Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Problem of Museums

The great French writer Paul Valéry (1871-1945) is famous for having undergone, and minutely described, a series of “crises,” each with its own special character. A crisis of “sensibility” in late youth, for example, was followed by a crisis of “intellect” in early adulthood; crises of “attention,” of “mind” (marked by the publication of Monsieur Teste in 1926) and of “spirit” followed.

It was around the time of his crisis of attention – the least documented, but perhaps the most fascinating – that he composed his essay “The Problem of Museums” (1923).

In it, he writes:

I don’t like museums much. […] I find myself in a tumult of frozen creatures, each of which demands, without obtaining it, the inexistence of all the others […] A strange organized disorder spreads out before me. I am seized by a holy dread.

zoffanyJohann Zoffany, The Tribuna of the Uffizi (1772). Wikimedia Commons.

“[…] What an effort, I tell myself, what barbarities! All this is inhuman. It is not pure. This onset of independent and inimical marvels, and the more inimical the more they resemble one another, is paradoxical […]. The ear would not bear ten orchestras playing at once. The spirit cannot follow many distinct operations, there are no simultaneous arguments. But here the eye […] as soon as it perceives, finds itself obliged to admit a portrait and a seascape, a kitchen and a triumph, characters in the most diverse poses and conditions, and not just this, it must also embrace in the same glance harmonies and ways of painting that elude comparison with one another […] productions that devour one another.”

One of the unsolved mysteries of this period in Valéry’s life concerns the nature – and indeed, even the name – of the small group he joined at the end of 1923. The identities of none of its members are known, only the pseudonyms they adopted upon joining; Valéry was called “Jean du rivage,” others adopted “Lupeux” or “Hucheur.” His Cahiers of this time contain a draft essay that mentions these names, a place of meeting (Impasse Bergonne, near the Porte Saint-Martin, Paris), and a series of experiments apparently intended to objectively determine how much attention certain objects require, and to follow through on the results.

The essay itself is a thought experiment along the same lines, one which actually assigns a numerical value to a number of well-known artworks, and applies a complicated series of calculations based on these values, on the average lifespan of a human being, and on the estimated total number of artworks in all museums worldwide, to determine exactly how many seconds of close attention these works warrant. The draft essay also lists a number of works “whose depth of meaning cannot ever be exhausted, and which only an unremitting and lifelong gaze would do justice. The ideal solution would be to appoint segments of one’s conscious mind, like phrenic stewards, to continuously contemplate these works in private mental chambers set aside for this purpose.”

As always, any further information or insight from our faithful readers is welcome.


Je Te Veille: The Masked Ball of Judex (1963)

Dear Readers, please begin not by reading, but by viewing the following:

You may have noticed, while watching, certain details:
1) The man wearing the mask of a bird of prey begins not by lending his attention to any thing or character in the film, but to us, his audience.
2) The apparently perished bird he gently lifts from the baluster exists, in this moment, only for us, and when the magician – dangerously – turns his back, hiding his movements and intentions, it is us to whom his back is turned.
3) As he begins his slow walk down the hallway – which might easily, with small adjustments, be located in a museum – and now drawing the attention of the ballgoers, certain figures keep catching the eye: matching black ravens, sly and standing apart, who promise to be accomplices or co-conspirators, but never reveal themselves as such.
4) The strange soulfulness of the inanimate gaze between two masks, duck and bird of prey, suggests that they too are accomplices, and especially the silk corsage she (of the duck mask) so conveniently wears. However, the rest of the film gives no indication that she knows, or could possibly know him.
5) The climactic moment of the mirror, with the sinister reappearance of the bird of prey, is announced by the chiming of a clock that rather oddly resembles a ringing bell.
6) The bird of prey leaves the scene silently and alone.
7) A bird is resurrected, a man dies. But he dies speaking of the “joy” of this moment.
8) The scene feels entirely self-contained – and in fact, upon viewing the entire film, nothing else in it matches its intensity and its aura of hidden meaning.

Our question: Is there, indeed, a hidden meaning here? If so, who is responsible for its insinuation into the film?

It has been hypothesized that this masked ball scene drew some of its inspiration from the oeuvre of J.J. Grandville, from which, in closing, we reproduce two lithographs: