Nothing but a little marrow

From Rabelais’s prologue to the first book of Gargantua and Pantagruel, translated in 1653 by Sir Thomas Urquhart:

Most noble and illustrious drinkers, and you thrice precious pockified blades (for to you, and none else, do I dedicate my writings), Alcibiades, in that dialogue of Plato’s, which is entitled The Banquet, whilst he was setting forth the praises of his schoolmaster Socrates (without all question the prince of philosophers), amongst other discourses to that purpose, said that he resembled the Silenes. Silenes of old were little boxes, like those we now may see in the shops of apothecaries, painted on the outside with wanton toyish figures, as harpies, satyrs, bridled geese, horned hares, saddled ducks, flying goats, thiller harts, and other such-like counterfeited pictures at discretion, to excite people unto laughter, as Silenus himself, who was the foster-father of good Bacchus, was wont to do; but within those capricious caskets were carefully preserved and kept many rich jewels and fine drugs, such as balm, ambergris, amomon, musk, civet, with several kinds of precious stones, and other things of great price. Just such another thing was Socrates. For to have eyed his outside, and esteemed of him by his exterior appearance, you would not have given the peel of an onion for him, so deformed he was in body, and ridiculous in his gesture. He had a sharp pointed nose, with the look of a bull, and countenance of a fool: he was in his carriage simple, boorish in his apparel, in fortune poor, unhappy in his wives, unfit for all offices in the commonwealth, always laughing, tippling, and merrily carousing to everyone, with continual gibes and jeers, the better by those means to conceal his divine knowledge. Now, opening this box you would have found within it a heavenly and inestimable drug, a more than human understanding, an admirable virtue, matchless learning, invincible courage, unimitable sobriety, certain contentment of mind, perfect assurance, and an incredible misregard of all that for which men commonly do so much watch, run, sail, fight, travel, toil and turmoil themselves.

Whereunto (in your opinion) doth this little flourish of a preamble tend? For so much as you, my good disciples, and some other jolly fools of ease and leisure, reading the pleasant titles of some books of our invention, as Gargantua, Pantagruel, Whippot (Fessepinte.), the Dignity of Codpieces, of Pease and Bacon with a Commentary, &c., are too ready to judge that there is nothing in them but jests, mockeries, lascivious discourse, and recreative lies; because the outside (which is the title) is usually, without any farther inquiry, entertained with scoffing and derision. But truly it is very unbeseeming to make so slight account of the works of men, seeing yourselves avouch that it is not the habit makes the monk, many being monasterially accoutred, who inwardly are nothing less than monachal, and that there are of those that wear Spanish capes, who have but little of the valour of Spaniards in them. Therefore is it, that you must open the book, and seriously consider of the matter treated in it. Then shall you find that it containeth things of far higher value than the box did promise; that is to say, that the subject thereof is not so foolish as by the title at the first sight it would appear to be.

And put the case, that in the literal sense you meet with purposes merry and solacious enough, and consequently very correspondent to their inscriptions, yet must not you stop there as at the melody of the charming syrens, but endeavour to interpret that in a sublimer sense which possibly you intended to have spoken in the jollity of your heart. Did you ever pick the lock of a cupboard to steal a bottle of wine out of it? Tell me truly, and, if you did, call to mind the countenance which then you had. Or, did you ever see a dog with a marrowbone in his mouth,—the beast of all other, says Plato, lib. 2, de Republica, the most philosophical? If you have seen him, you might have remarked with what devotion and circumspectness he wards and watcheth it: with what care he keeps it: how fervently he holds it: how prudently he gobbets it: with what affection he breaks it: and with what diligence he sucks it. To what end all this? What moveth him to take all these pains? What are the hopes of his labour? What doth he expect to reap thereby? Nothing but a little marrow. True it is, that this little is more savoury and delicious than the great quantities of other sorts of meat, because the marrow (as Galen testifieth, 5. facult. nat. & 11. de usu partium) is a nourishment most perfectly elaboured by nature.

