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