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Paul Valery (1871-1945) signing a poem, c. 1930.Albin Guillot/Roger Viollet/Getty Images
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Extreme Diamonds

The French poet saw the coming collapse of civilization. A hundred years later, his ‘The Young Fate’ rings true anew.

Paul Berman
December 19, 2017
Albin Guillot/Roger Viollet/Getty Images
Paul Valery (1871-1945) signing a poem, c. 1930.Albin Guillot/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

The year 1917, which was a black moment of war and Bolshevism, was also a brilliant moment for poetry—the year of T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations, and the British war poets, and the young William Carlos Williams, and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Renascence, and one other volume, as well, altogether spectacular, which, in my reading, has managed to retain its mysterious allure over the course of the hundred years since then and may even have begun to shimmer a little more seductively. This was La Jeune Parque, or The Young Fate, by Paul Valéry—a long poem, and famous in its day. The Young Fate has always been famously difficult, too—a poem whose shape seems to disappear, as if underwater, and then to reappear amidst the currents. I do not think that anyone has ever claimed to have understood the poem in full.

Valéry, though, was “the last of the Symbolists,” which meant that conventional lucidity was never high among his priorities. But there is more than one kind of lucidity. Back in the 1890s, when he was starting out, he and his friend André Gide used to attend the “Tuesday” conversations with the older poets at Mallarmé’s apartment in Paris, and he came away from those discussions and from his studies with a set of anxieties and ideas that bore directly on matters of lucidity. There was an anxiety, above all, about the state of poetry at the end of the 19th century—about the “crisis of verse,” in Mallarmé’s exposition. The crisis of verse had been brought about by the progress of science, which made it impossible for poets or anyone else to believe anymore what poets used to believe, which made it impossible for poets to express themselves properly or to confer a shape on the world, which added up to a crisis of civilization—a crisis of world-views, of emotion, of language, of self-understanding. This was not a small anxiety. And there was an idea that, under those circumstances, the poets needed to come up with a literature of a different kind than anything in the past, drawing on a different mentality, something new. Only, here was a challenge.

Valéry with André Gide in an undated photo. (Libératuib)
Valéry with André Gide in an undated photo. (Libératuib)

The poets could not turn away from science, but neither could they satisfy themselves with it (except perhaps by defining science so expansively as to leave the scientists behind, which was Valéry’s impulse). They could not return to Catholicism, even if some people gave it a try. They proposed, instead, to become conscious of themselves, and not just of things that are exterior to the self—to become conscious by contemplating matters of language. Or they proposed to attend to matters of the ear, as opposed to the eye. Or they proposed to look into mathematics, in search of structures of reality and frames of mind that mathematical insight might reveal. Ultimately they proposed to discover new or poorly-appreciated states of awareness, as if in unexplored corners of the brain—states of sleepy semi-consciousness, perhaps, from beneath a drooping eyelid. These were projects for an avant-garde. Or the ideas amounted to a project for something vaster, a new religion, perhaps, with poetry as its “essence,” in Valéry’s word—a breakthrough in modern thought, capable of replacing the quasi-religion of the outdated past, which was Romantic poetry and the earnest and simple doctrines of Victor Hugo. Or the ideas hinted at a project for a proletarian revolution, as conceived by the anarchists and reconceived in some indefinable fashion by the poets and artists—a prospect that some of Mallarmé’s friends and Mallarmé himself liked to flirt with, even if proletarian revolutions were not to everyone’s taste. The ideas amounted, in any case, to an extremely radical project. And Valéry radicalized the radicalism.

He thought of poetry as an activity, and not as a communication—poetry as a sacred devotion or rite, meant to be performed for its own sake, and not because the performance might yield a product. In his early years, with the help of his friend Pierre Louÿs, he published a number of poems, which attracted attention. But evidently it crossed his mind that, if his true concern was the process of thinking, and not the product of thinking, there was no point in actually completing a poem. He took up, therefore, a discipline of silent cogitation. He studied mathematics. He disappeared into the solitude of his notebooks, where the practice of reflection and self-reflection could go on unimpeded by the exigencies of editors and the world. In these ways, he joined the strange fraternity of poetic renunciation, where Rimbaud was his immediate predecessor and the Mexican nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, was his distant predecessor—the fraternity of poets, male and female, who make themselves eloquent, or perhaps heartbreaking, by lapsing into a silence that seems mutely to speak of shock and vulnerability and the limits of language.

