Paul Valéry’s Blood Meridian, Or How the Reader became a Writer
I am brutal, but I have, or did have, a mania for precision.—Valéry to André Gide1
Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West (1985) bears an epigram from a surprising source, Paul Valéry.2 Surprising because McCarthy’s story is a nightmarish vision of brutal violence against Native Americans by American settlers during the westward expansion—hardly a typical Valéryean theme—and surprising given McCarthy’s stated aversion to a certain strain of literary artifice. “Proust and Henry James,” McCarthy has famously observed, were “not literature” because they didn’t “deal with issues of life and death.”3 But Valéry, apparently, was not part of that tradition. Despite what we may know of Valéry—that he was a member of the Académie Française and an author of carefully constructed Symbolist poetry and prose in the tradition of Mallarmé—he was in fact an author of life and death.
The passage McCarthy cites is from a little-known 1895 essay by Valéry entitled “The Yalu,” a sprawling meditation on the difference between Eastern and Western cultures.4 “The Yalu” presents a dialogue between a European (we are meant to infer the poet himself) and a Chinese scholar “from the land of Tsin.” The scholar announces his fear that Japanese forces are gearing up for war with China once again. “They are imitating us,” the European reflects. The scholar is unimpressed by the comparison because the European is not worthy of imitation. Why? Because the Europeans “are afraid of death” (373). While the Chinese excel in patience, orderliness and a “feeling for the irregular,” Europeans know only unbounded intelligence (372). Intelligence is a tool of fear; it is strictly a means to evade an awareness of mortality. The scholar offers a dark meditation on the failure of the European mind (the passage appears as McCarthy’s epigraph):
You are in love with intelligence, until it frightens you. For your ideas are terrifying and your hearts are faint. Your acts of pity and cruelty are absurd, committed with no calm, as if they were irresistible. Finally, you fear blood more and more. Blood and time. (373)5
While the European uses his intelligence to mask his mortality, the scholar, who is “learned in writing” as well as “war command,” knows something “more powerful” than intelligence. “We do not wish to know too much,” he reflects (375), echoing Euripides’s sense that “it is not always wisdom to be wise.” Although the Chinese can be “cruel, subtle, or barbarous,” what makes their acts of pity and cruelty “reasonable” is that they are built on a foundation of blood (375).
The men from the land of Tsin “feed…in the most favorable valleys of the earth.” To the outside world China appears a meaningless “sea of individuals,” but in reality the men of Tsin form a living “family.” There is an “unbroken line [of descent] from the earliest days” to the present, the scholar affirms. While the European is cut off from his roots by his haphazard intelligence, the Chinese empire forms a bloodline “woven of the living, the dead, and Nature.” “Think of the web of our race,” the scholar says, think how “we are joined by memory to our fathers” while the exhausted Europeans “endlessly re-begin the work of the first day” (374). The scholar analogizes his “family” to a massive wall, built up brick by brick through the ages that holds them together—and holds “the others” out. “Every man here feels that he is both son and father, among thousands and tens of thousands, and is aware of being held fast by the people around him and the dead below him and the people to come, like a brick in a brick wall.” Outside this “miraculous structure of his ancestors” man is reduced to “nothing” (374).
Many years later in his essay “On Nations” (1927), Valéry drew again on the analogies between nations, families, and walls, now without the allegorical veil. “Nations are strangers to one another,” he wrote, and however “sincerely they desire to converse, to understand each other” the conversation necessarily “comes to an end,” because there is an “impassable barrier against depth and duration” between various nations (231). While there is an “inner bond that rivets together” a nation over time (the technology here has been updated), this bond effectively blocks others from passing through. But unlike in his early claim, wherein the racial family forms the only secure bond, he now suggested that race is only one of various possibilities. There are shared historical phenomena that can bind a nation together, including “language, or territory, or memories, or interests” (249). But these historical bonds, on closer inspection, are natural phenomena in disguise: they were “discovered, just as the nebulae were.” “Just as it was discovered that the Earth is part of a certain system,” he affirmed, “so it was discovered that a person is this by birth and that by his livelihood” (249). Valéry discovered that class, like race, is something you are born with.
The same year, in his “Notes on the Greatness and Decline of Europe,” Valéry showed how the “actions of a few men” derive directly from “natural causes.” “As natural causes produce hail, typhoons, and epidemics, so intelligent causes affect millions of men, the great majority of whom submit to them as to the vagaries of the sky, the sea, the earth’s crust” (229). In order to restore Europe’s greatness, Valéry concluded, a dictator must emerge to “act upon the masses in the manner of blind, physical causes”; only then would Europe have a real “politics” (229). To be sure, the dictator does not persuade either by his policies or by coercion, but, like the poet, with the direct power of his words.
