I would like to talk a little bit about your religious training today, please. The last time we said that—in one of the last interviews—you said that even before you started learning about Christianity you had religious feelings in these little idols you spoke about that you do in your book. Did you have any more things like that before you started Christian instruction?
No, I hope that was all. I just remember it as something separated from my even growing life. It’s one thing that withered out as I grew up. It probably came at a very early stage, and I was four or five years old, something like that, maybe six. I just got a regular religious training from the different schools, including what would be kindergarten school, that my parents put me in, and some of the things were rather puzzling to me. I don’t think it has much relation to my training as an artist, but I remember very distinctly, again it was extremely early in my life, that we were under the supervision of a very nice lady in the Hattemer School, which was obviously for very young people. But she gave us religious classes, and I remember that she told us that, of course, sin was a very evil thing indeed. Mortal sin was very mortal, but that sin didn’t depend on action, that you could commit very grievous sins without doing anything active. So I just sat on my little chair, and I tried to commit grievous sins. I didn’t know how, and I got out of it some impression of the mystery, of the mysteriousness of sin, that has stayed with me all my life. That is certainly something that became part of my religious training.
But perhaps one of the biggest influences outside of regular book learning, I would say, is, well, I could date it before 1914, that is, maybe when I was fifteen and sixteen, I took part in the charitable works of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and it was a rather direct affair. We were given certain people to visit, poor people and so on, and we went and visited them and brought them a little money. I think the money was furnished by the Society, but it was a good direct training anyhow in learning about people who lived a little differently, a little more meagerly than we did. And there I had a very important experience. One of the people I, or the only person I visited, in fact, was a Mlle. Marchais. She had been a charwoman when she was younger. She lived on a very high attic. The higher the attic, the lower the ceiling, and so on in Paris, and she really had that one room and was very poor indeed. And she was definitely a mystic with mystical experiences. She didn’t flaunt them or speak of them specially, but just talking with her and knowing her and being befriended by her, I would say, rather than befriending her myself, because I somehow was more of a neutral person in presence of a person that was so unusual as she was. I learned a lot about a number of mystical experiences that you learned of in books. It was very important for me. I had a training which tended to get me interested in those things, but it was a very literary one, a very cultural and intellectual one, perhaps through books like Huysmans, Joris-Karl Huysmans.1 In À Rebours, for example, I had been interested in the reverse side of mysticism, that is, Black Masses and so on. I had also read Lives of the Saints, and I was very interested in the unusualnesses of the Lives of the Saints. But Mlle. Marchais was in a continuous state, we could say, of meditation. She had day after day—I mean her usual way was a way in which she had visions and knowledge of spirits and so on—and she prayed for certain people that she didn’t know personally, she had never met personally, but it was her vocation, if you want, to pray for those especially, well, bad people, that she tied herself on and prayed for, for their salvation. She would go to daily Communion—I think that was a little unusual at the time—and had continuous visions of, for example, the Devil with horns and hooves, and so on, and dreams that I had read of about the saints, which interested me because of the proving, if you want, in practical life of things that for me had been simply literary exercises. For example, she had the dream which is a classic with saints in which her body was on an altar in a sort of reliquary and the people were praying to her and so on. She was nice. She saw I was simple enough and of good will enough so that she could open up a little bit to me, and it was for me a great proof of the reality of the mystical experience.
I followed her up to the end. She was quite old and quite sick when I met her, and soon after she was put in an asylum that was run for old people, that was run by nuns. I went to my military service. When I came back, I would visit with her, and she was very unhappy, obviously, under the regime of those nuns who would—or so she said, and I suppose it was so—they would threaten the old people of doing without breakfast if they didn’t receive Communion and so on. She was not especially respectful, I would say, of the powers that are. And then the last visit I paid her, it was too late. I was rather proud. I was in my new uniform as a young officer, potential officer, and when I came in, I was made to wait, and then the Mother Superior received me and said that Mlle. Marchais had died, I think, the day before or two days before. She was already buried. And I was too shy, somehow, to ask for some, well, personal, what I considered relics. She had, for example, a big rosary of black beads that I would have liked very much to have. But I didn’t ask for anything, but the Mother Superior very intently asked me what, if, I knew of anything that could be made into money out of the holdings of Mlle. Marchais. And I knew that she had two actions, I think, on the City of Paris. I don’t know what that represented as money goes, but Mother Superior took notes and so on. I was just a little scandalized, being very young, on the way she underlined the desire to get something out of it. And I said one or two things about being a friend of Mlle. Marchais, and she said very definitely that she was mad, she was off her head. Well, I didn’t go further than that, of course. But it was interesting for me, the conflict between a personalized mysticism of a person like Mlle. Marchais and the authoritarian, perhaps, religion I found in the nuns in that particular old peoples’ asylum, though, of course, they were doing lots of good too.