His friend Gide was not keen on silence, though. The years went by, and Gide pushed Valéry to bring his private cogitations to an end and publish something, at last. And The Young Fate was Valéry’s response. The sacred rite of composing the poem occupied his energy for a period of four years. Only, when he agreed finally to allow the publisher to bring out the poem, in 1917, he no longer expected any good at all to come of his efforts or of anyone else’s. The crisis of modern life that Mallarmé and the poets of the older generation had worried about in the 1890s had proved to be all too genuine by then, and it was too late to pretend that newly-explored states of consciousness and a semi-religion of poetry were going to rescue civilization. What to do, under those circumstances? Valéry chose to identify with the poetry-writing monks and the rhetoricians from the last desperate years of the Roman Empire, who knew that Attila the Hun and Genseric the Vandal were the future, and, even so, went on masticating Latin hexameters in a corner. Poetry was defiance for those people, and it was defiance for Valéry, as well. European civilization may have gone to hell, but Paul Valéry was going to keep on masticating his own hexameters. He invited his readers to admire him. And they did admire him.

The first edition consisted of 600 copies, which is not a vast number, but neither is it tiny, for a poem. A second edition came out four years later, this time with a portrait of the author by Picasso. Valéry’s emphasis on ear over eye means that his poetry is not really translatable into English. But French has always been the second language of American literature, and a number of American poets felt drawn to him right away—not just to The Young Fate, but to “La cimetière marin” and a series of poems on themes related to The Young Fate that he went on to produce during the next few years. Wallace Stevens shows something of Valéry’s technicolor fluency. Then, too, the young Edmund Wilson, who had no patience for Wallace Stevens, reflected a different inspiration from Valéry, not in his own verse but in his attitude toward literature—in the idea, distinctly Wilson’s, that a writer ought to be capable of responding to every possible impulse and its opposite, the classical and also the Romantic, the analytic and the emotional, equally and at once. In France and elsewhere in Europe, Valéry acquired lecture audiences, too, which meant prestige, until, by 1945, when he died, he had become something of a French national hero, in the realm of letters. This was not because he had mutated into a poet for the masses. His style of composition remained consistent from first to last.

Valéry’s portrait, by Picasso, which appears in the second edition of The Young Fate.
Valéry’s portrait, by Picasso, which appears in the second edition of The Young Fate.Artnet

If he was inconsistent, it was only in his political thinking, and this was all to the good. The poetic and artistic rebellions of the 1890s fed sometimes into a right-wing cult of nationalism, militarism, and folk tradition, which led to “imbecile anti-Semitism,” in Zola’s phrase, which meant hostility to Captain Dreyfus, the victim of a military frame-up. Not everybody succumbed to the right-wing temptations. Mallarmé, the master-thinker, was intelligent enough to line up with Dreyfus’s defenders. Young Gide likewise managed to resist the right-wing fervor, even if his own thinking on Jewish matters was reliably close to imbecile. But Valéry in the 1890s was not so clever. Maybe he was fond of military heroes. He wrote an awe-struck sonnet about Julius Caesar, commander of lightning. And he came out against Dreyfus. He contributed money to a fund for the widow of Dreyfus’s fiercest enemy of all, the colonel who had forged the crucial document in the frame-up. And yet, Valéry was, by temperament, a reasonable man, even if he was wrong about everything, for the moment. Youthfulness appears to have been his error, and he grew out of it. By 1899 or thereabouts, when he was in his late twenties, he had already begun to work up a new set of ideas for himself, which he presented many years later in the series of essays that he liked to call “quasi-political.”

The essays added up to a rebuke of the extreme right, and a rebuttal. The extreme right dreamed of a fanciful and wholesome past in which society dwelled in a bliss of racial purity, of cultural uniformity, and of provincial authenticity. But Valéry conjured the memory of a different past, which was neither pure, nor uniform, not provincial. It was grand, though. This was the Roman Empire, which he presented as the source of European civilization. The genius of the Romans, in his argument, consisted of taking the philosophical wisdom of the Greeks, which was universal in application, and attaching it to the Roman imperial principle, which was likewise universal, yet made room within the capacious empire for every race, ethnic group, and province. And, by means of the Catholic Church, the Romans passed along their philosophical and political principles to the modern Europeans. If European civilization had turned out to be dynamic, if the Europeans had created science and technology and philosophical wisdom, if Europe had ended up dominating the world, it was because of the Roman origin and principles. Such was Valéry’s contention. And he wanted to defend the Roman heritage against the extreme right and its small-minded and misguided set of counter-principles.

