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Collected Works of Paul Valery, Volume 14
By Paul Valéry, Stuart Gilbert
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1970 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
The object of painting is indeterminate.
If it were quite clear — as for example, to produce the illusion of things seen or to amuse the eye and mind by a "musical" arrangement of forms and colors — the problem would be much simpler and there would surely be more works of art having the quality of beauty (meeting, that is to say, certain precise requirements), but no works inexplicably beautiful.
There would be none of those whose appeal is inexhaustible.
* * *
I stop in front of a famous picture, the Reclining Venus, and begin by contemplating it from a fair distance. And this first glance reminds me of something I often heard Degas say: "It's smooth, like all fine painting."
A hard remark to comment on. Yet its meaning is marvelously clear when one looks at a fine portrait by Raphael. "Divine platitude"; no illusionism, no slabs of thick impasto, no ridges, no splashed-on highlights, no savage contrasts. And I tell myself that perfection is achieved only by disdaining all the devices used by artists to heighten their "effects."
My eyes begin to see again, and settle once more on the Reclining Venus. The picture displays a white, amply molded figure. It is also a happy distribution of light and shade. Also a wealth of charming passages, delightful areas, a cleanly modeled belly, a highly skillful, seductive rendering of the join of arm and shoulder, a fairly deep expanse of country, all in blue and gold. It is also a system of values, colors, curves, and fields of reference: the presence of a goddess, a complex of contacts, an act of art. Were it not all these things at once, it would not be the poem that it is.
This plurality is essential. Quite opposed to it is the wholly abstract train of thought that follows its own path (and is solely what it follows). It must not lose its way, or it would never find itself again.
But the artist has brought together, accumulated and assimilated by means of the physical materials of his art, a host of desires, intentions, and conditions coming from all the regions of his mind and being. Sometimes he was thinking of his model, sometimes of the mixing of his pigments, his tone, his oils; sometimes of the flesh itself and sometimes of the absorbent canvas. But, though so independent, these objects of his attention coalesced, inevitably, in the act of painting, when all the discrete, scattered moments, followed up, caught on the wing, suspended or elusive, were in process of becoming the picture on his easel.
* * *
Art is, then, this externalized conjunction of a living, mobile diversity whose activities are crystallized and interlocked in a substance that undergoes their collective impact, resists, stimulates, and transforms them; which often baffles and irritates the artist, but sometimes gives him satisfactions of the highest order.
While each of his movements has a simple, specific purpose, and though each is definable and corresponds to an abstraction, their joint effect is, paradoxically enough, to reinstate the concrete and give back to the artist what he saw in the first instance: the plenitude and multiple power of every real object, the diversity, even the simultaneous infinity of some precise thing — and this by the operation of the sensory and symbolic virtues of our perception of colors.
* * *
Works of art give us the idea of men who are more accurate, more masters of themselves, of their eyes and hands, more strongly differentiated and better organized than the spectator who, looking at the finished work, fails to see all that went to its making: all the first attempts, the repaintings, the artist's moments of despair and sacrifice, his borrowings and subterfuges, the years of study, and — last but not least — his strokes of luck. Thus they know nothing of what is unapparent in the finished work, all that now is hidden, resolved, or dissolved into it, is left unsaid or gainsaid: all, in short, that is consonant with human nature and adverse to that craving for the marvelous which is, none the less, one of human nature's basic instincts.
* * *
Painting is undoubtedly the form of art in which the artist is most apt to leave us with a sense of impotence.
"Look at that foot," I say to him. "Could anybody walk with a foot like that?"
"That's not what I'm after," he retorts.
"'What you're after'? Well, you haven't found it."
* * *
Taste is made of a host of distastes.
* * *
In making any "useless" thing, one needs to be godlike. Or else refrain from tackling it.
* * *
After a short time music gets on my nerves — a time that's all the shorter the more the music has affected me. Because it now tends to obstruct all that, to start with, it had called to life: thoughts, insights, archetypes, and premises.
Rare indeed is music that does not cease being what it was, that does not spoil and counteract what it has created, but nourishes what it has brought to birth within me.
From which I conclude that the true connoisseur of music is bound to be a man to whom it suggests nothing.
* * *
So far ballet is almost the only art that gives us a sequence of colors. To the ballet, therefore, we should look for the rendering of a dawn or sunset.
* * *
Critics at large.
Scene: an exhibition of painting. A picture with two men in front of it.
One of them, leaning on the rail, is talking, explaining, raising his voice. The other says nothing. His air of bland politeness suggests that his thoughts are elsewhere. He lends his ear, but not his mind. He is in the Park, at the Stock Exchange, or visiting some lady friend; one couldn't be further away with so much tact and physical proximity.
