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The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, Volume 11
By Paul Valéry, Roger Shattuck, Frederick Brown
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1970 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Reception Address to die French Academy
The very first words one addresses to the Academy always have a special ring of truth. It is quite remarkable that a speech dictated by custom, a formal acknowledgment which could easily succumb to well-turned, empty compliments, should invariably induce in the speaker the selfsame feeling he utters, a state of pure and perfect sincerity. At this singular point in one's existence, when for a moment one stands facing this Company before becoming a part of it, all our reasons for being modest, which are so frequently torpid and submerged, come forcefully alive. We are moved to appraise ourselves more severely than did the Academy. We feel we are of no weight. Our works seem a mere pinch of dust; and here, on the edge of your gathering, deeply sensible of all I owe to your good favor, I cannot but take stock of myself and conclude that miracles do happen.
You have readily accorded me the high honor of occupying among you one of the seats which so many supremely gifted men have had to spend long years coveting, and not a few of the very greatest, and most deserving, have waited an entire lifetime in vain. I should not be human, gentlemen, if this inescapable reflection did not prompt me to compare, in some fashion, my own with the destiny of others. The past takes hold of the present and I feel hemmed in by ghosts I cannot fail to mention. The dead have but one last resort: the living. Our thoughts are their only access to the light of clay. They who have taught us so much, who seem to have bowed out for our sake and forfeited to us their advantages, ought by all rights to be reverently summoned to our memories and invited to drink a draught of life through our words. It is but just and natural that, at the present moment, my memories should beckon to me, that my mind should be, as it were, revisited by a host of deceased friends and masters whose encouragement and whose perceptions by degrees guided me to where I stand. To many of these deceased I am indebted for being the man, such as he is, whom you have found worthy of election; and to friendship, I owe nearly everything.
It will come as no surprise to you that I single out from among so many dear and respected absent ones, whose presence is so vivid to me, the charming and serious face of your beloved colleague, M. René Boylesve, one of several academicians who persuaded me that I ought to consider the prospect of joining you one day, and who, devising the present occasion for me, sought with evident success to persuade you to feel well disposed toward my candidacy.
When Boylesve and I were together we would often talk about our literary beginnings, comparing our very different recollections of the time when we first met. It so happens that in those days our green enthusiasms, our ideals, our exemplars, our fetishes and infatuations had differed rather widely, for Boylesve had always been cool and level-headed. In a spirit of friendship we would rehearse our former differences just as formerly we had, in much the same spirit, acknowledged them. In the end we would always make common cause, as people who are not getting any younger are wont to do, in nostalgia for our irrecoverable youth. Though nothing could be more commonplace than bemoaning what is gone, never was it more reasonable to do so, for the era of our youth and vigor had vanished not as it usually does, by imperceptible degrees, but died a violent death; it can only be glimpsed beyond gigantic events. The world that reared us into life and thought is a world now in ashes. We live as best we can among its disordered ruins, ruins that are themselves incomplete, ruins that threaten ruin, placing us in oppressive and formidable circumstances where the fading image of our past seems sweeter and more charming than it would, if time in its imperceptible course had quietly stolen away some tens of years from us.
So violent was this upheaval and so relentless the pressure exerted on men's minds, that a new literature emerged which was radically different from its antecedents. Living in 1890 or thereabouts, one was surrounded by quite another and much simpler pattern of ideas and ambitions. The republic of letters, in every generation raising and brandishing its many divergent mirrors before the world, no longer has the same ways or the same temperament it once had. Then, the various persuasions and sects were more mutually exclusive than nowadays. A youth trying his hand at writing and at the outset losing his way, dazzled as he might well have been by contemporary works and ideas, still lost no time discerning which parties and doctrines were dividing up the present and vying for the future. Before long, in that intellectual amphitheatre whose tiers rise from obscurity to fame, he would have had no trouble deciding on which side his preferences lay. In those days every faction of literary politics had its headquarters and arsenal. There were still two banks to the Seine, and from these enemy emplacements came the tattle of salons and the clamor of cafés; certain studios bubbled over with a frothy mixture of all the arts. One garret even gained renown, and such was its fertility that it became the only garret in the world capable of giving birth to an Academy, which complements its elder so well that we ought, you will agree, gentlemen, to pay tribute in passing to its distinction and talent.
Categories have ceased to be as tidy as they were in the age of our innocence. Purposes and systems used to clash with greater precision. The entire literary population arranged itself in a few tribes, according to the naive laws of opposites which pitted art against nature, the beautiful against the true, thought against life, the new against the old. Each of these tribes had its incontestable leader, by which I mean a leader whose authority was contested, if at all, by someone waving the same banner.
