Me voici, tel que je suis, baignant dans l’air indispensable…
In 1925 Paul Valéry published three prose poems “A B C,” indicating on the title page : “trois lettres extraites ďun alphabet à paraître à la librairie du Sans Pareil.” (three letters extracted from an alphabet to appear at the unparalleled bookstore).Valéry was commissioned to write 24 poems in prose beginning with the initial of each letter of the alphabet–excluding K and W (Michel Jarrety). Valéry proposed the figures of expectation to correspond to the 24 hours in a day (Alphabet, Preface 5). These poems form part of Valéry’s prose aubades (a poem appropriate to the dawn of early morning), constituting a series of three dramas all sequentially related in a single theme: “the birth of the self and its world at dawn”(Franklin, A Valeryan Trilogy 3). I love this premise. I could not wait to dive in to this short novel to see how Valéry assigns certain letters to corresponding times of the day and night. 24 hours. 24 letters, how cool.
Initially, I attempted to read the original French publication of Valéry’s Alphabet, but became quite lost, early on. Therefore, I turned to: an Introduction by Michel Jarrety (thank you wordsandpeace), and several JSTOR articles to help bring some clarity and found three very helpful essays by Ursula Franklin (1981), Micheline Hontebeyrie (2005) and Andre Gide (1946). [Please see citations below]. So here is the best synthesis that I could put together for Alphabet.
Throughout Alphabet, Valéry points to the C-E-M of self–le mon-corps, le mon-esprit, le mon-monde (the body, the spirit and the world). It begins with Au commencement, as in the book of Genesis, “In the beginning”, shows the theme of the origin of the world. “Au commencement sera le Sommeil”(in the beginning, there will be sleep)–when one emerges out of sleep, one becomes consciousness of self. In this poem, there is a dialogue between the spirit and the body as they arise in and with the world. The narrator is still contemplating his sleep and hesitates to come out of sleep “Come not back to life yet” ö repose encore, repose moi….But, as still true each day, the sun is rising and the mind beholds the universe with tenderness, thinking of mes projects et le Jour (my projects of the day). “Just 10 more minutes”!!! The letters A-G are almost exclusively about the awakening of the body, especially of the mind looking towards the imminence of possibilities of the day.
The narrator leaves all thought to contemplate mon cœur, his heart. The mind now moves from thoughts of the body to the fonctionnement of the total self, “je me voyais me voir” (I saw myself seeing myself) “Je suis étant” ( I am being)(Alphabet, 9). Our narrator is filled with wonder at the miracle which renews itself each dawn, the re-creation of self. The Valeryenne dawn, whose wide time beam makes possible the play of shadows-light, even black lights-and promotes “Meditation before Thought” (Hontebeyrie, 25).
Chapter two begins: Bouleversant les ombres (upsetting the shadows) in which man regrets the passing of the night. This is the moment between night and day. While the newly risen self rejects the creatures of the under world, that other side of himself does not forget them (Franklin 7). “A ce soir, jeux obscurs, monstres, scenes impures, et vous, vaines amours” (See you tonight, obscure games, monsters, impure scenes, and you, vain lovers). “EXISTE…Sois enfin toi-meme!”
In “B”, the nocturnal voyage is again, as in “A”, imaged as the crossing of a dangerous sea, the archetypal waters of the unconscious. This section ends with the “I” arisen and ready for the new day, but still remembering the night (6).
The third part of the trilogy, “C” opens out upon the world: “comme le temps est calme, et la jeune fin de la nuit délicatement colorée!(Alphabet, 51)”(How calm the weather is, and the young end of the delicately colored night). It is the whole “moi”, both body and soul which takes possession of the world. Our narrator steps out on the balcony with a feeling of adoration and of coming to life! (Franklin, 6). He approaches the things which are coming to life as he experiences them with his senses and constructs them in his consciousness. From the letters M to V, the poems keep a secret trace of une femme aimée, which designates every possible woman and leaves Valéry some privacy (Jarrett, 18).
“Walking, sleeping, day and night, infinite love and fear without measure whose soul drinks in the morning hour”(12). The exultation of the beginning of birth—au commencement—contains the nostalgia to return to this innocent time. This prose poem was written at the end of Valéry’s life where our narrator, our author, both behold the sky, the “first light”. But the stars are dying, like the moon. “The gray-haired child” comprises the past and future, the moment of twilight. Valéry once said: “ce qui me frappe le plus dans la mémoire, ce n’est pas qu’elle redit le passé—c’est qu’elle alimente le present”(what strikes me most in my memory is not that it repeats the past—it is that it feeds the present).
