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:

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

No Comment March 28, 2014, 12:32 pm

Scott Horton Debates John Rizzo on Democracy Now!

On CIA secrecy, torture, and war-making powers

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

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2014

Cassandra Among the
Creeps

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Today Is Better Than Tomorrow”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

PBS Self-Destructs

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Monkey Did It

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
 
Rebecca Solnit on silencing women, a Marine commander returns to Iraq, the decline of PBS, and more
Article
Cassandra Among the Creeps·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On silencing women
“The old framework of feminine mendacity and murky-mindedness is still routinely trotted out, and we should learn to recognize it for what it is.”
Photograph © Sallie Dean Shatz
Post
Ending College Sexual Assault·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“This is not a fable about a young woman whose dreams were dashed by a sexual predator. Maya’s narrative is one of institutional failure at a school desperately trying to adapt.”
Photograph © AP/Josh Reynolds
Post
 
"Clothes are a bit like eating: you have to dress yourself. You have to eat, and even if you eat pizza all day long, that’s still a choice."
Photograph © G Powell
Article
“Today Is Better Than Tomorrow”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Iraq has every disease there is; its mind is deranged with too many voices, its organs corrupted, its limbs only long enough to tear at its own body.”
Photograph by Benjamin Busch

Amount by which the total wealth of all American households declined last year:

$11,200,000,000,000

A study concluded that commercial fish stocks may be gone by 2050 as a result of overfishing, pollution, and global climate change.

“All I saw,” said a 12-year-old neighbor of visits to the man’s house, “was just cats in little diapers.”

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