“I feel, therefore I exist” : Catherine Pozzi’s Credo

Descartes, as we know, kick-started Western rationalism with his famous formula Cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am”. This was, according to Descartes, a ‘self-evident’ truth, a proposition that not only he did not, but could not, doubt.
Descartes was in some sense a believer and, possibly, might have deplored the one-sided adulation of ‘Reason’ and the consequent down-grading of emotion that was such a prominent feature of  the 18th century Enlightenment. Christianity from the beginning disparaged the testimony of the senses because they could only provide knowledge of this world, and discouraged sensual gratification since it inevitably led on to unlawful sex. But Christianity could never set itself completely against sensation since, after all, God had made the universe and man and it was possible for man to ‘sense’ the presence of God.
Surprisingly, no important philosophic movement has taken as its starting point physical sensation : almost all start with abstractions or divine revelation. There is empiricism, of course, but its leading thinkers such as Hume were more concerned to show how unreliable the senses were rather than lauding them as the judge of what was real or not. The extension of man’s senses by way of scientific instruments has eventually replaced sensation itself, just as laboratory experiment has replaced direct experience which is dismissed as ‘anecdotal’. It was only the  Romantics who believed in sensation as a guide to truth and as the source of a kind of morality : a morality which excused almost everything so long  as the practitioner was committed to ‘Life’ with a capital ‘L’.
Catherine Pozzi, in her more optimistic moments, viewed herself as a prophet in a scientific age, one who would reverse the general trend and reach a synthesis of sensualism, science  and religion. This at any rate was the theme of the curiously titled Peau d’Ame (‘Skin of the Soul’), a rambling and inconsequential work not much read today if at all. She states in the Prologue her version of the Cogito : “JE-SENS-DONCE-JE-SUIS” and adds that it is sensation, rather than abstract thought, which requires the (notion of) the ego — “Ce n’est pas la pensée, c’est le sentir qui a besoin de JE” (Peau d’Ame, Prologue). Anne Malaprade, in her insightful book Catherine Pozzi, Architecte d’un univers, comments :
“On peut parler … d’une mystique de la sensation, c’est-a-dire d’une théologie expliquant suivant des principles scientifiques le phenomene du sentir, relié à la part de transcendance en l’homme.”
         The difficulty with any such theory is making the transition from the normal physical body and its sensations to the immortal soul. Early Christianity had the same problem which Saint Paul ‘solved’, at any rate to his satisfaction, by his notion of a ‘spiritual body’ which the individual would acquire at resurrection. This is still the official dogma — the Apostles’ Creed speaks of the “resurrection of the  body” — but, in practice, Christianity soon reverted to the clearcut dualistic conception of Soul/Body with the two fighting against each other rather than cooperating. As Marcel Jouhandeau put it memorably:
“L’âme et le corps vivent longtemps l’un à l’autre enchaînés, comme deux ennemis. (…) C’est là tout le drame humain, unique de son espèce, dont la marque est d’être double”   (“The soul and the body have for a longtime already been living like two enemies as if chained together. This is the crux of the human drama and is unique to our species : we live a kind of double life”)¹
Catherine Pozzi, like Blake, attempts to elaborate a sort of spiritualized pantheism which joins these two worlds. There is in her eyes more to ordinary sensation than one imagines since our current physiological reflexes are the result of a long evolutionary process : “l’homme ne résonne aux émissions de l’univers que parce que l’hérédité lui a transmis un patrimoine comprenant les accumulations de sentir du passé” (Malaprade). But Catherine Pozzi, like certain ‘New Age’ writers sees this process of sensation as originating in a ‘spiritual’ dimension to which it will eventually return. Wallace, who discovered the principle of evolution independently of Darwin and around the same time, in his later works put forward the idea that there was a spiritual dimension to evolution:

“It seems only logical to assume that the vast, the infinite chasm between ourselves and the Deity is to some extent occupied by an almost infinite series of grades of being, each successive grade having higher and higher powers in regard to the organization, development, and control of the universe” ².

We can trace a fragile counter-current to the official scientific fundamentalism in thinkers such as Wallace, Fechner, Sir Oliver Lodge and Dreisch and it is to this movement that Catherine Pozzi belonged, or aspired to belong. We  find striking anticipations of Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of ‘morphic resonance’ in scattered ideas put forward in her Journals. But her attempt remains, as she herself realised, a mere project, a philosophic dream which contains inevitable contradictions. She exalts sensation rather than the individual who senses : this and her interest in reincarnation moves her towards the Buddhist camp. But Buddhism rejected not only the ego but the soul – it was at one time known as “the No-Soul Theory” – whereas the Western Christian tradition to which she belonged held on firmly to the concept of the soul. The soul is, in classical theology and philosophy, an individual : it is, for the mystic, the ‘real I’. Some attempt is made in her poems and other writings to develop the concept of a ‘transpersonal identity’, an ‘I’ which remains distinct though progressively merges into the divine soul. In this respect Catherine Pozzi’s theology is quite close to certain New Age authors. She was undoubtedly someone ahead of her time and paid the penalty.

From “Réflexions sur la vie et le Bonheur” by Marcel Jouhandeau, a book he wrote two years later than his masterpiece, “Refléxions sur la Vieillesse et la Mort” (“Reflections on Old Age and Death”) that I am in the process of translating.

