For my Summer 2021 Reading, I chose a short French prose aubade by Paul Valéry, Alphabet, based upon a recommendation by the blogger at WordsandPeace. This wonderful read was a great introduction to the genius of Paul Valéry. However, it will take me some time to construct a synthesis of this book as I have had to consult several texts and critical essays to truly understand the themes and symbolism!
Part of my research on Valéry comes from Selected Writings by New Directions Publishing (1950) where I found this little gem that I wanted to share with you, Man and the Night. According to Andre Gide, Valéry had a fascination with and studied Astronomy, which is evident in the following extract from “Variations on an Idea of Pascal”, translated from the original French to English.(Keep in mind this was written twenty five years before space travel was possible and thirty five before Apollo 11 landed on the moon. ) Enjoy!
MAN AND THE NIGHT by Paul Valéry
[Extract from “Variations on an Idea of Pascal”]
I have sometimes tried to observe in myself, and to pursue into the realm of concrete thought, the mysterious effect that a clear night and the presence of stars generally has on men.
Then we only notice objects that have nothing to do with our bodies. We are strangely simplified. Everything that is near is invisible: every thing perceptible is intangible. We are carried far away from ourselves. We ourselves abandon our eyes to the prospect of a field of luminous manifestations, which they cannot help relating to each other by their spontaneous movements, as if they belonged to the same moment in time; tracing lines, forming images, which are theirs alone, which they impose on us, and which they introduce into the real scene.
And yet the pattern of all these points of light escapes us. We find ourselves overwhelmed, subdued, engulfed, and abandoned by this multifarious brilliance.
We can count these stars, and yet we cannot believe that we exist as far as they are concerned. There is no reciprocity between us and them.
We feel something that demands that we speak, and something that forbids it.
Since what we see in the sky, and what we find in the depths of our hearts are both equally removed from our actions, with the one shining far above our undertakings, and the other existing far beneath our expressions, a kind of relationship is formed between the thought we give to the most distant things and our most intimate introspections. They seem to be the extremes of our expectation which echo one another and resemble each other in hoping for some decisive event in the heavens or in the heart.
To this galaxy of stars which is stupendous to our eyes, the depths of our being opposes a dismayed feeling of being itself, of being unique—and, moreover, of being alone. I am all, and incomplete. I am all, and a part.
The darkness which surrounds us completely bares our soul.
This darkness is threaded through and through with inaccessible brilliance. With difficulty one refrains from thinking of houses where people are awake. Unconsciously we people the darkness with luminous, unidentifiable creatures.
This same darkness which banishes the outline of our bodies, in consequence lowers the sound of our voices and reduces it to an unspoken word, for we have a tendency only really to speak to people who are not far away.
We experience a calm and strange uneasiness. Between the “I” and the “Not-I” there is no longer any distinction. In broad daylight our thoughts were bound to objects by our actions. We exchanged sensations for thoughts and thoughts for sensations and our actions served as intermediaries, our time served as the coin of the exchange. But now there is no more exchange, the man of action, who is the measure of things, no longer exists. There are only two distinct presences, and two independent natures. There are only two adversaries who are face to face without understanding each other. The enormous increase of our perspective and the decrease of our powers are opposed. We lose for a little while the familiar illusion that things have meaning for us. We resemble a fly that cannot get through a pane of glass. We cannot remain in this moribund state. Sensibility knows no equilibrium. It could even be defined as a function whose role is to break down in human beings the entire equilibrium of their powers. Thus our mind must bestir itself to escape from its stupor and from that solemn, motionless surprise which gives it the feeling of being everything, and the evidence of being nothing.
[Translated by Anthony Bower]
From Paul Valêry:Selected Writings.(1950).NY: New Directions Publishing.
Copyright 2021 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)
Nice complement to my reading of Alphabet. By the way, la Préface by Michel Jarrety in the editions Livre de Poche (Classiques de Poche), is really an excellent analysis of Alphabet. I can provide you with the text if you don’t have it. You can send me an email at emmacazabonne at gmail dot com if you would like me to send it to you
That would be great, thank you!