In imitation of this dog, it becomes you to be wise, to smell, feel and have in estimation these fair goodly books, stuffed with high conceptions, which, though seemingly easy in the pursuit, are in the cope and encounter somewhat difficult. And then, like him, you must, by a sedulous lecture, and frequent meditation, break the bone, and suck out the marrow,—that is, my allegorical sense, or the things I to myself propose to be signified by these Pythagorical symbols, with assured hope, that in so doing you will at last attain to be both well-advised and valiant by the reading of them: for in the perusal of this treatise you shall find another kind of taste, and a doctrine of a more profound and abstruse consideration, which will disclose unto you the most glorious sacraments and dreadful mysteries, as well in what concerneth your religion, as matters of the public state, and life economical.

Yes, but proceed as though I did not know it

From Moliere’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, translated by A. R. Waller:

Teacher of Philosophy: […] What do you wish to learn?

Monsieur Jourdain: Everything I can, for I am intensely anxious to be learned; it troubles me that my father and my mother did not see that I was thoroughly grounded in all knowledge when I was young.

Teacher of Philosophy: An admirable sentiment: Nam sine doctrina vita est quasi mortis imago. Doubtless you know Latin and understanding that.

Monsieur Jourdain: Yes, but proceed as thought I did not know it: explain to me what it means.

Teacher of Philosophy: It means, Without knowledge, life is little more than the reflection of death.

Monsieur Jourdain: That Latin is right.

Teacher of Philosophy: Do you not know some of the principles, some of the rudiments of knowledge?

Monsieur Jourdain: Oh! Yes, I know how to read and write.

Teacher of Philosophy: Where would you like us to begin? Would you like me to teach you logic?

Monsieur Jourdain: What is logic?

Teacher of Philosophy: It teaches that which educates the three operations of the mind.

Monsieur Jourdain: What are the three operations of the mind?

Teacher of Philosophy: The first, the second and the third. The first is to have a proper conception of things, by means of universals; the second is to judge accurately, by means of categories; and the third is to draw a conclusion accurately by means of the figures Barbara, Celarent, Durii, Ferio, Baralipton, etc.

Monsieur Jourdain: Those words are regular jawbreakers. That logic does not appeal to me. Let us learn something nicer.

That unto logik hadde longe y-go

Two weeks ago I read Charles Homer Haskins’s slim volume The Rise of Universities (1923), a charming collection of three lectures—”The Earliest Universities,” “The Mediaeval Professor,” “The Mediaeval Student”—on the birth of universities, especially at Bologna and Paris.

I came to Haskins to get my bearings after the disorientation of discovering, while skimming David Bressoud’s new book Calculus Reordered, that the history of science took an important step forward as early as the early 1300s—centuries before Galileo, et al.—when William Heytesbury and colleagues at Merton College in Oxford clarified the relationship between kinematics and dynamics, giving the first purely mathematical treatment of motion. (Heytesbury’s most important work, the Regulae solvendi sophismata—Rules for Solving Sophisms—seems not to have been translated in full into English.) The dark ages were not quite so dark, after all. Clifford Truesdell sums up the contributions of these so-called Oxford Calculators in his Essays in the History of Mechanics:

The now published sources prove to us, beyond contention, that the main kinematical properties of uniformly accelerated motions, still attributed to Galileo by the physics texts, were discovered and proved by scholars of Merton college. […] In principle, the qualities of Greek physics were replaced, at least for motions, by the numerical quantities that have ruled Western science ever since. The work was quickly diffused into France, Italy, and other parts of Europe. Almost immediately, Giovanni di Casale and Nicole Oresme found how to represent the results by geometrical graphs, introducing the connection between geometry and the physical world that became a second characteristic habit of Western thought.