² The scientific community, then as now, was embarrassed by Wallace’s leanings towards spiritualism and this is one reason why his name is scarcely mentioned today whereas Darwin’s is blazoned everywhere. According to Jon Klimo, the author of Psychics, Prophets and Mystics  (where I came across the above quote), Wallace believed that the higher grades “influenced the lower by means of telepathy as if all were taking place within a single mind”.  Contemporary biologists, or, rather, theoreticians of biology, with the tiresome Dawkins in the lead, prefer to down-grade man as a mere carrier of genes — though this does not seem to have any chastening effect on their egos.  S.H.    



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The Six Poems viewed as stages on a Spiritual Journey by Sebastian Hayes

[Note: The six poems in French with an English translation in rhymed verse are to be found in an earlier post, The Six Poems. Here, the translations of excerpts I give are as literal as I can make them.]
During her lifetime Catherine Pozzi only published under her own name one or two articles in the Figaro and La Nouvelle Revue Française. The first, Le Problème de la beauté musicale et la science du m0uvement intelligent, concerned the aesthetic theories of her piano teacher, Marie Jaëll, a one time pupil of Liszt who had a great influence on her. Catherine Pozzi’s later articles were pieces of scientific vulgarisation and probably of no great interest (though I have not read them).
In 1927, when she was in her forties, Karin (as I shall permit myself to call her from now on) brought out Agnès, a fictionalized account of her own adolescent religious and amorous crises, but only under the name “C.K.” The book was attributed to Valéry, also  to Marie Régnier, though Anna de Noailles eventually guessed the author was Catherine Pozzi.
Of the ‘Six Poems’ only one, AVE, was published during Karin’s lifetime and even in this case she intended it to be anonymous, and was annoyed that her wishes were not respected. Nonetheless, there can be no doubt that Karin intended the ‘Six Poems’ to appear eventually since she wrote in her Journal on 6 November 1934,
“J’ai écrit VALE, AVE, MAYA, NOVA, SCOPOLAMINE, NYX. Je voudrais qu’on en fasse une plaquette.”
They duly appeared in La Nouvelle Revue Française but, regrettably, in a  different order with AVE first, presumably because AVE means ‘Hail’ in Latin. In the current NRF Gallimard edition they appear in the order, AVE, VALE, SCOPOLAMINE, NOVA, MAYA, NYX.  While reflecting on these poems and preparing to write about them, my instinct told me that this order was quite wrong and that the proper order was VALE, AVE, NOVA, MAYA, SCOPOLAMINE, NYX.  I imagined myself having to argue here that the NRF  ‘traditional’ order was perhaps the order in which Karin composed the poems, but that she must have had ‘my’ order at the back of her mind all along. I was thus delighted to find subsequently that ‘my’ order was the order she stipulated in her Journal, except that she puts MAYA before NOVA — and I had hesitated myself for a long time concerning this. Certainly VALE must come first and NYX (Greek for ‘nothing’) last while MAYA and NOVA must come in the middle since they concern the recollection of a past life and the anticipation of a future one. (After some heart searching, I have come to the conclusion that ‘my’ order is preferable since it gives the sextet a crescendo at the end of NOVA : I have thus retained this order in my commentary and hope Karin will forgive me for departing from her stated order.)
The poems remind one of the ‘Stations of the Cross’ : they are stages in an agonising spiritual journey, or again resting points on a pathway that candidates for initiation followed at Eleusis and other sites in the Ancient world.  The basic idea is clearly that of ‘dying to be born again’, and being born as a better and more complete person  — ‘eadem mutata resurgo’  (‘Though changed I shall arise the same’) as the great Swiss mathematician Bernoulli had inscribed on his tomb alongside a drawing of the Logarithmic Spiral that he studied and especially admired because it exemplified the principle (note (1)).
The Six Poems can also be viewed as photographs of a substance undergoing a change of state, this substance being, as it happens, a human individual — and Karin, preoccupied as she was with the relation between science and religion, would have  approved of this analogy. Remember that when a substance changes from the solid to the liquid state, or the liquid to the gaseous, matter is not actually created or destroyed : the molecules simply change their relations to each other and their environment, but this relation proves to be very far-reaching, indeeed crucial. Similarly, in Karin’s ‘chemistry of the soul’, the essential elements of her current personality have, so she believes, already existed before in previous reincarnations (‘MAYA’), will somehow persist after death even when momentarily dissociated from each other (‘AVE’) and will eventually come together again in the future (‘NOVA’), a future that is already in the process of formation.
VALE (‘Farewell’) shows the pilgrim looking  back at the old life she is now leaving for ever, and highlighting the experience that functioned as an anticipation of the present metamorphosis. This experience is love, human passion,  “cette sensation quasi magique quie relie deux êtres humains par-delà l’espace et le temps”  (Anne Malaprade, Catherine Pozzi, Architecte d’un Univers, p. 126).
That it was specifically her love affair with Valéry that Karin had in mind is shown by a reference at the end of fourth verse to a famous poem of Valéry’s, Le Vin Perdu. I am seemingly almost alone in this opinion, but I consider Valéry to be a tedious, if reasonably competent, poet and as a human being he strikes me as quite contemptible : a cold fish if ever there was one. Catherine Pozzi could hardly have made a worse choice, especially since Valéry was married and wanted above all to keep the relation secret, which Karin resented.
Lawrence Joseph has suggested that VALE was “un acte de revanche litteraire” (‘an act of literary revenge’) but, if so, it was an entirely ‘positive’ sort of revenge.  Karin starts by regretting  the end of this high-flown affair and her lover’s subsequent indifference not just to her but to what they lived together, but concludes by claiming that she has integrated the high points of the experience so all has not been lost after all:
“Il [cet amour] est mon corps et sera mon partage
Apres mourir”
(‘It is [in] my body and will be part of me when I die’)
What is worth remembering will thus remain with her for ever — “Je revivrai notre grande journée” (‘I will live again those wonderful days’) — and there is even the hint that her ex-partner will not, since he lacks her spiritual dimension — une revanche indeed.

