Eloquent witness of the political, literary, intellectual, and Catholic life in France during the first half of the 20th century, Henri Massis is often dismissed today as a Catholic apologist and a staunch defender of nationalism. Though dogmatic in his moral and literary views, he must nonetheless be regarded as one of the pioneers of the French essay as a contemporary genre.
While Theodore Fraser (1986) states that the modern French essayist can “…conduct systematic investigations, spin theories, or simply speculate upon a myriad of topics and issues …,” the Anthologie des essayistes français contemporains in 1929 defined the task of the essayist as being either to create, to bring out, or to clarify ideas that serve as directives to an epoch. As an influential figure in both the literary and the political world, Massis strove to do exactly that. In numerous essays he often defended the traditional cultural, patriotic, and Catholic values of France.
Massis began his prolific writing career during his Sorbonne days, publishing, in his early twenties, Comment Émile Zola composait ses romans (1906; How Émile Zola composed his novels), Le Puits de Pyrrhon (1907; Pyrrho’s well), a philosophical “conte” which he dedicated to Anatole France, and La Pensèe de Maurice Barrès (1909; The thought of Maurice Barres). This latter book was the first in which he took a political stand. Massis gained notoriety as early as 1911 when, collaborating with his friend Alfred de Tarde under the pseudonym of Agathon, they published a widely debated essay on the state of French university education, L’Esprit de la nouvelle Sorbonne (The spirit of the New Sorbonne). Denouncing the invasion of Germanic scientific methods into French university pedagogy, Massis warned against the renunciation of traditional liberal arts education. He feared “‘a progressive debasement of general culture’…and the formation of a new kind of person: not the honnete homme of the Renaissance tradition but the esprit spectaliste” (Fraser). In 1913, the year in which Massis converted to Catholicism, he and de Tarde again published under the same pseudonym the results of their research on Les Jeunes Gens d’aujourd’hui (Young people of today). Among the youth, they detected an anti-intellectual tendency, a thirst for military action, a patriotic faith, an orientation toward Catholicism, and an anti-parliamentary attitude. The monarchist Charles Maurras and his growing Action Française movement welcomed their observation that there seemed to be a nationalist renaissance in France.
Following the war, in 1919, Massis published the manifesto “Pour un parti de 1’intelligence” (In favor of intelligence), in which he called for the restoration of the French spirit, of the French state, and of the Catholic Church, as well as for the revival of intellectual life in France through a national and metaphysical awakening. However, Massis’ postwar expectations for France and for a strong Catholic renewal were to be
Although never a member of the Action Française, Massis did sympathize with this movement and became close to Maurras, whose nationalist and traditionalist values he shared. The founding of the Revue Universelle (Universal review) in 1920 by Maurras and Jacques Maritain proved a major event in the literary world. With Massis as editor, Jacques Bainville as director, and Jacques Maritain in charge of the philosophy section, the journal’s stated mission was to rebuild the public spirit in France by means of the intellect, and by French thought to attempt a worldwide intellectual federation. With the journal as their vehicle, Massis and Maritain worked at instituting a Christian political philosophy, Maritain in making Thomism accessible to the French public through concepts and principles, Massis through criticism and literary applications.
In 1923, Massis’ first volume of Jugements (Judgments) collected his essays on Ernest Renan, Anatole France, and Barres and was dedicated to Maritain (“This testimony of our common hope in the metaphysical restoration”). His second volume of Jugements, with essays on Andre Gide, Romain Rolland, Georges Duhamel, and Julien Benda, appeared a year later. Uncompromisingly, Massis uncovered what he perceived to be the moral and ideological flaws in their writings. It was, he said, time to keep law and order in literature (“faire la police des lettres”). Massis particularly anathemized Gide, A. France, Rolland, and Benda, not only for having discredited but also for having corrupted the French tradition. Massis demanded that Christian values be strictly and absolutely followed in all areas of life, which he saw threatened by the changing values in postwar
France. His particular aversion to Gide and his determination to battle the writer’s influence on young French readers in an era of spiritual crisis were manifested as early as 1914 in an article for L’Éclair (Lightning) when he denounced “Andre Gide’s perversity.” Viewing Gide’s theory of the gratuitous act as a “violation of all morality,” his prose took on a vitriolic flavor. Massis repeatedly espoused Claudel’s assessment of Gide that “le mal, ça ne compose pas” (evil does not create), not hesitating, in 1921, even to label Gide as the devil. Another article in 1929 described the “Faillite d’André Gide” (André Gide’s failure).
In contrast, Massis’ analysis of Marcel Proust was more benevolent. In his essay on Le Drame de Marcel Proust (1937; The drama of Marcel Proust), Massis attempted to uncover Proust’s soul. Unlike Gide, Massis stated, Proust’s fictional world did not destroy the moral universe. D’André Gide à Marcel Proust (1948; From André Gide to Marcel Proust) comprises incisive essays on both writers.
Other than his literary criticism, Massis’ political essays may be best known today, especially his treatise, Défense de I’Occident (The defense of the West), published by Jacques Maritain in Plon’s distinguished “Roseau d’Or” collection in 1927. Massis’ ongoing concern to restore France’s Christian and missionary vocation is manifested in his warnings against technological progress and what he perceived as the pernicious influence of Bolshevism, Oriental mysticism, and even Germanism, all of which he viewed as hostile to the RomanoChristian culture of France. These constant themes were echoed in Massis’ essay collection of 1934, Débats (Debates), in his manifesto “Pour la defense de l’Occident et la paix en Europe” (1935; For the defense of the West and peace in Europe), written as a defense of Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, as well as in La Guerre de trente ans (1940; The Thirty Years’ War), a collection of essays dedicated to the Franco- German problems. His Découverte de la Russie (1944; The discovery of Russia) serves as a kind of supplement to Défense de l’Occident, and renews his warning against communist Russia and the danger of a potential union between Russia and a unified Germany. Postwar books such as L’Allemagne d’hier et d’après-demain (1949; Germany yesterday and the day after tomorrow), UOccident et son destin (1956; The West and its destiny), as well as L’Europe en question (1958; Europe at stake) are all expressions of
his apprehension regarding France’s future spiritual direction.