But that tied up a little later with my reading of Léon Bloy and so on, where you see similar conflicts. Something like The Last Columns of the Church, for example, in which he takes to task all the people who were most respected and respectable in the Catholic Church of his day. So it has made me grow up in the Church but a little bit sidewise and with a sense of, well, a critical sense, not in the sense that I was looking for anything to be critical about, but a critical sense about some “Columns of the Church,”2 to use the term that Léon Bloy uses.
Actually, growing up in the French way was a good thing for me. I remember that perhaps the priests, the French priests that taught me religion, were very, very different from the priests of, shall we say, Irish training that I met later on in the United States. Our First Communion was done very early. I think we were eleven or twelve years old, but before the First Communion there was a little examination, and the priest who gave me my examination told me that, what would you do if you had an interview with the Pope, and you spoke with the Pope, and you spoke about religion and so on, and you disagreed? What would be your position? And the Pope reproved you and said that it wasn’t so? So I wanted to get in good with that priest that I liked very much and knew very well, because I wanted to have my First Communion, and I said, “Oh, I would agree with the Pope.” And he said, “No, not at all. You don’t have to agree with the Pope. When you are in a personal conversation with him, you can hold your own because infallibility would come in certain things, urbi and orbi, and so on.” And he reproved me for being so boneless. And that also is something that I’ve always remembered and sort of treasured through my life. I’m naturally obedient. I have no desire to be a revolutionary, but all those little touches, either the mystical contact, personal contact with a life such as that of Mlle. Marchais, or the well, perhaps slightly Gallican training that I got from my French priests helped me really through life because I’m sort of a personalized person, perhaps through my profession as an artist, and I couldn’t quite manage being simply part of a herd. But I think that religion is a way of emphasizing one’s personality rather than drowning it.
You said that your mother, in one of your writings, you said that your mother had certain mystical tendencies. Were you aware of these at this time when you were young in France?
Well, it would not be anything that could be defined as mystical in the sense that you would put it in a book, but she certainly was a very devout person and added somehow her dreams that were meaningful to her and, of course, can be taken as being perfectly natural, but tied up with what already I had as not a personal mystical experience, but knowing people who were true mystics. I remember my mother, for example, speaking of, in dream, of having an angel bring her a bouquet of red flowers, I think, and she knew enough about the symbolism of colors to know that the red had something to do with martyrdom, and it was indeed a time in which she suffered a lot. That type of thing. Now she never pretended that those things were supernatural, but they came in, and they were part of her life and counted in her life as much as the everyday episodes.
Your father was an atheist, wasn’t he?
Well, I don’t know. It’s pretty hard to say those things, but he had been involved with a lot of the heroic times of the working movement. Of course, he wasn’t a worker himself, but he would side with what were the underdogs, and being a Russian, he would, of course, feel very interested in the struggle that was subterranean at the time that went on in Russia. And he had direct contact with the people that later on became the leaders of the Communist Party. In fact, he got in touch with the people, and, for example, when some of the high dignitaries of the Czar were being bombed and sometimes, of course, assassinated, he pretty much knew what was going on and from time to time would bring to our bourgeois Parisian house some people who were pretty much disreputable, I remember, by bourgeois standards, of course. I remember him telling to my mother to be very nice to the fellow he was going to bring to dinner because one of the ministers of the Czar’s cabinet had just been blown up and the man was somewhat nervous. Well, that’s about all we knew about it, but we were nice to the man, of course, who was somewhat nervous. And he was, he knew personally quite a number of them, and Kalinin,3 for example, who, I think, was the first president of the Soviet Republic—not Lenin, Kalinin—was a friend of his. So we did have through him a sort of insight into the world as is, especially that world that exploded into the great Russian Revolution. He was part of his generation in the sense that he was somewhat cynical about the outer forms of organized religion, and I don’t know that he was an atheist. Later on, when he…at the end of his life, he was quite sick and quite, well, physically and mentally ill for a while just before dying, and at the time, very naturally, I would say, his earlier training, which had been religious, came to him, and he wanted to go to church. Of course, he couldn’t move, and at the time he was incapacitated. But he was a strong man as far as what we would call social justice was concerned and went certainly much further than anybody that I can think of in the family in siding with the underdog. And that also, of course, was for me, was an example and an example that tied up, even though he didn’t do it from a religious point of view but a social point of view, with again the Catholic writers that I loved. For example, Léon Bloy, whose relation to the poor is a very important element in my own religious makeup.