AVE begins the sequence proper, VALE having served only as a foretaste, now superseded. AVE is a passionate invocation not to a real person but to a higher being, somewhere between Eros and Christ — one can imagine Psyche writing such a poem between visits from the god, while the tone similarly recalls Saint Theresa of Avila addressing Christ. The author’s uncertainty as to quite how to situate the being is stated in the first verse, since the author says she does not know “en quel soleil était votre demeure” (‘under what sun was your dwelling-place’). At the same time she claims to have known him despite him being, like Eros, on another plane of reality — “sans avoir su où je vous possédais” (‘without knowing where I possessed you’), and this and the final line “je vous aimais” suggests that the rapport was not entirely ‘spiritual’.
This being is at once beloved, guide and controller of her destiny : he will be responsible for her rebirth even though she is to be broken entirely to pieces
“Vous referez mon nom et mon image
De mille corps emportés par le jour”

(‘You will remake my name and image out of the thousand bodies dispersed by time’).
The author seems to suggest that, for a while, she will cease to exist as an individual, will be “sans nom et sans visage” (‘nameless and faceless’), but will be given a new ‘name and face’ which is yet the same, since underlying these transformations is a “vive unité” (‘living unity’).
One is reminded of the initiatory experience of shamans when, allegedly, under the influence of drugs such as ayahuasca, they undergo an experience of total dismemberment before being reassembled as the ‘same’ person but with extra powers. (It has even been suggested that ‘baptism by water’ originally included holding candidates under water long enough until such experiences were provoked.) On a more scientific note, one thinks of the extraordinary powers of regeneration of sponges which can be literally ‘dismembered’ by being passed through a sieve and which nonetheless reform themselves.
The tone of this poem, perhaps the most remarkable of the entire set, is rapt, ecstatic, and it ends with the enigmatic penultimate line “Cœur de l’esprit, O centre du mirage“. The ‘très haut amour’ thus unites mind and heart, or rather  is actually the ‘heart of [the] mind’ — a goal that Karin envisaged but, by her own admission, failed to achieve in her present life. ‘Mirage‘ is surely a reference to Buddhism which teaches that the whole of life is ‘maya’, illusion. But the ‘centre’ of the mirage is not illusion : for Buddhism it is a state not a person, Nirvana, but for Hinduism it is a living being, Brahman.
I am tempted to identify the being that the author addresses in AVE with the ‘Higher Self’ of the Upanishads and contemporary New Age philosophies. For, according to the ‘atman = Brahman’ theory, the being one finally confronts at the end of the spiritual journey turns out to be one’s own true self. Michael, a supposed ‘recombined entity’ made up of a thousand ‘old soul’ elements, channeled by Jessica Lansing in California states, “The correct source is within you, in the soul that is eternal. This is the only source of assistance you will receive in the physical plane or any other” (Yarbro, Messages from Michael).  

After AVE, NOVA comes as something of a shock. Instead of greeting with rapture a being from another realm, this time the spiritual traveller/initiate recoils with horror from a being that in some mysterious fashion the present-day speaker is bringing to birth in another world. She tells him not to be born  :
“Ne sois pas défais-toi dissipe toi délie
Dénonce le désir que je n’ai pas choisi”
(‘Do not be!  Unmake yourself! Dissipate! Let go! Condemn the desire that was not chosen by me!’)
The situation is extremely complicated, since this future being, who is at once admired and feared, is “ma splendeur, mon malheur” (‘my glory, my ruin’), is someone not yet fully born and yet “ma survie”  (‘my survival’) and  is apparently being formed canniballistically by sucking the speaker’s present vitality. His or its birth is the present speaker’s death “Mon plus terrestre bien perdu pour l’infini” (‘My most terrestrial possession lost for infinity’). The confused situation is matched by the desperation and confusion of tone and attitude. The speaker rebels against the entire process since it inevitably means her current extinction : “N’accomplis pas mon jour, âme de ma folie” (‘Do not bring my days to an end, soul of my madness’). Emotionally, the last lines of NOVA are a hysterical climax : from now on everything will begin to fall into place.

