Franklin's Faves

Tracy Picks a Franklin’s Fave: Carnal Spirit

Today’s post comes from Penn Press’s Direct Mail and Advertising Manager, Tracy Kellmer, continuing a blog series in which Tracy will explore one of the books currently for 75% off in the Franklin’s Faves section of our website!

One of the perks of working at a university press, and especially Penn Press, is that I am exposed to excellent scholarly treatments of a wide variety of subjects. As a member of the Marketing department, I get to know a bit about every book we publish through my engagement with its metadata, such as keywords and subject codes, and its descriptive copy, which appears in everything from seasonal catalogs to online retail sites (we know the one you’re thinking of). But a marketer has short-lived romances with books on the front list: every six months I have a new season’s worth of books to get to know and a new seasonal catalog to publish. That’s why I love Franklin’s Faves! I get a chance to rediscover a book that intrigued me the first time around. I hope you enjoy my rediscoveries as much as I do!

What I picked:

Carnal Spirit: The Revolutions of Charles Péguy by Matthew W. Maguire

Why I picked it:

I enjoy reading the works of a handful of twentieth-century French philosophers that have been translated into English: Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-François Lyotard, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Jean-Luc Nancy, among others. I had never heard of Charles Péguy, and even though Péguy died in 1914, I was surprised to have never come across his name before, or if I had, I didn’t recall it. My friend and former colleague, Erik Beranek, piqued my interest in Henri Bergson, and when I found out Péguy was Bergson’s student and lifelong friend, it felt like fate.

What I discovered:

I looked Péguy up on Wikipedia before I started reading the book, just to get a sense of his output and major themes. What I found surprised me: there were a handful of essays, some letters, and a few poems and plays. Not the bibliography I was expecting for a philosopher, and it partly explains his obscurity. I couldn’t imagine any of the philosophers I went to graduate school with, for example, reading poetry for philosophical insights.

Rather than do any additional preparatory reading, I decided to let Matthew W. Maguire introduce me to Péguy and his world. I found Maguire’s book to be a thorough, accessible, and dare I say enjoyable introduction to Péguy’s work.

After reading the book, I would characterize Péguy as someone who resisted the stultifying and stagnating outcomes of systematic thinking. In Maguire’s reading of Péguy, I found a thinker who tried to think in terms of a singular being, with a body and a memory of the past, encountering the real or natural world with their whole self. In contrast to his peers, he resisted transforming an embodied experience of time and space into abstractions such as history, politics, nation, or morality. What I take Péguy to be arguing for is flexibility in the face of particularity: that is, at the time when Péguy was writing, he was distrustful of any political party or academic philosophy or religious theology that insisted on outcomes that could be determined ahead of time and that required an unthinking obedience from their participants.

Instead, he devoted much of his writing to figuring out how one could be a moral, principled, compassionate, advocate for justice without having to sacrifice the right to act out of love in a particular situation because one’s loyalty or subscription to a doctrine or dogma of a religion, party, or ideology would prevent it.

There were two historical figures that Péguy wrote about repeatedly: Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the artillery officer of Jewish descent who was wrongfully convicted of treason; and Joan of Arc, the medieval woman who saved France in war at seventeen and then burned at the stake for heresy at nineteen. For Péguy, these two figures represent what happens when a mysticism (in Joan’s case) or a conviction (in the case of defending Dreyfus) becomes corrupted and is transformed into politics by powerful defenders of the status quo. I can also imagine him seeing his own circumstances mirrored in theirs.

As much as Péguy was committed to socialism and anti-capitalism, he was also very much idealistic in that he thought a plural society, and especially a plural France, was possible. This put him at odds with the French National Socialist Party of his time.

And while Péguy returned to the Catholicism of his youth, he was also vehemently anti-clerical, and was never baptized nor did he attend any services or avail himself of the sacrament. He instead brought the origins of Christianity to bear on the present to argue for a “supple” morality which put him at odds with the Church.

Based on my reading of Maguire’s reading, I don’t think Péguy was advocating for a “middle way” as much as he wanted to advocate for the plurality that exists in all embodied people with memories of their pasts. And as such, no matter what controversy or debate was occurring around him, he couldn’t wholly subscribe to the totalizing systems of liberal technocratic positivists in the university nor could he join forces with the ultimately racist and reactionary nationalists, even as he loved France.

But here it’s important to remember that he grew up poor in what Maguire called a peasant, pre-literate environment, and that morality, sociality, and metaphysics existed just the same. In fact, Péguy went so far as to suggest that each individual has his or her own hard-earned metaphysics already, whether they are aware of it or not, and communities that ask embodied individuals to suppress their thoughts, languages, and behaviors, is no community at all, but a corrupted politics.

Obviously, Maguire has a lens through which he views the work of Péguy. That said, the world in which Péguy was writing clearly has resonances with the world I find myself in, and I found in Péguy someone who could never fit in anywhere, and would rather write what he wanted, and suffer the material repercussions of that conviction, than to cozy up to dehumanizing systems and those in positions of power to maintain those systems. And I wonder, if he had survived the war, where his thinking might have led him through time.

Favorite bit:

When Peguy decided that his work was not fit for, nor would be welcomed by, the institutional and traditional channels, he started his own journal to publish what we wanted to publish, by himself and others, including those who criticized him. Obviously, the fact that he impoverished his family by doing so doesn’t reflect well on him. But I couldn’t help thinking of Peguy as one of the OGs of zine publishing.