ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"Paul Valéry and some of his contemptors", by Ricardo Nirenberg

On a visit to Trotsky’s house in Mexico City, many years ago, I saw on a wall a framed photo of the exiled former chief of the Red Army standing next to André Breton, the chief of the Surrealist Movement.  The striking contrast between those two figures is the only thing that has stayed in my mind: next to Lev Davidovich, a small, unprepossessing old man who looked more like an erudite Talmudist than a warlord, stood the imposing, dictatorial Breton.  That photo was taken, I believe, in 1938; Breton was forty-two.

As a teenager Breton had followed a very different piper: Paul Valéry.  The latter’s La Soirée avec M. Teste, or the part of that work that had appeared in 1896 (the year of Breton’s birth), was young André’s favorite book, so much so that he practically knew it by heart, something I can say only of Don Quixote, some of whose chapters I was able to recite when I was fifteen.  I can’t imagine what my life would have been like had I been able, at that age, to share with Cervantes a dinner of duelos y quebrantos and Rioja wine, while asking him my many silly questions and listening to his wisdom.  Yet that is what Breton was able to do, to frequent his idol at 40 rue de Villejust (the Parisian street which was renamed rue Paul Valéry in 1946, after his death), to sit at the master’s feet and be nourished by his spirit.

“The fact nonetheless remains that I learned a lot from Valéry. For several years, with inexhaustible patience, he answered all my questions.”

So said Breton on a radio interview with André Parinaud (Conversations: The Autobiography of Surrealism, Paragon House, 1993, pp. 3-11).  Why the qualifying adverb, “nonetheless”?  Because, says Breton,

“Nothing could withstand the disappointment, the disillusionment of seeing him suddenly contradict his attitude, publish new poems, revise his old ones (clumsily, I might add), and try – but quite in vain – to revive Mr. Teste. I won’t dwell on this spectacular phase of his evolution.  I chose the day of his induction into the Académie française to part with his letters, which a rare book dealer coveted. It’s true that I had the weakness to keep copies, but I had treasured the originals for years.”

Valéry’s induction into the French Academy was held in July 1927.  The New York Times Book Review judged Valéry’s poetry “hermetic and almost incomprehensible” and, commenting on the numerous attendance to the ceremony, suggested that “Being unable to understand him, people doubtless want at least to see him.”

Isn’t it comforting to verify that in spite of the general decadence of humanistic studies and poetry reading in the USA, very little has changed, over this past century, in the quality of the NYT literary reviews?  But returning to Breton, his “disappointment” and “disillusion” with his mentor and teacher had begun ten years earlier, when in 1917 Valéry published “La Jeune Parque”, after almost twenty years of poetic silence.  That poem was quite a success among French poetry readers, but Breton felt betrayed.  In his mind, Valéry was a super-hero in the mold of Rimbaud, the boy-genius who stopped writing or caring about poetry at age twenty, and lived the rest of his short life as a merchant or gun-runner, mostly in Abyssinia.  By so doing, Rimbaud became no only a very great poet, but still more gloriously, he became the one who had transcended poetry, who went beyond poetry.  It should be remarked that beyond or au-delà, to transcend or dépasser, have been an obsession among twentieth-century French intellectuals – beyond poetry, beyond philosophy, beyond language, beyond being, beyond beyond even – perhaps a trace of the old Christian teachings about the eternal world beyond death, or perhaps an influence of Nietzsche’s title, Beyond Good and Evil: I wouldn’t know.

In any case, Breton was shocked that Valéry, his idol, chose to remain en-deçà, on this side of poetry, and, much worse, on this side of worldly honors like being received by the French Academy.  Breton had identified Valéry with his creature M. Teste, an imaginary character who did not read nor write, who only thought eternal thoughts which he communicated, once in a while, to some privileged witness.  It was all a wild misunderstanding, a childish one.  I try to put myself in Breton’s place by thinking about my idol, Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote; I try to remember my reaction when reading the novel Cervantes wrote next, The Travails of Persiles and Sigismunda, his last, and finding it almost unreadable.  Very likely I thought, damn, why didn’t he stop after his masterpiece; or maybe I mumbled to myself the old Latin adage, “Quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus.”  Of one thing I am quite certain, though: my love and admiration for Cervantes did not decrease.

