AGATHE: Saint of Sleep

Paul Valéry (Trans. Richard Cole)

Manuscrit trouvé dans une cervelle

The more I think, the more I think; if, little by little again, I see in myself all the astonishing things that are known, they become better known. Suddenly, I have slowly conceived them; and, when they vanish, it is without strain.
I am changing in the shadow, in a bed. An idea that has lost its own beginning becomes clear, but false, but pure, then empty or immense or old: it becomes nothing just the same, for it rises to the unexpected, bearing with it my undivided mind.
My body hardly discerns the quiet and indistinct volumes of bedding that support it: on top, my sovereign flesh watches and mixes the dark. I fix, I shake, and I lose by the movement of my eyes, some center in this dark space without light, and nothing in the black palette stirs.
The result is that one glimmer quite close by me appears.ii
On the naked or velvet midnight or on any mind, this weak effort, I doubt, represents, any anterior clarity, given its late, low value; only sufficient, it maintains amidst the active shadows a paltry residue of bright day, thought, almost thinking. This poor glow is transformed into a dull and impermanent cheek, soon its useless face smiles against me, prompt, itself consumed by the deepening luster of dusk.iii
It is my bottom depths that I touch. To such a number of spontaneous figures all my invention restores, that is to say it starts again, here, far below all scales of comparison, after an indifferent period or lapse, having always followed lost ways, the being who is made for forgetting; or maybe it returns as a scattering of diurnal charms, dismantling the constellation of everyday forms.
The blackness still conjures forth some shards: of a seascape extended thin, of the breaths, and the glacial cold rump of a horse… My duration softly pursues the destruction of a succession of similar residences, necessary in an annihilated region.

On this shadow without evidence, I write, as if with phosphorus, of dying suppositions I so desire; and outlining their absolute moments, when it seems I am so close to their restoration, I must trace out each one again; for insights only fall asleep to the measurement I exact to nourish them. If, one time, I press them and exceed the speed of their death, I can hold them briefly, in a slight suspension, visible above the horizon of many moments. In such efforts I believed that they must deepen, and do not make that final crossing to the new forms whose connection with the first can elapse without ever having been requested: I do not know where it leads, at once or indefinitely.
There I am lost but, without horror and new mystery, the loss of my monotonous thinking prolongs me, and forgets me. Those idols carry me in their insensible distortion. Unique, my astonishment moves away, surrounded by so many great phantoms who know nothing of amazement between themselves.

Myself in this moment, I can distinguish what destroys those who think to such an extent. No moment fails to save every instant from invalidity; but returning to find each depth bitter, I set keel on more delicious drinks.
So I resemble that which sleeps, if I do not appear to imitate it. I gently rock my truth, I dream that which I am.iv
My muscles mix with their indefinite bed of layers; the agitation forces sheets through the air, reading sadness from afar.
I begin to name (movement) all desire; intimate and more closely united with the pure execution of thought, I visit each tendency until its repose; I do not design what arrives; everything I predict is colored; I am everywhere where I will be.
If I want anything in the slightest, I pronounce an action so immense that it combines with no machine, to unfold without resistance before my smallest inclinations. Because of a secret freedom, increasing such that I scorn the movement, the trace, and the particular heft, I set free in myself a faithful source of agility: I revive any physical nuance, and loosen the swim stroke of wet eyes, the abundance of a flexible laziness, fluid feet in the fullness of high water… Almost human, upright in the coiling spring of the sea; swathed in vast cold, upon whom that whole vastness weighs, on to the shoulders of responsibility, even to the ears sullied by variable noise; I still touch the strange absence of soil which becomes the ground of concepts altogether new, and with any remainder of my strength, I tremble. My power was unhinged; my weakness is no longer the same. This incomprehensible faculty is what shakes me, troubles me, and absorbs all the labors of my body: an icier height is concealed below me, but forgoes my collapse, only to return again to drink me in some future dream.
It costs me nothing to be possessed by these abysses, rather deep and genuine, yet rather empty in their duration, for I feel all their force in the intervals between two periods I know are my own. To this imposing calm about me, I respond with acts enlarged by the veritable monsters of movement and change. Who can this be, who, in rest, happily reverses and disconnects? Who flourishes and circulates without habit, origin nor name? Who is asking? The same who answers. The same who writes and erases the same line. These are nothing but scriptures on water.
Once my power was diluted, I possessed them more than ever.
At this hour that cannot be counted as an hour, who cares for my history? I mistook it as a book. But the ideal opportunity is here: to strip memory of its mortal order, annul my experience, illuminate what was different, and, by a simple nocturnal song, to escape myself so completely that I could misrecognize my own form. All seems partial to me. In the midst of this spreading out, I steer my mind haphazardly toward chance, toward encountering the verse of another sleeper, so as to abandon my own absolute clarity. . . .


Hearing expands itself; upon the horizon, it overhangs a chasm made by an immense feat. A sharper creature leans out into the emptiness, stretching to hear the slightest sound: through herv I fathom a space with each possible breath and I fly! as no sound quenches this desire for sound, to the limit of my own abeyance, — to the timbre my blood and the animation of my moment’s duration.
A silence so still fixes and fortifies itself in the night, awakening me deeper and
How pure the desire for tomorrow, the direction I take toward tomorrow! I feel uncertainty speed from the fore-brow of time, the event to arrive, its vigor, its languor, the dissolution of experience, and the voyage reawakens, as pure, as hard as itself, adorned in unending mind. Novelty sheds itself in advance, by way of a tower more imperceptible than the angle of a figure in the sky…

You know yourself in reverse. You carry backward a power, a kind of discernment, and only able to see in opposite the direction you now travel, you analyze what is finished, you act out only that which has already been achieved.
Once, I had reflections on a striking number of subjects: but now I am so serene that gravity seems to be separated, in suspension. . . .

