Books: Cultural Amnesia — Paul Valéry |
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Ambroise-Paul Valéry (1871–1945) presents many parallels with T. S. Eliot, especially in the proportions of his output. As with Eliot, there is comparatively little work in verse, but it is all of the very highest quality. Again as with Eliot, there is a large amount of ancillary prose, much of it ranking high among the critical work being done at the time. Where Valéry departs sharply from Eliot is in the amount of prose that never saw the light. From 1894 onward, Valéry kept a notebook, and by the time of his death there were 287 volumes of it. Even in French it has been published only in facsimile. Such semi-secret activity was typical of him. By the age of twenty he was already recognized as a promising poet but he repudiated the ambition and stayed almost silent for a full two decades. He was forty when he was persuaded to publish his early poems, a task he undertook only on the understanding that he would add a new, prefatory poem. This took him five years to write. Published separately in 1917, La Jeune Parque, together with a succeeding slim volume Charmes, worked to establish him as the most prominent French poet of his time. The highlight poem of Charmes, called “Le Cimetière marin,” is recognized by French-reading poets all over the world as the untranslatable odern miracle of their craft. (It should be said that the Irish poet Derek Mahon has made a stunningly good shot at rendering its music into English.) Even without publishing the notebooks, Valéry still had a full eighteen volumes of prose to give the world, and scattered among them are some of the best essays written in his time. With solid mathematical training to back up his humanist erudition, he could take almost anything for a subject, but he was especially good at wrting about the arts: the essay on Leonardo, and the little book on Degas, are models of the genre. Malcolm Cowley translated some of his best early essays in 1926, and retranslated those, as well as translating some later ones, in 1958. Valéry was one of those rare poets who could write appreciative technical criticism. Kingsley Amis, an excellent technical critic with an unfoolable ear for diction, was at his best when proving that his subject poet was overrated. Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop were at their best when praising each other. Ezra Pound could be informative about Browning’s language but not without persuading you that his own was demented. Valéry kept a perfect sanity on that subject as on any other. The homage paid to Valéry by other writers is only fitting, because nobody could quite equal him at writing about the arts out of deep and unenvious love. He knew his notebooks were a doomed venture (“There sleeps the labour of my best years”) but he also knew that the doomed venture helped to discipline his unequalled powers of exposition. Thankfully he was too old for the Occupation to catch him in any seriously compromising position, although he might have done better not to publish even once in the Nouvelle Revue Française under the editorship of Drieu la Rochelle. If there is an objection to be made to him, it is a milder version of the objection we make to Rilke: that the dedication to art verges on preciosity. Valéry, however, gives a better sense than Rilke of other artists than himself being fully alive. There was a generosity to him which his nation returned in kind, as if his capacity for appreciation were in itself a national treasure. General de Gaulle came to his funeral.

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Sometimes something wants to be said, sometimes a way of saying wants to be used.

THE SECOND PART of this statement is the striking one. It makes explicit a trade secret that most poets would prefer were kept under wraps. The English editor and anthologist Geoffrey Grigson once said, with typical acerbity, that he didn’t like “notebook poets,” and that he could always tell when a poet had been writing down phrases and saving them up for future use. Though it reminds you of Malcolm Muggeridge’s proclaimed ability to tell which women were on the pill by the lack of light in their eyes, Grigson’s complaint is a good polemical point, but its epistemology is questionable: if the job was well done, how could he tell? In my own experience, a phrase will wait decades for a poem to form around it. Larkin kept one of his most beautiful ideas (“dead leaves desert in thousands”) for thirty years and never completed a poem into which it would fit: strong evidence, if negative, of how his mind worked. He found ways of saying things and the ways led to poems. For all good poets, something like that process happens. It is probably a stroke of luck, however, that the process is becoming harder to study. When poets still had worksheets, a scholar could presume to trace the course of the seed phrase to the full blooms. I can’t believe that any poet, no matter how dedicated a techno nerd, could compose entirely on a machine, but it is a fact that there will be fewer worksheets to study in the future: most of the pentimenti will be deleted into cyber limbo.

One benefit of this will be that scholars will jump to fewer conclusions. A poem’s binding energy can be supplied by its last retouchings. Australia’s first great modern poet, Kenneth Slessor, would carry his next-to-final draft of a poem with him for weeks on end—a draft in which all the alternatives for words on which he had not decided appeared above and below it, like a club sandwich. Luckily no scholar ever got his hands on one of these documents, or whole speculative books would have been written on why and how he made his choices. In reality, the final choices are infinite and begin at the beginning. Sometimes the phrase that started it all is struck out at the finish, having done its work in a way that is beyond examination even by the creator. Gianfranco Contini loved the study of variants, but he was a qualified philologist, and his critical conclusions would be pale without their scientific content. Croce was probably overstating the case when he called variants carteffaci (waste paper), but he had a point. The critic does well to speculate about how a poet might have an idea and look for a way to say it. But the critic is on shaky ground when he intrudes on the real mystery, which happens when the poet thinks of a way of saying something and starts looking for a larger meaning to which it might contribute. There is nothing mysterious about the order of events: nobody is amazed that a composer thinks of a fragment of a melody, or of a harmony, before he thinks of a structure, and it would not be stunning if we were somehow to be told that Michelangelo had the idea of God touching Adam’s fingertip long before Julius II had the idea of repainting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But there is a mystery, and an insoluble one, to how the smaller unit of inspiration sets off in search of the larger one that will incorporate it. Artists spend a lot of time waiting for that to happen: while they wait they must trust to luck; and it is no wonder that some of them get very nervous, and fall into bad habits. Until now, what the nervous poet did in his notebook—changing a word, changing it back again—was available to the scholar. In the cyber age there will be no such archives of first and second thoughts, unless, as some strangely confident techno freaks assure us, nothing ever really gets deleted, and it is all still there somewhere. In which case, Valéry’s idea will never cease to be a departure point for speculation.