It is true that, from the standpoint of our own, anti-imperialist moment, a century later, Valéry’s defense of European principles may seem a little ambiguous, or antique, or embarrassing. He wanted Europe to emulate the military virtues and ambitions of the Romans in order to go on dominating the world. He pictured a worldwide battle between acceleration and inertia, which was the battle of Occident and Orient, and he wanted acceleration to win. He wanted to fend off China, in particular—China, whose intellectual foundations he pictured as obedience, ancestor-worship, solidity, purity, aversion to invention, and so forth. Enthusiasm for science led him to aversion for China. But what is bound to interest us today is his defense of the principle of diversity-and-universalism that he attributed to Rome—the principle that made room for everybody, and also made room for the dynamic and the ambitious and the grand. In these particular respects, Valéry’s ideas were liberal. He expounded the liberal side of his ideas attractively, too, in The Crisis of the Spirit (echoing Mallarmé’s The Crisis of Verse) and other essays. The imperialist in him ought to have gone on revering Caesar. But, as it happened, he disdained dictators, and he came to disdain Caesar, too—except for Caesar’s ambitiousness, which he continued to admire. He even felt badly for Virgil, who ought to have known better but was obliged by political realities to heap praises on Caesar. I think it is fair to say that, in Valéry’s political imagination, the liberal impulses ended up outweighing the imperialist ones.

As for the Jewish question, this never seems to have grabbed his attention—at least, not in anything I have read. Among the writers of his generation in France, the only one to write intelligently and sympathetically about the Jews and their situation in Europe was Charles Péguy, the Catholic—a smaller poet, with a bigger heart. Still, the Jewish question was not something Valéry could escape for long, if only because of personal circumstances. Henri Bergson, the philosopher, died in 1941, during the first year of the German Occupation, and, because Bergson was one of his friends, it fell to Valéry to deliver the eulogy at the Académie Française. He saluted the philosopher as a “very high, very pure, very superior figure of a thinking man,” “the last great name in the history of European intelligence”—which displayed, on Valéry’s part, a generous spirit, and a mood of bitterness. But the bitter and generous phrases also displayed a touch of bravery. “The last great name in the history of European intelligence” was, after all, a Jewish name, even if German military vehicles were roaming the French roads. Thus it was that Valéry, who began his political life on the wrong side of the Dreyfus affair, spoke out nobly, in the final period of his life, on the right side of the Nazi Occupation. Defiance was one of his gifts.

The eulogy of Bergson ran in the newspapers. In different places around the world, it caused a stir. After the Liberation, General de Gaulle in Paris made a point of bringing Valéry along to an evening at the theater, with the obvious intention of giving the French a useful reminder of what their national culture was supposed to be. The broad public may not have been able to read Valéry’s poetry, but people were proud of him, anyway. France during the war had undergone every kind of disaster and disgrace, but people understood that France’s glory around the world has always extended into the domain of literature, and, thanks to Paul Valéry, the literary extension, at least, had survived unscathed—a point made, after Valéry’s death, by a sorrowing Gide, in a eulogy of his own. He became the last writer to receive a state funeral in France, which is moving to me, though it also seems curious. Do the French consider that no other writer has been equally meritorious, during the decades since 1945? Perhaps the notion of glory and literature has lost some of its glory, in the eyes of the French.

I think that, a hundred years after the first edition, The Young Fate has ended up easier to read, instead of more difficult. The doctrinal clouds have parted, and the poem has emerged a little more clearly. Valéry himself has begun to look more attractive, even if not in every way. He was never a loveable figure. As someone has observed, he liked himself too much to be charming, and not enough to be charismatic. He wrote too many empty essays. His aphorisms wander across the page too slowly to be aphoristic. Still, he got off a good line now and then. “Every great man is stained with an error.” “ ‘Genius’ is a habit that certain people acquire.” “Reason demands that poets prefer rhyme to reason.” “No ‘truth’ without passion, without error.” “Syntax is a faculty of the soul.” The style of his intelligence was an art form in itself. If I may borrow from his description of Mallarmé, Valéry was the kind of writer who, when everybody else is thinking arithmetically, thinks algebraically. He knew how to be emotional and self-controlled at the same moment; imaginative and, even so, level-headed; bold, and even so, nuanced: poetically mysterious, and intellectually limpid. An artistic instinct, as multiplied by a philosophical acuity, made him a prescient thinker, too, in verse and in prose—which his readers could not know, a century ago. But I think we can see it today.

