Commonweal‘s February 27, 2009 issue had a short piece entitled “The Perfect Sinner” by Harold Bordwell. It was about Max Jacob, a French Jew born in Brittany, who was a painter, poet, novelist, playwright, and critic, who played an important role in the formative years of Cubism as well as in the new directions of modern poetry during the early 20th century. His poetry was made up of an amalgam of Jewish, Breton, Parisian and Roman Catholic elements.
Max Jacob alternated between a wildly bohemian lifestyle and periods of contemplation. He converted to Catholicism in 1915, after experiencing a vision of Christ a few years earlier. But his conversion did not save him from the Gestapo, who rounded him up and took him to Drancy internment camp. He died there of pneumonia on March 5, 1944, two days before he was scheduled to be sent to Auschwitz. He was 68. His body was eventually returned to his home of Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire near Orleans.
Saint-Benoit was the site of a celebrated abbey church. Max Jacob first came to Saint-Benoit in 1921, and stayed there periodically until 1937, when he settled down permanently, living a quietly religious life–early daily Mass, evening prayer, and working as a church guide.
Max Jacob reminds me of David, a “man after God’s own heart.” Sensuous, a sinner, each man experienced periods of prayful contemplation and penitence. But in their full and vivid life each also held God in a loved and honored place.
Max Jacob chose Saint-Benoit to escape his disorderly and worldly life–he was homosexual, he took drugs, he liked to play the clown–and, as his biographer Beatrice Mousli notes, to be nearer to God and away from his temptations that he could never resist in Paris.
It was a very different life than his days in Paris, where his writings and gouache paintings led to friendships with Picasso, Jean Cocteau, anf Guillaume Apollinaire, among others. There were rumors that Jacob was a male lover of Picasso. “Oh, Picasso was absolutely having sex with Max Jacob. And everyone knew!”, said John Richardson, Picasso’s biographer. Even Picasso’s mistress, Fernande Olivier, noted upon first meeting Jacob that the two men were “toujours ensemble.”
In his journals, novelist Julian Green remembers how Max Jacob used to haunt the Cafe Select by night, and then the next morning hurry down the boulevard to Notre-Dame-des-Champs to confess his sins, with the priests hiding behind the church columns but knowing that one of them would eventually have to listen to the same sins they all knew by heart.
Green calls Max Jacob the perfect sinner because he was truly sorry for his sins, which didn’t prevent him from starting all over the next day.