Form, for Paul Valéry, was of central importance. Many of the intricately crafted poems in his collection Charmes (1922; Magic spells) not only richly demonstrate this critical preference but, as his many quips against the cult of Romantic “inspiration” tirelessly remind us, make formal qualities more meaningful than so-called content itself—the structure of the tides as opposed to the mere foam of events on the surface of the sea. Of the many verbal genres that occupied him throughout his long writing life, from poem, prose poem, drama, or mock Socratic dialogue on the one hand, to aphorism or fragmentary analysis on the other, where stands the essay in this self-imposed hierarchy of intellectual worth?
In Valéry’s own eyes, seemingly low on the list, however prolific an essayist he was to become. He tended to associate it with a conventional, rhetorically-led expression—as loose, by virtue of its discursive prose fabric, as mere walking to dancing, its very ease of comprehensibility a cause for suspicion (this the heritage of the symbolist cult of suggestive difficulty led by his friend and mentor, Stéphane Mallarmé). He valued instead, next to the polished voice of a poem with its power to integrate the different “speeds” of mental discovery, the brief but concentrated jottings of his private notebooks, the Cahiers (wr. 1894–1945), written at dawn before the more public commitments of the day.
Devoted for the most part to influential writers and thinkers—Descartes, Pascal, Goethe, Bergson, Nietzsche, Mallarmé—and often stemming from his eminent position at the French Academy, many of the essays of the several volumes of Variété (Variety) were occasioned by circumstance, even their scope and subject matter imposed. So much in demand did Valéry become, in fact, for everything from literary preface to inaugural discourse, that he referred to himself wearily in a letter to André Gide as the “Bossuet of the Third Republic.” First published as a collection by the Nouvelle Revue Française (New French review) in 1924 and subsequently extended in four further volumes (1929– 44) under the subject groupings of literary, philosophical, quasi-political, aesthetic, educational, and poetic (chronological grouping was considered by Valéry to be no more than systematic disorder), the essays of Variété nonetheless develop, for all their “varied” range of interests, the single, personal interest at the heart of his thinking: the functioning of the human mind, not the least our capacity for a kind of mental gymnastics or unifying self-awareness brought to bear on sensibility and even consciousness itself. Introduction à la méthode de Léonard de Vinci (1919; Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci), where a specific genius, the Renaissance “polymath” Leonardo, is characteristically used to typify a principle of the creative imagination, is but one example of such an interest in human possibility; or, again, “Crise de l’esprit” (1919;
“The Spiritual Crisis”), where the same theme of a “fiduciary” partnership between knowledge and individual freedom is extended to a prophetic examination of international relations, including the possible decline of the West through an excess of rationality. “We civilizations now know that we are mortal” is the famous first sentence of this open letter first published in English in the Athenaeum, or, in a companion piece,
“I wrote the other day that peace is the war which admits in its process acts of love and creation.”
From analysis of the revelatory mental processes involved in poetic composition, to the conditions of the modern world which make wars as predictable as avoidable, there is not one subject on which Valéry does not bring to bear his uniquely subversive method of assumed naivety (a “Robinson Crusoe” approach, as he called this favored method of banning all untested, secondhand knowledge from his empirical island), and, indeed, his peculiar clarification or “surgical cleansing” of a problem by attending first to its possible origin in words (“le nettoyage de la situation verbale”). The phrase itself, memorable like the walking/dancing analogy for its characteristic blend of precision and suggestion, can be found in the paradoxically well-crafted “Poésie et pensée abstraite” (1939 [the Zahrahoff lecture at Oxford Universityj; “Poetry and Abstract Thought”). It was one of many essays to become, to the post-symbolist generation and far beyond Valéry’s death in 1945, a source of almost biblical pronouncement on fundamental principles of aesthetic criticism (music, painting, and sculpture as much as literature) or—with his usual reflexive curiosity toward the trinity of mind, body, and world which, contrary to so much metaphysical thinking, he saw as the source, limit, and goal of all things human— on the hidden role of language in civilization and thought.
