Genesis • June 2016
Valery and creation



In 1937, when he delivered his inaugural address (Discours au Collège de France) as the chair of poetics to the Collège de France, Paul Valéry (1871-1945) broke away from prescriptive poetics by creating the word poietics (poïétique in French) from the Greek poiein (poïein). This essential ï focuses on production by separating it from action (prattein) but also from phusis. What can be seen in all Valéry’s writings is the point of view of the creator in all his anthropological dimensions. In the 28,000 pages of his Notebooks (Cahiers) written from 1894 to his death, he patiently underlined its implementation each day. In opposition to philosophical aesthetics, he created aesthesics by distinguishing creation from perceptible reception. As the living example of literary autopoietics, he highlighted the importance of the act that frees us from the indeterminacy of thought and, while never building a totalizing system, he showed the role of body and language in creation. Art here seems to exemplify human creation in general and by the richness of its potential, the work of art has the ability to create a desire to be seen and seen again indefinitely.

Article's keywords

Paul Valéry, poietics, art, making, artwork, act, implex, autopoietics, aesthesics, body, poetics, genesis, aesthetic infinity, establishment.

Table of Contents

Reading Valéry helps creation. While questioning certain convictions, it irrigates ‘the nervous soil’ of the practice. Capturing in the closest possible way the mental state of these moments when inventiveness gets lost in laboriousness, when a spark of light can be glimpsed through the silt of the banality of making, Valéry’s reflections ‘oxygenate’ the creative act.

His clear and precise language manages to put our troubled intuitions and our messy ideas into words. The relevance of these words contains a mobilizing force because, as we shall see, Valéry does not prescribe, he stimulates the desire for rigour. His thought cannot easily be contained into a totalizing conception of art: it is an open reflection, contradictory, elastic and yet correct in its type, as if it could be a science of the specific. Far from turning its back on the creator, it seems to be looking over the artist’s shoulder. In this way, Valéry is one of those who suggested that poietics constitutes the possible field of communicable knowledge about art in the making.

In addition, Valéry has highlighted an avenue that seems insufficiently explored by research, that of a formalized thought, endogenous to creation, that he has methodically prepared for a kind of autopoietics of the mind. There is also a lesson to be learnt for the visual arts, of which he nevertheless had a very classic vision, marked however by Degas and his time. Paradoxically, it is when he writes about poetry or the workings of his own mind, that Valéry tells us most about the creative process. Through a transposition of poetic creation to pictorial creation, we discover the potential existence of a thought that can be shared between different types of artists. But for these connections to become operative, one must carefully study the poet’s numerous and polymorphous work. It constitutes a vast body of work for anyone who wants to discover the fundamentals of his philosophy of creative behaviour.

Valéry’s programme

There are a considerable number of works on the thoughts of Paul Valéry. Scholars, critics and essayists have commented and analysed his work. Why then the need to return to it? Simply because, regarding poietics, of which Valéry’s teaching is one of the most valuable sources, one can only find only books and articles on poetic and literary creation. But Valéry did not limit himself to literary poietics. Although the fragments of texts to which one usually refers do contain ambiguities about the nature of what he called the ‘works of the mind,’ along with Leonardo. But let’s look again at the definition he gave during his address to the Collège de France:

‘Rather it is in short the quite simple notion of making that I wish to express.  The making, the poiein, that I wish to consider is the kind that results in some finished work; I shall shortly limit it to the kind of works we have to agree to call works of the mind. I mean those which the mind likes to make for its own use, employing to that end any physical means that can serve.’ (Valéry, 1957, p. 1342) [ 1 ] .

As a poet and thinker, Valéry had to articulate his teaching around literary poietics, the nucleus of his own practice. But to understand the extent of his ambition, one should reread Discours aux esthéticiens in which he defines poietics by supplementing it with aesthesics.

