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  • Trinity and AtheologyThe Listening Self in Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe
  • Ashok Collins

The French novelist, playwright, biographer, essayist and musicologist Romain Rolland was born on 29 January 1866, in Clamecy, a small town in Burgundy. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915, and became infamous for his pacifist stance during the First World War. He developed an interest in the non-resistance of Mahatma Gandhi and the Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism in the 1920s. Although he never became a member of the Communist Party, Rolland visited Russia in 1935 and became an advocate of the Soviet experiment despite his acknowledgement of its shortcomings. He died at the age of seventy-eight on 30 December 1944, in Vézelay, France.

One of the aspects of Rolland’s work that has attracted perhaps the most sustained critical attention in past scholarship is his religious thought, which has usually been seen as an eclectic mixture of creeds based on an existential understanding of the divine (e.g., Cruickshank). The foundation of such a religious thinking was laid by what Rolland later described as three spiritual revelations, or éclairs, which provided a vivid, experiential counterpoint to the abstraction of the Catholic Mass that he attended during his childhood years.1 Rolland gives a detailed account of these flashes of intuition into the nature of existence in Le Voyage intérieur: a penetrating vision of the wide expanse of nature on a terrace in the town of Ferney; his reading of “les mots de feu de Spinoza,” which provided him with a direct taste of the divine life; and “l’éclair Tolstoyen,” which gave him the sensation of being one with the universe (28). In 1887, Rolland sketched out this new faith in a document he entitled “Credo quia verum,” which expressed a philosophy that would later become the “moteur de sa vie et de son œuvre” (Duchatelet, La Genèse 29). In the Credo, Rolland depicts a form of divinity that is not divorced in any way from the material realm but rather is encountered within human [End Page 113] experience. As Sipriot clarifies, for Rolland “[l]a vraie religion suit le rythme et les drames de la vie, de notre vie” (29). Such a unity between the divine and the human, and the importance placed on the natural world within his work, has led most scholars to define Rolland’s religiosity as a form of pantheism (Francis 253; Bonnerot 17), an interpretation that is certainly supported by Rolland’s own assertions on several occasions (Le Cloître 75; Chère Sofia 320). This understanding of the divine predominated for most of Rolland’s life, until a later re-engagement with the Catholic tradition through his friendship with Paul Claudel and various Catholic priests made a more personalized vision come to prominence within his interior life (see Paul Claudel, Romain Rolland; Au seuil).

While most critics see a sharp divide between Rolland’s pantheism and his later rapprochement with the Christian tradition, other critics recognize that such discursive labeling can sometimes risk oversimplifying what was in fact a much more complex stance towards Catholicism from the very beginning of his literary career.2 Such critical disagreement becomes particularly intense when we turn to his most well-known novel, Jean-Christophe, an “œuvre de foi” (xiv) which has usually been read as an archetypal example of Rolland’s pantheistic vision at work in literary form (e.g., Bresky 1053). In this paper, however, we will follow the critical pathway laid out by Bernard Duchatelet, who hints at the possibility of undertaking a more thorough analysis of the numerous Biblical references that are scattered throughout the novel.3 The purpose of such a study is not to argue for a re-classification of the novel as a “Christian” text, nor to suggest that previous pantheistic definitions should be discarded entirely. Rather, by focusing on the textual representation of God in Jean-Christophe through a utilization of Jean-Luc Nancy’s Deconstruction of Christianity (Déconstruction du christianisme), I will seek to exploit the Biblical tradition in order to re-envisage the text as a literary example of the praxis of open...


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