Paul Valéry

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A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death: for, in relation to who or what is making it, it can only be one stage in a series of inner transformations.

Ambroise-Paul-Toussaint-Jules Valéry (30 October 187120 July 1945) was a French author and Symbolist poet. His interests were sufficiently broad that he can be classified as a polymath. In addition to his fiction (poetry, drama, and dialogues), he also wrote many essays and aphorisms on art, history, letters, music, and current events.


The wind is rising...we must attempt to live.
  • The folly of mistaking a paradox for a discovery, a metaphor for a proof, a torrent of verbiage for a spring of capital truths, and oneself for an oracle, is inborn in us.
    • Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci (1895)
  • Collect all the facts that can be collected about the life of Racine and you will never learn from them the art of his verse. All criticism is dominated by the outworn theory that the man is the cause of the work as in the eyes of the law the criminal is the cause of the crime. Far rather are they both the effects.
    • Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci
  • You have neither the patience that weaves long lines nor a feeling for the irregular, nor a sense of the fittest place for a thing ... For you intelligence is not one thing among many. You ... worship it as if it were an omnipotent beast ... a man intoxicated on it believes his own thoughts are legal decision, or facts themselves born of the crowd and time. He confuses his quick changes of heart with the imperceptible variation of real forms and enduring Beings .... You are in love with intelligence, until it frightens you. For your ideas are terrifying and your hearts are faint. Your acts of pity and cruelty are absurd, committed with no calm, as if they were irresistible. Finally, you fear blood more and more. Blood and time.
    • Writing at the Yalu River (1895) quoted in Of Time, Passion, and Knowledge: Reflections on the Strategy of Existence (1990) by Julius Thomas Fraser, Part 2, Images in Heaven and on the Earth, Ch. IV, The Roots of Time in the Physical World. Sect. 3 The Living Symmetries of Physics
  • We civilizations now know ourselves mortal.
    • La Crise de l'Esprit (1919)
  • Stupidity is not my strong suit.
    • Monsieur Teste (1919)
  • The sea, the ever renewing sea!
    • Charmes. Le Cimetière Marin (1922)
  • The wind is rising...we must attempt to live.
    • Charmes. Le Cimetière Marin
  • In the eyes of those lovers of perfection, a work is never finished—a word that for them has no sense—but abandoned; and this abandonment, whether to the flames or to the public (and which is the result of weariness or an obligation to deliver) is a kind of an accident to them, like the breaking off of a reflection, which fatigue, irritation, or something similar has made worthless.
    • Charmes. Le Cimetière Marin
  • Poetry is simply literature reduced to the essence of its active principle. It is purged of idols of every kind, of realistic illusions, of any conceivable equivocation between the language of "truth" and the language of "creation."
    • Littérature (1930)
  • Science is feasible when the variables are few and can be enumerated; when their combinations are distinct and clear. We are tending toward the condition of science and aspiring to do it. The artist works out his own formulas; the interest of science lies in the art of making science.
    • Moralités (1932)
  • Science means simply the aggregate of all the recipes that are always successful. All the rest is literature.
    • Moralités
  • An intelligent woman is a woman with whom one can be as stupid as one wants.
    • Mauvaises Pensées et Autres (1941)
  • The painter should not paint what he sees, but what will be seen.
    • Mauvaises Pensées et Autres
  • God made everything out of nothing. But the nothingness shows through.
    • Mauvaises Pensées et Autres
  • The very object of an art, the principle of its artifice, is precisely to impart the impression of an ideal state in which the man who reaches it will be capable of spontaneously producing, with no effort of hesitation, a magnificent and wonderfully ordered expression of his nature and our destinies.
    • Remarks on Poetry in The Art of Poetry (1958)
  • For the musician, before he has begun his work, all is in readiness so that the operation of his creative spirit may find, right from the start, the appropriate matter and means, without any possibility of error. He will not have to make this matter and means submit to any modification; he need only assemble elements which are clearly defined and ready-made. But in how different a situation is the poet! Before him is ordinary language, this aggregate of means which are not suited to his purpose, not made for him. There have not been physicians to determine the relationships of these means for him; there have not been constructors of scales; no diapason, no metronome, no certitude of this kind. He has nothing but the coarse instrument of the dictionary and the grammar. Moreover, he must address himself not to a special and unique sense like hearing, which the musician bends to his will, and which is, besides, the organ par excellence of expectation and attention; but rather to a general and diffused expectation, and he does so through a language which is a very odd mixture of incoherent stimuli.
    • Originally delivered as a lecture (late 1927). Pure Poetry: Notes for a Lecture The Creative Vision (1960)
  • A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death: for, in relation to who or what is making it, it can only be one stage in a series of inner transformations.
    • 'Recollection, Collected Works, vol. 1 (1972), tr. David Paul
    • Variant: A poem is never finished; it's always an accident that puts a stop to it—i.e. gives it to the public.
      • As attributed in Susan Ratcliffe, Concise Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (2011), p. 385
    • Variant: A poem is never finished; it is only abandoned.
      • Widely misquoted, this is a paraphrase of Valéry by W. H. Auden in 1965. See W. H. Auden: Collected Poems (2007), ed. Edward Mendelson, "Author's Forewords", p. xxx
  • Poe is the only impeccable writer. He was never mistaken.
    • Letter to writer André Gide. Quoted in Julian Symons, The Tell-Tale Heart: The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe, pt. 1, epilogue (1978)
  • If the state is strong, it crushes us. If it is weak, we perish.