‘Another pile would comprise of all the writing that deals with the actual production of works. I should call this second group Poetics or rather Poietics; and an over-all conception of the complete human act, from its psychic and physiologic roots to its attempts to affect matter or individuals, would serve as a basis for subdividing it. On the one hand, we should have the study of invention and composition, the role of chance, reflection, and imitation, of education and environment; and on the other hand, the examination and analysis of the techniques, methods, instruments, materials, means, and conditions of action (…).’ (Valéry, 1957, p. 1311)

It is clear that the focus of Valéry is not limited to the ‘creation or composition of works having language at once as their substance and as their instrument’ as implied by Jean Pommier in the speech he gave in his succession to Valéry at the Collège de France (7thMay 1946). Valéry did not limit himself to the arts of language, as evident when reading Eupalinos, Degas, Dance, Drawing or My Bust.

When he wrote for example in My Bust:

‘The sculptor’s work is menaced by an infinity of chances multiplied by infinity. At every moment he risks losing from one point of view what he has gained from another.’ [ 2 ]

and further on:

‘Watch how he works: continually he revolves while the model rotates. The model and the mass of clay or plaster are vaguely suggestive of the two foci of an ellipse: about them the sculptor is in perpetual motion. The sitting evokes something of planetary movement, something of the dance.’

Poetics and poietics

One could multiply quotations showing that Valéry adopted a posture of poietics in all areas where man is the producer of works of art. This approach is also at the heart of the Notebooks that Valéry wrote each morning from 1894 to 1945 and that represent nearly 29,000 pages published by the CNRS in facsimile form, between 1957 and 1961. Under the heading Poietics, Judith Robinson gathered, in the Pléiade edition, a number of extracts from these notebooks on all creative activities, and one can see that the issue of making appears right from Volume I (1897-1899) and that the young Valéry’s approach was rather radical when he declared in 1901:

‘A work of art worthy of the artist is one whose execution would also be a work of art by the delicacy and depth of hesitation, the well-measured enthusiasm and finishing like the task in the control of the following operations. This is inhuman.’ [ 3 ]

This is nevertheless what he managed to achieve in Seaside Cemetery, according to Anzieu: ‘I propose to consider Seaside Cemetery (…) as the attempt:

1/ to summarize in the densest text possible the diversity and specificity of the processes involved in each phase of the work

2/ to do so not after a trial in prose but by giving a classical poetic form to the original content (…), this content being the genesis of the poem in the making.’ [ 4 ]

For Anzieu, the project aimed at ‘being able to merge poetics with poietics.’ Provided, he added, ‘to mean, by poietics, the study of the genesis of the work, of the diachronic process of its creation, and, by poetics, the synchronic study of its composition as text. The first asks how creation has impacted the author’s psyche; the second how the work is impacted by language.’ [ 5 ]

But it is probably in reference to Edgar Allan Poe, whose Margin Notes he had translated, that Valéry updated the word poietics as opposed to prescriptive poetics. Poe has indeed always carefully distinguished the words poetry and poesy. Poetry was understood in the limited sense of ‘writing in verse’ while poesy always meant the work of imagination capable of inducing poetic feelings. He used the word poietics as a synonym for poesy.

It is true, as noted by Claude Richard, that ‘most of Poe’s reflections focused (…) on the rhetorical techniques allowing for the creation of a feeling or impression.’ [ 6 ] However, in Philosophy of Composition, Poe planned on writing, in retrospect, the genesis of a poem: ‘I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who would — that is to say, who could — detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion.’ [ 7 ]

In Memoirs of a Poem, Valéry only seemingly paraphrased Poe when he wanted to ‘just once, (…) write a work, which at each juncture would show the diversity of solutions that can present themselves to the mind and from which he [the poet] chooses the unique sequel to be found in the text. To do this would be to substitute for the illusion of a unique scheme which imitates reality, that of the possible-at-each-moment, which I think more truthful.’ [ 8 ]

Valéry transformed Poe’s description of the process to create an artwork to make it a reflection on the work in the making, as he pointed out in his Notebooks:

‘I have always written my verses while observing myself write them, in which respect, perhaps, I have never been exclusively a poet.’ [ 9 ] But in Poe’s approach, it is surely the deliberate construction of his works, poetic work taking precedence over inspiration, that struck Valéry most, as it did Baudelaire and Mallarmé. Indeed, as noted by Robert Kopp,

