Oct 11, 2007

The Clever and the Profound: Paul Valéry

It has taken me more than three years to finally get around to mentioning the essay on French poet Paul Valéry that came out in the March, 2004 edition of the New Criterion. I don’t remember Valery ever being the subject of an essay in an American general-readership journal, but there it was, and it’s still worth your time.

Valéry’s art and thought hold great importance in the literary theory of Yvor Winters, mostly because Winters considered two of his poems to be among the greatest ever written and because Winters claimed him as a major influence on his poetry and, by extension, his criticism. One obscure poem in particular, “Ébauche d’un serpent” (“Sketch [or silhouette] of a Serpent”), Winters judged to be the SINGLE GREATEST POEM EVER WRITTEN. This monumental claim, first revealed in print in Winters’s 1956 essay “Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature,” has, strangely, raised more eyebrows than ire. In contrast to exasperation aroused by many of Winters’s pronouncements, the declaration that “Ébauche” is the single greatest poem has usually caused writers and critics to stare in bewilderment rather than take up arms. Indeed, the baffling claim has generated very little comment -- no Wintersian of any sort, nor even any marginally sympathetic commentator on Winters, has saw fit to assess the claim in depth.

The New Criterion essay on Valéry was written by Joseph Epstein, a redoubtable critic who writes regularly for the NC nowadays. The occasion of the piece was the publication of the Cahiers, or Notebooks, of Valéry in English, the first such complete translation of this mountainous, if erudite, hodgepodge to be published. Epstein concerns himself almost entirely with the Cahiers and has next to nothing to say about Valéry’s poetry. But his essay does include many fascinating quotations from the Cahiers and an enlightening, though very general, discussion of what Valéry was striving for throughout his career in philosophy and the arts. The essay is still available online at:


Since Epstein’s piece follows the New Criterion format for thinkers it commends to us, I take it that Epstein and NC’s editors consider Valéry very much worth reading, perhaps even vital reading. But I must say that Epstein gives us no notion of what might be of value in the endless stream of short and snappy observations that flow from Valéry’s Cahiers. Epstein floats among the unorganized notebooks and reels in a few of Valéry’s sparkling comments and witticisms for us. But the brief overview does not cohere into a thesis about or a systematic understanding of Valéry. From his essay we gain almost no idea of what Epstein finds important about his art or thought, other than that it arouses reflection. For instance, Epstein speaks admiringly of Valéry’s quest to fathom the innermost workings of the human mind, but fails to tell us anything about that quest that suggests that Valéry discovered something that we might like to know, something that will make a noteworthy difference in how we might think or live or feel. As other critics have noted, Epstein admits that Valéry did not achieve his central goal. In trying to rethink thinking, to step back and study the mind afresh and to a much greater depth, Valéry never finished thinking and reflecting. But did his project accomplish anything? Epstein doesn’t clearly say. Valéry, as Epstein suggests, went into a laboratory of self-reflection to study reflection itself, but doesn’t appear to have come up any significant experimental results. Overall, Epstein is as enigmatic on Valéry as Valéry was on the mind:

And to raise the question of mind, of what is behind our thinking and how it really works, is, as Valéry knew, “to call everything into question.” In a brief essay called “I Would Sometimes Say to Mallarmé,” he wrote: “Why not admit that man is the source and origin of enigmas, where there is no object, or being, or moment that is not impenetrable; when our existence, our movements, our sensations absolutely cannot be explained; and when everything we see becomes indecipherable from the moment our minds come to rest on it.”

Those comments sound intellectually fashionable, don’t they? Amazingly, they’re still in fashion today. Yet, what’s truly significant about such thoughts? What about Valéry’s take on humankind’s inscrutability is truly insightful? Not much that I can see. The enigmas and difficulties of understanding ourselves have been observed and remarked upon with great frequency in the history of thought, even from the time of the first Greek thinkers. Turning to another matter, it seems weird to me that a journal committed to conserving the best in thought and art in our civilization should offer an essay that implicitly praises a thinker who is characterized as wanting to break away from all previous thought -- to start all over, to tear everything down, as if everything anyone thought for thousands of years has no value to what we might think of the mind or thinking today. Epstein, in context, seems to praise Valéry for leaving all that civilization has gained behind:

The task Valéry set himself was that of re-cognition -- to “re-cognate, to rethink things afresh,” and to work through them shorn of the conventional wisdom supplied by politics, history, and rhetoric. “‘Opinions,’ ‘convictions,’ and ‘beliefs’ are to me like weeds -- confusions,” he wrote. He claimed that he wrote “to test, to clarify, to extend, not to duplicate what has been done.”

