Thoughts Need A Master: Paul Valéry’s Gladiator

According to the Roman historian Livy, in 264 B.C. Junius Brutus had his slaves fight to the death with swords in order to commemorate the recent loss of his father; the blood of the slaves was considered munera (gifts) to the manes (spirits) of his deceased parent.  Gladiator combats, which were from this time called munera, lost their religious significance and became, instead, a popular spectator sport that was popular among Romans of every age and social status. Just as in the 21st century we go to an event and root for our favorite football, basketball, rugby, cricket or baseball players, so the Romans would flock to arenas and cheer for different gladiators.  Politicians and, later on Emperors, would sponsor games which were free to everyone and served as clever public relations stunts to keep the masses happy and occupied.

The gladiators themselves, recruited from slave markets, prisoners of war, and criminals lived and trained at ludi (schools.)  The owners of these schools, called lanistae which means “butchers” in Latin, ensured that their investments had a strict diet and exercise routine. High carb diets, strength training and practice with their equipment and weapons were the methods used to build up muscle and a chiseled physique.  Even though they might be in peak physical condition, it was rare for a gladiator to survive more than a few combats—a brutal, harsh and short life for these condemned men.

So why does Paul Valéry decide to use the gladiator as a metaphor for the type of mental training he undertakes in his Notebooks/Cahiers?  In the Peter Lang edition, the third section of Cahiers 1 is entitled “Gladiator” and contains all of Valéry’s entries on this topic.  It begins with:

……..I resolved henceforth to evaluate the works of man and other things too, only in relation to the operative processes I could recognize in them: i.e., I assumed, firstly in an unsophisticated way, and then with all my might, that in each case I had to implement myself the construction of each given thing; and I tried to reduce it to successive operations whose primary characteristic was that I knew how to carry them out. In this way, I set aside from my research/my work/, but not from my conscious mind, all uncertain or shifting judgements, restricting myself each time to measure my powers, /my strength/, – or, if you prefer, to measuring the data according to what my mind was capable of accomplishing.

A gladiator trains in the extreme because it’s a matter of life and death. Valéry tries to apply this severe type of discipline—and words like strength, power, exercise—to mental and intellectual training.  But without such high stakes as life and death, is any man really capable of training his mind to such an extent?  Valéry believes that a man like Napoleon certainly made an attempt: “Napoleon had the idea of making use of his mind in its entirety. of directing its movements with order and vigor, instead of submitting to the accidents of memory and impulse. Manoeuvres along internal fronts.” And Valéry speculates how a man ought to accomplish this: “A man skilful in his thinking, knowing it to be naturally irregular and commonplace—Thought needs a master, a desire, a model, habits, without which it’s like dreams—useless, terrible, circular, silly.”

There is also, not surprisingly, an emphasis on the action that is required in the gladiator-style mental activity.  Valéry himself got up every morning for most of his adult life to record and work out his thoughts in these notebooks:

Gladiator’s principle.
Restore (and even develop harmoniously) through sport the qualities which the increase in means leaves idle and risks causing to degenerate.
Muscles, mental calculation, meaning.

In short, Gladiator is the effort expended by one’s being against probability. An effort which is called Art, the transformation of chance into near-certainty-analysis of the fortunate coincidence with a view to reproducing it, or transferring it from one moment in time to stability (or stasis), or from one scale of dimensions (matter, as well) to a larger one.

Another idea, and what at first  I thought to be a more peculiar one, that recurs in “Gladiator” is that of purity.

Gladiator
or the Pure Individual—
or a treatise on purity or on forms of Purity.

How the notion of the pure (pure body-pure geometry)
leads to sport-to virtuosity.

Thus Descartes—Matter and Movement—Categories.

And:

(Treatise on purity)
Purity is a consequence of awareness. Awareness distinguishes as it increasingly develops, what the function of the mind uses indiscriminately at an ordinary level or in its ordinary states. Thus, walking is an indiscriminate act of the legs. But if one practices walking distinctly, as a sports man does, it acquire purity of pace—economy of strength—precise rhythm.

I sense more of a tone of hope in this section of his Cahiers as opposed to the previous one entitled “Ego.” In “Ego” he is grappling with who he is, what his worth is, and how he can contribute original thoughts and ideas to the arts. But in Gladiator he lays out methods with which he believes he can train his mind to the point where he reaches this type of purity of thought—the kind of thought that will lead to those novel contributions.

The Notebooks/Cahiers themselves and their creation of a unique genre of writing is the proof of Valéry’s success Nathaniel Rudavsy Brody, in the introduction to his translation of his poems says about the astonishing achievement that are the Notebooks/Cahiers:

Behind the published works, behind the uneventful life of the almost forgotten and then exceedingly famous poet, there hides another story, a private life of the mind, that has its record in 28,000 pages of notebooks revealed in their entirety only after his death. Their existence had been hinted at, of course, evoked in rumors and literary asides, but once made public it took years for their significance to be fully appreciated. It turned out that the prose fragments published in Valery’s lifetime were not what the had been taken to be: they were not after-the-fact musings of an accomplished poet, nor his occasional sketchbook, nor excerpts from his private journal. They were a disfigured glimpse of a vast and fragmentary ‘exercise of thought,’ a restless intellectual quest as unguided and as persistent, as rigorous, and yet as uncontainable as the sea which is so often their subject.

I’m looking forward to lingering among the pages of these five volumes of Cahiers throughout the summer.

A hand-drawn page from Valery’ Cahiers 1.

 

3 Comments

Filed under French Literature

3 responses to “Thoughts Need A Master: Paul Valéry’s Gladiator

  1. What an extraordinary metaphor!

    Liked by 1 person

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