could have fully understood.

When the Association des Amis de Max Jacob was established in 1949, no less a personage than Paul Claudel was a founding member. (It was Claudel’s own conversion in 1886 that set him on the path to becoming one of the great poets of the twentieth century, as well as the figurative godfather of the entire Catholic literary revival.) The association is still very active today, with Jacob’s literary works having undergone a considerable rediscovery since 1994, the 50th anniversary of the poet’s death. Jacob the mystic and visionary is also increasingly an object of lively attention. Some of my more passionate friends in France have spoken to me of miracles attributed to Jacob; testimonies have been collected and prayers offered in hope of his canonization. This will not happen. If Joan of Arc’s pantalon and chopped hair were enough to delay her canonization for 500 years, the cultus of a martyr with Jacob’s “colorful” life will never be universal. But for some of us who believe, despite our own passions, that we are called to prepare for a new age of Christian martyrdom, Mass on March 5th will include a private prayer: “Max Jacob, priez pour nous!”

Timothy J. Williams

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Timothy J. Williams writes on religion, politics, and literature from his home in rural Ohio. He graduated cum laude from the University of Kansas with a doctorate in French and holds Master’s degrees in French and Music Theory. In 2010, Dr. Williams retired from the Ohio National Guard with the rank of Major.

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