The Idea of Perfection: The Poetry and Prose of Paul Valéry, by Paul Valéry, trans Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 432 pp, €40, ISBN: 978-0374298487
He was deemed France’s most important contemporary poet, according to a magazine poll conducted in 1921. A surprising pick, given his slim body of work at that point. The past four years had seen him published in various journals, but his substantial contributions were limited to two works: the 1920 collection L’album de vers ancien, 1890-1900 (Album of Early Verse), which collected the poems of his youth that were written under a decadent haze of Poe and Baudelaire, and La Jeune Parque (The Young Fate), the prismatic long poem that appeared out of the blue in 1917, when Valéry was forty-five, to strike a surprising chord with the war-ravaged litterati, despite its cryptic, metaphysical quality. Was the readers’ choice a fluke? Or was it just a question of good timing? Apollinaire, after all, had succumbed to the flu in 1918, so one assumes he was ineligible, and the Surrealists hadn’t quite erupted onto the world stage. It was clear, in any case, that the reading public was intrigued by Paul Valéry, this supremely self-possessed, moustachioed man, who quixotically spent the better part of his adult life seemingly shunning his literary calling. He’s remembered chiefly as a poet, though it’s worth pointing out he was often disdainful of that attribution. Better to say perhaps that he was a thinker. He had, after all, a tireless intellect, probing and wide-ranging, which inevitably led him to comment extensively on issues typically outside the purview of the poet. His eloquence and analytic bent could be intimidating, bruising even. “Nothing at all was left standing in my mind,” André Gide, a lifelong friend, once admitted after a particularly exhausting conversation. He was a man of the public, a prime model of that obsolete species, l’homme de lettres. In 1949, five years after his death, another outlet (French, of course) tried its hand at summing up the cultural arena of the past half century by cobbling together a list of ten of its most pivotal figures in any field. Valéry was pinned at six, ahead of Freud and Picasso and trailing Einstein, Proust, Debussy, and Gide. History, clearly, hasn’t been kind to Valéry, the clear outlier among those names. Would he even break the top fifty in a similar poll today? Not likely. Indeed Valéry has suffered that peculiar stroke of fate whereby if he is to be remembered at all, it is exclusively in the procedural sense: a few of his best poems, like the resplendent Le Cimetière Marin (Cemetery by the Sea), are a staple of the French lycées and a mainstay of one anthology after another. Remembered, then, but hardly reconciled.
Nathaniel Rudavksy-Brody’s new English bilingual edition of the poet’s work – all of his poetry and selections of his key prose –is not likely to do much to improve Valéry’s stature today, though that is no fault of the translator, whose renderings here have much to recommend them. Unlike, say, Rilke (a devotee of the Frenchman) or his countryman Rimbaud, Valéry has never really taken root in the Anglophone world, the poetry perhaps too opaque and orotund, too much a case of that préciosité bemoaned by detractors of modern French verse. Take, for instance, these two lines from one of his best early efforts, “Vue” (View): “If the azure is tear, then / The salt of the teeth is brushed by the pure.” He has always been something of a poet’s poet, and sure enough, among his peers Valéry seemed to never lack admiration. TS Eliot was a wholehearted supporter and devoted at least five essays to him. Auden was another admirer. So was Jorge Luis Borges. He was idolised by the young André Breton, who published his poems in Littérature, the Surrealist trade magazine of its day, and asked him to be his best man.
