The Demon of Possibility

Paul Valéry, Preface, An Evening With M. Teste, 1925

Who knows but that most of the prodigious ideas over which so many great men, and a multitude of lesser ones, have for centuries turned gray, may be psychological deformities — Monster Ideas — spawned by the naïve exercise of our questioning faculties, which we carelessly apply here and there — without realizing that we should reasonably question only what can in fact give us an answer?

But the monsters of flesh rapidly perish. Yet not without having existed for a while. Nothing is more instructive than to meditate on their destiny.

Why is M. Teste impossible? That question is the soul of him. It turns you into M. Teste. For he is no other than the very demon of possibility. Regard for the sum total of what he can do rules him. He watches himself, he maneuvers, he is unwilling to be maneuvered. He knows only two values, two categories, those of consciousness reduced to its acts: the possible and the impossible. In this strange head, where philosophy has little credit, where language is always on trial, there is scarcely a thought that is not accompanied by the feeling that it is tentative; there exists hardly more than the anticipation and execution of definite operations.

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