Unreal Nature

September 2, 2017

She Knows How to Finish

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:58 am

… But suddenly an end must come.

This is from the Preface that Paul Valéry wrote for the reprint of his essay ‘Man and the Sea Shell’ found in Paul Valéry: An Anthology (1956: 1977):

… Ignorance is a treasure of infinite price that most men squander when they should cherish its least fragments; some ruin it educating themselves, others, unable so much as to conceive of making use of it, let it waste away. Quite on the contrary, we should search for it assiduously in what we think we know best. Leaf through a dictionary or try to make one, and you will find that every word covers and masks a well so bottomless that the questions you toss into it arouse no more than an echo.

In the matter of shells, then, I did my best to define my ignorance, to organize it, and above all to preserve it.

Among the many objects that confront man’s mind with questions, some more legitimate than others, he is particularly fascinated by those which, by their form or properties, lead him to reflect on his own powers or tendencies. He is amazed to find objects which, though it is inconceivable to him that they should have been made, he can compare to those he is able to make.

[line break added] In such objects he seems to recognize his own familiar modes of thought, his own types of conscious action: his incorrigible “causality” and “finality”; his geometry, his ingenuity; his need for order and his bursts of inventiveness. As soon as he glimpses an adaptation, a regular functioning, definable forms, an order, in a product of “nature,” he cannot help trying to “understand”; that is, the object becomes a problem for him and he begins to consider it as the effect or result of some sort of making, which remains to be defined.

[ … ]

… In this invincible and one might say flawless progression of form [of the seashell], which involves and develops its own setting according to the continuous fatality of its convolutions and seems to create its own time, we admire the combination of rhythm, marked by the regular spots or spines, and of indivisible movement. It is like seeing music. The correspondence of ornaments on successive spirals suggests a counterpoint, while the continuity sustains the main theme of the rotation of the surface.

But suddenly an end must come. This strange torsion must cease, the nacre on the inside and the coarser covering must join, and the distinction between the two substances of the shell must vanish or explain itself, while at the same time its form must be completed by some decision that remains to be arrived at.

Paul Valéry

… This is a mystery that has always teased my mind, for I can find nothing in the arts that captivates me more than forms or phases of transition, the refinements of modulation. For me, perfect modulation is the crown of art. But in our time, little importance is attached to this ideal of mine. The architect knows only his rule and square. The musician does pretty much as he pleases. The poet proceeds by leaps and bounds.

[line break added] But nature has preserved her cautious methods, the inflection in which she envelops her changes of pace, direction, or physiological function. She knows how to finish a plant, how to open nostrils, a mouth, a vulva, how to create a setting for an eyeball; she thinks suddenly of the sea shell when she has to unfold the pavilion of an ear, which she seems to fashion the more intricately as the species is more alert.




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