His Young Fate is a double meditation, algebraically conceived—on the unruly emotions, and on a rational way to comprehend the unruly emotions; and on modern civilization, and on civilization’s yearning for destruction. This kind of double meditation ought to be vaguely familiar to us Americans, as Valéry would readily have told us. The whole concept of double meditations was an American stroke of genius from the 1830s and ’40s. It was Emerson’s idea, with his concept of looking at the world in a rational manner, and, then again, through an eyeball of drunken ecstasy; and it was Hawthorne’s idea, with his concept of looking at the world through a half-lidded and sleepy eye, capable of seeing the natural and the supernatural in a single glance. And it was Poe’s idea, in a more cerebral version. Poe proposed to apprehend mental states through the rigorous and deliberate application of certain other mental states—proposed, in sum, to bear in mind that consciousness requires self-consciousness. And he proposed that self-consciousness requires attention to language, which can only mean the applied science of poetics. Those were themes of The Raven. He expounded them in two ways at once—as dream-like verse, and also as a mathematical commentary in prose, “The Philosophy of Composition,” on how he had composed the dream-like verse. Poe’s Raven is, of course, a preposterous poem, and the mathematical commentary in “The Philosophy of Composition” is still more preposterous, hinting of hermetic mysticism, or madness, or hoax. The doubling together of verse and commentary into a sort of Raven-squared is beyond preposterous.

The whole of it is dead-pan, though, which is impressive. If you give Poe a chance, something about the content of his crazy idea catches the attention, too. This is the notion of taking states of mind and multiplying them by one another, not in a spasm of ecstasy, as Emerson does, or in a drowsy state of mind, as Hawthorne does, but in a spirit of dry calculation. It is a notion of being analytic about dreaminess, which adds up to a mental state of its own, as in certain phases of half-sleep, where you find yourself remarking on your own dreams. It is a notion of advancing on two tracks at once, poetically and philosophically; a notion of transforming the Greco-Latin science of poetics into a modern science of psychological inquiry and manipulation; a notion of seeing in poetry a contemplation of itself, and not of something exterior to poetry. Almost none of this has survived in the American literature. In America, we take Emerson seriously, and we read Hawthorne, who was largely an Emersonian. But we are taught to consider that Poe, with his madman’s affect and his defective ear for poetry, is beneath our notice. Emerson, and not Poe, has ended up dominating the American tradition.

In France it is the other way around, though. No one seems to have read Emerson, but Poe has virtually entered the Pantheon. Baudelaire, who discovered Poe for the French, found in him a saturnine and sulky inspiration for his own poetry. Mallarmé, a generation later, studied English explicitly for the purpose of reading Poe, and found in him a different inspiration, which was Pythagorean and mathematical. Then, too, in Latin America, Rubén Darío, from the generation after Mallarmé, derived still another inspiration from Poe, openly mystical and slightly crazy, in versions far more melodious than anything Poe could produce. And Valéry, who was of Darío’s generation, found yet another inspiration, which was not at all saturnine or mad, and not at all mystical, at least not on the surface, but pointed, instead, in scientific directions. The science that Valéry drew from Poe led him to strike up a friendship with Einstein. Valéry wondered about the possibility of bringing the spiritual and the scientific back into contact. The philosophical questions that engaged him were pretty much the same ones that nagged in those years at A.N. Whitehead and George Santayana, the Harvard savants, except that Harvard and its professors and sons had no use for Edgar Allan Poe. But Valéry insisted. He regarded Poe as “the Master.” Poe was the only writer, as he explained somewhat absurdly to Gide in a letter, who was “without stain.” And Valéry remained of that opinion, from his very first literary essay, on The Raven and its theory, in 1889, to a course on Poe that he presented, in 1939, at the Collège de France.

