Category Archives: French Literature

This Obscure Warmth of the Soul: Memory, Grief and Love

A Girl Defending Herself Against Eros. William Aldophe-Bouguereau. Oil on canvas. 1880.

Grief feels like a race against time while I wait for my memories to fade—the memories of a happy life, the memories of a shattered life, the memories of the pain. Distract yourself with new activities, meet new people, make new connections is the advice I am constantly given. And strangely enough sometimes being with other people makes the grief and my sense of being alone worse.

Reading Paul Valery’s writings. on “Eros” in the final sections of his Cahiers/Notebooks 1 has especially struck a cord with me as I think about memory, grief and love. Valery had an eight year love affair with poet Catherine Pozzi and much of his writings about Eros are influenced by his love for her.  I’m not surprised he used the Ancient Greek word Eros for love—Eros is a complex figure that is unpredictable; Eros both elevates men and ruins them. Many see love as a distraction or a drain on one’s time and energy but Valery suggests that real love gives us more energy to accomplish other goals in life. Valery had some of his most productive and creative years of writing when he was with Catherine and she even gave him notes and encouraged him to publish his notebooks:

Happy love mobilizes all our strength. It creates superabundance, which is the supreme good, and the need for the finest works, making them necessary, easily accomplished, a relief. The happy lover is rich. He’s a physiological and psychological millionaire. He’s the king of expenditure. 

And:

To be profoundly loved, is the greatest thing in the world. It was the impossible object of God. ‘Profoundly,’ this is not about pleasure, nor about pride. But to received this obscure warmth of the soul, to warm yourself at the life which glows only for you…

What is a true, deeply loving relationship?  What is it, exactly, that I’ve lost? Alan wasn’t a distraction from my job or my reading or writing, but instead he enhanced it.  I think he would agree that I wasn’t a distraction from his work or his motorcycles or his camping, but I enhanced and encouraged and supported these things.  I hadn’t thought about this until Alan’s death, but I realize now that our lives were intertwined in a way that allowed us to complement each other;  and since my old life has been destroyed I feel that every day is an attempt to slowly build back my own foundation—find new supports, new ways of carrying on. Valery uses the metaphor of roots and a tree to explain this relationship-as-support idea beautifully: 

Love grows like a plant and what we see of it, namely the leaves and flowers, the fruit and stem, is nothing without what we don’t see, the roots. Nobody knows them exactly, neither their extent, nor their depth, nor their precise trajectories, nor the state of them.

For nothing imaginable explains the penetration, the vitality, the development of this plant by the apparent conditions of its nature. 

Any love love which can be reduced to a few things that can be counted out, described, understood, foreseen is a small plant of no importance.

But when we lose this kind of love Valery describes having a “soul-pain.”  When he is apart from Catherine  and when they finally go their separate ways for good the intensity of his grief is unbearable—something to which I can certainly relate. He writes about it simply and concisely as, “The one thing I think of tenderly, I think of also with pain. What is that thing? It’s you or it’s me.” 

Valery feels that the only true comfort for the pain is fading memory—he calls this a “fruitful forgetfulness.” When everyone tells me what I really need for the grief to pass is time that is what they are essentially saying—as the memories fade, so will the pain.  Valery writes:

The more or less powerful faculty we have…of diminishing the importance of something by taking other objects into consideration with it, by introducing a very different scale , or a much broader angle of view, —it seems that time, of its own accord, exercises this faculty automatically through the weakening of impressions, forgetfulness. Although intense pain can scarcely be weakened by thinking of or looking at other things, by reducing it to the point of the body where it’s apparently produced, still the succession of time undoes it and cancels it out little by little.

New people, new connections, new memories; grief as a race against time…

And so, is the pleasure, the beauty, and the intensity of love worth the pain?  I keep asking myself this question over and over and over. 

The answer to this, I think, is the last thing that Alan taught me.  We were always learning new things from each other and his final “lesson” was probably his most important.  His last text message to me said, “Goodnight, I love you! See you soon.”  And my response, “I love you too. Can’t wait to see you!” If given the choice to send a final message before he was killed, there is no doubt in my mind that he would have sent this same message and sent it to me. 