Two paces behind them, a man who looks like an artist is watching me; his eyes convey all his scorn for these booming explanations, audible some distance off.
As for me, posted in the foreground of this little scene, observing simultaneously the picture, the two friends, and the painter behind them, able to hear all the talker says and read the look in the eyes of the man who's sizing him up — I feel I contain them all and so possess a consciousness of a higher order, a supreme jurisdiction; I can bless or sentence everybody, misereor super turbam....
But soon another thought dislodges me from this godlike eminence whence I have been surveying the strata of opinions. I feel only too well that chance has placed me here; so in the end I don't know what to think ... and nothing gives more food for thought.
Works of art of the rarest beauty, subtleties of drawing, the enjoyment of the fine shades and harmonies of a perfect piece of writing, the delicacy of certain mathematical ambiguities, the precision sometimes attained in studies of the psyche — all these are private delights reserved to a few persons. Eliminate them — and who will have any inkling of the greatness of the loss?
* * *
Fine works are daughters of their form; it was born before them.
* * *
The value of men's works is not in the works themselves but in their later development by others, in other circumstances.
We never know in advance whether a work will live. It is a seed endowed with more or less vitality and it needs special conditions; even the frailest may be favored by circumstances.
* * *
Some works are created by their public; others create their public.
The former cater to the needs of the average natural sensibility. The latter create artificial needs and at the same time satisfy them.
* * *
Nothing is more "original," nothing more "oneself" than to feed on others. But one has to digest them. A lion is made of assimilated sheep.
* * *
The hallmark of the greatest art is that imitations of it are legitimate, worthwhile, tolerable; that it is not demolished or devoured by them, or they by it.
* * *
The fear of being laughed at, and the dread of being dull; of having people point at you, and of passing unnoticed — parallel abysses.
* * *
Novelty. The cult of novelty.
The new is one of those poisonous stimulants which end up by becoming more necessary than any food; drugs which, once they get a hold on us, need to be taken in progressively larger doses until they are fatal, though we'd die without them.
It's a curious habit, growing thus attached to that perishable part of things in which, precisely, their novelty consists. But it is surely obvious that these upstart ideas need to be given a certain air of nobility; that they should seem not the fruit of haste but gradually matured; not unusual, but ideas that have existed for ages; not made and found this morning, but merely forgotten and retrieved.
* * *
An exclusive penchant for what is new and merely new points to a degeneration of the critical faculty, for nothing is easier than to gauge the "novelty" of a work.
* * *
Those works, perhaps, are "classical" which can grow cold without dying or decomposing. It would be interesting to trace the will to lastingness implicit in the notions of perfection and flawless form, and to bring to light the part it played in the rules, laws, or canons of the arts in the ages we style "classical."
* * *
Our disciples and successors would have a thousand times more to teach us on this score than our masters — if we could live long enough to see their works.
When all is said and done a book is merely a selection from its author's monologue. The man is talking to himself, or the soul communing with itself, and in the flow of words the author makes a choice. This choice is always self-regarding; in one thought he likes himself, in another hates himself. Pride or self-interest selects or rejects what passes through his mind; the man he would like to be chooses out of the man he is. This is an inescapable law.
Supposing all the monologue were given us, we would be capable of arriving at a fairly accurate answer to the most crucial question that enlightened criticism can set itself regarding any work.
So far as it does not confine itself to an expression of opinion fathered by the critic's mood and tastes — when, that is to say, he is really talking about himself, while fancying he is talking about another man's work — criticism, in so far as it is an appraisal, should take the form of a comparison between what the author set out to do and what he actually did. Whereas the value of a work depends on a variable and personal relation between some reader and the work in question, the proper and intrinsic merit of the author is a relationship between himself and his original intention. This merit is proportioned to the "distance" between them and to the difficulties the author encountered in carrying out his plan.
But these very difficulties are in a way a preliminary operation on the author's part; they are the work of his "ideal." This mental operation precedes, impedes, holds up and challenges the work he eventually turns out. And it is here that character and intellect sometimes treat Nature and her powers as the rider treats the horse.
An ideal critique would be based solely on this merit, for all we have the right to ask of any writer is that he should "bring off" what he set out to do. A mind can be judged only by its own laws and almost without any personal intervention on the critic's part — as though by an operation independent of the man who is carrying it out, since all he has to do is to collate a work and an intention.
You set out to make a certain book?
"Well," I ask, "have you made it? What were you aiming at?
