People looking to the seashore as a place to contemplate nature, life and humankind's position in a greater system may find themselves distressed by all the attention The Beach devotes to ourselves and our vigorous, unceasing activity. Paul Valéry's Sea Shells offers an antidote to that atmosphere of self-centered bustle.
A poetic essay written in 1936 and translated into English in 1964, Sea Shells paints in quiet observations rather than bright splatters of fact. The illustrations, 16 beautiful pencil drawings of shells by Henri Mondor, explore nuances of shading, curve and edge more than they portray biological reality. Yes, they show real shells: tuns and whelks, wentletraps and cones, miters and spindles and conchs. But like Edward Weston's black-and-white photographs of peppers, Mondor's drawings are free from distracting background and reveal neither color nor the slightest imperfection. Look at this form, they say, and marvel at it.
That, in essence, is the message of Valéry's delightful essay. Pick up a shell, he says, and revel in its elegance. "Run off by the billions, each different from the rest," seashells come in a fantasy of twisted sheets, spirals and helices. "Like a pure sound or a melodic system," he notes, shells "stand out from the common disorder of perceptible things." Who, a naive observer might ask, or what, could have made them? Yes, shells are made by shellfish. But what exactly does that mean? While "a seashell emanates from a mollusk," that emanation is neither an exercise of intent nor an operation of chance. Shells are rather the mindless recitation of an ancient lesson, perfectly memorized and metronomically reproduced by generation after generation of these oddly gifted creatures. A seashell reflects a life incomprehensibly distant from our own. A mollusk, like an ecosystem or the incalculable interplay of weather, wave and tide, "does not separate its geometry from its physics." Yet even the humblest of shells displays, says Valéry, "the sureness of execution, the inner necessity, the indissoluble bond between form and material" that human artists and artificers strive for. That mollusks, unthinking and utterly unaware, achieve such artless perfection is a phenomenon infinitely worth contemplating.
John R. Alden, an anthropologist and book reviewer, sunbathes on a granite slab in an abandoned quarry in Maine.