And yet, a few years later, Valéry decisively altered his account of causality. For “even the coolest calculator,” he wrote in “The Struggle for Peace” (1933), “one cannot figure with sufficient probability a definite end” (362). This led to a thought that he would repeat in virtually every scrap of writing from this point forward (especially, as I will show, in his aesthetics): “It has become impossible to foresee not only the final outcome but even the immediate effects” of one’s efforts (362). “No one will ever be able to predict or circumscribe the almost immediate consequences of any undertaking whatever,” he reflected in “On History” (115). This is the one “transcendent” fact of modernity. Man’s means of “representation and understanding” the world have been fundamentally “outstripped” by the facts. The future “is endowed with essential unpredictability, and this is the only prediction we can make” (69). “Effects,” he declares, “are so rapidly becoming incalculable from their causes, and even contradictory to their causes, that henceforth it will…[be] senseless to look for the causal event, to try to produce it or prevent it” (116).6 So while in his early writings he was committed to finding the “exact conjunction between the sensuous cause, which constitutes the form, and the intelligible effect, which constitutes the content,”7 he later gave up this pursuit, leaving effects open to the “unpredictable” play of the reader’s desires.
The consequences of Valéry’s revision of causality are fundamental to a shift in the burden of artistic meaning from the author—the central figure of his early writings—to the reader, who dominates his later aesthetics. Nonetheless, as I will also argue, behind both terms lies an even deeper commitment to a form of literary materialism that turns representation itself into a self-generated agency.
“Imagine, I am seeing blood,” Valéry wrote to Gide in May of 1891. Valéry was responding to the violence at Fourmies in northern France where gendarmes shot and killed ten workers at a mass strike at a textile mill.
Those soldiers who fired on the crowd, I envied them and oh to fire on all the World! I detest the masses, and even more, the Others!…I am exhausting an art form in a quick spasm, and am so panic-stricken that I am haunted by a panorama of slaughter, and blinded by ravaged lights. I almost wish for a monstrous war in which to flee amid the shock of a crazed and red Europe….I don’t know what blood is speaking in me, or what wolf of olden times yawns in my boredom, but I feel it there….Does this barbarian surprise you?…Ah! how much night there is! To grasp it! To brood it…and to laugh at holding it captive—a Star! It is difficult. Well then! Blood!8
Gide was worried. “Can this warrior be you?” Like the soldiers firing on the crowd, “You dream of the impact of shuddering weapons as well.”9 But Gide assured his panicked friend that no matter how “drunk” one gets on words, they “are no more than literature.”10 Nonetheless, Gide shared his friend’s sense that “we have literature ‘in our blood,’ like the germ of a disease.” It is literature itself that provokes such immense “desires for battle.” Gide coined a term to describe this literary impulse: “like those who, tired of loving, want to bruise some bit of white flesh—it is sadism, my friend—literary sadism.”11 It is the white flesh of the page that Valéry really wants to damage, despite his call to literal violence. But Valéry did not make much of this distinction; it was the identity of the two that generated his literary ambitions. To damage a page was to damage its reader in turn.
Gide’s dream was starkly different from his friend’s. Rather than literary sadism, Gide presented a picture of sado-masochism, of Mallarméan self-annihilation. “To forget oneself, to adore…it was for that, was it not, that we have loved all that literature,” he reflected. Gide admitted that his dream was as “brutal and frantic” as Valéry’s, and it too passed beyond literature; it was nothing less than mass suicide along with the workers at Fourmies.
To end up like an animal, without thinking…completely numbed through intoxication, since otherwise we would be afraid of dying; to end up with the others, in a pile, without speaking, since we would not know one another. But what vinegar and gall it would take, O Lord!, at that supreme moment, to put our soul to sleep!12
Valéry resisted Gide’s aesthetic of intoxicated self-annihilation, always placing the active mind against the passive contemplation of religion. For his part, Gide was averse to Valéry’s belief, stated over and over again, that art was a matter of cold calculation, of abstraction and “chemical study.” “You speak ill of ‘artificial flowers’ and Wagner,” he scolded Gide, “but note, and this is the essence of my system, that although they may not be as beautiful as the real ones, they come out ahead from the point of view of the doing.”13 Fake flowers require active control, while “two beings who make love are reduced to jelly.”14
Valéry conceived of language as man’s greatest means of controlling unstable matter, the most unstable matter being the crowd. “Of all possible feelings, the strongest in me is that of security,” he told Gide. “I have no confidence in what comes and goes. I don’t trust it.”15 Valéry’s security system, his barrier against the crowd, was writing. To write was to order, shape, and mold the formless crowd. “The crowd rules,” he told Gide in 1891, a few months after Fourmies. The crowd “invades one’s brain…[it] submerges the inner temple and makes the individual a thing of the world.” But “you don’t understand,” he told Gide, “you think of your public too much.”16 While Gide embraced the formless liberties of the crowd, and the loss of self it invited, Valéry sought to escape its clutches. “This Paris which I…detest more and more flows round me like a river, and it is a Lethe seething with resonant oblivion.”17
There is something of the artist in every dictator, and an aesthetic element in his ideas. He has to fashion and mold his human material to make it adaptable to his designs.—Valéry, “The Idea of Dictatorship” (238)18
A year prior to the publication of McCarthy’s novel, Gilles Deleuze published a study of Irish painter Francis Bacon that shared with the American author’s work a similar set of concerns.19 At the center of Deleuze’s book lies a commitment to an aesthetic of blood, and once again Valéry is the inspiration. Deleuze cites Bacon’s paraphrase of Valéry: “I don’t want to avoid telling a story, but I want very, very much to do the thing that Valéry said—to give the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance” (FB, 32/28).20 Throughout the book Deleuze discriminates between two forms of pictorial violence. “When talking about the violence of paint, it’s nothing to do with the violence of war,” he quotes Bacon as saying. Glossing Valéry and Bacon, Deleuze explains the crucial difference between the violence of form and the violence of representation:
The violence of sensation is opposed to the violence of the represented (the sensational, the cliché). The former is inseparable from its direct action on the nervous system, the levels through which it passes, the domains it traverses: being itself a Figure, it must have nothing of the nature of a represented object. (FB, 32/28)
Deleuze’s claim is to be taken literally. “Great” works of art are able to produce unmediated affective experiences that directly attack the viewer’s sensorium. Deleuze takes this view so seriously that he repeats the phrase “direct action on the nervous system” no fewer than eight times in the space of fifteen pages.21 Like McCarthy, Deleuze extracts an image of Valéry that is violent and brimming with bodily excess. While McCarthy cites “The Yalu” as his source, Deleuze cites an even earlier text, Valéry’s first essay, “On Literary Technique” (1889).
“On Literary Technique” was Valéry’s manifesto, and he rarely deviated from its principals throughout his career. His opening remarks announced his primary ambition: “Literature is the art of playing on the soul of others. It is with this scientific brutality that the problem of the aesthetics of the Word…has been set for our age.”22 Valéry’s concerns could hardly be more explicit. Above all, he was anxious about problems of communication with his reader. After all, metaphors work only if the reader can grasp the sense of at least two disparate terms and drawn them together. For Valéry this process invited failure. He was no longer certain whether audiences would grasp his metaphors, and even if they did the experience would take place over time and would thus be prey to potentially uncontrollable associations. The science of effect would overcome these problems and put art back on a secure foundation.