MAYA, which follows (in my ordering), is the most composed and tranquil of all the poems in the set. Rather than anticipating the future, the speaker returns to a previous idyllic reincarnation amongst the Mayans. She views this recapitulation of a previous incarnation as, precisely, on the cosmic scheme, a return to childhood, a recovery of the “happy days that may not come again” (Housman)
“Je revins sur mes pas vers l’abime enfantin”
‘I retrace my steps into childhood’s abyss’).
Nonetheless, the voyager still hesitates with respect to what lies in front of her : she wishes the process to stop here, in this lost paradise refound,
“Que s’arrete le temps, que s’affaisse la trame
” (‘If only time would stand still and the weft [of destiny] grow slack’).
The surprising last line  : “Singulier soleil de calme couronne” (‘Unique sun crowned with possession lost for infinity’) indicates that the speaker has succeeded, has indeed frozen time — but only for a moment.
After anticipations of the future and a reliving of the past, SCOPOLAMINE and NYX return us to the present. (Scopolamine is incidentally a drug originally prescribed to Karin but of which she abused : interestingly, it is not so much a hallucinatory drug as a ‘truth drug’ and was used as such on prisoners during World War II.) This time there is no holding back : on the contrary SCOPOLAMINE has a rapid forward movement and the spritual voyage is imaged as the launching of a spacecraft with (what we would call) an astronaut aboard it. Whatever it is that survives physical decomposition is already detaching itself from its earthly frame “Adieu Forme je ne sens plus” (‘Farewell Form I feel nothing any more’) and the speaker, no longer locked into the past, looks ahead towards the unknown searching for “un nom libre de la meéoire” (‘a name free of memory’).

NYX was written on Karin’s deathbed and brings us even closer to the moment of metamorphis : in fact we live it through this poem. The tone is a mixture of awe, regret, rapture and incomprehension with the latter having the final word, “Je ne sais pas de qui je suis la proie/Je ne sais pas de qui je suis l’amour” (‘I do not know whose prey I am, I do not know of whom I am the love’). The transitions mirror very closely the last lines of the strange poem with which the mysterious Comte de Saint-Germain (whom Karin would have known) ended his auto-portrait “Il appelle mon ame: Je mourrai, j’adorai, je ne savais plus rien” (‘He called my soul: I died, I adored, I knew nothing more’).

Note (1) This was Bernoulli’s express wish but, sadly, the stone mason, who,  understandably did not know the difference, engraved an Archimidean Spiral instead.

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Three books concerning Catherine Pozzi by Sebastian Hayes

1. Catherine Pozzi, Très haut amour, Poèmes et autres textes, Édition de Claire Paulhan et Lawrence Joseph   (nrf  Poésie/Gallimard)
2. Karin Pozzi et la quête de l’immortalite, Pierre Boutang (La Différence)
3. Catherine Pozzi, Architecte d’un Univers, Anne Malaprade (Larousse Decouvrir 1994)

(1) The Gallimard ‘pocket’ edition of Catherine Pozzi in the Poésie series, is a must for anyone even vaguely interested in the author (and able to read French). Like the other books in this series, it has a pleasant size — is appreciably less than A5 and can be put into one’s pocket — and general aspect. It tells you everything you need to know about Catherine Pozzi, at least the first time round. The 11 page Introduction by Claire Paulhan gives a very good picture of the upper class Parisian ‘salon’ milieu from which Catherine Pozzi came, narrates the important events in her life, and summarizes her philosophic beliefs intelligibly. Then follow the Six Poems, various other pieces found amongst her papers after her death and extracts from Pozzi’s voluminous Journal and the philosophic essay Peau d’Ame, the only work, apart from one poem and two or three magazine articles, that the secretive author allowed to be published in her lifetime. Then we have appreciations of the author from people who knew her and extremely useful Notes. The result is a slim, manageable volume (145 small pages), well written, well organised and well printed. Claire Paulhan is especially to be praised for giving such lucid summaries of Catherine Pozzi’s somewhat strange ideas while evidently not sharing them to any marked extent.
(2) With the best will in the world, I am afraid that I can find very little to say in favour of Pierre Boutang’s book, Karin Pozzi et la quête de l’immortalité  : its only distinction is its arresting title, the reason I ordered it blind from Amazon. The author does seem to have a genuine respect for his subject and doubtless contributed to keeping her name alive  at a time when she was almost completely forgotten ; also, the book has a useful series of Appendices which in particular (Annexe IV) throw a lot of light on Catherine Pozzi’s love affair with the aviator André Fernet. But this is about as far as I can go. The book is very long (340 pages) and the author manages to make everyone he writes about, including Plato, Socrates, Pascal, Pozzi herself seem as dull as ditchwater. Less is not always more but this book certainly proves that more can be less : had I come across this book before reading Catherine Pozzi herself, I would have given her a wide berth.
(3.) Pierre Boutang’s solid research, however, probably saved Anne Malaprade a certain amount of work and thus indirectly contributed to the latter’s book. Her Catherine Pozzi, Architecte d’un Univers, though it is superficially the same sort of scholarly work as Pierre Boutang’s, is in a completely different league. Relatively brief (150 pages), it is clear, to the point, and makes as much sense of Pozzi’s somewhat obscure theosophical speculations as can be made. Although the main events in Catherine Pozzi’s life, notably her unconsummated love for André Fernet and her affair with Valery, are mentioned, the emphasis is rightly put on Catherine Pozzi’s writings, or, rather, her thoughts, inasmuch as we can reconstruct them. Catherine Pozzi was not a writer who toyed with certain abstruse ideas because they made good pegs to hang verses on : she saw herself as a serious thinker with a mission to save humanity from ruin, a sort of twentieth-century Pascal.
Anne Malaprade correctly situates Catherine Pozzi in a twentieth-century cultural counter-current : she was, like T.S. Eliot, an anti-modernist modern. She was clearly of the modern era because of her intense self-absorption, her doubts concerning received truths and contemptuous flouting of bourgeois conventions  — she separated peremptorily from her well-heeled husband after the honeymoon and openly avowed her adulterous liaison with Valery. (One might say she was modern simply by being a woman and daring to think for herself.) But she was anti-modernist inasmuch as she deplored the nihilism and superficiality of the new intellectual climate. Anne Malaprade states that Pozzi viewed  cubism and surrealism unfavourably because she saw them as “mouvements qui déconstruisent l’univers et par là même le déconsidèrent” (‘movements that deconstruct the universe and, in so doing, belittle it’) which is absolutely spot on. There is an insufferable irresponsibility (and smugness) about all these writers from Breton to Ionesco to Dawkins who keep on and on telling us that the world and life is ‘senseless’ and soulless but who (unlike a real thinker/scientist such as Monod who sees the dilemma as tragic) are very well satisfied that things are as they are, and indeed make successful careers thank you very much peddling their poisonous doctrines. By totally rejecting the idea that life is, can be, or even should be, a religio-philosophical ‘quest’, modernism has in effect succeeded in throwing the baby out with the  bath water and made it hardly worth living at all.  Catherine Pozzi was one of those who saw this and made a heroic effort to swim against the current, or, to return to the metaphor, to find another baby to bathe. France never produced a modern anti-modern writer of the stature of T.S. Eliot and the ‘counter-current’ in France between the two wars ‘ne faisait pas le poids’ (‘was lightweight’),  unable to compete with the gaudy trivialities of surrealism or the later ‘socially committed literature’ of Sartre, Camus and other leftists. It must, however, be admitted that many of Catherine Pozzi’s male (but not female) fellow travellers were not only ‘reactionary’ but what is, in a way, more serious, mediocre : no one reads Jacques Maritain, Barrès, or even Julien Benda today, and doubtless never will. And the most serious limitation of all these once fasionable writers is that, unlike Catherine Pozzi, none of them seems to have realised the enormous challenge that science represented with respect to religion and indeed all traditional ways of viewing the world.
Anne Malaprade is right to emphasize the ‘message’ Catherine Pozzi gave, or tried to give, though at the same time  she deals capably enough with the “Six Poems” viewed strictly in terms of style and form. She sums up :
“Catherine Pozzi…….élabore une cosmologie dont la force est d’intégrer le moi au monde : projet  véritablement atypique en ce début de siècle qui fait avant tout de l’écrivain celui qui dérange, trouble, déconstruit, et dont le devoir est d’ébranler les consciences et les certitudes de ses contemporains.” (Malaprade, op. cit. p. 157)

