Poetic Art

This very complex text, published in 1907 but whose first idea seems to date back to 1898-1899, is a very strange literary object. Its title must not be misunderstood: it is not a poetic art in the sense of Boileau or Horace, it is not an art of writing, it is an ars poetica mundi, a poetic art of the universe, which exposes “the art of nature for making everything it has done”. It is an attempt to see the universe as a work, as a poem composed, and to develop this conception.

The first part is entitled “Knowledge of time“. Claudel mainly attacks the mechanism dear to positivist philosophers. Challenging what he calls the old Logic, which “had the syllogism as its organ”, he advocates a “new poetic Art of the Universe, a new Logic”, based on metaphor, understood as the relationship that each object in the world has with all the others, with the whole  of  which it is a part: “I still have to learn how this leaf, this insect is essentially different, and therefore why it is necessary, what it does there, its role in the creation of the play [….] It is not a row of isolated automatons producing the same gesture indefinitely, but a common action, a commedia dell’arte, that continues”.

The second part, divided into five “articles”, is the “Treatise  of co-birth to the world and  [of] oneself”. We will not summarize here the entirety of these pages, which frequently expose in an abstruse way, and in a difficult language, many ideas that will reappear throughout the subsequent work. Let’s just say that this enigmatic title, inspired by Bossuet, is actually based on a pseudo etymology and a pun that can be heard in at least two ways. The first (which refers to what has just been said about “Knowledge of time“, and to the error made by those who claim to isolate a phenomenon and separate it from the whole  from which it is taken ) is explained at the outset: “We are not born alone. To be born, for everything, is to know. Every birth is a knowledge”. But the pun also seeks to highlight the inadequacy of any narrowly intellectualist theory of knowledge. To say that knowledge is comparable to a birth is to say that it is an essential vital act that does not only involve the intellect, but the whole living being, body and soul: “There is”, Claudel would later say when commenting on his book, “a professorial tendency which consists in wanting to completely separate the different human faculties. There is sensation, there is memory, there is will, there is intelligence, and it seems that these faculties occupy a small compartment and have, one with the other, only official “worldly” relations, so to speak, but that they can operate separately…. I find that this idea is absolutely false, I find that there is no human faculty that is isolated and separate from others and that can function without all others being interested”.

The last part, entitled “Development of the Church“, is a reflection on religious architecture and its symbolic meaning.

This  complex group of texts can be read in various ways. It was seen as an expression of a psychological crisis: Claudel himself indicated, in a letter to his friend Frizeau, that the drafting of the Treatise  had appeased the anguish of death that was tormenting him at the time; moreover, the book is contemporary with the passionate turmoil of the first five years of the century. Reflection would have been a way to contain anxiety.

There was also a philosophical profession of faith, directed against the mechanism illustrated in particular by Taine, and nourished by very diverse readings: Saint Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, but also the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers and the spiritualist philosophers of the late nineteenth century whose theory of knowledge and criticism of determinism Claudel took up. Finally, we can see – and this is not exclusive – a long and singular didactic poem in prose, inspired by Edgar Poe’s Eureka, symbolist poetics conceived around Mallarmé, in which abound compelling and splendid formulas, written in “an almost oracular language, with innuendoes of a sacred darkness”, as the author wrote about Aeschylus. Claudel himself seemed to give pledges to both concepts: if he  sometimes referred to this work as a “purely intellectual study”, if he  stressed its relationship with the Summa  of Saint Thomas Aquinas, if he  used the term treatise  to designate its central part, it was also he who  used the term poem, and who  showed  some concern when the critic Jacques Rivière  presented his views in a somewhat systematic manner.