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Valéry's essays on Leonardo, Poe, Mallarmé, and with these the "Teste Cycle," were that part of his work most central to his thought. The extensive selection included from his Notebooks is evidence of his enduring interest in these figures. The essays are, in fact, the only work with marginal glosses, Valéry's notations showing how he went back, amending and amplifying his original ideas.
Originally published in 1972.
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Collected Works of Paul Valéry, Volume 8
By Paul Valéry, Jackson Mathews, Malcolm Cowley, James R. Lawler
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1972 Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.
All rights reserved.
Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci
To Marcel Schwab
What a man leaves after him are the dreams that his name inspires and the works that make his name a symbol of admiration, hate, or indifference. We think of how he thought, and we are able to find within his works a kind of thinking derived from ourselves that we attribute to him; we can refashion this thought in the image of our own. It is easy to picture to ourselves an ordinary man; his motives and elementary reactions can be supplied quite simply from our own memories. The commonplace acts that form the surface of his life and those that form the surface of ours are linked in the same fashion. We too can serve as the bond that holds the acts together, and the circle of activity suggested by his name is no wider than our own. If we choose an individual who excelled in some respect, we shall find it harder to picture the workings and the ways of his mind. In order to go beyond an indiscriminate admiration, we shall be forced to stretch in some particular way our conception of his dominating quality, which we doubtless possess only in the germ. But if all the faculties of the chosen mind were widely developed at the same time, or if considerable traces of its activity are to be found in all fields of endeavor, then the figure of our hero grows more and more difficult to conceive in its unity and tends to escape our strivings. From one boundary to another of this mental territory there are immense distances that we have never traveled. Our understanding fails to grasp the continuity of this whole-just as it fails to perceive those formless rags of space that separate known objects and fill in the random intervals between; just as it loses myriads of facts at every moment, beyond the small number of those evoked by speech. Nevertheless, we must linger over the task, become inured to it, and learn to surmount the difficulties imposed on our imagination by this combination of elements heterogeneous to it. In this process all our intelligence is applied to conceiving a unique order and a single motive force. We wish to place a being in our likeness at the heart of the system we impose on ourselves. We struggle to form a decisive image. And our mind, with a degree of violence depending on its lucidity and breadth, ends by winning back its own unity. As if produced by mechanism, a hypothesis takes shape and proves to he the individual who achieved all these things, the central vision where all this must have taken place, the monstrous brain or strange animal that wove a pure web connecting so many forms. These enigmatic and diverse constructions were the labors of this brain, its instinct making a home for itself. The production of such a hypothesis is a phenomenon that admits of variations but not of chance. It has the same value as the logical analysis of which it should be the object. It is the basis of the method that we will take up to serve our purpose.
I propose to imagine a man whose activities are so diverse that if I postulate a ruling idea behind them all, there could be none more universal. And I want this man to possess an infinitely keen perception of the difference of things, the adventures of which perception might well be called analysis. I see him as aiming at all things: he is always thinking in terms of the universe, and of rigor.* He is so formed as to overlook nothing that enters into the confusion of things; not the least shrub. He descends into the depths of that which exists for all men, but there he draws apart and studies himself. He penetrates to the habits and structures of nature, he works on them from every angle, and finally it is he alone who constructs, enumerates, sets in motion. He leaves behind him churches and fortresses; he fashions ornaments instinct with gentleness and grandeur, besides a thousand mechanical devices and the rigorous calculations of many a research. He leaves the abandoned relics and remnants of unimaginable games and fancies. In the midst of these pastimes, which are mingled with his science, which in turn cannot be distinguished from a passion, he has the charm of always seeming to think of something else. ... I shall follow him as he moves through the density and raw unity of the world, where he will become so familiar with nature that he will imitate it in order to use it, and will end by finding it difficult to conceive of an object that nature does not contain.
This creation of our thoughts requires a name that will serve as a limit to the expansion of terms usually so far removed as to escape each other. I can find none more suitable than that of Leonardo da Vinci. Whoever pictures a tree must also picture a sky or background from which the tree stands forth; in this there is a sort of logic that is almost tangible and yet almost unknown. The figure I am presenting can be reduced to an inference from this type. Very little that I shall have to say of him should be applied to the man who made this name illustrious: I will not pursue a coincidence that I think would be impossible to define incorrectly. I am trying to give one view of the details of an intellectual life, one suggestion of the methods implied by every discovery, one, chosen among the multitude of imaginable things-a crude model, if you will, but preferable in every way to a collection of dubious anecdotes, or a commentary upon museum catalogues, or a list of dates. That kind of erudition would merely falsify the purely hypothetical intention of this essay. I am not ignorant of such matters, but my task above all is to omit them, so that a conjecture based on very general terms may in no way be confused with the visible fragments of a personality completely vanished, leaving us equally convinced both of his thinking existence and of the impossibility of ever knowing it better.