Contrary to the received image of abortive medieval scholasticism, Haskins paints a portrait of rich intellectual ferment, drawing a great deal more continuity with the present than we usually assume [cf. the dispute over the so-called “continuity thesis” in the history of science]:

The occasion for the rise of universities was a great revival of learning, not that revival of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to which the term is usually applied, but an earlier revival, less known though in its way quite as significant, which historians now call the renaissance of the twelfth century. So long as knowledge was limited to the seven liberal arts of the early Middle Ages, there could be no universities, for there was nothing to teach beyond the bare elements of grammar, rhetoric, logic, and the still barer notions of arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music, which did duty for an academic curriculum. Between 1100 and 1200, however, there came a great influx of new knowledge into western Europe, partly through Italy and Sicily, but chiefly through the Arab scholars of Spain—the works of Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy, and the Greek physicians, the new arithmetic, and those texts of the Roman law which had lain hidden through the Dark Ages. In addition to the elementary propositions of triangle and circle, Europe now had those books of plane and solid geometry which have done duty in schools and colleges ever since; instead of the painful operations with Roman numerals—how painful one can readily see by trying a simple problem of multiplication or division with these characters—it was now possible to work readily with Arabic figures; in the place of Boethius, the “Master of them that know” became the teacher of Europe in logic, metaphysics, and ethics. In law and medicine men now possessed the fullness of ancient learning. This new knowledge burst the bonds of the cathedral and monastery schools and created the learned professions; it drew over mountains and across the narrow seas eager youths who, like Chaucer’s Oxford clerk of a later day, “would gladly learn and gladly teach,” to form in Paris and Bologna those academic gilds which have given us our first and our best definition of a university, a society of masters and scholars.

Later in the book, Haskins notes that this renaissance

added to the store of western knowledge the astronomy of Ptolemy, the complete works of Euclid, and the Aristotelian logic, while at the same time under the head of grammar great stimulus was given to the study and reading of the Latin classics. This classical revival, which is noteworthy and comparatively little known, centered in such cathedral schools as Chartres and Orleans, where the spirit of a real humanism showed itself in an enthusiastic study of ancient authors and in the production of Latin verse of a really remarkable quality. Certain writings of one of these poets, Bishop Hildebert of Le Mans, were even mistaken for “real antiques” by later humanists. Nevertheless, though brilliant, this classical movement was short-lived, crushed in its early youth by the triumph of logic and the more practical studies of law and rhetoric. In the later twelfth century John of Salisbury inveighs against the logicians of his day, with their superficial knowledge of literature; in the university curriculum of the thirteenth century, literary studies have quite disappeared. Toward 1250, when a French poet, Henri d’Andeli, wrote his Battle of the Seven Arts, the classics are already the ancients, fighting a losing battle against the moderns:

Logic has the students,
Whereas Grammar is reduced in numbers.
Civil Law rode gorgeously
And Canon Law rode haughtily
Ahead of all the other arts.

If the absence of the ancient classics and of vernacular literature is a striking feature of the university curriculum in arts, an equally striking fact is the amount of emphasis placed on logic or dialectic. The earliest university statutes, those of Paris in 1215, require the whole of Aristotle’s logical works, and throughout the Middle Ages these remain the backbone of the arts course, so that Chaucer can speak of the study of logic as synonymous with attendance at a university—

That un-to logik hadde longe y-go.

In a sense this is perfectly just, for logic was not only a major subject of study itself, it pervaded every other subject as a method and gave tone and character to the mediaeval mind. Syllogism, disputation, the orderly marshalling of arguments for and against specific theses, these became the intellectual habit of the age in law and medicine as well as in philosophy and theology. The logic, of course, was Aristotle’s, and the other works of the philosopher soon followed, so that in the Paris course of 1254 we find also the Ethics, the Metaphysics, and the various treatises on natural science which had at first been forbidden to students. To Dante Aristotle had become “the Master of them that know,” by virtue of the universality of his method no less than of his all-embracing learning. “The father of book knowledge and the grandfather of the commentator,” no other writer appealed so strongly as Aristotle to the mediaeval reverence for the text-book and the mediaeval habit of formal thought. Doctrines like the eternity of matter which seemed dangerous to faith were explained away, and great and authoritative systems of theology were built up by the methods of the pagan philosopher. And all idea of literary form disappeared when everything depended on argument alone.