With the artist, it happens—this is in the most favourable case—that his internal urge to produce gives him, all at once and without a break between them, the impulse, the immediate exterior aim and the technical means to reach it. Thus there is established, in general, a regime of execution...


But trying to translate this is hopeless: un régime d’exécution sounds like a firing squad, when what he means is a climate of possibility, a feeling on the artist’s part that he knows what he wants to do and is already getting it done, simply by letting the general shape or tone of the project form unbidden in his head. I have heard poets call it “being inside the poem” and some of them even claim, plausibly, that it alters their rate of breathing. It can certainly alter their rate of smoking. In my own case, for what the news is worth, when a poem is completing itself—when the new ship on the slipway is fitting itself out, when every part insists on relating itself to every other part, and when nothing must be allowed to interrupt—I actually feel as if I am suffering from sunburn. The virtue of Valéry’s brief treatise is that it makes you feel less absurd for having been so caught up. He gets at the soul of the subject through the body of the poet. He must be talking about the body because he is not talking about the conscious mind. “Tout ce que nous pouvons définir se distingue aussitôt de l’esprit producteur et s’y oppose.” (Anything we can define distinguishes itself instantly from the productive spirit and is opposed; p. 39.) In other words, the artist gets into a clever but clueless state where no amount of science can meet the case.

My copy of the little book Introduction à la poétique—a flat, floppy and not very glorious-looking glorified pamphlet by Gallimard—is from the tenth edition, published in 1938, on the eve of the nightmare. I bought it in Cambridge in 1967. It was one of the first books in French I ever read to the end. It helped that the text was very short. But even as I stumbled through with the dictionary ever present, I could tell that I was on to something. I underlined things, put stars in the margin, added knowing comments about the provenance of Valéry’s ideas (“Croce was here!”). It was a book I loved, and I love it still. The author of one of the great modern poems, “Le Cimetière marin”—its play of tones is the nearest thing to a Degas pastel wired for sound—Valéry had generously given the succeeding generations the most valuable kind of encouragement, by saying that he had no real idea of how he did it. Better than that, he said that having no real idea of how to do it was the only way to do it. (In our own time, Tom Stoppard has said that the trouble with bad art is that the artist knows exactly what he’s doing.) “One conceives, for example,” Valéry says on page 27, “that a poet might legitimately fear altering his original virtues—his immediate power of composition—if he were to analyse them.” It was a rationale for the irrational. He didn’t mean that just getting yourself into a vague state would produce a poem, in the same way that, in the Impressionist era, untalented painters thought that if they let their eyes go out of focus and painted what they saw, they would produce Impressionist paintings. But he did mean that the state of being creative would always feel beyond analysis. After that, I learned to trust in my sunburn, and took its absence as a sign that the poem was not yet finished after all, no matter how long I had worked on it.

Valéry’s famous assertion that a poem is never finished, only abandoned, is one I do not believe. Try and think of a way in which Shakespeare’s sonnet “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame” is not finished. Valéry could talk precious nonsense. He was a bit of a dandy, and sometimes he got his pouncet-box too close to his nose, so that the aperçu came out as a refined sneeze. But on the whole he had the rare gift of talking concrete sense about the most complicated thing people do, and talking it as an insider. Later on his gift was born again, in Philip Larkin, whose critical writings are based on the insistence that true poems must come from instinct, even if the conscious mind is fully engaged on their way to realization. Larkin knew from introspection that a poem came of its own volition. Sometimes its will failed, whereupon he left it. To our loss, he never recorded his physical sensations when the fit of composition was on him. One guesses that the urge manifested itself as a tremendous determination not to do anything else: the best explanation for the circumscription of his pleasures.

Baudelaire, seeing Victor Hugo taking a walk along the boulevard, correctly deduced from Hugo’s rhythmic gait that he was polishing alexandrines in his head. From all the testimony we have been given by the poets about themselves and about each other, the common theme which emerges is that everything else must be laid aside in the last phase, when the thing is integrating itself. This could be the reason women’s poetry is on the whole a comparatively recent event in history. It used to be very hard for women to lay everything else aside. Unlike men, women were not allowed to be hard to live with. Poets have traditionally been hard to live with, and the tradition will probably continue. At the very moment when a poet is working hardest in his head, he looks exactly as if he isn’t working at all. On the face of it, it’s the ideal moment for asking him to do something useful. The answer is unlikely to be diplomatic, and probably wasn’t even from such a smooth operator as Valéry.