A Work of Art Is Never Finished, Merely Abandoned

Paul Valéry? W. H. Auden? Anaïs Nin? Maya Deren? Jean Cocteau? Gore Vidal? Marianne Moore? George Lucas? Oscar Wilde?

Dear Quote Investigator: A creative person who is absorbed with the task of generating an artwork hesitates to declare completion. Reworking and improving a piece are always tantalizing possibilities. Here are five versions of a saying about unavoidable incompleteness:

  • A poem is never finished, only abandoned.
  • A work is never completed, but merely abandoned.
  • A work of art is never completed, only abandoned.
  • Books are never finished—they are merely abandoned.
  • Films are never completed, they are only abandoned.

The prominent poets Paul Valéry and W. H. Auden have both received credit for this adage. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In March 1933 Paul Valéry published an essay in “La Nouvelle Revue Française” (“The New French Review”) about his poem “Le Cimetière marin” (“The Cemetery by the sea”). The saying under analysis was included in this article although the exposition was lengthy. Over time Valéry’s words were streamlined and modified to yield the current set of expressions. Here is the original French followed by a rendering into English. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Aux yeux de ces amateurs d’inquiétude et de perfection, un ouvrage n’est jamais achevé, – mot qui pour eux n’a aucun sens, – mais abandonné ; et cet abandon, qui le livre aux flammes ou au public (et qu’il soit l’effet de la lassitude ou de l’obligation de livrer) est une sorte d’accident, comparable à la rupture d’une réflexion, que la fatigue, le fâcheux ou quelque sensation viennent rendre nulle.

The following translation by Rosalie Maggio appeared in the valuable reference “The Quote Verifier”: 2

In the eyes of those who anxiously seek perfection, a work is never truly completed—a word that for them has no sense—but abandoned; and this abandonment, of the book to the fire or to the public, whether due to weariness or to a need to deliver it for publication, is a sort of accident, comparable to the letting-go of an idea that has become so tiring or annoying that one has lost all interest in it.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Work of Art Is Never Finished, Merely Abandoned

Notes:

  1. Date: Mars 1933 (March 1933), Periodical: La Nouvelle Revue Française (The New French Review), Article: Au sujet du Cimetière marin (Concerning the Cemetery by the Sea), Author: Paul Valéry, Start Page 399, Quote Page 399, Publisher: La Nouvelle Revue Française, Paris, France. (On February 23, 2019 QI accessed image showing Table of Contents via gallimard.fr; QI has verified that Table of Contents for March 1933 lists the article; also text is visible in multiple snippets within La Nouvelle Revue Française in Google Books, but QI has not yet accessed the issue directly to view the article) link
  2. 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Entry: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned”, Quote Page 167 and 317, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)

I Believe I Would Take the Fire

Jean Cocteau? André Fraigneau? Harold Acton? Ned Rorem? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A top literary figure whose home was packed with valuable manuscripts and art objects was once asked to choose a favorite item. A vivid and heartbreaking scenario was proposed by an interviewer. The reply described the perfect salvation:

Suppose flames were consuming your home and time was precious. What one thing would you carry away?

I would carry away the fire.

The discourse above is approximate because I do not recall the exact phrases. Taking the fire would save the valuable items. In addition, the action alludes to Promethean inspiration. Would you please help me to identify the interview participants and a citation?

Quote Investigator: In 1951 André Fraigneau conducted a series of radio interviews with Jean Cocteau. Transcripts of the discussion were published in 1965 and again in 1988 in a volume titled “Entretiens: Jean Cocteau et André Fraigneau”. Here is an excerpt from the French dialog. Emphasis added by QI: 1

André Fraigneau. — Parmi ces objets il y en a bien certains auxquels vous tenez particulièrement? Si par exemple, je ne sais pas, enfin, s’il y avait le feu chez vous, quel est l’objet que vous préféreriez et que vous emporteriez ?

Jean Cocteau. — S’il y avait le feu chez moi ?

André Fraigneau. — Oui.

Jean Cocteau. — Je crois que j’emporterais le feu.

Here is one possible English translation of the dialog:

André Fraigneau. — Among these objects there must be some that you are particularly attached to? If, for example, I don’t know, well, if there was a fire in your home, which object would you prefer, which object would you take with you?

Jean Cocteau. — If there was a fire in my home?

André Fraigneau. — Yes.

