Claudel and the Book

From the start of his career, Claudel conceived an ambitious vision of the Book: much more than a simple utilitarian object, it appears to him as a dynamic potentiality, a vehicle for the highest aspirations of humanity. The poet owes this demanding conception to the two formative influences on his poetics: first of all, the Bible, the “Book of Books”, “the written text par excellence, this one! Holy Scripture”, discovered the evening of his conversion in 1886 (“Mallarmé”, 512-13); and the influence of Mallarmé, who considers the Book as the supreme expression of the meaning of the universe. “Everything, in the world, exists to result in a book”, (Le Livre, instrument spirituel; (“The Book, Spiritual Instrument”), Oeuvres complètes, 378). These two influences come together in the conception of Creation as a text, a Book written by a divine hand that we must interpret and imitate by human means. “All Creation is like a written book”, “Samedi”, 798). The Mallarmean vision of the world as a vast network of relationships will be realized in an organ that is both concrete and intellectual, in which the apparently chaotic phenomena of life will be transformed into a transcendent meaning. Claudel’s stay in China and Japan between 1895 and 1909, and his discovery of the exceptional richness of the Oriental arts of the book and writing, intensified his interest by revealing the true possibilities of a more plastic conception of the art of book layout. The first publication in which he was inspired to put into practice his interest in the material forms of his publications was Five Great Odes (1909-10): he preoccupied himself with all the details of the edition in order to evoke in the external form of the work the same sense of sumptuous monumentality that characterizes the Odes themselves. The Oriental influence appears in the use of a luxurious Korean paper, shipped from China where he was still at his post. This influence was more actively realized in the edition of Connaissance de l’Est (Knowing the East) published by Victor Segalen in his “Korean Collection” in 1914. The Korean Collection utilizes a carefully structured layout, a prestigious Korean paper, the “Great Tribute Paper”, and a precious binding, in order to create a subtle correspondence between the poetic texts and their concrete form. Each unit of text is surrounded by a black line and laid out on the page in such a way that the text appears as a rectangular block, creating what Segalen calls a “stele-form”, evoking the thousand-year-old monumentality that is a theme of the poems.

When the poet was named ambassador to Japan in 1921, he was able once again to participate actively in the material preparation of his publications, working in collaboration with Japanese colleagues. At the same time, he returned to the themes that dominated his poetry from the first Oriental period, but gave them a new and more experimental form. The principal realizations of this exploration are “La Muraille Intérieure de Tokyo” (“The Interior Wall of Tokyo”), published in the form of a “reverse side” to the poem “Sainte Geneviève” (1923); “Le Vieillard sur le Mont Omi” (“The Old Man on Mount Omi”), (1924); and A Hundred Movements for a Fan, 1926 (final form of a work elaborated in several versions). During the same period, his Japanese experiences inspired Claudel to reflect in a systematic way on the specific art and function of the book. In “La Philosophie du Livre” (1925), he celebrates the book as an “instrument of knowledge”, “receptacle of thought”, “laboratory of the imagination” (Prose, 72-79), a place where the mind pursues its search for meaning and order in the world. Each book, of any nature at all, is a stone brought “to the vast monument of Human Explanation” (72), but the book is itself a construction and possesses its own internal structure. Following his theories about poetic rhythm and its physiological basis in respiration, Claudel emphasizes the capital role of blank space in the layout of poetic texts: “The white space is not in fact only for the poem a material necessity imposed from outside. It is the actual condition of its existence, of its life and its respiration”, 77). These ideas appear in concrete form in “La Muraille”, “Le Vieillard” and A Hundred Movements, where the poet utilizes different means to mobilize the concrete space of the page, to make the act of reading a voyage of creative exploration instead of a mechanical and monotonous progression. The volume that contains “Sainte Geneviève” and “La Muraille” presents them in a Japanese format of accordion-folded paper between two thin wooden covers; the two poems are written in Claudelian verse form or “versets claudéliens”, printed on both faces of the paper with “Sainte Geneviève” on one side and on the other “La Muraille”. Thus they form a hybrid and culturally ambiguous work: the first side is the poem of the triumph of Occidental-style positive and collective values, while the form and the poetry of the other side express a mysterious underside, a magic mirror that reflects in an indirect and oneiric form the nature of things through the process of poetic creation. “Le Vieillard sur le Mont Omi” remains the only example of a typographical experiment in which Claudel combines the Japanese techniques of page layout with a spatial conception similar to contemporary typographical experiments like Apollinaire’s Calligrammes, the experimentation of the Futurists and Mallarme’s Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard. The twenty-two short texts, which evoke the abode of a Japanese poet-hermit on top of a mountain, are arranged around a center formed by the title of the work in a circular pattern that attempts to reconcile the linear temporality of reading and a synthetic, immediate poetic experience. This complex spatial network expresses the paradoxical nature of the knowledge that is evoked in the texts, which combine images of long anticipation and a brusque illumination. “At midnight I light my lamp and all of a sudden the phrases and the paintings appear to me from everywhere suspended around the walls of my hut”: the space of the page simultaneously represents interior space, in the head; the space of the hut; the enlarged exterior space, the mountain landscape; and finally, temporal space, the length of the poet’s life. Finally, in the last important “Japanese” publication of this period, A Hundred Movements for a Fan, Claudel profoundly transforms the work of page layout, starting with the graphic representation of his poems, replacing the Western letters with his own hand-drawn calligraphy and that of his Japanese collaborator, Ikuma Arishima. The dynamic movement of the Japanese characters and the sinuous lines of Claudel’s writing create a page-landscape that integrates all the dimensions of space in a series of miniature pictures in intense activity. At the same time, the ensemble is organized into a global architecture created by the black borders that separate the poem-phrases. This totally personalized structure is an original response to the problem of the poetry collection that Claudel discussed in “La Philosophie du Livre”: “Each poem is essentially isolated and should be presented in a form that would be particularly appropriate to it” (77). One can conclude that the works in which Claudel adopted the techniques of the Oriental book all emphasize the process of poetic creation itself, as if the experience of Oriental aesthetic and spiritual thought, and its profound understanding of the mechanisms by which the artist can summarize the essence of things by the process of organic abstraction, inspired the poet to reflect more profoundly on the functioning and the significance of his own creative mechanisms.

