The Monumental and Human Poetry of Paul Valéry

by Mark Scroggins August 8, 2020

Paul Valéry (1871-1945) had the dubious fate of becoming a monument in his own lifetime, the personification of the quintessential “homme des lettres.” A member of the Académie française, he was France’s cultural representative to the League of Nations and an indefatigable lecturer and commentator. He held enough academic positions to overwhelm a half-dozen ordinary professors. He published over 20 books in various genres; his poetry, on which much of his reputation rests, is a very small share of the whole….

Obsession or Two Men at Sea (an excerpt from a text of Paul Valéry translated by Vadim Bystritski) — Before and After Francis Ponge

All day long, I wandered around the city and its port. This simple and plain walking can excite the dreamer. No matter if he accelerates or slows down, it changes nothing for him. Madness, no matter whether good or evil is hiding behind it, will bend to its will the law of equal steps. Only yesterday, I knew the happiness of being divinely transported by what sings and creatively delivers. Now I had to flee my thoughts. I had been bearing it until I was ready to die of frustration, anger, affection, and impotence. My hands were dreaming. Unnoticed, they took, folded and contorted shapes and acts — so crisp and deadly. And at every moment I was everywhere where I was not, and I saw everything replaced by something that made me moan.

Nothing is more creative than an incarnated venomous idea whose sting will push life against life before pushing it out of life. This venomous idea continuously elaborates, retouches and reanimates innumerable stories of hope and despair. These stories by far surpass reality. I’d been walking for some time now, knowing well that being carried by my exasperated soul doesn’t bother the atrocious insect that had inflicted upon my soul a burning wound. The ardent tip had abolished the value of all visible things. That’s why I remained unfazed by the sun and radiant ground I was walking upon. Objects could only contradict or irritate my preoccupations. I noticed the passerby less than their shadows. I could only stare at what was above my head or under my feet. The route led to the sea. A light beam from a lighthouse zoomed over the trees’ voluminous foliage. To my eyes this immense and pure panel of most tender color appeared naked and tense. And while the trees were rocking the breeze and the searchlight was sweeping over their subtle and gilded mass, I heard a voice coming from the bottom of my heart and calling me a fool and lunatic.

L’idée fixe ou deux hommes à la mer.

Je me mis à errer presque tout le jour, à battre la ville et le port. Mais la marche simple et plane ne fait qu’exciter ce qui songe : il la presse, il la ralentit: il n’en est point gêné. La loi des pas égaux se plie à tous les délires, et porte également nos démons et nos dieux. Jadis, j’avais connu le mouvement de l’invention heureuse et le transport d’un corps vivement mené par ce qui chante et s’enfante divinement. Je fuyais à présent devant mes pensées. Je portais ça et là de quoi mourir de dépit, de fureur, de tendresse et d’impuissance. Mes mains rêvaient; prenaient, tordaient; créaient à mon insu des formes et des actes; et je les retrouvait crispées et meurtrières. Et j’étais à chaque instant où je n’étais point; et je voyais, à la place de toute chose, tout ce qu’il fallait pour gémir.

Quoi de plus inventif qu’une idée incarnée et envenimée dont l’aiguillon pousse la vie contre la vie hors de la vie? Elle retouche et ranime sans cesse toutes les scènes et les fables inépuisables de l’espoir et du désespoir, avec une précision toujours croissante, et qui passe de loin la précision finie de toute réalité. Je marchais, je marchais; et je sentais bien que cet emportement par l’âme exaspérée n’inquiétait pas l’atroce insecte qui entretenait dans la chair de mon esprit une brûlure indivisible de mon existence. L’ardente pointe abolissait toute valeur de chose visible. Le soleil ni le sol éclatant ne m’éblouissaient. Les objets contrariaient, irritaient mes soucis; et je percevais les passants un peu moins que leurs ombres sur la route. Je ne pouvais fixer que la terre ou le ciel. Cette route allait à la mer. La lanterne d’un phare étincelait au-dessus des feuillages. Une immense et pure paroi, de la plus tendre couleur, m’apparut nue et tendue à la hauteur de mes yeux, au delà des masses souples et dorées de beaux arbres que berçait la brise de terre; et quelqu’un dans mon coeur me traita de fou et de sot.

On Literary Pleasure – Paul Valéry

Le plaisir littéraire n’est pas d’exprimer sa pensée tant que de trouver ce qu’on n’attendait pas de soi.

Literary pleasure is not to express one’s thought as long as to find what was not expected of oneself.

– Paul Valéry, Cahiers (Poétique, 1917-1918)

London Bridge (a text of Paul Valéry translated by Vadim Bystritski) — Before and After Francis Ponge

Some time ago, while I was crossing the London Bridge, I stopped to watch what I like best — rich, heavy and complex water, covered by mother-of-pearl fabric, blurred by the clouds of mud, bewilderingly busy with a great number of vessels, whose white steam, moving spinnakers, all bizzare maneuvers that ballance bales and crates, […]

via London Bridge (a text of Paul Valéry translated by Vadim Bystritski) — Before and After Francis Ponge

Words Are the Boards Thrown over the Abyss (a text of Paul Valéry translated by Vadim Bystritski) — Before and After Francis Ponge

Words are like boards when projected over some abyss spanned by human intellect. We are allowed a swift passage but not a deliberate stop. A quick one passes safely, but the moment we linger, the time-sensitive tissue rips and everything collapses to meet a bottomless chasm. Les mots sont des planches jetées sur un abîme […]

via Words Are the Boards Thrown over the Abyss (a text of Paul Valéry translaed by Vadim Bystritski) — Before and After Francis Ponge