Paul Valéry & new biography

April 15, 2013 § 2 Comments

Ideas of freedom are determined by the capacity to make choices

Choices must be executed in time to overcome a position of strict hypothesis

The sequential property is a form of narrative, a biography

Actualized narratives, under the law of freedom, could have been otherwise

It remains provisory, pure possibility (no liberation from the past)

To capture the possibility of someone, the act, the adventure must be sacrificed

* * *

This is an attempt to recreate the thought-processes of Paul Valéry when “birthing” Monsieur Teste — an image the author himself implies in the preface:

Teste was conceived — in a room where Auguste Comte spent his early years — at a period when I was drunk on my own will & subject to strange excesses of consciousness of my ‘self’.
I was suffering from the acute ailment called precision. I tended toward the extreme of the reckless desire to understand, & I searched in myself for the critical points in my powers of attention. (‘Monsieur Teste’ 3)

Valéry speaks of M. Teste acquiring a life of his own, attested by the figure’s regular appearance in Valéry’s notebooks for many decades after the publication of “The Evening with Monsieur Teste” in 1896. From the beginning of their acquaintance, Valéry identifies that “Monsieur Teste is my bogey. When I misbehave, I think of him” (84). Teste’s persistence is fully related to his being bound — at least in the author’s mind — to the question: what is a man’s potential? As such, Teste is a difficult birth. He is created to embody all potential, sometimes as “the nexus of sensibility & ‘consciousness'” (139) & at other times “the very demon of possibility” (6). He should be imagined as an infinite sequence of ampersands.

In order to retain his value as strict potential, Teste can hardly endure in a narrative context: “The Evening with Monsieur Teste” barely makes 14 print pages & includes no plot points of note — a night at the opera, walking home, & falling asleep — which inform some of his musings but not all. It is a distinct point that the events could have been any others. This is contradictory to earlier story-telling forms which have their characters as conditional to the story — an inheritance from visual narrative where the heroes were recognized by their adornments, symbols of their past. Valéry writes, in 1945, that this was absolutely unimaginable for M. Teste: “The pretension excluded from my work the representation of my hero’s features” (159) [& within the original text, we find this in place of a description: “[e]verything about him was unobtrusive, his eyes, his hands” (10)]. He cannot exist in space, nor in time — yet it is Valéry’s claim that M. Teste is better documented than any other character in literature.

Valéry braves a new form of biography. In it, there is no place for the incidental, the accidental, or unnecessary. The book comprises of the short anecdote referenced above, two others like it, selections from a logbook, some recorded thoughts of M. Teste, & two letters written by others.* It is an eloquently fragmented, perfectly modern text. It cannot resign its centre to concretion. Valéry on Teste: “I am sorry to speak of him as we speak of those of whom statues are made” (13); Teste on Teste: “All that I do & think is merely a Sample of my possibility. [/] Man [sic] is more general than his life & his acts. He is designed, as it were, for more eventualities than he can experience” (78).

M. Teste is not only the underminer of narrative, but of progress in general. He is humiliated by ideas of proliferation, in fact, of being “of one’s own time, one’s own country, that one has an origin, a name a past, a bit of future” (135) — not only to exist in time (as all must, unnecessarily), but to actually take it seriously! For him, impotence is his origin (38) & transcendence is enacted by schism (44). Nothing can succeed him, not a child, not a work.

On numerous occasions, M. Teste is referred to as a monster (3, 6, 27, 30, 75, 99, &c.) [indeed, he has already been sited as a “bogey”]. There are a few qualities to this comparison which are especially pertinent; they extend much further than the horror & intrigue earned by one who speaks in aphorisms, is an embodiment of multiplicity, & seems always to be on the verge of death. Firstly, the evaluation of monster signifies impotence: a deformity of the regular organ of life, an alternative that cannot survive itself (not even in a creation). Secondly, it is immimicable. The monstrous — as curiosity — need not touch observers, who watch from a safe distance.

M. Teste is as unconnected to the world as sleep is from being awake. He sees it as the ultimate sanction for deep reverie: “Any subject will put you to sleep… Sleep will prolong any idea at all…” (21). There is a startling thesis in this simple sentence, as Raymond Tallis recognizes in the July/August 2O12 issue of Philosophy Now: “[Valéry] suggested that dreams might be an attempt to make sense of the body’s passage from sleep to wakefulness[…] he was unimpressed by Freud’s evidence — impoverished claims about dreams being the royal road to the unconscious“. The argument follows an idea on analytic observation: the desire for perfect objectivity relies on a self-denial, either as unified or in plurality, which can be married to the unconsciousness of sleep. In a much later passage, Valéry clarifies the matter: “The stranger’s way of looking at things, the eye of a man who does not recognize, who is beyond this world, the eye as frontier between being & non-being — belongs to the thinker. It is also the eye of a dying man, a man losing recognition” (79). The dimming-point of death, for which sleep is a dress rehearsal, allows all things to glow in their alien obscurity.

Sleep extends thought.**


* It is suggested, with much reason, that M. Teste is in fact the author of the letter supposedly written by an Émilie Teste (his wife, perhaps another invention of his). Given his aversion to writing & human nature dictating a will to tell our stories, this is certainly a convenient manoeuvre for M. Teste.

** Extension is distinct from progress, free from the monological linearity of the proliferating mind. Sleep actualizes possibility, is on the way to answering Valéry’s question.


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§ 2 Responses to Paul Valéry & new biography

  • […] quality of thought. “Every objective conquest pre-supposes an inner loss of ground” (420) [cf. an earlier post exploring the same problematic in M. Teste]. That is to say, true intelligence isn’t measured […]

  • Oh my goodness! Impressive article dude! Many thanks, However I am going
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