Tuesday, May 3, 2011

I am at the mercy of maxims.

I've just been looking at a new book from Chelsea Editions, The Straw Sandals: Selected Prose and Poetry of Pierre-Albert Jourdan, edited, introduced, and translated by John Taylor. The back cover copy says:

"Pierre-Albert Jourdan (1924-1981) has long been one of the best-kept secrets of French literature."

And this is true. Have you ever heard of him? Bet not (unless you're a reader of Bitter Oleander, which recently published an excerpt from the book). Heck, he doesn't even have an entry in Wikipedia. Nevertheless, as the bookcover attests, Jourdan has been admired by the likes of Philippe Jaccottet, Yves Bonnefoy, Jacques Réda. So I figured I'd read it.

And here's part of a brief section of the book titled, "At the Mercy of Maxims." The title comes from La Rochefoucauld:

I am at the mercy of the maxims that you have roused to disturb my rest.


When La Rochefoucauld says that "silence is the safest course of action for a man who distrusts himself," he suddenly pops up alongside us in our age of logorrhea. Here he is, plucking our sleeves, beckoning us to turn inward and be frank, to clarify ourselves by means of silence. If we listen to silence, it will always speak more willingly, and profoundly, than this word screen that only masks us.

The pauses or blank spaces between fragments, maxims, or notes whose words form, to recall Yves Bonnefoy's phrase, "the ridgeline of a silence": you could say that these silent blank spaces expand your lungs (as when you breathe in again) and are thus necessary. Without them, that is without the emptiness, you could not read and understand the words. Nor would life be possible. This is one of Joubert's main preoccupations. Letting writing breathe, spacing it out, bringing the space inside oneself. "A spacious man."

Lapidary inscriptions. Runes. Indeed, the whisperings of these stones for fording the torrent without too much damage. That they wobble proves that they are mere words: the words of a man stoned to death.
Something sharpened not by style by rather by alarm at how life is carried on - by oneself and others.

Aiming for correctness is not a masochistic impulse; it is a desperate cry.

What remains open and, because of this, does not link up. What counters rules. What makes of fragmentation ("sonorous scraps," Rozanov called them) a ruin that remains standing alongside dramatic collapses. There is nothing ghostly about the presence of a La Rochefoucauld, a Chamfort, a Joubert.

Fragments: what shows on the surface. Yet it is permissible to suppose that what shows on the surface comes from deeper down.

Fragment, like a bit of the unknown that is meant for you.

Whenever I spot a maxim, an aphorism, a note, a fragment or the like, I rush over to it ("You have given me that malady of maxims," remarked Madame de Sablé to La Rochefoucauld), convinced that I will find flashes of lightning that will illuminate the darkest night. Such exist. Our weakness is an inability to keep them inside ourselves longer, so that their effect on us (the light they cast) is transformed into a flickering candle flame.

Yet we must not forget that a tree, a hill, or a flower can offer us equally intense maxims.
You need to consent to them in order to avoid, perhaps, the confinement and disfigurement that threaten us.

* * *

(Oddly, the lack of spacing between some paragraphs resembles a similar technique in some of Fanny Howe's recent prose meditations, published in Poetry. I'm sorry that it doesn't come over very well on a blog.)

I suppose we've had more than enough of fragments, and yet... Well, this is very French, to be sure. I think here of Ponge above all...

And dare I say it, of the logorrhea of social networking, and indeed, of the much-foretold death of poetry blogging. This writing is perfectly... limpid.

There's not much taste for limpidity in these brutal times, to be sure. So you can smirk, I suppose, at the bit about consenting to a tree, hill, or a flower and their supposed maxims. I was rather inclined to do so myself.

Yet not long ago, an immense and ancient tree was ignominiously removed from a spot just outside my window by the town in which I live. Jourdan (his name sounds as if it might mean "garden," but of course it doesn't) writes:

"The disappearance of any tree can be felt as a lessening, a sinking, of spiritual élan. This is typical of our time, which devotes itself so lightheartedly to drastic cuts."

And so I was hooked.

Lest you think he was merely ethereal, some of the sharpest writing in the book relates to the suffering he experienced when he was diagnosed with lung cancer and wrote from a hospital. He had a cat named Mao. He was not a mystic. He died, standing up, in his son's arms.

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