I suspect that when my own time is up that I won’t think to myself that I should have worked more, or worked harder or spent more hours making money or starting a business or fixing my house, or doing one of the million other chores I fret over everyday. Today especially I’ve learned that people, connections, relationships and love are so much more important than any of the number of things or tasks we spend hours of our time and effort on.  It sounds clique and almost silly to say, but the true measure of a successful life is love; that’s what we are here for and nothing else in the end really matters—even when it ends in incredible pain and tragedy and heartsickness—nothing else really matters.

And so the natural question for me is, “Now what?” Do I close myself off to new connections, new relationships, new love? Do I want to suffer that kind of pain again?

What would Penelope have done if Odysseus never came home?

A dear, kind, astute friend write to me recently and gave me an answer that has changed my thought process: “Consider the Universe and his possibilities,” he said.

 

 

 

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In Praise of Risk

I’m convinced that in life we are either moving forward or backward, and that rarely are we standing still or static. Even when we think we are stuck, we are being dragged downwards and backwards by a variety of thoughts, circumstances, people, etc. I was talking to a friend who astutely pointed out that Covid and the sudden change in circumstances for many people have exposed now more than ever the tendencies of individuals to move forward or backward.  Those who can adapt quickly to a loss or a lack, and who think about things from different aspects, are more likely to take risks and move forward despite what appear to be insurmountable obstacles. 

I’ve been mulling over lately what it is that compels me to more forward after a sudden tragedy that completely altered my life.  We can guess and speculate all we want, but it is true that we never know how we will react until we are faced with a difficult challenge or a loss.  Why do I get out of bed everyday? Why do I feel the need, the urge even, to move forward, to make a new and different life for myself? What compels me to find joy and happiness, even in simple things? Am I just wired this way? Is it for the sake of my daughter? Is it because of the people with whom I have chosen to surround myself, like the friend I mentioned above who encourages  and inspires me to write?

The French philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle’s book In Praise of Risk has struck a cord with me as I think about this choice between moving forward, or backward in life.  Dufourmantelle points out that in spite of the 21st century obsession with zero risk, extensive insurance policies and 100% guarantees, life is a risk.  There is no way around it.  Dufourmantelle emphasizes throughout her book that love in particular—and the desire, passion, fear and sadness that come with it—is always a risk.  Whether it be familial, platonic or romantic love all relationships will inevitably end through separation, estrangement or death.  Durfourmantelle writes, “Love happens in spite of violence, stupidity, style, envy, and our dreams; it is also constantly ill-timed.”  And we continue to seek out and move towards love in spite of the risks of pain, of heartache, of sadness and, even more surprisingly, love happens without regrets or second thoughts.

“Snowdrops,” a poem composed by Louise Gluck, the recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, captures perfectly the desire to move forward, to live, to seek out new risks:

Do you know what I was, how I lived?  You know
what despair is; then
winter should have meaning for you.

I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring–

afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy

in the raw wind of the new world.

Gluck’s placement of those four words together at the end of her poem—crying yes risk joy—makes us feel the author’s forward movement into her “new world.”

Every single day brings for me the renewed risk of finding love, joy, happiness. And lots of questions. So many questions. What was I thinking adopting a puppy, beginning major renovations on my house, filling two 30 yard dumpsters with years worth of accumulated junk, putting my career on pause or welcoming new relationships/connections into my life? But all of these things represent a way forward for me; and I could not have moved any way but forward. A friend wrote a note to me over the summer that keeps playing over in my mind: “…the arrival of an unsought and unthought-of future alone is just an ongoing perplexity. But I believe, perhaps more on a hunch than anything else, that you have a natural buoyancy that will emerge and keep you from sinking under all of this.”

And so I carry on and, perhaps stupidly, ridiculously, I take more risks.

I think that maybe I’m just wired this way.

Our golden retriever puppy, Phoebe.

