In the realm of Catholic or Christian literature, one question I have never seen confronted directly is whether a writer necessarily needs to be devout within a Christian denomination in order to write a story or poem that is Christian. The most important aspect of Christian literature, it would seem, is whether the themes of incarnational spirituality are captured in the mystery of the tale, or not. Before Christmas, I reviewed a book by Michel Tournier titled The Four Wise Men, a tale of the Magi in the Christmas story. Whatever Tournier’s personal faith was, in his telling of the Christmas story he masterfully intertwined the experiences captured in myth and legend with the mundane world of political power and intrigue. In the end, he presented a convincing portrayal of how the good, however humble and vulnerable it may be to the forces of evil, can win the day by turning men’s hearts toward the proverbial light.
The Four Wise Men highlighted the Christmas manger as a source of the good in Creation. Another obvious theme in the Christian tradition is the grace and goodness found at the Cross. How a place of torture and execution can be a source of the good in human affairs has inspired enough writing to fill a library, in part because every generation in every culture needs to understand the Cross for themselves. Michel Tournier has not backed down from the call to make sense of the Cross. His novel The Ogre, a tale that puts flesh on the bones of the legend of Saint Christopher, follows the logic of the Cross, and in so doing, shows how the vulnerability of the good, the true, and the beautiful, in a world oriented by struggles for power and filled with suffering, has a way of influencing human souls in the most unpredictable ways.
Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines an ogre as first “a hideous giant of fairy tales and folklore that feeds on human beings.” In Tournier’s tale, the Ogre is Abel Tiffauges, a pre-World War Two auto mechanic in Paris who is enlisted to serve in the French army in the autumn of 1939. Tiffauges is oriented toward the demonic, possessed by his own experience and guided by his desires. Tiffauges is also a gnostic type. He understands that the world he inhabits is one afflicted by a malign inversion; Satan has held up a mirror to God, and all that is inherently ordered toward the good in heaven becomes directed toward something sinister in this earthly realm. Tiffauges is sensitive to the spirit imbued in things and people, and to the hidden meanings found in what may appear as trifling events. He understands that happenings in his life are signs directing him toward a unique destiny that lifts him above the average citizen who ignorantly bumbles about in a nation blindly oriented by death. He sees himself as a savior, as someone whose “super-human vocation” is to confront Satan’s malign inversion by “re-establishing” a proper understanding of values in this world.
Tiffauges interprets his personal experiences, as well as the cultural and political events surrounding him, as revealing a spiritual realm that affirms his path toward his ultimate destiny. The ogrish aspect to Tiffauges is that he wishes to possess the veiled spirit, a primordial power dwelling within the people he meets and the things he lays his hands on, for his personal empowerment. Although he will not literally eat people, in other words, he still feeds off of them by coldly drawing from the spiritual aspects of their nature. This is especially the case for children, of whom he is fond of taking pictures in the school yard, or in recording their happy cries as they play together. Ultimately, it is in picking children up in his arms—the phoric act of carrying—that a spiritual euphoria overcomes Tiffauges. He experiences the angelic innocence of a child to be a protection against all that is evil in the world.
To enter into Tiffauges’ world is to encounter the dirt, flesh and excrement of human and animal life. In his world there is no faith journey one can take, such as a Christian’s pilgrimage, where one may realize divine love and learn to gracefully deal with suffering and death. According to Tiffauges, the prayerful seeking after purity, or holiness, is a fool’s errand that is badly misdirected. Purity is a satanic illusion, a malign inversion of innocence, which is the power children possess. Once life begins to weigh a child down with sufferings, puberty and prejudices, the innocence or purity that slips away from a child can never be reclaimed. In Tiffauges’ world, therefore, children are a type of rare object to capture.
Tiffauges serves his earthly king—the nation of France—until he is captured by the German army during the 1940 Blitzkrieg. Over the next year of his imprisonment, the Ogre’s unique insight into events and people, combined with courage born from his belief in a special destiny, leads him to the hunting lodge of Rominten, where he will grow ever closer to the Nazi hierarchy and the cultures of Nazi and pre-Christian Germany. Tiffauges is now, in the Christopherian sense, in the service of Satan. He recognizes Hermann Goering, the Master of the Hunt at Rominten, as a master ogre, though perhaps not as refined as himself. And in coming upon Prussian children being fussily prepared for Hitler’s birthday, recognizes that the chief ogre of them all is Adolf Hitler. Who else could have the pleasure and benefit of being given every ten- year- old child of an entire nation to draw energy and protection from?
Tournier’s story presents a study of Nazi symbols and ideas, interpreted via his concept of malign inversion. Included in the observations of Nazism is a brief recounting of an SS officer’s youthful years after World War One, and his journey from being a nomadic, guitar playing tramp, along with scores of other youths, to his evolving into a loyal German who will die for his Fuhrer. As nomadic vagabonds, these youths reject their parent’s generation, cutting loose from their “sordid heritage.” They wear rags “with flowers in our battered hats,” and on their travels discover “the great pure German forest with its fountains and nymphs.” The rejection of the Christianized culture of his parents is not overt, but the move to a cosmological past, and eventually to a gnostic-saving fantasy, is clearly mapped out. The reader cannot help but see an inverted parallel between these German youths and American hippy culture of the 1960s, where tradition is discarded for utopian visions of a new world.
