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The death of Beauty

Posted by William Fennie at Aug 02, 2010 01:30 AM |

Another quote from French essayist and poet Paul Valéry

Paul Valéry"Moreover, on what grounds can one form or specify a plan for 'creating an Esthetics' - a science of the Beautiful? But do the moderns still use this word ? It seems to me that they only still use it lightly. Or, perhaps . . . in thinking of the past. Beauty is a kind of corpse. Novelty, intensity, strangeness - in a word, all the values of surprise - have supplanted it. Crude excitement is the ruling mistress of contemporary minds; and the actual purpose of any work is to tear us from the contemplative state, from the static happiness whose image was formerly part of the general conception of Beauty. People are more and more occupied with the most unstable and immediate characteristics of the psychic and sensitive life. The unconscious, the irrational, the temporary, which are - and their names proclaim the fact - denials or negations of the intentional and sustained forms of mental activity, have been substituted for the patterns natural to the mind. One hardly ever sees any more a product of the desire for perfection. Let us note in passing that this superannuated desire must necessarily fade before the fixed idea and the insatiable thirst for originality. The ambition to reach perfection is confused with the idea of making a work independent of any particular time; but the desire to be new insists on making of it an event remarkable by its contrast to the present moment. The former admits of, and even defends, heredity, imitation, or tradition, which are steps in its climb toward the absolute object it wishes to attain. The latter rejects them, and in so doing implies them still more strongly - for its essence is to be different.

"In our time a definition of Beauty can only be considered as a historical or philological document. Taken in the former fullness of its meaning, this illustrious word is on its way to join many other kinds of verbal coinage, which are no longer in circulation, in the drawers of the numismatists of language."

- Extract from Leonardo and the Philosophers, 1929

in Selected Writings of Paul Valéry, New Directions, 1984.