Massis was personally acquainted with writers such as Alain, Henri Bergson, Barres, Charles Péguy, Paul Claudel, France, Ernest Psichari, Henri Drouot, Maritain, Georges Bernanos, Maurras, Jean Cocteau, Robert Brasillach, to name but a few, and his recollections in Maurras et notre temps (1951; Maurras and our time) or in Au long d’une vie (1967; A lifetime) are of unique historical value regarding the evolution of literary
and intellectual life in 20th-century France.
Massis employed the essay to defend Christian values, as well as France’s Catholic mission and traditions. His output as literary critic, polemicist, and historian provoked heated debates in his time and had far-reaching influence. Massis did not indulge in posturing, and his style was never artificial. His writing was driven by deep personal convictions and ideals. These he tried to impress upon France’s youth and intelligentsia in the hope that his country might lead Europe in a renewal of Catholic spirituality.
Born 21 March 1886 in Paris. Studied at the Lycees Condorcet and Henri IV (where he was taught by Alain), Paris; the Sorbonne, Paris. Married: one son. Military service, from 1905; also fought in World War I.Subeditor, L’Opinion, 1911–14. Converted to Catholicism, 1913. Editor, 1920–39, and director, 1939–44, La Revue Universelle;
founder and editor, 1933 newspaper, 1929–34. Served under Vichy during World War II.
Worked for Plon publishing house after the war. Elected to the French Academy, 1960.
Award: French Academy Grand Prize for Literature, 1929.
Died in Paris, 16 April 1970.
Essays and Related Prose
Comment Émile Zola composait ses romans, 1906
Le Puits de Pyrrhon, 1907
La Pensee de Maurice Barrès, 1909
L’Esprit de la nouvelle Sorbonne, with Alfred de Tarde (jointly as Agathon), 1911
Les Jeunes Gens d’aujourd’hui, with Alfred de Tarde (jointly as Agathon), 1913
Rotnain Rolland contre la France, 1915
La Vie d’Ernest Psichari, 1916
Jugements, 2 vols., 1923–24; revised edition, 1929
En marge de “Jugements”: Reflexions sur I’art du roman, 1927
Defense de I’Occident, 1927
Reflexions sur I’art du roman, 1927
Avant-Postes (chroniques d’un redressement), 1910–1914 (articles), 1928
Dix ans apres: Reflexions sur la litterature d’apres guerre, 1932
L’Honneur de servir, 1937
Le Drame de Marcel Proust, 1937
Chefs: Les Dictateurs et «o«s, 1939
Le Siege de I’Alcazar, with Robert Brasillach, 1939
La Guerre de trente ans, 1940
Les Idées restent, 1941
Découverte de la Russie, 1944
D’André Gide à Marcel Proust, 1948
L’Alletnagne d’hier et d’aprés-demain, 1949
L’Occident et son destin, 1956
L’Europe en question., 1958
Visages des idées; À contre-courant; Thémes et discussions, 1958
Salazar face à face, 1961
Barrés et nous, 1962
Other writings: works on politics, religion, and literature, and memoirs.
Archambault, Paul, Jeunes Maîtres, Paris: Bloud & Gay, 1926
Bernanos, Georges, Correspondance inédite, 1904–1934: Combat pour la vérité, Paris: Plon, 1971
Brasillach, Robert, Notre Avant-guerre, Paris: Plon, 1941
Calvet, J., Le Renouveau catholique dans la littérature contemporaine, Paris: Lanore, 1927
Christophe, Lucien, “Regards sur Henri Massis,” Revue Génerale Belge (May 1961): 17– 41
Clouard, Henri, Histoire de la littérature française: Du symbolisme à nos jours, de 1914 à 1940, Paris: Albin Michel, 2 vols., 1947–49
Daudet, Léon, Écrivains et artistes, vol. 6, Paris: Capitole, 1929
Dubech, Lucien, Les Chefs de file de la jeune génératton, Paris: Plon, 1925
Fraser, Theodore, The French Essay, Boston: Twayne, 1986
Griffiths, Richard, The Reactionary Revolution: The Catholic Revival in French Literature 1870–1914, New York: Ungar, 1965; London, Constable, 1966
Henri Massis, études, tétnoignages, textes et documents inédits, biographie et bibliographie, Paris: Nouvelles Éditions Latines, 1961
Itinéraires issue on Massis, 49, (January 1961)
Leitolf, Otto, “Die Gedankenwelt von Henri Massis,” Romanische Studien 53 (1940):1– 118
Maxence, Jean-Pierre, Histoire de dix ans, 1927–1937, Paris: Gallimard, 1939
Poulet, Robert, Le Caléidoscope, Lausanne: L’Âge d’Homme, 1982
Rebatet, Lucien, Les Décombres, Paris: Denoël, 1942
Séché, Alphonse, Dans la mêlée littéraire (1900–1930), Paris: Malfère, 1935
Thérive, André, Opinions littéraires, Paris: Bloud & Gay, 1925
Toda, Michel, Henri Massis: Un témoin de la droite intellectuelle, Paris: La Table Ronde, 1987
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