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Chapter Eleven— Being in the World and Being in Structures in Mallarmé and Valéry
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Chapter Eleven—
Being in the World and Being in Structures in Mallarmé and Valéry

The "Unique, Difficult Being" of Language

We are coming full circle. The ontology of literary artworks inevitably gets us back to language. The earlier discussion about language and the fractures that occurred in it led us to the question of the hidden essence and the religious dimension of poetry. But religion was not a stable foundation for much of anything since it was always paired with sacrilege or nothingness. So from religion we turned to the possibility that the essence was a relational structure. Now we find ourselves alone again with the object, the text, or whatever you want to call it, and asking just what it is. And the best course is to go back and confront what it's made of, namely language. Foucault got it right when he talked about Mallarmé's contribution to the modern episteme : "Thought was led, and violently so, back towards language itself, back to its unique, difficult being."[1] The importance of having our thoughts turned back to the being of language is that language has necessarily become an object of ontological interest. Once language has been fractured and meaning scattered into the realm of the ideal or into the relational space between words, we're forced to take another look at it and the literary works made out of it. Being begins to look like another object of the quest for essence (the word essence, after all, has to do with being). Sartre had already tied a number of these factors together. In chapter 4, 1 mentioned how in Sartre's account the death of God had led Mallarmé to a religion of nothingness (theology), how this religion had become an in-


vestigation into being (ontology), and how poetry had been chosen to fill the void (language).

One of the most thoughtful discussions of language theory as it relates to modern poetry is Gerald L. Bruns's Modern Poetry and the Idea of Language . Bruns sees his subject as a dialectic of two conceptions of poetry: one Orphic, the other Hermetic. Orpheus was the poet who was torn limb from limb after his death and whose song went into all nature, and so Orphic poets see the world as the horizon of poetry. In the Orphic conception language is "a circle whose circumference is nowhere and whose center is everywhere."[2] In the Hermetic conception, however, language and things made out of it are self-contained, "hermetic" structures. For Bruns, Mallarmé appears at first glance to be the Orphic poet par excellence but turns out to be only a failed Orphic poet. Bruns mentions Mallarmé's line about how everything exists to end up in a book, and he cites the phrase Orphic explanation of the earth to illustrate the idea of poetic language (in Mallarmé's view) as in some way encompassing earthly existence (OE, pp. 378, 663).

What makes Mallarmé's view paradoxical, as Bruns sees it, is that it is negative and negating. Mallarmé has radically separated language from being, and thus for him the creation of poetry is ultimately an act of annihilation that "establishes the word in the pristine universe of nothingness." Mallarmé is "the poet who seeks to return the world to the original void." His vision, Bruns says at the end of his chapter on Mallarmé, "is of the transcendent word—of language which belongs neither to the world of things nor to the human world of speech but rather to primordial emptiness, in which the splendor of beauty exists as a sheer presence, a pure quality unpredicated of any reality but the word. Mallarmé's, indeed, is the song of Orpheus in his absence."[3] So in Mallarmé's conception language can't really be Orphic (as Bruns defines it). For language to be Orphic, it must in some sense be coterminous with the world, just as in the myth Orpheus's song became infused into nature. But this condition can never be, since language always ends up not in nature or the world but in the void. Mallarmé's theory and practice betray not so much Orphism as a cult of nothingness that results, as the title of his chapter suggests, in the "transcendence of language."

This analysis is fascinating because, without realizing it, Bruns has explained the mechanism by which Foucault's statement about being led back to the unique being of language comes true. If language is separated from being, and poems end up dragging us out into the lonely regions of nowhere, then aren't we forced to come back to those words on the


page as the only thing that isn't nowhere? Language has already been evacuated of its meaning—as we learned a long time ago when we saw how meaning hid itself in the empty spaces between words. The poet has flown the coop—as we learned when we read of the "elocutionary disappearance of the poet" (OC, p. 366). So what's left besides the words, which now have become hard and objectlike? Here we are truly led violently back to the unique being of language, finally confronting those nasty, obdurate, recalcitrant things called words and asking ourselves, in a more fundamental way than ever before, just what they are. Now we can see the significance of Mallarmé's view, namely that the perspective it forces on us is ontological: what we are facing is the "unique being" of language.