Regards sur le monde actuel [Reflections on the World Today] (1931)[edit]

  • The “determinist” swears that if we knew everything we should also be able to deduce and foretell the conduct of every man in every circumstance, and that is obvious enough. But the expression “know everything” means nothing.
    • p. 42
  • A really free mind is scarcely attached to its opinions. If the mind cannot help giving birth to ... emotions and affections which at first appear to be inseparable from them, it reacts against these intimate phenomena it experiences against its will.
    • p. 55
  • Great things are accomplished by men who are not conscious of the impotence of man. Such insensitiveness is precious.
    But we must admit that criminals are not unlike our heroes in this respect.
    • p. 58
  • It is a sign of the times, and not a very good sign, that these days it is necessary—and not only necessary but urgent—to interest minds in the fate of Mind, that is to say, in their own fate.
    • p. 156
  • Since everything that lives is obliged to expend and receive life, there is an exchange of modifications between the living creature and its environment.
    And yet, once that vital necessity is satisfied, our species—a positively strange species—thinks it must create for itself other needs and tasks besides that of preserving life. ... Whatever may be the origin or cause of this curious deviation, the human species is engaged in an immense adventure, an adventure whose objective and end it does not know. ...
    The same senses, the same muscles, the same limbs—more, the same types of signs, the same instruments of exchange, the same languages, the same modes of logic—enter into the most indispensable acts of our lives, as they figure into the most gratuitous. ...
    In short, man has not two sets of tools, he has only one, and this one set must serve him for the preservation of his life and his physiological rhythm, and expend itself at other times on illusions and on the labours of our great adventure. ...
    The same muscles and nerves produce walking as well as dancing, exactly as our linguistic faculty enables us to express our needs and ideas, while the same words and forms can be combined to produce works of poetry. A single mechanism is employed in both cases for two entirely different purposes.
    • pp. 158-159
  • There is a value called “mind” as there is a value oil, wheat, or gold. ... One can invest in that value, one can “follow” it as they say on the stock exchange; one can watch its fluctuations in I know not what price list which is the world’s general opinion of it. ... All these rising and falling values constitute the great market of human affairs. And of these the unfortunate value mind does not stop falling.
    • p. 161
  • The commerce of minds was necessarily the first commerce in the world, ... since before bartering things one must barter signs, and it is necessary therefore that signs be instituted.
    There is no market or exchange without language. The first instrument of all commerce is language.
    • p. 166
  • Freedom of mind and mind itself have been most fully developed in regions where trade developed at the same time. In all ages, without exception, every intense production of art, ideas, and spiritual values has occurred in some locality where a remarkable degree of economic activity was also manifest.
    • pp. 167-168
  • I said that to invite minds to concern themselves with Mind and its destiny was a sign and symptom of the times. Would that idea have occurred to me, had not a whole body of impressions been sufficiently significant and powerful to reflect themselves in me, and for that reflection to become action? And that action, which consists of expressing it in your presence, would not perhaps have been accomplished had I not felt that my impressions were those of many other people, that the sensation of a diminution of mind, of a menace to culture, of a twilight of the most pure gods was a sensation which imposed itself with increasing strength on all those who are capable of feeling something in the order of superior values of which we are speaking.
    • p. 172

Tel Quel (1943)[edit]

  • That which has always been accepted by everyone, everywhere, is almost certain to be false.
  • God created man, and finding him not sufficiently alone, gave him a female companion so that he might feel his solitude more acutely.
  • The purpose of psychology is to give us a completely different idea of the things we know best.
  • Politeness is organized indifference.
  • Politics is the art of stopping people from minding their own business.
  • Politics is the art of preventing people from taking part in affairs which properly concern them.

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