From The Beauty of the World, Part I

Paul Valéry: “I Am Nimble or Nothing”[6]

On our works and on our gestures, on our weaknesses and on our glories, this vigilant gaze remains fixed. He has not stopped observing us, he is amused to find us so predictable, so proud of our false mysteries, so uncertain of our real duties. He still analyzes—with that very blue eye—the secret mechanisms that for us are torments, seductions, vague things. He watches over them and reveals them—in order to reduce them to some very imperious nothing. From then on this takes place in us; this progression of consciousness, which he has initiated, continues to act (at least for those who have let themselves be seduced and have tasted this curious Apple whose savor he extols to us). It is thus that posthumous life begins for Valéry: he perpetuates himself in this myth—or mystique—of armed lucidity and inflexible attention, which he has acknowledged in us.

No doubt that is only a myth. Just as other myths, on the contrary, celebrate the all-powerful avantages of the state of dreaming or distraction. On closer inspection, Valéry is not so much limpid as amorous of limpidity. “And what a somber thirst for limpidity.”[7] The clarity of numbers, which he loved, did not compel him to become a calculator; he remained a dancer or a perceptive spectator of a few ballets (in which beautiful bodies play at being bodies and become signs, by means of rhythm and idea). In short, there are enough contradictions in Valéry to remind us that he was a living being, and that he must have experienced the obstacle of a noticeable separation between ideas and acts, between oneself and the ideal image of oneself. We must come to terms with him: Valéry can hardly be explained by the Valéry myth or system . . . He dreamed he was limpid, as if the very fact of dreaming was not already a violation of limpidity. His pure self was a cause of inebriation, as if the pure was not altered by inebriation. But perhaps the image of Apollo can only be conceived in the most mortal depths of a Dionysian dream . . . Imagine a Descartes who, instead of carrying out an analysis of numbers, bent over the pond in which he began to study the laws of optics, lost himself in his own image, and was transformed into Narcissus. Or imagine, on the contrary, a Narcissus who begins to calculate angles and indices.

Valéry seems to have taken enough precautions to avoid being circumscribed. Every proposition he constructs allows for a tangent that leads elsewhere. Just enough dissonance for discord to be born and for the reader’s inner variation to set in. Each idea arms a battalion of subsequent, secretly antagonistic ideas, which hold themselves in reserve, but which at the least signal could burst into salvoes. From one thought to another, the contact is made by shock, almost from a distance, and not by an established and enduring continuity. And this multitude of insights, defini­tions, surprises, questions, doubts, jousts, rational or irrational equations, by its very discontinuity, gives the whole of the work an aspect of invulnerability: the batteries are aimed at all points in space. You can attack one of Valéry’s ideas: it has its truth (which is very keen) and sometimes its untruth (which is barely apparent, rather well masked). But a thousand ideas, a thousand aphorisms, and on some unstable subject like mind, consciousness, poetry—their contradictions are then the truth itself. This suggests, at every moment, and behind every paradox, numberless resources of relevance which will remain imperceptible, but at the disposition of some adequate stimulus . . . It follows that if a reading of Valéry does not produce this very particular sense of awakening, it has been inadequate, one has not really known how to read. And that is what a page of Valéry wants from us: that different regions of the mind light up simultaneously and respond to each other by signals, just as forms brighten in the early hours and begin to populate the void.

Daybreak was precisely his favorite moment. And if it is true that the whole of Valéry’s work was produced in the early morning hours, I could easily believe that a symbolic relation exists between the moment chosen for writing and the substantial content of the work. In fact, the entire work speaks to us of a mind at the moment of awakening, when the universe of forms recovers its language at the emergence from sleep and absence, when the sensations reassemble that re-create the consciousness of a body, when all things begin to emerge again as ideas, and all ideas as intimate perceptions (in the same way we know our pains, he will say—that is, rather vaguely). Here is a man who, to appear whole to himself, never ceases to fight against that lethargy, or that protective anesthesia, which makes us insensitive to our deep mechanisms. Here is a very resolute will to awaken even from his own ideas, and to achieve a state of vigilance superior by several degrees to the state of a thought that believes itself attentive, but that could be surprised in a flagrante delicto of slumber. This morning mind insists on being able to witness the movements of its own theater, as if the spectacle were put on by someone else; at the end of this movement of “transcendence,” he will have become a sort of supremely sagacious critic of his own drama (with the cheerfulness, the well-dressed and masked mundanity, and the understated style that betray the pleasure of seeing everything from the distance of a box seat—that is, from a certain height). He watches the idea make and unmake itself: for every idea has its moment of inattention, and that moment delights him. He gains from it the sense of a faultless superiority: So, then, I am more attentive than my attention, I can be more awakened than this keen moi (self), everything becomes ascertainable for me, and I could even dispense with ascertaining and keep only this intoxication of available spiritual power, always ready to withdraw from what it imagines . . . A very lofty critique (and critique of the critique) touches here upon poetry (and upon the poetry of poetry), because enough sensual imagination mixes with the critique to give it this “melting” character, this swooning—this supreme awakening—in the full delight of looking, touching, smelling, and for a thousand new tastes to take hold of our pleasure.