That is to say, I find it difficult to understand Breton’s anger against his old mentor and teacher.  How could he hold against Valéry the latter’s excursions into the world when he, Breton, went far beyond in the same direction?  Ah, you’ll say, but there is a difference: Valéry went after bourgeois honors – a fauteuil at the Académie, a Parisian street posthumously named for him – whereas Breton went after Worldwide Revolution.  Instead of poems that are paeans to the human intellect, poems like Valéry’s “Le Cimetière marin”, Breton published rousing manifestos, like his second one of 1929, in which he declared that
« L’acte surréaliste le plus simple consiste, revolvers aux poings, à descendre dans la rue et à tirer au hasard, tant qu’on peut, dans la foule. »  (The simplest surrealist action is to grab a revolver, go down to the street, and shoot haphazardly into the crowd for as long as one can).

On further thought, although Breton’s novel Nadja of 1928, placed by the cognoscenti at the summit of literary Surrealism, owes much to Valéry’s M. Teste (for the two characters, Nadja and Teste, lie beyond being and not-being, beyond presence and absence), there were deeper, fundamental differences between the two authors.  The French words au hasard, which I translated as “haphazardly” right above, encapsulate one of those fundamental differences.  Few people, if asked, will deny that both necessity and chance play their respective roles in the being and becoming of our lives and the universe; the Epicurean poet Lucretius assumed an unpredictable factor in the atomic trajectories, and called it clinamen; our quantum mechanics is probabilistic, meaning roughly something like Lucretius’ clinamen, except that it is expressed in terms of waves.  And Darwinian evolution depends essentially on random errors in the transmission of genetic code.  But there are those who want to dive further down, God knows where, and find rock-hard necessity under the apparent fickle randomness, like Spinoza and Einstein, diese Gott betrunkene Menschen.  Said Einstein, “God does not play dice.”  No, God, as Plato or Plutarch said, always geometrizes.

French intellectuals were, and still are, in thrall to Mallarmé’s final work, his « Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard » (A throw of the dice will never abolish chance) of 1897.  Some of their best minds, poets, critics, philosophers, as well as some of their most notorious bullshitters have claimed to be in possession of the clue to a poem that reminds one of those medieval cabbalistic texts where the universe is revealed to be constructed from combinations of the Hebrew letters.  The last words of the poem, « Toute Pensée émet un Coup de Dés » (Every thought executes a throw of the dice), may mean that our thoughts are out of the domain of the necessary, that they are free, unchained by cause and effect; or it may mean that our mind makes us believe that our thoughts come to us by chance, when in reality they are determined.  Or it may mean any number of different combinations of mental events and chance: I don’t have the intellectual resources to list them, much less to choose one or two among them.  And in any case, our subject is not Mallarmé’s conceptions of chance or hasard, but Valéry’s and Breton’s, and the fundamental differences between these two authors.

Valéry was the first person to see and listen to Mallarmé’s poem, read in even tones by the author himself.  Some of his impressions and reactions are recollected in Valéry’s « Lettre au directeur des Marges », Œuvres, Pléiade, I, p. 622-630.  In that letter dated February 15, 1920, Valéry responds to the idea of some players who wanted to stage a polyphonic dramatization of « Un Coup de dés ».  If those persons had known Mallarmé, writes Valéry, if they had heard him discuss the minutest details of the verbal and visual system he had built, treating it as if it was an algebraic system, everywhere verifying the equilibrium between the visual image given at once and the successive sounds, the idea would never had entered their heads to abolish (abolir), in the hands of stage players, all those profound calculations by means of chance (par le hasard).  This tells us quite a lot about how Valéry viewed the relation between necessity and randomness: necessity, to his mind, is like the logical force in algebraic calculations, while chance or contingency simply destroys those intricate calculations, by introducing the arbitrary and the irrational.  We should recall that Valéry and Einstein were friends, and that Einstein was Valéry’s hero on a par with Mallarmé (« Valéry et Einstein, ou le poème de la relativité », by William Marx, Collège de France, 2018).  And Valéry’s great poems, too, are the result of profound calculations: I will give a necessarily brief example later on.