Valéry found support for his brutal science in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition” of 1846. As Valéry explained, Poe offered the reader “knowledge of the different notes that must be sounded in another’s soul…[so as to] predict with certainty the overwhelming effect of a bleak refrain” on a reader.23 Valéry’s fascination with tightly controlling the outcome of formal effects led him to analogize the work of art to an expressive machine: “the work of art takes on the character of a machine to impress a public; to arouse emotions and their corresponding images.”24 To stamp the audience like a machine, like a typewriter against white paper, was no innocent metaphor. Metaphors of the artist as machine dominate his writings: the composer is an emotional mechanic, the medium is the machine, and the reader is the raw material shaped by the poetic mechanism.25
A few years earlier, in his influential “Notes on Wagnerian Painting” (1886), Teodor de Wyzewa declared, “Art, as Wagner tells us, must create life…utilizing colors and lines only as emotional signs, marrying them to one another with the sole purpose of producing within us, through their free play, an impression like that of a symphony.”26 Valéry shared the Wagnerian view that the artist’s role was to “create life” through colors and lines, but he believed that artists had more reliable means of creating their audience than broad waves of sound; they could precisely shape, mold, and form the viewer with a science of pictorial form.27 Valéry mused of a future where pictures would be made in “a picture-making laboratory, with its specialist officially clad in white, rubber-gloved, keeping to a precise schedule, armed with strictly appropriate apparatus and instruments, each with its appointed place and exact function” (Oeuvres, 2:1174; Degas, 19).28 The furthest thing from an Impressionist, Degas was imperious, cruel, and rigorous in his manipulation of form to shape the viewer’s emotional state.29
But it was Valéry’s great protagonist, “Monsieur Teste”—a character influenced by Degas30—who, although immune to aesthetic effects himself, achieved perfection in transmitting them to others. M. Teste “had known quite early the importance of what might be called human plasticity. He had investigated its mechanics and its limits.” According to his anxious escort, if Teste had “turned upon the world the controlled power of his mind, nothing could have resisted him.”31 What kind of ideal is it that makes the artist and his work literally irresistible? If a work always takes effect on its beholder what kind of an achievement is it? And if there is no resistance, how do we judge a work’s success? If success is defined in terms of the artist’s ability to suggest complex, perhaps unrecognized or unfamiliar, states of mind or feeling to the viewer, then what is it to judge success in terms of the degree of physiological reaction?
In addition to Poe, Valéry found support for his machinic ideal in a more unlikely source. It was Leonardo da Vinci’s writings, paintings, and technical drawings (often of machines) that authorized Valéry’s vision of a violent and affective formalism. In his ambitious “Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci” (1894), Valéry focused on the method announced in the title. To maximize his effect on the public, the artist, like a mechanic, must render his materials properly:
What is called in art a realization, is in fact a problem of rendering—one in which the private meaning . . . plays no part, and in which the principal factors are the nature of those materials and the mentality of the public. . . . on the basis of psychology and probable effects . . . every combination of elements made to be perceived and judged depends on a few general laws and on a particular adaptation, defined in advance for a foreseen category of minds to which the whole is specially addressed; and the work of art becomes a machine designed to arouse and assemble the individual formations of those minds.32
Metaphors pile up: The artist is at once scientist, mathematician, composer, and mechanic (he will also assume the role of zookeeper). With adequate knowledge of psychology, physiology and probability, Valéry argued, the artist can impress, assemble and shape his listeners’ minds with utter precision.33
Just after the publication of the “Method of Leonardo,” Valéry, like his fictive counterpart in “The Yalu,” who is trained in both art and warfare, entered the War Department in Paris and commenced his first retirement from poetry. Before his retreat, he wrote a sequence of four essays dedicated to the problem of methods: “The Conquest by Method,” “Instruction and Training of Troops,” “Semantics,” and “Time.”34 Valéry was explicit about the aim of these texts: “The most important phenomena of life can serve as the basis and the subject of sustained mathematical operations—that life is not above human calculation.” As he ominously concluded, “Life can be dealt with.” And when the artist went to work, he went to work on the senses: “In art we should see the artist working directly on each of the senses, on each of the psychological needs of his public and aim directly at his man. Wagner did it.”35 To be the Wagner of poetry was indeed Valéry’s aesthetic ambition. Nonetheless, as though recognizing the sheer effectiveness of his aims—the ease with which he achieved aesthetic response from his readers, and therefore the non-artistic nature of the result—he (temporarily) withdrew from pursuing them.
From his first article in 1889 to his death in 1945, Valéry expanded and explored his singular theory of poetic affect. At the conclusion to Monsieur Teste he tersely reiterated the central claim of his earliest writings: “The effect on others, never forgetting their mechanics—. . . and not only treating them as selves but as machines, animals—whence an art.”36 This is a twofold process: first, to break through the resistant layers of the reader’s self, and second, to tame the inner workings of one’s animal-machines. Above all, Valéry maintained that literature is “a question of fact—and, in short, of force”; only now he suggested that “if the reader—any reader—feels the effect of it, the poet ipso facto is justified.”37 On this point the only difference between his early and later writings is the chastened admission that if only one reader is physically altered by the poem, the poet’s practice is justified.