And how are these tastes born? They surge up from nothing, from confusion, from the anonymous—they fall into the traps of a mind that has spread its nets for “ideal plunder”; they are children of the night, whom a dazzling sunrise turns to gold. They awaken the way wave and foam rise up to crest the great liquid nothingness of the sea, refuting with a bright sign that darkness of the depths which nevertheless supports them and nourishes them with its obscurity. Is it completely useless to affirm that the notebooks of “silent things” and “moralities”[8] make us think of the wave that ceaselessly rethinks itself, between the dark hollow and the summit of foam and fire “ever rebegun”? It is the same play of a bright and moving matter, feminine, and all the while imitating precious stones . . . Compare Valéry to the sea? No, but rather to a spectator on the shore, who, faced with this visible seascape, welcomes with his gaze an abstract Wisdom still all awash with saltiness. Perhaps he is weighing the chances of some possible navigation. But I do not believe he is dreaming of entrusting himself to the sea (as did Hölderlin or Rimbaud, two shipborne spirits among the poets). Valéry is not a navigator; he is rather that pensive man on some headland, which one might call Elsinore, and where, making due allowances, one might picture that too-clairvoyant prince, and simulator by dint of clairvoyance, skillful as well at making fine wounds with the tip of his foil and meditating among the open graves of a cemetery. He is that insular consciousness in the middle of an ocean of nothingness. And his experience of the sea, if it is not that of a master mariner, is at least that of a perfect swimmer: a more intimate contact, a more corporeal knowledge of the swell, but a less adventurous destiny. No errors, no burnt ships. Valéry’s spiritual “conquests” make us think of some strange immobile conquistador (of a wholly Eleatic immobility) for whom it would be enough to open his eyes, rather than trust himself to the impure elements, the hazards of currents and winds, a big ship fully armed and rigged.

But let us be careful: this poet of the victorious dawn is also a poet of evening and of heavy moments in which being gives way to the void and abandons itself to the shadows. Certain passages from La Jeune Parque (“The Young Fate”) and the last pages of La Soirée avec Monsieur Teste (“The Evening with Monsieur Teste”) are enough to evoke this movement of return to the original night, this revenge of darkness on transparency. Undoubtedly it is in the healthy exaltation of awakening that Valéry found his joy and recognized his personal power, but what profound curiosity about the event that occupies the other bank of sleep, what secret despair of a consciousness that studies itself to the point of imagining its loss and prepares to descend into hell! For this autocratic Reason, so free and so firmly tensed, everyday sleep, in which it loses the domination of a beloved body, is a sort of mortal outrage, which gives it a glimpse of its dissolution into absolute non-being. But see how it bends obstinately over this fatal spectacle . . . With all the lights of his awakening, Valéry seeks to make a weapon for himself in order to pierce the night in his living works and to revenge himself on this confused ocean that casts him up each morning onto its shore.

Perhaps he had to experience beforehand—by what tenderness or insinuated fear?—the omnipotence of nothingness, of the void, of disorder, of absence, to be able to conceive these absolute acts, this “absolute poetry,” and all these irrefutable architectures destined to counterbalance the absolute of nothing. “I am nimble or nothing.” It is the affirmation of a mind which, in order to exist, counts only on its own agility, on the mobility of creative perceptions, and on the unlimited exercise of its power of abduction, in the most vast deployment of a predatory lucidity. But this affirmation is placed in an alternative, and the other term of the alternative is: nothing. Every act thus stands out against a background of nothingness. But this act will be a conquest, and first of all a conquest of oneself. A conquest—or a rescue: as if one had to save the crew and cargo from some immense and permanent cosmic shipwreck. (That is the work of Ariel, or of Igitur.[9])

