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.” 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 into this short novel to see how Valéry assigns certain letters to corresponding times of the day and night. 24 hours. 24 letters, how cool.
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). For this blog, I am highlighting some of his lines in the original French, from the first chapter, the letter“A”, Au commencement.
Au commencement could refer to the book of Genesis, “In the beginning”, which 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).
Here is the first hour of his day, contemplated during the third hour of my day!
Alphabet, by Paul Valéry: “Au commencement”
Au commencement sera le Sommeil. Silence, mon silence! Absence, mon absence, je laisse toute pensée pour te contempler de tout mon cœur. Tu t’es fait une île de temps, tu es un temps qui s’est détaché de l’énorme Temps où ta durée indéfinie subsiste…
Mon amour devant toi est inépuisable. Je me penche sur toi qui es moi, et il n’y a point d’échanges entre nous.
Il n’y a qu’un abîme entre nous, qui ne sommes rien l’un sans l’autre.
O repose encore, reose moi…J’ai peur de retrouver de malheureuses pensées. Attendons séparés que le travail naïf et monotone des machines de la vie use ou détruise grain par grain l’heure qui nous divise encore.
Allons! Voice ma fatigue, le miracle, les corps solides; mes soucis, mes projets et le Jour!
All in the first hour of the day! Love this.
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.