Brain Pickings

French Polymath Paul Valéry on “The Three-Body Problem”


“Everything that is masks for us something that might be.”

“It is in the thousands of days of trying, failing, sitting, thinking, resisting, dreaming, raveling, unraveling that we are at our most engaged, alert, and alive. … The body becomes irrelevant,” Dani Shapiro wrote in her beautiful meditation on the pleasures and perils of the creative life. And yet the body is the single most relevant, persistent, and unrelenting reality of our lives, a constant companion, on whom “we” — as much as we’re able to separate the “we” from the “it” — depend as much as “it” depends on “us,” an often ambivalent and conflicted codependence that endures, whether we like it or not, for as long as we are alive. Even consciousness itself can’t transcend the nesting-doll physical reality of the body that includes the brain that includes the mind that contemplates itself. But what, exactly, is the body as a conscious experience beyond a biological mass?

That’s precisely what legendary French polymath Paul Valéry (October 30, 1871–July 20, 1945) explores in his 1943 essay “Some Simple Reflections on the Body,” found in the altogether fantastic 1989 anthology Zone 4: Fragments for a History of the Human Body, Part 2 (public library), in which he poses “the three-body problem” — the trifecta of bodily realities that we each inhabit and struggle to integrate.

Illustration from 'The Human Body,' 1959. Click image for details.

He begins with the First Body, which possesses us more than we possess it and serves as a reference point to the world:

The [First Body] is the privileged object of which, at each instant, we find ourselves in possession, although our knowledge of it — like everything that is inseparable from the instant — may be extremely variable and subject to illusions. Each of us calls this object My Body, but we give it no name in ourselves, that is to say, in it. We speak of it to others as of a thing that belongs to us; but for us it is not entirely a thing; and it belongs to us a little less than we belong to it. . . .

It is for each of us, in essence, the most important object in the world, standing in opposition to the world, on which, however, it knows itself to be closely dependent. We can say that the world is based on it and exists in reference to it; or just as accurately, with a simple change in the adjustment of our intellectual vision, that the selfsame body is only an infinitely negligible, unstable event in the world.

There’s a particular amorphousness to this First Body:

The thing itself is formless: all we know of it by sight is the few mobile parts that are capable of coming within the conspicuous zone of the space which makes up this My Body, a strange, asymmetrical space in which distances are exceptional relations. I have no idea of the spatial relations between “My Forehead” and “My Foot,” between “My Knee” and “My Back.” … This gives rise to strange discoveries. My right hand is generally unaware of my left. To take one hand in the other is to take hold of an object that is not-I. These oddities must play a part in sleep and, if such things as dreams exist, must provide them with infinite combinations.

This First Body, Valéry argues, is “our most redoubtable antagonist,” for “it carries within it all constancy and all variation.” Then we get to the Second Body — the package of physical concreteness we present to others, as well as to ourselves:

Our Second Body is the one which others see, and an approximation of which confronts us in the mirror or in portraits. It is the body which has a form and is apprehended by the arts, the body on which materials, ornaments, armor sit, which love sees or wants to see, and yearns to touch.

Nude female anatomical figure, artist unknown, c. 1550. Click image for details.

This Second Body, with its cruel concreteness, is also the one that causes us distress — the part of our mortality paradox that makes it so burdensome and so distressing:

This is the body that was so dear to Narcissus, but that drives many to despair, and is a source of gloom to almost all of us once the time comes when we cannot help admitting that the aged creature in the glass, whom we do not accept, stands in some terrible close though incomprehensible relation to ourselves.

In some ways, this Second Body serves as surface protection for what goes on inside — that which we long so desperately to understand and make palpable, yet which remains largely mysterious and intangible:

One can live without ever having seen oneself, without knowing the color of one’s skin.

Man as Industrial Palace of Industry by Fritz Kahn, 1926. Click image for details.

This brings us to the Third Body, that of medicine’s fascination and the one best captured in the industrial-age vision for the body as a machine:

[The Third Body] has unity only in our thought, since we know it only for having dissected and dismembered it. To know it is to have reduced it to parts and pieces.

Complete Notes on the Dissection of Cadavers by Kaishi Hen, 1772. Click image for details.

And yet, Valéry suggests there is more to the human body than the abstract, the superficial, and the mechanical. He thus proposes a Fourth Body, which is distinct from the other three and is at once a Real Body and an Imaginary Body — a body of possibility:

My Fourth Body is neither more nor less distinct than is a whirlpool from the liquid in which it is formed. . . . The mind’s knowledge is a product of what this Fourth Body is not. Necessarily and irrevocably everything that is masks for us something that might be.

As Valéry brushes up against the inherent contradictions of this proposition, he hears “the Voice of the Absurd” within himself admonishing:

Think carefully: Where do you expect to find answers to these philosophical questions? Your images, your abstractions, derive only from the properties and experiences of your Three Bodies. But the first offers you nothing by moments; the second a few visions; and the third, at the cost of ruthless dissections and complicated preparations, a mass of figures more indecipherable than Etruscan texts. Your mind, with its language, pulverizes, mixes and rearranges all this and from it, by the abuse, if you will, of its habitual questionnaire, evolves its notorious problems; but it can give them a shadow of meaning only by tacitly presupposing a certain Nonexistence — of which my Fourth Body is a kind of incarnation.

Fragments for a History of the Human Body is excellent in its entirety. Complement it with Nancy Etcoff’s exploration of the science of beauty, which revisits Valéry’s theories with the lens of modern cognitive science and neurobiology.

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