Thus the poem will be born. Valéry stands at the source, “between the void and the pure event.” But there is no pure event, unless it is inhuman, or angelic. There is no pure act, unless it is free of all matter, thus losing all the virtue of an earthly act. For in truth: what can a man do? And while the void remains present, pressing, more than probable, ready to take back all it has let go, the pure act withdraws to the most distant spiritual horizon: a constellation to come, infinitely unforeseeable, infinitely ideal . . . But, frozen with absence, lost in the spaces of chance, its prefigured ray impregnates a waiting that slowly turns golden like a ripening fruit, it inspires the relentless calculations of a constructive mind, it makes supreme engineers of the possible, like Leonardo, dream . . .

But who, then, can say that this too-pure event is not in secret connivance with the void it should refute and perhaps its perfect jewel? And, faced with profound nothingness, is Valéry not Narcissus in tears, lost in the gaze of his beloved double?
Claudel: Speech and Silence

To read Claudel is to undergo a forced participation. Not by an effect of enchantment (nothing has less pretense to magic than this language), but by the dynamic virtue of gesture and speech, which is transmitted on contact. The reader, as soon as he has found welcome within this work, scacely resists the temptation to paraphrase and to join his voice to the poet’s singing. Hence so many studies of Claudel written in Claudel’s language. It is the same as with certain cathedrals: if you remain outside, you cannot say anything about it, but once you go in, you find yourself participating in the worship without even wanting to. It is particularly difficult to maintain a critical distance before Claudel—that is, to understand it all without adhering to it. (A reading of Valéry, on the contrary, requires that distance; the most intimate contact can be savored, evaluated, transmuted into pleasure only by the most detached mind; the model is offered to us in the very exercise of Valéry’s thinking.) More than before any other poetry, the critical enterprise is threatened here by a double risk: a survey that describes the configuration of the work without touching its substance; or a communion and consonance such as merely make a poor double of the poetic voice. We can smile today at those who reject Claudel by declaring him esoteric. It is rather because he forces adherence so imperiously that one is tempted to avoid, after the fact, this too-insistent solicitation. Gide was a good example, seduced by Claudel’s power, then in revolt against the attraction that had drawn him to it.
The solicitation of Claudel’s language is addressed to our body. It is by our muscles and our senses that it undertakes to win our consent. It awakens our motive and sensory aptitudes. It offers our legs a slope to climb up (or down), it fills our ears with sounds, plunges us into odors, opens our eyes to expanses of color, transforms happening into a savory mouthful. Nothing picturesque, however. The picturesque is a spectacle that presup­poses a passive spectator. But Claudel forces the reader into an active attitude. He does not pass on ready-made sensations to him. He obliges him to put himself back into the act of feeling itself, into the moment when the body develops the sensation—that is, when it experiences its own energies while tasting the savors offered by the world. The force of Claudel’s language is bound up with the fact that its subject is constantly placed in an active posture. He proclaims, he explores, he confronts. (And when it is a question of Grace, Claudel recoils from the idea that it can be received passively. He more willingly imagines beings who seize it by force. At the risk of scandalizing the orthodox.)

Claudel assigns a double function to the word: to constitute the ideogram of the object represented, but also to call up, or call back, the particular dynamic by which man makes himself present to things so that things present themselves to him. Sensible qualities, in his language, aim at expressing synthetically the unique nature of the object and the specific energy of the human gesture that goes to meet it: the act of smelling, feeling, chewing . . . A more complete stylistic study would no doubt show that, among sensorial operations, Claudel gave preference to those that involve the greatest participation of motive force, the most energetic exploration, in which the body literally goes in search of the form and taste of things. From then on, what Claudel’s language will communicate to the reader will be not only sense (understanding), but also the will to sense (the will to understanding): a vigilance and an initiative which project the senses and intelligence together toward the universe of created things, all good and all possessable for man.
The primacy of action is marked in the syntax itself. A habit of Claudel’s language transforms the epithet into an adverb: the qualifier of action (the adverb) is introduced in place of the qualifier of the object (the adjective). Cet enfant triomphalement que vous me tendez (This child triumphantly that you hold out to me). “Triumphantly,” oddly placed like this, expresses both the permanent stability of the act and its intensity. The verb of the relative clause reigns alone, with power; there is too much space to fill for it to tolerate an adverb in its close vicinity; it does not let itself modify; moreover, it makes its influence radiate beyond the limits assigned by grammatical jurisprudence. It sends the adverb out, like a proconsul, to establish itself near the subject and usurp the place of the too-flexible adjective. The action prevails over the subject and sets it in motion; but, on the other hand, the action is stabilized in its qualification. The adverb thus becomes a two-sided term, belonging at the same time to the subject (which posits a substance, a being) and to the verb (which manifests the force).