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Thoughts Need A Master: Paul Valéry’s Gladiator

According to the Roman historian Livy, in 264 B.C. Junius Brutus had his slaves fight to the death with swords in order to commemorate the recent loss of his father; the blood of the slaves was considered munera (gifts) to the manes (spirits) of his deceased parent.  Gladiator combats, which were from this time called munera, lost their religious significance and became, instead, a popular spectator sport that was popular among Romans of every age and social status. Just as in the 21st century we go to an event and root for our favorite football, basketball, rugby, cricket or baseball players, so the Romans would flock to arenas and cheer for different gladiators.  Politicians and, later on Emperors, would sponsor games which were free to everyone and served as clever public relations stunts to keep the masses happy and occupied.

The gladiators themselves, recruited from slave markets, prisoners of war, and criminals lived and trained at ludi (schools.)  The owners of these schools, called lanistae which means “butchers” in Latin, ensured that their investments had a strict diet and exercise routine. High carb diets, strength training and practice with their equipment and weapons were the methods used to build up muscle and a chiseled physique.  Even though they might be in peak physical condition, it was rare for a gladiator to survive more than a few combats—a brutal, harsh and short life for these condemned men.

So why does Paul Valéry decide to use the gladiator as a metaphor for the type of mental training he undertakes in his Notebooks/Cahiers?  In the Peter Lang edition, the third section of Cahiers 1 is entitled “Gladiator” and contains all of Valéry’s entries on this topic.  It begins with:

……..I resolved henceforth to evaluate the works of man and other things too, only in relation to the operative processes I could recognize in them: i.e., I assumed, firstly in an unsophisticated way, and then with all my might, that in each case I had to implement myself the construction of each given thing; and I tried to reduce it to successive operations whose primary characteristic was that I knew how to carry them out. In this way, I set aside from my research/my work/, but not from my conscious mind, all uncertain or shifting judgements, restricting myself each time to measure my powers, /my strength/, – or, if you prefer, to measuring the data according to what my mind was capable of accomplishing.

A gladiator trains in the extreme because it’s a matter of life and death. Valéry tries to apply this severe type of discipline—and words like strength, power, exercise—to mental and intellectual training.  But without such high stakes as life and death, is any man really capable of training his mind to such an extent?  Valéry believes that a man like Napoleon certainly made an attempt: “Napoleon had the idea of making use of his mind in its entirety. of directing its movements with order and vigor, instead of submitting to the accidents of memory and impulse. Manoeuvres along internal fronts.” And Valéry speculates how a man ought to accomplish this: “A man skilful in his thinking, knowing it to be naturally irregular and commonplace—Thought needs a master, a desire, a model, habits, without which it’s like dreams—useless, terrible, circular, silly.”

There is also, not surprisingly, an emphasis on the action that is required in the gladiator-style mental activity.  Valéry himself got up every morning for most of his adult life to record and work out his thoughts in these notebooks:

Gladiator’s principle.
Restore (and even develop harmoniously) through sport the qualities which the increase in means leaves idle and risks causing to degenerate.
Muscles, mental calculation, meaning.

In short, Gladiator is the effort expended by one’s being against probability. An effort which is called Art, the transformation of chance into near-certainty-analysis of the fortunate coincidence with a view to reproducing it, or transferring it from one moment in time to stability (or stasis), or from one scale of dimensions (matter, as well) to a larger one.

Another idea, and what at first  I thought to be a more peculiar one, that recurs in “Gladiator” is that of purity.

Gladiator
or the Pure Individual—
or a treatise on purity or on forms of Purity.

How the notion of the pure (pure body-pure geometry)
leads to sport-to virtuosity.

Thus Descartes—Matter and Movement—Categories.

And:

(Treatise on purity)
Purity is a consequence of awareness. Awareness distinguishes as it increasingly develops, what the function of the mind uses indiscriminately at an ordinary level or in its ordinary states. Thus, walking is an indiscriminate act of the legs. But if one practices walking distinctly, as a sports man does, it acquire purity of pace—economy of strength—precise rhythm.

I sense more of a tone of hope in this section of his Cahiers as opposed to the previous one entitled “Ego.” In “Ego” he is grappling with who he is, what his worth is, and how he can contribute original thoughts and ideas to the arts. But in Gladiator he lays out methods with which he believes he can train his mind to the point where he reaches this type of purity of thought—the kind of thought that will lead to those novel contributions.

