Home > posts > Valéry: a work is never completed, just abandoned (1933)

Valéry: a work is never completed, just abandoned (1933)

August 6, 2019

SOURCE: Paul Valéry (1871-1945). “Au sujet du cimetière marin.“ La Nouvelle Revue Française (March 1933). Translation at Ralph Keyes. The Quote Verifier. St Martin’s Griffin, 2006 as cited by https://quoteinvestigator.com/2019/03/01/abandon/#note-21874-2 (accessed 8/6/19).

SETTING: Paul Valéry was a successful French poet and philosopher. In 1933 he wrote an essay for La Nouvelle Revue Française about his poem “Le Cimetière marin”, which includes the abstract below that gives one of his most famous insights into the working habits of writers.


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.


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.


Valéry was a great poet, and like all great he knew that no work is ever perfected. One just has to stop at some point to move on.

It is like that in physics research. Every paper is merely abandoned, not finished. Bad physicists think they have completed a work. Good physicists know that no research line is ever perfected. There is always more to do. There are always tentacles that reach into other subareas, which further reach into other subareas. There is always something that is not perfect.

What makes a physicist great is erring on the side of thoroughness, yet knowing when to stop. It is not an easy balance to find sometimes. Some good advice: when in doubt, keep going.

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