A Poetic Street Sign Encounter in the City of Light
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
Last week, I spent two days exploring the glorious streets of Paris in the emerging bloom of spring. As I wound my way through the city’s arrondissements toward the Eiffel Tower, I serendipitously stumbled upon this street sign honoring the French poet Sully Prudhomme.
I’d never even heard of the Nobel laureate until reading Xavier Le Pichon's essay "Ecce Homo." In it, Le Pichon shares Prudhomme’s poem “Le Vase Brisé” (“The Broken Vase”), which his mother taught him, and relates the poem to his mother’s struggles with Alzheimer’s disease.
Suffering and Poetry
Larissa Anderson, Poetry Producer
In his essay, "Ecce Homo," Xavier Le Pichon talks about his mother’s experience with Alzheimer’s. He explains that she was aware of her memory loss long before she was diagnosed. After her death, he says he came upon some of her diaries, which revealed how she tried to hide her memory loss.
Le Pichon relates this discovery to a poem his mother taught him, “Le Vase Brisé" ("The Broken Vase"), written by 19th-century French poet, Sully Prudhomme. In his essay, Le Pichon remembers the poem like this:
"The vase where the verbena is dying
Was cracked by the blow of a fan.
The blow barely grazed it
As no noise revealed it.
But the light bruise
Biting the metal each day
With an invisible but sure hand
Slowly progressed around it.”
The original French version of the poem, published in 1865, was slightly different. I asked poet Robert Archambeau to translate it. He recommended that his colleague at Lake Forest College, Jean-Luc Garneau, read both the French and English versions of the poem, and talked about Sully Prudhomme — his background, his style of writing, and what he may have been trying to say about suffering in his poem.
It’s interesting to connect Garneau’s comments about Sully Prudhomme to Krista’s interview with Xavier Le Pichon. As Garneau says, Prudhomme, along with a few other poets, started the Parnassian School of poetry, a style of writing that rejected sentimentality for scientific precision and detachment. Prudhomme’s poem centers around the idea of fragility — a vase that was cracked by the slightest breeze from a fan. It’s a crack that not only goes unnoticed, but also renders the vase unable to keep its flowers alive. Garneau points out Prudhomme’s scientific distance in the line “the vase is broken: do not touch,” which, he says, suggests suffering should not be interfered with.
When I hear Garneau discuss the poem, I think about Le Pichon describing how he felt he was so immersed in his scientific pursuits that he was not able to see the suffering of others, and that it is through “walking with the suffering person that has come into your life and that you have not rejected, then your heart progressively gets educated by them. You know, they teach you a new way of being.”
Later in his interview with Krista, Le Pichon recalls what it meant for him to see his mother experience Alzheimer’s: “My mother died of Alzheimer’s disease and I could see what the suffering was and that requires from us to invent a new way to deal with this person, with the suffering, to make their life possible, humane. And at each age you have new challenges and you have to face them. And this is how we build the humanity. The humanity is given to us at the possibility of old age, at each birth, and it has to be constructed. It has to be built. It is hard work.”
As Garneau describes what Prudhomme was communicating through the poem, it strikes me as contradictory to Le Pichon’s belief in facing suffering, engaging with it — his idea that fragility is “at the heart of humanity.” I’d be curious to hear more thoughts about how this poem connects with the show and why it surfaces in Le Pichon’s writing.
But, it’s not just “The Broken Vase” that captured Le Pichon’s attention. It is clear from “Ecce Homo” that Le Pichon sees suffering and poetry as intimately linked. He writes:
"As humans are confronted to suffering and death, as mirrors of their own suffering and death, they are confronted to their own fragility and vulnerability and this confrontation forces them to go beyond themselves by entering into a transcendent world that can be metaphysical, artistic and (or) poetic. This has probably been the origin of metaphysics, of art and poetry, which give us the capacity to project ourselves beyond the immediate reality of the difficulties of our life."