‘Poe is modern and topical when his poetry becomes a reflection on itself.’ [ 10 ]

In his work, Poe claimed to be hostile to the romantic conceptions that made originality mainly a matter of instinct or intuition. As later did Mallarmé or Valéry, he thought that: ‘In general, to be found, it [originality] must be elaborately sought, and although a positive merit of the highest class, demands in its attainment less of invention than negation.’ [ 11 ]

But to deepen the distinction between poetics as a set of rules and poietics as the study of creative behaviour, one must, with certain precautions that Valéry also took, plunge for a moment into Aristotle’s work, not into his Poetics but rather in his Metaphysics and his Nicomachean Ethics. In the latter, a terse and complex text [ 12 ] , Aristotle offers a definition of tekhne, which, for the Greeks, covered not only the fine arts but the handcrafted and technical productions of man – the purpose of this text, through the distinctions it operates, is as follows: outside theoria, pure science dedicated to knowledge regardless of its application, and outside praxis, the action undertaken through the human intervention on reality, Aristotle defines poietics as a domain of art, which distinguishes itself by its end: production. In the latter case, man produces an object, which is itself the essential principle somehow constituting the objectification of man in reality. Thus, and one can also find this traditional distinction in Valéry, then in Souriau, while natural objects hold their own principle in themselves, that is to say, their reason and cause, ‘Art is always about the making, and applying oneself to an art is to consider the manner to bring into being one of those things that could or could not to be, but whose principle of existence lies in the artist and not in the thing produced.’ [ 13 ]

Thus the work of art has its formal cause outside itself. Art is therefore not action but production ‘supported by right reason’ and ‘blessed by chance.’ It is important to keep this concept in mind for example when reading Valéry’s essays and dialogues on architecture or when addressing the concepts of act and work of art.

As explained by E. Souriau, Aristotle dealt with this issue in his Metaphysics: Souriau explained that in Greek ergon means ‘both the activity of a thing or the product of this activity,’ ‘that is why Aristotle opposed the verbs poiein and prattein, to make and to act, making leading to the existence of poiema, the thing made. There is therefore a dual opposition of the idea of making not only with acting but also ‘with the idea of a genesis, a coming into existence as a result of phusis, a natural process. (…) The work of art indeed has its formal cause outside itself. The germinating seed has in itself the formal cause of the plant that will grow. But the statue does not have in itself the cause of its form; it is the will of the artist that imposes this form on it.’ [ 14 ] In Man and the Sea Shell, Valéry has masterfully developed this theme: ‘Who made this?’ the writer asked himself when observing a sea shell, his ‘first stir of thought has been to think of making,’ as, for him ‘The idea of making is the first and most human of ideas. ‘To explain’ is never anything more than to describe a way of making; it is merely to remake in thought.’ And further, another question… ‘By what sign we recognize that a given object is or is not made by a man?’ Contrary to the ‘living nature’ of the shell fish, which, without any petimento, reserve or alteration, indefinitely emanates its shell, the human work starts from ‘several kinds of freedom (…); freedom with respect to material, with respect to size and shape, with respect to time; the mollusc seems deprived of all these.’ (…) ‘The production of the shell is a lived thing, not a made thing: Nothing is more contrary to our articulated act, preceded by a goal and operating as a cause.’ [ 15 ]

The Notion of Act

The operative consciousness of an act can indeed be an obstacle for the artist and the quality of his production could suffer from the immediate knowledge that he has of it. ‘Achilles cannot catch the tortoise if he considers space and time.’ Valéry understood this opinion that was notably shared by Gide, but, according to him, ‘the act of making’ is more interesting than the ‘thing made.’ [ 16 ] The act is therefore the essential focus of poietics, firstly because it introduces the mind in the universe of fact, outside ‘the world of the possible’ and then because the work of art, when considered outside this act ‘is only an object that bears no particular relation to the mind.’ On one hand, there is the world of the mind in perpetual incompleteness and, on the other, the ‘deserted shell’ that is the work isolated from the psychic process that created it. If one excludes thoughts and myths, the Parthenon would only be a pile of useless and ruined white stones. Thus, ‘The works of man seem to me like faeces,’ Valéry wrote, ‘residues of acts. I only like them when I imagine the formative acts.’ [ 17 ]