Those also seem fine words nowadays, nicely in vogue in our profligate times, when every other day someone sets out to rethink things in some vast domain from the ground up. We have become fully accustomed to such sentiments. It has become almost damnable to say today that you agree in whole or in part with a thinker who wrote something yesterday, as though every idea conceived yesterday was conceived only to give those who think today an idea to discard, which means that the thought of today’s thinkers exists only to be discarded in turn tomorrow’s thinkers, and those of tomorrow’s on the day after tomorrow, and so on. Furthermore, very similar words to Valéry’s have been written by many other theorists who have sought to incite highly destructive revolutions in art and thought and society. Too many of these thinkers have wanted, irrationally, sometimes downright foolishly, to pitch overboard everything Western civilization has wrought.

At present I don’t have the time for a look at Valéry’s best work, but I wonder whether I should dare to give my own judgment of Winters’s judgment of “Ébauche d’un serpent.” Well, first, it might behoove us to ask again: Has any writer ever concurred with Winters on “Ébauche”? Not that I know of. Yes, most critics who have written on Winters have recounted the claim. But no critic, no writer, no Wintersian, no former Winters student, has ever said that he or she agrees, or disagrees, that “Ébauche” is the greatest poem, let alone re-assessed the poem at length. In 1977, it’s worth noting, Helen Pinkerton Trimpi published a dense, learned essay in the Southern Review comparing the poem with several poems of Edgar Bowers’s; yet though that essay offered an extended analysis of “Ébauche,” it does not evaluate the poem’s greatness. (I suppose that one could provisionally guess that Trimpi considered it an exceptionally fine poem since she paid such close attention to it, closer attention than it has ever received, at least to my knowledge.) That said, it seems to me that Winters could very well be right about this poem: it might very well be the greatest poem ever written, though the other poem of Valéry’s that Winters judged great, “Le Cimitiére marin (“The Graveyard by the Sea”), in my judgment, might rank right alongside “Ébauche.” I will consider this grand issue, which broadly encompasses many lesser questions and concerns, both of literary practice and principle, on this blog at some point. I have only discussed three poems in the Winters Canon so far, which means that we have 182 to go on before I might get to Valéry’s great works. Whew!

After discovering Valéry through Winters in college in the 1970s, I studied Valéry for a time. I didn’t unearth much else besides these two great poems, though I do think that “La Jeune Parque” plays, insightfully at points, with some of the same abstruse ideas contemplated in the poems Winters thought great. The playfulness of that beautifully composed, long, and famous poem (famous in France, that is) and its densely associational structure were probably too damaging in Winters’s judgment. But I find it still worth knowing. After going through some of the early work, I found out that, as a devotee of Stephan Mallarmé, Valéry's wrote his early poetry in the Symbolist manner. In my view, the early poems are mostly diaphanous exercises in ethereal evocation, more elegantly clever with their elusive insinuations of arcane experience than truly thoughtful or fostering reflection.

Later in his career, after a long break from poetry, about two decades long, Valéry became more methodical and adamant in his search for deeper knowledge of the fundamental meanings of existence, which is clearly seen in the purity and precision of his later poetry: "Poetry is simply literature reduced to the essence of its active principle. It is purged of idols of every kind, of realistic illusions, of any conceivable equivocation between the language of ‘truth’ and the language of ‘creation.’" These words sound unpoetic, especially considering how poetry is understood commonly in our day and age. The result of this rarefied outlook was Charmes, the superb book of poetry that plays such a big role in Winters’s criticism and poetry. Yet much of the poetry in Charmes is almost as frustratingly gauzy as the earlier Symbolist poetizing. Still, Valéry did remain committed to breaking away from Romanticism, as stated in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas: “The distrust of inspiration, an enmity to nature, is the crucial point which sets off symbolism from romanticism. Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Valéry all share it....”