The "Unique, Difficult Being" of the Work

The ontology of language is not the whole story. What I've said so far is that Mallarmé makes us think ontologically, not that the content of his writings is ontological. But as it happens, there is ontology in his writings, even though it's not called that. Ontology in Mallarmé has to do with strange questions about boundaries and limits. Mallarmé always joked about the most serious subjects, and this is one of them. I already quoted his remark about cramming stones into a book, a remark designed to illustrate the view that language—that is, poetic language—renders not objects but intangible things (see above, p. 71). The question here is silly but enormously profound: writers are supposed to put things into their books, so how do they fit them in without breaking the bindings? With Mallarmé, though, the answer to a silly question is complicated. Here it involves a kind of dialectic that corresponds to other dialectics in Mallarmé. How do you fit stones into a book? You don't, because . . . well, first we need to say what a book is, and then we need to say what's in it, and that's a spiritual matter. Question and answer imply a dialectic involving two perspectives: literal-physical and spiritual-philosophical

We can see this dialectic at work in the middle two of the four essays Mallarmé published under the title "Quant au Livre" (Concerning the Book). The first, "Etalages" (Displays [of merchandise]), presents the literal-physical perspective (predominantly), whereas the second, "Le Livre, instrument spirituel" (The Book, spiritual instrument), presents the spiritual-philosophical (predominantly). "Etalages," like any other


Mallarmé essay, is full of tortured syntax that has been wrapped around in a double carrick bend. But here, when we unravel it all, we find that Mallarmé is talking about . . . books. That's right—the things you buy in stores or at those stalls along the Seine in Paris, those piles of printed paper that bear a commercial value just as a tie, a bottle of perfume, or a tarte aux poires does. "A piece of news circulated, with the autumn wind, in the market and returned to the bare, solitary trees: might you get a retrospective laugh out of it, equal to mine; it seems there was a disaster in the book business, one might recall the term 'crash'? Volumes were scattered all over the ground if you can believe it, unsold" (OC, p. 373). Another of Mallarmé's jokes: if there's been a crash in the book market, it must mean that all the books have come crashing down to the floor. The essay is full of references to physical books and the book trade. In the midst of it we find the poet struggling to uphold the ideal of beauty when all around him books are being marketed and exchanged like dry goods. "As the Poet has his divulgation, so he lives; apart from and without the knowledge of publicity, of the counter weighed down by copies [of books], or of exasperated canvasers: previously according to a pact with Beauty that he has taken it upon himself to perceive with his necesssary and comprehensive gaze, and of which he knows the transformations" (OC, p. 378).

"Le Livre, instrument spirituel," by contrast, starts out with the Orphic proposition that "everything, in the world, exists to end up in a book" (OC, p. 378). Once again Mallarmé evokes the physical dimension of books, but now it is to show the passage from the physical to the spiritual. The act of reading accomplishes that passage: "A solitary tacit concert is given, through reading, to the mind that recaptures, on a lesser sonority, the meaning" (OC, p. 380). In a paragraph pregnant with the imagery of pagan sacrifice and sexual conquest, Mallarmé describes the act of cutting the pages of a book, an act by which one takes "possession" of the book (possession is a sexual euphemism in French). Mallarmé here and elsewhere is obsessed with the "folds" of a book, which are endowed with a mystical significance as they conceal and reveal its spiritual contents. Mallarmé's descriptions are very physical. In fact, he even compares himself with a cook, knife in hand, slaughtering poultry. But the physical book promotes a kind of expansion by which the spiritual is created: "The book, total expansion of the letter, must draw from it [i.e. the letter], directly, mobility and, spacious, by correspondences, institute play, you never know, that will confirm the fiction" (OC, p. 380).


Both between the two essays and within each one the dialectic goes on as always in Mallarmé: physical and spiritual, profane and sacred, prosaic and poetic. But the issue is unquestionably ontological. The conflict between the poet with his ideal of beauty, on the one hand, and packets of folded paper, on the other, involves two forms of being: the physical being of signifying objects and the uncertain being of the created world and the meanings associated with those objects. Does Mallarmé resolve the conflict? Of course not; he sees no possible resolution. The important thing is that he explores it.

There is another angle to the ontological question in Mallarmé. We've looked at books and pondered what they are and how we get from them to the spiritual dimension contained in, or associated with, them. How does that spiritual dimension come into being in the first place, and what does the author have to do with it? What is the mode of being of both the author in the work and the world of that work as it materializes? Mallarmé likes to envisage this world as theatre, just as he uses the theatre as the decor for the representation of other spiritual and religious ideas. "The Restricted Action," the first of the four essays on the Book, contains a bizarre passage that describes the coming-into-being of a poetic world—at least that's what it appears to describe:

The writer, from his ills, dragons that he has coddled, or from a gladness, must set himself up, in the text, the spiritual histrion.

