Les Fleurs de Tarbes

A sign at the entrance to the Tarbes public park reads as follows:


Here is what happened, more of less (I think): a woman was walking along carrying a rose. The keeper said to her: “You know very well that no one is allowed to pick the flowers.” “I had it when I came in,” the woman answered. “Well, then, no one will be allowed to enter carrying flowers.”

Today I finished reading Les Fleurs de Tarbes (Jean Paulhan, 1949), subtitled ou la terreur dans les lettres — that is, The Flowers of Tarbes, or, Terror in Literature. The version I was reading was Michael Syrotinski’s 2006 translation.

“Terror” in this context is a reference to the French revolutionary Terror, which Paulhan seems (I don’t know any of his other work) to be using as a metaphor for “revolution” — the exploding of tradition, the pursuit of novelty and creative genius, the devaluing and reviling of cliché in all its forms. The problem Paulhan runs into, I think, is that this “terrorist” attitude is so ubiquitously popular that he can find it literally anywhere; and so the book occasionally slips into being nothing more than a catalogue of things Paulhan personally doesn’t like, each with the label “terror” attached.

However, there are three or four thought-provoking pages in the book… and they probably aren’t going to be as thought-provoking when starved of the surrounding pages’ context. (Readers of my blog might be able to relate!)

Bergson points out […] that language and thought are contrary in nature: the latter is fugitive, personal, unique; the former is fixed, shared, abstract. Consequently, thought, which in any case has to go through the language that expresses it, is thereby altered, and becomes in its turn, because of this constriction, impersonal and drained of all its color. […] Which of us has not felt thwarted in advance and as if deformed by the words we are about to say?

Here […] we run into obstacles: first of all, that it is unwise to reduce all language to expressing thoughts. […]

But even if I grant that all language expresses something, I do not in the least consider that this expression must necessarily diminish me. Quite the opposite […] Our language, said Comte, teaches us about ourselves; or, as Rilke put it, reveals us to ourselves.

But supposing I want all language to express something, and all expression to constrict us. It would still have to be proven that this constriction is permanent. Here again I can see quite the opposite […] The survivor of a shipwreck waving a cloth rag on his raft communicates his hunger, his thirst, and his worry very poorly. Before speaking of the strange simplifying effect that the rag has on him, I would really like to be sure that his worry, his hunger, and his thirst will not return as soon as the ship has passed him by.

“Julien Benda,” writes one polemicist, “talks with the most fervent conviction about what is True, and Just, and Good. For him these words possess every virtue and deservedly carry with them every conviction…” That may be true, but for Julien Benda the good and the just are, on the contrary, the very principle and truth by dint of which everything else appears as mere words […]

[Henri Bordeaux writes:] “I am duty-bound to—” “Duty is just a word!” “Yes, when you use it.” […]

If Charis starts to cry when someone says to her, “Your father is dead,” I won’t go around saying that the word father or the word dead have a strange power over her. If Denis learns that he has won a million francs and faints with joy, I won’t be astonished at the state he has been thrown into by the word million. I know very well that it is the event, not the word, which affects them. But what about justice, what about democracy or freedom? For those who jump for joy at these words, it is certainly the thing itself that moves them. Even if this thing still remains variable and badly defined when there are several different people talking together.

We now see, at the entrance to the public park in Tarbes, this new sign:


When all is said and done it was an ingenious measure, because the visitors, already overburdened with their own flowers, were hardly likely to think of picking any others.

Posted 2019-01-14