21st CENTURY ART, C.E.- B.C.

"...the geometry is the light..."

Paul Valery

"He who has never completed -- be it but in a dream -- the sketch for some project that he is free to abandon; who has never felt the sense of adventure in working on some composition which he knows finished when others only see it commencing; who has not known the enthusiasm that burns away a minute of his very self; or the poison of conception, the scruple, the cold breath of objection coming from within; and the struggle with alternative ideas when the strongest and most universal should naturally triumph over both what is normal and what is novel; he who has not seen the image on the whiteness of his paper distorted by other possible images, by his regret for all the images that will not be chosen; or seen in limpid air a building that is not there; he who is not haunted by fear of giddiness caused by the receding of the goal before him; by anxiety as to means; by foreknowledge of delays and despairs, calculation of progressive phases, reasoning about the future -- even about things that should not, when the time comes, be reasoned about -- that man does not know either -- and it does not matter how much he knows beside -- the riches and resources, the domains of the spirit, that are illuminated by the conscious act of construction. The gods have received from the human mind the gift of the power to create because that mind, being cyclical and abstract, may aggrandize what it has imagined to such a point that it is no longer capable of imagining it."


Valery's Essay on Leonardo de Vinci, 1895
Translated from the French by Thomas McGreevy



Paul Valery's paragraph on


This paragraph was written over a hundred years ago, yet it remains one of the most insightful statements about the creative process ever constructed.

Note that Valery talks about a concrete process with a largely abstract vocabulary. However, one could use the same structure to construct a paragraph citing objects, fragments, people, places, etc.

The argument is one sentence (approximately 25 lines of the above version). The conclusion is one sentence (5 lines and 1 word in the above version).

The paragraph is like a litany, an incantation, a precisely chosen "laundry list." It is a summary, an example of inductive reasoning, a brilliantly constructed itemization leading to a general statement. From the "concrete" to the abstract, it invokes the general. From the "building," the construction, the argument leaps to the universal, i.e. a leap in the conclusion takes the "illumination" received in the act of construction and thrusts it out into the cosmos to become God.

It could be an outline for a novel, or a poem. It demonstrates the poetry possible in a well-constructed, well-itemized inductive argument.

Each word is particularized, carefully chosen for the progression it implies. Except four or five concrete nouns -- every word is abstract. Yet the process it describes is certainly one of the most pragmatically used processes on earth.

The high point of the invocation comes at the word "building"--which is used just a little beyond half way in the paragraph. The prose "climbs" until one virtually "sees" the building spring into existence. Then it falls away and ends on an understated note with the word "construction" -- another building term (as opposed to a literary term such as "composing" or "writing" or a scientific term such as "inventing" or "discovering"). This use of a "building term" is intentional, for later in the essay Valery refers back to this paragraph to speak about Leonardo's architecture. And later still, Valery uses architecture as an example of the "highest" art.

The paragraph is an exegesis on inspiration, on the idea of the artist being "possessed" during the act of creation. Simultaneously, it is a succession of very real images, the delineation of precise creative steps that one takes in the act of "construction." Each concept is knowable, do-able; together they form a progression.

Each word in the paragraph is essential except, in my opinion, the two adjectives in the phrase "being cyclical and abstract". I have never felt that these definitively, as the context implies, define the human mind. It seems to me one could use many sets of adjectives here: "mathematical and greedy", or "timid and obtuse" for instance.

But, whatever one uses, the essential consideration is the rhythm of that four word phrase. The form, the music of the sentence, requires the phrase and it almost doesn't matter how one characterizes the mind. The rhythm of the four words is necessary. If one eliminates them, which sense-wise I feel one could do, one robs the sentence of its rhythmic power. It is necessary to define the mind in some way at that point, but like God, the mind is "un-sum-up-able."

An uneasiness, particularly about the word "cyclical," sent me off to re-read the French -- a language I do not know, but know enough about, at times, to discern the derivations/etymologies of words. The word Valery uses is "periodique," which, at other places in the translation, McGreevy has rendered as "periodicity" which has a much broader meaning and includes "cyclical" within its penumbra. Nonetheless, one can sympathize with McGreevy's problem here, for using "periodicity" or some form of it would have thrown off the rhythm.

Note, too, that the paragraph itself demonstrates the cyclical aspect of the mind. It cycles all the way back to the opening clause to finish the first periodic sentence after an exceptionally long "construction;" thus showing the cyclical or periodic mind operating with its well chosen, abstract vocabulary. The paragraph is so elevated, definitive, seamless that it, itself, seems like a "construction" one might attribute to God i.e. as McLuhan said: "the medium is the message."

A brief take-off on the structure of the Valery paragraph:

He who has never set out on his own -- be it even on a package tour -- to visit Paris, Peking, Calcutta or Bombay; Rome, Moscow or Athens; Bangkok, New York or Kathmandu; he who has not studied and thought about language, mathematics or urban renewal; medicine, law, music and art, the human spirit and the human soul; God; or anthropology, paleontology, archaeology; as well as astronomy and cosmology -- does not know the resources of this world opened by human thought and human travel. The Gods have received the gift of the power of omniscience because human beings, timid and non observant, do not realize that they, too, can go everywhere, see everything, think worlds into existence -- at least enough to create a fantasy, a novel or a poem.

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#296, Cento, Poetic Forms Used in English




21st Century Art, C.E. - B.C., A Context

Copyright © Jan Haag 2003

Jan Haag may be reached via e-mail: jhaag@u.washington.edu