No Comment, Quotation — March 6, 2008, 12:00 am

Valéry on the Language of Art

degas

Mallarmé lui répondit: « Ce n’est point avec des idées, mon cher Degas, que l’on fair des vers. C’est avec des mots. »

Mallarmé avait raison. Mais quand Degas parlait d’idées, il pensait cependant à des discourses intérieurs ou à des images, qui, après tout, eussent pu s’exprimer en mots. Mais ces mots, mais ces phrases intimes qu’il appelait ses idées, toutes ces intentions et ces perceptions de l’esprit—tout cela ne fait pas des vers. Il y a donc autre chose, une modification, une transformation, brusque ou non, spontanée ou non, laborieuse ou non, qui s’interpose, nécessairement entre cette pensée productrice d’idées, cette activité et cette multiplicité de questions et de resolutions intérieures; et puis, ces discourses si différents des discourses ordinaries que sont les vers, qui sont bizarrement ordonnées, qui ne respondent à aucun besoin, si ce n’est au besoin qu’ils doivent créer eux-mêmes; qui ne parlent jamais que de choses absentes ou de choses profondément et secrètement ressenties; estranges discourses, qui semblent faits par un autre personage que celui qui les dit, et s’adresser à un autre que celui qui les écoute. En somme, c’est un langage dans un langage.

Mallarmé answered him: “It’s not with ideas, my dear Degas, that one makes verse. It’s with words.”

Mallarmé was right. But when Degas spoke of ideas, he was thinking about interior discourses or about images, which, after all, could have been expressed in words. But these words, but these intimate phrases which he called his ideas, all these intentions and these perceptions of the spirit–all of that does not make verse. There is therefore something else, a modification, a transformation, brusque or not, spontaneous or not, laborious or not, which interposes itself, necessarily, between this thought fertile with ideas, this activity and this multiplicity of interior questions and solutions and then these discourses which are so different from the ordinary discourses which make up verse, which are so bizarrely ordered, which don’t correspond to any need, if not the need that they must create themselves; which always only speak of absent things or of the things which are profoundly and secretly experienced; strange discourses which seem crafted by another person than the one who said them, and to address themselves to another person than the one who is hearing them. In sum, it’s a language within a language.

Paul Valéry, “Poésie et pensée abstraite,” Théorie poétique et esthétique (1939) in: Œuvres, vol. 1, p. 1324 (Pléiade ed. 1957)(S.H./E.H. transl.)

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

From the June 2014 issue

The Guantánamo “Suicides,” Revisited

A missing document suggests a possible CIA cover-up

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2014

Stop Hillary!

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

How the Islamic State was Won

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Cage Wars

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Everyday Grace

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Stop Hillary!·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"What Hillary will deliver, then, is more of the same. And that shouldn’t surprise us."
Photograph by Joe Raedle
Article
Cage Wars·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"In the 1970s, “Chickens’ Lib” was a handful of women in flower-print dresses holding signs, but in the past decade farm hens have become almost a national preoccupation."
Photograph by Adam Dickerson/Big Dutchman USA, courtesy Vande Bunte Farms
Article
Paradise Lost·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Suffering Sappho! Here we still are, marching right into yet another century with our glass ceilings, unequal pay, unresolved work and child-care balance, and still marrying, forever marrying, men."
Illustration by Anthony Lister
Article
Off the Land·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Nearly half the reservation lives below the poverty line, with unemployment as high as 60 percent, little to no infrastructure, few entitlements, a safety net that never was, no industry to speak of, and a housing crisis that has been dire not for five years but since the reservation’s founding in 1855."
Illustration by Stan Fellows
Post
Introducing the November 2014 Issue·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Doug Henwood on stopping Hillary Clinton, fighters and potential recruits discuss the rise of the Islamic State, the inevitability of factory farming, and more

Cover photo by Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Average number of days an oiled seabird survives in the wild after cleaning and release:

6

Epilepsy drugs can extend the life of worms by 50 percent.

A deaf dog belonging to a deaf owner was shot and killed in Alabama, and an Indiana dog’s skin troubles were found to be caused by an allergy to humans. “It’s just not his fault,” said the owner of Lucky Dog Retreat.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today