I’d like to get into that side of things more because that rings a lot of bells for me. But I’d like to go on just a little bit more with the religious side. Could you just give me a few practical details? You got all your religious training at school? You didn’t have any special tutors at home? And also what kind of instruction was it? Did it tend to be a little Jansenistic or Puritan?
Well, you know more about theology than I do. I mention the Gallican flavor that I think the French naturally have in their religion, which represents a certain, shall we say, independence from the Ultramontanists, who were the people who stuck most closely with Rome. However, there was another part of my family that was most interested in religion and who were, we would say, Ultramontanist, the people, for example, that at the time of the proclamation of the Infallibility had sided immediately with Infallibility while some other people in France would side against it. And one of my uncles that I went and saw from time to time—and I was rather frightened of him for a number of reasons—was considered like one of the most important or major laymen in France. And he was such a man, and when we went and visited with him, he would very often have on his clothes some of the medals and ribbons and so on that had been given him by a succession of popes. And he had on the walls of his rooms—he cut them, or so it seemed to me when I was young—they were dark, the curtains were always on, and they were things that looked first like little pictures, and then you could have thought that they were some of those collections of bugs and butterflies—things sort of pinned in little boxes with glasses on—and from time to time, he would show us what he considered those treasures, and they were all concerned with the popes. Every time a pope died, he tried to get some relic of a sort, or secondary relic, from the people who had made sure the pope was dead. One of the treasures was a little hammer, for example, with which the pope’s forehead is hit as people tell him, “Are you dead? Are you dead?” in Latin, some such thing. But he had cotton, I remember, soaked in the blood of the popes and fragments from their shrouds and so on. And those things for me were, of course, much more frightening than edifying. But that gives you an idea of the kind of religion of a certain part of my family, very different from the religion that I myself was growing into. I really think that the, shall we say, bivalance between the devotion of my mother and the lack of devotion of my father helped me much more than if both of them had been equally devout and along the same lines.
Was that Léon Harmel?4
Yes, that was Léon Harmel. I have a book on him here, if you want to read it, where you’ll see that I am not exaggerating. I would say that it was even more so.
Could you tell me something about the reading that you were doing at this time, I mean the reading in religion.
Well, it depends what time you mean.
From the beginning.
