Study Guide

Paul Valéry Quotes

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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. [From "The Yalu"]

This gem comes from an imagined dialogue between a European man (me, kind of) and a Chinese scholar. The dialogue is meant to demonstrate the tensions between Eastern and Western cultures. In these lines, the Chinese guy is calling out Europeans for being overly rational and intellectual at the expense of their more spiritual or meditative sides, which he believes have something to offer, too.

To the Chinese man, we Europeans use the intellect to avoid giving serious thought to the one inevitability in life: death. We do a lot of talking and not so much reflecting. According to the Chinese man, our hearts are faint because by never facing up to reality, we basically don't even live in reality, and that makes us internally weak.

The folly of mistaking a paradox for a discovery, a metaphor for a proof, a torrent of verbiage for a spring of capital truths, and oneself for an oracle, is inborn in us. [From Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci]

Look, I may be a poet, but I am also a huge lover of science and a devotee of the mind. I've spent a lifetime thinking about the relationship between the mind and the universe—and I have found some crazy stuff. People just love the idea of identifying objective facts. Who doesn't want to know what's what?

Well, I'm here to tell you that it doesn't work like that. It's human nature to want to gaze out from our individual, subjective positions and believe that what we see is Reality (capital R intended). Not so, mes amis. Our ability to recognize and determine truth is pretty flimsy. We mostly only see the surface of things—and in any case, the truth is probably way too difficult for any one of us to fully understand.

Poetry is simply literature reduced to the essence of its active principle. It is purged of idols of every kind, of realistic illusions, of any conceivable equivocation between the language of "truth" and the language of "creation." [From Littérature]

Okay, so once again, I am a poet, and a lover and scholar of words, and I have long dwelt on the differences between thought and action. I am a strong believer that there is something beautifully concise about poetry—something that you just can't find in a novel. Poetry doesn't have to try so hard to get its point across; it is pure action, and it has a purity of purpose that you can't find in any long-winded book.

Poe is the only impeccable writer. He was never mistaken. [From a letter to André Gide]

You're going to think this is crazy, but I loved Poe for his scientific mind as much as I loved him for his poetry and prose. Let's face it: the guy just got things right. He interpreted and depicted human emotions so accurately, so intensely, and so purely in his poetry that it was almost scientific.

His essays also jazzed me—especially "Philosophy of Composition" and "Poetic Principle." If you are really fascinated with the influence Poe had on me, check out this book, or check out my essay "On Poe's Eureka" (1921), where I got really hopped up about Poe's masterful understanding of theology and science.

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