The Young Fate, then, consists of two contrasting elements: the content (as Valéry would say), which is dreamy or unconscious, and the form, which is deliberate and firm. Only, in Valéry’s poem, everything about those contrasting elements is more extreme than in The Raven—the content wilder and more imaginative, the form more exacting and controlled. The content consists of a sustained delirium by a young woman whom Valéry calls a Fate, meaning, one of the minor deities of Rome. And the form consists of rhymed couplets in the classical French style from the 17th century of Racine and Corneille—formal, unyielding, superb, and serene. Here is a dream-like state, which is pure emotion, as apprehended by strict adherence to an established and archaic system of composition, which is pure intellect. The result is anarchic and controlled at the same time; irrational and rational; asleep and awake. And the whole of it produces a tone of exalted grandeur, as if in awe at the intellectual energies that have gone into the poem; or at the gorgeousness of the French language in its full-dress public presentation; or at memories of gorgeous literatures of the past, reaching into the mists of time; or at the universe that stands revealed.

There are readers who have trouble with Valéry’s poem because they want it to tell a story, which they can summarize. But the entire poem, except for a few lines, is recited by the delirious young Fate, and, because she is raving, it is impossible to make out exactly what her story might be. Her chest heaves. Wild images pour from her lips. The poem begins:

Who is weeping there, if not the simple wind, at this hour
Alone with extreme diamonds?… But who is weeping,
So close to me, on the edge of tears?

And already the literal-minded readers have trouble with “extreme diamonds,” whose meaning they want to pin down. But there is no particular meaning to pin down. The phrase might make us think of glistening tears, or of far-away stars, or of anything at all that is small, sharp, and lucent. But mostly the phrase is meant to dilate the pupils. Meanwhile someone or something is sobbing. Sobbing means pulsation, which means a cadence. And the cadence turns out to be, in 17th-century style, an “alexandrine” line of twelve syllables, broken up normally into symmetrical units—six syllables and six syllables, with each six-syllable half broken up in turn, more softly, into three-syllable units, adding up to four units, a tetrameter. Only, Valéry alters the units ever so slightly to provide counter-eddies against the pulse. In the three lines I have quoted, I hear the first line as an agitated four-syllable unit, a five-syllable unit, and a three-syllable unit; followed by a line of two syllables (sort of), seven syllables, and three syllables; resolving into a third line of satisfying symmetries, divided serenely in half, six syllables and six syllables, with each half further divided in half:

Qui pleure là, sinon le vent simple, à cette heure
Seule, avec diaments extrêmes… Mais qui pleure
Si proche de moi-même au moment de pleurer?

The whole poem advances in this manner, making less than obvious sense, and, then again, making spectacular sense, conjuring the most vivid of images and meanwhile pulsing in rhythms that, like ocean waves, surge forward mathematically. The images and outcries allow us to piece together one story or another. There is a story of a woman who appears to be standing on a rock and gazing out to sea, distraught over a broken heart, or perhaps distraught over her failure to have children, reflecting with a girlish blush on incidents of her childhood, or perhaps reflecting on other dilemmas and realities—a woman whose emotions surge and subside over the course of the hours. She searches for her own identity, the mysterious capital-letter Me, a deep and philosophical theme. Is she the woman who speaks, or is she the woman who hears herself speaking? To be yourself—doesn’t this require that you hear yourself, that you are self-conscious, and not just conscious (to borrow from Derrida on Valéry)? The woman stands on the rock in the opening passages, and she stands on it at the end. And meanwhile there is a different and rather more vivid story, which is supernatural.

But, in order to describe this second story, I have to invoke another poet, whose influence on The Young Fate weighs as heavily as Poe’s, or still more heavily. This is Virgil—an influence on each of the major poets in the Poe tradition, and especially on Darío, and still more so on Valéry, quite as if, for several decades in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, nothing was more natural than to look for a new poetry and a new take on civilization by joining an up-to-date inspiration from Poe, the American, who was the latest word in scientific modernity, with Roman antiquity itself.

It might be thought that, when a poet like Valéry turns to the Latin poets for inspiration, he does so merely out of an appreciation for the quaint, or out of a meaningless fidelity to formal tradition, the way that symphony conductors dress in tailcoats. But there is something else. In one of his commentaries on The Young Fate, Valéry observes that our modern language of psychology—our rhetoric of emotions—is impoverished. And the language ought to be stripped down even further, because it does not lend itself to poetry. The language does not allow us to feel the impulses and emotions that it means to describe. But if this is true, where are we likely to find a more evocative language? Among the ancients, of course. The classical poets were less constrained than us moderns. They were better able to experience emotions in a raw state—to experience emotions directly, instead of through the filter of civilization. Or so Valéry believed. The ancient era was the creative era. Poetry in modern times can only be the memory of poetry. In The Young Fate, he does not invoke Virgil by name, just as he does not invoke Poe (though in his commentaries on the poem, he invokes them both). But Virgil is obviously on his mind.

