Friday, January 28, 2011

"They have crucified the sun!" - The Paganism Of Henri Lefebvre

After the liberation of France, Henri Lefebvre returned to his little village, Navareenx, in the Pyrenees. He strolled up to, then entered, the village church. After returning to Paris, he narrated his impressions which became the essay, "Notes Written One Sunday in the French Countryside", which was included in a 1947 volume, Critique of Everyday Life. This short piece receives a close reading by Boer, and in it Boer claims that using Lefebvre's own interpretations, particularly of the dialectics of space, both as a representation and as represented, he can see hints even in Lefebvre's otherwise vitriolic, barely-concealed disgust with the Roman Catholicism of his youth, small hints of an alternative reading of the local parish as a place not just of the reification of the repression of the (rural) proletariat through the rituals and practices of the Church, but also a place full of potential protest, a "cave" he says, an underground where possible subversion can be planned.

For all this may be a possible reading, I think Boer works too hard for this conclusion. After wending one's way through Lefebvre's essay, with small excursions looking at Maurice Blondel and Joachim of Fiore, this conclusion seems to ignore some important aspects of Lefebvre's thought and life. Boer notes that Lefebvre was the founder or rural sociology in France; he further notes that, like Bloch, Lefebvre was a kind of utopian-Marxist, although of a different cast of mind. While Bloch's utopia was always not-yet, for Lefebvre (as, indeed, I think one can say of some of the writings of Marx himself) the consummation of the communist revolution, as the state withers and life and human beings are no longer alienated one from another, the result is akin more to the agrarian communism of ancient Greece, a pastoral effervescence, rather than some not-yet existent future.

The title of this post comes from a passage in the essay where Lefebvre reacts to a Celtic cross, with its circle superimposed upon the otherwise bland cruciform wall-hanging. In that instant of - what? not revelation, certainly, but perhaps anger-filled insight - clarity, we have the key to Lefebvre's protest against the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church in the life of rural France. He juxtaposes the virile, sensual, life-affirming rituals of pagan religious rituals - those moments after harvest and before planting when communities would toss caution to the wind, celebrate a massive communal feast, and end in an (imagined, I think, in Lefebvre's preference for sensuality) orgy of Epicurean gluttony and Dionysian sexuality. The Church, by which he means the Roman Catholic Church, has baptized these and other rituals, robbed them of their sensuality and life-affirming celebratory core, and rendered them not just placid, but even negative. What was once a huge communal feast has become the Eucharist with its bland little wafer and barest hint of a taste of (consecrated) wine. Sexuality? The Church gives us a neutered, even emasculated Christ and the Virgin Mother. Rather than affirming life, even as these celebrations created conditions that kept rural populations perpetually on the edge of near-catastrophe, the Church has simultaneously offered a certain amount of safety to rural communities even as it strips life of those rituals and signs that would give meaning and joy to it.

With the sun crucified by the Church, we have the negation of all that Lefebvre wishes to see returned to a rural life robbed of any joy by a set of doctrines and practices that repress, even destroy, what little of real life might remain.

While it might be possible to see, buried in his description of his local church there in he Pyreneean foothills hints of possible subversion, of space reserved for clandestine gatherings in the heart of a space consecrated to the on-going repression of the rural proletariat, I believe this over-reading misses a key component of Lefebvre's approach to Marxism. It is not just liberation; it is a reconstitution, the possibility for life, particularly rural life, to be in greater accord with the rhythms and tempo of the seasons. Part of the practice of such communities is the ritualized acknowledgment of these rhythms, important touchstones for communal life. It is this ritualized harmony, this celebration of life, that Lefebvre wants to see restored. It is a deep streak of paganism that runs through at least Boer's presentation of his musings not just on the Roman Catholic Church, but his far larger project of understanding rural life.

There is little room, it seems, even for a subversive Catholicism, to take root in the heart of a community that, once it has tossed off the shackles of capitalist exploitation, would return in some manner to a more natural - and more ritualized practice - way of living.

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