Breton, on the other hand, had those values reversed.  The first impulse is what counts; all intents at pondering the possibilities will ruin genuineness, will only bury the pure product of the subconscious under an avalanche of commonplaces, repressions, idiocies.  So he preconized automatic writing, unrevised, untouched.  Naturally, this method may produce surprising conjunctions, even attractive or interesting ones, but one thing it cannot produce is seriousness or meaningfulness.  Anyone who had taken seriously the description of “the simplest surrealist action” in the Second Surrealist Manifesto (see above), and had acted accordingly, Breton would have pronounced a damned fool: obviously those texts are not meant to be taken seriously.  Note: he would have said, “a damned fool,” or perhaps « un pauvre con », but never, never a madman.  Madmen were sacred, and they were prophetic; just as Teiresias had his normal human sight taken away but was given instead the power to see into the future, madmen had the fortune of having lost their reason, the heavy curtain that hides reality from most of us.  The madman Antonin Artaud, who had a lifelong affair with excrement, often expressed his intention to shit on this and on that, on God and on each of His creatures, which was alright with Breton, but when Artaud went so far as to shit on Marxism, the boss immediately expelled him from the Surrealist movement.  That was in 1927, two years before the same boss recommended shooting into the crowd au hasard.  Let me add, parenthetically, that the French enthusiastic reception of anally fixated madmen and their texts was not limited to the Surrealists; the soporific Sade was taken seriously indeed by other fashionable fumistes, gasbags, and agents provocateurs such as Lacan, Barthes, and Derrida. 

We will get back to madmen in a while, but I should not want to pass over Breton’s other invention, le hasard objectif, objective chance.  You can still hear this expression when a francophone person “explains” how she happened to meet some other person or thing which played an important role in her life.  Originally, in Nadja, Breton used the term to mean the coincidence of two different persons thinking the same thought; it is a mysterious, although by no means rare phenomenon, and I choose, as an example, one from my own experience.  My wife and I were in our car driving to Boston on the Mass Pike; while I was at the wheel, I was letting my mind wander or rather leap unimpeded from thought to thought.  At one point, perhaps because I had been reading some ancient commentaries on Aristotle, a line from Dante’s Inferno IV came to mind: “Averrois che il gran comento feo”, and confusing the old Tuscan word “feo” (modern Italian fece, made, from fare, to make) with Spanish “feo” (ugly), I asked myself, Why do I say that Averroes’ commentary is ugly, when in fact it is very nice?  At this point my wife interrupted my ramblings: You know what just happened?, she said; a white Mitsubishi just passed us on the right, and I thought, what an ugly (feo) car.  I can’t figure out why I thought that, since in fact it was quite nice.

Of the many people who had similarly mysterious experiences, some have tried to explain them, without any success, so far as I know.  In 1927, the year Artaud shat on Marxism and was expelled, J. W. Dunne published An Experiment With Time, a book that merited a critique from J. L. Borges; Dunne’s experiment was replicated by Vladimir Nabokov with some amazing results.  It is quite evident to anyone with a modicum of a science education that there are basic facts about the functioning of the mind which our science has not approached yet, except for a few scientists with a strong philosophical bent, such as Erwin Schrödinger or Wolfgang Pauli, or writers like Macedonio Fernández: “La realidad trabaja en abierto misterio” (Reality works in open mystery).  Breton, however, was so unlettered that he assigned those mysterious experiences to chance (objective chance because they could be ascertained by more than one person).  He was in love with chance, it was his true amour fou; and this, I gather, is the most fundamental difference between Valéry and Breton.

Before moving to another school of Valéry detractors, let us pause and illustrate to what extent Valéry, like his master Mallarmé, did not leave anything to chance, and how he pondered over his every word, every gesture.  «Le Cimetière marin» (The Cemetery by the Sea, 1920) is a hymn to the Mediterranean and its civilizations, and it is a hymn to thought.  Those things go together, for Valéry’s thoughts, as well as ours, owe an immense deal to the thinkers of the Mediterranean lands.  Thus it is entirely appropriate that for this poem Valéry would drop the alexandrine meter of classical French poetry and of his own “La Jeune Parque” (which was a dress rehearsal for “Le Cimetière marin”), and adopt the hendecasyllabic line of medieval Sicilian, Occitan, Tuscan, then Catalan, and then Spanish poetry.  Valéry’s hendecasyllables have a cesura (a brief pause) after the fourth syllable.  Each stanza has six lines, with the rhyming scheme AABCCB, and the poem consists of twenty-four such stanzas.  As an illustration of Valéry’s complex constructions, I will consider only the first one:
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 !
Ô récompense après une pensée
Qu’un long regard sur le calme des dieux !

This quiet roof, where dove-sails saunter by,
Between the pines and tombs, throbs visibly.
Impartial noon patterns the sea in flame –
That sea forever starting and re-starting.
When thought has had its hour, oh how rewarding
Are the long vistas of celestial calm!
(trans. by Cecil Day-Lewis)

Right at the beginning we are confronted with a rather shocking metaphor.  We imagine a roof like those typical of the region, a sloping roof of rounded clay tiles – a roof just like the one covering my childhood house in Buenos Aires, whose red tiles were manufactured in Marseille, roughly at the time when Valéry was composing those lines.  Perhaps, since we know we are looking at a cemetery, it is the roof of a columbarium, like the ancient Roman cemeteries or dovecotes, upon which the pigeons (colombes) walk as is their want, leaving their uncouth traces behind.  But the fourth line wakes us up: the tranquil roof is the sea.  In truth, the word “tranquille” should have alerted us, an epithet that ever since its birth in Latin (trans–quies, tranquillus) has been applied to the sea, not to roofs.  The pigeons or doves are not fowl but sailboats.  What may be the reason for beginning the poem with this outlandish metaphor, the sea as a quiet roof?  Chez Valéry, we cannot assign anything to chance.

We must pay attention to the time when those lines were composed: right after the Great War and during the influenza epidemic that killed millions, among them Guillaume Apollinaire, who was as different from Valéry as a great French poet could be.  It was a time when anyone who could think could also see that European civilization was facing the abyss, and, indeed, it was the time when European intellectuals of every nation as well as of every sort – poets and prosaists, philosophers, scientists and mathematicians –, were writing about the crisis, the moment when one must stop and reflect, choose and decide.  Valéry could hardly remain aloof, and in early 1919, when “Le Cimetière” was on the drawing board, he published “La Crise de l’esprit”, which begins, “Now we, civilizations, have learned that we are mortal,” and goes on:

We had heard it told of worlds that had wholly vanished, of empires sunk to the bottom with all their men and all their engines into the unexplorable abyss of the centuries, with their gods and their laws, their academies and their sciences pure and applied, their grammars and their dictionaries, their classics, their romantics, and their symbolists, their critics and the critics of their critics.

This metaphor of shipwrecked civilizations, I venture to say, is the same metaphor Valéry puts to work in his Cimetière marin, whose title thereby acquires a double meaning: one, a cemetery at the seashore, where human bodies are buried, and second, the sea itself as a cemetery where whole civilizations lie buried, as might soon lie our own and Valéry’s.  And when he writes, “la mer toujours recommencée” – the sea forever restarting –, he does not mean only the ebb and flow at the shore, but, more importantly, a littoral unified by the sea where civilizations are made and remade, or, as he called that region later, a machine to make civilization (une machine à faire de la civilisation, Œuvres, Pléiade, II, p. 1137).  Our own may be on its last legs, but other civilizations will take its place, and other thinkers will pick up the ever-burning torch once lighted by the ancient Ionians.  Valéry died on July 20, 1945.  Had he lived three more weeks he might have undergone a change of mind.  For by August 7 it was clear that our own and Valéry’s civilization was well on the way to acquire sufficient physical power to destroy not only itself but all human life on the planet, yet it was, and it is, incapable of fostering a humanity that values survival more than power.  And had Valéry lived three more years, puzzled and dismayed he might have wondered about the huge difference between that previous postwar when most thinkers were digging under human knowledge to find the hidden sources of the crisis, and this second postwar, dominated and torn by two blind, coarse, competing optimisms, and practically devoid of any fresh analysis about what may be wrong with our worldview, as if they had concluded that such analyses aren’t worth their while: much good did they do last time around!  Shut up and calculate.

