Le Soulier de satin (1929) is a play by Paul Claudel, a French Catholic poet and intellectual. The play is notoriously difficult to stage, and so is presented only rarely, but Hans Urs von Balthasar considered it the lone work to reach the grand dimension of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (see Glory of the Lord III). Below is an abridged excerpt.
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Do you not recognize me?
DONA PROUHEZE. I do not know. I see only an uncertain shape, like a shadow in the fog.
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. It is I. I was there. I have never left. Your Guardian Angel. Do you really think that you were far from me until now? There was continuity between us. You were touching me.
Thus, when autumn comes how warm it is still! The air is blue, the swallow everywhere finds abundant provender,
And yet how does she know it? The autumn is come, nothing will hinder her departure, she must, she goes, braving the sea.
She is not troubled about direction.
In like manner, in a conversation, one who is all caught up and possessed by the conversation,
If he hear a violin somewhere, or simply two or three times in succession those taps one gives on a piece of wood,
Bit by bit he holds his tongue, he is interrupted, he is elsewhere, as they say, he is hearkening.
You yourself, tell me, is it really true that you have never felt in the depth of yourself, between the heart and the liver, that dull thud, that sharp pull-up, that urgent touch?
DONA PROUHEZE. Too well I know them.
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. It was my hook in the very midst of you and I was paying out the line like a patient angler. Look at it twined about my wrist. There are only a few lengths left.
DONA PROUHEZE. It is true, then, that I am going to die?
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. And who knows if you are not dead already, otherwise whence would come to you that indifference to place, that helpless inertia?
So near the frontier, who knows from which side I can send you, back or forward at my playful will?
DONA PROUHEZE. Where am I and where are you?
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Together and apart. Far away and with But to bring you to the inwardness of this union of time with no time, of distance with no space, of movement with a different movement, I would need that music which your ears as yet cannot endure.
Where you say, is perfume? Where you will say, is sound? Between the perfume and the sound what is the common frontier! They exist together. And I exist with you.
Listen to my being. Yield to the persuasion of those waters gradually unbinding you. Give up this earth which you think solid and is but chained down.
A frail mixture, at every second thrilled with being as well as not being.
DONA PROUHEZE. Ah, when you speak again I feel in the depths of me the fishing line, the pull of that straightforward longing against the surge, of which I have so often known the ebb and flow.
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. The angler brings his catch from the river to the land, but my trade is to bring to those waters where I dwell the fish that is native to them.
DONA PROUHEZE. How shall I get there with this dense body?
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. You must leave it behind a little while.
DONA PROUHEZE. Then how shall I do without it?
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Is it not now a little late to ask me that?
DONA PROUHEZE. Myself that corpse I see down there forsaken on the sand, is that it?
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Try if you can again fit yourself into it.
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Look closer. What do you see?
DONA PROUHEZE. Rodrigo, I am thine.
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Again the line in my hand has unrolled.
DONA PROUHEZE, Rodrigo, I am thine.
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. He hears, he stops, he listens. Silence, a faint rustle in the palm-trees, a soul in Purgatory going up to Heaven,
An enormous cloud-bank hanging in the stilled air, a wavering sun, lighting up innumerable surges, a sun clearly not the sun of day, the moon on Oceania!
And again, like a captive beast worried by the gad-fly, I see him between the two walls taking up his furious race, that bitter beat of his.
Will he never stop? Ah, what a hopeless road he has already trodden between those two walls!
DONA PROUHEZE. I know it. Day and night I hear those steps continually.
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Are you glad that he suffers?
DONA PROUHEZE. Hold, dour angler! Do not pull the line so! Yes, I am glad that he is suffering for me.
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Do you think it was for you that he was created and sent into the world?
DONA PROUHEZE. Yes ! Yes ! Yes, I believe from the bottom of my heart that it is for me he was created and sent into the world.
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Are you great enough for a man’s soul?
DONA PROUHEZE. Yes, I am great enough for him.
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Is that the way you answer me on the threshold of death?
DONA PROUHEZE. Brother, kill this poor creature quickly and do not let her be so foolish any more.
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. What keeps you from going to him?
DONA PROUHEZE. This line holds me back.
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. So that if I let you go . . .
DONA PROUHEZE. Ah, then no more a fish, ’tis a bird that you would see take wing! Thought is not so prompt, the arrow does not cleave the air so fast,
As, away beyond the sea, I should be that laughing, sobbing bride in his arms!
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Have you never learned that ’tis the heart that must obey, and not the will materially held back by an obstacle?
DONA PROUHEZE. I obey as I am able.
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Then tis time for me to pull the line.
DONA PROUHEZE. But I can pull so hard against that it will break.
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. What would you say if I ask you to choose between God and Rodrigo?
DONA PROUHEZE. You are too clever an angler.
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Why too clever?
DONA PROUHEZE. To let the question be heard before the answer is ready. Where would be the angler’s art?
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Still if I put the question?
DONA PROUHEZE. I am deaf! I am deaf! A deaf fish, I am deaf and have not heard.
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. But why this Rodrigo my enemy, who holds me up, why did I not strike him? ‘Tis not the line alone that my hand can manage.
