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.