The fame of his poems led to Valéry’s becoming a popular public speaker. He became known for his sharp, aphoristic wit, with such renowned quips as, “Everything changes but the avant-garde.” That’s nice and sharp, but what true insight is it giving us? Not much, after all. Here are a couple more: “Books have the same enemies as people: fire, humidity, animals, weather, and their own content.” That’s clever, or perhaps merely cute, especially the final turn of phrase. But what insight is given? Nothing truly profound. “Politics is the art of preventing people from taking part in affairs which properly concern them.” Now there’s a sharper observation, about the problem of power in a democracy. That encourages a bit of serious reflection. And so it goes with much that you will find in Valéry’s prose: lots of sharp observations, but they are seldom as insightful as they first appear to be.

Valéry was one who did much to change French poetry by decreasing the emotional and the quotidian in his late work. He appeared to think that a mathematical model was needed, one that yielded exact expression and searing clarity, arising from intensive self-analysis and thousands of hours of secluded reflection. He made a similar effort in the Cahiers: “I have sought to know the substratum of thought and sensibility on which one has lived.” But the results to that are a disordered mass. And I have yet to discover anything Valéry learned about that substratum that makes a substantial difference that I could point out to you. I’m not saying it’s not there. I’d love to hear from anyone who thinks they might have found it or knows of a thinker who thinks so. Joseph Epstein might have found something, but his rambling essay fails to say or even hint at what it is.

Thus, I suggest that Valéry was a mixed bag. Yvor Winters appears to have thought so as well. But because of Valéry’s achievement in two poems and a handful of other moments in poetry and prose, Winters thought him one of the finest minds of our civilization, as he implies in this passage from “T.S. Eliot or the Illusion of Reaction” (which, I should note, was written more than a decade before the essay in which Winters announced his judgment of “Ébauche d’un Serpent” as the greatest poem):

On the face of it Pound and Valéry appear to have almost nothing in common save native talent: Pound's relationship to tradition is that of one who has abandoned its method and pillaged its details -- he is merely a barbarian on the loose in a museum; Valéry's relationship to tradition is that of a poet who has mastered and used the best of traditional method, and has used that method to deal with original and intelligent matter. Valéry is a living and beautifully functioning mind; Pound is a rich but disordered memory. [That comment on Pound the barbarian, I should pause to note, is one of the better-known and best put-downs in Winters, though it's most often quoted to put Winters down.]

I will come back to Valéry and the many issues surrounding the connections between his work and Winters’s some time soon on this blog. For example, what does it say that scholars and critics, French and English, have written about “Cimitiére” a thousand times more than they have about “Ébauche”? That’s an issue, among a number, that needs discussion. Yet I think I will forego further comment on Epstein’s piece. It just doesn’t have much to say. Still, it’s a good place to start if you’d like to get a quick, readable overview of this thinker and poet before, more importantly, you give Valéry’s poetry some careful study. “Ébauche d’un Serpent” especially deserves your sustained attention, if you can find the poem, which can be difficult. Only major libraries appear to carry Valéry’s work, naturally. A new translation of Charmes by an English poet named Peter Dale, who has been an able translator of French poets, I have yet to find anywhere. But I did find Dale’s recent translation of “Ébauche d’un Serpent” in an short anthology of some of his French translations entitled Narrow Straits: Poems from the French (1985). Also, I noticed on the web that a new translation of “Ébauche” has been written by the poet James McMichael and published in a journal of Mormon thought named Dialogue. I have found no access to this journal. I hope to seek permissions to post the poem on this blog so that “Ébauche d’un Serpent” can be much more easily read. Perhaps I'll do my own rough translation.


Anonymous said...

It's easy to find Ebauche d'un serpent."


Ben Kilpela said...

Thanks a bunch, my friend. I will try to do a rough and ready translation of the poem. It's nice to see it on-line in French, at the very least.

Kippis, Ben Kilpela

Erik said...

Thank you for this blog; but the claim that no critic has publicly agreed or disagreed with Winters' assertion about "Ebauche d'un serpent" is false: see Allen Tate's "A Note on Paul Valéry" in his Memoirs and Opinions (Chicago: Swallow, 1975), in which Tate writes that "Le Cimitière Marin" seems to him "a much greater poem than the 'Serpent,'" specifically pp. 135-39, discussing what he sees as the philosophical shortcomings of that poem and briefly discussing how his differences with Winters.