Naturalism carried the day under Emile Zola. Grouped round the august figure of Leconte de Lisle, the Parnassian poets practiced rhyming as a rigorous art. In the forefront stood a mixed group, both smiling and pensive, whose influence far surpassed its numbers: the philosophers or moralists, some with severe, even gloomy dispositions, others so fond of irony as to have made of it a universal method, judging, anatomizing, and scoffing at everything on earth as in heaven.
I believe that, of all these ideologues, critics, theoreticians, humanists bred on philosophy, history, and exegesis, invoking the great names of Renan and Taine, not one missed being elected to the Academy.
Zola, Leconte de Lisle, Taine, or Renan: with these few names one could take one's bearings in the tumult of doctrines and personalities. Herein lies the usefulness of great men. Just as famous names are posted at street corners to tell us where we are, so these stand as guideposts at the major crossroads and many intermediate points of our intellectual memory. Fame thus ceases to be inane; it serves some purpose if it takes on the nature of a symbol and a useful convention in the general mind.
But these victorious schools, these constellations of writers, as they approached their zenith, began to exhaust the energy that had enabled them to rise. Their virtues and arguments ran dry, since most virtues are combative: in winning they are lost. So far as our arguments are concerned, they are for the most part projectile weapons good only for a single throw. Once they had come into their own, Naturalism and Parnassus fell an easy prey to inertia; it was not apparent to them that the only way out of an apogee is down. No young man drawn to letters could doubt — it would have been to doubt himself — that all sorts of extraordinary innovations were brewing in the brightest heads of his generation. Youth is a natural prophet, being what will one day be.
The intellectual air began to vibrate audibly with voices diverse and surprising, singing songs hitherto unheard, with the murmur of a deeply mysterious forest whose whisperings, echoes, and occasionally menacing or portentous gibberings seemed to distress or at least to mock at the reigning powers who, little by little, became secretly persuaded of their imminent downfall. At an age when we ourselves have barely begun to exist we are uncannily aware of the gaps and flaws in what exists already. A throng of short-lived publications, strange lampoons, pamphlets whose contents were startling to the eye, the car, the mind, appeared and disappeared. Groups were born, died, were reborn, merged or split, testifying to the oceanic vitality submerged in the literature-to-be. I shall not pretend that the pleasure of behaving unconventionally, sometimes with intent to shock, did not motivate some among us. It was a role we assumed quite readily, that of the literary demon hard at work in his dark haunts tormenting the vernacular tongue, torturing the poetic line, ripping off its lovely rhymes and capital letters, stretching it to inordinate lengths, corrupting its orderly ways, making it drunk on unwonted mixtures of sound.
But, however severely we have been indicted in the past for our assaults, for our strange depredations, it should be borne in mind that we could not have acted otherwise. Men are compelled by circumstances to invent whatever they invent. Denunciations are so many expedients countering other expedients. They are delivered by judges who cannot know our feelings from the inside. Severity is necessarily shallow.
How could we help but be pervaded by the spirit of our age, rich as it was in discoveries, bold in its undertakings, an age which has seen science translated into a tool, and seen the descriptive or contemplative attitude yield to the will to power, the creation of mighty means of action. It is an age that consistently flies in the face of man's observances and has, within a few years, transformed his ways and revised his sensibilities. It requires that we continually adapt ourselves, and we do, to new realities which, with a rapidity and thoroughness by now familiar to us, affect every phase of our lives, our status in time and space no less than our tastes and projects. What takes place one day in some obscure laboratory will, by the next, have had repercussions throughout the human economy.
No tradition could survive this riot of innovations unless by some stratagem. An age that leaves nothing unquestioned, that lives for experiments and sees room for improvement everywhere, that cannot but view everything as provisional and of provisional value — such an age docs not make for stability in the arts and letters. The mentality that strives to make improvements does not strive for perfection. Improvement is one thing, perfection quite another. Moreover, altering the face of a page of writing is no great feat when the entire earth and whole cities are undergoing such extraordinary and radical changes.
Romanticism had already thoroughly stirred up the intellectual world, but the romantic rebel shaped himself in the movement of political violence that characterized the nineteenth century; something of the heat and dramatic frenzy of our revolutions rubbed off on his bearing and language. There was a hue and cry for freedom in the various forms and expressions of art.
