Democratic Need to Be Understood As A Stimulus For Artistic Creativity

Neither seen nor known,
I am the perfume living and dead come on the wind!

Neither seen nor known, chance or genius?
Hardly come, the task is ended!

Neither read nor understood?
What mistakes destined for the best minds!

Neither seen nor known,
The time of a bare breast between two smocks!

Paul Valery

… When the Word has disentangled flesh from love… it was around a calling into question of desire by wisdom that a drama was reborn in which the Word is involved. …The secret of desire is revealed to us and, with it, the secret of all nobility.
Jacques Lacan, “Escrits”, W. W. Norton, 1996, p. 636 – 637

Democracy is a beautiful, paradoxical, admirable “freak of history”. It’s a combination of democraticity (the ability to like what is dissimilar, different from us) and individualism, commonality and uniqueness. It is the uniqueness’s search to be accepted into the commonality as equal, the attempt of spiritual aristocracy to be recognize as part of “plebs”, the individuality’s (in all its dissimilarity from the common psychological pattern of collective identity) claim to be taken into commune. In other words, democracy is a community that is capable of including otherness to become a pluralistic community where the principle of togetherness doesn’t demand similarity/identity as a condition for being a part of togetherness.

In this sense, poets of individual stance in the world, of a unique vantage point of their worldview always personify this democratic need to be accepted despite their difference from the common psychological denominator of the community life (based on the principle similarity/identity). Poets are “freaks” demanding to be accepted as “frogs”, “tricks” demanding to be accepted as truisms, cracks demanding acceptance from crooks – as equals, demanding their right to be recognized and tolerated by the community in spite of their difference from the community’s common identity.

Why in this poem Paul Valery is so sensitive how he is perceived by the community of readers? Is it self-centeredness, narcissistic auto-philia, vain desire to be appreciated and loved? Why is he making such huge point of being seen and known, and read and understood? It seems that the more unusual and unique personality the person is – the stronger is his democratic need to be accepted as he is. The more different you are – the more you have the need to be accepted with the same unconditionality as if you were identical with those whose acceptance you seek. In other words, the more unique in his/her personality the person is the more democratically oriented s/he is, the more s/he needs democracy as his/her abode. The farther you are from a common denominator of human type accepted in a certain community as the (collective) norm the more you need a democratic community (in its drastic difference from traditional, totalitarian one, based on similarity/identity of its members).

To be the subject of a poetic or artistic annunciation (creator of artistic comments on creation and human condition) means to be a beautiful, paradoxical, admirable exception/deviation that wants to be accepted, as if, it’s not distinguishable from the norm (exception doesn’t want to become norm, but it competes with the norm). Exception wants to beat norm not as another norm but as the impossible which competes with the omnipresent. It means that creative exception is a fighter for democratic pluralism by its very dedication to the (eccentric) poetic/artistic discourse, to the uniqueness of verbal and visual images. It tries to train the demos in democracy by trying to awaken in it a taste for aristocratic extravagance. The contradictory nature of this task makes it a barely realizable in real life.

Most poets don’t want to be victims of this situation. They are either slapped by commonness from the beginning or commonize themselves to get popularity, fame and success. They learn how to appeal to the folks, how to de-individualize themselves, how to reduce their experiences to a structure of ordinariness. Most poets don’t want to be victims, but not Paul Valery who dedicates this poem to the destiny of a poet as an individualistic democrat, as an aristocrat of the demos, as a brutal elegance (as a reality of the impossible). Poet (who is “neither seen nor known” in spite of being famous among active gossipers and gossipy curiosity of the public) is doomed to be perceived as “the perfume living and dead” (as a homeless wind, not as a substance, but as somebody without craft and substance, a creature without a body, not a creator).

In the second stanza the poet confesses that for him it is impossible to understand if the aristocratic/democratic poet is just a chance or a master (just a call to self-sacrifice or self-sacrificial fate – “the task ends” very quickly) and does he need recognition as a feedback, in order to learn who he is from understanding the mechanism of this recognition. In the third stanza the poet cannot even be sure that his texts are read and he is sure they have not been understood and that for him it will be a mistake to expect otherwise. The fourth stanza states that between being seen and known as an artist and not being seen or known there is no difference – “the time of a bare breast between two smocks!” The poet’s chest Valery sees as his breast spiritually feeding the world up to the last moment of his life, when time comes to change the outworn shirt of life to a fresh shirt of death.

To learn with the help of the public who the poet is in his poetic human identity is necessary for clearing his feeling about himself (to understand better his psychological ties with his creative ability), but it is only indirectly connected with poet’s creative legacy, whatever it may be. It seems that according to Valery, it is aristocratic/ democratic poet’s destiny not to know and not to understand the identity of his poetry. May be, it’s even better for his poetry to be a poetic bastard, to be less rooted in human lives, to be like a lunatic amidst the night, an abandoned child neglected by human understanding. May be, aristocratic/democratic poet’s muse is of the bat specie – to get vitality it has to be “neither seen nor known”.

The holistic intention of aristocratic/democratic poet is contradictory to the point of making him self-sacrificial – to try to perfect the uniqueness of his discourse to make it more understandable to… the demos (with the need only for cathartic release), to make his work less and less common in order to be better understood by… commonality.

Paul Valery (1871-1945)
Paul Valery

Paul Valery (1871-1945)
Paul Valery (1871-1945)