Amidst the lugubrious cypresses

[Julianna Swaney - Wonderer]

[continued notes on Valéry 's aesthetics]

[the execution of an artwork ] is made up of innumerable inward incidents and outward accidents, whose effects accumulate and combine in the substance of the work, which in the long run, especially if it has been much reworked and reconsidered, may become a work without a definable author, which no author could have produced in one breath without digressions and revisions.

I think this is a very compelling concept -- the authorless work -- and with my own experience at SJC, we are often asked to discard all historical and biographical context and to interact with the text as it appears to us. In doing so we hope to open an unbiased avenue into understanding -- but there are of course certain basic preconceptions that one will never be free of. Reading the Bible is always a test, but so is reading Plato's Meno or even Nietzsche. There's also a feeling of the contrived situation which I've never been able to shake. But regardless, Valéry seems to be pointing to an interesting intersection between two of my favorite areas of thought -- the process of making and the idea of the multitudinous self.

I wonder about Proust here -- what sort of work is the Recherche? To use Valéry's terms, is it the consummate collection of arbitrary? He seems to have realized the great problem of authorial choice -- and of the necessity that moves the author from one choice to the next. Beginning with the smallest, most arbitrary of moments -- the madeleine -- Proust then has to trace out the sequence, the chain, and in doing so chooses to include all. In privileging the arbitrary, it comes to take over the work. The Recherche seems to me to be the exemplar of Valéry's idea of the necessity of the arbitrary.

The presence of the arbitrary also creates an entirely new set of problems -- how does the author know when a work is finished, complete, whole? Valéry says that this conclusory process must be an external accident or influence more than an inward necessity. I wonder though -- I wonder if that's more dependent on the particulars -- the nature of the creation, for some creations can partake more easily of the 'single-breath' sort of generation -- the creator -- the context, etc.

He speaks of the phases of creation, relying on his experience as a poet. The author goes through 'two phases' -- one imaginative which produces 'partial elements of expression,' 'germs,' 'fragments,' 'shards of the future.' And by 'future' he means:

not the period marked by the formation of the work as it appears to the public, but rather the period characterized by the living state of the work which ... is never final, solidified, separated from its possibilities and chances of transformation, except by an outside intervention.

Immediately after reading that I was reminded of Borges' tale, Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote. Seeing as it had been close to a year since I had last read this story, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Menard himself has a strong affection for Valéry. In the little catalog of Menard's visible work are these two entries:

o) A transposition into alexandrines of Paul Valéry's Le cimitière marin (N.R.F., January 1928)

p) An invective against Paul Valéry, in the Papers for the Suppression of Reality of Jacques Reboul. (This invective we might say parenthetically, is the exact opposite of his true opinion of Valéry. The latter understood it as such and their old friendship was not endangered.)

The narrator informs us that Menard undertook the 'subterranean, interminably heroic, peerless' work of rewriting the Quixote -- and accomplished a recreation of the ninth and thirty-eight chapters.

He did not want to compose another Quixote -- which is easy -- but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcript of the original; he did not propose to copy it. his admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide -- word for word and line for line -- with those of Miguel de Cervantes.

And what would that mean? How is it possible for two different authors to produce the exact same text? Especially if they are separated vastly by history, culture, circumstances ... what would it mean if this somehow happened? What would it mean for Pierre Menard to go on being Pierre Menard, the twentieth-century Symbolist from Nimes, and to reach the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard.

He says, furthermore, that the Quixote isn't even a finished work -- that it is not necessary or inevitable:

I cannot imagine the universe without Edgar Allen Poe's exclamation:

Ah, bear in mind this garden was enchanted!

or without the Bateau ivre or the Ancient Mariner, but I am quite capable of imagining it without the Quixote. (I speak, naturally, of my personal capacity and not of those works' historical resonance.) The Quixote is a contingent book; the Quixote is unnecessary.

And so in undertaking this project he is a nascent, potential creator of the Quixote -- he is not a fan attempting an emulation or tribute -- nor is he trying to undermine or argue against the Quixote. Instead, he accomplishes the great feat of composing the Quixote at the beginning of the twentieth century, three hundred years after the first creation, three hundred years "filled with exceedingly complex events. Amongst them, to mention only one, is the Quixote itself."

The narrator of this tale goes on to compare the two Quixotes, preferring Menard's for its subtlety, its naturalness, its simplicity. He finds it astounding that Menard's Don Quixote, "a contemporary of La trahison des clercs and Bertrand Russell" would be taken in by the chivalric tales and the nobility of knighthood. He says:

Cervantes' text and Menard's text are virtually identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer.

Menard, in writing the Quixote again -- not as a transcription, but as his own creation -- sets up a model of the unfinished work as it is approached, manipulated, and recreated throughout time. There are infinite relationships between author and artwork, artwork and audience, author and audience -- those three players do not remain hard and fast in their roles, nor should they. There is a fluidity and flex to this interaction.

Artistic activity and the response to the beautiful which I've described before -- these are things which are part of the messiness of life. They are frenetic, changing, mutable, complicated. We cannot measure or pin them down like some pure, unmoving artifacts. Nothing about art is free from the complexity of time. Creation is about time, about belonging to a flux and a change. Perception, experience, understanding are all about time -- about the give and take, the push and shove of past -- present -- future. It all rushes willy-nilly into a great careening mess at the moment, but then resolves itself magically. Like the many colors of the spectrum appearing as one great sheet of white -- the multitude of our experience resolves itself into a single point which we can sometimes grasp -- perhaps those points, Euclidian or not, are what we speak of as moments of being -- as moments of artistic experience, the sort of seeds from which our own creations may be born.

The narrator of Borges' story ends with these conclusions:

Menard (perhaps without wanting to) has enriched, by means of a new technique, the halting and rudimentary act of reading: this new technique is that of the deliberate anachronism and the erroneous attribution.

A palimpsest of sorts -- and an attempt to move beyond mere reading, mere experience.