On Language

During the years between the World Wars, Claudel’s language was the object of violent attacks that came essentially from the neoclassical camp. We quote, for example, this remark from Joseph de Tonquéduc in 1917:

What is much more intolerable are the willful liberties that Claudel takes with grammar. He uses despotic procedures with our language. The most essential rules no longer exist for him. He violates them with impudence and delight. […] I feel that one would meet, along with Latinisms, borrowings from archaic French, innovations founded on analogy, etc., some grammatical phenomena that simply belong in the category of deformities, if not monstrosities.

This “grammaticalization” of criticism marks the sacralization of common language against the “anarchical individualism” of literary discourse.

These attacks are going to provoke in the poet a reflexive return to questions of language: syntax, the relationship between oral and written language, grammatical error, but also to more ideological notions like “French clarity” or the “genius of the language”. Claudel is going to oppose to the critics a series of carefully argued responses. He first justifies his use of language by claiming his rootedness in French terroir: “As for me, who am a Frenchman from Ile-de-France, born between Racine and La Fontaine, … I who descend from a line of French peasants who come from the terroir of Notre-Dame-de Liesse, …M. Pierre Lasserre accuses me of not knowing a language that belongs to me by right of heritage and primogeniture “. This reference defines a legitimacy founded in nature. Then, Claudel repudiates traditional hierarchies—social, political, aesthetic—that command the discourse on literary language: he deconstructs for example the myth of “French clarity” (the French language is no clearer than any other), rejects the fetichism of written language and empties of its meaning the notion of grammatical error. It’s the entire academic and fashionable discourse on language that he rejects in this way, that of the purists, of neoclassical critics and other amateurs of “language quarrels”…

The poet’s positions are in affinity on these points with the effort being accomplished by the linguistics of his time to construct language as an object. Even if he is relying on linguistic information that is partial and second-hand, even if his aim is instrumental, Claudel does turn toward linguists and language historians in “Sur la Grammaire” (“On Grammar”) (1930) to defend himself from the attacks aimed at him. He places himself under the patronage of the “most distinguished philologists of the Sorbonne”, praises the liberal approach of the classical grammarian Vaugelas and quotes Ferdinand Brunot several times. By their intellectual rigor, these scholarly discourses are as many methodological models that he opposes—and that is a good sign of the polemical substrate of his reflection—to the little “lyrical explosions” of literary criticism.

As a diplomat, Claudel returns to the traditional celebration of the “genius of the language”: at the very moment when Beaunier and Lasserre are reproaching him for “breaking with the order and the genius” of the national language, he pronounces, in his diplomatic speeches, the praise of “French clarity”. However, he will modify its academic definition, declaring it no longer the intemporal essence of the language but the result of a historical conquest. The writer who is believed to embody the height of the national genius and of French clarity brought to its point of perfection, Racine, is deliberately omitted from his speeches. And the Romantic revolution is proposed as the most important moment in the history of language and literature.

As a poet, Claudel does not respond to the accusations that he attacks the common good that is language (“innumerable violations of syntax”, “fuliginous” style, “incommunicable lyrical subjectivism”…) by claiming for poetry, as one might have expected, “another state of language”. This admirer of Rimbaud and Mallarmé never ceases, on the contrary, to underline the continuum that unites literary usage to common language and to praise the ordinary resources of language. Since the need for expression is a universal, literary style cannot be conceived as deviant in relation to common usage. This proposition takes shape in a double formulation. Claudel affirms first that the inspirations of an ordinary speaker gifted with a sense of language (for example a “butcher demanding his payments” which he contrasts provocatively with Flaubert the “untalented”) or certain particularly lively epistolary styles (for example that of Colette’s mother or his sister Camille) proceed from the same “expressive genius” as that of a writer. In a symmetrical relationship, he proposes that great authors take possession of a language that is rich with all the common expressiveness that they exemplify. On this point, the position of the poet is very close to that of the linguist Charles Bally: the “natural milieu” of literary expression is common language, a difference of degree, not of nature, separates them.

 When he describes the work of a writer confronting lexicon and syntax, Claudel clearly affirms the preeminence of the latter: the sentence is in accord with the major role of composition in Claudelian aesthetics and appears as the necessary linguistic translation of the notion of “relationship”. Claudel as a reader prefers the complex sentence presenting a hierarchical structure. If this phrastic model is for him the form “par excellence” of literary art, it is because it constitutes the ideal framework in which prosodic and rhythmical values, which, precisely, are only relationships, of timbres, length, “color”, can unfold…

The importance that he accords to the phonetic, syntactic and rhythmic properties of the idiom in literary art constitutes a response to the neo-classical critics who accuse him of submitting language to his writer’s caprice. Against this reproach, Claudel energetically reaffirms the value of the commonality of language, understood both as a collective code, superior to all usages, but also as the ordinary usage of language. It is in this perspective that one can interpret the style of the last versions of his dramas: by the use of popular speech conceived as language of the “human community”, Claudel attempts an-depth stylistic exploration of this common dimension of language. But the contradiction remains evident nonetheless for every reader between his theoretical references to ordinary speech and his poetic and dramatic writing, which imposes itself, on the contrary, as a literary expression in rupture with banal forms of language, which has incorporated the great works of Antiquity, classical French and foreign texts and the foundation of the French language in its totality…It is precisely this tension that Jacques Rivière with great perspicacity tries to define in a letter that he addresses to Claudel in 1910 after reading the Five Great Odes: “If you permitted me, I would tell you that I don’t dare call you a French poet.

Your work does not have in our literary past any preparation … It’s necessary to go back to the Greeks to find precursors to you. Even Shakespeare, even Dante don’t announce you. You are not in their lineage, but only Greek and Biblical. I don’t mean that you seem to be a barbarian among us. But the only thing by which you reveal yourself to be French, is this formidable property of words; it is in fact our language that you speak, and with an enormous precision that we didn’t suspect, –commanding words to produce at each instant (to justify their meaning) all their past, all their history. But precisely, this same kind of violent property is that of someone who conquers a language with genius, not that of someone who submits to it and follows it”.

Emmanuelle Kaës

 Textes de Claudel [Bibliographie sélective]
Réflexions et propositions sur le vers français (1925), Œuvres en prose, « Bibliothèque de la Pléiade ».
« Un témoignage sur Ramuz » (1926), Œuvres en prose, « Bibliothèque de la Pléiade ».
« La Langue française », conférence prononcée le 27 août 1922, Supplément aux Œuvres Complètes II.
« Sur la grammaire » (1930), Œuvres Complètes, tome XVIII, Gallimard.
Le Soulier de satin, IIIe Journée, scène 2, Théâtre II, « Bibliothèque de la Pléiade ».

Bibliographie critique
Gérald Antoine, « Claudel et la langue française », La Table Ronde, n° 194, mars 1964.
Emmanuelle Kaës « Claudel et la ”clarté française” », Paul Claudel et l’histoire littéraire, Annales littéraires de l’Université de Franche-Comté, 2010.
Emmanuelle Kaës, Claudel et la langue, Garnier, 2011.
Paul Claudel : les manuscrits de l’œuvre en chantier. Éditions universitaires de Dijon, 2005.
La Linguistique de Claudel, Garnier, 2014.