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Bitten by a SnakeMichael Wood
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Vol. 42 No. 10 · 21 May 2020

Bitten by a Snake

Michael Wood

3378 words
The Idea of Perfection: The Poetry and Prose of Paul Valéry 
translated by Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody.
Farrar, Straus, 352 pp., £32, April, 978 0 374 29848 7
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Yeats​ was a great admirer of Paul Valéry’s poem ‘Le Cimetière marin’ (‘The Graveyard by the Sea’), but only up to a point – the point where he thought that the poem’s main injunction was not about lingering among the tombs and talking to the dead, but about getting on with life, or trying to. ‘After certain poignant stanzas,’ Yeats wrote, ‘and just when I am deeply moved, he chills me.’ Valéry turned out to be a mere ‘metropolitan, who has … learned as a part of good manners to deny what has no remedy’, and who ‘in a passage of great eloquence rejoices that human life must pass’. ‘I was about to put his poem among my sacred books,’ Yeats continued, ‘but I cannot now, for I do not believe him.’ It’s not that Yeats doesn’t recognise that all things must pass, it’s the rejoicing he objects to. ‘Man is in love and loves what vanishes,’ Yeats himself wrote. ‘What more is there to say?’ One answer is: pretty much everything.

If he had paused over the poem’s epigraph, taken from Pindar – ‘Do not, O my soul, aspire to immortal life, but exhaust what is possible’ – Yeats might have given up earlier. But then is the poem illustrating the epigraph or complicating it? It ends with a declared commitment to ‘l’ère successive’ (‘passing time’). But then the famous exhortation ‘il faut tenter de vivre!’ (‘we must try to live!’), sounds a little unsure of itself – tenter is after all related to ‘tentative’. Perhaps we should see the poem’s earlier, vigorous ‘no’ to the idea of stasis, ‘cette forme pensive’ (‘this pensive form’) as part of a continuing argument rather than an achieved end. Such a picture would match everything else we know about Valéry’s work. How could he be saying ‘no’ to thought? He thinks about nothing else.

Paul Valéry was born in 1871 and died in 1945. His poetic career had two long silences. He wrote and published poems between 1890 and 1892. He then wrote only prose for more than twenty years, before publishing La Jeune Parque (I’m going to leave this title untranslated for the moment) in 1917 and the collection Charms in 1921. He wrote little verse after that, though he did collect his early poems in an Album of Early Verse (1920). His prose works meanwhile included the extraordinary Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci (1896) and An Evening with Monsieur Teste (1897), a dozen volumes of aphorisms and essays published between 1924 and 1943 and a collection of notebooks (29 volumes) published in facsimile between 1957 and 1961 – still awaiting their printed and annotated form. Gallimard completed a 13-volume set of the notebooks in 2016, but that took Valéry only as far as 1915.

The Idea of Perfection contains all the major poetry – the Album, La Jeune Parque, Charms, and the short, late prose poem ‘The Angel’ – and intersperses material from the notebooks for relevant, specified periods: 1894-1914, 1915-21 and 1922-45. In his introduction Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody associates Valéry with Rilke and Eliot, and quotes the latter’s proclamation that Valéry ‘will remain for posterity the representative poet, the symbol of the poet, of the first half of the 20th century’. It’s not clear that posterity has been paying proper attention, since we no longer, in the literary worlds of journalism and the academy, hear Valéry mentioned with anything like the frequency of Rilke or Yeats or Eliot himself. The 15-volume Collected Works in English (1957-75) looks more like a monument than a point of reference.

A recent biographer, Benoît Peeters, is keen to make a case for Valéry’s prose but says ‘the poetry … is no doubt what has aged him the most.’ I do think the early poems seem locked into the French equivalent of a Pre-Raphaelite moment, but even then there are exceptions. And when we turn to La Jeune Parque and Charms, it is no longer a question of finding some poems that aren’t too loyal to the 1890s, but of wondering how posterity could have lost sight of such amazing modernist work. Roland Barthes thought Valéry’s poetry had become an anachronism, and Peeters suggests that this ‘judgment … seems to correspond to that of the majority of contemporaries’. ‘This poetry,’ Barthes said in an interview, ‘which had its glory days between 1920 and 1930, has gone completely out of fashion. It no longer has any kind of live, historical reality in the minds of those who work with literature today.’ In an intriguing footnote, Peeters suggests there are all kinds of places where the interests of Barthes and Valéry meet, so there is obviously another story here too. But quite apart from whatever affinities Barthes is repressing, it’s strange that he should miss the wit and weird dynamics of this poetry. There are lots of ways of connecting to historical reality apart from copying it or alluding to it.