Before the psychologists and philosophers demonstrated it in their own way, Claudel had magnificently shown that all move­ment is inscribed on a much vaster ground which influences it, but of which it also upsets and rearranges the balance. The act does not detach itself as before an inert canvas, it cooperates with the space and the things that surround it, and, just as it participates in their presence, so it obliges them to participate in its own effort. This surrounding space, in Claudel, is nothing less than the total universe. Were it less, gesture and speech would remain incomplete and stripped of meaning. For the demand of meaning is inseparable here from the demand of the totality. The human gesture is accomplished intelligibly only by evoking around it the presence of the whole world, visible in all its continuity, and forming in its spatial and temporal dimensions a body all of a piece.

Claudel’s world wants no other limits than the natural round­ness of the created universe. But this openness to the most distant is only the counterpart of the near presence of the most simple objects, whose familiar detail and relief have lost none of their distinctness. The expansion of Claudel’s universe finds its compensation in the reassuring stability of the immediate landscape. The house, the garden, the town remain perfectly delimited. Their duty is to keep a certain place. The things we find before us, in their splendor, in their insufficiency, have no need of further justification: they are there, like necessary members of the immense reality:

Let me sing the works of men and let each one find again in my verses these things that are known to him.
As from a height you have the pleasure of recognizing your house, and the station, and the town hall, and this fellow in the straw hat, but the space around you is immense!

You will not meet, in Claudel, the gigantism that threatens all “cosmic” poetry. Never, in the Grandes Odes, do the masses of the universal tide submerge the kitchen garden or the village horizon. Before the cosmos, small things are not annihilated: they receive their meaning and their consecration. And, losing none of their composure, of their satisfaction with existence, of their comicality, the utensils of every day suddenly find them­selves capable of expressing the whole universe. Far from effacing trivial experience, the brightness of the constellations asks only to shine on the copper pans and silverware of the family dinner.

A surge of lyrical appropriation leads Claudel to the farthest distances, but he does not want to lose anything that he had first come upon within reach of his hand: he keeps his grip on the immediate and the singular. He needs visible, palpable, odorous markers, things that function around him. Supported by this close reality, he can then affirm that the distant reality is no different: it is no less graspable, savory, reassuring. It all also fulfills a necessary function. Things turn out well everywhere. The world is animated by a vehement vibration of life, and for one who knows it (the poet, the believer) nothing is done in vain, nothing is ever too much.

The Baroque (and Stoic) intuition of the universe-organism has come back to life. With this one qualifier, of course, that the organism according to Claudel is a creature and presupposes a creator. Claudel’s Baroque, so wild and free in its impetus, finds in Thomism the “tempering” it could not do without: the idea of the flood (or of conquest in the play Tête d’or (“Golden Head”) takes its place again in the order and hierarchy.
Thus poetry can only be universal praise. Claudel’s co-naissance[10] assures each object in the world of an equal justification and an equal dignity. In this universe which constructs itself by means of mutual supports, all things are at once comprehending and comprehended, and the frailest creature is put in its place as a support of the whole machine. We may be surprised that Claudel has shown feelings of condemnation and abomination, and often so violently: he poses then as a defender of the faith. But his fundamental poetic attitude, on the contrary, is unreserved consent to all that exists, provided evil is relegated to the side of non-being, or is seen as an involuntary servant of the good. The flat rejections so frequent in Claudel contradict this disposition to receive everything. The only explanation of this contradiction lies in the fact that Claudel not only desires the totality, but also wants it to be ruled by a certain order, for which man is co-responsible.

