Unreal Nature

September 9, 2017

Methods Forbidden and Inaccessible to Us

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… “To explain” is never anything more than to describe a way of making: it is merely to remake in thought.

This is from ‘Man and the Sea Shell’ found in Paul Valéry: An Anthology (1956: 1977):

… Like a pure sound or a melodic system of pure sounds in the midst of noises, so a crystal, a flower, a sea shell stand out from the common disorder of perceptible things. For us they are privileged objects, more intelligible to the view, although more mysterious upon reflection, than all those which we see indiscriminately. They present us with a strange union of ideas: order and fantasy, invention and necessity, law and exception.

[line break added] In their appearance we find a kind of intention and action that seem to have fashioned them rather as man might have done, but at the same time we find evidence of methods forbidden and inaccessible to us. We can imitate these singular forms; our hands can cut a prism, fashion an imitation flower, turn or model a shell; we are even able to express their characteristics of symmetry in a formula, or represent them quite accurately in a geometric construction.

[line break added] Up to this point we can share with “nature”: we can endow her with designs, a sort of mathematics, a certain taste and imagination that are not infinitely different from ours; but then, after we have endowed her with all the human qualities she needs to make herself understood by human beings, she displays all the inhuman qualities needed to disconcert us. … We can conceive of the structure of these objects, and this is what interests us and holds our attention; but we do not understand their formation, and that is what intrigues us. Although we ourselves were formed by imperceptible growth, we do not know how to create anything in that way.

The shell which I hold and turn between my fingers, and which offers me a combined development of the simple themes of the helix and the spiral, involved me in a degree of astonishment and concentration that leads where it may: to superficial remarks and observations, naïve questions, “poetic” comparisons, beginnings of reckless “theories.” … And my mind vaguely anticipates the entire innate treasure of responses that rise within me in the presence of a thing that arrests and questions me. … [all ellipses within the text are in the original]

… our knowledge consists largely in “thinking that we know” and in thinking that others know.

We are always refusing to listen to the simple soul within us. We ignore the inner child who always wants to see things for the first time. If he questions, we discourage his curiosity, calling it childish because it is boundless, on the pretext that we have been to school and learned that there is a science of all things, which we might consult if we wished, and that it would be a waste of time to think in our own way and no other about an object that suddenly arrests us and calls for an answer.

… Who made this? asks the naïve moment.

My first stir of thought has been to think of making.

The idea of making is the first and most human of ideas.

“To explain” is never anything more than to describe a way of making: it is merely to remake in thought. The why and the how, which are only ways of expressing the implications of this idea, inject themselves into every statement, demanding satisfaction at all costs. Metaphysics and science are merely an unlimited development of this demand. They may even lead us to pretend not to know what we know, when what we know refuses to be reduced to a clear knowledge of how to make something. … This is what we mean by going back to the beginnings of knowledge.

Here then I will introduce the artifice of a doubt: considering this shell, in whose shape I think I can discern a certain “construction” and as it were the work of some hand not acting “at random,” I ask myself: Who made it?

More from this essay next week.

My previous post from Valéry’s book is here.

-Julie

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