The poetry can seem old-fashioned if you’re not looking and listening very hard. When you linger over it, a sort of shock sets in. Rudavsky-Brody’s translations catch this effect very well. They are patient, thoughtful and often imaginative, only occasionally, as the quotations in this piece may show, sounding genuinely old-fashioned as distinct from carefully archaic. As we read, we find ourselves asking why the desperately contemporary (or enduring) figures in these poems are dressed up like this, talking like this? Why are they pretending to be classics when obviously they have just walked in off the street? It’s very hard to describe this effect. Rudavsky-Brody speaks of ‘self-parody’; Auden says another poem is ‘burlesque’. These are very good intuitions, but we need to keep going. If Valéry was Eliot, we would think of irony; if he was Yeats or Pound, we might reach for the idea of performance. Rilke could be a closer call, but then only because we don’t have the right words for him either. Rilke, not incidentally, translated Valéry, and said he had been ‘waiting’ for him in order to move on with his own work: ‘One day I read Valéry and I knew that my waiting was at an end.’

Who are the ancient/modern figures in Valéry’s verse? They are, among others, Helen of Troy, Narcissus, the Pythia, the serpent from Genesis, an angel and the young Parque herself. James Lawler speaks of the ‘opera’ that is playing in La Jeune Parque, and this is a good metaphor for the tone and population of the other poems too. There are singers, who take on roles, a composer and a conductor, all doing their own complicated jobs within the apparently unflurried lines. Long before Barthes declared the death of the author, Valéry had found a way of disappearing into his writing. ‘I knew that these works [the ones created by the Leonardo he had invented] are always falsifications, arrangements and that the author happily is never the man.’ We could add his prose fictions to the opera sequence too: an account of the ‘method’ of Leonardo da Vinci; the life of Monsieur Teste, a man so thoroughly devoted to the intellect that, as Valéry said, he wouldn’t survive more than a few quarters of an hour in real life; and Valéry’s Faust (1946), showing the old magician committed to the task of persuading the devil that he needs to modernise.

Narcissus turns up in several poems, and Valéry at one point thought of gathering ‘my various versions of Narcissus’ into a book. He also said that ‘one must record the life of a theory as one records the life of a passion’. He was speaking about a prose work, but the figures in the poems are all involved in theoretical battles of some kind. In a sense they are all Narcissus, creatures struggling with rebel incarnations of their own selves, and driven by the lunacy of self-love. ‘The jewel of mortals can only love himself,’ Narcissus says in Charms, and ‘Who can love what is not/Himself?’ But then he knows this self only through a watery mirror, where his image may vanish at the touch of a leaf or a puff of wind, and will be gone in any case at nightfall, or when he decides to take a drink. His ‘dear body’ separates him from his divinity, he says, but the body he sees is just the promise of an ‘insaisissable amour’ (‘unseizable love’). It will break if he touches it. In another sense, though, the figures I have named are rather different from one another, and engage with quite different theories and passions. A beautiful young man who can’t get over his own beauty is not all that similar to a snake trying to ruin humankind; a desperate prophetess in the grip of a fierce god is pretty far from an angel baffled by the tears on his own face.

The serpent is the wittiest of these characters. He has been reading Goethe and translates the definition of himself that Mephistopheles offers in Faust (‘I am the spirit that always denies’) into a very modern jargon: ‘I am He who modifies.’ He likes ‘the lie’ the sun spreads across the world, preventing people from seeing that ‘the universe is just a flaw/In Non-Being’s purity’. His intelligence is ‘measureless’, at least by his account, and he mocks his friend and instrument the Tree of Knowledge as he slithers among its branches:

Ce vieil amateur d’échecs,
Dans l’or oisif des soleils secs,
Sur ton branchage vient se tordre;
Ses yeux font frémir ton trésor.
Il en cherra des fruits de mort,
De désespoir et de désordre!
This old hand at check and mate
In the lazy gold of hard dry suns
Is writhing in your branches;
Your treasure shivers in his gaze,
Shaking out the fruits of death,
Disorder and despair!

