PAUL VALÉRY (1871–1945), perhaps France’s most influential post-symbolist poet and critic, has returned to us in a new translation by Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody, which takes in three collections of lyrics, an ending prose poem, and excerpts from the Frenchman’s voluminous notebooks. But why now? What does Valéry have to say to us in the third decade of the 21st century?
From the moment Valéry first entered the symbolist orbit of Stéphane Mallarmé at age 19, his brilliance was evident. In his early verse, like his mentor, he sought to capture the spirit of the fin de siècle — its new perceptions of space and time, as well as shifting moral and societal values — in language at once sharply original and formally elegant. Yet soon after making his debut, he endures a personal and intellectual crisis. In 1892, on the verge of fame, he renounces the “falsehoods [of] literature and sentiment” and turns instead to science, mathematics, and philosophy; he chooses, in other words, the realm of reason, with its presumed solidity and definitiveness. He will not work on another book of poetry for 25 years, although several poems will be published in anthologies during the interval.
Valéry establishes himself as a formidable critic, and also begins to record his ideas and emotions in notebooks that eventually amount to some 28,000 pages. These are finally published in 1945, the year of his death. A discontinuous collection of aphorisms, arguments, parables, evocations, asides, and descriptions, the notebooks reveal an inherently poetic sensibility. But this is not the sensibility of symbolism, which speaks to a previous era of arch refinements, languid associations, and use of synesthesia. Detached and intimate, responsive to cognitive systems, collective events, and ephemeral sensations, Valéry’s notebook entries evade traditional genres. It is a new departure in writing, an expansion of the field of play. Throughout, his goal is to clarify, contest, or subvert the distinction between intuition (poetic and otherwise) and reasoned analysis. But Valéry says it best: he seeks to “mak[e] the Idea of the living — thinking? — being sing.”
Given the length of Valéry’s notebooks and the breadth of subjects he writes about, the selections that the translator has excerpted for us can provide only a cursory view. But this is more than enough to tempt us to look further, and to act as a counter pulse to the poems. Taken together, the prose and verse configure Valéry as a writer and thinker tipped into the new century, which picked up speed with Futurism and Dada.
Still, in the verse, older forms prevail. In the case of 1917’s “The Young Fate” (“La Jeune Parque”), that form is a long neoclassical poem in 15 sections. As Valéry notes, his desire was to “put, in flashes perhaps, in a nearly classical form and language, images that are entirely modern.” It presents one of the Fates, near dawn, deciding whether to remain a serene, immortal being or to become human, with all the passions and fragilities of our earthly existence. Is this long poem, if only obliquely, Valéry’s response to the great external machine of World War I exploding around him? When reading the following lines, though they are addressed to a woman, I sensed the presence, however ghostly, of a soldier at the front, alive or dying, and shivered:
But why this wound, these sobs, these dark endeavors?
For whom, cruel jewels, do you mark this cold body,
Blind with its hands spread wide, avoiding hope?
Where is this body going, stunned by its faith
In the black night, and deaf to its unknowing?
Hold me, unsteady earth … draped in seaweed […]
In 1920, Valéry published Album of Early Verse, 1890–1900 (Album de vers anciens, 1890–1900). As the translator explains in his afterword, these poems, although first written during the 10 years noted in the title, underwent heavy revision by the older Valéry, beginning in 1912. Valéry was not one to publish a poem until he was sufficiently happy with it or until one of his friends, like André Gide, forced him to release it. One of Valéry’s dictums is apropos: “A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, […] the need to deliver, or death.”
Charms followed in 1921 and included 21 poems of various lengths. The title is followed by two Latin words from the first lines of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, “deducere carmen,” which refer to the spinning out of a charm or song. The most striking poems in the book, both long, are “Fragments of ‘Narcissus’” and “The Pythia.” The former presents a dramatic retelling of the well-known myth, where self-recognition and solipsistic joy intermingle with a deep, stinging twist:
But I, beloved Narcissus, crave to know
Only my own essence;
The hearts of others are a mystery;
Others are only absence.
Later Narcissus will admit: “I love … I love … And who can love what is not / Himself? …”
The poem’s finale — a death by drowning, and the troubled silence that follows — does not resolve the issues posed, but leaves them struck in the air above the pool, resonating still:
Alas, poor body, it’s time to join myself …
Lean closer … Kiss yourself. Tremble within!
The elusive love you promised passes with
A tremor, breaks Narcissus, and is gone …
“The Pythia” retains the Ovidian overtones and presents a startling evocation of the Delphic Oracle herself:
Through her nostrils thick with incense
The Pythia hurls a breath of flame,
Panting, howling, drunk … her soul
In disarray, her whole rib cage
This young virgin, whose prophetic talents were discerned by her elders early on, reveals what the gift demands of her, and how she endures possession by the Daemon:
O God, I do not know my crime
Except for hardly having lived …
Yet if you take me as your victim,
If, on the altar of a broken
Body, you bend a monster, slay
That monster, and with the beast dispatched,
The neck severed, the head held up
By hair that yanks the temples back,
May this, the palest of lamps, seize
In sudden marble all the night!
The tragic charge of the poem rises to a revelation when the Oracle, in a final metamorphosis, merges with the lyrical and brutal rhythms of nature, having become Other:
A Voice, stately and resonant,
That knows itself, as it rings out,
To be the voice of no one now
Except the forests and the surf!
Arrived at with great orchestral power, this visionary ending at once reaches back to Rimbaud — who famously declared, “I is another” (“Je est un autre”) — and forward to our own precarious moment, when many cultures, and humankind itself, are poised on the brink of dissolution and extinction.
Valéry’s final poem, “The Angel,” on which he worked from 1921 to 1945, is in prose. It synthesizes the drama of his verse with the lucidity of his notebooks and essays, adding a dash of Socratic humor. The “Angel” (is it the author?) gazes at himself in a fountain. Within the face he sees is the face of a man born into a world he cannot control. The conceit of the Angel as the man that lives within the reflection (or is it the Angel who lives within the reflection of the man?) is this: the “pure substance” of the mind “where ideas all lived […] in such perfect harmony and so quick in their correspondences” will survive death, continuing “to exist alone in […] sublime fullness.”
Will this come to pass? The last line delivers a sober, healing laugh, both undercutting and underscoring the lessons of a lifetime of writing: “And for an eternity he went on knowing, and never understood.”
Translating a French poet who writes in a neoclassical style, with rich sonic patterns and rhyme schemes, is never an easy task. One may either privilege beautifully cadenced verse in English, while preserving something of the character or intensity of the original’s subjects, or one may foreground the latter, as Rudavsky-Brody has largely done. Since the primary aim of this book is to offer a portrait of Valéry as a thinker rather than as a verse stylist, this is an intelligent choice.
The Idea of Perfection is a seductive title, and appropriately ironic. It captures the inspiration that drove Valéry, and the limit to which it took him. Ideas may seem perfect when isolated from the tides of life, but in living, both ideas and the idea of perfection are under constant assault. Valéry was a poet who came close to neoclassical perfection, as well as a modern thinker who understood how elusive perfection would always remain.
Allan Graubard is a poet, playwright, and critic. His books includeWestern Terrace (Ekstasis Editions, 2020), Language of Birds (Anon Editions, 2019), Into the Mylar Chamber: Ira Cohen (Fulgur, 2019).