Quotes of quotes of quotes of quotes, 12/2

It’s been a while since I last put together an installment of Quotes of quotes of…, and I think that this may be just the right quote to end the drought. This gem is from Paul Valéry’s essay “Poetry and Abstract Thought,” which can be found in Paul Valéry: An Anthology (a long out-of-print collection of his writings that was published by the Princeton University Press; I don’t know where else one could find this essay, though I’m pretty sure it has been published elsewhere).

Here Valéry discusses the curious phenomenon by which, in conversation, one basically takes a word’s meaning as a given (that is, one tends not to dwell on the multitude of possible connotations associated with every single word used by one’s interlocutor) in order to facilitate a smoother, less disjunctive exchange. Thus, in a sense, the listener is always a little bit deaf to what the speaker is saying (or rather, what the speaker may be saying); to put it simply, in dialogue we hear what is easiest for us to hear. There’s a connection between this conception of verbal communication and my own pet theory about visual media (that we only ever see a select portion of any image that we encounter, and that this blindness is reflected in the material composition of our perceptual apparatus [yuck, what a phrase]), but I’ll spare you the explanation for the time being.

Anyway, check out this passage in which Valéry explains what happens when one ceases taking words for granted and begins treating them individually as objects of contemplation:

It is almost comic to inquire the exact meaning of a term that one uses constantly with complete satisfaction. For example: I stop the word Time in its flight. This word was utterly limpid, precise, honest, and faithful in its service as long as it was part of a remark and was uttered by someone who wished to say something. But here it is, isolated, caught on the wing. It takes its revenge. It makes us believe that it has more meanings than uses. It was only a means, and it has become an end, the object of a terrible philosophical desire. It turns into an enigma, an abyss, a torment of thought…

It is the same with the word Life and all the rest.


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