In the last part of Claudel’s literary career, he returned to the notion of the Book in a wider and more dramatic sense. In two of his last dramas, Le Livre de Christophe Colomb (The Book of Christopher Columbus) and Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher (“Joan of Arc at the Stake”), the Book represents the form of the heroes’ destiny transmuted into eternal and transcendent significance. The greatest enterprise of the last part of his life is the series of Biblical commentaries in which he devoted himself to the Book of all Books, to decipher, interpret and rewrite the history of the vast system of relationships that unite the Holy Scripture and Creation. “Nothing prevents us now from continuing, one hand on the Book of Books and the other on the Universe, the great symbolic inquiry that was for twelve centuries the occupation of the Fathers of the Faith and of Art” (“Mallarmé”, 513).

Nina Hellerstein

Bibliography :

Works of Claudel :

– Cent phrases pour éventails. Ed. Michel Truffet. Annales Littéraires de l’Université de Besançon, 310. Paris : Les Belles-Lettres, 1985. Œuvre poétique, Gallimard, « La Pléiade », 1967, 697-744.
Cinq Grandes Odes. Paris : L’Occident, 1910. Œuvre poétique, 219-92.
Connaissance de l’Est. « Collection Coréenne ». Péking, Crès, 1914. Facsimilé : Pékin, Châtelain-Julien, 1994. Œuvre poétique, 21-120.
Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher. Théâtre II. Paris : Gallimard, « La Pléiade », 2011. 647-73.
Le Livre de Christophe Colomb. Théâtre II. 573-627. Il existe une édition d’art en anglais illustrée par Jean Charlot : The Book of Christopher Columbus, New Haven : Yale University Press, 1930.
– « Le Vieillard sur le Mont Omi ». Commerce 4-6 (1925), pp. 6-8; L’Oiseau noir dans le soleil levant. Paris: Excelsior, 1927, p. 153. Il existe également une édition de luxe, Le Vieillard sur le Mont Omi: Papillons et Ombres de Papillons, illustrée par Audrey Parr avec des images de papillons presque transparentes. Paris: Le Livre, 1927. Dans Oeuvre poétique: 745-51.
Œuvres en prose. Paris : Gallimard, « La Pléiade », 1965. « La Philosophie du Livre  », 68-81 ; « Mallarmé », 512-13 ; « Samedi  », 798.
– « Sainte Geneviève », illustré par Audrey Parr, avec au verso « La Muraille Intérieure de Tokyo », illustré par Keissen Tomita. Tokyo, Chinchiocha, 1923. Dans Œuvre poétique : « Sainte Geneviève », 633- 646 ; « La Muraille Intérieure de Tokyo », 646-651.

Other sources :

Bulletin de la Société Paul Claudel, 2018-1, no. 224, « Le Livre ».

– Nina Hellerstein. «Calligraphy, Identity: Scriptural Exploration as Cultural Adventure». Symposium, Vol. XLV (spring 1991), pp. 329-342.
– Nina Hellerstein. «’Le Vieillard sur le Mont Omi’: une ‘énorme plaisanterie archiconnue’». Bulletin de l’Association pour la Recherche Claudélienne, no. 7 (2008), pp. 3-20.
– Nina Hellerstein. «Claudel, Segalen et un Travail de Bibliophile: l’Edition Canonique de Connaissance de l’Est dans la Collection Coréenne». Paul Claudel Papers, Vol. VIII-X (2012), pp. 167-188.
-Sophie Lesiewicz. « Le « livre (typo)graphique », 1890 à nos jours : un objet littéraire et éditorial innommé. Identification critique et pratique. » (Résumé de thèse). Bulletin de la Société Paul Claudel, no. 228 (2019, no. 2), pp. 90-2.

– Michel Lioure. « Claudel et le Livre ». Cahiers des Amis de Valéry Larbaud. Vol. 32 (1995), 175-187.
– Stéphane Mallarmé. Un Coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard, 453-77. « Le Livre, Instrument Spirituel», 378-82. Oeuvres complètes. Paris: Gallimard, « La Pléiade», 1945.