Double, triple, quadruple hypothesis

from the first chapter, “Parole, Parole, Parole,” of Tobias Jones’s The Dark Heart of Italy (2003):

As I began studying postwar Italian history, it became obvious that surrounding any crime or political event, there are always confusion, suspicion, and “the bacillus of secrecy.” So much so that dietrologia has become a sort of national pastime. It means literally “behindology,” or the attempt to trump even the most fanciful and contorted conspiracy theory. Dietrologia is the “critical analysis of events in an effort to detect, behind the apparent causes, true and hidden designs.” La Stampa has called it “the science of imagination, the culture of suspicion, the philosophy of mistrust, the technique of the double, triple, quadruple hypothesis.” It’s an indispensable sport for a society in which appearance very rarely begets reality. Stendhal wrote about it in The Character-house of Parma: “Italian hearts are much more tormented than ours by the suspicions and the wild ideas which a burning imagination presents to them.”

Consider, as counterpoint, Moravia’s short story “Non approfondire” (Don’t delve too deeply). Compare, of course, the “hermeneutics of suspicion.”

There is an interesting discussion of the word at the Language Log, and it’s the subject of a column in the Economist from 2011.

Stupid for the rest of the day

From the Wikipedia page on Paul Valéry:

Valéry’s most striking achievement is perhaps his monumental intellectual diary, called the Cahiers (Notebooks). Early every morning of his adult life, he contributed something to the Cahiers, prompting him to write: “Having dedicated those hours to the life of the mind, I thereby earn the right to be stupid for the rest of the day.”

The subjects of his Cahiers entries often were, surprisingly, reflections on science and mathematics. In fact, arcane topics in these domains appear to have commanded far more of his considered attention than his celebrated poetry. The Cahiers also contain the first drafts of many aphorisms he later included in his books. To date, the Cahiers have been published in their entirety only as photostatic reproductions, and only since 1980 have they begun to receive scholarly scrutiny. The Cahiers have been translated into English in five volumes published by Peter Lang with the title Cahiers/Notebooks.

On the tide of my vagrant prose

The end of the first chapter, “tuning my piano,” of John Barth’s The Floating Opera:

Why The Floating Opera? I could explain until Judgment Day, and still not explain completely. I think that to understand any one thing entirely, no matter how minute, requires the understanding of every other thing in the world. That’s why I throw up my hands sometimes at the  simplest things; it’s also why I don’t mind spending a lifetime getting ready to begin my Inquiry. Well, The Floating Opera. That’s part of the name of a showboat that used to travel around the Virginia and Maryland tidewater areas: Adam’s Original & Unparalleled Floating Opera; Jacob R. Adam, owner and captain; admissions 20, 35, and 50 cents. The Floating Opera was tied up at Long Wharf on the day I changed my mind, in 1937, and some of this book happens aboard it. That’s reason enough for me to use it as a title. But there’s a better reason. It always seemed a fine idea to me to build a showboat with just one big flat open deck on it, and to keep a play going continuously. The boat wouldn’t be moored, but would drift up and down the river on the tide, and the audience would sit along both banks. They could catch whatever part of the plot happened to unfold as the boat floated past, and then they’d have to wait until the tide ran back again to catch another snatch of it, if they still happened to be sitting there. To fill in the gaps they’d have to use their imaginations, or ask more attentive neighbors, or hear the word passed along from upriver or downriver. Most times they wouldn’t understand what was going on at all, or they’d think they knew, when actually they didn’t. Lots of times they’d be able to see the actors, but not hear them. I needn’t explain that that’s how much of life works: our friends float past; we become involved with them; they float on, and we must rely on hearsay or lose track of them completely; they float back again, and we either renew our friendship—catch up to date—or find that they and we don’t comprehend each other any more. And that’s how this book will work, I’m sure. It’s a floating opera, friend, fraught with curiosities, melodrama, spectacle, instruction, and entertainment, but it floats willy-nilly on the tide of my vagrant prose: you’ll catch sight of it, lose it, spy it again; and it may require the best efforts of your attention and imagination—together with some patience, if you’re an average fellow—to keep track of the plot as it sails in and out of view.