In America, as Rudavksy-Brodky points out in his helpful introduction, Valéry’s influence could be detected in the otherwise inimitable works of Wallace Stevens, Robert Lowell, and Frank O’Hara. Still, he was in some sense a man behind the times. His poetry was resolutely unmodern, Racinian, out of bounds to an era in which poets – and novelists – were busy flinging the equivalent of a Molotov cocktail at syntax. Valéry, for his part, abhorred free verse, preferring the straitjacket of the tried-and-true alexandrine, and paid close attention to the prosodic rules pertaining to caesura, rhyme scheme and hiatus. He lived his entire adult life in Paris, yet the imagery he applied to his poetry was exclusively classical – no mention in the poems of sipping cognac in the smoky cafés of the seizième – an outcome, in part, of his thoroughly Mediterranean upbringing. Born in the seaport town of Sète to a Corsican father and a mother of Northern Italian stock, Valéry grew up watching tuna ships wander in and out of the bay, absorbing the “Sea, Sky and Sun”, the three “undeniable gods” that would provide him with his poetic stock-in-trade. It was one thing to espouse such an aesthetic sensibility in 1880. To flaunt it at the height of the modernist revolution – a time of Apollinaire’s concrete poems, Marinetti’s Futurist manifesto, Reverdy’s cubist concoctions, Pound’s Cantos and Eliot’s The Waste Land – suggested a kind of perverse delight in obstinacy. Which is to say that Valéry, alas, has always lingered around the margins of cult appeal, has always been somewhat misunderstood. Even at the height of his fame, in 1927, the year that saw him take up Anatole France’s old chair at the Académie Française, that hallowed, state-sanctioned protectorate of the Gallic tongue, Valéry was considered an enigma. A contemporary article touched on the curious nature of his appointment when it asked wryly, “Have you read Paul Valéry? To this question thousands in France will today answer guardedly that they have his works. Hundreds will boldly respond with ‘Yes.’ But very few will pretend to understand him … Although his position as the foremost poet of France is rarely disputed, his comprehending readers form a very small circle of savants.”
Valéry wouldn’t have greatly objected to that assessment, given that for most of his life he moved in small circles. In his twenties, he was part of the Symbolist movement, a small yet influential group of religio-aesthetes that flourished in fin de siècle Paris, serving as a dusky postscript to the Romantic age. Locally, they were an outgrowth of their predecessors, the Parnassians, whose dictum art for art’s sake served to codify an impenitent aestheticism. In fleeing to the ivory tower of their minds, the symbolists took it for granted that a limited audience would be a necessary corollary to total commitment to their vision, which, at the risk of simplifying, consisted of favouring form over content, sound over sense, and cherishing the supreme belief that poetry should not only aspire to the condition of music but might surpass it. In so doing they sought to define a certain vagueness of feeling. “We were nourished on music,” Valéry once wrote, “and our literary minds dreamed of nothing more than to draw from language nearly the same effects as those that were produced on our nervous systems by sound alone.” Naturalism was their enemy; their master Stéphane Mallarmé, whose Paris home, on Tuesday evenings – les mardis – was the site of one of the most intriguing literary gatherings of the mauve decade. It was Mallarmé who also supplied the best definition for symbolist art: “To paint, not the thing, but the effect which it produces.” Valéry was his most formidable disciple. Fellow symbolist Henri de Régnier recalled thirty years later that “We were all ‘mallarmeans’ in those days” but “[Valéry] was the most original.”
Ironically, by the time Valéry was a regular at the Tuesday meetings he had virtually given up writing poetry. The story goes that shortly after obtaining a law degree he suffered a crisis of faith one stormy October night in Genoa in 1892, brought on by an ill-fated love for a married woman. The details are scarce, and Valéry himself was coy about the matter. But whatever had transpired, that “Genoa night” was effectively the start of a self-imposed poetic exile that would last for twenty-five years until the publication of La Jeune Parque in 1917. Yet the claim to the most dramatic and baffling example of literary abdication will always belong to Rimbaud. For Valéry never discarded his literary ambitions wholesale, the way the poète maudit did by vanishing into the dunes of Ethiopia. Despite a significant drop in his literary work rate, he would publish two poems in 1896, as well as a pair of substantial prose works, all the while earning his livelihood as a bureaucrat at the war ministry (a path, incidentally, recommended to him by his mentor Huysmans, a civil servant himself). His “abdication” then was more of a philosophical reorientation, a “revolution of the mind” as he later called it. From this point forward, Valéry would devote himself to elucidating the inner workings of his mind. He turned away from the symbolist sine qua non of the “terrifying” white page. Poems were no longer poems, but “exercises”, interminable rough drafts subject to the mind’s revisionary powers. Process over result. The seeds of the mature Valéry were sown here. “I didn’t want to be a poet – just to be able to be one,” he noted on one occasion in his typically self-effacing manner. “It’s only the potential I’ve ever wanted, not the putting into practice or the work or the external results. This is what’s most truly me.” Elsewhere, he claimed, “For me, a work of art is not a completed being, sufficient unto itself – it’s the cast-off skin of an animal, a cobweb, a deserted conch or shell, a cocoon.” One sees in these statements a pointed rebuttal to maître Mallarmé and the latter’s view of the poem as an hermetic object, as the ne plus ultra of the world. The son had rebelled, but he would enlist other forefathers for his new cause.