Here the reader may feel that, far from intellectual elitism, a sustained impatience with unnecessary detail informs Valéry’s notorious scorn for the would-be exhaustive or “encyclopedic” form of essay or lecture (that same impatience with a “naturalistic” aesthetic of accumulated detail which underlies his in some ways misguided attack on the novel as a true literary form). Wary of metaphysics and philosophical systems, and relegating the political to the realm of myth and dream, these and many of the pieces in parallel collections such as Maîtres et amis (1927; Masters and friends), Regards sur le monde actuel (1931, 1945; Reflections on the World Today), Souvenirs poetiques (1947; Poetic memories), or Vues (1948; Views) radiate a boldly simple wisdom capable of empowering the general reader with the virtues and rewards of the analytic: a ceaselessly vigilant, single-minded “voice” in which protest and a sense of renewed potentiality combine.
To return, then, to the creative tension between public and private, subject and object, unitary and fragmentary, undoubtedly present at the heart of Valéry’s extended prose writing: much of his reluctant later fulfillment as essayist is derived, it would seem, from the fertile surprise of “finding himself involved in an unaccustomed order of thought…”—in other words, from the challenge posed by the public dimension itself. At a far remove from the cult of pure potentiality symbolized by his fictitious monster of the intellect, Monsieur Teste, the externalizing commitment of the essay could be said to produce at its best a wonderfully agile balance of specific and general, enabling him to expand the intense but cryptic perceptions of the notebooks and even to breach, Leonardolike in the process, the falsely watertight divisions of Science and Art. However ostensibly alien to the tradition of personal confession (what more boring than to read the essays of Montaigne, he complains in the Cahiers), the essays frequently begin with some lively, personal anecdote concerning his reading (his notorious love-hate relationship with the 17thcentury Christian apologist Pascal, for instance) and, at the risk of a certain unrepentant monotony of focus, take delight in rediscovering the “natural flow of thought” temporarily disrupted by the initial demand. There is in the poet something of the potter’s art of accommodating the unexpected, he suggests in the early piece, “Au sujet d’Adonis” (1921; “Adonis”), to be used as the preface to an admired edition of La Fontaine’s fables, where the goals of pleasure and instruction combine.
With its focus on a “poetics” of mental life, the essay might be seen, finally, as an empathetic mode of discourse particularly suited to Valéry’s ability to remain detached from his subject while reidentified through generality itself. This is exemplified in, for instance, “Fragment d’un Descartes” (192,5; “Sketch for a Portrait of Descartes”—note yet another defiantly non-definitive title) where, moving as usual from personal anecdote to general perception, he conveys the excitement of Descartes’ first encounter with the seed of intellectual possibility to determine the rest of his life, if not the development of the whole of Western thought: a moment of crisis and mathematical insight we cannot but link with Valéry’s own formative crisis in 1892, the famous night of the storm when he felt himself divided in two, observer and observed, and decided to devote himself to the analysis of affectivity rather than its passive experience. Far from weakening objectivity, such passionate involvement in universality cannot but appear to strengthen the power of his argument: a disarmingly persuasive polemic full of grace, wit, and humor, if not without its moments of perversely “anti-literary” obstinacy (the notorious essay on Proust, for example, where he denies having read his great novel at all).
Valéry dedicated his reflections on the modern world to “those who adhere to no system or political party and who, therefore, are still at liberty to question what is in doubt and [a typically probing twist to the incipient cliché] not free to deny what is beyond question.” In valuing the freedom to question the most cherished conviction (religious, political, or otherwise), and in exploiting the implicit dialogue with his reader as a means of questioning the role of received ideas in his own thought, he characteristically revivifies the primary sense of the term “essay” as the French essayer— “to attempt,” or, in this case, to struggle against the damaging closure of a form of metaphysical thinking parasitic on language alone. In my ignorance lies my strength—the Cartesian “cogito” turned on its head? We are back, moreover, to the theme of formal difficulty (Leonardo’s “hostinato rigore”). It is in this sustained devotion to the pursuit of the shadow at the heart of light that Valéry, essayist and attempter of the impossible (for how can thought itself not betray the fluid, he seems to asks through the very form of the essay), might be said to reveal the Modernism underlying his classical achievement, but also, no less valuably, to vindicate the values of critical lucidity and stylistic balance kept alive by a limpid use of French prose still largely unrivaled to this day.
Ambroise Paul Toussaint Jules Valéry. Born 30 October 1871 in Cette (now Sete).
Studied at a lycée in Montpellier, 1887–88, baccalauréat, 1888; University of Montpellier, 1888–92., law degree, 1891. Military service, 1889–90. Worked in the War Office, 1897–1900; private secretary to Édouard Lebey, director of the Agence Havas press association, Paris, 1900–22. Married Jeannie Gobillard, 1900: two sons and one daughter. Coeditor, Commerce literary review, 19 24–32. Elected to the French Academy, 1925. Administrator, Centre Universitaire Méditerranéen, Nice, from 1933; chair of poetics, Collège de France, Paris, 1937–45.