To quote the distinctions made by Aristotle, one could say that Valéry is more interested in the efficient cause, the immediate principle that produces change (the chisel of the sculptor) than in the final cause that is the goal. He also wanted to underline the sovereignty of the creative act, which allows the artist to make the transition from the arbitrary to the necessary. ‘How do we know (…) that a system of acts is performed in a view to art?’ Valéry asked himself in Notion générale de l’art. [ 18 ] Because it produces an object that is useless in relation to the physiological needs of the human species. ‘Most impressions and perceptions that we receive from our senses play no part in the functioning of the mechanisms essential to the conservation of life.’ [ 19 ] This overflow of sensations creates more ‘combinations (…) of our motor organs than we really need.’ [ 20 ] Most of our existence is busy with ‘useless sensations’ and ‘arbitrary activities’ (…), ‘the invention of art has consisted in trying to confer upon the former a kind of utility; upon the latter, a kind of necessity.’ [ 21 ] And in Degas, Dance, Drawing: ‘What could be more admirable than the transition from the arbitrary to the necessary, (…) an act to which he is driven by an urge that can be as strong and as overmastering as the urge to make love.’ [ 22 ] He then added in Analects: ‘Our only means of understanding things is provided by the ‘limited infinity’ of models of acts which our body offers us as we perceive it.’ [ 23 ] And this is also true of mathematics as ‘algebra is a science of acts,’ [ 24 ] without mentioning music where ‘one can clearly perceive the link between the sensation and the act’ and geometry. If the act of the mind is linked to ‘a certain quality of indetermination,’ [ 25 ] the concrete and voluntary act of the creator includes conventional and normative characters that Meyerson, following in Valéry’s footsteps, has systematized. [ 26 ]

But before the act, there is the virtual state, the potential contained in each mind. Valéry called this the implex, a suggestive name that has not had, outside of experts, the success one could expect. ‘No, the Implex is not an activity. Quite the contrary. It’s a capacity: our capacity for feeling, reacting, doing, and understanding (…) individual, inconstant, more or less known to us – but always imperfectly.’ [ 27 ] In the dialogue of Idée fixe, Valéry asked himself whether this implex could not simply be reduced to what everyone calls the unconscious or the subconscious.

‘Do you want me to pitch you into the sea? Don’t you know I detest such dirty words? And anyhow, it isn’t the same thing at all. They are meant to signify some inconceivable hidden springs of action – at times they stand for sly little inner goblins, marvellous tricksters who can guess riddles, read the future, see through brick walls, and carry on the most amazing industry inside our hidden workings.’ That was how Valéry responded to those who tended to confuse the implex with the Freudian unconscious.

If implex means capacity, Valéry summarized it by ‘inner potentiality.’ In fact, the field of creative behaviour constantly refers to it, from the work to be made to its impossible completion, through the implex of every moment that surprises us while we are doing what we are doing. Like Derrida in Qual quelle [ 28 ] we should study Freud and Nietzsche, both sources excluded by Valéry, a resistance that is all the more significant as, on several key points, coincidences do arise. For example, Bémol did not hesitate to claim that ‘one of the most characteristic Nietzschean themes whose persistence is striking throughout the entire work of Valéry, is the will to power, that the poet uses by transposing it into the spiritual.’ [ 29 ] It would be interesting, no doubt, to study the similarities and contradictions between implex, unconscious and will to power. But what sets Valéry apart from most philosophers is his scepticism regarding any general and definitive system to explain the world, any metaphysical attempt. ‘For me, philosophy,’ he said, ‘is only an organisation of thoughts and not a search for truth.’ [ 30 ] The philosopher is only ‘a specialist in the universal’ whose ‘universal appears only in a verbal form.’ Valéry therefore considered the philosopher as an artist of thought who does not want to admit it. A philosophical system is somehow a work of art: ‘this art is the art of transforming, distinguishing, evaluating. In a word, recognizing and developing powers.’ [ 31 ]