Invent the effects of some creature exceedingly desired by the mind: after spotting it once, it would absorb into its own a splendid fixity every which thought capable to come after it; so that any power of newness about it would grow weakened. It would be so satisfactory that if, at first, the greatest distraction could be substituted for it: I would know that we would meet again. This is just the rule of the game: I win, I lose, and there is a connection…
Now I am close to it perhaps, and I touch the laws: in this immaculate envelope of the night, where each thought modulates itself, turns in observation of itself, trailing a value behind itself, where my sense empties equally, the black and delicate unit of the night appears so easily extended that the most profound deductions, including my full attentive power, operates in the midst of an identical clarity. So always this purity could be the insulator of the unforeseen, executing completeness of thought, permitting the separation of its own aspects, and the division of the spiritual duration into clear intervals — soon, I would make all my ideas confused or irreducible.
Still, I preserve the variety of my disquietude: I maintain a distortion within me to better attract my pure power or whichever dispersion awaits.

Since, voluptuously, the palpitation of multiple space no longer revivifies anything other than just my flesh; and I am no longer willingly savor ideas in isolation; together this constellation of knowledge constitutes my immanence: controlled, high and foreboding; formviimaintaining a system worthless or indifferent to substance or its deepening to come; when the illusory shadow gently succumbs to utter birth, and it is the mind; unless still, all very strange, very alone the outer limit of the universe, a doubt, a trace, a unique breath, occasionally each is interchanged.

Here, on the calm shines that timelessness is the master of the world: connecting the idea with the point of its emergence.
One raises them just the same, and one takes the place of another; none amongst them can be more important than its hour.
They ascend, original; in a meaningless order, mysteriously transforming up toward the admirable noon of my presence, where scorched, such that the sole thing that exists; the ordinary one.
All their natural quantity is as such: one between them.viii

i The poem, or prose poem, was begun in 1898. Unpublished during Valéry’s lifetime, it appeared posthumously under many titles. Valéry’s notebooks reference at least four working titles: Agathe, or: Agathe or Sleep; Agathe: Saint of Sleep; Manuscript Found in a Brain. In 1906 Valéry would name his daughter Agathe.
iiOn the significance of this solitary light, in a letter dated January 15, 1898, Valéry confesses that the poem was written at night. The conditions of the poem’s composition, like the theme itself, were responsible for its inevitable failure: “one evening in the last few days, I put myself under the lamplight to write the beginning of the following story, which I shall never finish because it is too difficult.”
iiiHereafter the perspective of the sleepwalker returned to quotidian life to give testimony to outside experience only intensifies. Valéry once stated that the ambition behind his automatic writing of, and obsessive revisions to, Agathe came about after learning about women who suffered a medical condition, similar to a coma, in which they could sleep for long periods of their life, only to wake: “Given one of those women who sleep two, three, or ten years at one interval, it may be supposed (quite gratuitously) that she dreamed the whole time, and that she can recall this dream on waking. Now, for two, three . . . or ten years, there has been no sensation for her: then study the deterioration (or something else) of the given data on which she fell asleep. This is a problem in transcendent imagery psychology, which is very hard to even envisage. The successive zones of alteration of the images, etc., would be curious to realize. The theme excited me for ten minutes. Then, with no enthusiasm, I wrote a few lines of the beginning, foreign moreover to the problem, then I stopped. But, as a very typical thing, I set aside this statement of the facts to study at leisure, geometrically, and outside all literature. . . .”
1v je rêve ce que je suis. It is interesting to compare Valéry’s proto-Freudian claim that dreams construct the self with Descartes’ precept: je pense donc je suis. In one of his two lengthy essays on Descartes, Valery emphasizes “the strong, the bold, the great personality of Descartes, whose philosophy has less value for us, perhaps, than the idea that he has given us of a magnificent and memorable Self.”
vThis marks the only moment in the poem to directly reference a woman, if not the Saint of Sleep herself. Elsewhere in the French manuscript, feminine nouns are routinely substituted with the female pronoun, “it” (elle), a strategy echoing the more distinct subject, “elle” (she), of this line.
viIn an essay, “Variations on a Pensée,” Valéry wrote, “The same darkness which obliterates our physical surroundings makes us also lower our voice, reducing it to an inner voice, since we have the inclination to speak the truth only to those who are close to us. We experience a strange feeling of calm and uneasiness. Between the “self” and the “non-self” there is no longer communication. In the full daylight our actions created a link between our thoughts and things.”
viiIn his essay, “On Speaking Verse,” Valéry describes the obscured, broken up verse of Racine, before directly citing the poet: “Do not confine yourself to respecting the rhymes and caesuras. . . . Moreover, and above all, don’t be in a hurry to reach the meaning. Approach it without forcing it and, as it were, imperceptibly.” It is this imperceptibility that seems to operate, to a certain extent, on a level with prose. See: Paul Valéry: The Art of Poetry. Trans. Denise Folliot. Random House: New York, 1961. 165.
viiiSoon before abandoning his obsession with Agathe as an inevitable failure, Valéry wrote Gustave Fourment: “But this state isn’t durable! Must I return to the War Ministry? And besides the work, I write—an extravagant thing. I say, besides work, because I have always reserved that word for the pure operations of my mind.” (January 12, 1901).