Floor, chandelier, obnubilation of fabrics and liquefaction of mirrors in the real order, up to the excessive leaps of our gauze-enshrouded figure about an intermission, standing, of the virile stature, a Place emerges, stage, overvaluation, in front of everyone, of the spectacle of Self.
(OC, p. 370)

I don't pretend to be able to explain every word in this passage. But it appears that Mallarmé is picturing what it means to "set oneself up" (literally, "institute oneself") as an author in the text. The minute he thinks about that question, a theatre appears to him, with all its trappings—floor, chandelier, mirrors. What is taking place is the "spectacle of Self," as if the author's interior were a place where dramatic performances were put on with the self as hero.

Clearly this passage doesn't go far toward giving us a "serious" answer to the question of what a literary artwork is and where it comes from, since everything in it is highly metaphorical. At least it seems that way. After all, the floors and chandeliers are not real.

Or are they? We have already seen another place in Mallarmé's writ-


ings that features a theatre and something like a "spectacle of Self": the manuscript notes for the "Book," edited by Jacques Scherer.[4] The notes contain the same kind of images we find in "The Restricted Action" and some additional ones having to do with theatrical events. There is a performance, there are places for spectators, there is a reading of some sort, there are stage directions, there are the plans to shuffle and distribute pages in the room, there are arrangements for the sale of tickets and the collection of proceeds. Mallarmé repeatedly writes the words hero, drama, mystery, hymn, and theatre (or abbreviations for them). But in the manuscript notes Mallarmé doesn't appear to be speaking metaphorically, as he does in "The Restricted Action." Rather, he seems to have in mind a real performance of some sort, or at least a performance that could take place in the real world. It is as though he had asked himself how he could perform in actuality the "spectacle of Self," the spectacle of his own self, as he had pictured it in his essay. Indeed, how could he? By "instituting himself" in the text, as he had proposed in the essay? But then he'd run into those big rocks, and besides, the book covers wouldn't close on him or them. The joke comes back. By making floors and chandeliers literally spring from his head? No, the only thing to do was to get a theatre, a real theatre, and somehow make the performance there be as much like the one described in the essay as possible. Everything about the room would be set up so as to make it a reflection of the poet's self; in that way, to the extent that such a thing is possible in an atheized and desacralized world, everything could be infused with the poet's real presence, just as the consecrated Host contains the body of Christ. The trouble is, though, that he'd end up having to settle for something mundane, like reading his own poems to a bunch of people sitting in carefully arranged seats and surrounded by sheets of real paper with more poems written on them.

It's no wonder Mallarmé never got far with this project. I don't know whether he seriously thought he could do anything with it. I suspect he didn't. The important thing, however, is the degree to which he explored the limits and boundaries of a category of objects that has always defied precise definition. German romantic artists had done something similar almost a century before Mallarmé by playing with the boundary separating the world of their fictions from the real, historical world of their author. That's why we find all those funny scenes in the works of E. T. A. Hoffmann and Ludwig Tieck, where a character in the story stumbles upon a copy of the story in which he's a character, or where the author suddenly announces a visit he has recently made to a character of his


own invention. But Mallarmé has gone farther than this and has given us, if only in a dialectic pondering, the outlines of a metaphysics of aesthetic objects.

I've been saying that Mallarmé probably considered the ontological question unanswerable. Given the idealist tendency we consistently find in him, this is not surprising. If beauty is an ideal and art is meant to contain or embody beauty, then artworks exist at the intersection between a knowable, real world on the one hand and an unknowable, ideal world on the other, and almost by definition their ontology is impossible to specify. There are several places in the manuscript notes where Mallarmé has written things that comment on this state of affairs. For example, here is a curious notation that calls to mind the dialectical nature of the four essays on the Book:

a book may
thus contain
only a certain quantity
of matter—its
not numerical whether
       it [the value] is
    more or less
than what is—to sell it [the book]
is too expensive and not enough.
(39 [A])

The issue here appears to be the impossibility of specifying "matter" and "value" in a book, which is the same as the impossibility of really saying what a book is. In another place a solitary notation reads, "a book neither begins nor ends: at most it pretends" (181 [A]). In still another place the author speaks of "this volume (of whose meaning I am not responsible—not signed as such)" (201 [A]). As we read these passages, the Book starts to look like a wondrously open structure with fluid or nonexistent boundaries. The author isn't there (but then that's nothing new for Mallarmé), and so what is there is free to escape into a real-ideal world that perhaps looks like our world and perhaps looks like its own private world.