However, the weakness of philosophical vocabulary, which takes the appearance of a technical language, learned through trial and error, is to never allow really precise definitions, as Valéry explained: ‘For the only precise definitions are instrumental (that is to say, reducible to acts, such as pointing at an object or carrying out an operation).’ [ 32 ] Valéry’s grievances did not spare philosophical aesthetics either, although he admitted in his letter to Léo Ferrero (1929) that ‘aesthetics is a great and even irresistible temptation,’ he ended up denying its existence: ‘if aesthetics could really exist, the arts would melt away before it, that is, before their own essence.’ In the same text, he opposed the reflection of the artist to ‘the aesthetics of a philosopher that regards itself as foreign to the arts and of another essence than the thinking of a poet or a musician’ (…). ‘To the philosopher’s mind works of art are accidents, or particular cases, or the effects produced by a busy sensibility as it gropes blindly toward a principle that Philosophy sees as a whole and possesses as an immediate and pure concept.’ [ 33 ]

The Aesthetic Infinite

It is therefore by opposition to philosophical aesthetics that Valéry chose the direction of poietics, but, aware of its incompleteness regarding the reception of the work, he created another group which he called aesthesics, in which he placed ‘everything related to the study of sensations’ and ‘most particularly works dealing with the sensory excitations and reactions that have no uniform, well-defined physiological function. For our wealth consists in all those sensory modifications that the living creature can do without (though rarely we may run across useful or even indispensable sensations among them).’ (…) ‘From these infinite resources,’ concluded Valéry, ‘all the luxury of our arts is derived.’ [ 34 ] Valéry’s theory of art, which aimed at being practical and positive, is therefore organised around two major issues: perceptive pleasure and the production of pleasure, ‘the study of the pleasure of seeing and the study of the pleasure of making’: aesthesics and poietics. But far from being a system containing a truth whose unique meaning should be tracked down, aesthesics allows Valéry to develop what Jean Hytier called ‘the theory of effects.’ [ 35 ] The artwork is on one hand ‘the product of an act’ and, on the other, ‘it aims at producing infinite effects.’ It is ‘the result of an action whose finite aim is to call forth infinite developments in someone.’ [ 36 ] The work of art has therefore for its objective to produce a number of effects. There are finite effects that relate to practical things and override our perceptions: ‘I ask you for a light. You give me a light: you have understood me.’ In contrast, infinite effects work like a ricochet and allow the sensation to indefinitely rise from its ashes. Perceptions tend to be retained and to reproduce themselves. In his Cours de poésie, Lesson 3, Valéry considered it as an essential aspect of art, which has, he said, ‘among its required elements, this idea of organising a system of perceptible things which have the ability to be asked for again without ever satisfying the need they cause. (…) Creation aims at producing the object that generates the desire of itself. This is what I call the infinite of aesthetics and which distinguishes most clearly the work of art from other works of man.’ [ 37 ] In the order of aesthetic things, satisfaction revives the need, the answer regenerates the request, the presence generates the absence, and the possession creates desire. Let us therefore assume that the most general effect of the work of art should be to ‘make itself asked for again.’ This issue alone would deserve numerous developments on the artwork as a ‘relay for excitement,’ on the glorification of misinterpretation or the immediacy of reception, which is however the accumulation of the knowledge acquired through a lifetime.

Hans Robert Jauss stressed the importance of understanding the relationship between poiesis and aesthesis in Valéry’s work. In particular, he showed that for Valéry, as for Fiedler, ‘watching and producing, vision and expression are inseparable.’ [ 38 ]

Freed from the secular tradition ‘which linked art as mimesis to the cosmos, to nature (created by God) or to the Idea, the artist and the public see their artistic practice as a constructive and creative activity, as the exercise of a ‘poietics power’ (poietisches Können, ‘power’ or ‘know-how’). Right from the Introduction to the Method of Leonardo Da Vinci in 1894, Valéry simultaneously studied the dual aspect of the production and reception of the work.