The Notebooks/Cahiers themselves and their creation of a unique genre of writing is the proof of Valéry’s success Nathaniel Rudavsy Brody, in the introduction to his translation of his poems says about the astonishing achievement that are the Notebooks/Cahiers:

Behind the published works, behind the uneventful life of the almost forgotten and then exceedingly famous poet, there hides another story, a private life of the mind, that has its record in 28,000 pages of notebooks revealed in their entirety only after his death. Their existence had been hinted at, of course, evoked in rumors and literary asides, but once made public it took years for their significance to be fully appreciated. It turned out that the prose fragments published in Valery’s lifetime were not what the had been taken to be: they were not after-the-fact musings of an accomplished poet, nor his occasional sketchbook, nor excerpts from his private journal. They were a disfigured glimpse of a vast and fragmentary ‘exercise of thought,’ a restless intellectual quest as unguided and as persistent, as rigorous, and yet as uncontainable as the sea which is so often their subject.

I’m looking forward to lingering among the pages of these five volumes of Cahiers throughout the summer.

A hand-drawn page from Valery’ Cahiers 1.

 

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La Jeune Parque by Paul Valéry

In Roman myth the three Fates— Parcae in Latin Moirai in Ancient Greek are referred to as sisters: Clotho, the youngest, is the spinner of a person’s life thread, Lachesis measures the final thread of life, and the dreaded Atropos cuts the thread of life.  Because of their absolute and unpredictable authority over all life—even Jupiter is subjected to their decisions—they are feared and rarely spoken about except in passing references.

In Petronius Satyricon, the three anti-heroes of this Ancient Roman novel visit a freedman named Trimalchio who has become filthy rich through his investments in shipping.  Trimalchio himself, as well as his sprawling house, is opulent and tacky.  His villa would be the perfect feature for the Roman version of MTV Cribs. The visitors to his home view a large mosaic installed in his dining room that features  the three fates spinning and measuring out the thread of Trimalchio’s life: praesto erat Fortuna cum cornu abundanti copiosa et tres Parcae aurea pensa torquentes.  “And right there in front of us Fortune was depicted with her horn of plenty and the three Fates spinning their golden threads.”  This is by no means a usual piece of artwork that would appear in any Roman’s home, but Trimalchio is a man obsessed with death and his own mortality.

And Vergil, when describing the hardships that his epic hero Aeneas will suffer, concludes (with the cleverly syncopated verb volverunt) : Sic Parcae volvere  (And that’s how the Fates roll.)

So why does the Paul Valéry write an entire poem about Clotho, the youngest of these fates? After a successful career as a poet he suddenly takes a break from publishing his works for more than 20 years.   La Jeune Parque, a poem as perplexing and enigmatic as the Fates themselves,  is the first piece of writing that he publishes after this extended period of silence.  The 512 line poem, written in Alexandrine rhyming couplets,  is dedicated to his friend Andre Gide, who comes up several times in Valéry”s first part of his first Cahiers/Notebooks.   He oftentimes remarks about his fondness for Gide, but he also likes to complain that in his own Diaries Gide writes incorrect things about him and misunderstands him.  Valéry also doesn’t like the sentimental and moral nature of Gide’s Diaries which are very different from Valery’s own Notebooks.  In Cahiers 1 “Ego,” p. 236 he writes: “Gide is an old tart. His Diary seeks to give value to his slightest moment. What an Anti for me!  Just as I’ve got an obsession for exhausting, for not-repeating, for having done with what seems to cost nothing—as with what is purely and simply exceptional—so he does the opposite—and so on.”

The best way, I think, and really the only way, to make any sense of La Jeune Parque is to read it alongside the poet’s Notebooks.  Valéry, who woke up at 5 a.m. every day for most of his adult life to think and write in his Notebooks,  is very much obsessed in the first part of them with intellect and what he can contribute to society with his thoughts and his intellect.  His writings and his observations were, he felt, his real life’s work and his job as a civil servant, which he needed to support himself and his family, was just a way of making money.  A lot of his time is spent in solitude contemplating his intellectual pursuits and figuring out who he is: “In a positive manner, intelligence is something like hunger, thirst, need—something seeking, demanding to work—to function , and it ruptures my sleep, worries my being and wakes me up too early every morning, whether or not I’m tired (Cahiers 1, p. 187).

