A PROFILE OF JEAN PAULHAN
by Michael Syrotinski, from Readysteadybook.com
It's difficult to overstate the importance of Jean Paulhan's role in French literature in the first half of the twentieth century, and the influence he wielded. He was closely involved with the leading literary review in France, the Nouvelle Revue Française, from 1920 to his death in 1968, and the director of the review during its illustrious interwar years. His position at the heart of the French literary scene, along with the many other associated editorial activities through which he nurtured and published the cream of a generation of writers, earned him the reputation as the 'grey eminence' of modern French literature.
His own texts are less well-known and certainly underappreciated, even in France, and this is perhaps a consequence of his legendary discretion and self-effacing modesty. His writing is at last beginning to attract the readership and the critical attention it deserves, as evidenced by the publication of his voluminous correspondence with many of the writers he became close friends with, a new seven-volume edition of his complete works (to appear with Gallimard), and more and more of his works, such as The Flowers of Tarbes, coming out in English translation. The Flowers of Tarbes is the text he is probably most associated with, but he was an extremely eclectic figure, by turns an anarchist, a short story writer, a mystic, a literary critic, an art lover, and a political polemicist. He loved all sorts of games, including the games one plays with language, and this comes through in the playfulness of his writing and thinking generally.
He was extremely well acquainted with the intellectual and political developments of his time, such as Saussurean linguistics, Freudian psychoanalysis, Marxism, German philosophy, ethnology, and phenomenology, and was as free-ranging and open-ended in his philosophical references (including, for example, Duns Scot, Vailati, Lao-Tseu, and the Ancient Greeks) as he was in his literary allusions. In fact he often went against the grain of prevailing opinion or ideology, with a certain calculated perversity, famously defending blacklisted collaborationist writers in the literary purge after the Second World War, when he had been one of the most prominent of Résistants during the war. As politically dubious as it may appear, Paulhan's polemic in fact argues passionately in favour of the need to respect democracy at a very fundamental level. People are now beginning to understand the originality of his thinking about the relationship between language, meaning, political action, and historical event, as well as its relevance to contemporary questions of political philosophy and literary theory.
Paulhan was also one of the champions of Cubist painting and of informel artists such as Fautrier and Dubuffet, and wrote several books on modern art. For him, it represented in many ways an aesthetic version, and an intensely successful one at that, of the immediacy and purity of expression he sought for so long in the literary and linguistic domain. It has been said about Paulhan that even though he was writing in the midst of the modernist revolution in art and literature, his thinking and writing belong more properly to the postmodern era.
As far as The Flowers of Tarbes goes, it is a very readable synthesis of much of his thinking and writing from the 1930s and 40s, but one can trace the themes back to his early years. As a student, he was strongly attracted to anarchism, and its radical claims, and this resurfaces in The Flowers of Tarbes under the guise of what he termed literary "Terror", or the endless necessity of writing against the literature and language of one's predecessors. As a young man, he spent three years on Madagascar, and wrote a number of essays on malagasy proverbs, a linguistic phenomenon that was eventually transformed into Terror's opposite term in The Flowers of Tarbes, namely "Rhetoric," or conventional language, commonplaces, and literary clichés.
Paulhan's focus on the rhetorical dimension of literature has led to the view of his work as prefiguring literary critics such as Gérard Genette, Roland Barthes, Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida. It is certainly true that Paulhan shared with both de Man and Derrida a keen attention to the epistemological and ethical consequences of taking the rhetorical uncertainties of language and literature seriously.