A presage of nihilism
September 10, 2014 § 3 Comments
Often dismissed by those considering themselves proudly as serious thinkers, nihilism represents one of the few true philosophical problems. The uncertainty of knowledge is almost certain. At birth, we are pulled out of darkness & ignorance to be acquiesced into culture, into a narrative started at the nascence of the species. What this has to do with reality is anyone’s bet. In the interest of exploring ideological nihilism [by the accounts of culture, a mutation in thought], the essay ‘Valéry before his idols’ (Hudson Review, Autumn 1969) makes for an illuminating study. Firstly, its author, Emil M. Cioran, is widely recognized as the second most famous nihilist in Western philosophy, after Nietzsche. Secondly, choosing Paul Valéry as a subject is unexpected for they are very different sorts of thinkers. Cioran uncovers a presage of nihilism at the heart of Valéry’s work. The border of nihilism is reached without crossing.
For Cioran, Valéry’s tenacious belief in the ability of language to express is what keeps him from that leap. In short, Valéry “saw nothing behind language, no substratum or residue of reality. Only words save us from nothingness, such would seem to be the rock-bottom of his thought” (422). But the epigrammatic is never illuminating beyond a moment’s smile.
Deeper: Valéry’s estimation of the pursuit of understanding differs to scientism’s for it is not judged by the quantity of knowledge but by the 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 by what is memorized & taken for true but by the capacity of a mind to summon new depths. The by-product of such a philosophy [Valéry] becomes the proprietor of few talents & basically no knowledge at all; both as useless as the Bourgeoisie & as disposed to preciosity. “Preciosity is the writing of writing: a divided style which becomes the object of its own quest” (421), Cioran tells us. Writing for its own sake. We can learn from Valéry only the refinement of method, for little else exists in/for him.
There is evidence to show that the French man of letters had no exceptional skills outside these mental gymnastics; Cioran doesn’t miss an opportunity to point this out. “He endorsed the difficult out of impotence” (416). & “in his pursuit of the imponderable [is] a trace of masochism: worshipping what he will never attain in order to torture himself, punishing himself for being, where knowledge is concerned, a rank amateur” (421). By remaining weak in the face of the project, the thinker cannot falter into self-assured work, easy work that has no thought so no value. This is a contradictory weakness, for it also gives Valéry his famous, unequivocal intellect & precision of language, “too conscious, too imbued with his superiority over his instrument: by virtue of playing it & handling it with virtuosity, he evicts from language its mystery & vigor” (421), Cioran criticizes [though I’m more inclined to qualify this as Valéry’s grace].
“It was perhaps in reaction against himself, against his all-too-perceptible boundaries, that he became so intrigued by that phenomenon, the universal mind” (417) which would in one way or another prove to be his sole literary gesture. This is evident even from the first publication, Introduction to the method of Leonardo da Vinci, primarily preoccupied with defining da Vinci’s genius by his practices & not by his product. Da Vinci was the closest [once-] extant model Valéry could cling to of the poet-mathematician, an artist so precise in crafting work to the effect that the work cannot be discussed in any way but measured.* By idolizing such a figure, it is natural that he should have taken every measure to become it. In describing the quintessential Renaissance Man’s method, it is evidently his own too that the young writer — at the time, just 24 years old — was cementing. Indeed, he confessed to having “invented a Leonardo of [his] own” for the work.
Other figures, closer to him temporally, had similar influence on Valéry. Above all else, it is Stéphane Mallarmé’s notion of The Book — a reconstruction of the universe & everything in it, conceived as a collective work every life is constantly composing — relates best to Valéry’s poet-mathematician.
Assigning oneself a task impossible to complete & even to define, wishing vigor when one is being sapped by even the subtlest of anaemias, implies a streak of the theatrical, a desire to fool oneself, to live beyond one’s intellectual means, the determination to create a legend & above all a tragic failure: he who fails, provided he fails grandly, cuts a far more captivating figure than the man who has succeeded. (413)
Unlike the visual artist, who is said never to make a mistake [for every stroke is salvageable, part of the vision], the writer can only ever make mistakes. Valéry did not deny this, but he willed to make as few mistakes as possible. He wrote against writing’s nature, then. What a delusion! thinks Cioran. What a misfortune! One can imagine him grabbing at his wild, white mane. “Thought is genuine only if it adheres to the mind; when independent of it, when outside it, it leaves the mind hobbled from the start, peering into a void, & reduced to itself, instead of drawing upon the world for its substance & pretexts” (422). Now we see at last where Cioran’s interest lies: it is not in explaining Valéry but in using him a cautionary puppet of a drama he had himself lived out. Nihilism is mutually exclusive to creation; with each attempt at writing, Cioran is a failure to his philosophy. But he fails grandly, that’s what counts.
* This line of thinking clearly had a strong historical backing, much of it coming from the Renaissance, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that it was also the forerunner of a much more radical concept of language: Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle), where the idea of using mathematical problems to generate literary works was propagated to great success. The group was formed in 1960, fifteen years after Valêry’s death.