- Jazz Age Catholicism: Mystic Modernism in Postwar Paris, 1919-1933
Jazz Age Catholicism offers an original, insightful, and penetrating analysis of an important moment in the cultural history of modern France. It argues that pervasive collective bereavement in the aftermath of World War I prompted a profound cultural shift in elite French society that made Catholicism—dismissed only a few years earlier as retrograde, essentially out of step with the modern world, and archaic—a vibrant and consoling cultural option for many of France's most innovative and creative minds. But Stephen Schloesser's argument is more subtle still:not only did many within the avant garde turn to, and find in, Catholicism a vibrant cultural paradigm that offered solace and spiritual renewal; but prominent French Catholic thinkers and artists embraced modernity not by wholesale rejection of the past but by effecting a synthesis of medieval and modern philosophical principles and artistic forms. At the forefront of this experiment in Catholic renewal and redefinition were Jacques Maritain, Georges Bernanos, Georges Roualt, and Charles Tournemire. Refusing to abandon the philosophic and aesthetic traditions of the Catholic past—whether Scholasticism in philosophy (in the case of Maritain)or Gregorian chant in music (as was Tournemire's striking accomplishment)—each of Schloesser's subjects "formulat[ed] traditional Catholic ideas in modernist guise"(p. 15). Thus it is Catholicism's outreach to the modern—as much as modernity's embrace of Catholicism—that emerges most powerfully from this analysis.
One of Schloesser's most impressive qualities is his ability to write clearly, intelligently, and originally about cultural production in its many forms:literature, philosophy, and music are analyzed with equal ease and clarity. This facility is especially evident (and welcome, to this reviewer, at least)in his analysis of Charles Tournemire, composer and organist. Deeply familiar with the technicalities of musical composition, Schloesser successfully sets forth the formal characteristics of plainchant and explains how Tournemire, who harbored no political sympathy with the ultra-conservative, integralist appropriation of plainchant in the late nineteenth century, claimed it as a mode of modernist expression in his masterwork of 1927, L'Orgue Mystique. Because Schloesser can write authoritatively about music, philosophy, and literature, he is able to demonstrate that Catholicism's appeal extended broadly through the cultural domain and was not limited to one or two specific genres. Furthermore, his willingness to think about how sexual modernity (epitomized in the 1920's by homosexuality) often coincided with a deep respect for cultural order—most evident in Jean Cocteau's abiding friendship with, and respect for, Jacques and Raissa Maritain—offers us [End Page 337] a new way to understand the modernist initiatives of inter-war Catholicism:"la main tendue,"once understood only as the outstretched hand that hoped to bring Catholics and Communists together, emerges here as another form of cultural rapprochement, equally unexpected by the standards of the pre-war era, by which Catholics and homosexuals could find common ground.
Jazz Age Catholicism contributes in two significant ways to our understanding of twentieth-century French cultural history: first, it prompts a serious reconsideration of the role played by, and the cultural attraction of, Catholicism in the aftermath of World War I; second, it contributes importantly to a scholarly re-assessment of the cultural consequences of the war itself. Yet it leaves one wanting something more. The argument is well made that this new spirit of innovation emerged from the psychological trauma of World War I, thus linking this work with a very rich vein of recent scholarship on the cultural consequences of the war. What remains less well developed is the longer-term significance of this cultural shift. Was "Jazz Age Catholicism" an ephemeral phenomenon without long-term, lasting significance?Or was it the beginning of a fundamental reorientation in Catholicism that led to the Second Vatican Council and its defining spirit of ecumenicism?And what of the modernists who perceived in Catholicism a new opportunity for spiritual renewal?Was theirs only a fleeting alliance?These questions might rightly...