Valéry came to acknowledge the limitations of his desire to produce an effect on others, and later in his career turned his attention away from the reader and literature more generally to better know and acknowledge himself.38 At the conclusion to “Monsieur Teste’s Logbook” (1925), for instance, Valéry offered a hint of disillusionment with the poetics of pure intentionality: “Disgusted with . . . doing what succeeds, with the effectiveness of methods, try something else.”39 It was as though the complete transmission of one’s intentions at once limited what it was that one intended and, worse still, inevitably felt forced upon the reader. In his book on Degas, Valéry offered a mea culpa:
If the habit of facility . . . becomes the dominating factor [in creating art, then] . . . it reduces to nothing the slightest necessity for concentration on the reader’s part, in order to secure with instantaneous effects, rhetorical shock tactics. . . . Modern art tends almost exclusively to exploit sensory sensibility. . . . It has a marvelous flair for arousing our attention, and for exploiting every means to that end—intensification, contrast, the startling, or the enigmatic. It can capture, by the subtlety of its means or the audacity of its execution, certain very valuable effects: states of extreme transience or complexity, irrational values, inarticulate sensations, resonances, correspondences, intuitions of shifting depths. . . . But these things are bought at a price.40
As though acknowledging the very ease of producing results—that the poet achieves his aims with little effort and a range of literary tricks—Valéry sought more difficult material to render. This he found in his own mind, still conceived as a plastic material to be molded by his will, although perhaps of a more resistant kind.
To express one’s intentions transparently, without resistance–to achieve an artistic effect with certainty, as Poe suggested–was equal to artistic failure. If the work succeeded in communicating its meaning directly, Valéry reasoned, then the work itself was flawed. Expressive transparency set the aesthetic bar both too high and too low. Too high because there will always be those who do not respond (or simply do not care) about a work, at least not according to the artist’s intentions; too low because the effect produced, if it were certain, would be of such generality as to make it uncompelling as a stand-in for meaning.
The Reader as Producer
Il dépend de celui qui passe. Que je sois tombe ou trésor. Que je parle ou me taise. Ceci ne tient qu’à toi. Ami n’entre pas sans désir.—Valéry’s inscription at the entrance to the Palais de Chaillot (fig. 1)
Although it has gone unremarked in the literature, Valéry made one of the most decisive, and influential, turns in the history of modern literary thought. As I have shown, at the center of Valéry’s thought lies the singular commitment to the “brutal science” of readerly affect. His emphasis throughout the writings discussed so far was on the author’s imperative to control his words closely so as to calculate the desired effects on the reader. One of his most dramatic statements concerning the artist’s prerogative to control the reader appears in an unlikely place, an essay on the art of Camille Corot:
Delacroix, Wagner, Baudelaire—all great theorists, bent on dominating other souls by sensorial means. Their one dream was to create the irresistible effect—to intoxicate, or overwhelm. They looked to analysis to provide them with the keyboard on which to play, with certainty, on man’s emotions, and they sought in abstract meditation the key to absolutely certain action upon their subject—man’s nervous and psychic being. . . . [It was] the ambition of such violent and tormented minds, anxious to reach and as it were possess (in the diabolical sense of the term) that tender and hidden region of the soul by which it can be held and controlled entire, through the indirect path of the entrails and organic depths of being. They wish to enslave . . . and to bring us into bondage. (Degas, 136–37)
Delacroix, Baudelaire and Wagner formed an exclusive trinity of artists collectively “bent on dominating other minds by sensuous means.” The beholder had no hope of resisting the effects of the artist playing him or her like an instrument. But what is striking about this description is that he offered it as the exact opposite of Corot’s intentions. “Nothing could be remoter from Corot than the ambition of such violent and tormented minds,” Valéry affirmed. Corot embodied the “spirit of simplicity” and as a follower of nature, followed “anything but a method” (137). We learn that although Corot started out with a strict pictorial method, he left it behind in the pursuit of “vagueness” and the “indefinable” emotion obtained by “improvisation,” “chance” and “fortunate accidents” (141, 144). This more “poetic” approach lends itself to a new form of reception. The viewer is now free to discover whatever meanings he or she finds in the work. “We have reasons for liking what we like,” and what we like is outside the artist’s control. What we like are works that “act upon us an object would” (151).41 When “works of art are…objects in the material sense of the term,” they of course bear no intended meaning. Objects, of course, unlike works of art, have no intended meaning. Objects are significant from the perspective of the viewer; they apply only to “each particular case” (151). “The ‘meaning’ of a poem,” Valéry explains, “like that of an object, is the reader’s business. Quantum potes, tantum aude (Dare to do all you can).”42 Every artwork, like any object, is open to an “infinite number of interpretations.”43
Valéry embodied this new experiential approach in his description of a black and white Corot plate. Although it is a landscape without any historical subject, it nonetheless suggests to Valéry “a delicious episode from Parsifal” (143). While Corot did not–indeed, could not–intend anything of the sort, it is the virtue of landscape that it evokes in the viewer a vision from the past. In Valéry’s case, a highly specific vision:
At dawn, after the endless night of torment and despair, King Amfortas tortured by an ambiguous wound, mysteriously, voluptuously inflicted as a punishment on soul and body alike, has his litter carried out into the country air—The Impure One, come to breathe the cool of the morning. (143)
As though his description were not explicitly subjective enough, he insisted that it is “only a bar or two” of Wagner’s score that the landscape evokes.