Many an error that distorts our judgment of human achievements is due to a strange disregard of their genesis. We seldom remember that they did not always exist. This has led to a sort of reciprocal coquetry which leads authors to suppress, to conceal all too well, the origins of a work. We fear the latter may be humble; we even suspect them of being natural. And although there are very few authors with the courage to say how their work took shape, I believe there are not many more who venture even to understand the process. Such an understanding can only begin with one's painfully relinquishing all laudatory epithets and notions of glory; it will not allow for any idea of personal superiority or delusion of grandeur. It leads to the discovery of the relativity that underlies the apparent perfection. And this research into origins is necessary if we are not to believe that minds are as radically different as their productions would make it seem. Certain scientific works, for example — and particularly those of the mathematicians — are so limpid in their structure that it is hard to believe they have an author. There is something inhuman about them, and this quality has not been without its effect. It has led to the belief that there is such a great distance between certain disciplines, notably the sciences and the arts, that the minds devoted to each have been set as widely apart, in the common view, as the results of their labors seem to be. And yet these labors differ only in their variations from a common basis: by the part of the basis that each preserves, and the part that each neglects, in forming their languages and symbols. We must therefore be a little suspicious of books and expositions that seem too pure. Whatever is fixed deceives us, and whatever is made to be looked at is likely to change its appearance, to seem nobler. The operations of the mind can best serve our purpose of analysis while they are moving, unresolved, still at the mercy of a moment — before they have been given the name of entertainment or law, theorem or work of art, and, being perfected, have lost their mutual resemblance.
Within the mind a drama takes place. Drama, adventure, agitation, any words of the sort can be used provided that several of them are used together, so that one is corrected by another. Most of those dramas are lost, like the plays of Menander, but we do have Leonardo's manuscripts and Pascal's dazzling notes. These fragments insist that we examine them. They help us to realize by what starts and snatches of thought, by what strange suggestions from human events or the flow of sensations, and after what immense moments of lassitude, men are able to see the shadows of their future works, the ghosts that come before. But without having recourse to such great examples that they might be dismissed as exceptional cases, we need merely observe someone who thinks he is alone and left to himself: he recoils from an idea, grasps it, denies or smiles or stiffens, and mimes the strange predicament of his own diversity. Madmen often act like this in public.
By such examples, physical movements that can be measured and de fined are shown to be closely related to the personal drama of which I was speaking. The actors in the drama are mental images, and it is easy to understand that, if we eliminate the particular features of the images and consider only their succession, frequency, periodicity, varying capacity for association, and finally their duration, we are soon tempted to find analogies in the sled material world, to compare them with scientific analyses, to postulate an environment, to endow them first with continuity, velocities, properties of displacement, then with mass and energy. Thereupon we may realize that many such systems are possible, that any one in particular is worth no more than another, and that our use of them — which is rewarding, since it always casts light on something — must be continually watched over and restored to its purely verbal function. For, in precise terms, analogy is only our faculty of changing images, of combining them, of making part of one coexist with part of another, and of perceiving, voluntarily or involuntarily, the connections in their structure. And this makes it impossible to describe the mind, where images exist. In the mind words lose their force. They arc formed, there they leap forth, under its eyes; it is the mind that describes words to us.
And so man carries away visions, whose power becomes his power. He connects it with his history, of which his visions are the geometrical site. From this process arise those decisive acts that astound us; those perspectives, miraculous divinations, exact judgments; those illuminations, those incomprehensible anxieties, and stupid blunders as well. In certain extra-ordinary cases, invoking abstract gods — genius, inspiration, a thousand others — we ask with stupefaction how these marvels came to be. Once again we believe that something must have created itself, for we worship mystery and the marvelous as much as we love to ignore what goes on behind the scenes; we ascribe logic to miracle, although the inspired author had been preparing for a year. He was ripe. He had always thought of this work, perhaps unconsciously; and while others were still not ready to see, he had looked, combined, and now was merely reading what was written in his mind. The secret — whether of Leonardo, or of Bonaparte, or that of the highest intelligence at a given time — lies and can only lie in the relations they found — and were compelled to find — among thi11gs of which we cannot grasp the law of continuity. It is certain that, at the decisive moment, they had only to complete definite acts. Their supreme achievement, the one that the world admires, had become a simple matter — almost like comparing two lengths.