Using Descartes as a launchpad, Valéry aimed to bring an epistemological rigor to poetry. From Poe, an outsize touchstone for the post-Romantic set in France, he internalised the lesson that poems could be produced not through inspiration but by dint of painstaking calculation. There would be no more tortured nights wrestling with the Muse. Valéry subsequently sold off most his library and plunged heavily into mathematics and physics, reading up particularly on the works of Henri Poincaré and Lord Kelvin. In this, Valéry was unique. He was one of the first within the French humanist tradition who tried to bridge the rift between art and science. Naturally, Leonardo da Vinci, about whom he wrote eloquently in an unorthodox and important early essay (not included in this collection), became for him the archetype of the complete man, in whom art was indivisible from science. Valéry, in effect, traded in his poetical vestments for a lab coat, proposing to uncover poetic essences as if they were so many chemical compounds to be distilled. Yet even this was another kind of mask, an attempt at total impersonality. He constructed his own guise in Monsieur Teste, the Hamletian cynic whom Valéry would revisit repeatedly over his lifetime and who in certain respects prefigures Rilke’s Malte Laurids Brigge and Eliot’s Prufrock. Gide again: “[Valéry] is playing his life like a game of chess that is important to win, and as he writes his poems, placing just the right word, as one moves up a pawn, in just the right place. He has managed his life so well that mine, in comparison, seems to me but a sorry succession of blunders.” Valéry sought perfection knowing full well that perfection was a downright impossibility. Therein lies the tension and beauty of his work. “Nothing so pure can co-exist with the conditions of life,” he wrote. “We only encounter the idea of perfection as a hand that cuts with impunity through a flame.” Valéry believed he came closest to achieving that flitting moment of perfection in the eight lines he crafted in “Fragments of Narcissus”, one of twenty-one poems in Charmes, his finest work of poetry:
O joy to have survived the force of day
When it withdraws, wearing the crimson flush
Of having loved, still burning, tired yet sated,
Burdened with treasures, straining under the weight
Of memories it amassed that stain its death,
And make it happy, kneeling in the gold,
Then spreading, spilling out its purple harvest
And deliquescing to the evening’s dream.
If the rule of thumb is that great writers need to be newly translated for each generation, Valéry has been long overdue for a reset. The New Directions anthology and the landmark 15-volume Princeton Bollingen series have been the standard but are sorely outdated. Many of the most widely circulated Valéry translations date back to the mid- and late twentieth century and suffer from inflated diction. Rudavsky-Brody’s version of Valéry brings the work closer to our age and thus, to our ears. Generally speaking, he refrains from gussying up the original, a temptation inherent in French-to-English translation. For example, consider the half-line “Ô puissance salée” in Le Cimetière Marin. Previous attempts to translate the phrase include “Salt-breathing potency” and “salt potency,” to name just two. The first suffers from the sort of excessive personification that Ruskin must have had in mind when he developed his idea of the pathetic fallacy. The second, by contrast, is more conservative, but rings flat and misses the orotund force of the line. Rudavsky-Brody opts for the more straightforward “O great salt power,” which seems to get the job done. In addition to being more accurate and less awkward, it also manages to hold on to the incantatory sense of the French. Small decisions, but they add up, and the overall effect is that Rudavsky-Brody’s Valéry is less angular and more approachable than previous iterations.