The luminous silent stasis of esthetic pleasure

Last week, for the first time in fourteen and a half years, I visited the used bookstore I used to frequent in high school.

It hardly has changed. The walls are the same hunter green, the shelves still crammed with more books, and more good books, than one expects to find there. I saw and smelled my way back into a life I had forgotten I could remember. There was the section where I first read Prufrock in an original edition, the music of the twenty-two-year-old Eliot writing about a middle-aged man making more an impression of sound than sense to my seventeen-year-old ears, the words issuing, in part, some promise of the learning and the language Cambridge would hold for me; there was the table in the back corner where I first played chess, hardly worse than I do today, but at least then I won.

And though I did not buy my copy of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man there—instead I used an ugly, serviceable edition from Barnes & Noble, paired with Dubliners, the pages of which are filled with overwrought teenage marginalia I now wince to read—suddenly I found myself thinking of the last paragraph of this familiar passage as I stood there as I might have when my mother was still alive, a boy wondering what it meant to be both an artist and a young man, seduced by the surprise of the scholastic secret, the knowledge of words, and as I quoted the words to myself, that phrase I would take as a credo, I recalled that moment of first being taken in by the idea of beauty, reading these pages to myself in that solitary salvific silence Stephen describes, paying no mind to Lynch, and knowing that cardiac condition, which I still know, however blushingly:

—To finish what I was saying about beauty, said Stephen, the most satisfying relations of the sensible must therefore correspond to the necessary phases of artistic apprehension. Find these and you find the qualities of universal beauty. Aquinas says: Ad pulcritudinem tria requiruntur integritas, consonantia, claritas. I translate it so: Three things are needed for beauty, wholeness, harmony, and radiance. Do these correspond to the phases of apprehension? Are you following?

—Of course, I am, said Lynch. If you think I have an excrementatious intelligence run after Donovan and ask him to listen to you.

Stephen pointed to a basket which a butcher’s boy had slung inverted on his head.

—Look at that basket, he said.

—I see it, said Lynch.

—In order to see that basket, said Stephen, your mind first of all separates the basket from the rest of the visible universe which is not the basket. The first phase of apprehension is a bounding line drawn about the object to be apprehended. An esthetic image is presented to us either in space or in time. What is audible is presented in time, what is visible is presented in space. But temporal or spatial, the esthetic image is first luminously apprehended as shelfbounded and self-contained upon the immeasurable background of space or time which is not it. You approach it as one thing. You apprehend its wholeness. That is integritas.

—Bull’s eye! said Lynch, laughing. Go on.

—Then, said Stephen, you pass from point to point, led by its formal lines; you apprehend it as balanced part against part within it limits; you feel the rhythm of its structure. In other words, the synthesis of immediate perception is followed by the analysis of apprehension. Having first felt that it is one thing you feel now that it is a thing. You apprehend it as complex, multiple, divisible, separable, made up of its parts, the result of its parts and their sum, harmonious. That is consonantia.

—Bull’s eye again! said Lynch, wittily. Tell me now what is claritas and you win the cigar.