The Young Fate of his title is, after all, a creature from the old mythology. She inhabits a mortal-and-immortal universe that is recognizably Virgil’s. And the supernatural story she reveals is one that we can imagine Virgil might have told. A terrible thing has happened to her: she has been bitten by a serpent. She resembles Eurydice from the Georgics, who has likewise been bitten by a serpent, except that, in Eurydice’s case, the serpent-bite appears to be merely a matter of bad luck. Eurydice flees from the sexual advances of Aristaeus and ends getting bitten because, in her panic, she has failed to watch her step in the tall grass by the river bank. Valéry’s Young Fate, by contrast, has been bitten on the hand. We do not learn the circumstances. We do learn that she is not entirely sorry to have been bitten. She kisses the bite mark. Toward the serpent, or perhaps toward the “divine pain” of her own wound, she feels a yearning. It is shocking to see this. She is not an innocent Eurydice. She is a woman of dangerous desires. Is her desire sexual? Obviously it is—though she also feels a repugnance. Is her desire a yearning for evil, as well? This cannot be ruled out. Her ravings lead to one reflection after another, recoiling at how seductive the bejeweled serpent and his “filthy promises” continue to be, and, then again, bathing in the sensuality of her own sinuous and womanly form. And she reflects on the divine oracle, the apocalyptic Pythonisse.

Je pense, abandonnant à la brise des heurs
Et l’âme sans retour des arbustes amers,
Je pense sur le bord doré de l’univers,
À ce goût de périr qui prend la Pythonisse
En qui mugit l’espoir que le monde finisse.

Or (roughly rendered):

I think, leaving to the breeze the hours
And the soul that does not return from the bitter shrubs,
I think, on the golden edge of the universe,
Of this taste for perishing which seizes the Pythonisse,
In whom roars the hope that the world should come to an end.

A hope, then, for the end of the world.

And the consequences of the serpent bite—what are they, finally? In the Eclogues, Virgil has the Fates announce the arrival of a new and glorious era: “Ages so blessed, glide on!” In The Young Fate, Valéry has his Young Fate announce nothing of the sort. Instead, in the single most striking line in the poem, the Young Fate says abruptly: “Glide on! Funereal bark….” Here is the second shock in Valéry’s poem. Suddenly we perceive the shape of the supernatural story. The Young Fate, having been bitten by the serpent, is gliding along the river in her funereal bark. She is entering the underworld, from whence the soul does not return. These are the ravings of a dying creature—or, rather, someone who is “half-dead, and perhaps half-Immortal.”

Only, none of this is clear and obvious. The rustling of tones is Valéry’s goal, and not the conjuring of a visible scene. The Young Fate weeps, she raves, she evaluates and re-evaluates what has happened, and, so long as the pulsations advance properly, Valéry does not really mind if his meaning remains hidden beneath the waves. Poetry, in his concept, is not the search for words to express an idea. Poetry is the search for an idea that corresponds to a rhythm. Sometimes the idea eludes him. But the rhythms never elude him. They are perfect—they are splendid—they shimmer—they swell and subside—they correspond to larger rhythms—and, as they carry us along, they show us the story in fragments, more or less the way that, when we read Virgil, we glimpse a larger mythology of gods and semi-gods.

We do get the gist, as I say. Roughly:

I see, I see floating, fleeing the honors of the flesh
The impotent shades, the bitter millions…
No, breaths! No, glances, tendernesses… my messmates,
Thirsty for me, begging to live,
No, you will not have life from me!… Go,
Specters, sighs of the night vainly exhaled,
Go join the dead the impalpable numbers!