When La Jeune Parque begins, the youngest Fate (her never names her directly)  is depicted as a beautiful, and lonely, young woman waking up in the dark after a dream on a shoreline and torn by between passion and duty.  Her silence is punctuated by the fact that she not only addresses but personifies the stars:

Almighty aliens, unavoidable stars!—
Who willingly across the miles of time
Make something pure, higher than nature, shine;
Who into mortals plunge to the source of tears
These lofty glimmerings, these invincible weapons
And shooting pains from your eternal life,
I am alone with you, here on the point
Gnawed by the marvellous ocean, shivering, fresh
From bed; asking my heart what pain has woken it,
What crime committed by me or upon me?

The last line calls to mind Ovid’s Daphne who is trying to fend off Apollo’s unwanted love and who considers any form of romantic love or marriage a “crimen” (crime). An image of a snake is used to signify desire and passion that has bitten her and whose poison now torments her:

Coils of desires, towed by this snake! What a jumble
Of treasures that evade my greedy reach—
And what a dark thirst for limpidity!

So often in myth we encounter immortal forces like the Fates, the Hours, the Seasons, and women like Daphne, Semele and Dido and men like Aeneas who are given a job or a role they must fulfill.  They have duties and obligations assigned to them that they didn’t choose and things like desire, passion and love are inaccessible to them.  It’s a stroke of brilliance that Valery chooses a Fate, who didn’t choose her own Fate, to contemplate choices or lack of choices.  Valéry’s young woman herself cites as an example the oracle at Delphi who also had no choice but to carry out her assigned task:

I think, as he world’s rime turns gold, I weigh
The taste for death of the priestess at Delphi
Inside whom moaned a hope the world would end.

At the tender age of twenty-one Valéry has his own battle with the passions when he falls in love with an inaccessible woman.  He reminisces about it briefly in his Notebooks as a negative part of his life that he would rather forgot.  In Cahiers 1, p. 177 he writes, “The past as a chronological and narrative structure has less existence for me than for others. It seems that my being likes to forget what will only be a picture later on—and keep what can be assimilated into itself so completely that it’s no longer a past, but a functional element of virtual acts.” Memory in general is a concept that Valery despises and feels uncomfortable with. The young woman in his poem also expresses anguish over desire and the memories of desire:

The mind is so pure it never kneels
To idols: lonely ardour does flare up
And drive away the walls of its sad tomb.
Anything can appear with infinite waiting.

The Fate also begins to reminisce about a chance passionate encounter in the woods that leaves a deep impression on her. The young woman’s torment over passion, her early awakening, and her inner turmoil wax and wanes as she falls into a peaceful sleep and wakes up again. But like Valery’s experience earlier in his life, this passion is out of reach. And it’s not only desire and love that are out of reach, but, like other immortals, she can’t even choose death. Death, ironically for her, is something she controls and is all around her but it is out of the question as an option for herself:

But if my tender smell goes to your hollow head,
O Death, breathe in at last this regal slave:
Call me, undo these bonds!..And drive off hope
From me, so tired of self, in this doomed shape!

Finally, I have to say a word about the Bloodaxe Books dual language edition that is translated with an introduction and notes by Alistar Elliot. The text is notoriously difficult and Alistar’s notes are a necessity to understanding Valery’s poem and the etymological interpretations of his translation.

 

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My Heart Laid Bare by Charles Baudelaire

Rainer Hanshe, in his informative and engaging introduction to his translation of My Heart Laid Bare, describes Baudelaire’s purpose in writing this odd journal of sorts:

As an apodictic work of aphorism, maxim, note and extended reflection, it is the arc of thought, the play of a mind in its everything breadth that is bared. It contains Baudelaire’s exhortations on work, faith, religion and politics, excoriating sociological analyses, diatribes on literature…, the arts, love (women, prostitution, sadomasochism, erotics en generale), and adumbrations of his concepts of the Dandy and the Poet.