—The connotation of the word, Stephen said, is rather vague. Aquinas uses a term which seems to be inexact. It baffled me for a long time. It would lead you to believe that he had in mind symbolism or idealism, the supreme quality of beauty being a light from some other world, the idea of which the matter was but the shadow, the reality of which it was but the symbol. I thought he might mean that claritas was the artistic discovery and representation of the divine purpose in anything or a force of generalization which would make the esthetic image a universal one, make it outshine proper conditions. But that is literary talk. I understand it so. When you have apprehended that basket as one thing and have then analyzed it according to its form and apprehended it as a thing you make the only synthesis which is logically and esthetically permissible. You see that it is that thing which it is and no other thing. The radiance of which he speaks is the scholastic quidditas, the whatness of a thing. This supreme quality is felt by the artist when the esthetic image is first conceived in his imagination. The mind in that mysterious instant Shelley likened beautifully to a fading coal. The instant wherein that supreme quality of beauty, the clear radiance of the esthetic image, is apprehended luminously by the mind which has been arrested by its wholeness and fascinated by its harmony is the luminous silent stasis of esthetic pleasure, a spiritual state very like to that cardiac condition which the Italian physiologist Luigi Galvani, using a phrase almost as beautiful as Shelley’s, called the enchantment of the heart.

The changing of olds ones

Returning home to Boston from a trip to Georgia a few days ago, and growing accustomed this time to the abrogation, I think of this passage from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, translated by John Woods:

Habit arises when our sense of time falls asleep, or at least, grows dull; and if the years of youth are experienced slowly, while the later years of life hurtle past at an ever-increasing speed, it must be habit that causes it. We know full well that the insertion of new habits or the changing of old ones is the only way to preserve life, to renew our sense of time, to rejuvenate, intensify, and retard our experience of time—and thereby renew our sense of life itself. That is the reason for every change of scenery and air, for a trip to the shore: the experience of a variety of refreshing episodes. The first few days in a new place have a youthful swing to them, a kind of sturdy, long stride—that lasts for about six to eight days. Then, to the extent that we “settle in,” the gradual shortening becomes noticeable. Whoever clings to life, or better, wants to cling to life, may realize to his horror that the days have begun to grow light again and are scurrying past; and the last week—of, let us say, four—is uncanny in its fleeting transience. To be sure, this refreshment of our sense of time extends beyond the interlude; its effect is noticeable again when we return to our daily routine. The first few days at home after a change of scene are likewise experienced in a new, broad, more youthful fashion—but only a very few, for we are quicker to grow accustomed to the old rules than to their abrogation. And if our sense of time has grown weary with age or was never all that strongly developed—a sign of an inborn lack of vitality—it very soon falls asleep again, and within twenty-four hours it is as if we were never gone and our journey were merely last night’s dream.

The rock of astonishment on which the stream of things breaks

The final paragraph of the first version of Walter Benjamin’s essay “Was ist das epische Theater?” (“What Is Epic Theater?”), page 531 of volume 2 of the Gesammelte Schriften:

Die Stauung im realen Lebenfluß, der Augenblick, da sein Ablauf zum Stehen kommt, macht sich als Rückflut fühlbar: das Staunen ist diese Rückflut. Die Dialektik im Stillstand ist sein eigentlicher Gegenstand. Es ist der Fels, von dem herab der Blick in jenen Strom der Dinge sich senkt, von dem sie in der Stadt Jehoo, “die immer voll ist, und wo niemand bleibt,” ein Lied wissen, welches anfängt mit:

Beharre nicht auf der Welle,
Die sich an deinem Fuß bricht, solange er
Im Wasser steht, werden sich
Neue Wellen an ihm brechen.

Wenn aber der Strom der Dinge an diesem Fels des Staunens sich bricht, so ist kein Unterschied zwischen einem Menschenleben und einem Wort. Beide sind im epischen Theater nur der Kamm der Welle. Es läßt das Dasein aus dem Bett der Zeit hoch aufsprühen und schillernd einen Nu im Leeren stehen, um es neu zu betten.

Translated by Anna Bostock:

The damming of the stream of real life, the moment when its flow comes to a standstill, makes itself felt as reflux: this reflux is astonishment. The dialectic at a standstill is its real object. It is the rock from which we gaze down into that stream of things which, in the city of Jehoo “that’s always full and where nobody stays,” they have a song about:

Rest not on the wave which breaks against your foot,
So long as it stands in the water, new waves will break against it.