For those of us who are both creators and receivers of artworks, this dual approach raises the issue of autopoietics, which was discussed by Valéry himself. As we know, he prefaced the French edition of Leonardo da Vinci’s Notebooks; he admired in Poe, Mallarmé and Wagner, but also in Delacroix and Degas, the ability to feed their own creative process through reflection and writing. In this regard, one can therefore consider Valéry’s Notebooks as a process of autopoietics extended to all areas of thought. Without ever being a diary, they are an analysis of the mind in action. But there is a big difference between wanting to discover the invariants of the workings of the human mind based on his own mind, Valéry’s fundamental quest, and trying to build the theory of the creative process faced with rebelling material, to uncontrolled issues of meaning, to the technical control over materiality whose hazards constantly make the project fail through the process.

It is first musicians that Valéry paid tribute to. He was fascinated by Wagner, who ‘through rigorous ‘self-analysis’ has become the master of these ‘depths,’ has carefully catalogued and used them to submit them to the formal requirements of composition.’ [ 39 ]

In 1939, Stravinsky undertook a series of lectures at Harvard, where he held the chair of Poetics. His ‘initial ideas,’ said Valéry, ‘have more than one analogy with those of my course at the Collège, first lesson.’ [ 40 ] As for the painter, who aspires to ‘raise himself to the purest levels, to surprise himself with new developments of his aims, bolder combinations of will, knowledge and power,’ Valéry thought that the artist had to summarize his experience in his own ‘truths.’ However, he doubted the ability of the artist to push the theory of his art very far, as he explained in a letter to Maurice Denis in 1922:

‘I’m almost always shocked by the theories and discussions of artists. I feel they are always tainted by the ulterior motive of immediate practice and individual practice. It seems to me that an artist can never lead a theory of his art to an end because a feeling of panic or a fear of himself always seizes him in the middle of his analysis and takes him back almost physically to the act. (…) The idea of conscious impotence prematurely murders his thoughts.’ [ 41 ]

The fact that Valéry underlined this difficulty demonstrates what precisely makes the autopoietics by visual artists so valuable, enriched by the very ‘impurity’ of the method of its implementation. In poetry or music, there are opportunities for control and a normative aspect that visual arts are free from. This gives a special value to the writings of painters, who can claim a viewpoint that critics and historians cannot embrace. The fragile place with blurred edges from which comes the approach to the artistic making process itself, is undermined by narcissism, procedural description, cunning and other pitfalls. It is so tempting to recount one’s life, to embroider or simplify a career, to provide recipes. For, no doubt, strait is the gate for autopoietics.

But one can also consider autopoietics as the study of the most important work that a man can accomplish and that is, according to Valéry, the indefinite reconstruction of his very being. For the artist, the highest creation is in fact the creation of the creator himself. Not only ‘I’m drawing from myself what I didn’t even know I contained,’ [ 42 ] but this constant stimulation shapes an ego that is always plural as it is equipped with virtual structures offering almost infinite combinations. The creator must nevertheless work with maximum distance, with a lucidity supported by the power that can select flashes of creative chance. The mind of the artist must therefore observe its own activity, the brain being a kind of centrifuge whose centre of mass is called pure ego.

‘When seeking the most general formula that is inherent in the activity of the mind, Valéry came to the belief that such activity required a universal and absolutely invariable principle: he invented the construction of pure ego. Without it, an observation of the process of reciprocity and exchange between the individual and the mind would simply be impossible.’ [ 43 ] Recent research on the biology of the brain seem to confirm this hypothesis of a centre of mass put in motion by centrifugal rotation and losing its unity by separating from itself. ‘For such an act of creation, the speed of rotation plays a decisive role’… ‘To each level of consciousness corresponds a constant rate of activity of the mind, or of the creative imagination.’ [ 44 ] One should reflect on this multi-stability of the intellective system when confronted with the act of creating. There are answers in Valéry’s work, notably in his Notebooks. One can see, for example, that, through his continuing confrontation with material making, the artist overcomes the disorders of the mind. In this sense: ‘Art is opposed to the mind,’ it exceeds the mind’s insufficiencies and discontinuities; from the arbitrary it produces necessity. ‘The disorder of the mind is creative – but it only provides the new embryo (…) We must carry it and give birth to it after fertilization.’ [ 45 ] It is through hard work that the artist manages to fix the unstable coordinates of his most valuable states. As for emotion, it is ‘unnecessary in the arts – even harmful. When you need it, it’s only an ingredient.’ [ 46 ]

