Unreal Nature

December 30, 2017

Rigor and Freedom

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:03 am

… Thou shalt not … deal in thunderbolts, for in spite of what you may think, you are not a god …

This is from the essay ‘Knowledge of the Goddess’ (1920) found in Selected Writings of Paul Valéry (1950; 1964):

… Credulity, I thought, is not exigent. It consists in not being. It is content to be ravished. It is carried away by impression, enchantments; and, completely absorbed in the moment, it hails the surprising, the prodigious, the excessive, the marvelous and the novel. But the time comes, although not for everybody, when a warier state of mind suggests a more exacting attitude.

[line break added] Just as doctrines and philosophies which are offered without proofs find in the course of time greater difficulty in getting themselves believed and stir up greater objections, until in the end one holds as true only what can be verified, so it is in the realm of the arts. There is a sort of literary doubt which corresponds to philosophic and scientific doubt.

But how insure works against the backfire of scrutiny and how strengthen them against the impression of arbitrariness? By arbitrariness itself, by arbitrariness organized and decreed. The system of conventions has been instituted by skeptical creators — creators in their way — against personal excursions, against overabundance and confusion — in short against unbridled fancy. The conventions are arbitrary, or so considered at least; but skepticism is hardly possible in regard to the rules of a game.

Such a remark may seem scandalous. To suggest that classical art is an art oriented toward the ideals of games, being as it is so self-conscious and preserving both the same rigor and the same freedom, is without doubt shocking; but shocking, we hope, only for a moment, only long enough for you to remember that human perfection consists in nothing more than the strict fulfillment of a certain expectation that we have held out to ourselves.

Classical art says to the poet: Thou shalt not sacrifice to graven images which are the beauties of detail; nor make use of all possible words, for among them are rare and baroque words which will attract all the attention to themselves and, in their vanity, shine at the expense of your thought; nor yet try to dazzle at small expense to yourself, nor speculate on novelty; nor deal in thunderbolts, for in spite of what you may think, you are not a god; but rather, if you can, simply give men the idea of a perfection that belongs to man.

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

-Julie

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