"Were you aspiring to scale the heights or to gain material rewards: pecuniary success or a feather in your cap? Or perhaps you had a less obvious purpose; perhaps you wished to appeal only to a few of your acquaintances, or even to a single one whom you hoped to 'get at' by the detour of a published work?
"Whom did you want to entertain? Whom did you want to beguile, to rival, to madden with envy; whose mind to preoccupy, and whose nights to haunt? Tell me, gentle Author, was it Mammon, Demos, Caesar, or maybe God, whom you were serving? Venus, perhaps — and perhaps a little of all five together.
"So now let's see how you went about it...."
* * *
According to our pundits the idea of writing "purely" in French (or some other language) is an illusion. I don't altogether agree with them. Rather, the illusion would consist in thinking that a language can have an intrinsic, definite "purity," i.e., a "purity" definable by perceptible, indisputable characteristics. But a language is one long, continuous creation. Everyone adds a bit of himself to it, mangles or enriches it, receives it and dispenses it as (within certain limits) the fancy takes him. The need for our understanding each other is the only law that controls and retards its changes, these changes being feasible owing to the arbitrariness of the correspondences between the signs and meanings that are basic to language. At every moment it can be likened to a system of conventions, unformulated for the most part, though sometimes we can see how they arose, as is always the case when we learn a new word.
So far, then, we have no "purity," but somewhat haphazard phenomena governed only (or restrained in their vagaries) by the need for communication, by the automatic reflexes of individuals, and their propensities for imitation.
Yet there may exist — there does exist — a conventional purity which, conventional though it be, has its merits. This purity enjoins, to start with, correctness, that is to say, conformity with certain written conventions, the knowledge and usage of which are a criterion of all "cultured" persons. More subtle are the other conditions of this pure, premeditated language, for whose appreciation a special sensitivity is needed. (I need not list them here.) Broadly speaking, they are taboos whose reasons are hard to elucidate; certain "effects" with which one dispenses; the quest of an exquisite coherence in expression and a constant care neatly to dovetail the members of a phrase, and the phrases of a paragraph, each with each.
But there are men whose hearing, healthy though it is, fails to distinguish sounds from noises.
Writing really "pure" French is a hobby and an amusement which relieve to some extent the tedium of writing.
* * *
Syntax is a faculty of the soul.
* * *
Knowledge of a language has too often been regarded as merely a matter of memory. The idea of treating orthography as a sign of culture is a sign of the times — and of stupidity.
But what matters is the handling of the language, the continuity in the activity of writing, and the independence thus given to the activities of the mind. And, once these have free play, the freedom of combination in the text.
Syntax is a set of habits to be formed, habits which it is sometimes well to renovate and brush up, in full awareness of what one is doing. In this field of literary action, as in all others, we must abide by the rules of the game, but accept them for what they are worth and without attaching too much authority to them. Nor should we pride ourselves on remembering a number of exceptions. It must be borne in mind that in the days of our greatest writers the liberties permitted were, also, far greater. True, their language was more complex, better built, more "organized" than ours; but I must admit that they were of several minds as to the concordance of tenses, unsure about grammatical agreements, inconsistent and sometimes surprising in their handling of participles.
Any production of the mind is important when its existence resolves, summons up, or cancels other works, whether previous to it or not.
It sensitizes the mind to quite different works. Either it opens up or it exhausts some lode....
* * *
What is most "human."
Some think that the duration of works depends on their "humanness," their endeavor to be true to life.
Yet what could be more enduring than certain works of fantasy?
The untrue and the wonderful are more human than the "real" man.
* * *
There are works, famous or otherwise, which for the purpose of triangulating the mental world are preferable to others; they provide us with guidemarks.
For a long time I have owned a fifty-page pamphlet, dealing with a technical subject, in which what are called exactness, profundity, originality of approach, are constantly and admirably present.
With this little work I compare a book I've just been reading; or, to be more precise, I try to compare the intellectual power and, above all, discipline implied in that pamphlet with what the book I have just been reading implies about the mind of its author.
* * *
Nearly all the books I prize, and absolutely all that have been of any use to me, are books that don't make easy reading.
One's mind may stray from them, it cannot skim them.
Some have helped me, despite their difficulty; others, because they were difficult.
* * *
Two sorts of books: those which act as stimulants and merely stir up what I already have within me; and those which provide nourishment whose substance will be transmuted into mine. From these latter I shall derive forms of speaking or thinking, or else precise resources and ready-made answers — for we are bound to borrow the results of other men's researches and enrich ourselves with what they have seen and we have not.
Excerpted from Collected Works of Paul Valery, Volume 14 by Paul Valéry, Stuart Gilbert. Copyright © 1970 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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