“Catherine Pozzi elaborates a cosmology whose strength lies in its attempt to integrate the individual and the world : this is very untypical of the period when she was writing, the early twentieth century. This era above all encouraged writers to disturb, disarrange and above all  ‘deconstruct’ what they found in front of them, and to see it as their duty to shake up their contemporaries’ vision of things and their false certainties”.
(Apologies for a rather free translation which nonetheless gets the gist of the original.) S.H.


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Catherine Pozzi and André Fernet

The ‘facts’, inasmuch as I have been able to ascertain them, are as follows. In January 1909 Catherine Pozzi married a young stockbroker with literary interests, Édouard Bourdet,  and in October of the same year their only child, Claude Bourdet, was born. It is usually stated in biographical notices that this marriage “did not survive the honeymoon”. Quite what one is to understand by this is not clear : presumably it means that the young married couple soon ceased to have sexual relations, though they only divorced in 1921.
In the summer of 1912 Catherine Pozzi contracted tuberculosis which was, at the time, incurable though she only died of it 1934. In 1913, she met a young magistrate, André Fernet, who had published a novel significantly entitled L’Ascète. He was quite well connected and was a personal friend of the well-known author, Roger Martin du Gard. His psychology (and perhaps sexual orientation) remains obscure but what is certain is that he persuaded Catherine Pozzi that their relation should remain strictly ‘platonic’ : “A deux, ils conçoivent une quete de l’absolu qui passe par une conception de l’amour dans laquelle le plaisir du corps est méprisé” as Anne Malaprade puts it (“Together, they conceived the idea of a [joint] quest of the absolute by way of love but a love in which sensual pleasure would have no part”). That very year, 1913, Catherine Pozzi started writing a Journal, that she would continue right up to her death, and there are many passages in it relating to the spiritual union of kindred spirits in it.
After the outbreak of the Great War, André Fernet volunteered for service, was sent to the Front and eventually trained as an aviator. He wrote several letters to Catherine Pozzi in which he emphasized the notion of personal sacrifice for a greater cause which were all the more convincing because he was actually practising what he preached. According to a note in the excellent Gallimard edition of Catherine Pozzi’s Complete Works, edited by Claire Paulhan and Laurence Joseph, one night in July, 1915, Catherine Pozzi heard a voice dictate a poem that she noted down immediately word for word and sent to André Fernet shortly afterwards. The poem, entitled Orgeval, is not of particular interest in my opinion and was not approved for posthumous publication by the author. However, it contains the stanza

”          Si tu veux
Nous irons ensemble
Tous les deux
Vers le vieux figuier.
Il aura
Des fruits noirs qui tremblent
Sous le vent
Qui vient d’Orvillers.”

