In the second poem of Paul Valéry’s Alphabet, the narrator leaves all thought to contemplate his heart, mon cœur, his “self”. Valéry begins each poem with a sequential letter of the alphabet, corresponding to the hour of the day. The second poem, therefore, begins with “B”-Bouleversant—being thrown into confusion!
Meditation before thought
As the narrator awakens, his mind now moves from thoughts of his body to the fonctionnement of the total self, “je me voyais me voir” (I saw myself seeing myself); “Je suis étant”. He is filled with wonder at the miracle which renews itself each dawn, the re-creation of self. I love this! The Valeryenne dawn, whose wide time beam makes possible the play of shadows-light, even black lights-and promotes “Meditation before Thought” (Hontebeyrie, 25). Meditation BEFORE thought. This is so important, meditation as a deeper, intentional function of thought. Meditate, think, speak. I need to do this more often!
The second hour is the moment between night and day in which man rejects the passing of the night. The newly risen self rejects the creatures of the under-world, that other side of himself . 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 (Franlkin, 6).
Que de réveils voudraient n’être que rêves!… (Why wake up when I can be dreaming?). Debout! Cri tout mon corps. Get up, cries my body. Get out of bed. Start this new day. Balance, walk, rejoins tes desseins dans l’espace—rejoin your destiny in this world…quelle chose m’a porté interte, plein de vie et chargé d’esprit, d’un bord à l’autre du néant (Alphabet, 49)? What thing has transported me inert, full of life, and charged with spirit, from one side to the other side of nothingness?
Comment se peut-il que l’on ose s’endormir? How can we dare to fall asleep? Look what we are missing in the day by lying in a state of sleep, unconscious. When God created our beings, he built in a requirement of rest, of sleep, to be unaware of our pressures, responsibilities, burdens, for at least 6-7 hours. Of course, during this respite, we are also unaware of our joys, accomplishments, thoughts, love, the good things in life. We cannot function without sleep. It is a requirement of life in these mortal bodies.
What are your first thoughts as you awaken?
I found this section fascinating. According to the narrator, we are thrown into confusion as we emerge from a deep sleep. He takes a moment to recognize “self”- Être Soi le saisit comme une surprise (to be oneself is such a surprise)! Who am I? What is my purpose in being here? Is this a good thing? Are my thoughts positive? Do I look forward to the day? Meditation before thought.
As each letter corresponds with an hour of the day, this would be around seven a.m. for me, the second hour of my day. Before reading Alphabet, I had never assigned a different part of my psyche to certain hours of the day. This is an important factor to consider when making decisions and plans, n’est ce pas? In the morning, our narrator is renewed, the re-creation of self.
I am a morning person, therefore, (after a cup of deliciously roasted Kaldi Coffee, French-pressed) I am ready to start my day. Meditation before thought—my first activity of the day is to Meditate on Scriptures, to pray for my family and others, to refocus my thoughts to being a servant for the Lord, fulfilling the purposes He has set for me, “how can I be my best self? what can I change about my behaviors, attitudes, thoughts that are not pleasing to myself, others, or the Lord”?
Our narrator feels regenerated after several hours. Unfortunately, this includes feeling frightened, scared of the unknown, essentially weak. He looks forward to the hours that he can return to sleep pour prendre sur le fait le Singe qui montre les Songes… (in order to take on the Monkey who will teach him how to dream).
Thus far, we have reflected on two of the three themes of self in Alphabet: le mon corps et le mon-esprit–my body and my spirit. Next, we will look at how Valéry connects these to le mon-monde, our world.
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.