Paul Valery is presently blowing through my life like a healthy winter storm. First rush impression is that here is a guy who has wonderfully over-thought everything. But some key-concepts stand out: the study of History as fraud, the vacuous arbitrariness of literature (I don’t agree with his assessment against the novel but he makes his case forcefully), the emptiness of great events, the blankness of reality, the tensions of living in the modern world, the conversion of science and polity, the dissemination and balancing of European enthusiasms throughout the world: democracy, innovation, technology, never letting anything alone, exploring something to the bitter end. He describes Europe’s short sightedness, had the power to change the whole world for the better but went back to 'squabbling over her neighbor’s acreage' (a great line). Valery was very keen on China and its potential to rival the West. Remember, at the time Valery was writing (1920s), China, the country, was barely a country and it was a shambles. Filled with warlords, drugs, mayhem, starvation, growing exploitation by the Japanese, it was a mess. Valery saw beyond all that. Prescience has got to be a hallmark of excellent thinking. So many things I am now reading are coming into my thinking. Perhaps oddest of all-- you see his fan club includes the Who’s Who of American Literature of the 20th century, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, et al. You wonder why he didn’t influence contemporary American thought more; his ideas are anything but conventional, they blaze right out of the stratosphere, but the whole line up of American literary light stands by as translators and enthusiasts.
It is fascinating to read hard political science from such a precious and aerie poet but he does the job well. Again, speaking of China, in an entry from 1927, he predicts the rise of China as a result of the West trying like mad to unload its technical secrets upon India and China -- and the rest of the world. Traditional barriers will give way and he predicts China's great entrance onto the stage of the world and you pretty much hear him describing the world of 2010. Then he talks of the futility of trying to predict the world 50 years in advance of a given point. He is suspicious of history as a study. The documents come at us from 2 feeble sources: eyewitnesses and historians. About literature: he thinks that detail in literature is isolated, arbitrary, random and nearly meaningless -- that it doesn't amplify by being described to become universal. Here I think he is wrong because literature simply does so; writing captures the particular, no less than painting or sculpture. Valery wants to think himself beyond art but I don't see how he can do it. Art is seeing in itself; if mankind had been able to do without art it would have done without it by now. Trying to think himself free of art he falls into slight incoherence or preciousness.
About politics he is full of common sense that borders on profound: politics is a second-rate art filled with second-rate minds (and by extension, people). Valery thought so hard about art, about everything. And he had the means to do the thinking, too. Math, science, close quarters with art, he gave himself over to clarity of thought about all these. He was a great student of the mind itself. He had an almost medical interest in the mind, not the physical brain but what was happening to man and his mind in modernity. He rejected all the clichés. The supposed blessings of mass communications, journalism, the movies, the telephone, etc.
But Valery offers some of the best summations of the modern condition anywhere…I finally feel understood, reading Valery. A great liberation! He breaks things down to their smallest components. He goes through the junk heap of modernity and looks at it closely and then throws out what he doesn’t like (just about everything gets radiated). Journalism, Politics, Economics, bah. He examines the value of creativity, of writing poems and novels. They squeak by. He compares Victor Hugo to a local toymaker/inventor. He understands the nature of the work the craft involved, its uselessness to the going economic system. Yet it has value because of its potential to express the excellencies of a given culture or nation. He recognizes complexity and doesn’t always try to explain it or pretend that he understands it all. Above all Valery was a kind of ambassador to the concept of individualism to the world. He stood as protector of the concept of individualism as first promoted and lived by the Greeks. Whence his bridling at the simplicities of art and history and the humanities, his railing at classical education (the twice-dead languages of Latin and Greek) and the whole concept of the classics. No man is ever embodied in a single representation; no one can be captured in a photograph or single still image at a given moment. All men break out of their ‘personality’ from time to time, in drink, or tiredness, the culture of fixed character abodes, etc. Valery resented art that depended overmuch on stock characters or characterization, etc.
Valery can write like the most elegant consultant ever, like an expert analyst for the RAND, Corp; then he is a statistician, then he is an art critic, then he is a sociologist, then he prognosticates, then he analyses the entire economy and culture of Germany at year 1897 that sounds contemporary, then he puts forth theories about history or philosophy or writing or art or reading or shipbuilding or education policy; the guy is amazing at once commonsensical and then suddenly esoteric and barely graspable. He filled 290 notebooks with his special thinkk-writing -- a proto-blogger! His Achilles is his esteem of Edgar Allen Poe—well, we’re all sinners. He also falls back on a rhetorical phrase that drives me crazy; after he exhausts a subject, he writes: “But I can’t go on to all that here, it would take an entire book to explain this.” I respond, “Well, you just wrote about ten million words on everything under the sun what are you talking about?”