From this point of view we can perceive the unity of the method with which we are concerned. It is native and elemental to this environment, of which it is the very life and definition. And when thinkers as powerful as the man whom I am contemplating through these lines discover the implicit resources of the method, in a clearer and more conscious moment they have the right to exclaim: "Facil cosa è farsi universale! — It is easy to become universal!" They can, for the moment, admire the prodigious instrument they are — at the price of instantly denying the element of prodigy.
But this final clarity is attained only after long wanderings and inevitable idolatries. A consciousness of the operations of thought, which is the unrecognized logic I mentioned before, exists but rarely, even in the keenest minds. The number of conceptions, the ability to prolong them, and the abundance of discoveries are something different, and are produced without respect to one's judgment of their nature. Yet the importance of that judgment is easy to appreciate. A flower, a proposition, and a sound can be imagined almost simultaneously ; the intervals between them can be made as short as we choose; and each of these objects of thought can also change, be deformed, lose its initial qualities one after another at the will of the mind that conceived it, but it is in one's consciousness of this power that all its value resides. That consciousness alone permits us to criticize these formations, to interpret them, to find in them nothing more than they contain, and not to confuse their states with those of reality. With it begins the analysis of all intellectual phases, of all the states that consciousness will have the power to define as fallacy, madness, discovery — which at first were only nuances impossible to distinguish. Equivalent variations of a common substance, they were comparable one to another, existed at in definite and almost irresponsible levels, could sometimes be named, and all according to the same system. To be conscious of one's thoughts, as thoughts, is to recognize this sort of equality or homogeneity; to feel that all combinations of the sort are legitimate, natural, and that the method consists in arousing them, in seeing them precisely, in seeking for what they imply.
At some time in this process of observation, this double life of the mind that reduces ordinary thinking to something like the dream of a wakened sleeper, it appears that the sequence of the dream — with its mass of combinations, contrasts, and perceptions, either grouped around some project or moving forward indeterminately, at one's pleasure-is developing with perceptible regularity, with the obvious continuity of a machine. The idea then arises (or the wish) that this movement might be accelerated, that the terms of the sequence might be carried to their limit, to that of their imaginable expressions, after which everything will be changed. And if this mode of being conscious becomes habitual, it will enable us, for example, to consider beforehand all the possible results of an imagined act and all the relationships of a conceived object, and then to proceed further to the faculty of putting them aside, of divining something ever more intense or exact than the given object, to the ability to rouse oneself from any thought that was lasting too long. Whatever its nature, a thought that becomes fixed assumes the characteristics of a hypnosis and is called, in the language of logic, an idol; in the domain of art and poetic construction, it becomes a sterile monotony. The faculty of which I speak — one that leads the mind to foresee itself and to picture as a whole whatever was going to be pictured in detail, together with the effect of the sequence thus presented in brief — is the basis of all generalization. In certain individuals it manifests itself with remarkable energy, becoming a veritable passion ; in the arts it is the cause of each separate advance and explains the continually more frequent use of contraction, suggestion, and violent contrast; while the same faculty exists implicitly, in its rational form, at the base of all mathematical concepts. It is very similar to the operation which, under the name of reasoning by recurrence,* extends the application of these analyses — and which, from the type of simple addition to infmitesimal summation, does more than save us from making an infinite number of useless experiments; it produces more complex structures, since the conscious imitation of my act is a new act that envelops all the possible adaptations of the first.
This tableau of drama, agitation, lucidity stands in opposition to other scenes and movements that we call "Nature" or "the World." But we can do nothing with this natural world except to distinguish ourselves from it, and then immediately replace ourselves within its frame.
Excerpted from Collected Works of Paul Valéry, Volume 8 by Paul Valéry, Jackson Mathews, Malcolm Cowley, James R. Lawler. Copyright © 1972 Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPREFACE, by Paul Valery, VII,
Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci, 3,
Note and Digression, 64,
Leonardo and the Philosophers, 110,
On Poe's Eureka, 161,
Some Fragments from Poe's Marginalia, 177,
The Place of Baudelaire, 193,
The Existence of Symbolism, 215,
Letter about Mallarmé, 240,
Stéphane Mallarmé, 254,
I Would Sometimes Say to Stéphane Mallarmé, 272,
A Kind of Preface, 299,
Concerning A Throw of the Dice, 307,
Literary Reminiscences, 317,
Last Visit to Mallarmé, 325,
Stéphane Mallarmé, 329,
FROM THE NOTEBOOKS, 333,
SELECTED LETTERS, 399,