Well, I learned my Catechism as best I could. I think the Catholic authors were of, well, two kinds, we could say: just regular religious texts. One of my—I wouldn’t say my directors—but one of the priests that I was connected with made me buy a great big volume on meditation or such thing. I read it dutifully all through. I think I’ve always been very conscious of the form of things; that is the message for me really resides in the form, perhaps, more than in what is being said, and even though I read that whole volume on meditation, it was very hard on me because the style of the fellow was so neutral or neuter that I couldn’t get interested in what he had to say because he said it in such a flat way. So probably I learned more from a man like Huysmans. At the time I was very puzzled by big words or unusual words, and Huysmans was the ideal author to have recourse to the dictionary about because he—at the same time that Félix Fénéon—they both lived at a time when they thought that the language could be refined by re-introducing words that were either obsolete or rarely put into use. In a way they were right. I remember that Huysmans gave me a verb opombre, that is, “to cast a shadow over”—I went, of course, to the dictionary to find the meaning—that I have been using over and over again, I think in my poems; I liked it very much. But thanks to the spice of unusual words, I could read more or less all the books of Huysmans with great interest, and it went all the way from his early days that he called irreligious, where he represented himself as a most sophisticated fellow, through his tries at demonism and Black Masses, through his conversion. In fact, he has pursued me up to my later life because one of the books that I was most interested in was L’Oblat,5 The Oblate. At the time I didn’t have the least idea what an oblat was, but I enjoyed the book, and later on in life, I myself became a Benedictine oblate. But I think the art form in Huysmans—who was also an art critic and wrote some very interesting early reviews on people like Grünewald, for example, and Cézanne; he has one of the earliest intelligent reviews of paintings by Cézanne—touched me more, simply because the man was, the makeup of the man was a little closer to my own makeup than my pious friends, who were cultured, who were art lovers, also suggested Francis Jammes, and I enjoyed very much some of the poetry of Jammes, but he sounded horribly much to me like François Coppée. François Coppée, well, when I was even younger I had read, but I had never got too enthusiastic about his verses, that somehow run like water, which is not a defect, but I find in Jammes that same—well, in the case of Jammes, a simplicity which is to him the equivalent of spirituality. It’s rather difficult to put those things in words, but in other authors, I had found a spirituality linked with enormous complexity, and in Jammes, it was linked with simplicity. And I don’t think Jammes was faking. I think he really had that brand of simple religion that was his own religion. I was a little more of a mix-up, and perhaps some of the more obscure mystics pleased me more. Again, I had dug out of Huysmans a mention of St. Hildegard, and he was describing how she had had a vision of Paradise in which the angels served food, a description of food and the plates and so on, and I decided to get the text of the visions, and I found that they had been published in French not long before, and when I had a little money, I would go and buy myself one of those little in octavo volumes and read it while I was walking around, I remember, even in the subway, and in a way meditating on the text of Hildegard. They were obscure, but maybe the very obscurity pleased me and allowed me to add my own imagination to the imagination of the saint. On the other hand, I admire simplicity, maybe because it isn’t exactly my dominant feature, and I think that in the visual arts as a painter if I express, if I like to express something, it is a sort of simplicity. It is arrived at, not through simple ways, but I get there eventually.
When did you get to know Anne-Catherine Emmerich?
Well, I think it’s the old Huysmans again, who had mentioned her, and there I found a French edition which was in four or five volumes, and I was wholly taken by her because of her…the visions being visual. There’s quite a number of visionaries who have visions that are nearly metaphysical, or there are visionaries who have visions that they cannot express in words. They just speak of resplendent lights and so on. St. Teresa of Avila has such things: where the Holy Spirit appears, she says that it simply was dazzling, or something like that. But Anne-Catherine had simple visions where the light was the natural light of the day, where the people were clothed in their everyday clothes and went through the motions of everyday tasks, usually about holy people. And my little repertory of pictures of the Holy Family—especially, I would say the Flight into Egypt, the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, and so on—is very much an illustration of the texts of Anne-Catherine Emmerich. She knew all about, oh, the kind of mount, for example, that Joseph had when they went into Egypt and where they found the water to drink. And the old stories—which is rather interesting—the Apocrypha stories: for example, the fig tree that Joseph finds, which was one of the preferred medieval stories because Joseph was represented as a small man, and the figs were too high, and the tree bent so that he could pick the fruits. All those things that are apocryphal by rational standards are to be found in Anne-Catherine and many more that nobody knew about, and they are wonderful things for painting or for sculpturing. That Joseph and the fig tree, for example, was done all through the Middle Ages, and I myself have a few pictures with the same subject. She was really a painter’s visionary because she, her genius, was visual, and the things that she said could be represented with line, form, and color, which is more than many visionaries. I think that the exasperation of visionaries who cannot tell of their visions is exemplified by St. Paul. He gets into the heavens, and he says that there are sights that no one has seen and so on and so forth, but he doesn’t say what they are. Maybe there are no words to describe them, but it is just as if he had no vision at all, as far as a painter is concerned. So the very humility, if you want, of the range of visions of Anne-Catherine Emmerich makes it available to the visual artist.
And St. Thérèse de Lisieux?