Youth and old age both meet at this hour of dawn. The self “moi” contemplates life without understanding. “Le matin est mon séjour”(Alphabet, 54). (Morning is my journey). It finds in me a past sober and transparent.
Valéry states “the body teaches me that the most important is what repeats the most”(26). As I thought about what repeats in my body, I recall: breathing, blinking, and my heart beating. Could these be the “most important”?
On se tait. Je me tait
Now, what does this mean to me? What are my reflections?
- What is the “first hour of the day”? Does Valéry consider 12am or is it the first hour that we are awake, 6am perhaps?
The first hour of my day is that time when my mind awakens to consciousness, awareness of who I am, where I am, the daily gift of life and breath, when my “soul drinks in the morning hour”(51). Each dawn is a new beginning for me, a time cleanse my heart and to ask forgiveness for my sins of the previous day. To give adoration to my Creator, to be reminded of who I am in Christ. To give supplication for my family and friends that their hearts would be spoken for, that Christ would be the Center of their lives, that they would have the Mind of Christ. It is my favorite time of the day.
2.“B” The moment between night and day when I regret the passing of the night-when I confront the “monsters”, les ombres (shadows) . When I contemplate the “projects of the day”.
This part is easy, I am a planner, I live by my Mission Statement where I identify and plan out each role of my life in light of this statement. This is the moment when my mind and spirit unite in order to fulfill my purpose here on Earth. This is where I have “quelle confiance dans la fidélité de mon corps, dans l’ordre et la constance du monde”[such confidence in the fidelity of my body, in the order and constancy of the world](Alphabet,49). As in recent days will attest, this can only happen through Faith in Christ, my Creator and my Savior. Only He knows my future and the number of days that I have to serve Him.
3.“C” The whole “moi”, both body and soul which takes possession of the world.
Our narrator steps out on his balcony with feelings of adoration and of coming to life! As my mind longs for what seems unprecedented to it, and as I hope in exceptional states, every beat of my heart repeats, every breath of my mouth reminds me of who I am and for the purpose in which I was created. The repetition of the body that the narrator speaks of is the repetition of each day: to love my husband, to love my family, to love my friends, to mold young minds and hearts in higher education, to serve Christ in my community and world. To promote “meditation before thought”. My expectation is a silence which is sufficient.
4.”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 the stars generally has on men”(Man and the Night, Valery).
Part of my research on Valéry comes from Selected Writings by New Directions Publishing (1950) in which I recently published a translation of Valéry’s Man and the Night from an extract of “Variations on an Idea of Pascal”. According to Andre Gide, Valéry had a fascination with and studied Astronomy, which is evident in this poem as well as Valéry’s Alphabet. Obviously, how can one have a “dawn” where youth and old age meet without the sky? Valéry’s use of cosmochronie is seen in the nocturnal depth and disturbing brightness of the stars (Jarrety, 8). “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 notice objects that have nothing to do with our bodies. We are strangely simplified”(Man and the Night, Valery). “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your hands, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, that you care for them?”(Ps 8:3-5)
5. Deep into the night.
And finally, the Letter Z : Zénith au sein de la profonde nuit (zenith within the deep night). It is time to awaken once again, “it is time to speak what should be spoken, witness, listen enough to translate, attention, silence , clarity…”The deep water of the world at this hour is so calm, the waters of the Spirit so transparent as pure as space-time…we must perceive the ONE who dreams all this” (Alphabet, 116). Are we still significant during the hours of sleep while our body rests and our mind replays events of the day?
To quote Gide, “Why do men rest so quickly, and are content with so little?
Copyright 2021 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)
Franklin, U. THE ABC’S OF LITERARY COMMERCE: VALÉRY’S “ALPHABET”, Fall, 1981, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Fall, 1981), pp. 3-9 Published by: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for its Department of Romance Studies.
Gide, Andre. “Paul Valéry”. The Kenyon Review, Spring 1946. Vol 8, No. 2 pp. 277-290.
Hontebeyrie, Micheline. “L’ équation attente / surprise dans ‘ Alphabet ‘”. Bulletin des études valéryennes, No. 98/99, Le laboratoire génétique “feuilles volantes” et Cahiers (Janvier 2005), pp. 201-215 Published by: L’Harmattan Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/44858426
Jarrety, Michel. Introduction to Alphabet. (1999). Paris: Librairie Générale Française.