The movement from the lover of chess to the distributor of chaos is very swift and very disturbing.

Apart from the Parque, the Pythia is perhaps the most haunting of these figures. She is one of the possessed women who serve as vehicles for the ambiguous messages Apollo delivers at Delphi, and is introduced to us in the third person:

La Pythie exhalant la flamme
De naseaux durcis par l’encens,
Haletante, ivre, hurle …
Through her nostrils thick with incense
The Pythia hurls a breath of flame,
Panting, howling, drunk …

Then she speaks, complaining about her ‘loathsome master’, and asking: ‘What did I do to be condemned/Innocent, to these odious rites?’ She also argues eloquently against oracles in any culture. ‘Les hasards’ (‘games of chance’) will do the same trick, she says. And then the third-person speaker returns, describes the Pythia’s ‘tormented’ appearance, and the sound of a ‘voix nouvelle et blanche’ (‘new and white voice’) coming from her throat. She is not a person any more, just language, the way the god talks when he needs to talk to mortals.

La Jeune Parque is a poem of 521 lines, divided into 16 sections. Each line has 12 syllables, and the lines rhyme in couplets. Sometimes it feels as if we are reading Racine, where a violent disorder reaches us through stately syntax:

Je n’attendais pas moins de mes riches déserts
Qu’un tel enfantement de fureur et de tresse …
Si loin que je m’avance et m’altère pour voir
De mes enfers pensifs les confins sans espoir …
Je sais
I expected nothing less from my rich deserts
Than such a birth of braid and tangled fury …
As far as I advance through thirst to see
The desperate confines of my pensive hells …
I know

In a pair of adjectives like ‘pâle et prodigieuse’, we may seem to hear Mallarmé, and at one point Mallarmé’s emblematic swan does make an appearance. But I don’t know who, apart from Valéry, would be interested in an ‘interior prophetess’, or call the sea an ‘immense and laughing bitterness’.

The young Parque may be one of the three fates (Parcae) of Roman religion who, respectively, spun, measured and cut the thread of human life, or she may be a separate creature with a parallel pedigree. Either way she is inexperienced, barely beginning to find her way towards some kind of vocation. Valéry himself said the poem was ‘the painting of a sequence of psychological replacements, and generally of the changing of a consciousness during one night.’ The work opens in a mood of intimate, delicate doubt:

Qui pleure là, sinon le vent simple …
Mais qui pleure,
Si proche de moi-même au moment de pleurer?
If not the wind, then who is crying there …
Who
Is crying, so near me at the moment of tears?

The answer is probably ‘no one’, or just another self slightly ahead of the game. A few lines later our heroine is still waiting for her tears to fall, and a page or so further on she describes herself as ‘wet/With tears I did not shed’. ‘Je me voyais me voir,’ our heroine says. ‘I saw myself seeing myself.’ She has been bitten by a snake, clearly related to the figure in another poem, and she memorably says: ‘Je me sentais connue encore plus que blessée’ (‘I felt more known than wounded’), and that the poison is hers as well as the snake’s. She decides, in a very modern moment, that she doesn’t need the snake’s bite anyway, that her own soul can and does lead her into ‘hells of thought’ (the ‘enfers pensifs’ we have seen in the Racine-inflected lines). She is the one, after all, who has a ‘thirst for disasters’. She remembers the Pythia and her ‘taste for death’. She imagines the lives she might have had, and she dreams of dying, only to recognise, as Narcissus could have told her, that ‘she who weeps/For pity in her mirror can never die.’ The French is a little crueller here, suggesting a person who weeps in order to feel sorry for herself: ‘Elle ne peut mourir/Qui devant son miroir pleure pour s’attendrir.’ Is she deluded, making ‘vains adieux’ to a life she can’t leave? Probably, and this is where she bravely ends, accepting as cheerfully as she can the ‘délice de naître’ (‘delight of being born’).

I wish there were a way of calling her, in English, something other than a young Fate – the word is so abstract and she is so unmistakeably a person – but that is what translators have settled for, and I can’t think of a better option. Paul Celan calls her ‘die junge Parze’ in his translation, and critics writing on Valéry usually leave the word untranslated, as I have been doing, but these gestures feel more like stopgaps than solutions.