According to Valéry, art can therefore only benefit from increased participation of the mind and the finest artists prove themselves to be the most conscious. Autopoietics is therefore the study of this consciousness and of its own modification by the work, without any psychologism. Art is one way to get to know and build oneself, a similar vision to that of Leonardo and opposite to that of Michelangelo, as the latter saw in the artwork not a means but an end. Thus in the artwork man consummates the union of the abstraction of ‘pure ego’ and tangible reality, through an incessant collision between the general and the particular.

Body and Language

But one must not forget that ‘the mind is a moment of the body’s response to the world’ [ 47 ] and that ‘knowledge has the body of man for its limit.’

Valéry considered that a philosophical system in which the body does not hold a crucial place is inept and incompetent. Nevertheless, he actually seldom mentioned the ‘creative body’ that is not considered in his theory of the four bodies nor mentioned, to my knowledge, in his Body, Mind, World system. However, many texts in Valéry’s Notebooks answer the following question: what role does the body play in creative practices?

Valéry distinguished several bodies, first ‘My body,’ that is to say, his own body, ‘that I believe belongs to me’ and he added, ‘but I belong to it more than it belongs to me.’ This body combines with two others that I see in the mirror, the body of representation, that of Narcissus, who exists for others, and the third, anatomical and physiological, of which we only see part of and which is only shown in a scan, through endoscopy or dissection. These three bodies coalesce to produce the fourth body, the ‘unknowable body,’ [ 48 ] which is perhaps the body that will try to imprint the world with its uniqueness and stand out from its social and administrative identity. It is possible to revisit the entire history of art through these different perspectives of the body, but it is in the pages of Valéry’s Notebooks that one can find the specific characteristics of the body at work, when it is dealing with the material.

I will now end this general and necessarily incomplete approach to Valéry’s poietics with a few remarks about language. We use words without realizing that they obey an instant need for designation, as they have been silted up over the centuries according to their practical usefulness, depending also on the progress of science and philosophy. Language has a disordered and fortuitous origin, which induces much imprecision and does not cover ‘the nature of things.’ In addition, it models us on the thinking of others. Valéry argued that language is ‘the strongest means of others – lodged in ourselves.’ [ 49 ] Our inner voice is constantly controlled by a second-hand language, that of everyone. The main weakness of philosophy is precisely to base its thinking on purely verbal concepts about which nobody agrees.

‘Terms such as thought, mind, reason, intelligence (…) are,’ Valéry said, ‘cracked vases, bad instruments, poorly insulated conductors; How to reason with them? How to combine them?’ [ 50 ] These findings lead to several consequences which Judith Robinson has studied:

– Words interpose an artificial barrier between the mind and things. The mind only perceives through words.

– Another consequence is to make us ignore all things that has no name.

– Finally, the main reason why Valéry was wary of words, is precisely that they create artificial questions, purely linguistic and unfounded issues.

He therefore made a critical analysis of the relationship between language and philosophy. J. Robinson showed the close relationship between Valéry’s Notebooks and the analytic philosophers of the English School (Russell, Wittgenstein, etc.) as well as with the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle (Schlick, Carnap and their followers). It is therefore the logic of language that one must dominate to better categorize philosophical issues, which Valéry considered as ‘nonsense,’ and which ‘are usually impossible to ‘raise’ accurately without destroying them.’ [ 51 ]

Poietics, as a philosophy of the creative act, had to start by reinventing its own name to better define itself. The field it focuses on by studying the technical operations, both mental and emotional, of the implementation, forces us to revisit terminology and dissect corpora, as well as to extend its ‘clinical’ vocabulary. For example, René Passeron has identified, in an operational way, the different types of strokes in the painter’s gesture. In a similar perspective, it seems urgent to equip research on poietics with pertinent terms, belonging in one single domain: that of making.

