… “The Pensées,” says Béguin, “are by no means composed to answer a fear, as we too often imagine, but rather to disturb a peace that is dangerous to the soul. … Above all, Pascal will devote himself to reviving new fears in his interlocutor by showing him that, if one holds on to the claims of intelligence, everything is absurd, incomprehensible, grotesque, or rather that everything is terrifying, heavy with menace. ‘I will not suffer him to rest.’ It is at this precise moment that he composes, with all the care of a writer weighing his words and calculating the effect of his rhythms, the famous Pensées through which the shiver of anguish passes: eternal silence, realms that are unaware of us, the last bleeding act, we run into a chasm. … These are in no way, as it seems so often to be acknowledged, notes made in a personal diary, still palpitating with the memory of frightened instants. They are for the use of other people, they are calls to order that are to be meticulously placed in conversation at the precise second most favorable to disturb false certainties. A fine fight is begun, in which Pascal, who has exercised his weapons in the fencing of the Provincial Letters, handles his feints and his points.”
… Pascal is the writer who from lucidity drew bewilderment, who made use of language perfectly governed and controlled to make men feel their condition as random and aimless beings, who knew how to make them despair as he wished, knew how to frighten them, abase them, then raise them above themselves, opened an abyss beneath their feet and made from this abyss a throne for their glory — and all using only the resources of an art we all know is capable of everything, and first of all of making itself absent, so that everyone forgets it and yields to the movement that impels it, without ever recognizing its nature.
Pascal is the model that Valéry should have held as exemplary. And yet he holds against him the hand that guides him, that he sees, that he is alone in seeing, as if for this Pascal, Valéry would have preferred unawareness and blindness.
… Valéry’s attitude is instructive. It teaches us that in art, effects seek to return to their causes, and demand to form only totality with them, a single world with two poles. Valéry, opening the book of the Pensées, is not unaware of their demonstrative purposes. He knows that they must disturb, cause despair, in order to give souls the feeling of their emptiness, and through that lack teach them to know fullness. This aim, which also shocks him, assures him thus that Pascal does not write to express himself or to confess, but to convince, that this groaning, shivering book is thus one whose groans are planned and whose emotion is calculated. Yet Valéry, who claims to reduce all art to a calculation and all poetry to a long reflection on its means, here sees only lies and impropriety in this thought-out use of art to persuade.
… It may be that this was the pure masterpiece of a man who writes on command, as Valéry said, and who no more believes in what he asks us to believe than he is afraid because of the reasons for fear with which he misleads us. How should this work touch us less, convince us less, if this were so? It is the same work, not a line is changed, just as unfinished as the other — for writers of pure rhetoric die, too. It is the same, yet, quite obviously it is its opposite.
Why would the “I enter into fear” and the fear into which he leads us both stop being true if, beyond the motives and the language of this fear, both more than sufficient to impress us, we were to discover an impassive mind, a soul that has freed itself from fear? It is because in truth, in a work made of words, language, to fulfill itself even imperfectly, needs existence to lend it support, to come raise it up from a kind of downfall, and to try to warrant its invincible bad faith.
death mask of Blaise Pascal [image from Wikipedia]
… what happens to the one who devotes his existence to language so as to give the truth of existence to his language? The lie of a paper existence, the bad faith of a life that just represents life, that is experienced in tests of words and avoids existing by dint of miming what it is not. The purer the success, the greater the failure. Poetry in this sense is the realm of disaster. At the instant in which language is most intent on wanting everything for itself, and closest to shrounding everything in its unreality, we see poets throw themselves body, life, and soul into the words that they bring to life, at once to win from these words their existence as a poet and to precipitate, by this veritable death, the annihilation of which art is the supreme horizon in the world. But we also see other poets exclude themselves as much as possible from the poem of which they are the origin, not only to keep from mixing their life with their song but, in face of this song, be to nothing but a perpetual absence, a forgotten non-existence such that it pretends never to have existed, so that the work can believe itself alone. Rimbaud (to a certain extent) is such a poet, and (to a certain extent) so is Mallarmé.
Like no other work, a poem needs the presence of a poet, and, like no other work, it does without it. All the different manifestations of language demand, according to infinitely variable relationships, the participation of existence in language.
… The language of the Pensées, to be true, must be a language overwhelmed by existence. Brice Parain often uses this striking expression: “It is always the individual who stops up the gaping hole around words, between each word and the others and between them and the object: he closes it up by stuffing his body into it.” We have seen that in this gaping hole the poet would stuff his body, not to stop it up but to become a gap himself, sometimes to the point of actually disappearing, like Empedocles, in order to make this hole real, to realize this void.
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… Detestable residue, forever irreducible with regard to a truth that is without sign and without trace (just as those who come to convince and who need wisdom and signs are nothing in comparison with those who, coming to convert, have neither sign nor wisdom, only madness and the cross). But this fault is inscribed in langauge, and to seek to surmount it, even in vain, that alone justifies language. Pascal is more guilty of that, and more justified, than anyone else.