This existence of order also allows us to see more clearly the contradictions in Claudel’s cosmology. At first it seems that his imagination has given preference to a physics of violent expansion, in which the total energy is spent in a vibratory dilation. Here we see (above all in certain passages of the Art poétique) a world in which all things flee from a primal site, as if violently driven out of a place they will never find again. There is a call to being (which could also be called an invitation to die) which ceaselessly creates space and enlarges it. But opposed to this explosive image of reality (very close to certain hypotheses of contemporary astrophysics) is the representation of a stable world, where, as in Aristotle and Ptolemy, things see themselves assigned a natural place in which they will be conserved eternally. This principle of conservation is quite obviously the effect of a will to order, which sets an obstacle to the temptation of expense. Objects then become guardians: they perform an immemorial service, they never cease to manifest the idea that made them appear on the day of creation; they persist in their meaning, like strongboxes holding a treasure that will never change weight. According to this second image of the world, things no longer rush toward a being that they lack; on the contrary, being abounds, as money abounds for the rich man. And the poet is only there to keep the accounts.
He wants to be “the unifier of God’s earth.” The one who counts up and calls together. Keeping the accounts is an immense task.

But the task is immense only in its extensiveness. It is the extent of the desire that is excessive, not its nature. For the poetic word, in Claudel, does not covet any superhuman privilege. It does not claim any sacred virtue for itself, which it would dispute with religion. It has no other goal than to name a reality already present, which is the work of God. To believe that this reality—even quite ideal, “the one absent from all bouquets”[11]—can be entirely the work of the poet would be blasphemy. Even before the poet has spoken, the things he will name are already holy and consecrated. The poet contents himself with recognizing them in his turn and adding his modest praise to the concert of created things. Valéry invoked “holy Language,” while Claudel, fiercely hostile to all philosophical idealism, means to pay homage to “holy reality.”

The poem will thus be a well-made object, resting mainly on its “liquid balance.” But the success or failure of the work of language will change nothing in the sufficient coherence and beauty of the world. The risks and chances of the poem will not lead to any consequences of a metaphysical order. Claudel’s Art poétique is concerned not so much with the work to be done and the obligations of language as with the very structure of the world offered to our contemplation. Since the world exists, the Poem has already succeeded. This Poem, of course, does not stop unfolding, and the human song of the poet may be capable of recovering old strophes or of anticipating those to come. The human poet reaffirms a simultaneity that too many others no longer know how to perceive. But the poet does not create this simultaneity, he observes it and deciphers it. Whence a sort of relaxation, especially noticeable starting from the Cinq Grandes Odes, which shows the poet’s confidence and assurance before the work of God. There might be casualness, joking, affability in Claudel’s text, and some smudges here and there (of a sumptuous color) which prove that the artisan has not been infected by the sin of angelism. That in no way compromises a success that is already fully accomplished in the real object to which the poem is addressed, or by which it is inspired . . . Moreover, one can have confidence in the words: a benevolent genie has allowed them to be the most perfect representation of the things they name. There is no reason to be worried about language.

Claudel, who commands the most powerful language, never ceased to evoke the annihilation of language. He wants to be a “sower of silence.” But can there be silence? Of course, language is a perpetual sacrifice: “The word must pass for the phrase to exist; the sound must die out for the sense to remain.”[12] But even so, that is not a death of language; it is a passage to a higher power, that is, to a more total and durable meaning. If human language were really to abolish itself, if the liturgy were to be broken off, we would still not enter into silence. The Word that speaks in the world and that addresses us in the Book will make itself heard. The silence of poetry is the moment when true hearing begins. Claudel, who was the most magnificent figure of the proclaiming poet, seems to have wanted to limit his role to that of listener: to be he who receives an inexhaustible word from elsewhere. It is no longer he who speaks; he resounds like a superb instrument, who knows all that can be vain and humble in that resounding. He speaks because he listens. He does not stop listening.


[6] Je suis rapide ou rien, a sentence from Valéry’s prose work La Soirée avec Monsieur Teste (1896).
[7] From Valéry’s poem La Jeune Parque (1917).
[8] Prose works by Valéry: Choses tues (1930) and Moralités (1932). (Translator)
[9] See Stéphane Mallarmé, Igitur ou la Folie d’Elbehnon (“Igitur, or the Madness of Elbehnon”), 1925. (Translator)
[10] Claudel puns on the French word connaissance (knowledge), turning it into co-naissance (co-birth), in his Traité de la co-naissance au monde et de soi-même (Treatise on the co-naissance of the world and of oneself, 1904). (Translator)
[11] From the preface by Stéphane Mallarmé to Traité du verbe (“Treatise on the Word”), by René Ghil (1886). (Translator)
[12] From Claudel’s Cent phrases pour éventails (“One Hundred Phrases for Fans”). (Translator)