Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Monsieur Teste

I have been rereading Valéry's Monsieur Teste (Mr. Head, from old French; Mr. Witness, from Latin testis), and considering the question of mind and matter. Monsieur Teste is, of course, a thought experiment in what it would mean to be all mind, cut off from the world and others, suspicious of sensations, abstract and isolated.  He is excruciatingly, heartlessly, exact, and contemptuous of the relatively vague experiences and expressions of the Other(s). While the whole question of mind's interaction with matter, or self's with the world and its others, is relevant in general for Musil's attempts, most of Monsieur Teste's considerations would probably have been too one-sided to appeal to Musil's more comprehensive vision. At times Teste's "tête" seems fatally pre-formed and tragically limited by its solipsism; elsewhere this mind is more open, expanding into infinite realms of possibility. In these moments he reminds me most of Musil and here we catch the sound of a kindred soul, or of what Teste calls in one lonely doubtful passage "another Self-Same," i.e., a person who might provide "an exact response" to his own mind. In Teste's "log book," for example, we read, under the heading of "The Rich in Spirit" this description:

             "This man had such possessions, such perspectives in himself; he was made of so many years of reading, refutations, meditations, inner combinations, observations; of such ramifications, that his responses were hard to predict; that he did not himself know where he would come out, what aspect would finally strike him, what feeling would prevail in him, what detours and what unexpected simplifications would occur, what desire would be born, what retort, what sudden lights! . . . "

And here especially we glimpse a kindred "other person" for our man of possibilities :

       "And perhaps he had reached that strange state of being unable to regard his own decision or inner response as anything but an expedient, knowing quite well that the development of his attention would be infinite and that the idea of finishing no longer has any meaning in a mind that knows itself well enough. He had come to that point of inner civilization where consciousness no longer allows an opinion to go unaccompanied by its procession of modalities, and finds repose (if this is repose) only in awareness of its own wonders, its own practices, substitutions, and innumerable precisions".

And finally:

         ". . . In his head or behind his closed eyes, curious rotations occurred -- changes, so various, so free, and yet so limited -- lights, like the windows of a house seen at night when someone is walking through it with a lamp, like distant revelries, or a night fair; but which, if you could approach, might change into railway stations and dancing savages -- or frightful misfortunes -- or truths and revelations . . .
              . . . As it were the sanctuary and brothel of possibilities.

             The habit of meditation made this mind live in the midst, and by means, of rare states; in a perpetual supposition of purely ideal experiences; in the continual use of extreme conditions and critical phases of thought . . .

             As if extreme rarefactions, unknown vacuums, hypothetical temperatures, monstrous pressures and charges, had been his natural resources -- as if nothing could be thought in him unless he submitted it, in the act, to the most energetic treatment, searching over the whole domain of existence."

Despite himself, perhaps, Valéry has gotten carried away with a sort of revery that belies Teste's supposed distance from the world. In fact, the windows of the house, mediated through those misleading and imprecise senses, see out as well as in, and language, as modest and daring interpreter, communicates and creates a basis for shared experience. Valéry  writes, answering his question of why Teste is impossible: 
"he is no other than the very demon of possibility... in this strange head, where philosophy has little credit, where language is always on trial, there is scarcely a thought that is not accompanied by the feeling that it is tentative...the short intense life of this brain is spent in supervising the mechanism by which the relations of the known and the unknown are established and organized".

And yet this experiment, worthy and instructive as it is, too must come to an end or alter its controls; it uses itself up; it reaches outside itself for response, for impetus, for antithesis, else it ends in sterility and silence, to which  the very writing of the book attests, a book that dares  to softly speak its wish for a "Self-Same"or an "exact response" in the form of a reader, while simultaneously asking for what might be more fruitful still: a resistance, a strong gust of wind or an irrefutable physical reality.

1 comment:

  1. From Raymond Tallis' "Notes Towards a Philosophy of Sleep":

    "The great French poet and thinker Paul Valéry invented the character Monsieur Teste. ‘A mystic without God’, Teste was committed to uninterrupted, undistracted thought. His whole life’s work was “to kill the puppet,” the automaton, inside himself. In the famous An Evening With M. Teste (1896), Valéry leaves his hero drifting off to sleep, observing the stages of his own gradual extinction, and murmuring “Let’s think very closely… You can fall asleep on any subject… Sleep can continue any idea…” as his self-awareness fades into suspension points. Valéry himself kept a diary for over fifty years (collected as the Cahiers [Notebooks]). One of his central concerns was to observe the successive phases of his awakening, as in the early hours of the morning he annotated his mind-rise. Naturally, dreams preoccupied him as much as the daily resurrection of the self. He suggested that dreams might be an attempt to make sense of the body’s passage from sleep to wakefulness. Like me, he was unimpressed by Freud’s evidence-impoverished claims about dreams being the ‘royal road to the unconscious’ – that multi-storied jerry-built word-castle which so many otherwise intelligent people have taken for a scientific idea. Nor did Valéry buy the notion that dreams could be prophetic, the mind slipping along loops in time to enable us to see the future of the world or the will of God."