This edition contains, in addition to a translation of My Heart Laid Bare, a selection of Baudelaire’s other scattered writings, ideas, fragments and aphorisms. The selections range in size from single sentences, to pieces that are two or three pages . Sometimes Baudelaire just writes a list, such as this one (I especially liked Baudelaire’s colorful use of Latin in this entry):

Portrait of the Literary Rabble
Doctor Estaminetus Crapulosus Pedantissimus. (Estaminetus, a crappy little, very pedantic doctor= my translation) His portrait made in the manner of Praxiteles.
His pipe.
His opinions.
His Hegelianism.
His filth.
His ideas on art.
His bile.
His jealous.
A pretty picture of modern youth.

Similar to someone keeping a journal or a diary, Baudelaire writes about whatever is on his mind on any particular day so there is no particular order or progression to the writer’s thoughts. Certain recurring patterns of topics that weigh on his mind, however, do emerge from the text. On a personal level, he writes about money and the stress of not having enough income to support himself. There is a sense of loneliness that also pervades his entries with many brief comments like this one: “Feeling of solitude, since my childhood. Despite the family,—and among my comrades, above all,—feeling of an eternally solitary destiny. However, a very keen taste for life & for pleasure.”

Another common thread that is related to his sense of loneliness is his struggle with his work as a poet and a translator. He is happy when he mentions Edgar Allen Poe, from whom he takes his title My Heart Laid Bare. There are countless passages in which he talks about the value and honor of work. But Baudelaire, who was always poor and liked to engage in various debaucheries, was not known for his work ethic. These entries felt to me more like he was trying to convince himself rather than his reader that hard work is important in a man’s life: “Do every day what duty and prudence want. If you work every day, life will be more bearable. Work six days without relent.”

As Hanshe mentions in his introduction, one of Baudelaire’s greatest struggles—if not his greatest—is with women and by extension love and relationships. He often equates the opposite sex with images of Hell and Satan and even a female writer like George Sand he doesn’t consider very smart or worthy of the title of author. There is an array of what I found to be amusing sections of his thoughts on the fairer sex. For example, “Woman does not know how to distinguish the soul from the body. She is simplistic, like animals.—A satirist would say that it is because she has nothing but a body.”

And:

Woman is the opposite of the Dandy.
Therefore she must inspire horror.
Woman is hungry and she wants to eat. Thirsty and she wants to drink.
She is rutting and she wants to be fucked.
Beautiful merit!
Woman is natural, that is abominable.
Thus, she is always vulgar, that is, the opposite of the Dandy.

As a result of a woman’s nature, love is oftentimes described as a torment. In one of his longer entries he writes:

I believe that I have already written in my notes that love has a strong resemblance to an act of torture or to a surgical operation. But this idea can be developed in the muost bitter manner. Even if two lovers enamor one another very much and are full of reciprocal desires, one of them will always be calmer or less possessed than the other. He or she is the surgeon or the executioner; the other is the subject, the victim. Do you hear those sighs, the preludes of a tragedy of dishonor, those groans, those cries, those rales? Who has not uttered them, who has not irresistibly extorted them?

He also equates love with prostitution in more than one entry:

What is love?
The need for self-abandoment.
Man is a worshipping animal.
To worship is to sacrifice and prostitute oneself.
Therefore all love is prostitution.

Finally, my concentration for activities like reading is still not what it was since lockdown and transitioning to online teaching. But reading My Heart Laid Bare was the perfect book to take in and absorb a little bit at a time, in the same way that Baudelaire composed it. Speaking of pandemics, there are two final passages I would like to share that seem relevant to the current situation around the world. Baudelaire writes about politics and journalism. Both quotes I am sharing have no need of comment and I will let them stand on their own:

On Politics:

Need I say that what little remains of politics will struggle painfully in the clutches of general animality, and that those who govern will be forced, in order to maintain themselves & to create a phantom of order, to resort to means that would make our present-day humanity although so hardened, shudder?

On Journalism:

Every newspaper, from the first to the last line, is only a tissue of horrors. Wars, crimes, thefts, impudicities, tortures, crimes of princes, crimes of nations, crimes of individuals, an intoxication of universal atrocity. And it is with this disgusting aperitif that civilized man accompanies his every morning meal. Everything, in this world transudes crime: the newspaper, the wall, & the face of man. I do not understand how a pure hand can touch a newspaper without a convulsion of disgust.

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