The following year André Fernet was killed in an aerial duel over Villers in Lorraine. I leave it to the reader to decide whether this should be considered evidence of a genuine premonition, or dismissed as a coincidence. (Catherine Pozzi also claimed to have seen a childhood friend, Audrey Deacon, appear to her in a vision before the latter’s death.)
However one interprets the above, there can be no doubt that this relation with its tragic end had a profound effect on Catherine Pozzi, though it did not prevent her embarking on a tempestuous affair with the married poet Paul Valéry in 1920. At the beginning of 1916, when André Fernet was still alive, Catherine Pozzi wrote a sort of ‘prayer’ in her Journal seemingly addressed to André Fernet and which was repeated with slight alterations every year (except 1927) right up to her death in 1934.  In the original 1916 version it runs

“Ma vie, mon esprit,
Je suis la même chose que vous pour l’éternité. A travers vous, je vais vers Dieu. A cause de vous, j’exige de moi ma difficile réalité.
Nous serons mêlés parce qu’il le faut, dans un soleil qui n’est point encore, et que nous aidons à créer par la peine infinie et la volonté de notre amour qui ne se connaít pas, et pourtant trouve.”

A literal translation is :

“My life, my spirit, I am the same thing as you for all eternity. Through you, I go towards God. Because of you, I require myself [to live] my difficult reality.
We are mingled together because this is how it has to be, in a sun that does not yet exist and which we will help to create by our infinite suffering and by the will of our love that knows not what it is, and yet finds itself.”

The idea of the love between herself and André Fernet helping to create a new star is developed in the poem Nova :

“Dans un monde au futur du temps dont j’ai la vie
Qui ne s’est pas formé dans le ciel d’aujourd’hui,
Au plus nouvel espace où le vouloir dévie
Au plus nouveau moment de l’astre que je fuis
 Tu vivras, ma splendeur, mon malheur, ma survie
Mon plus extrême cœur fait du sang que je suis,
Mon souffle, mon toucher, mon regard, mon envie,
Mon plus terrestre bien perdu pour l’infini.”

In my verse translation I render this as :

“Far in the future is a world that  knows not me,
It has not taken shape beneath the present sky,
Its space and time not ours, its customs all awry,
Point in the lifespan of the very star I flee,
There you will live, my glory and my ruin — I
Will live in you, my blood your heart will fructify,
Your breathing, eyesight, mine, while everything of me
That is terrestrial will be lost, and lost eternally !”

I have, as it happens, written a poem in French (based on one by Roger Hunt Carroll)  to commemorate the love between Catherine Pozzi and André Fernet — though, oddly enough, André Fernet disappears in the final version and Catherine Pozzi is alone, which is doubtless how it should be  :

(d’après un poème de Roger Hunt Carroll)

Après tant d’épreuves, votre âme s’est volatilisée :
Elle s’est enfin dégagée de l’argile humaine ;
Là-haut, dans un ciel clair, plus sujette à la pesanteur,
Elle voltige avec ses égaux, loin de ces corps inutiles.

Nous ressentons votre joie et aimerions vous suivre,
Mais, pour nous, évidemment, c’est un voyage interdit,
Surchargés comme nous sommes de toute cette chair lourde.

Toutefois, par moments il nous arrive à vous apercevoir:
Grand faucon lumineux contre un ciel bleu-gris,
Tourbillonnant à tout jamais dans un vol sans retour.


Posted in Mysticism, Philosophy, Poetry | 2 Comments

The Six Poems of Catherine Pozzi

If ever there was a great writer manqué — I am tempted to say génie manqué — it was Catherine Pozzi (1882-1934). In a rather pathetic passage in her Journal towards the end of her life she asks ‘Dieu-Esprit’ to forgive her for not having fulfilled her mission which was to discover and reveal to the world the junction between l’ame et le corps (‘body and soul’) also to forgive her having wasted so much time on ‘trivialities’.
Born into a wealthy and cultivated Parisian family, Catherine Pozzi traversed a series of emotional and religious crises during her adolescence which she describes in detail in her Jourmals. Her marriage to Édouard Bourdet, though it produced a son, did not survive the honeymoom. She believed she had found her soul mate in André Fernet, a young barrister who volunteered for service as an aviator and whose death during WWI she claimed to have foreseen : this platonic rapport left an indelible impression on her. Subsequently, she became involved in a tumultuous liaison with the married Paul Valéry, a poet much better known than herself both at the time and subsequently. In her latter years while she was slowly dying from tuberculosis she pursued serious scientific studies, desperately trying to find some way of combining the discoveries of modern science with her mystical intuitions.
Whereas her contemporary Marcel Proust, also a chronic invalid and insomniac, managed to write the longest novel in the world, Catherine Pozzi left, apart from her Journals, two inconclusive philosophic prose pieces, Agnès and La Peau d’Âme (‘The Skin of the Soul’) and… six poems, only one of which was published in her lifetime.
This poetic œuvre, slight in quantity, is immense in its technical skill  and intensity. The six poems, given in the order in which she lists them in an entry in her Journal towards the end of her life, form a sort of spiritual autobiography in miniature, covering the different stages of one person’s ‘intimations of immortality’ by way of love : the last, entitled Nyx (Greek for ‘void’) , was written on her deathbed.  To my knowledge they have not been translated into English before. The French originals will be given in a subsequent post.     Sebastion Hayes


That peerless love that was your gift to me,
The wind of days has rent beyond repair,
High burned the flame, strong was our destiny,
As hand in hand we stood in unity
Together there ;

Orb that for us was single and entire,
Our sun, its flaming splendour was our thought,
The second sky of a divided fire,
And double exile by division bought ;

These scenes for you evoke ashes and dread,
Places that you refuse to recognize
And the enchanted star above our head
That lit the perilous moment our embracing shed,
Gone from your eyes…..