The young people whom I knew, on the other hand, or at least those who had something in their souls to risk and to probe, were given rather to the kind of enthusiasm for experimenting, to the appetite for well thought-out innovations, daring solutions, and combinations that have made our science and technique what they are: great and phenomenal tools whose creations eclipse those of the imagination which, envious of these concrete marvels, has begun increasingly to look to them for inspiration.
Unavoidably the boldest experiments had to be tried, and any vestiges of the traditional or the conventional in art had to come under pitilessly close scrutiny. The chief concern in our quarter was to restore the natural laws of the music of poetry, isolating poetry itself from all elements foreign to its essence, gaining a more precise idea of the artistic means and possibilities at our disposal through a fresh consideration and study of vocabulary, syntax, prosody, and imagery. Not all of us followed this line of thought, some preferring to trust their sensibilities, whose dictates they elaborated ad infinitum; but together we formed a literary movement more wracked by philosophy, more curious about science, more given to reasoning, yet more deeply animated by a mystical passion for knowledge and beauty than any other in the annals of French literature. It was inevitable that investigations so odd and, withal, so bold should produce difficult or disconcerting works.
This had the remarkable effect of creating a deep rift within cultivated society. Between patrons of the kind of beauty that puts up no resistance and lovers of another kind of beauty whose favors are given only if they are won; between those who conceived of literature as an art providing immediate enjoyment and those who sought above all some exquisite and intense expression of their souls and of the world, to be garnered at any price, a kind of abyss opened up, but an abyss bridged by mutual scoffing and taunts: the sort of signals everyone understands. The adepts were decried, laughed at. Opposition arose to the idea of an essentially arcane poetry. Its followers were dubbed initiates, and they found this designation to their liking.
Some had forgotten but others would have had the presence of mind to answer that all human fermentations, all schools and even the world's great religions have always begun as tiny coteries, cells long closed and impenetrable, proud to be flouted, and hoarding their private visions. At the heart of these secret societies new ideas would survive their delicate infancy, growing from germ into a body of thought. Friendship, sympathy, and certain feelings held in common, the unhampered exchange of hopes and discoveries, the recognition in one another of a kindred point of view the stronger for being shared, and, in some instances, mutual admiration: all these are the rare and perhaps elementary conditions for any intellectual resurgence. These little chapels where minds expand, these enclosures where the tone grows heated, and values inflated, serve as real laboratories for literature. There can be no doubt, gentlemen, that the public as a whole has every right to the regular and proven products of literary industry; but industry, to advance, must frequently be willing to grope, to make daring hypotheses, and even carry daring to a fault; and only laboratories can provide the intense heat, the extremely rare reactions, the degree of enthusiasm without which the sciences and the arts would be relegated to an all too predictable future.
Such were our literary coteries in that day and age. The young man that I was some forty years ago, under the spell of our pure and maligned poets and yet wavering at the threshold of their disturbing literature, which he heard denounced on all sides as mad and fraught with danger, sensed in the air of his time the same excitement, the same emotional state that charges a concert hall as the orchestra tunes up, each instrument seeking the note for itself and singing out, as it were, alone. It is a musical commotion delighting the soul it pierces, a chaos of hopes, an innocent state that is inherently short-lived; yet this living turmoil has something more universal, perhaps more philosophical about it than any symphony conceivable, incorporating as it does all conceivable symphonies, or suggestions of them all. It combines in its single presence the multiple future. It prophesies.
Intoxicated, shaken by these many promises, the budding poet grew amenable to the peculiarities of his age, allowing himself, like Parsifal — motionless yet moving — to be charmed into the boundless temple of Symbolism.
Meanwhile those wise and staunch divinities who see to it that our literature never deteriorates in some sudden and definitive way nor dozes for long out of sheer boredom with its own perfection had already formed and decked with laurel the very man needed to salvage, from the confusion of different idioms, some few of those graces once common among our purest authors. They had in no way suffered from prolonged disuse. Their revival came as a relief to a public half expecting some such event, and the man responsible for it swiftly and easily advanced to the front rank of his literary generation, distinguishing himself by a great adroitness in the time-honored devices of art, by a kind of caution or restraint rare, even bold, in an age given to impulsive ventures whose charm and merit he keenly perceived, gentlemen, though not so keenly as he did their weaknesses, their excesses, and their shortcomings. Without anyone's knowing when it came about, he acquired the aura and prestige of a classic, among all the aiders and abettors of a scandalously fresh beauty that found in him its most polished antagonist.
Excerpted from The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, Volume 11 by Paul Valéry, Roger Shattuck, Frederick Brown. Copyright © 1970 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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