Notes on Valéry's Aesthetics

[Vermeer - Young Woman with a Water Pitcher]

I feel like I've been mulling over the same thoughts for a long while now, turning them over in my head and under the tip of my pen. What are the implications of thinking of art as process -- as making? What does it mean to move away from the static, metaphysical Ideals which classically characterize our understanding of creativity and creation? What do we lose in this process of re-figuring our aesthetics? What sort of aesthetics has as its core the idea of art as mutable, subjective, chaotic, arbitrary and yet necessary?

Obviously my readings of Valéry have prompted most of these questions, especially his essays 'Aesthetics,' and 'The Creation of Art.' I'm not really sure where I'm going with all of this but I want to copy out some of my reading notes and some of the most provocative passages to see if anything else comes to light.

I've already begun
some writing on all of this, focusing on the problems Valéry points to, notably that the system of aesthetics he was reacting to was too entangled with metaphysics and Platonic Ideals to see that it had lost touch with its subject.

One of the central and recurring ideas is that artistic creation is inconceivable in terms of reason and ideals. The making process involves 'a host of accidents,' a series of arbitrary phenomena 'which introduce unforeseen and indeterminate elements into the drama of creation.' This is perhaps something much more familiar to the creators of art than those who study them. It's easy to observe a finished artwork and see it as timeless, necessary, inevitable -- or to read a poem and have no idea of the myriad of choices that resulted in the final few lines of purity or beauty. [Museums and galleries only reinforce this erroneous approach, imposing that pseudo-religious atmosphere of elevation -- the hushed voices, put-on faces, the papery sound of referencing, of learning. People change when they're in museums -- either becoming earnest and erudite to the point of farce, or frivolous and mocking to the point of pretension].

Valéry says of the artist:


whether he likes it or not, he is absolutely unable to free himself from a sense of the arbitrary. He progresses from the arbitrary to a certain necessity.


He progresses from disorder through disorder to some eventual sense of inevitability and order -- wherein the feeling of creation is found. He requires both 'the moment of contrast' and the 'moment of resolution.'

The problem, again, is that the philosopher -- the metaphysician -- wishes to impose a dialectic on something which slips and slides and refuses linguistic expression. How are we supposed to philosophize about some phenomena which is outside of discourse itself?

For the metaphysician discourse is an end, while for the man who wishes to act, it is only a means.

This impossibility is unbearable and so it is circumvented -- an Ideal is constructed, it is placed alongside Truth and Virtue on a lofty shelf far beyond the reach of any human being and art becomes a long history of missed marks, the occasional surprise, and a strange gallery filled with Masterpieces and Geniuses that require headsets and canned voices to explain them.

We may as well admit, gentlemen, that none of us is immune to such temptation, that all of us frequently slide from the personal to the universal, fascinated by promises of the dialectical demon. The seducer beguiles us with the hope that everything will reduce itself to categoric terms and so achieve completion, that everything will culminate in the Word. But we must answer the demon with this simple observation: the effect of the Beautiful upon a man is to make him mute.


So that's the surprise! But then why are we seized by such an aimless desire to talk about what moves us? What exactly happens when we say we are moved by something beautiful? Do we merely babble when we should instead remain silent, recognizing that there are no words by which our experience could be conveyed, captured, communicated?

if we try to describe our immediate impressions of what has just taken place in our sensibility, we shall find that we cannot avoid contradiction. The event employs us to use such scandalous expressions as the necessity of the arbitrary or necessity by way of the arbitrary.


We are arrested and we are moved. I always come back to Hans Castorp, 'my handsome bourgeois with the little moist spot,' -- but he knew this, he knew the feeling of being rendered speechless and yet needing to babble, to speak, incoherent as it may be, about the Beauty and the wonder he was able to glimpse. He also knew the desire to possess more, understand more, to respond, wholly, light for light, silence for silence.

Finally [for tonight], Valéry describes the nascent feelings in the experience of the beautiful:

We feel on the one hand that the source or object of our will is so appropriate to us that we cannot conceive of its being otherwise. Even in certain cases of supreme contentment we feel that by some profound process we are being transformed into the man whose general sensibility is capable of such an extreme or fullness of delight.

We feel no less strongly, as thought by another sense, that the phenomenon which is inducing and developing his state in us, which is inflicting its invisible power on us might not have been, or even that it should not have been, that it belongs to the realm of the improbable. Our enjoyment or joy has the force of fact, yet the existence and formation of the means, the instrument, that has engendered these feelings strike us as accidental, the result of a great stroke of luck, a gratuitous gift of fortune.

There is more to come, for we must hear how all this 'necessary and arbitrary' concludes -- also, what is it in us that responds to art, that wants to return creation for creativity? How is Proust's Recherche so special [it seems to be a consummate example of 'the necessity of the arbitrary']? How can we understand the living quality of an artwork? -- as something which has no finality but can be taken up throughout time, in different hands, changed, informed, improved by continued interactions. What is Pierre Menard's Quixote?