Jean Cocteau. — I believe I would take the fire.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Believe I Would Take the Fire

Notes:

  1. 1988,Title: Entretiens: Jean Cocteau et André Fraigneau, Authors: Jean Cocteau & André Fraigneau, Editeur: Jean-Paul Bertrand, Collection: Alphée, Description: Interviews of Jean Cocteau conducted by André Fraigneau; front flap of dust jacket states interviews were broadcast January 26 to March 28, 1951, Quote Page 80 and 81, Publisher: Editions du Rocher, Le Rocher, Monaco. (Verified with scans; thanks to Claire Lauper in Paris)

First They Ignore You, Then They Laugh at You, Then They Attack You, Then You Win

Mohandas Gandhi? Jean Cocteau? Robbie Williams? Julian Beck? Earl B. Morgan? Tony Benn? Peter D. Jones? Louis Agassiz? Arthur Schopenhauer?

Dear Quote Investigator: Mahatma Gandhi famously employed nonviolent strategies during the struggle for Indian independence. A quotation often attributed to him asserts that popular movements pass through four stages:

First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win.

I have been unable to find a good citation. Are these really the words of Gandhi?

Quote Investigator: Several researchers have attempted to find these words in Gandhi’s oeuvre without success. The saying was ascribed to him by 1982, but Gandhi died decades earlier in 1948.

The earliest known substantive match occurred in a speech delivered by Nicholas Klein at a convention of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America in 1918. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

And my friends, in this story you have a history of this entire movement. First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.

And that is what is going to happen to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.

Typically, a successful social movement is based on a proposition extolled as a truth. For example, the Gandhian movement was based on the assertion that India should be an independent nation. These propositions face opposition and a harsh reception. QI believes that the saying under analysis fits into a large and evolving family of statements about the multi-stage difficulties obstructing new ideas and truths.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading First They Ignore You, Then They Laugh at You, Then They Attack You, Then You Win

Notes:

  1. 1918, Documentary History of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America: 1916-1918, Proceedings of the Third Biennial Convention of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, (Held in Baltimore, Maryland on May 13 to May 18, 1918), Address given in Fourth Session on Wednesday, May 15, 1918, Address of Nicholas Klein, Start Page 51, Quote Page 53, Published by Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. (Special note on dating: The dating on the document was confusing. In some locations the year 1919 was listed. In other locations 1918 was listed. I checked the day of the week for May 15, 1918 and May 15, 1919 and only the earlier date matched the specified weekday of Wednesday) (Google Books Full View) link

A Great Literary Masterpiece Is Only a Dictionary in Disorder

Jean Cocteau? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The prominent French writer Jean Cocteau has been credited with the following humorously skewed definition. Here are three versions:

  1. A great literary masterpiece is simply a dictionary in disorder.
  2. The greatest masterpiece in literature is only a dictionary out of order.
  3. Masterpieces of literature are nothing more than the alphabet in disorder.

Would you please help me to find the original citation in French?

Quote Investigator: The statement appeared twice in the Cocteau’s 1924 work “Le Potomak, 1913-1914: Précédé d’un Prospectus 1916”. The section “Première Visite au Potomak” contained this text: 1

Si Hugo vous avait confié son oeuvre inédite, sans doute lui eussiez-vous rendu le dictionnaire Larousse, car, songez-y, Argémone, un chef-d’oeuvre de la littérature n’est jamais qu’un dictionnaire en désordre.

The section “Prospectus” referred to the text above: 2

Mes poètes furent: Larousse, Chaix, Joanne, Vidal de La Blache. Mes peintres: l’afficheur. La moindre impulsion suffisant à ma paresse de goinfre. A cette date, je notais (POTOMAK, p. 244): « Le plus grand chef-d’oeuvre de la littérature n’est jamais qu’un dictionnaire en désordre »

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading A Great Literary Masterpiece Is Only a Dictionary in Disorder

Notes:

  1. 1924, Title: Le Potomak, 1913-1914: Précédé d’un Prospectus 1916, Author: Jean Cocteau, Edition: 1924 Septième Edition, Texte Définitif, Section: Prospectus, Quote Page 14 and 15, Section: Première Visite au Potomak, Quote Page 243 and 244, Publisher: Librairie Stock, Delemain, Boutelleau & Cie, Paris. (Verified with hardcopy)
  2. 1924, Title: Le Potomak, 1913-1914: Précédé d’un Prospectus 1916, Author: Jean Cocteau, Edition: 1924 Septième Edition, Texte Définitif, Section: Prospectus, Quote Page 14 and 15, Publisher: Librairie Stock, Delemain, Boutelleau & Cie, Paris. (Verified with hardcopy)