Paul Valéry on the Indispensability of Avatars

Paul Valéry is quoted in Stephen Dunn‘s Walking Light (New York, Norton 1993) as saying:

I believe in all sincerity that if each man were not able to live a number of lives besides his own, he would not be able to live his own life.

Valéry’s stress on the sincerity of this claim for the necessity of multiple personalities and selves is required, obviously, in case our first response is to ask which one of his selves is speaking.¹ But with that out of the way, we can get down to inquiring into the grounds for such a pressing need: Why is this multiplicity desirable? Why disdain a coherent, unitary, integrated, self? Or at least, why imagine that to maintain the appearance of one life, one self–for that is all that appears to remain in Valery’s imagining–many others are needed and necessary?

Perhaps because Valéry has noticed, like many of us do, that to want to take on many lives, to imagine living them in all of their particular details, appears as an essential component of our days and nights, that the taking on and trying out, of a new self is an integral part of our appreciation of the arts, and indeed, of others. If we empathize, it is because we can imagine ourselves as another; if we gaze in wonder at a painting depicting the joy, or sorrow, or daily tedium of another, it is because our imaginative capacity has revealed itself in our taking on the beings of those depicted on the canvas in front of us; if we feel ourselves captivated by a novel’s characters it is because we have allowed ourselves to feel themselves in us, to become them while we read.

Perhaps it is also because Valéry notices the difficulty in maintaining a coherent narrative of the self through our past and present, when physical appearances are fleeting, where psychological change is almost as continuous as our external transformation, where the attenuation, modification and alteration of the face(s) we present to our daily circumstances is a never-ending task requiring much careful attention and customization. More importantly it is a task we revel in, not one we resent. If there is a stable self, it appears at best as a convenient, fictional foundation for all the performances staged on it.

So the Internet didn’t create avatars or make them more popular; it just gave them another space to be shown and displayed in. It wasn’t and isn’t any different from all the other spaces in which we put on our personas: the office, the bedroom, the playing field, the performing stage. It lets us pretty up the avatar-construction and the showing and telling, but the activities it facilitates are not considerably different from those that take place in physical spaces: the artful posturing, the careful selection of profiles, the self-regulated speech–a Twitter feed or a Facebook timeline with a ‘personality’ can often function just like a feigned accent, a dressing-up, a personality makeover.

From many one, or rather, to approximate one, many. To convey the appearance of a self, one must appear to have many.


1. As Adam Phillips does in Terrors and Experts pp. 81.

5 thoughts on “Paul Valéry on the Indispensability of Avatars

  1. It’s a fascinating subject. I think it’s inherent in all of us to want to express the different emotions we experience, I’m not sure this equates to multiple personalities but rather one personality which is multi-faceted. We also tend to display aspects of ourselves according to who we’re with, rather like a chameleon we choose our colour or personality trait to one which we think will be agreeable in order to facilitate our sense of belonging and acceptance. When we are alone, perhaps that is the time we are faced with the ‘core’ of our personality, stripped of a reason to perform and for some, this can be the most challenging fof times, for others a relief and time to reflect.

    1. Rebecca,

      Good points; I think that other people help us in a way by bringing aspects of our selves to the fore – they, as it were, fully develop our personalities. The time alone you speak of can then be a moment to process all the changes that have taken place.

  2. Hi Samir.

    I agree absolutely with the “several lives” hypothesis.

    I am reading a book on developmental psycology, by Judith Rich Harris, which tells that you actually has a different personality for each group you interact. So it is the norm, not the exception, to behave one way at home, one with your friends at school, some other way with your gym friends, etc. And these behaviours may start identical but develop in distinct ways.



    1. Marcelo,

      Thanks for that reference – I’ll look it up. I often use this same response to folks who suggest that our online personalities are not real while the physical space ones are – I suggest those are also kinds of performances particularized for each encounter.


  3. It should also be noted that the impossibility of identifying a unitary stable integrated self is one of the basic teachings of Buddhism from the earliest texts. (no-self, along with impermanence, and suffering) comprise the teaching of the three Marks of Existence which are said to characterize all life within cyclic rebirth.

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