Aphorisms by Paul Valery

Every morning just before dawn, in what Paul Valéry (Geary’s Guide, pp. 312-314) described as that “pure and pregnant hour of daybreak,” the French poet and essayist woke up and jotted down in his notebook anything and everything that came into his mind. Valéry believed that the creative process, the actual act of writing, was the most important thing, not the final product. “Nothing gives more boldness to the pen than the feeling that one can defer ad infinitum the time of recasting a phrase in its final form,” he wrote. These notebooks contain Valéry’s best aphorisms on mathematics, science, history, morality and the art of poetry and thinking. Valéry shared Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s fascination with science, and like Goethe devoted much of his aphoristic writing to explorations of art and poetry, to wit:

I have reached the point, alas, of comparing those words on which we so lightly traverse the space of a thought, to light planks thrown across an abyss, which permit crossing but no stopping.

It is not the accomplished work, and its appearance and effect in the world, that can fulfill and edify us; but only the way in which we have done it.

Beauty is what leads to desperation.

Our mind must bestir itself to escape from it stupor and from that solemn, motionless surprise which gives it the feeling of being everything, and the evidence of being nothing.

Lift what is mystery in yourself to what is mystery in itself. There is something in you that is equal to what surpasses you.

One must have some distrust of books and explanations that seem too clear. We are deceived by what is definite.

The reality of a game is in the player alone.

A poem must be a holiday of Mind.

The poet’s brain is a sea bottom on which many hulls repose.

What is done easily is done without us.

Something that is destroyed by a little extra precision is a myth.