The dramatic oscillations in Valéry’s views about intention are most evident in “Odds and Ends,” a collection of thoughts written between 1924 and 1930. There he explained, “One is led to a form by a desire to leave the smallest possible share to the reader.”44 Just a few pages later he offered a very different picture of the reader’s share:
Once a work is published its author’s interpretation of it has no more validity than anyone else’s. If I make Pierre’s portrait and someone finds it more like Jacques than like Pierre, there’s nothing to be said against this; his opinion is as good as mine. My intention was merely my intention and the work is—what it is.45
If we are to believe his own account of the turn from a poetics of surefire machines to an anti-intentionalist reader-response aesthetic, it revolves around an encounter with the philosopher Alain. In a story recounted in his “Commentaries on Charmes”—his most influential statement of anti-intentionalism—Valéry explains how a friend lent a copy of his last book of poems, Charmes, to the philosopher Alain.46 Alain returned the volume to its author with extensive commentaries filling up the margins. Reading over the philosopher’s notes, Valéry was forced to reconsider the problem of intention. “Does he understand you? …Has he unfolded your aims?” he wondered to himself (155). His answer is clear: no. Or rather, there is no problem of meaning. Even to seek a meaning in a poem is misguided. Why? Because
my verses have whatever meaning is given them. The one I give them suits only myself and does not contradict anyone else. It is an error contrary to the nature of poetry, and one which may even be fatal to it, to claim that for each poem there is a corresponding true meaning, unique and conformable to, or identical with, some thought of the author’s. (155–56)
It is left to the reader to create whatever meaning the work might have. Like any physical object, “the action of a text modifies minds, each according to his nature and state, provoking combinations latent within a certain head, but whatever reaction is thus produced, the text is…capable of indefinitely generating other phenomena in other circumstances or in another person.” It is the writer’s job to make the poem-object, the meaning of which is generated by its various respondents. This is what Valéry meant when he said, “Content in itself has no…essential importance” for the writer; he has only to contend with the materialities of form.47 Alain’s interpretation is as good as any reader’s, including the author’s:48
Once a work is finished and presented, whether in verse or prose, its author can propose or affirm nothing about it that would have any more weight or would explain it more exactly than what anyone else might say….An author can, no doubt, inform us of his intentions; but it is not a question of these; it is a question of what subsists, what he has made independent of himself. (157–58)
Once the author has released the work into the world, its meaning is beyond the control of the author and becomes a purely public property. “How can people manage to cling to their opinion once it has been voiced and has parted company with what created it?” he mused.49 And again, in an essay looking back on Le Cimetière marin: “Whatever the author may have wanted to say, he has written what he has written. Once published, a text is like an apparatus that anyone may use as he will and according to his ability: it is not certain that the one who constructed it can use it better than another” (152).
Valéry virtually invented the position that dominated literary theory from this point forward. In William Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley’s version of idea, the poem is “detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it. The poem belongs to the public. It is embodied in language, the peculiar possession of the public.”50 While Wimsatt and Beardsley follow Valéry in his anti-intentionalism, they cannot abide by his affirmation of readerly affect. Although Wimsatt and Beardsley rejected what they called the “Affective Fallacy”—the notion that the reader’s affect generates the work’s meaning—more recent commentators have shown that they could not logically sustain that critique if they maintained a strong anti-intentionalist position.51 Simply put, if the work does not mean what the author intended it to mean, there is no alternative available but that the reader is the one who creates meaning.
