Unreal Nature

October 14, 2017

I Shall Throw Away This Thing That I Have Found

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:39 am

… This sea shell has served me, suggesting by turns what I am, what I know, and what I do not know.

Continuing through the essay ‘Man and the Sea Shell’ found in Paul Valéry: An Anthology (1956: 1977):

… What are our findings? The internal construction is organized in a mysterious way. The secretory cells of the mantle and its edge operate in rhythm: the turns of the spiral progress; the walls are built; the nacre is deposited on them. But the microscope does not show what creates the harmony between the different points and different moments in this simultaneous progress of the whole periphery.

[line break added] Nothing that we know of our own actions enables us to imagine what it may be that so gracefully modulates these surfaces, element by element, row by row, without other tools than those contained in the thing that is being fashioned; what it may be that so miraculously harmonizes and adjusts the curves, and finishes the work with a boldness, an ease, a precision which the most graceful creations of the potter or bronze founder are far from equaling.

[line break added] Our artists do not derive the material of their works from their own substance, and the form for which they strive springs from a specialized application of their mind, which can be completely disengaged from their being. Perhaps what we call perfection in art (which all do not strive for and some disdain) is only a sense of desiring or finding in a human work the sureness of execution, the inner necessity, the indissoluble bond between form and material that are revealed to us by the humblest of shells.

[ … ]

… [the snail] must sometimes forsake his secret, subtle work of emanation and venture out into the world, bearing his dwelling, his den, his fortress, his masterpiece, like a wondrous tiara or turban. At once he is involved in an entirely new set of circumstances.

… The mobility of the feelers; the touch, sight, and movement associated with the exquisite elasticity of the wonderfully sensitive shafts by which they are oriented, the perfect retractility of the body of which the whole shell is an appendage, the binding obligation to skip over nothing, to adhere strictly to his path — all this is bound to move a gifted mollusk, when he withdraws from the world and buttons up once more in his case of nacre, to profound meditations and radical synthetic abstractions.

… But do we not, ourselves, fluctuate between “the world of bodies” and that of the “mind”; and all our philosophy, is it not an eternal quest for the formula that will efface the difference between them and reconcile two divergent orders, two systems of time, two modes of transformation … ?

… I shall throw away this thing that I have found as one throws away a cigarette stub. This sea shell has served me, suggesting by turns what I am, what I know, and what I do not know. … Just as Hamlet, picking up a skull in the rich earth and bringing it close to his living face, finds a gruesome image of himself, and enters upon a meditation without issue …

My most recent previous post from Valéry’s book is here.

-Julie

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