Why are the shades, her messmates, thirsty for the Young Fate, as they go floating by? It is because the future is in her hands. And who are the shades? They are the bitter millions. And we should be able to recognize a particular reality, which Valéry never acknowledges in the poem itself. But he does acknowledge it in his correspondence. He wrote the poem, he explains, sub signo Martis, under the sign of Mars. The poem is not about Verdun. But Verdun is nearby. Readers in his own day were not always able to take this in. If you want to see their difficulty for yourself, you should look at Edmund Wilson’s account of Valéry in his book about the Symbolists, Axel’s Castle, from 1931—a masterwork of American criticism, rich and attentive and broad: the principle American guide, even after these many years, to the avant-garde of long ago and to Valéry, in particular. Valéry and Wilson appear to be perfectly matched as poet and critic, with Valéry as a marvel of subtlety and nuance, and Wilson equal to every subtlety and nuance. And yet, Wilson was finally unable to keep up. Valéry in his notebooks presents himself as lacking in physicality, lacking even in a robust sexuality, appalled at the material quality of life. And he attributes those same qualities to the protagonist of his Evening With Monsieur Teste. Only, there is no reason to take the notebooks too seriously, even if Valéry presents them as authentic confessions. And Monsieur Teste is a fiction. But Wilson accepted the notebooks as truth. And he failed to observe that, in The Young Fate and a series of other poems (“Fragments du Narcisse, “La Pythie,” “L’Ébauche d’un serpent”), Valéry was not really a Monsieur Teste. Valéry in those poems responded physically and even erotically to the reality of the European collapse—responded with a mix of the analytic, the sensual, the beautiful, and the emotional, which, in principle, was Wilson’s own ideal of how to think and to feel.

We, too, have reason to recoil at what threatens to be a collapse of civilization. And onward we glide—toward what destiny?

But Wilson was unable to see it, which is striking. It was not because of any sort of ignorance or naïveté, on his part. His own knowledge of the war and its realities was all too physical. He served in the American Expeditionary Force in France as an ambulance driver and hospital orderly, which was the worst of jobs. Over the course of a few months he must have found himself confronted with many more dreadful torments and deaths than Valéry saw over the course of a lifetime. And he expressed his response in a faintly Virgilian poem of his own, which he published in his book Poets, Farewell!, in 1929:

When all the young were dying, I dwelt among the dead—
Many I lifted from the homeless bed
And laid in that low chamber side by side….

Those were traumatizing experiences, though. To conjure some of his feelings in a small lyric of his own was within his reach. But Wilson was a wounded man, emotionally. Valéry’s poem was symphonically grand, and the grandeur was beyond Wilson’s capacity to absorb, and he clapped his hands over his ears. Was he unusual, in this respect? I can only imagine that, on the contrary, he was the representative reader. The age was wounded. That is why Valéry and his poem seemed so difficult to read, many years ago. It was a matter of the readers. It was not because Valéry was so terribly murky, except sometimes. Nor was he coy. He prefaced The Young Fate with an epigraph from Corneille, which announces, as if with a trumpet, a main element or point in the poem. This was the fear that, under the guidance of destiny, civilization had allowed itself to be fatefully seduced:

Did Heaven form that mass of marvels
To be the lair of a serpent?

If a story is recounted in The Young Fate, here, in any case, is the story. It is a story about the “thirst for disasters.” The poem is a cry of anguish, not just over the bitter millions, but over the yearnings that have brought the bitter millions to their end. It is an anguish over the anguish. And, from the title onward, it is a poem about destiny. It is a premonition. It is a voluptuous poem that is also a chilling poem—a poem that seems to me superior to its English-language counterpart from that era, The Waste Land by Eliot, from 1922, not just because Valéry, with his poise and sense of nuance and his intellectual elegance, knows how to avoid the odious prejudices and the posturing that curdle so much of Eliot’s poetry. Valéry’s meanings may be mysterious, but his voice is pleasing, and he speaks to our own moment in ways that an abrasive Eliot cannot do—speaks to us because we, too, have reason to recoil at the horrors that come floating by. And we, too, have reason to gaze in appalled astonishment at destructive yearnings whose allure we cannot begin to fathom. We, too, have reason to recoil at what threatens to be a collapse of civilization. And onward we glide—toward what destiny? Valéry specified his own fear in The Crisis of the Spirit, two years after The Young Fate: “The abyss of history is big enough for everyone.”

But I do not mean to reduce Paul Valéry to Delphic gloom. With apologies to the poet’s shade and to the English language for the excessively elastic nature of my rendition, I offer another poem, no less wispy than The Young Fate, but tuned to a whimsical key:

The Sylph

Neither seen nor known,
I am the perfume
Alive and posthume
In the winds that moan!

Neither seen nor known,
Is it genius or luck?
Though not condoned,
The work is struck!

Neither read nor comprehended?
The best of minds have ended
As phonies and cheats!

Neither seen nor known,
A naked breast, alone,
Between two sheets!

That was in 1922. In Europe, the news was distressing, but Valéry knew how to enjoy his neither/nor mental states and his sylphs, and he was always good for a dig at the best of minds.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.

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