Mallarmé's idealism leaves him at a hopeless impasse when it comes to distinguishing between the two worlds. But at least he deserves credit for having the imagination to point us in the direction of the other world—whichever one that might be.


Valéry and the Relational Essence of Human Things

For Paul Valéry, more than for any other figure I've chosen, there is an intimate connection between relationalism and ontology. In fact, the two can hardly be separated since Valéry's relationalism is exactly what defines for him the mode of being of artworks. Valéry is a much more satisfying ontologist than Mallarmé, in one sense, because without using the word ontology and without offering a carefully elaborated theory of ontology as such, he squarely confronts the issue.

One place where Valéry explored the ontology of art is a modern-day Platonic dialogue that he published in 1923 and called Eupalinos, or the Architect (O, 2:79—147). Valéry did not have much of a sense of humor, but this piece is rather amusing. The joke is that Socrates and his friends have died and become shades in the underworld, for, apparently, some time has passed since the great philosopher walked the streets of Athens. And so the characters in the dialogue frequently address each other as Socrates's disciple Phaedrus addresses him in the opening speech: "Why have you wandered off from the other shades, and what thought has united your soul, far from ours, with the borders of this transparent empire?" (O, 2:79). Presumably, if Socrates and his friends are speaking from the underworld, they are freed from their historical connection to ancient Greece and can comment on matters that are relevant to more modern times.

The subject of the dialogue is architecture, and one of Valéry's points is to reverse the traditional nineteenth-century hierarchy of the arts, a legacy from Hegel and Schopenhauer, both of whom believed that architecture, since it was the most material of the arts, was also the lowest. For Phaedrus and Socrates, the materiality of architecture is precisely what makes it the "most complete of arts." Most of man's creations, Socrates explains, are made with a view either to the body, in which case they reflect the principle of utility, or to the soul, in which case they reflect the principle of beauty. A third principle that we seek in our creations but that is often lacking, he says, is solidity or duration. Architecture alone reflects all three, and this capacity makes it supreme among the arts (O, 2:129–30).

The idea is the dual existence of architecture. It exists in the world, like other objects, and yet it owes something of its nature to the human soul. This subject is pursued extensively in Eupalinos . Where are works of architecture? What is their space? As Socrates comments at one point,


works of architecture (and music, too, for that matter) "exist in the midst of this world, like monuments from another world; or like examples, scattered here and there, of a structure and a duration that are not those of beings, but those of forms and laws" (O, 2:105). The peculiar thing about human creations, Socrates says a little earlier (speaking this time about music), is that they dwell in a space that appears to be coterminous with the one we dwell in but contains human characteristics. "Didn't it seem to you," Socrates asks Phaedrus, referring to the experience of hearing music, "that primitive space had been replaced by an intelligible and changing space?" (O, 2:102). When we listen to music, Socrates seems to be saying, it is as though the space in which we live had been replaced by one that is coterminous with it but is alive with human content, in short, with meaning. (The word intelligible, if Socrates is using it in the standard philosophical way, means accessible to the mind, as opposed to sensible, which means merely accessible to the senses.)

Valéry must have enjoyed thinking about this problem, because it turns up frequently in his writings. Dance intrigued him for the same reasons that architecture intrigued his Socrates. Like architecture, dance occupies two spaces. One is real, and the other is something Valéry cannot quite put into words. In a lecture titled "Philosophy of the Dance" Valéry says, "Dance is an art deduced from life itself, since it is nothing more than the set [ensemble ] of the human body; but an action transposed into a world, into a sort of space-time that is no longer entirely the same as that of practical life" (O, 1: 1391; Valéry's emphasis).

