Paul Valéry (1): The Life Of a Mind

Poetry never interested me as a kind of nightingale’s instinct—but
particularly as a problem and a pretext for difficulties—or as a
well-defined construction [ … ] Nothing seems to me more
common or more negligible than the poet reduced to a poet.


In 1896, four years after he stopped writing poetry, Paul Valéry
published the first of two remarkable texts that broke with the
languorous romanticism of the Symbolists and other fin-de-siècle
literary movements with which he had been associated. An
Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci is a complex
intellectual fantasy on structure, symmetry, composition, and the
psychology of the creative mind. Published a year later, An Evening
with Monsieur Teste is a portrait, evocative of the later works of
Kafka and Borges, of a man who has reduced life to pure intellect
and a Robinson Crusoe–like existence of mental self-sufficiency.
From 1897 to 1917 Valéry published nothing more, and his early
writings receded into a legend of artistic reserve, their author
conflated with his character Teste: “I dreamed that the strongest
minds, the wisest inventors, the most precise connoisseurs of
thought, must have been unknown and selfish men who die without
revealing themselves…”

Then in April 1917, Valéry’s long poem La Jeune Parque, or
The Young Fate, appeared as if out of nowhere in the window
display of the publisher Gallimard. Classical rhymed couplets
dissimulate an impressionist weave of abstract images: “My
desire,” Valéry wrote in a letter, “has been to put, in flashes
perhaps, in a nearly classical form and language, images that are
entirely modern.” The poem stands with Eliot’s The Waste Land
and Rilke’s Duino Elegies as a boundary stone where the old
culture passes into the new. Three years later he published the
Album de vers anciens (Album of Early Verse), and two years later,
Charmes (Charms).

A boundary stone can be seen as a beginning or an end; the
formal perfection of Valéry’s mature poems was already an
anachronism in an age that had tasted Apollinaire and Dada. The
Young Fate and the two collections that followed established
Valéry’s reputation as the last master of classical French verse,
culmination of the Symbolists and a line of descent through
Mallarmé back to Baudelaire, the final inheritor of Racine’s
sonorous line and Victor Hugo’s lyric intensity. Very soon he was
elevated to the rank of an eminently public figure, the icon of the
poet. At the same time, he ceased in a sense to be a poet: after the
second edition of Charms, from 1926, he published thousands of
pages of writing but no new verse of any consequence.

Valéry devoted the prolific last decades of his life to writing
volumes of essays, introductions, public addresses, poetic
dialogues, on every imaginable topic. He wrote effortless and
brilliant pages on politics, culture, philosophy, aesthetics,
architecture, art, and dance … and, of course, on literature and
poetry. The neoclassicism of his formal masterpieces, the analytical
lucidity of his essays, the extremes of reason and method of
Monsieur Teste coalesced into the image of the supremely selfconscious
poet. Valéry, T. S. Eliot famously wrote, “will remain for
posterity the representative poet, the symbol of the poet, of the first
half of the twentieth century—not Yeats, not Rilke, not anyone

The works that most contributed to this image were
undoubtedly his collections of prose fragments. Beginning
discreetly around 1919, then in earnest in the 1920s after all his
important lyric poems had appeared and the energy that produced
them seemed spent, he began publishing short books with titles
such as Rhumbs, Poetry in the Rough, Little Studies, Instants, Lost
Poetry, that were then collected into longer ones, Tel Quel,
Mélanges … They seemed, at first reading, to be collections of
prose poems in the tradition of Rimbaud, fragments of poetic
vision, observations on the poetic process, aphorisms and remarks
on language and thought, “thoughts and impressions,” as Valéry
himself once called them with deceptive simplicity.
In the prefaces of these little volumes, he expresses a deep
reticence, reminiscent of Monsieur Teste, to publish what he
presents as hastily prepared and arbitrarily ordered material. There
is also a constant concern with being misunderstood by his readers.
Exactly how they were being misunderstood only became clear
decades later. Yet the clues were there, for instance in the preface to
Analects (1926), where he writes: “For thirty years I have been
keeping the journal of my experiments. No sooner risen from my
bed, before the day, in the first dawn, between the lamp and the
sun, a pure and profound hour, I have the custom of writing
whatever follows from its own invention. The idea of another
reader is entirely absent from these moments…”

Others make books; I am making my mind.
—ALGOL, 1902

Behind the published works, behind the uneventful life of the
almost forgotten and then exceedingly famous poet, there hides
another story, a private life of the mind, that has its record in
28,000 pages of notebooks revealed in their entirety only after his
death. Their existence had been hinted at, of course, evoked in
rumors and literary asides; but once made public it took years for
their significance to be fully appreciated. It turned out that the
prose fragments published in Valéry’s lifetime were not what they
had been taken to be: they were not after-the-fact musings of an
accomplished poet, nor his occasional sketchbook, nor excerpts
from his private journal. They were a disfigured glimpse of a vast
and fragmentary “exercise of thought,” a restless intellectual quest
as unguided and yet as persistent, as rigorous, and yet as
uncontainable as the sea which is so often their subject. The poems
themselves, mere “exercises of literature,” were the necessary
accidents, the glance of sunlight on the multifaceted waves of that
same swell. For a writer profoundly nourished on ideas of
architecture and music, whose poems are marvels of form and
space, his inevitable inability to find a form for this greatest of his
works represents perhaps the essential contradiction of his life.

To publish, one day, this investigation, it would be better to do it
in the form: I did this and that. A novel if you prefer, or if you
prefer a theory. The theory of oneself.

Reviewing a biography of the Swedish scientist and mystic
Emanuel Swedenborg in 1936, Valéry writes: “I saw emerging
from chapter to chapter the extraordinary Novel of a ‘second’ life,
—I say novel because during my reading I naively experienced that
intense desire for sequence, that thirst for development, which
normally seizes us only with those productions whose purpose is to
evince the delights of adventure … for my particular tastes, there is
no voyage to the frontiers of reality, no fantastic tale, no epic or
dramatic narrative more powerful than the study of the
inexhaustible creator and universal transformer that we call the

The notebooks were intended as an essentially analytic work.
Yet reading their repetitions and contradictions, their claims and
hesitations, their constant search for form and almost immediate
negation of what form they find, is like reading such a “Novel of a
second life.” Valéry’s first model was Descartes, for having told the
story of his intellectual quest to reestablish his thought on first

The Discourse on the Method … is truly the modern novel … the
philosophy that came after him rejected the autobiographical part.
Yet that’s the part that should be retained; one must record the life of
a theory as one records the life of a passion (sex) … (Letter to André
Gide, 1894)

The life of a theory. In Valéry’s case, the very human life of a
quest for a nearly inhuman lucidity. The notebooks, unfolding
through constant self-searching and self-definition, are at the same
time the theory, the record of the theory’s life, and the record of the
life of Paul Valéry himself.

A generation “formed by the cult of the Beautiful.”
— B, 1916

Rating: 1 out of 5.

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