The poem often seems almost frivolous in the language it finds for mental torment. There are sly, mischievous juxtapositions of words that sound alike, making their meanings waver or get in each other’s way: hymnes/hommes, mer/mères, se lève/sur la lèvre; la couleur qui coule (hymns/men, sea/mothers, arises/on the lip, the colour that flows). There are alliterations that mock the very idea of poetry (‘n’aurait-il fallu, folle’, ‘tonnantes toisons’) and the clatter of ls and vs in the following couplet (ten of the first and six of the second, by my count) makes it almost impossible to concentrate on what is being said: ‘Si loin que le vent vague et velu les achève,/Longs brins légers qu’au large un vol mêle et soulève’ (‘Ravished in waves so far they’re finished off/By the vague coarse wind that whirls them out to sea’). The vs and ws of the English are a discreet acknowledgement of what is going on, but they don’t make the lines seem completely absorbed by their own noise.

It’s true that this kind of thing is everywhere in Valéry’s verse, which certainly complicates the idea of an anachronistic old poet. What do we make of a writer who rhymes ô with aux, or uses two meanings of the same word (joue/cheek, joue/plays) as a rhyme? Or ends one line with the word choir (fall) and starts the next with the word chair (flesh)? These are the kinds of instances that make Rudavsky-Brody think of self-parody and Auden think of burlesque. We might move in a slightly different direction and suggest they belong to the work of a writer who has serious matters in mind but can’t take poetry, or even perhaps language, quite seriously enough. The jokes are clues to the impossible.

Suzanne Nash writes of words being ‘treacherous’ for Valéry, ‘irresponsible to meaning in the ordinary sense’. This is consistent with a wonderful confessional line from the notebooks: ‘And I saw, above all, the value and the beauty, the great excellence, of everything I have not done.’ The tone here is witty and poised, but Valéry also knows there is an anguished version of the same thought, which he lends to the angel in his prose poem. This figure looks at his face in the water, like Narcissus, and can’t understand why he is crying – can’t understand how there could be anything in the world to cry about. He is an angel, after all. He asks in amazement, ‘il y a donc autre chose que la lumière?’ ‘Is there therefore something other than light?’ The donc may remind us of Descartes, and the fact that Valéry said the Discourse on Method was ‘the truly modern novel’. The poem ends with the angel unforgettably caught between what he must recognise and what he will never make any sense of: ‘Et pendant une éternité, il ne cessa de connaître et de ne pas comprendre.’ (‘And for an eternity he went on knowing, and never understood.’) The poem is dated November 1921-May 1945. Valéry published Charms in the first of those years, and died in the second.

If we place the speaker of ‘The Graveyard by the Sea’ in the company of the other figures we have looked at – Narcissus, the serpent, the Pythia, the Parque and the angel – we recognise similar configurations of lucidity and dismay. To put it all too briefly and prosily, the speaker discovers, across the 24 stanzas, that the serenity glimpsed at the beginning may be an illusion; that the dead can’t help him with the dilemmas of a living consciousness; that a sort of death-in-life occurs if the mind freezes itself into what it thinks is wisdom; and that he had better get out of this cemetery as fast as he can because he likes it too much. What Yeats sees as rejoicing is indeed something of the kind, but offered by a man on the run rather than a stationary Parisian cynic. He is trying to make his panic look like Cartesian good sense. Here are the first and last stanzas.

Ce toit tranquille, où marchent des colombes,
Entre les pins palpite, entre les tombes;
Midi le juste y compose de feux
La mer, la mer, toujours recommencée!
O récompense après une pensée
Qu’un long regard sur le calme des dieux!
This peaceful roof of milling doves
Shimmers between the pines, between the tombs;
Judicious noon composes there, with fire,
The sea, the ever-recommencing sea!
O what reward, after a thought,
Is a long look across the calm of the gods!
Le vent se lève! … Il faut tenter de vivre!
L’air immense ouvre et referme mon livre,
La vague en poudre ose jaillir des rocs!
Envolez-vous, pages tout éblouies!
Rompez, vagues! Rompez d’eaux réjouies
Ce toit tranquille où picoraient des focs!
The wind is rising … We must try to live!
The vast air opens then shuts again my book,
The waves dare surge in spray above the rocks!
Scatter, pages dazzled by the light,
Break, waves! Exulting waters, break
This peaceful roof where sailboats dipped like doves!

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