Valéry's interest in the status of human products is perhaps best illustrated in another passage from Eupalinos . A great many thinkers in the twentieth century have talked about the difficulty of distinguishing art objects from ordinary objects. The artists themselves have apparently found the subject fascinating since so many have tested the ontological limits of artworks by taking objects from daily life—latrines, Brillo boxes—putting them in museums, and seeing what happens to them. Valéry's very modern Socrates ponders this question, too, because of an experience that has challenged his otherwise facile sense of the distinction between human and ordinary objects. He tells Phaedrus of a day during his life on earth when he had taken a walk by the sea and found what he calls an ambiguous object. In that geographically uncertain region on the border of the marine and the terrestrial worlds, the sea had coughed up an ontologically uncertain thing. It was white, polished, hard, smooth, and light in weight. The problem was what to make of it, and it is clear from the story that Socrates felt compelled—as all of


us would—to determine its status. He proposes some possibilities: the bone of a fish, a piece of ivory. Clearly, the most important question, however, is whether it was made by man. "Was it a mortal obeying an idea, who, pursuing with his own hands a goal foreign to the material he was attacking, scratches, cuts apart, reconnects; stops and judges; and finally separates himself from his handiwork,—something telling him that his handiwork is finished?" (O, 2:118). Or was it the product of some other living thing, or quite simply "the fruit of an infinite time," the result of the chance action of water and sand? Unhappily, there is absolutely no means for making a decision, and Socrates ends his story thus: "Whether this singular object was a work of life, a work of art, or a work of time and an act of nature, I couldn't distinguish . . . So I suddenly threw it back into the sea" (O, 2:120).

Valéry obviously has no foolproof and universally effective method for distinguishing between human and nonhuman products. But most human products do not leave the perceiver susceptible to the kind of cognitive impasse Socrates experienced with his smooth, white mystery object. The question, then, is not so much what there is about an object that signals to us that it is a human product and not a thing found in nature (Valéry's Socrates has just demonstrated that we can't always tell) but, once we know that something is a human product, what there is about it that makes it a human product. Valéry's answer is that human products (oeuvres is the generic term he uses) bear the mark of their creators in the form of laws, by which he means the laws of human sensibility. He says this about music and architecture: "But to produce . . . objects that are essentially human; to use sensible means that are not merely resemblances to sensible things and doubles of known beings; to give figures to laws or deduce figures from the laws themselves, isn't this equally the purpose of both [art forms]?" (O, 2:106).

Some types of human products are not likely to give us the problems that Valéry's Socrates has had with his ambiguous object. Literary works serve as a good example here because we have no trouble distinguishing them from objects in nature. Once again, the human origin shows up in the form of laws. In a 1927 lecture titled "Propos sur la poésie" (A few words about poetry) Valéry describes the state in which a poet finds himself at the moment of creation. "The poetic state, or emotion," he says, "seems to me to consist in an emerging perception, in a tendency to perceive a world, or complete system of relations, in which beings, things, events, and acts, even if they resemble, one for one, those that populate and make up the sensible world, the immediate world from


which they are borrowed, find themselves nonetheless in an indefinable, but marvelously true [juste ] relation to the modes and laws of our own general sensibility" (O, 1:1363). Valéry is talking more about the "world" of the poem here than about the poem itself, but the essential thing is the alignment of world and work with the "laws of our own general sensibility."

What and where human products are thus has everything to do with their origin, with whence they come. This statement may sound absurdly obvious. If they are human products, and we know that they are human products, then of course their origin is human. But there's more to it than this. Valéry appears to have believed that something gets transferred from the mind of the creating artist into the artwork and that this something remains in the artwork as an inherent quality. The whole process by which artworks in particular and human oeuvres in general come into being was always a source of fascination for Valéry. Little notations crop up over and over again in the Notebooks about this process, about the transition from one state of existence to another, and about the surviving presence of the author's mind in the resulting product. Here's one example:

To write: to wish to give a certain existence, a continued duration, to phenomena of the moment.

But little by little, by dint of work, this moment itself gets distorted, becomes embellished, and makes itself more existent than it ever could have.
(C, 4:921 [2:998])

In another rambling entry Valéry writes that he and certain other poets "have sought to give the idea of a 'world' or system of things even more separated from the common world—but made out of its very same elements—the connections alone being selected—and also the definitions" (C, 15:248 [2:1116]). And in still another entry he speaks of "phenomenalizing the whole psyche [psychisme ] and seeking to find for it—(or to give to it)—the answer, (at the earliest possible moment) that it is a closed system" (C, 20:383).