Well, St. Thérèse de Lisieux is connected for me with Mlle. Marchais because at the time there was a current, and really among poor people very similar to Mlle. Marchais herself, of making pressure, if with nothing else by prayers, anyhow, for getting Thérèse of Lisieux in the Calendar of the Blessed. At least in my time, the first little sheets I got of prayers for her, of her, she was the Sister Thérèse of Lisieux. She didn’t even have the title of “Blessed.” And it was impressive to see those poor people praying for the beatification of the saint. So I had a very early knowledge of Thérèse before, I wouldn’t say before anybody else, but pretty close to before anybody else, because I also took painting lessons from an old painter who was the man who illustrated the first edition, or who had been asked to illustrate the first edition of Thérèse’s memoirs. The sister of Thérèse was the Superior of the convent at the time, had approached the old gentleman, and asked him to do the drawings to illustrate the Histoire d’une Âme of Thérèse of Lisieux. So he had read, of course, the text of Thérèse; he had done his illustrations in which you see mostly things of her infancy and her father taking her by the hand and showing her, I remember, the beauty of the moonlight night and such things, and he had been heartbroken when the pictures had been entirely retouched by a sister of Thérèse who had very strong ideas about the way things should be. In fact, she is the woman who retouched most of the actual photographs of Thérèse to make them prettier. So M. Blanchard—that was the name of the painter—had been heartbroken then, but he himself had had curious experiences connected with Thérèse, and he told me, and we were right in the room where it had happened, that one day he tried to get a better idea of what she was like, and he had put his, well, it was a canvas at the time, a little canvas on his easel, and he was thinking on how to represent her so that it would look like her. And he had been thinking a longish time, and light was falling, and in the dusk, there was a very light glow on the white canvas, and the portrait of Thérèse drew itself, so to speak—of course, not permanently—but for a moment, he saw very distinctly that portrait in that faint glow on the canvas. And so he did the portrait according to what he had seen, and I think it is one of those things that the good sister retouched. So, between the people who prayed for her and the people who had in a way, we could say, known her, I knew her before she was even beatified. And of course, I took the text of the Histoire d’une Âme, and I read it, and it’s one of the few texts for which I didn’t need any excitement in the form as I had needed it in other religious things; that is, I read it completely, and I was and still have now a devotion to Thérèse after reading that. It was a simplicity in a way infinitely more simple than Francis Jammes, but also allied really with a depth that was very pleasant.
Are there any of her ideas or attitudes that have particularly or at all influenced you?
No, I couldn’t say so, and one of the reasons is that she was a very bad painter. She did some illuminations, and she would do little pious devotional cards, I think the Lamb holding the Cross, and so on and so forth, and those things were reproduced. I saw them somewhere, and they were so bad that I could not certainly admire Thérèse as a painter. I could admire her in her desire to, well, do things that would inspire pious thoughts, but because of the form there which was bad, I couldn’t get pious thoughts looking at her doodles, at her drawings, so that was a sort of barrier between us. Maybe she is one of the few people who inspired me without making image, I would say.
Was that mystical writer, that huge mystical tome they gave you by Tanquerrey? Does that ring any bells? He wrote a big one about that time.
I don’t know if it was by Tanquerrey. I think the man had had later on—I learned that he had had a little trouble with the higher-ups and that for a while his book was teetering on the brink of the Index, but somehow it didn’t happen, and I realized, of course, that my director was a rather bolder man than I had thought he was.
French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848–1907) wrote books known for their wealth of detail, extensive vocabulary, and unusual subject matter. Here Charlot is probably thinking of Là-Bas (1891), Huysmans’ novel about Satanism in late 1880s France, as well as of À Rebours (1884).
Léon Bloy, Les dernieres colonnes de l’Eglise (1903).
Mikhail Kalinin (1875–1946) was a noted Bolshevik revolutionary from the peasant class and an active political figure in the Soviet Union from 1919 to 1946.
Inspired by the teachings of Pope Leo XIII, French industrialist and devout Catholic Léon Harmel (1829–1915) pioneered social legislation for workers in his factories by organizing labor councils, instituting sick funds and pensions, and offering cooperative ventures such as a bank, a bakery, and stores, all with the goal of bringing the workplace into alignment with Christian principles.
Joris-Karl Huysmans, L’Oblat (1903).