But if the stream of things breaks against this rock of astonishment, then there is no difference between a human life and a word. In epic theatre both are only the crest of the wave. Epic theatre makes life spurt up high from the bed of time and, for an instant, hover iridescent in empty space. Then it puts it back to bed.

The song Benjamin quotes comes from Brecht’s 1931 Berlin production of his play Mann ist Mann, “Lied vom Fluß der Dinge” (“Song of the Flow of Things”). I prefer Stephen Unwin’s more pressing and present translation:

Don’t try to hold on to the wave
That’s breaking against your foot: so long as
You stand in the stream fresh waves
Will always keep breaking against it.

There is an English recording by Robyn Archer on the disc Songs for Bad Times, volume 2.

The drama of consciousness

Jackson Mathews’s introduction to his translation of Paul Valéry’s Monsieur Teste:

Valéry saw everything from the point of view of the intellect. The mind has been said to be his only subject. His preoccupation was the pursuit of consciousness, and no one knew better than he that his pursuit led through man into the world. Valéry’s deep concern was always with some possibility, some potential of the mind. He looked at seashells, read mathematical physics, went to the theater, or waked early in the morning, all for the same purpose—to receive the light from these diverse angles, times, and objects upon his obsessive center: the conscious mind.

Consciousness is in itself dramatic, embodied as it is in its opposite, the human flesh. It is that quality which cannot be isolated or known. […] Like the wind, it may be “seen” only in other things. […]

It is this “point of view” of the intelligence that tells us the nature of Valéry’s work. It has been said that his Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci was rather an introduction to his own method, for what he did was to imagine the structure and operation of a mind so complete, so universal, that all the sciences and all the arts were its tools. If such a man ever actually existed, said Valéry, it was certainly Leonardo.

[…] The mind as it knows and suffers in man, as it lives in science, myth, or the arts; consciousness as it ranges from the lower limits of sleep upward through stages of waking and knowing, to the extreme limits of thought; the mind as it rises from the rich muck of the unconscious to the complex structures of the artistic or mathematical imagination; the human and historical condition of consciousness, the drama of consciousness: this may be the central subject of Valéry’s work. He called it the Intellectual Comedy.

Monsieur Teste is Valéry’s novel. Test himself may be seen as an ordinary fictional character, the lonely man of modern city life, a problem in everyday human relations. On the other hand, he is a mind behaving as a man, or to put it the other way, “a man regulated by his own powers of thought.” Monsieur Teste is the story of consciousness and its effort to push being off the stage.

But is it possible for a man to be all mind? Is Monsieur Teste possible? If not why is he impossible? That question, Valéry says, is the soul of Monsieur Taste: he is impossible because consciousness cannot entirely consume being and continue to exist. Consciousness depends on being. Sensibility is its home, knowledge is its profession. That is why Valéry had to invent Madame Test, all soul and sensibility; and Teste’s friend, his knowledge of the world.

The pieces that make up the present volume of Monsieur Teste are the occasional results of a lifetime of meditation on this question: how would a complete mind behave as an everyday man?


Valéry’s first conception of Monsieur Test was a kind of abstract man without a name—merely “the portrait of a certain Monsieur.” It may be that Valéry himself had not yet fully realized the importance of his creation and was hardly prepared to take Monsieur Test seriously. But that impression was erased when Valéry posed his basic question: Que peut un homme?”What is a man’s potential?” Here Valéry sounds his fundamental note.

On “the light from these diverse angles,” I think of the “innumerable reflections” in Ortega y Gasset’s preface to Meditations on Quixote. And on “sensibility is its home,” I am reminded of May Swenson’s “Question,” and the second stanza of Anne Sexton’s “The Poet of Ignorance“:

Perhaps I am no one.
True, I have a body
and I cannot escape from it.
I would like to fly out of my head,
but that is out of the question.
It is written on the tablet of destiny
that I am stuck here in this human form.
That being the case
I would like to call attention to my problem.

See also Rebecca Golstein’s novel The Mind-Body Problem.