The East I Know

(Connaissance de l’Est)

Written at the same time as the Vers d’Exil, but published earlier, in 1900, Connaissance de l’Est is a much larger book. It is a collection of prose poems almost all composed in China, and grouped into two unequal parts. The first, by far the longest, was written between 1895 and 1900; the second one, between 1900 and 1905, at a time when the author preferred other projects.
The title indicates quite clearly what the initial project was like: it was about the newcomer getting to know this Eastern country where he had just settled. Hence these texts on what we today would call « Chinese culture »: gardens, theatre, ideograms… Hence also the descriptions of exotic trees, animals, or landscapes.
But to describe is not enough. Claudel, applying to Eastern things the question that Mallarmé taught him to ask on every occasion (“What does that mean?”), considers each of the beings and landscapes that are offered to him as a sign. He therefore strives to decipher it, and, without omitting its carnal weight and concrete thickness, to discover what it “means”. Thus, the poem “October” delivers the word that the autumn landscape “means”; or the pig “teaches” not to seek the truth only by means of the glance, but with “all this without reserve that is himself”. Connaissance de l’Est can thus take the form of a book of wisdom, where religious concern remains extremely discreet, being treated most often in the manner of an allusion.
Moreover, the volume, where the very sensual evocation of very concrete nourishment and the symbols of the Invisible are mixed, brings together fairly heterogeneous texts: alongside the descriptions, we find stories of dreams (“Dreams”), poems that rewrite Chinese legends (“The bell”) or Japanese myths (“The legend of Amaterasu”), descriptions of excursions that sound like small epics, reflections of a philosophical or theological nature. As time passes, as the author gets used to this “East” in which he lives, he feels less and less the need to take it as an object of contemplation and meditation. Towards the end of the book, there are poems that no longer have any necessary connection with China, such as the “Proposal on Light”, or “On the Brain”, or “Dissolution”, the poem that closes the collection and evokes both the journey of return and the dissolution of all singular forms in the Marine Absolute.
Yet Connaissance de l’Est, despite this great diversity of motives, is not a disparate book. This is undoubtedly due to a great consistency of tone and a remarkable stylistic quality. A playwright and a poet, Claudel was also one of the first prose writers of his time, and it was by writing Connaissance de l’Est that he forged his instrument. The often complex and highly structured sentences willingly accentuate the visibility of logical connectors; they successfully combine influences that would seem incompatible (Mallarmé, Renard, Rimbaud, etc.) and very different registers: the solemn and the trivial, reasoned analysis (sometimes borrowing from scientific discourse) and lyricism. Verse, excluded from the prose poem, insidiously returns in the form of highly rhythmic formulas, sometimes isolated by a blank line. In this way, the book contributes to the debate on prose and verse, initiated by Baudelaire, continued by Rimbaud, and that the Claudelian “verse” in the theatre or in the Odes also extends in another way.