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John Tranter: Prose

Valéry’s Room

This piece was published in the book Different Hands (1998), Folio/ Fremantle Arts Centre Press, PO Box 158, North Fremantle WA 6159, Australia. ISBN 1-86368-241-4. It is 2,100 words or about 5 printed pages long.

PAUL VALÉRY has the manner of a young married man. He was usually up by noon, and he could generally see in the mirror that he was largely a monster. He makes a face, manic depressively. He peers into the glass again. ‘That’s the form, old boy,’ he says, striking his leg with a riding crop. ‘Scripto, ergo sum.’

We cannot say what really happens when a truly new idea invades the human mind. But — as a kind of clumsy biographer — it’s my job to lead us to the hole where philosophy leaches out of writing and disappears.

In such imaginary arenas, soaked with erratic public opinions and angry cries, that’s where he is to be found, or what remains of him. He’s dead, of course. His supreme crisis? It was not really a crisis, it was as smooth as a little poem’s sound. And for him to accept the conventional dualism of the social life, that would be impossible. Paul Valéry is, in spite of the average man’s magazine view of things, a man’s man. ‘La fausse morte,’ he proclaimed once, ‘gave us life.’

‘I would have avoided writing, if I could,’ he says. ‘Now it’s unpopular, so I feel I have to cultivate it. Very early I retired as an absolutely indifferent super-dilettante, who is long past growin’ up and havin’ fun. All the time they say that the poetry is introverted, whereas for the most part my dear Greeks used poetry as an art of war. Plain speech, that was what was needed.’

Plain speech? Sometimes he drives out to Luke’s place. It’s a farm strung out alongside a creek. ‘The result of despair is an efflorescence of ignominious styles, as likely as I can figger, Luke,’ Paul Valéry sez. ‘And I’ll tell you why. Take Mallarmé. He was the embodiment of his own realisations that he was never going to write anything worthwhile. Look what happened to his passion for the boys, though not for their minds. A lean-to philosopher, that’s what he was. Nothin’ substantial, jest lean-to. Look in the wood-pile,’ he sez, ‘and pick up the first plant you see, strugglin’ up through the faggots. That’s life.’

He wrote a play, and put it on in one of those book-stores by the Seine. He picked up some out-of-work actors and put them to work. His play is mainly about himself, naturally, and the part of ‘Paul Valéry’ was played by actors using various bodies as appropriate, which would be easier if the subject would do something to make up his mind. When he enters ‘stage left’ it never appears that he is entering. The trouble is, Valéry himself is a complex of emotions, and that ain’t nothin’ to what he was before. Boy, what a pain! He and his friend would break up all the time, and someone had to put the pieces back together again. And the audience?

‘As for talking with the audience, I can give any man good day and damn his hide the next minute.’ That’s what he said. ‘Whatever image or emotion I might have discerned seemed impossible to discover as we pulls away, and I slips me arm around a sailor — no, that would be repellent.’

And the intellectual life, he told me all about that later, over a cognac. ‘After rehearsals we settled in for a game of cards. And then that fellow Einstein dropped by and tried to muscle in on the conversation. I told him “Because your ideas are new and unpopular, you’ll attract the hatred of second-rate minds.” But did he listen? Einstein! However philosophical he was, or tough-minded, his train of thought skidded off one of them curves that relativity talks about, and left the civilised world of discourse behind. Now I like a bit of speculation, but to me — and in this company especially — an abstruse speculation from him was like his wife’s furnishin’s — overstuffed and full of good intentions. Tradition and mathematics live only on paper, and over the paper writes a little paper hand, cancelling every tradition and inventing a new mathematics which will render the old useless.’

He understood — but he could never explain — how styles argue with their readers, whereas forms are always telling their readers to agree. So far, so clever, but one must admit that Valéry’s intellect made silly connections now and then, for example criticising the sea for badly-rhyming waves as if the sea were the author of an ugly sonnet.

Another poet’s trick is the false output of the seventeenth-century designer of mechanical pamphlets, a kind of newspaper device that appeared before its historical time was due. Paul Valéry has carried the weight of the Age of Reason for long enough, and he may have felt he needed these gadgets.

Then another artist’s statement hit the newsstands. Apparently them new hired hands was goin’ on about it, how modern poetry had lost its soul and was now merely technique, now no longer what it was, now much less concerned with representing profound emotional states. And they got to pratin’ about a little figure of speech, in bad French already: ‘Ta forme du ventre pur qu’un bras froide drape.’

     Luke told me ‘Them hired hands was eager to become characters in his poems. Their education is somehow bound up in the readin’, figgerin’ out the images, done with all proper enthusiasm. Mister Valéry was up early, and helped bring the cows up fer milkin’, and my music tinklin’ through the cowbales all the time. And the void — the milking machine seemed to fill it with sound. “So why do you have need of sound, or colour?” he had written, to show himself how much choice we have in these matters; that is, none. “I wish you’d feel it,” he’d say to me, “the chaste-celestial thought, early in the mornin’ in the cowbales, but emotion can not be assimilated from the abstract, and life itself cannot be substantially transformed from the illusion du soir,” he said.’