The future days on which your hopes depend
Are less immediate than what’s left behind;
Take what you have, each harvest has an end,
You’ll not be drunk however much you spend
On scattered wine.

I have retrieved those wild celestial days,
The vanished paradise where anguish was desire ;
What we were once revives in unexpected ways,
It is my flesh and blood and will, after death’s blaze,
Be my attire ;

Your name acts like a spell, lost bliss I knew,
Takes shape, becomes my heart; I live again
That golden era memory makes new,
That peerless love that I once gave to you,
And lived in pain.


Love of my life, my fear is I may die
Not knowing who you are or whence you came,
Within what world you lived, beneath what sky,
What age or time forged your identity,
Love beyond blame,

Love of my life, outstripping memory,
O fire without a hearth lighting my days,
At fate’s command you wrote my history,
By night your glory showed itself to me,
My resting-place…

When all I seem to be falls in decay,
Divided infinitesimally
An infinite number of times, all I survey
Is lost, and the apparel of today
Is stripped from me,

Broken by life into a thousand shreds,
A thousand disconnected moments — swirl
Of ashes that the pitiless wind outspreads,
You will remake from what my spirit sheds
A single pearl.

Yes, from the shattered debris of my days,
You will remake a shape for me, remake a name,
A living unity transcending time and space,
Heart of my spirit, centre of life’s maze,
Love beyond blame.


Descending layer by layer the silt of centuries,
Each desperate moment always takes me back to you,
Country of sun-drenched temples and Atlantic seas,
Legends come true.

Soul ! word adored by me, by destiny made black,
What is it but the body when the flame has fled ?
O time, stand still ! O tightened weft of life, grow slack !
A child again, the trail toward the dark I tread.

Birds mass, confront the sea-wind blowing from the West,
Fly, happiness, towards the summer-time of long ago,
The final bank once gained, all is by sleep possessed,
Song, monarch, rocks, the ancient tree cradled below,
Stars that from old my original face have blessed,

A sun all on its own and crowned with perfect rest.


Far in the future is a world that  knows not me,
It has not taken shape beneath the present sky,
Its space and time not ours, its customs all awry,
Point in the lifespan of the very star I flee,
There you will live, my glory and my ruin — I
Will live in you, my blood your heart will fructify,
Your breathing, eyesight, mine, while everything of me
That is terrestrial will be lost, and lost eternally !

Image that I pursue, forestall what is to be !
(Acts I once cherished, you have wrought this agony)
Undo, unmake yourself, dissolve, refuse to be,
Denounce what was desired but not chosen by me.

Let me not see this day, fruit of insanity,
I am not done — let fall the spool of destiny !


The wine that courses through my vein
Has drowned my heart and in its train
I navigate the endless blueI am a ship without a crew
Forgetfulness descends like rain.

I am a just discovered star
That floats across the empyrean —
How new and strange its contours are!
O voyage taken to the sunAn unfamiliar yet persistent hum
The background to my night’s become.

My heart has left my life behind,
The world of Shape and Form I’ve crossed,
I am saved   I am lostInto the unknown am tossed,
A name without a past to find.

A Louise aussi de Lyon et d’Italie

O you my nights  O long-awaited dark
O noble land   O  secrets that endure
O lingering glances    lightning-broken space
O flights approved beyond shut skies

O deep desire  amazement spread abroad
O splendid journey of the spellstruck mind
O worst mishap O grace descended from above
O open door through which not one has passed

I know not why I sink, expire
Before the eternal place is mine
I know not who made me his prey
Nor who it was made me his love

Catherine Pozzi

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The Six Poems of Catherine Pozzi (French)14


La grande amour que vous m’aviez donnée
Le vent des jours a rompu ses rayons —
Où fut la flamme, où fut la destinée
Où nous étions, où par la main serrée
Nous nous tenions

Notre soleil, dont l’ardeur fut pensée
L’orbe pour nous de l’être sans second
Le second ciel d’une âme divisée
Le double exil où le double se fond

Son lieu vous apparaît cendre et crainte,
Vos yeux vers lui ne l’ont pas reconnu
L’astre enchanté qui portait hors d’atteinte
L’extrême instant de notre seule étreinte
Vers l’inconnu.

Mais le futur dont vous attendez vivre
Est moins présent que le bien disparu.
Toute vendange à la fin qu’il vous livre
Vous la boirez sans pouvoir être qu’ivre
Du vin perdu.

J’ai retrouvé le céleste et sauvage
Le paradis où l’angoisse est désir.
Le haut passé qui grandit d’âge en âge
Il est mon corps et sera mon partage
Après mourir.

Quand dans un corps ma délice oubliée
Où fut ton nom, prendra forme de cœur
Je revivrai notre grande journée,
Et cette amour que je t’avais donnée
Pour la douleur.


