- Knowing the East
Fifty years after his death, Paul Claudel (1868–1955) is remembered for many things. Not only was he a major twentieth-century poet and playwright, he was an astute observer of Dutch, Spanish, and Japanese art. Not only was he the brother of sculptor Camille Claudel, he was a diplomat who lived for nearly twenty years in Asia, including a stint as the French ambassador to Japan (1921–1927). When he was elected as a member of the Académie Française in 1946 at nearly 80 years of age he quipped, "For an academic, that is puberty." He died at 87, having lived large in two centuries and on three continents.
Following an adolescence marked with indifference toward religion, Claudel experienced a profound conversion to Catholicism during a Christmas night service at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris at the age of 18. With Christianity at the center of his universe and under the influence of Symbolist poets Rimbaud and Mallarmé, he developed a response to the world that was at once poetic and spiritual. Through his poetry, plays, and essays, he insisted on a fundamental unity between matter and spirit, a harmonious and vast universe into which the human mind could enter. And, at least for him, the point of entry was the portal of the Church. He struggled at times, but never lost sight of his faith. For all this, he is often credited with the revival of French Catholicism in the wake of WWI. After all, if Paul Claudel could take religion seriously and find meaning in it, pourquoi pas the rest of us?
The facts of his extraordinary biography form a peculiar background to the recent translation by James Lawler of Claudel's collection of prose poems titled Knowing [End Page 229] the East. First published in 1946 as Connaissance de l'est, these sixty-one texts were written between 1895 and 1905 during Claudel's first visits to China and Japan as a young vice-consul stationed in Shanghai. He was twenty-six and still finding his poetic voice. And though his stance in the world is decidedly Christian, the content of this intriguing work reveals an inner dialogue with Buddhist ideas of interconnection, harmony, the ongoing quest for a higher life condition, and the overwhelming impact of nature in the lives of mere humans.
In "Pagoda," Claudel describes a seven-story Chinese pagoda as it "amplifies and multiplies the roof, exaggerates the horned corners that rise with an elegant surge, and turns their curves upward to the sky." This form that "does away with walls" and concentrates on the uplifting roof creates a space where "Buddha, Prince of Peace, dwells inside with all the gods." In this architecture he reads a structuring of physical and spiritual space, a kind of never ending upward movement divided into "the seven mystical heavens." The culminating effect is the heavenly achievement of the unknowable. And so, after going as far as he can go into the world of the spirit, he ends this prose poem with an abrupt return to temporal reality. "I have no more to say of the Pagoda. I do not know its name."
Elsewhere, in "The Wanderer," he turns his sense of awe toward nature. "Every tree has its personality, every small beast its role, every voice its part in the symphony," he writes. "As one understands music, so I understand nature, like a detailed narrative of proper names; as my walk and the day advance, so does the elaboration of the doctrine." The "doctrine," it seems, is the idea of dependent origination, the interrelation of all life that springs from a single source. In the last line, he states, "I understand the world's harmony. When will I grasp its melody?"
In "The Temple of Consciousness" Claudel climbs "the black rock's vertical wall, and only at this late afternoon hour do I know myself to be on the right track." Below, he observes golden rice fields. Ahead there is an "old stairway overlaid with hoary moss...