At the same moment as Wimsatt and Beardsley, Maurice Blanchot offered a similar critique of intention in The Space of Literature (1955). Citing Valéry, Blanchot explained that “Whatever [the writer] does, the work withdraws him from what he does and from what he can do.”52 So while the work withdraws from the author, so the reader enters into that gap and recreates the book himself. Blanchot wrote:
The reader…becomes an author in reverse. The true reader…is apt to return, drawn by an imperceptible pull, toward the various prefigurations of the reader which have caused him to be present in advance at the hazardous experience of the book.53
So by the time Roland Barthes wrote “The Death of the Author” in 1967, Valéry’s double position—anti-intentionalism and readerly affect—was established as a powerful option within the literary-theoretical canon. Indeed, in his brief history of “writers who have long since attempted to loosen the Author’s sway,” Barthes places Valéry at the center. Valéry, he says, despite some hesitations, “never stopped calling into question and deriding the Author; he stressed the linguistic and, as it were, ‘hazardous’ nature of his activity, and throughout his prose works he militated in favor of the essentially verbal condition of literature, in the face of which all recourse to the writer’s interiority seemed to him pure superstition.”54 And as Barthes further suggests, Valéry’s critique of intention simultaneously led to the effort to “restore the place of the reader.”55
Despite its current canonicity, Valéry’s affirmation of the publicly defined work of art did not go unchallenged at the time. Pablo Picasso provided a cogent, if off the cuff, assessment of Valéry’s claims. Valéry’s poetics were a variant of the “old grab bag” view of art, he said.56 Picasso took issue above all with Valéry’s view that a “creator is one who makes others create.”57 If the viewer was a creator on par with the artist, then it followed that the work was open “for everyone to reach into and pull out what he himself has put in.” Valéry proposed exactly that: to each his own. “I want my paintings to be able to defend themselves, to resist the invader,” Picasso retorted. He went on:
Valéry used to say, “I write half the poem. The reader writes the other half.” That’s all right for him, maybe, but I don’t want there to be three or four or a thousand possibilities of interpreting my canvas. I want there to be only one and in that one, to some extent, the possibility of recognizing nature.58
The point of Picasso’s censure was not to suggest that nature carries an independent meaning that the artist could secure, but to say that whatever meaning the work expresses, it has that expression by virtue of the maker’s intention alone, and not by virtue of a possible viewer’s—necessarily unlimited—intentions. If the work does not carry one meaning, Picasso argued, then it carries an infinite amount of meanings (or affects), one for each viewer. Of course what Picasso got wrong about Valéry is that Valéry did not actually think that there were a thousand possibilities of interpreting his work, but that the reader is actually making a new work when he or she reads it. Thus the force of Valéry’s claim that “My error becomes the author” (AN, 562). (And yet, even here, Valéry continues to suggest that there is an author, and that he can even recognize the author’s intentions, he just chooses to ignore them to make his own work.) Then again, if all readers are actually pulling themselves from the work, as Picasso lamented and Valéry seemingly celebrated, then they are not interpreting the work at all but creating it for themselves.
Are we left with two Valéry’s, one concerned with the author, the other with the reader? What could possibly bind the two accounts of meaning—intentionalist and anti-intentionaist, authorial and affective—that seem to bifurcate Valéry’s career? Which, if any, is the real Valéry? Is he the brutal scientist of form, seeking to produce the most “direct and irresistible effects” on his readers? Or is he the linguistic and scientific skeptic who knows that “the man who thinks he is having an influence is not (or is having one contrary to his intentions)” (274). Is there a shared core around which both ideas circulate?
While an author may not be able to control reference, he may nonetheless produce autonomous configurations of language, what Valéry simply called “form.” Strip away the author and the reader and we are left with material form.