Très haut amour, s’il se peut que je meure
Sans avoir su d’où je vous possédais,
En quel soleil était votre demeure
En quel passé votre temps, en quelle heure
Je vous aimais,

Très haut amour qui passez la mémoire,
Feu sans foyer dont j’ai fait tout mon jour,
En quel destin vous traciez mon histoire,
En quel sommeil se voyait votre gloire,
Ô mon séjour…

Quand je serai pour moi-même perdue
Et divisée à l’abîme infini,
Infiniment, quand je serai rompue,
Quand le présent dont je suis revêtue
Aura trahi,

Par l’univers en mille corps brisée,
De mille instants non rassemblés encor,
De cendre aux cieux jusqu’au néant vannée,
Vous referez pour une étrange année
Un seul trésor

Vous referez mon nom et mon image
De mille corps emportés par le jour,
Vive unité sans nom et sans visage,
Cœur de l’esprit, O centre du mirage
Très haut amour.


Je descends les degrés de siècles et de sable
Qui retournent à vous l’instant désespéré
Terre des temples d’or, j’entre dans votre fable
Atlantique adoré.

D’un corps qui ne m’est plus que fuie enfin la flamme
L’Âme est un nom chéri détesté du destin —
Que s’arrête le temps, que s’affaisse la trame,
Je revins sur mes pas vers l’abîme enfantin.

Les oiseaux sur le vent dans l’ouest marin s’engagent,
Il faut voler, bonheur, à l’ancien été
Tout endormi profond où cesse le rivage
Rochers, le chant, le roi, l’arbre longtemps bercé,
Astres longtemps liés à mon premier visage,

Singulier soleil de calme couronné.


Dans un monde au futur du temps dont j’ai la vie
Qui ne s’est pas formé dans le ciel d’aujourd’hui,
Au plus nouvel espace où le vouloir dévie
Au plus nouveau moment de l’astre que je fuis
Tu vivras, ma splendeur, mon malheur, ma survie
Mon plus extrême cœur fait du sang que je suis,
Mon souffle, mon toucher, mon regard, mon envie,
Mon plus terrestre bien perdu pour l’infini.

Évite l’avenir, Image poursuivie !
Je suis morte de vous, ô mes actes chéris
Ne sois pas défais toi dissipe toi délie
Dénonce le désir que je n’ai pas choisi.

N’accomplis pas mon jour, âme de ma folie, —
Délaisse le destin que je n’ai pas fini.


Le vin qui coule dans ma veine
A noyé mon cœur et l’entraîne
Et je naviguerai le ciel
A bord d’un cœur sans capitaine
Où l’oubli fond comme du miel.

Mon cœur est un astre apparu
Qui nage au divin nonpareil
Dérive, étrange devenu !
O voyage vers le Soleil —
Un son nouvel et continu
Est la trame de ton sommeil.

Mon cœur a quitté mon histoire
Adieu Forme je ne sens plus
Je suis sauvé  je suis perdu
Je me cherche dans l’inconnu
Un nom libre de la mémoire.

A Louise aussi de Lyon et d’Italie

O vous mes nuits, ô noires attendues
O pays fier, ô secrets obstinés
O longs regards, ô foudroyantes nues
O vols permis outre les cieux fermés.

O grand désir, ô surprise épandue
O beau parcours de l’esprit enchanté
O pire mal  ô grâce descendue
O porte ouverte où nul n’avait passé

Je ne sais pas pourquoi je meurs et noie
Avant d’entrer à l’éternel séjour.
Je ne sais pas de qui je suis la proie.
Je ne sais pas de qui je suis l’amour.

Catherine Pozzi

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Hommage à Catherine Pozzi par Sebastian Hayes

Après tant d’épreuves, votre âme s’est volatilisée :
Elle s’est enfin dégagée de l’argile humaine ;
Là-haut, dans un ciel clair, plus sujete à la pesanteur,
Elle voltige avec ses égaux, loin de ces corps inutiles.

Nous ressentons votre joie et aimerions vous suivre,
Mais, pour nous, évidemment, c’est un voyage interdit,
Surchargés comme nous sommes de toute cette chair lourde.

Toutefois, par moments il nous arrive à vous apercevoir:
Grand faucon lumineux contre un ciel bleu-gris,
Tourbillonnant à tout jamais dans un vol sans retour.

                                                                  Sebastian Hayes

Note: This poem is an adaptation of a poem by Roger Hunt Carroll, Deux Esprits Élus, which appears in the booklet D’un Journal Intime, vers en français 1981—2010. It could perfectly well apply to the relation between Catherine Pozzi and André Fernet, an aviator killed in World War I, and whose death she claimed to have foreseen (though Mr. Carroll did not know this since he had not heard of Catherine Pozzi at the time of writing) . I am grateful to Mr. Carroll for permitting me to so shamelessly adapt his poem. This is the original :


Vos esprits sont de tels camarades, là dans l’air ensorcelé :
vous vous êtes affranchis de la forme humaine
et avec les astres vivants qui envient votre présence,
vos deux esprits, nues ensemble, planent sur mon corps terrestre.
Je vous vois en vos extases, et oui, je concédais vous y joindre.
Mais pour moi, c’est un vol interdit parce que je sais
que si je vous joignais, vous disparaîtriez subitement,
emprisonnés encore dans la chair dure qui m’étreint,
cette chair indéniable qui vous vaincrait totalement.

Ainsi je vous permets d’être évanescents et sans souci,
permettant vos danses privées mais pures dans cet endroit parfait —
où vous ne changez pas, ne changeant ni jour ni nuit.

Roger Hunt Carroll

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