Saturday, March 15, 2003

I am suddenly a fan of Paul Valéry, the French writer. I just read an article about him by Joseph Epstein in The New Criterion, and found that he was an early visitor to the abyss I find myself in.

[Valery] sought, as he himself late in life put it, “to know the substratum of thought and sensibility on which one has lived.” In his Cahiers, again, he wrote: “I would like to have classified and clarified my personal forms of thought, and learned to think within them in such a way that each new thought bore the imprint of the whole system generating it and was unmistakably a modification of a well-defined system.”


Of the various divisions among thinkers, I have always been partial to that between thinkers whose strength is in their ideas (Marx, Freud, to a much lesser power Orwell) and thinkers whose strength is in the texture and subtlety, the sensibility, of their minds (Montaigne, Henry James, Santayana). The former win their way in the world, then die out; the latter, always less dramatic in their presentation, are wiser and their work tends to last longer. Valéry is among the sensibility thinkers. “I don’t construct a ‘System,’” he reports in his Notebooks. “My system—is me,” And later he writes: “Just think!—The stock of ideas on which the majority of ‘cultured’ people live is the legacy of a specific number of individuals, all of whom were moved and inspired by philosophic and literary vanity, and by the ambition to govern other minds and seek their approval and their praise.” This may seem very radical, but Valéry would have viewed it as traditional, for, as he wrote, “in all great undertakings, tradition, in the true sense of the word, does not consist of doing again what others have done before, but in recapturing the spirit that went into what they did—and would have done differently in a different age.”

Valéry: “The mind is a moment in the response of the body to the world.”

“[Some minds] have the merit of seeing clearly what all others see confusedly. Some have the merit of glimpsing confusedly what no one sees as yet. A combination of these gifts is exceptional.”