Valéry resorts to his favorite idea in the last two passages, the idea of systems. When I discussed Valéry in chapter 8, I showed how pervasive the idea of systems is in both Valéry's model of the mind and his model of the artwork. It now seems clear that this notion is the answer to the ontological-aesthetic question in Valéry. What distinguishes the mode of being of artworks (and generally of human oeuvres ) from that of natural objects is that human oeuvres bear the marks of their creator in


the form of laws that have their origin in human sensibility. But when Valéry speaks of laws of human sensibility, he invariably reverts to the system or group concept. The reason that both artworks and the human mind operate as systems is that the system is exactly the thing that gets transferred from the mind to the mind's product as that product comes into being. That is Valéry's twentieth-century version of essentialism.

The human product that shows this process in its most obvious form is the geometric figure, something Valéry talks about in a great many places. Socrates and Phaedrus discuss this human creation in Eupalinos, noting what me might call the intentional character of geometric figures. Geometry depends for its existence on speech (parole ), Socrates says, because discursive reasoning (not Socrates' term) is what creates the figure and also what insures that it is not a mere accident but rather the product of a human intention (also not Socrates' term). He and Phaedrus express wonder at how words in the form of propositions can be transformed into figures in the outside world, as, for example, when one person orders another to walk in such a way as to remain constantly equidistant from two trees. The person who obeys this order "engenders" in the external world a geometric figure that has its origin in the mind of the person giving the order. When this happens, the human mind is made visible (O, 2:109–10). The geometric figure is a particularly appropriate Valéryan example because it is a spatial realization of a relational system. Geometry, as Valéry described it in a lecture in 1924, is "the machine of the mind made visible, the very architecture of intelligence entirely sketched out,—the temple erected to Space by Speech [Parole ], but a temple that can reach to infinity" (O, 1:1013).

Valéry did not generally go out of his way to distinguish between human products that were aesthetic and those that were not. That is why human products as a group share the mode of genesis we see in geometric figures. So it is not surprising that Valéry envisages the creation of literary works as similar to the creation of geometric figures. One sign of this view is his tendency to liken literary composition to a form of mathematical activity. Earlier I quoted an entry from the Notebooks in which Valéry talked about arriving "at the completion of a work by means of formal conditions accumulated like functional equations" (C, 28:468 [1:314–15]). In another place Valéry defines poetry as "the study (more conscious) of verbal trans[formations] that conserve their initial impulses" (C, 9:924 [2:1015]), a definition that suggests a transfer of mathematical operations (transformations of the sort I defined in Part III) from the mind into the poetic work. Perhaps the most


telling passage occurs in the writing called "A Few Words about Myself." In a section under the heading "ego scriptor" Valéry says:

Writing (in the literary sense) for me always assumes the form of a sort of calculation . That is to say that I relate what comes to me, the immediate, to the idea of problem and operations; that I regard the proper domain of literature as a certain mode of combinatory work that becomes conscious and tends to dominate and to organize itself on this model; that I distinguish rigorously the given from what the given can become as a result of work; that this work consists in transformations and that I subordinate . . . the "content" to the "form"—always inclined to sacrifice the former to the latter.

I justify myself by the example of the musician who deals with harmony by means of calculations, develops and transforms.—I get this from working on verse, which obliges one to make use of words completely differently from the way one does in normal usage, that is, under the pressure of a thought that sees only itself and that hastens to express itself.
(O, 2:1515)

But the clearest sign that literary works come into being in the same way as geometric figures is that literary works are like geometric figures. All those passages I quoted in chapter 8 showing the literary work as a relational structure should be proof enough. Works are like minds, and that is what makes works different from other objects. We might not always be able to see the system in a work and thus might not be able to tell that something is a work. For all we know, Socrates' white object was the work of an artist or a craftsman and therefore retained the relational structure its author transferred to it. The fact that we can't see this structure doesn't mean it's not there. If the object is a human oeuvre, then it will contain the remnants of its human origin in this way whether we see them or not.

It would be silly to call Valéry's musings his ontology of artworks, as if he had come up with definitive and convincing answers to all these daunting questions—or as if, for that matter, he had even meant to. For one thing, Valéry was too busy pretending he was not a philosopher and was a mathematician to show any such presumption. For another, Valéry's theories almost always have to be gleaned bit by bit from hundreds of different passages in hugely diverse writings, many of them never intended for publication. What matters, though, is that he asked the questions and left us a few thoughts on some possible solutions. And that at least gives us the satisfaction of knocking the professional philosophers and critics off their thrones by showing that someone else was there first—or there too.


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