To get to the heart of Valéry, however, one needs to go beyond the poem and into the brilliant, kaleidoscopic pages of his life’s labour, the Cahiers, the 250 notebooks comprising nearly 27,000 pages that he worked on daily from 1894 until his death in 1945, always at daybreak, for three to four hours, with fresh coffee and hand-rolled cigarettes. The notebooks were never intended for publication, so it took a while – decades, in fact – before their full significance was recognised. In retrospect, they were clearly the ideal medium for his diverse interests and devilish disregard for finality, the perfect site for his self-proclaimed mental gymnastics. Full of oblique aphorisms, koan-like deliberations, mathematical equations, half-strewn prose poems, epigrammatic sallies, the notebooks are a portrait of the mind in perpetual motion. Like Leopardi’s Zibaldone, the Cahiers is one of the great posthumous hybrid works. To my mind, Rudavsky-Brody’s is the first English-language anthology to give proper weight to these notebooks, which are arranged chronologically so that they bookend the poetry collections. (Of course, even this is only a small sampling; for a far more representative account of the Cahiers in English, there is the mammoth five-volume undertaking published in 2000 by Peter Lang). Reading them, one is reminded of Alfred Kazin’s distinction between a true writer and someone who is merely published: “the writer seems always to be saying to himself, as Stendhal actually did, ‘If I am not clear, the world around me collapses.’ In a very real sense, the writer writes in order to teach himself, to understand himself, to satisfy himself; the publishing of his ideas, though it brings gratifications, is a curious anticlimax.” Kazin was concerned with Freud, but he could have easily been talking about Valéry. The Cahiers bear the vestiges of an invigorated, insatiable mind.
The received idea is that Valéry is the final epigone of the Symbolist heritage that stretches back to Baudelaire and goes through Mallarmé. An argument could be made that he belongs just as legitimately to the distinctly French tradition of scepticism, as represented by Montaigne, de la Rochefoucauld, and Descartes. His love for paradox and contrarianism, however, made him especially vulnerable to solipsism, the threat of which hovers over the Cahiers. As Paul Claudel remarked, “I have always had great esteem for the poet. As for the thinker, I find that he leads to a dead end. I have preferred never to enter into an argument with him. It would have served no purpose either for him or for myself. We would have worn ourselves out for nothing.” Yet when he wanted to, the thinker could be incredibly lucid. That much is evident from his voluminous essays and public addresses on the state of the modern world (the disintegrating Europe between the wars). One regret about Rudavsky-Brody’s revivalist effort is that it doesn’t include any of those writings, like “Politics of the Mind”, a protest against unfettered technological advance and the burgeoning industrial complex that is more relevant today than in 1932, when Valéry wrote it. These pieces help balance our view of the man, who, curiously, was a staunch anti-Dreyfusard. That wasn’t his finest moment. But by and large Valéry wasn’t a political creature, lacking both the necessary zeal and commitment needed for that. As the critic Michael Hamburger has pointed out, Valéry knew his limitations. He knew his role. It wasn’t up to him to come up with the solutions, only to
horsewhip furiously one’s ideas – to boot away one’s melancholy, to bear down on one’s phobias and manias, to knock the corners off one’s idols and, with a few good kicks up the behind, shake oneself awake from one’s self-esteem, one’s hopes, regrets, fears and personal gifts. Sweep it all up and throw it all outside! Into the sewer, the refuse and dreams of the night. Into the gutter with the emotional turmoil, religious reticence, deep feelings and heart-swelling, and all the sexual, half-sexed and anti-sexual disturbances. Down the drainhole with the sweepings of remorse and jealousy! [R]un out with the dirty water, those gilded perspectives, all that twaddle. It is time now to start the day again, to begin reinventing ways out.
Sean Nam is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York. He has written for USA Today, Cineaste magazine, Hyperallergic, Rain Taxi Review, and The Brooklyn Rail among others.