‘That Mister Valéry,’ Luke went on, ‘I knowed I had to adore him, that was my duty, but my different superiority was to provide a scenario for meself; for instance, my literary vanity, it was too bashful to go head-to-head in direct contact with self-expressions like his. Next to my eight working hours in the day, I was doin’ a romantic criticism of poems, stanza by stanza, up late every night. Are not clouds, we ask, symbols of something else? And so on. And the kinship possible between music, poetry and prattlin’ in the school house, he understood all that stuff, and I see what his musical symmetry metaphors will lead to one day, the summer sun glowing in the women’s magazine. The metaphysical symmetry of the afternoon, the sunset, the frocks. Next, perfume and women’s fashions. ‘La femme a-t-elle une âme?’, and so on. But is that art? I had urged them hired hands to get goin’ and get into the mood. But do you think they would?

‘As for women,’ Luke went on, ‘Mister Valéry says the average woman loses her attractiveness for him if she swings out into the orbits of intellectual work, but everybody says that this view of intellectual work is a middle-class habit of thought which had ceased to be relevant after the War. He preferred women asleep, or fatigued, because once they’ve been admitted to ideas they become fretful, in his opinion. “Paul, you can come by as a woman, if you’re so minded,” I sez to him. I had those women’s fashions in mind. And on another occasion — “Paul, you’re missin’ out on half of life,” I sez.

‘Well, he catched his wagon and learned to swim a flooded river towing it behind, and all done most harmonious-like. If you get what I mean. The river being the public life, if you catch my drift.’

So says Luke. My own opinion? If Valéry’s poetry, with which he himself had become preoccupied, seemed to him pale and lacking in human warmth, he had no one to blame but himself. If he had really been applying more gusto to his life, that would have been reflected in the writing. Perhaps. On the other hand, and this actually explains what party he really belonged to, Valéry wrote verse mainly for the newly rich. Think of it!

But then of course French poetry offers us the finest bad writing available. Verse would have a life, a vulgar life, if the bourgeoisie would let it, but they’d rather suffocate the poor thing.

Far from the French poems, let me lie. But, of the silvery beans in the moonlight, none but the chickens die.

Beams. That’s what he meant. Beams of light.

Whack at the keys, Paul! To see him at that thing is somethin’. To see him encourage the rich periods and the rise of a superhuman being through the inky lines one stormy night — well, none of that is true, exactly.

And Mallarmé — when P.V. felt himself in a strong position he was inclined to make fun of Mallarmé’s intellectual problems. Now Mallarmé was not overburdened with intelligence, and some of us feel that was cruel.

 ‘He is submerged in the illusion of literature,’ he said of his famous older rival. Mallarmé’s dictum came to mind: ‘Literature is the long ago and the far away, a land wherein your average writer has learned to evade all the trouble with your average reader, for instance the type of reader known as a dormeuse.’ He says this in a preface to a book locked in a box and covered with the history of the civilisation of broad daylight.

‘Keep ’em mostly satisfied, and they ain’t likely to go looking around for no sound of Mallarmé,’ Valéry used to say. Was he jealous? ‘I hitched my wagon to that star, once,’ he said. ‘When he chose, he turned to prose,’ he said of Mallarmé, rhyming unkindly. ‘He’s not a painter, he’s a water-colourist.’

Well, Valéry is some critic of literature, but not of art. However, he did say that the beautiful picture by Michaelangelo — what was it, now? — was ‘calme, claire, full of drama and quite useful to decorate a champion privy.’ That kind of thing belongs, he said, to the people.

When he went out to Luke’s place he came dressed in a bookseller kind of outfit, and he sez ‘what abysses of seeing engulf me without reasonable cause, they engulf me as though I were introverted, a kind of sooky narcissus, where doin’ a fair job was what I was after.’ And he went on about his creation, this Mister Teste character.

If Valéry’s own temperament was really that of Mister Teste, God help us. Teste, who is made interesting only in these poems because of their creator, otherwise what a pest! It is hard to share the general enthusiasm for a bore like that. Luke, Toby, the farm boys, we all made fun of this ‘Mister Teste’, who was only a box filled with a few shreds of character. Valéry himself knew it. ‘Old Teste,’ he admitted, ‘he was becoming dull work, I wonder why I never admitted it to the world!’

That is one of the nightmares of writing poems; that in doing so, one mornin’ you’ll wake up and find it has become dull work, but it’s the accompanying thoughts that keep you going, apart from the methods which specially apply to this supreme crisis and are always shifting back into movement. And even that attempt to give you air fails, and drives you away from the fact that participation is part of literature. Isn’t it?

He told me there ain’t no such thing as the practice of bad writing. ‘Who knows as how I’m goin’ to make the distinction,’ he said, ‘between the cramps that follow bad writing, and relief? But it’s only the illusion of relief that matters, thank goodness.’

So he dropped this Teste creep and started somethin’ new, peering into the mirror, whacking his leg. What was he looking for? Doctor Jekyll? Mister Hyde? For his new work, he gave the impression that a twinin’ heart was what he wanted, like a bouquet of thoughts in an obscure language.

And he would read aloud with groans in the privy, since to read deep insights there will convey their true impact, or so he felt. ‘Ordinary men listen to the dog barkin’ in the moonlight,’ he concluded, ‘because the sound has a vibrancy like the colours of the flowers on the window-sills. Bark, bark! Listen, listen!’

Author’s note — This piece was freely adapted from a loose draft resulting from computer-aided analyses of letter-group frequencies in two samples of text, one from an essay on Paul Valéry in Axel’s Castle by Edmund Wilson, and also from The Specialist, a comic story about Lem Putt, a handyman who builds outdoor lavatories, by Charles Sale. The index and frequency tables from these analyses were then blended, and the draft text regenerated from the resulting combination.

You can read ‘Mr Rubenking’s Breakdown’, John Tranter’s article about the Brekdown computer program, on this site.

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