Tag Archives: Paul Valery

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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