The journey into the depths of Prussian and Nazi culture reveals a world in which ancient spirits seem to step out from hiding, becoming fully revealed, worshipped, and lived with by the German people. The Prussian eagle faces dexter, to the right, while the eagle of the Thousand Year Reich faces left, suggesting a turn from a people’s responsibilities in history toward a people’s spiritual possession that eliminates history. The Maltese cross is replaced by a spider cross, the swastika, one that grinds up every individual who stands before it. Mass identity has been fostered in the Reich, a transformation of the self that Tiffauges is immune to in part because of his fascination with his own unique destiny as an ogre.
Tiffauges is not completely immune to the evocations of this Nazi world, however, because he finds his surroundings so utterly stimulating at a mystical level. Tournier’s delving into this culture presents a sense of the magical for the reader. As rituals at a Jungmannen castle suggest, Nazi Germany flirts with a return to cosmological civilization that Eric Voegelin studies via ancient Eygpt. Tiffauges recognizes that the “trajectory of time here is not linear but circular.” Christmas celebrations do not celebrate the birth of Christ “but that of the Sun child, risen from his ashes at the winter solstice.” As the ritual re-enactment of the death of the Sun god and its re-birth are carried out by the Jungmannen, Tiffauges witnesses a winter storm knock out power, leaving “a single star, like a yellow eye,” piercing through the darkness. The star is a reminder of a greater transcendent presence, however humble and silent, that threatens the compact Nazi cosmological structure.
As the Jungmannen begin to train with heavy weaponry in order to fight to the death against the approaching Red Army, however, Tiffauges is soulfully awakened, leaving him feeling deeply troubled. Carrying a young boy killed while training with an anti-tank rocket, Tiffauges staggers under the weight of the child. The phoric ecstasy he experienced previously has been replaced by a dark sense of the Apocalyptic. His demonically oriented desire to carry innocence above him for his own protection is replaced by sadness and melancholy. The use of children to fight to the death with real weapons is a malign inversion of the traditional world where children played at war with toy guns.
As prisoners from concentration camps further east are herded through the Prussian countryside under cover of night, Tiffauges discovers a small Jewish boy near death who had fallen unseen from the column of marchers. Tiffauges’ soul is awakened with the dying boy in his arms. As he brings the boy back to the castle beneath the twinkling and turning stars, the boy takes on the name of “Star-bearer,” and Ephraim. The biblical account of Ephraim’s blessing from Israel in Genesis 48 is apropos to the novel’s stress on inversion, including the meaning behind right and left sides.
Tiffauges learns of the network of concentration camps from Ephraim, and realizes that veils in this world continue to exist even in the Third Reich. There is an entire other world with its own transportation hubs and bases of command that has been thriving, hidden from the eyes of the living. When he seeks to murder an SS officer who has discovered Ephraim, the Star-Bearer calls for Tiffauges to stop. He calls Tiffauges Behemoth, from the Book of Job, and comforts Tiffauges with the assurance that the “soldiers of the Lord will come and deliver the people of Israel.” Tiffauges is now a Christopher, a Christ-bearer, or bearer of divine light. He feels the radiance of the boy’s prophetic faith, and on the night of the apocalypse for East Prussia—when the Red Army arrives—he will witness the Passover meal and realize a new perspective to the destruction raining down upon them. Ephraim reveals a soulful orientation amidst suffering that is led by faith, love and hope, asking, “How is this night of the fifteenth of Nisan different from every other night?” The joy and peace Tiffauges realizes in his soul in Ephraim’s presence allows him to properly understand his calling in life. He is not here to transform or change the world, he is here to serve and sacrifice for the good. In this act of faith, the Ogre finds his true humanity, and protects the divine light from being extinguished in a world of fire and death.
Tournier’s portrayal of the good as something humble and vulnerable, yet timelessly powerful, follows the themes of writers who have been celebrated for similar portrayals, such as J.R.R. Tolkien. Tournier’s gift in The Ogre is that he places the logic of the Cross into the middle of our historical existence. He demonstrates how our universe is ordered toward the good, and the mysterious and subtle ways that grace evokes a turning in our soul toward the good.
 Michael Buhler, “Being Called Behind the Wall,” VoegelinView, 9 December, 2021. <https://voegelinview.com/being-called-beyond-the-wall/>
 Polly Detels, “Cruciform Logic”: Mastering the Present in J.M. Coetzee’s Age of Iron, VoegelinView, 17 December, 2013. <https://voegelinview.com/cruciform-logic-mastering-present-j-m-coetzees-age-iron-part-1/>
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