Friday, August 10, 2012

More on Monsieur Teste

My friend Kenneth Harrison sent me a lovely explication of M. Teste which reminded me of why I am of two minds (and bodies!) about the question of disembodied heads. For there is something attractive indeed in the conception of a mind floating and free from the stings and arrows that flesh is heir to, that may transcend the limitations of physical walls, that may, with the help of imagination, travel to distant lands and happier days, and, of course, this is part of what literature and art provide for us---a separate realm untouched by the indignities and prosaic dullness of the everyday. A world of dreaming.

"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."


The idea of a "mind-rise," observed as a passage from dream to wakefulness, is suggestive, and I am also reminded of William Beckford's imperious resentment of the encroachments by vulgar reality upon his rapturous dreaming and imagining. And yet, and yet, the physical world, even in its most humble exempla, may be a conduit to the most heavenly blisses.


  1. I'm reminded, too, of Heraclitus:

    Even a soul submerged in sleep
    is hard at work, and helps
    make something of the world
    . (fragment 90)

    Or maybe this simply makes me better about sleeping all the time.