Throughout his Notebooks, and not only about art, but also all human activities, Valéry has shown the way forward in an exemplary manner and without any systematic approach. We must constantly return to the brilliance of his texts, which remain an indispensable source for reflecting on the creative act in all its philosophical and anthropological scope.

Notes de bas de page   [ + ]

1. Translation found in The Collected Works of Paul Valéry: Aesthetics, translated by R. Manheim. Princeton University Press, 1971, p. 92].
2. Ibid, p.180.
3. Ibid. T.2, p. 311.
4. Le Corps de l’œuvre, Paris, Gallimard, 1981, p. 142.
5. Ibid. p. 142- 143.
6. E. A. POE, (Introduction), Paris, Laffont, 1989, p. 975.
7. The Philosophy of Composition, Graham’s Magazine, vol. XXVIII, No. 4, April 1846, 28:163-167.
8. Œuvres, Pléiade [Translation found in ‘Memoirs of a Poem,’ in The Art of Poetry, translated by Denise Folliot, vol. 7 of The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, Bolligen series (New York, Pantheon, 1958), p. 104].
9. Ibid. p. 182.
10. Introduction aux Poèmes, in E. A. POE, op. cit. p. 1201.
11. Ibid. p. 1014.
12. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Book IV, Chapter 4, translated by Robert C. Bartlett & Susan D. Collins, The University of Chicago Press, 2011.
13. Ibid.
14. Etienne Souriau, ‘La notion d’œuvre,’ in Recherches poïétiques, Tome 1, Paris, Klincksieck, 1975.
15. Œuvres, Pléiade [Translation found in ‘Aesthetics’, in The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, Princeton University Press, 1971, p. 12 and 22].
16. Ibid. in Aesthetics p. 93.
17, 21, 24, 25, 30, 31, 36, 46, 49, 50, 51. Ibid.
18. Ibid, p. 71.
19. Ibid. p. 71.
20. Ibid. p. 72.
22. Œuvres, Pléiade [Translation found in Degas Manet Morisot, in The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, Princeton University Press, 1971, p. 78].
23. Œuvres, Pléiade [Translation found in Analects, in The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, translated by S. Gilbert, Princeton University Press, 1971, p. 78].
26. /Meyerson I., Les Fonctions psychologiques et les œuvres, (1947) Albin Michel, 1995.
27. Œuvres, Pléiade [Translation found in Idée fixe, in The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, translated by D. Paul, Princeton University Press, 1971, p. 56].
28. Jacques Derrida, Marges de la philosophie, Paris, Minuit, p. 325 à 330.
29. Maurice Bémol, Paul Valéry, Paris, Les belles Lettres, 1974, p. 114.
32. Œuvres, Pléiade [Translation found in Masters and friends, in The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, translated by M. Turnell, Princeton University Press, 1971, p. 118].
33. Œuvres, Pléiade [Translation found in Leonardo. Poe. Mallarmé, in The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, translated by M. Cowley and J. R. Lawler, Princeton University Press, 1971].
34. Œuvres, Pléiade [Translation found in Aesthetics, in The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, translated by R. Manheim, Princeton University Press, 1971, p. 61].
35. Jean Hytier, La Poétique de Paul Valéry, Colin, Nouvelle édition, Paris, 1970.
37. Yggdrasill, January 1937, p. 154.
38. Toward an Aesthetic of Reception (Theory and History of Literature), University of Minnesota, 1982.
39, 45. Cahiers [Translation found in The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, Princeton University Press, 1971].
40. Ibid. See also, I. Stravinsky, Poétique musicale, Paris, Ed. J. B. Janin, 1945.
41. Œuvres, Pléiade [Translation found in The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, Princeton University Press, 1971].
42. Œuvres, Pléiade [Translation found in Idée fixe, in The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, translated by D. Paul, Princeton University Press, 1971, p. 52].
43. Recherches sur la philosophie et le langage, No. 11, Grenoble, 1989. U. Heetfeld, p.204.
44. Ibid. p. 205.
47. Ibid, 1921, VIII, 153.
48. See Maurice Bémol, Paul Valéry, (1947) Les Belles lettres, Paris, 1974, p. 241 à 246.


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