Saturday, July 21, 2018

'An Attitude of Permanent Indignation

In remembrance of Paul Valéry, who died July 20, 1945, Frank Wilson on Friday posted a tart little aperçu from Analects (trans. Stuart Gilbert, 1970), a selection of aphoristic entries from the poet’s notebooks:

“An attitude of permanent indignation signifies great mental poverty. Politics compels its votaries to take that line and you can see their minds growing more impoverished every day, from one burst of righteous indignation to the next.”

Nicely chosen, Frank. A French poet dead seventy-three years diagnoses the mood of our time and place. Never in my experience has anger been so fashionable. It’s intoxicating, a rush of speed to the cerebral cortex, but what anger junkies fail to understand is that when they rant and froth, the sensible people around them stop listening. Anger negates thought, and then we turn feral. Unchecked, the mingling of anger and politics leads us to the gates of the Gulag. Angry people are always right. Just ask them. Please, keep anger in the playpen where it belongs.

Valéry possessed the coolest of intellects. Joseph Epstein singles out his “intellectual contempt for politics, which he felt took on life en masse, or in its coarsest possible form.” To be angry and politically minded is to be blind to individuals and see only demographics. On the same page in Analects is a related entry:

“Pamphleteers, orators, zealots, noisy fanatics—tell me, don’t you ever feel that the man who is shouting is on the brink of only pretending to shout?” And this: “Each party has its own program of indignation, and its standard reflexes.”

How often, while listening to a politician, have you been able to complete his sentences before he can? Whether he feels any of the anger he feigns is another question.

The title Valéry uses for this section of Analects is “Rhumbs.” It’s a nautical term explained by him as “a direction definable as the angle on the plane of the horizon formed by a straight line and the meridian on this plane, or the angular distance between two successive points of the compass.” A rhumb is a constant compass bearing. Valéry explains:

“Just as the compass needle remains relatively steady though the course may vary, so the caprices or swerves of our thoughts, the variations of our attention, incidents of our mental life, vagaries of our memory, the diversity of desires, emotions, and impulses—all can be regarded as deviations measurable by comparing them with a permanent directive, hard to define but always present in our mind: an awareness of our stable self as against each of our momentary selves.”

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