Catherine Pozzi a modern mystic

Catherine Pozzi is one of those rare individuals who inhabit the strange hinterland between sensual and ‘spiritual’ ecstasy and steadfastly refuse to renounce either territory for the sake of the other. In a letter to Valéry she speaks of “seeing in my mind’s eye a sort of non-human paradise, made of a kind of transcendent material…. absolute solitude; the only possible inhabitants you and I”.
Descartes kick-started modern philosophy with his famous formula, Cogito ergo sum, ‘I think, therefore I am’. There has never really been a philosophical movement that takes first-hand physical sensation as its starting point ― empiricism only concerns itself with ‘sense-data’ and dismisses personal experience as ‘anecdotal’. In her more extravagant moments, Catherine Pozzi ― or Karin as she liked to be called ― viewed herself as a prophet ushering in an era when the life of the senses, science and religion would fuse. This is the theme of Peau d’Ame (‘Skin of the Soul’), a rambling would-be manifesto based on the premiss “JE-SENS-DONC-JE-SUIS” (‘I feel, therefore I am’). She adds the curious comment, “Ce n’est pas la pensée, c’est le sentir qui a besoin de JE” (‘It is not thought but feeling that requires an ‘I’).
In her later years, Karin undertook serious biological and physical studies in an attempt to formulate a new theory of sensation in part based on the ideas of Weber. As she herself admits, she failed in this but one nonetheless finds striking anticipations of Dr. Sheldrake’s contemporary theory of ‘morphic resonance’. For, according to Karin, a single sensation, while being unique, somehow recapitulates all previous sensations of the same type and makes possible further repetitions in the future ― exactly Sheldrake’s idea.
What of that sequence of sensations, her life? Catherine Pozzi (1882 ― 1934) was the daughter of a Parisian surgeon, Samuel Pozzi, while her mother maintained a salon frequented by Sarah Bernardt, Colette and Proust. Karin started writing a Journal at the age of ten and kept this up for most of her life. She was a proto-feminist and adolescent ‘rebel without a cause’ a long time before this became fashionable: indeed she would have been much more at home in California in the Sixties than in Paris during the Belle Époque.
The big question was how to put into practice her philosophy of mystical sensualism without prostrating herself before a man. One possibility was to seek a ‘kindred spirit’ rather than a lover; her adolescent Journal celebrates her passionate friendship with a young American girl who died a year after their first meeting on the ‘Day of the Holy Spirit’ (Passover?), a timing that Catherine found significant. Love, kindred spirit, illness, death, these four strands were henceforth to be forever intertwined.  ventual marriage to a stockbroker with some literary pretensions barely survived the honeymoon though it did produce a son. Three years later Karin was diagnosed with tuberculosis and spent much of the rest of her life undergoing cures and abusing prescribed mood-changing drugs. During WWI she met a young aviator, André Fernet, who firmly believed that ‘true love’ should be strictly Platonic. His death in action in 1916 (which Catherine claimed to have foreseen in a dream) was as much a fitting consummation to their love as it was an interruption.
In 1920 Karin embarked on a tempestuous affair with Paul Valéry, a married man with a family and a poet much less gifted than herself. She eventually disclosed the relation to Valéry’s wife, and henceforth the doors of Parisian society were firmly closed to this latter-day Anna Karenina. But she no longer cared.
Karin in her lifetime only published one or two short articles in magazines and (under the name C.K.) Agnès, a fictionalized account of her own adolescent crises. It is thus on the Six Poems that her reputation must rest and it is to be regretted that the NRF Gallimard edition of her works has them in the wrong order. Karin 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”.

These intense, concise poems remind one of the ‘Stations of the Cross’, marking as they do the stages in an agonising spiritual journey, or perhaps resting points on the pathway that candidates for initiation followed at Eleusis. They could also be viewed as snapshots of a substance undergoing successive changes of state, the substance being, as it happens, a human being — and I fancy that Karin would have approved of this analogy. According to Karin’s ‘chemistry of the soul’, the essential elements of her current personality have already existed in previous reincarnations (‘MAYA’), will somehow persist after death albeit momentarily dissociated from each other (‘AVE’) and will eventually all come together again in a future time (‘NOVA’).
VALE (‘Farewell’) shows the pilgrim looking back at the old life she is now leaving for ever. She starts by lamenting her lover’s betrayal not so much of herself as of their shared life. But she turns the tables on him, as it were, by absorbing the high points of the experience into her body (not mind), so all has not been lost after all:
Il [cet amour] est mon corps et sera mon partage/ Apres mourir”
(‘This love is my body and will remain my portion after death’).
In this way, what is worth remembering remains with her for ever duly integrated into her inner self.
AVE (‘Hail’) begins the sequence proper. It is a passionate invocation not to a real person but to a higher being — one can imagine Psyche writing such a poem between visits from the god Eros, while the tone also recalls Saint Theresa of Avila addressing Christ. For the being is at once beloved, guide and controller of her destiny : he will be responsible for her rebirth even though she will first be broken entirely into pieces (‘You will remake my name and image out of the thousand bodies dispersed by time’). The author intimates 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’).
The tone of this poem is rapt, ecstatic, and it ends by invoking “Cœur de l’esprit, O centre du mirage“(‘Heart of my spirit, centre of the mirage’). ‘Mirage‘ is the world of the senses which Buddhism teaches is ‘maya’, illusion ― but, for Karin, the ‘centre’ of the mirage is not illusory.
In MAYA, the speaker returns to a previous idyllic life amongst the Mayans which she views as a recovery of her cosmic childhood ― ‘I retrace my steps into childhood’s abyss’. Indeed, the voyager hesitates, vainly wishing the process could 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’).
After MAYA, NOVA comes as something of a shock. Instead of greeting with rapture a being from another realm, this time the spiritual traveller recoils with horror from a being (at once herself and another) that is canniballistically sucking the speaker’s vitality: its birth is the present speaker’s death. She desperately pleads with it not to be born at all:
‘Undo ! Unmake yourself, dissolve, refuse to be
Denounce what was desired but not chosen by me’

After anticipations of the future and a reliving of the past, SCOPOLAMINE and NYX return us to the present. (Scopolamine is incidentally not a hallucinatory drug but a ‘truth drug’ used by the Nazis on prisoners of war but prescribed to Karin by her doctor.) This time there is no holding back: on the contrary the spiritual voyage is imaged as the launching of a spacecraft with (what we would now call) an astronaut aboard it. Whatever it is that survives physical decomposition is already detaching itself from its earthly frame
        ‘My heart has left my life behind,
        The world of Shape and Form I’ve crossed,
        I am saved, I am lost
        Into the unknown am tossed
        A name without a past to find’ 

NYX was written in a single jet on Karin’s deathbed and brings us even closer to the moment of metamorphosis. The tone is a mixture of awe, regret, rapture and incomprehension:
‘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’

Note:  The full text of the Six Poems in both the original French and my translation  can be found on the website www.catherinepozzi.org  or, if this expires, directly from the author.

SH 29/09/2016

 

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