It is the form alone which commands and survives. It is the sound, the rhythm, the physical proximity of words, their effects of induction or their mutual influences which dominate at the expense of their capacity for being consummated in a defined and particular meaning.59
Around this core of sound, rhythm, and the physical characteristics of the page, devoid of any “particular meaning,” there are sensations that get generated in the reader. The poem does not contain a meaning that requires interpretation, but rather embodies a dense material “presence” that induces sensations in the reader’s body. He continues:
The action of its presence modifies minds, each according to its nature and state, provoking combinations latent within a certain head, but whatever reaction is thus produced, the text is found to be unaltered and capable of indefinitely generating other phenomena in other circumstances or in another person.60
From beginning to end, Valéry assumed that poems are an “action.” Writing has a direct effect on the reader; only after 1927 did he see those effects as multiplied to infinity. Each body that comes into contact with the work generates a new affect. It follows that every encounter with a work generates a different affect depending on the viewer’s state of mind and body and the setting of the work.61
What binds the early Valéry and the later, then, is a view of the work as a material action and not as a representation. For this reason Deleuze and McCarthy are right to see Valéry as committed to an aesthetic of “blood,” or to a “direct action on the nervous system.” Adorno too followed the inner logic of Valéry’s poetics when he suggested that for Valéry “form involves no consideration of the receiver or the producer.”62 Rather, the work contains a living “material substratum,” what Adorno portentously called the “language of things themselves.”63 That is to say, language and meaning leave the hands of living agents and get established in inanimate things. The literary action that Adorno describes is the “eruptive revelation of negative experience,”64 the emergence of a forgotten language that “precedes objectness.”65
What makes Valéry a writer of “life and death,” then, is his view of the work of art as something stripped of its meaning and replaced by its agency. When Valéry was asked what his poems meant, he turned the question around to show that they did not in fact mean anything, but they did something:
If I am questioned; if anyone wonders (as happens sometimes quite peremptorily) what I “wanted to say” in a certain poem, I reply that I did not want to say but wanted to do, and that it was the intention of doing which wanted what I said.66
Valéry’s difficult formulation almost embodies the thought it tries to communicate. The sentence turns on two opposed meanings of intention. The first involves the conventional meaning of intention: what an author wants to communicate, his message, as it is delivered in the poem. As Valéry suggests, this is an unsupportable (and uninteresting) notion of a literary intention. But the second meaning strips the poem of human agency altogether makes language an agent; his words make him do what they want him to do.
“Law itself is the interlude between acts of force,” Valéry observed in a series of notes titled “On Political Parties” (250). Laws, like predictions, are pure fictions. And behind every fiction lies its truth: material force. Many years later, Jacques Derrida closely followed Valéry’s thought when he redescribed conflicts of interpretation as disguised “conflicts of force.”67 Derrida’s well-known “substitution of mark for sign,”68 further followed Valéry’s course in their shared ambition to establish the authority of readerly affect. Marks, by their very nature, mean different things to different readers, while a work, composed of words, has only one meaning, the author’s.69 For Derrida as for Valéry, because there is no possibility of discovering the correct interpretation of a mark, every act of interpretation is necessarily the “imposition of meaning” (145).70
For Valéry, the result of the redescription of signs as marks, and interpretations as impositions was to show that “Everything pertaining to practical politics is necessarily superficial” (249). Valéry suggests a simple reversal of priorities. In place of practical politics (parties, policies, reform) appears a more effective means of control—fictive politics (words and ideas). To found a society based on policies, Valéry asserts, glossing Montesquieu, is misguided and destined to failure. “Mere coercion of bodies by bodies,” he explains, “can never found an order.” To truly persuade the masses, “fictional powers are needed” (215).
Anti-intentionalism is the technology that provides the new means of warfare. As a material thing, a word can be deployed by and against the public will. On this account, Valéry’s literary and political ontologies are identical. This identity clearly emerged in his 1933 remarks on “Literature and Politics.” “Nothing is more remarkable,” he observed, than “to see that ideas, separated from the intellect that conceived them, isolated from the conditions of their birth,” can “become political agents…weapons” (275). When words no longer mean what we intend them to mean, then political agency is no longer tied to political practice. In their place there are bodies doing battle with a new kind of weapon: “Language is good, it does its job when used…like a tool—pliers or a drill—or a kind of currency—or a weapon.”71 He called this new weapon “verbal materialism.”72 The verbal materialist “can look down on…all who are enslaved to words by credulity—who must believe that their speech…signifies some reality. But as for you, you know that the reality of discourse is only the words and the forms.”73 Beneath every intention, behind every meaning, beyond every representation lie the blood and viscera of form. And when one experiences the great work of art, its form can plunge into the reader’s bloodstream and infect the reader like a disease. By its very nature, the work “acts so powerfully, grips the viscera, collapses the diaphram. Indeed, a certain note in a certain register attacks the substratum of life.”74
At the beginning of The Logic of Sense Deleuze seizes on Valéry’s materialism. “Valéry had a profound idea: what is most deep is the skin,” Deleuze observes. Deleuze does not offer a citation, but the phrase is taken from Valéry’s Idée fixe, a book Valéry described as “exclusively for the medical profession”; it was published by a pharmaceutical firm.75 Those beholden to the philosophy of depth, Deleuze insists, will inevitably be wounded by Valéry’s intuition. “The more events traverse the entire, depthless extension,” Deleuze writes, “the more they affect bodies which they cut and bruise.”76 Deleuze could quote Valéry’s fictive Doctor on this account: “However much we dig beneath the surface, we remain…ectodermal.” It is “viscera” all the way down.77