Order, Disorder, and Oneself: French Polymath Paul Valéry on How to Never Misplace Anything
By Maria Popova
Anyone who has experienced the profound satisfaction of alphabetizing a bookshelf or organizing a kitchen cabinet knows the psychological rewards of transmuting physical chaos into physical order — something philosopher Gaston Bachelard captured beautifully in his 1957 meditation on the poetics of space. But the relationship between material and mental order isn’t always linear — the most brilliant person I know also happens to be magnificently messy.
Count on the great French poet, essayist, and philosopher Paul Valéry (October 30, 1871–July 21, 1945) — an intellectual titan who influenced such luminaries as Susan Sontag and André Gide, and one of humanity’s greatest crusaders for nuance — to offer a counterintuitive solution to the problem of order and chaos.
In one of his “analects” — aphorisms and short moral reflections from his notebooks, assembled in Collected Works of Paul Valery, Volume 14: Analects (public library) — Valéry writes under the heading Order, Disorder, and Oneself:
I have unearthed this notebook which I thought I’d lost. It had not been mislaid; quite the contrary, put in so “right” a place that I could hardly believe my eyes. To have put it there wasn’t like me. I’d lost touch with my Ariadne’s clew, my “disorder.” I mean a private, personal, familiar disorder.
From this personal anecdote Valéry proceeds to extrapolate a universal tenet of order, arguing that intentional organization — like all of our control strategies — is more likely to backfire and create disorder rather than order due to its forced nature:
If you don’t want things to get lost, always put them where your instinct is to put them. You don’t forget what you would always do.
Real disorder is a breach of this rule — a waiving of the principle of frequency. Disorder comes of putting things in places you have laboriously thought up or finally discovered after a series of experiments, calculations, deviations, and successive swerves from your natural bent. And you hail each new cache as a discovery, a New World, a marvelous solution!
So when I want to find the object again, I am obliged to retrieve one particular train of thought, without anything to guide me back to it.
But if it was placed instinctively, all I need is to rediscover myself, lock, stock, and barrel — that’s to say I have only to be myself.
If disorder is the rule with you, you will be penalized for installing order.
So — keep to your rule!
Collected Works of Paul Valery is a trove of timeless wisdom in its totality. Complement it with Valéry on the three-body problem — one of the most insightful things ever written about how we relate to our physical selves — then revisit Swiss artist Ursus Wehrli’s playful project The Art of Cleanup.
Published October 30, 2015