DONA PROUHEZE. And I will hold him so close in my arms that you will never see him.
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. You only do him ill.
DONA PROUHEZE. Rodrigo, is it with me you want to catch him?
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. That man of pride ! There was no other way to get him to understand his neighbour, to get inside his skin;
There was no other way to get him to understand the dependence, the necessity and the need of another on him,
The law upon him of that being, different for no other reason save that it exists.
DONA PROUHEZE. Oh! And so ’twas lawful, that love of creatures for each other, ’tis true then that God is not jealous? Man in woman’s arms…
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. How should He be jealous of what He has made, and how should He make anything that does not serve Him?
DONA PROUHEZE. Man in woman’s arms forgets God.
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Is it forgetting Him to be with Him? Is it away from Him to be bound up in the mystery of His creation,
Crossing again for a moment into Eden by the gate of humiliation and death?
DONA PROUHEZE. Love without the sacrament, is it not sin?
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Even sin! Sin also serves.
DONA PROUHEZE. So it was good that he loved me?
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. It was good that you taught him longing.
DONA PROUHEZE. Longing for an illusion? For a shadow that evermore escapes him?
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Desire is for what is, illusion is what is not. Desire through and by illusion
Is of what is, by and through what is not.
DONA PROUHEZE. But I am not an illusion, I exist! The good that I alone can give him exists.
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. That is why it must give him the good and nowise the evil
DONA PROUHEZE. But, cruelly dragged by you, I can give him nothing at all.
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Would you give him evil?
DONA PROUHEZE. Yes, sooner than stay barren and unfruitful like this, what you call evil.
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Evil is that which does not exist.
DONA PROUHEZE. Let us then unite our double non-existence.
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Prouheze my sister, the child of God exists.
DONA PROUHEZE. But what use existing if I do not exist for Rodrigo?
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. How should Prouheze ever exist otherwise than for Rodrigo when ’tis by him that she exists?
DONA PROUHEZE. Brother, I do not understand you.
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. ‘Tis in him that you were necessary.
DONA PROUHEZE. Oh sweet word to hear! Let me say it after you. What, was I necessary to him?
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. No, not that ugly and ill-favoured creature at the end of my line, not that sorry fish.
DONA PROUHEZE. Which then?
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Prouheze my sister, that child of God in light whom I do hail. That Prouheze die angels see, ’tis to her he looks without knowing it, ’tis her you have to make, to give to him.
DONA PROUHEZE. And ’twill be the same Prouheze?
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. A Prouheze for ever, whom death does not destroy.
DONA PROUHEZE. Always lovely?
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. A Prouheze always lovely.
DONA PROUHEZE. Will he love me for ever?
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. What makes you so beautiful cannot die, what makes him love you cannot die.
DONA PROUHEZE. How shall I shine, blind that I am?
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. God will breathe upon you.
DONA PROUHEZE. I am only a brand beneath the ashes.
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. But I will make of you a star flaming in the breath of the Holy Spirit.
DONA PROUHEZE. Farewell! then, here below! Farewell, farewell, my best beloved! Rodrigo! Rodrigo! Over there, farewell for ever.
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Why farewell? Why over there? When you will be nearer to him than you are now? Bound up beyond the veil with that cause which makes him live.
DONA PROUHEZE. He is seeking and will not find me any more.
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. How should he find you outside when you are nowhere else but within his heart, himself?
DONA PROUHEZE. You say true, I shall really be there?
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. This hook deep-bedded in his heart.
DONA PROUHEZE. Shall he always desire me?
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. For some, the understanding is enough. ‘Tis the spirit that speaks purely to die spirit.
But for others, the flesh also must be gradually evangelised and converted. And what flesh can speak to man more powerfully than that of woman?
Now he can no longer desire you without at the same time desiring where you are.
DONA PROUHEZE. But will heaven ever be so desirable to him?
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL [making as if to pull the line]. For such a silly word you shall be punished here and now.
DONA PROUHEZE [crying out]. Ah, brother, let this moment still endure.
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Hail dear-beloved sister! Welcome, Prouheze, to the flame!
Do you know them now, those waters where I willed to guide you?
DONA PROUHEZE. Ah, I have not enough! More! More! Give it back to me at last then, that water I was baptized in!
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Behold it laving and entering into thee on all sides.
DONA PROUHEZE. It bathes me and, I cannot taste it! It is a ray that pierces, it is a sword that sunders, it is a red-hot iron dreadfully pressed on that very nerve of life, it is the bubbling of the spring that seizes on all my constituent parts, to dissolve and recompose them, it is the nothingness I drown in every moment, and God upon my lips reviving me. And beyond all delight, ah, is the pitiless drain of thirst, that horror of dreadful thirst that lays me open crucified!
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Do you ask me to bring you back to the bygone life?
DONA PROUHEZE. No, no, do not separate me any more for ever from these desired flames! I must give up to their melting and devouring this frightful shell. I must bring my bonds to the fire to be burnt! I must hug it to the destruction of all my horrid sheathing, all that God did not make, all this rigid bristling wood of illusions and sin, this idol, this abominable doll that I built up in the place of the living image of God, whose seal my flesh bore printed!
Translated by Father John O’Connor (with the help of Paul Claudel).