A Hundred Phrases for Fans

The publication of A Hundred Phrases for Fans is in reality the final point of a process in which one can distinguish four stages during which the spirit of the collection evolved considerably. The first three publications take place in Japan and, in Claudel’s mind, are not destined for a commercial purpose (see in the bibliography Frédéric Lefèvre, Entretien avec Paul Claudel, p. 114).  After his collaboration with the Japanese painter Tomita Keisen (1879-1936) on the poem entitled “La Muraille Intérieure de Tokyô” (The Interior Wall of Tokyo) (or “Les Douze Vues de la Muraille Intérieure” [The Twelve Views of the Interior Wall] or “Poèmes au Verso de Sainte Geneviève” [Poems on the Reverse Side of Saint Geneviève], or again in Japanese “Kojo-ju-ni-kei”, 1922), Claudel decides to prolong this type of work which brings together a painter and a poet for the first time on June 6, 1926, in conceiving “phrases” (see Journal, t. I, p. 721) which he will continue to compose until January 1927.  He first publishes Souffle des quatre souffles (Breath of Four Breaths) (October 1926, 200 copies as well as 2 author’s copies and 3 luxury copies, Japanese title: Shi-fu-jo). This concerns four poems (phrases 69, 106, 16 and 63 of the definitive collection) handwritten with a brush by Claudel, juxtaposed with four Chinese ink and watercolor sketches by Tomita Keisen, the whole arranged on the form of a fan on linen bistre paper measuring 20.3 cm by 52.8 cm. The inspiration is multiple: the “book of dialogue” between a painter and a poet in the Western tradition (see Yves Peyré, Peinture et poésie [Painting and Poetry]), but also, very obviously, certain pictorial traditions in which Tomita Keisen is a specialist—the painting of famous sites (meishô-e), of landscapes (fukô-ga), of flowers and birds (kachô-ga), of the four seasons (shiki-e) and naturally painting for fans (senma-ga)—, and more generally “literati painting”. Souffle (breath) refers as well to the genre of haiku, considered in the West as representative of Japanese culture, both from the point of view of the global structuring of the collection divided into four seasons as well as the point of view of the singular structure of the phrases which, beyond the brevity that defines them, very often include two of the formal characteristics of haiku, the “season-word” (kigo) and, through what Claudel will name “the exclamation” in the preface of the definitive collection, the “caesura-word” (kireji).

But at the same time, Claudel composed other “phrases” that he had not included in his selection of the 4 poems of Souffle. He thus returns to the project and gives it a first modification: it becomes the Poëmes du Pont-des-Faisans published the following month (November 1926, Japanese title: Chiketsu-shû), which include, beyond the four poem-drawings of Souffle, on one hand 16 poems handwritten by Claudel but presented alone without accompanying drawings (which raises the number of poems to 20) and on the other hand 16 drawings by Tomita Keisen, also separately, the whole adding up to 36 fans. The fact of separating the Japanese drawings from the French texts moves the publication’s spirit away from the ideal of fusion between the characters or letters of the poet and the brush lines of the painter, the ideal of literati painting. Claudel turns toward another project developed in the lectures published during these years (in particular “Idéogrammes Occidentaux” [“Western Ideograms”] and the other texts in Oeuvres en Prose mentioned in the bibliography) and that is fixed in the final state of the collection, A Hundred Movements for a Fan.

A Hundred Movements for a Fan (published in French, editor Koshiba 1927, Japanese title Hyaku sen cho, literally “collection or notebook of a hundred fans”), first published in Japan, is based on the principle of “emulation” (see the preface): the aim is no longer to meld two practices, painting (Japanese) and poetry (French), but to be able to accomplish (in French) what the Japanese or Chinese poet-calligraphers do. This is why Claudel presents on one side two kanji (Chinese ideograms borrowed by the Japanese language), chosen by “Mr.Yamanoushi and Mr.Yoshié”, and traced by the calligrapher Ikuma Arishima, and on the other side a “phrase”, with most often, one or several Western letters straying onto the Japanese side.  Thus the drawing has disappeared, since one is no longer trying to express the possible continuity between the thing (represented globally in the drawing) and the word, but to prove that French letters, words and “phrases”, like the ideograms as Claudel and his era conceive of them, can contain in themselves this continuity, on condition that they create a calligraphic art that is proper to Western letters. In other ways, the collection presents itself as a Far Eastern book, in the form of three paper accordions of 29 cm by 10 cm, placed in a “box of gray fabric dotted with gold, closed with ivory” (Truffet, Edition critique, p. 18). Finally, A Hundred Movements for a Fan includes not 100, but 172 poems in which the initial organization by seasons is no longer visible, but in which one can perceive a logic of expansion according to the principle of “imitation” of nature that Claudel associates with the Japanese artist, in contrast with the [Western] “copy” (see Knowing the East, “Cà et là”).

Fifteen years after the Japanese edition, Claudel decides to publish the collection in a larger format, with Gallimard, in 1942. At this time he adds a preface dated from Brangues, June 25, 1941.

The content of the collection originates in most cases in a direct experience that Claudel notes occasionally in his Journal; he then works this raw material into the formulation of the “phrase”. Claudel draws his inspiration from his stay in Japan as ambassador, between November 1921 and February 1927 (this explains the title chosen for the second collection, the Poëmes du Pont-des-Faisans, which refers to the name of the residence of the ambassador of France in Tokyo). But above all, it was the voyages taken into the interior of the Nippon archipelago that nourished the imaginary world of A Hundred Movements for Fan, essentially the summer stays (July-August 1922, July 1923 and July-August 1926) at Chuzenji-ko, a famous site composed of a lake, temples and Mount Nantaï, and even more the cruise on the Inland Sea from April to August 1926, that continues on to the Yamato, by the visit to Nara, to Kyoto, where he revisits his friend the painter Tomita Keisen, and that ends with a last stay at Chuzenji-ko. Moreover, this trip results in three texts that illuminate the spirit in which the Hundred Movements were composed: Le Poëte et le vase d’encens, Le Poëte et le shamisen and Jules ou l’homme-aux-deux-cravates (The Poet and the Incense Holder, The Poet and the Shamisen and Jules or the Man with Two Cravats). Furthermore, the trips that he made to Indochina, in particular the visit to the temples of Angkor in Cambodia on October 3-4, 1921, then another trip in February 1925 (see Journal, t. I, p. 522 and passim.), are also the origin of certain phrases, those in which snakes, nagâs and hydras appear, for example.

The publication occupies the last months of Claudel’s stay in a country which he described as not far from paradise. We can thus consider the work as a homage to Japan, homage in spirit and in form. In effect the collection presents a luminous and glorious Japan, but in addition, as we have seen, it borrows from several traditions that are specific to Japan, or at least to the Far East: haiku, certain Far Eastern pictorial traditions, calligraphy, as well as a certain relationship to nature and to the world (that Claudel calls ahité, in Japanese mono no aware). However, Claudel does not consider giving up his identity as a Western Christian. The spirit of A Hundred Movements for a Fan, as we said, is that of “emulation”: the collection is a challenge proposed by a Western poet to Far Eastern tradition in a field that seems a priori reserved to it, calligraphy. Finally, the paradisiacal Japan is really only a beautiful image, a reflection, an “allusion” to the ultimate Christian truth: it is in fact possible to read a specifically Christian trajectory in the collection (see Philippe Postel, “Stèles mystérieuses, éventails mystiques”).

Philippe Postel

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