The first stanza we are considering, then, is a song to the Mediterranean, but especially to thought, captured by the Mediterranean (Latin) word pendo.  This verb (pendo, pendere, pependi, pensum) – I’m looking at the Latin dictionary of Lewis and Short – has multiple meanings, the primary one being to cause to hang down or to let hang down, i.e. to suspend (from sub + pendere), whence pending, pendulum, pendant, French pendu (hanged man) and many such.  More specifically, from the action of letting the scales hang down in weighing, pendere came to mean to weigh, thence to value, and to pay (because, in the earliest times, payments were made by weighing out the metals).  From there the word acquired these figurative senses: to weigh mentally, to ponder, to think, consider, deliberate upon, decide, judge, to value, esteem, regard.  For our purpose, the important facts to note are that the French words pensée (thought) and récompense (reward), which appear in line five of our stanza, both derive from Latin pendo: “recompense” and “compensate” mean to weigh one thing against another.  Also, regard in line six is one of the figurative senses of pendo.  Earlier, in line three, Midi le juste (impartial noon) involves pendo, since it refers to noontime as the point in time, midday, when the scales are balanced, the emblem of justice.  Finally, calme in line six derives ultimately from late Latin and the Greek word kaûma, the heat of the midday sun, from the Greek verb kaíō, I burn; thus lines three and six are linked by etymology.  I could go on about the words feux and dieux, but I think that what I have pointed at so far is enough to give an idea of the complexity of those lines and of how carefully they were composed.  To what an extent those lines, to mimic one from Mallarmé, nient, d’un trait souverain, le hasard.



Valéry was further devalued as a poet when the existentialist tsunami hit Paris right after WWII.  The word “existentialism” is sloppy and misleading: it throws together very different fish into the same kettle – Kierkegaard, for example, together with Sartre.  I rather use “mortalism” and “mortalists” to refer to thinkers such as Lev Shestov (Kiev, 1866 – Paris, 1938), or Heidegger, or the Sartre of Being and Nothingness.  French so-called existentialism, with the exception of Shestov (of whom more later), was mostly imported from Germany, another instance of Horace’s Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit.  In their 1929 debate at Davos, Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger, two philosophy professors, had taken as their theme nothing less than the nature of man after the death of God.  Cassirer, a German Jew, condensed the millennial history of human search for immortality in his philosophy of symbolic form: the poet and the artist as builders and granters of everness – hear Horace again: exegi monumentum aere perennius –, the mathematician as creator of eternal truths – hear Plato saying that someone who doesn’t know how to prove that the diagonal of a square is incomeasurable with its side isn’t human but a beast, specifically a suckling pig –, the critic as an inspector of those perennial monuments, testing their beauty, consistency and flexural strength, and the philosopher placed at a center hill and surveying it all.  All are building edifices of symbolic form.  The reward for the makers, as Valéry put it in “Le Cimetière marin”, is «un long regard sur le calme des dieux».  As good a reward as –  no, no, better than eternity or immortality.

Heidegger, the German antisemite, for his part, insisted on the ephemerality of man, a far more radical ephemerality than that of a flower (escarmiento de la vida humana, said Calderón) since authentic human life ought to be consciously, willfully oriented to death.  Not enduring fame nor the building of eternal symbolic structures should be the aims of authentic man, but rather having death and his own nothingness always in mind.  Sein zum Tode.  French postwar hommes de lettres were captivated by the sound of that.  They might have recalled that some forty years earlier, in 1904, Paul Claudel had written something very similar in «Connaissance du Temps»:

“Le Temps est l’invitation à mourir, le moyen qui permet au choses d’avouer en expirant leur néant dans le sein de leur Créateur.”  (Time is the invitation to death, the means by which, as they expire, things can avow their nothingness in the bosom of their Creator.)

They might have recalled it, those French hommes de lettres, but they saw a fundamental difference between Claudel and Heidegger in the matter of nothingness and death.  Those final six words, “in the bosom of their Creator,” were unacceptable to them, fully aware as they were that God was mortal too, indeed, that he was dead; so they much preferred Heidegger’s formulation, free of explicit religious reference.  Here we touch on a striking characteristic of French mortalism: just as Church doctrine was originally developed by taking a Jewish woman of distinguished lineage, Mariam, the mother of eight children (Mark 6, 3) of whom the eldest was named Yeshua, and posthumously divesting her of her sexuality – in a similar way many tenets of mortalism, again with the exception of Shestov, have been taken from ancient Jewish or Christian doctrines, after chopping off God, Christ, prayer, afterlife, and so forth.  It would be a good exercise to show how this laicization works for a wide selection of mortalist commonplaces, but this isn’t the place, and I will only deal with one commonplace, favored by the French poet Yves Bonnefoy (1923-2016), who began as a follower of Breton and was another Valéry reviler.  Since Bonnefoy’s favorite philosopher, by his own account, was the Russian Jew Lev Shestov, who moved to Paris in 1921, I will first say something about Shestov’s doctrines and those of his disciple, the Romanian-French Jewish poet Benjamin Fondane.

