On Poetry and Politics

On Poetry and Politics, by Jean Paulhan. Edited and translated by Jennifer Bajorek and Éric Trudel, with additional translations by Charlotte Mandell. University of Illinois Press, 2008.

In their introduction to On Poetry and Politics, the first major English translation of writer Jean Paulhan’s essays, Jennifer Bajorek and Éric Trudel note that Anglophone readers who know of Paulhan generally associate him with two things: his nearly forty-year stewardship of the Nouvelle Revue Française— vanguard of French literary culture and early home to Gide, France and Valéry; and the period l’entre-deux-guerres, that historical interlude T.S. Eliot once described as “twenty years largely wasted.”

Admittedly, these are tough associations for anybody to overcome.

Regardless, over the course of his career, Paulhan was one of the most influential – if unacknowledged – intellectual figures of the early 20th century, publishing the likes of Ponge, Malraux and Sartre, leading the literary wing of the French Resistance, and in his spare time, producing an expansive body of work that only now is gaining the attention it deserves. Apart from a 2006 translation of The Flowers of Tarbes — Paulhan’s most fully developed investigation into the dynamics of rhetoric and terror — his work is largely untranslated, and On Poetry and Politics marks the first appearance of many of Paulhan’s essays in English. These essays, which include “Letter to the Directors of the Resistance,” “Key to Poetry,” and “Jacob Cow the Pirate” reflect not only the context in which Paulhan was writing – the politics of wartime France stir quietly and not-so-quietly in the background– but also the major threads of his work, and particularly his obsession with the intersections between language, politics and thought.

Nicknamed the “grey eminence” of French letters, Paulhan’s writing lingers in the interstitial space between genres, drawing from literary criticism, anthropology and psychology to pose questions prescient and philosophical. In “Young Lady With Mirrors,” Paulhan explores the potential for an ‘authentic’ or fixed form of rhetoric, and soon leads the reader to the paradoxical conclusion that the more we attempt to stabilize language, the more elusive it becomes:  “A man can no more grasp his mind intact than he can directly see the nape of his neck or throat. There are, however, mirrors for seeing the back and front of the neck. But there are none for the mind.”  Anticipating the later work of Derrida and de Man, Paulhan contests that while language is fundamentally elliptical, meaning is revealed through translation, in the difference between multiple versions of a single thing. “Any translation,” Paulhan writes, “all the more so the more faithful it is, has as its first effect that of dissociating the stereotypes of a text. It restores their independence to the elements of meaning linked in the original language.” Language, in other words, is trapped in a paradox: in order to convey its full force, it must be something other than itself. Authenticity can only be sought in the margins. The theme of dissociation reverberates throughout the book, informing Paulhan’s thinking on proverbs, on politics, and most significantly, on the possibilities and limitations of language. Noting this quality in his 1969 essay on Paulhan, “The Ease of Dying,” Maurice Blanchot described his writing as such: “If everything is narrative, then everything would be dream in Jean Paulhan, up until the moment of awakening by darkness…”

After establishing Paulhan’s theoretical foundations on the basis of essays like “Young Lady,” the editors segue into more concrete political topics, translating several of his NRF pieces from the early years of the war, and ending the book with Paulhan’s most famous—and most anthologized— piece, “Letters to the Directors of the Resistance.” In “Letters,” written seven years after the Liberation, Paulhan argues voraciously against the National Committee of Writers, the leading literary organization of the time, for their moral posturing and refusal to admit collaborationist writers. Through this essay, Paulhan identifies himself as a true grammarian of ideas, identifying the logical structures behind the Committee’s position, and slowly and patiently dismantling them. Like the latent politics of Georges Perec’s A Void, a 284-page novel written entirely without the letter ‘e,’ Paulhan’s political writing drives towards the gray spaces of thought with a silent urgency, presenting resistances and paradoxes with an attention to the deeper underlying issues.

As On Poetry and Politics demonstrates, while Paulhan was undeniably a man of his time, influencing French intellectual culture in subtle and powerful ways, he was also a vital precursor to coming generations of theorists, and to many of the thinkers who have since taken up permanent residency on college reading lists and the shelves of St. Mark’s. Once dismissed as a minor member of the left’s post-war literati, this book makes the convincing claim that he deserves a second—or in many cases first—look. In spite of his attraction to margins, Paulhan himself in no way deserves to be relegated to them. As the editors write on their website, he was a critic’s critic. It is time he is finally recognized as such.

Forthcoming in the Brooklyn Rail.

~ by Jessica on November 24, 2008.

5 Responses to “On Poetry and Politics”

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