Thursday, August 25, 2011

Lacordaire, the model for Melville's Dominican in Clarel

"The people once elected me
To be their spokesman. In this gown
I sat in legislative hall
A champion of true liberty--
God's liberty for one and all--
Not Satan's license. Mine's the state
Of a staunch Catholic Democrat."
--Clarel 2.25
Melville’s portrait of the Dominican priest in Clarel as “A champion of true liberty” draws heavily on the real life and times of Father Henri–Dominique Lacordaire (1802-1861). "Dieu et la Liberté!" was the motto of the journal L’Avenir (The Future), founded in 1830 by Lacordaire with Montalembert and others dedicated to the extension of civil liberties including basic freedoms of religion and education (separation of church and state), freedom of the press, freedom of association, and the extension of voting rights. In the 1862 review essay on "Lacordaire and Catholic Progress," Melville's converted countryman Orestes Brownson praised Lacordaire as:
"inherently a brave man, what we call a manly man, the hero of the pulpit, and the champion of free speech, free education, free thought, and free discussion." --Brownson's Quarterly Review - July 1862

In her 1867 biography, Dora Greenwell calls Lacordaire
"the tried champion of popular liberty."  (130)  --Dora Greenwell, Lacordaire
Melville's democratically inclined Dominican distinguishes true liberty from a worldly, carnal understanding of freedom or "Satan's license." So too, Lacordaire, from the pulpit of Notre Dame preached that without Christ and the Church, "liberty becomes license"  (in the paraphrase by Greenwell, 72).

Melville's Dominican "sat in legislative hall" as an elected representative of the people. Likewise Lacordaire was famous in his time for briefly serving in the French National Assembly. Historian Robert Gildea explains:
"Lacordaire was elected in Marseille, one of twenty priests and three bishops to be elected to the National Assembly, and took his place there dressed in his white Dominican robes."  Children of the Revolution: the French, 1799-1914 (Harvard University Press, 2010), 130.
Closer to Melville's milieu, volume 24 of Bentley's Magazine (1848) features a report on the National Assembly that laments the absence of Lacordaire:
"The strange white robe of the eloquent Dominican monk, the Pere Lacordaire, has disappeared: he has retired in disgust before the tumultuous nature of the National Assembly."  (77)  --Bentley's Miscellany, Volume 24
Writing in the London Theological Review 11 (1874), Charles Beard included the white robe in his catalog of essential traits and accomplishments of Lacordaire:
One of the great religious sensations of the times was the appearance of the white Dominican robe in the pulpit of Notre Dame, after so many years during which the public wearing of the dress of any religious order had been prohibited. Lacordaire lived to exhibit the same habit upon the benches of the National Assembly of 1848... But much more curious and interesting than this episode of religious reaction in France, is the completeness with which the mediaeval idea of holiness took possession of Lacordaire's mind, and the reconciliation which to a certain extent he effected in himself between the ascetic saint and the orator, the politician, the man of letters.
--The Theological Review, Volume 11
Lacordaire's monastic asceticism is quite visibly shared by Melville's Dominican. Indeed, it's practically the first thing Clarel, Derwent, Rolfe, Vine, and company notice about the stranger, after his white robe:
Surprise they knew, yet made a stir
Of welcome, gazing on the man
In white robe of Dominican,
Of aspect strong, though cheek was spare,
Yellowed with tinge athlete may wear
Whom rigorous masters overtrain
When they with scourge of more and more
Would macerate him into power.

Inwrought herewith was yet the air
And open frontage frankly fair
Of one who'd moved in active scene
And swayed men where they most convene.  --Clarel 2.25
Melville seems to have picked up his word "macerate" from The Inner Life of the Very Reverend Père Lacordaire, of the Order of Preachers (Dublin, 1867), which thus recalls Lacordaire's monastic "austerities":
"every kind of maceration in use among the saints; —hair-cloths, disciplines, scourges of every kind and description, were all known and practised by him!" (343)  --Bernard Chocarne, Inner Life

Melville's Rolfe looks "incredulous" at the Dominican's description of himself as a "Catholic Democrat." "Hardly those terms ye reconcile, " observes the priest, yet that's what Lacordaire was all about, "reconciling democracy with Catholicity" ("Two Catholic Reformers," Annals of St Joseph 27-28, 73). Orestes Brownson, again, cited
"the democratic tendencies so apparent in Pere Lacordaire"
--Brownson's Review - July 1862
 as essential and characteristic qualities.

James Trenor, in the translator's preface to Montalembert's Memoir of the Abbé Lacordaire (London, 1863) attests to Lacordaire's reputation for the very attributes that Melville gives his Dominican priest:
He fought for liberty; he was for twenty years the idol of the French youth. He was one of the greatest of modern orators. He was sent to represent France in the National Assembly at a time when the frock of the monk was looked upon with anything but favor.  (vi-vii)
In the introduction to American Risorgimento, Dennis Berthold summarizes Melville's take on the Dominican as "a satirical portrait of the Dominican priest" (Introduction, 23).  In his 2004 article in
Nineteenth-Century Literature, Professor Berthold pointed out that the Dominican’s confidence in Rome oddly ignores the curbed authority of the Pope in recently unified Italy (359-366). But "satirical portrait" ought to be reconsidered now, in light of Melville's use of defining details from Lacordaire's real-life story as the basis for his treatment of the Dominican. Even the historical incongruity remarked by Berthold nicely registers the influence of Lacordaire, who died nearly a decade before the 1870 annexation of Rome.

Lacordaire’s earlier activism in the cause of democratic liberties, his memorable election in 1848 to the French National Assembly, his eloquence in the pulpit of Notre Dame, and even his rumored “austerities” in the exercise of monastic self-discipline—all widely reported in contemporary sources—gave Melville ample material for his portrait of the
“Disinterested, earnest, pure
And liberal” --Clarel 2. 26
exponent of Roman Catholicism.

Here's Lacordaire himself, writing in February 1861 on "Christianity and Democracy":
...the union of liberty and Christianity is the sole possible salvation of the future. Christianity alone can give liberty its real nature, and liberty alone can give Christianity the means of influence necessary to it.

M. de Tocqueville understood this, and this is the great feature of his life. Christianity made him a complete liberal, pure, disinterested, superior to the parties which divided the men of his day, and God willed that despite this superiority, he should win the unanimous homage of France, Europe and America. His opinions, like his memory, should be the compass of all those who think like you, Sir, and in the eulogium which I passed upon him, on a memorable occasion, I had no other intention than to throw into relief a figure evidently given us as a model. --Montalembert, Lacordaire's Letters to Young Men, trans. James Trenor (London, 1865), 200-201.
Aha! So Melville puts Lacordaire's own words in Derwent's mouth (Derwent? I think that's right) in sympathetically describing the Dominican as disinterested, pure, liberal. In his portrait of the Dominican, Melville seems even to have appropriated the memorializing project that Lacordaire attempted for de Tocqueville, only applying it to Lacordaire himself. Just as Father Lacordaire says  he aimed to eulogize de Tocqueville, so Melville, too, through his borrowings from the life of the historical Lacordaire, has attempted
"to throw into relief a figure evidently given us as a model." 
Related posts:
  • Saints as Syrens
  • Clarel's name

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