When the barometer of the world marks storm on all fronts, it is fortunate that there are places where the human spirit continues its quest without letting itself be intimidated by the ambient terror. This is what Paul Valéry did at the Collège de France between 1937 and 1945. Thanks to the exceptional work of William Marx, we can in our turn survey today the monument of thought that was this Cours de poétique (Gallimard, “Bibliothèque Ideas”, two volumes, 2023).
Among the listeners, in the midst of the “beautiful listeners” who had come to admire the Master, were Cioran, Blanchot, Barthes, Bonnefoy, Tournier. That is to say the inseminating power of this teaching. The voice was dull and dull, they say, the delivery dry, but no matter, it was not a brilliant conversationalist that we came to hear but the best structured and most invigorating mind of the time. The emancipated disciple of Mallarmé.
Poetics, here, designates “what relates to the creation or composition of works of which language is both the substance and the means”. How does the mind produce its works? Literary history has tended to overvalue the figure of the author. But, notes Valéry, even though we know little about Homer, “the marine beauty of the Odyssey does not suffer from it”. It would therefore be possible to make the history of the mind and of literature “without the name of a writer being pronounced in it.”
Thus freed from its idolatrous facilities and its childishness, reflection on creation can unfold in fundamental spaces. And here we are drawn into a prodigious intellectual and human adventure. Teaching does not mean transmitting padlocked knowledge about one’s certainties, but searching, inventing a form, churning out a strange material – words and ideas – not in front of the audience but with it, with its tacit and necessary help: “It In short, it is not a question of making certain things easier for you, but on the contrary of making them more difficult for you. »
It is not a book that we are reading, but the transcription of a course. Of course a part of the life and the intensity proper to the act of teaching has gone, but the stale does not have the last word: we follow the thought to manufacture its circuits, to grope, to give the a feeling of getting lost and losing ourselves, until suddenly a sentence of astounding strength and beauty comes to reward us, the speaker and us, for our respective efforts. In this dramaturgy of the mind at work, we understand that there is a splendor of the right idea, of the finding that amazes and convinces at the same time.
There are severe and demanding works that meet our need for deep knowledge: “These works are not means of distraction, they are, on the contrary, food intended to maintain and develop the power of our spirit in the taken with our living and thinking reality. » The entire Poetics Course gives us this exciting experience, a real journey of the mind towards itself.
The essence of art is to make oneself desired but from a desire that does not end with its realization, a desire that, on the contrary, has the capacity to renew itself constantly, what Valéry calls “infinity aesthetic “. What value would a symphony, a poem or a painting have of which one says: “Now it’s over, I’ve enjoyed it, I’m moving on to something else”? A vain object that does not survive its consumption? The true work of art is designed to ignite in us a hunger that will not subside, an excitement that we will want to experience again by listening to the symphony again, by repeating the poem, by meditating on the painting again and again.
For where does the work of art lead us? Towards a state that Valéry qualifies as “prior to all knowledge” and even as “impersonal”. When we are immersed in a work, “we no longer even know who we are as characters in society, we no longer know our name, our history”. It is the enjoyment of this indefinable state that we seek in art. Why ? Because the indefinable is our major characteristic.
How do these works of the spirit affect the world? They are what Valéry calls the “tangent of the social universe”, seeking to create “another world”, shielded from death and oblivion. The man of spirit, the creator, aims to transform the products of their singularity into “common good”. The ability of the “universe of the mind” to create out of almost nothing – a form, a text – a tangent world is only a particular case of a more general phenomenon in society: the “fiducia », the ability to produce confidence from language. Outdated question?
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