Shestov took the story of man’s first disobedience in the Book of Genesis literally– almost.  Our unhappy, enslaved and miserable condition is the consequence of Adam and Eve’s having eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, which meant for Shestov and for Bonnefoy that now, fallen, we must think conceptually, which is a great misfortune.  Why?  Because a concept, as the word itself shows (Latin con + capio) is a taking and holding many things together in the mind, and irremediably misses, so the story goes, the concrete individual being.  The word and the concept “cat,” for instance, captures all cats and no one.  Zoological knowledge deals with “the general cat,” and all sciences deal with general objects, with concepts and symbols.  It is not always the case, however, that the word “cat” is associated with a concept; when I ask my wife, “Have you let the cat out?”, I am referring to our pet, an individual being, a mischievous one.  In spite of which not only Shestov and Bonnefoy but Mallarmé, Roland Barthes, and many other French poets and writers kvetch about the necessarily conceptual, species-bound nature of language.

Shestov thought that this conceptual misfortune was caused by our ancestors having eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, but in his reading of Genesis he incurred at least two errors.  First, he dropped the words “of Good and Evil” from the full name of the forbidden tree – remember, mortalism is all about dropping some words!  Now, knowledge of good and evil is hardly conceptual knowledge – ethics is not a science, as Wittgenstein proclaimed, famously wielding a poker.  When it is said, “Obeying God is good, disobeying God is evil,” we are hard put to find any moderately well-defined concept in there.  Having dropped “of good and evil,” the conceptual knowledge referred to is, in all likelihood, logic, science and symbolic structures, the bugaboo of mortalists.  And the second error is to place the advent of conceptual, species-bound language after the Fall.  God told Adam to give names to the animals – by species, not as individuals! – in chapter 2, 19-20, but the disobedience occurs in chapter 3, so Shestov got it backwards. Nevertheless Bonnefoy, following Shestov up to a point, writes in “L’Invention de Balthus” (1957):

“Nous avons mangé de l’arbre de la science, et cela ne se renie pas. Et loin de rêver d’une guérison de ce que nous sommes, c’est dans notre intellectualité définitive qu’il faut réinventer la présence, qui est salut.” (We have eaten from the tree of science, and that can’t be renounced. Instead of dreaming of curing ourselves of what we are, we must, within this our unrenounceable frame of thought, reinvent presence, which is salvation).

Up to a point, I say, because Bonnefoy introduces a term of art that is not Shestovian, “presence.”  It is true that it appears also in the French “Christian existentialist” Gabriel Marcel, but mostly when he deals with personal relations; in Bonnefoy, presence is that which allows us to bypass concepts and symbolic structures and capture the thisness or haecceity of a person or thing.  Presence, corresponding to the Greek parousia, came to mean, in the Greek of the Gospels, the Second Coming of Matthew 24, but Bonnefoy, be it noted again, cuts off all reference to Christ and to the end of this world; for him presence, which he calls salvation, must be reinvented, found again.  So, there was a time when presence was ours to enjoy?  Is he referring to the Garden in Genesis, before the Fall?  Not necessarily.  He might be referring to the mythic Orpheus, the proto-poet.  Or to many other myths: Bonnefoy was the author of a Dictionnaire des mythologies, but was neither a Jew nor a Christian.  There were other possibilities.  Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, a contemporary of Shestov, had published several books on the “primitive mentality,” in which he ascribed to primitive man a type of thinking different from ours, one free from concepts, connecting to others and to things directly by “mystic participation.”  Later anthropologists haven’t taken this seriously, and Lévy-Bruhl himself ended up recanting his theory, but meanwhile it influenced a number of artists and writers, among them the Surrealists and T. S. Eliot; in the 1930s it also elicited the enthusiastic interest of Fondane, Shestov’s disciple, who used to call Valéry a clown, and whose writings about Lévy-Bruhl are appearing only now.  Mystic participation certainly comes close to Bonnefoy’s “presence.” 

