Paul Valery: Literature as Such

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We read in Paul Valery's Tel Quel: "Literature is thronged with people who don't really know what to say but feel a compelling urge to write" ("Odds and Ends" 130).

A sentence stating a rather harsh, but not exclusively negative, truth, since the "urge to write without knowing what" is presented for what it is: a power. An empty power, but one that, paradoxically, contributes to and perhaps suffices to "fill" literature. And Valery will say about some of the most beautiful verses that they work on us without telling us very much, or that tell us, perhaps, that they have "nothing to tell us" ("Poetry and Abstract Thought" 74-75). Such is literature, "reduced to the essentials of its active principle" ("Odds and Ends" 97).

This need to write is not Valery's. Writing inspired in him only one feeling, many times expressed by him, and that we might say, took the place for him of a goad or a compensation: boredom. A deep feeling, deeply connected with the practice and the truth of literature, although a taboo of propriety ordinarily forbids its recognition. Valery had the power (since this too is a power) to experience it more intensely than anyone else, and took it as the point of departure for his reflections on Letters. This `what's the use?', this disgust with writing that seizes Rimbaud after composing his oeuvre, happens to Valery beforehand, so to speak, and never ceases to accompany him and in some sense to inspire him. If every modern work is somehow haunted by the possibility of its own silence, Valery was, and apparently remains, the only writer who did not experience this possibility as a threat, a temptation weighing on the future, but as an anterior, preliminary, perhaps propitiatory experience. With the exception of Vers anciens, the Introduction a Leonard, and Monsieur Teste, the major portion of his work follows, as if by a perpetual breach, from a very serious and definitive decision not to write any more. It is literally a post-scriptum, a long codicil, wholly enlightened by a feeling of its complete uselessness, and even its total nonexistence as anything other than a pure exercise. Valery strongly suspected many pages of literature of having this for their whole significance: 'I am a page of literature'; we often find in him, implicitly or insistently, this inverse affirmation: `I have nothing more to do with literature: here is proof of it.'

His literary destiny was therefore this rather rare experience, one perhaps rich in its apparent sterility: to live in literature as in a foreign country, to inhabit writing as if on a visit or in exile, and to fix upon it a gaze simultaneously interior and remote. It is easy to exalt literature, easier still to demolish it; each of these positions involves an element of truth. The truth that exists at their narrow and difficult junction it happened to Valery to experience as the exact place of his residence, on the chance of arranging for himself a comfort, and a career in this difficulty, as others in revolt or despair.

"It is not a question of abusing literature," writes Maurice Blanchot, "but rather of trying to understand it and to see why we can only understand it by disparaging it" (302). This salutary disparagement, or devaluation was one of Valery's constant theses, and it would be hard to measure all that the modern awareness and practice of literature owes to this reductive effort.

What repels him in literature is, as he often explains it, the feeling of arbitrariness: "what I can change easily offends me in myself, and bores me in others. Hence many antiliterary, and singularly antihistorical consequences" (Oeuvres 2: 1502). Or again:

As for history and novels, my interest is sometimes held, and 1 can admire them as stimulants, pastimes, and works of art; but if they lay claim to "truth" and hope to be taken seriously, their arbitrary quality and unconscious conventions at once become apparent, and 1 am seized with a perverse mania for trying possible substitutions. …