'What is surprising is not that things are; it's that they are such and not other', Valéry writes in the 'Note et digression' he appended to his Leonardo essay in 1919. This is profoundly opposed to the pragmatic and positivist English tradition, which takes the world and ourselves for granted and sees the task of art as the simple (or not so simple) exploration of the vagaries of life and the problems of mortality. it is this, we could say, that makes it difficult for the English to respond to the manifestations of European modernism, which is too often accused of 'abstraction' and 'deliberate obfuscation', whether it be the poetry of Rilke and Paul Celan, the philosophy of Heidegger and Derrida, or the novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Thomas Bernhard. For the English reader and critic, not to be interested in nature for its own sake, not to be interested in the moral dimension of murder and adultery, is not merely a literary but a human failing, a sign of a fatal abstraction, an unwillingness to engage with life as it is. For Valéry or Robbe-Grillet, to be interested in a tree or a bird - or a murder or a jealous husband - for its own sake, is to be concerned merely with the anecdotal and ephemeral. What interests them is what bird-leaving-tree tells us about our condition, it is the nature of murder and of jealousy.
Gabriel Josipovici, The Teller and the Tale