We could go on about those attempts to bypass “conceptual thought”; I could mention, for instance, Emmanuel Levinas and his ethical face-to-face; but it is more urgent to go back to what I was saying about the intellectual ferment after WWI and how it differed from the intellectual attitudes in the aftermath of WWII.  They differ, certainly; but I should point out that there is an element in common: the conviction that science, mathematics, and all those complex symbolic (therefore conceptual) constructions are way above the heads of most of the educated public, that those edifices demand the specialization of the minds and therefore, alas, their fragmentation.  The survivors of WWI and the flu pandemic viewed this as a replay of Genesis 11 and the tower of Babel, different groups speaking languages inaccessible to the others – even parts of the same mind being unable to communicate – and they thought that they had a cure: intuition.  It is an idea with a rather long philosophical history, going at least back to Kant: to intuit is to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning.  Husserl, Spengler, and others who were trying to determine what went wrong with the European spirit, what had led to catastrophe, thought that the concepts of science and math should be made more intuitive, and therefore more accessible to the non-specialist.  But the attitude of the mortalists after WWII was more radical and more Shestovian: conceptual thought is not to be facilitated but circumvented, avoided.  It is not the Babelian confusion that ought to be undone, but an event prior to it, graver and more fundamental, the Fall.

In view of that mortalist attitude, it is to be expected that they would despise Valéry, and that they would think of him as a foe.  In an essay of 1963, under the title, “Paul Valéry”, Bonnefoy begins by graciously conceding that « Il y avait une force dans Valéry, mais elle s’est égarée. »  (There was a force in Valéry, but it went astray), and then proceeds to establish a gulf between French poetry, which he, Valéry, thought was rational, but which is in fact confused and turbulent (trouble) and cares for the dark; French poetry in the langue d’oïl has little in common with Valéry’s native Mediterranean, those fogless shores and those treacherously clear, evidential horizons, where we fall for the illusion that we can touch the intelligible, the idea, the concept.  The Italian language fosters that illusion, says Bonnefoy – perhaps a reference to Valéry’s filiation: father of Corsican origin and Genoese mother.  No doubt Bonnefoy must have had the same opinion of Occitan, the langue d’oc of the troubadours, and of Catalan: both still spoken in Mediterranean France, both imbued of too much light, which produces mirages.  I think it is not a mirage that I see Bonnefoy falling here into the most typical and saddest Gallic trap, the will to strict, oppressive centralization.  When I think of the poetry of my native land, I see at least two very different strains, using different dialects almost: the semirural gauchesco of the Martín Fierro, and the civilized Argentine Spanish of Lugones or Borges.  Benedetto Croce, Valéry’s contemporary and kindred mind, for whom literature meant spiritual concentration and research of the truth, defended the artistic value of literature in the Neapolitan and other dialects.  As for poetry in English, it is enough to check the contributions to Offcourse coming from different countries to get an idea of the great variations in tone and vocabulary.  Why can’t France harbor different types of poetry, including, by the way, both Valéry and Bonnefoy?  Va savoir... Go figure.

Et voici le coup de grâce: Bonnefoy the mortalist accuses Valéry of ignoring death.  “Il n’a pas su qu’on avait inventé la mort”, he writes – He [Valéry] never found out that death had been invented.  This jaw-dropper is revealing: it tells us much about the strategy of the mortalists.  Just as Heidegger did with Cassirer, to a fellow contemplating one of those symbolic monuments of the human intellect – Euclid’s Elements, Horace’s Odes, or why, yes, “Le cimetière marin” – Bonnefoy would recommend turning his mind to death instead, to achieve salvation.  How should we call such eliciting of an instinctual feeling, in this case the fear of death, to pull someone away from the pleasures of contemplation and to devalue its object?  Demagoguery? hysterics? nihilism? perhaps even terrorism?  No, those words don’t seem to be right.

I was engulfed in those doubts when suddenly I thought of Claudio Rea, my Roman friend with whom, fifty years ago, I wrote a math paper, and spent moonlit evenings on the island of Ischia while he played the guitar.  I used to wonder how much he resembled George Brassens, who, like Valéry, was born and buried in Sète.  Last week I was e-mailed that Claudio has died, so it is not Breton’s hasard objectif that makes me think of him.  No, the memory of my old friend came to mind to help me: when he saw me absorbed in abstruse or somber thoughts, Claudio would invariably advise, “Ma!  Pensa a la fica!” (Bah!  Think of the pussy).  He, like Bonnefoy, would try to elicit an instinctual feeling, in this case the sexual urge, to pull me, and himself, off our intellectual funk.  The answer to the question, how to call that technique, came immediately to mind: it is unadulterated Diogenic cynicism.


Ricardo Nirenberg is editor of Offcourse

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