The Catholic poet Paul Claudel (1868-1955) first came to what was then known as the Far East in 1895 and at once began writing down his impressions. In 1900 he gathered them into the collection “Connaissance de l’Est,” but kept adding to them until the “canonical” text was published in 1914, seen through the press by another enthusiastic resident of the “Orient,” Victor Segalen.
Claudel was 32 when he began writing these prose-poems, but the ardor is that of someone much younger. Of the coconut palm, first glimpsed in the “East,” he wrote that it “bent over the sea and planet like a being overcome with love, made the sign of bringing its heart to the heavenly fire.”
Besides being anthropomorphic, such effusions are also specifically poetic in the style then in vogue — that of the Symbolists, a group of like-minded writers who sought to achieve in poetry the effects of music, using images and metaphors to suggest or symbolize the idea or emotion behind each utterance.
An early example of their ambitions was Charles Baudelaire’s “Le Spleen de Paris,” but the works that most influenced Claudel, he always maintained, were those of Arthur Rimbaud, Francis Jammes and Stephane Mallarme, the latter of whom he knew and whose famous weekly literary meetings he used to attend.
Claudel’s style, however, often incantatory and hieratic in these early prose-poems, seems to owe more to the simplified symbolism of writers such as Pierre Loti — as in “I run off like an awkward deer and, poised on one foot, listen for the echo in the leafy solitude.”
The 61 pieces that make up this collection, in its second English translation (the first was the 1914 “The East I Know”), are brief sketches of, most usually, landscapes. But, as Claudel told Frederic Lefevre in 1925, “a drama is passing behind each landscape.” This symbolist technique seeks to illuminate the spirit of that both seen and unseen and fuse these into a meaningful vision.
It is seen at its most effective in Japan, a country about which Claudel knew even less than he did about China. He came in 1898 and stayed for only a short time — all of the Japanese entries were composed during a single month, June.
At Nikko, that favorite of Victorian travelers, Claudel found that “the forest of cryptomeria is truly this temple.” In the architecture he found that in the center was a gate “like the dream of a confused mass of flowers and birds.”
At the same time, however, “contrary to the practice that uses and valorizes stone and wood in accordance with their intrinsic virtues . . . the artful skill here consists of reducing matter to naught.”
In Nihonbashi the poet finds that “the European artist copies nature in accordance with his feeling for it, the Japanese imitates it in accordance with the means he borrows from it.”
And Claudel would have maintained that in these pieces he was using the Japanese style. Indeed, as he writes in one of these prose-poems: “as one says one understands music, so I understand nature, like a detailed narrative of proper names . . . my glance alone confirms the secret relationship by which the black of this pine marries the bright green of the maples over there.”
The tone of breathless effusion is that of the true symbolist and in this collection we are given a perfect example of that sententious but tentative manner. This would become odd to Claudel himself as he assumed the certainties of his later style, embraced a more rigid Catholicism, wrote such mature works as “Le Soulier de Satin,” and allowed himself a degree of religious excess.
One of the poet’s godsons, a child of Francis Jammes, tells of a later domestic incident when Claudel held a cre^pe flambee on the end of his fork and cried: “And that’s how Gide will burn in hell!” (An incident not found in this book but in Alan Sheridan’s recent biography of Andre Gide.)
Our interest in this collection of early Claudel will depend perhaps not so much upon his style, as upon how we value his impressions of this East of a hundred years ago. Since then the genre has been enriched by two major French observers — Henri Michaux in his admirable “A Barbarian in Asia,” and Roland Barthes with his provocative “Empire of Signs.”
Whether Claudel’s poetic impressions now seem any more than prosaic opinions depends upon the reader.
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