“Poetry as a Spiritual Exercise,“ by Jean-Wahl (1942)
translation by Timothy Lavenz (2013)
A spiritual exercise, first, in the etymological sense of the word: exercise of the breath, of rhythm – and this rhythm will be both passive and active, a passivity sent up into activity –, poetry is also a spiritual exercise in a more profound sense. It is an exercise for becoming conscious (sometimes an infinitesimal consciousness) of the unconscious. Even Valéry, who talks about the first lines of verse being given to him, of the rhythms he discovers by surprise at the origin of his poems, and of the intermediary states between consciousness and the unconscious, would not deny it; even Mallarmé, who sees ideas surge up from the blank page, and a clarity that emerges from the night of Idumea. And, inversely, the surrealists must well know what part consciousness plays for them.
An exercise which also consists in manipulating in a mysterious way time and space. Condensing and elongating time, the poet creates a time that is no longer the time of the everyday. He isolates a moment to which he gives its own duration, incommensurable with ordinary time, at once longer and shorter; longer because of its infinite resonances, shorter because of its ecstatic and instantly rapt character.
This isolated instant, that of the poet, is an instant no longer isolated, in which a duality, a plurality, a multitude of instants shine and are condensed. An instant that no longer exists as an instant.
And the poet creates a space in it, infinitely near, infinitely remote, this living space which is that of the work of art, and which Rilke, inspired by the lessons of sculpture, knew how to make us feel. A space that no longer exists as space.
In this time and this space, which are at the same time so near and so far away from us, everything becomes, at the same time, near and far away.
The mysterious is here quite near; and the here-quite-near is mysterious. These two affirmations, one Coleridge’s and the other Wordsworth’s, rejoin each other; they both knew it, and Novalis, perhaps better than they, became conscious of these two movements that appear contradictory.
Every work is an operation, an experience that takes place, is made [se fait].
Thus the question recently posed to me by a young poet, if is poetry an evasion or an exploration, loses meaning. All great poetry is an evasion only in appearance. It is an evasion only because it goes deeper.
And, like this the poet is created, he is the poet of himself, delivering himself from his demons, excusing himself, dedicating himself.
And finally silence comes. Perhaps poetry is only our way of coloring and making vibrate the silence that succeeds us, or which is contemporary with us.
Often, it is not the meaning of a verse that grabs and holds us, but something else, the interior accompaniment and care it brings up within us.
When it comes to speaking to others, the poet hesitates, he doesn’t read well his poem. Or he reads it as if it were another’s. He reads it without comprehending it. Thus Claudel when he puts on his glasses and acts just like a notary when he reads his great works. Deplorable, in reality admirable way of reading Claudel. Some other makes of his poems, by his hesitations, something shredding. Must we distrust poets who read their works too well? No; I know of some who can restore about their work the atmosphere from which it was born.
Some poets have told us the method of their exercises; Shelley, how he cultivates his astonishment, or more simply lets it develop on its own; Hölderlin, Poe, Rimbaud, who disrupt every meaning; Mallarmé.
We shouldn’t speak of poetry as a spiritual exercise anyway, but of each mode of poetry as a particular spiritual exercise. What could be farther apart than the strict arches underneath which a Dante makes us pass, and this open space where Whitman makes us breath among immense waves and winds? And yet there’s no less infinity in the first than in the second.
Will we then be led to say that all poetry is the creation of a world? We note well the character of creation and totality there in poetry. But, owing to certain realist tendencies I feel in me, or to a certain incapacity, I would hesitate to define poetry as a “creation of the world.” Of course the idea of the world is the effect of an illusion, at once retrospective and totalizing. Poetry is rather the creation of a language or a music, of a language which is a music.
Perhaps we should add, after having envisaged poetry as a spiritual exercise, that the poet must not be too conscious of poetry as an exercise, and that poetry is not only an exercise. “Exercise” puts the accent on the activity. “Experience” (if one takes the word in the sense James takes it when he speaks of religious experience) puts the accent on passivity. Exercise, experience, creation, poetry is also an adventure.
Translation of “La Poésie comme Exercise Spirituel,” from Poésie, Pensée, and Perception, by Jean-Wahl, 1948.
Thank you for this. Earlier this year I read Wahl’s book from the late ’40s, The Philosopher’s Way.I’m not sure what the genesis of this book was; in some regards it reads like old-fashioned existentialism, not one of those “textual commentaries” that it got fashionable to write, and then later fashionable to sneer at. I think (but this is a guess) it may even have been a “textbook” of sorts — the chapters are topical, and it seems to cite a number of names that may have been quite familiar once but are no longer cited much (which makes it, for a reader today, full of leads to follow up later). But it’s very good and quite deep, despite an apparent brevity of some treatments and an urbanity of tone.
Interesting…. From what I gather, Wahl was one of those writers who stayed relatively glued to histories. There is also a great collection of his “studies” on Kierkegaard – some of the best I’ve read, striking right at the heart of the “paradox” (that the eternal become historical in the intense tension of the instant, unprecedented). I also ordered (in French) one, “A Picture of French Philosophy,” starting with Descartes and running up to the existentialists of his time (not sure I’ll get to that one any time soon). I agree there is a brevity and “urbanity of tone” to his writing, but in all truth, this is welcome among philosophers (I imagine you agree). A straightforwardness of approach is not to be scoffed at, nor does it indicate a lack of thinking. I’m going to be in Geneva for a little while and hope to locate there one of his final books, a treatise on “metaphysical experience.” I was turned on to his work by a very glowing summary of his thinking by Emmanuel Levinas, “Neither Being nor Having,” collected in Outside the Subject. All the best to you, sir.