Awards: honorary degree from Oxford University. Chevalier, 1923, Officer, 1926, and Commander, 1931, Legion of Honor. Died in Paris, 20 July 1945.
Essays and Related Prose
Introduction à la methode de Léonard de Vinci, 1919; as Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci, translated by Thomas McGreevy, 1929
Fragments sur Mallartné, 1924
Variété 1–5, 5 vols., 1924–44; first 2 vols., as Variety, translated by Malcolm Cowley and William Aspenwall Bradley, 1927–38
Études et fragments sur le rêve, 1925
Essai sur Stendhal, 1927
Maîtres et amis, 1927
Poésie: Essais sur la poétique et le poète, 1928
Divers essais sur Léonard de Vinci, 1931
Regards sur le monde actuel, 1931; revised, enlarged edition, 1945; as Reflections on the World Today, translated by Francis Scarfe, 1948
Calepin d’un poète: Essais sur la poétique et le poète, 1933
Discours aux chirurgiens, 1938
Tel quel (fragments from notebooks), 2 vols., 1941–43
Mauvaises pensées et autres, 1942
Souvenirs poétiques, 1947
Écrits divers sur Stéphane Mallarmé, 1950
Cahiers, 29 vols., 1957–61; Pléiade Edition edited by Judith Robinson, 2 vols., 1973–74;
Cahiers, 1894–1914, edited by Nicole Celeyrette-Pietri and Judith Robinson-Valéry, 5 vols., 1987–94 (in progress)
An Anthology (includes essays, poetry, and dialogues), edited by James R.Lawler, 1977
Other writings: poetry, three plays, and correspondence.
Collected works editions: Collected Works, edited by Jackson Mathews, 15 vols., 1957–75; OEuvres (Pléiade Edition), edited by Jean Hytier, 2 vols., 1975–77.
Davis, Ronald, and Raoul Simonson, Bibliographie des oeuvres de Paul Valéry, 1895– 1925, Paris: Plaisir de Bibliophile, 1926
Karaiskis, Georges, and François Chapon, Bibliographie des oeuvres de Paul Valéry, Paris: Blaizot, 1976
Austin, Lloyd James, “The Genius of Paul Valery,” in Wingspread Lectures in the Humanities, Racine, Wisconsin: Johnson Foundation, 1966
Benoist, Pierre-François, Les Essais de Paul Valéry, vers et prose, Paris: Pensée Moderne, 1964
Bowie, Malcolm, Alison Fairlie, and Alison Finch, editors, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Valéry: New Essays in Honour of Lloyd Austin, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982
Crow, Christine, Paul Valéry: Consciousness and Nature, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972
Crow, Christine, Paul Valéry and Maxwell’s Demon: Natural Order and Human Possibility, Hull: University of Hull, 1972
Crow, Christine, Paul Valéry and the Poetry of Voice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982
Franklin, Ursula, The Rhetoric of Valéry’s Prose “Aubades”, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979
Gifford, Paul, Valéry, Charmes, Glasgow: Glasgow University Press, 1995
Grubbs, Henry A., Paul Valéry, New York: Twayne, 1968
Ince, W.N., The Poetic Theory of Paul Valéry: Inspiration and Technique, Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1961
Ince, W.N., Paul Valéry: Poetry and Abstract Thought (an inaugural lecture delivered at the University of Southampton, 24 May 1973), Southampton: University of Southampton, 1973
Lawler, James, The Poet as Analyst: Essays on Paul Valéry, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974
Mackay, Agnes, The Universal Self: A Study of Paul Valéry, Glasgow: Maclellan, 2nd edition, 1980 (original edition, 1961)
Nash, Suzanne, Paul Valery’s “Album de vers anciens”: A Past Transfigured, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1983
Pickering, Robert, Paul Valéry, poète en prose, Paris: Lettres Modernes, 1983
Robinson, Judith, “Dreaming and the Analysis of Consciousness in Vaiéry’s Cahiers,” French Studies 16, no. 2 (April 1962): 101–13
Scarfe, Francis, The Art of Paul Valéry: A Study in Dramatic Monologue, London: Heinemann, 1954
Stimpson, Brian, Paul Valéry and Music, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984
Suckling, Norman, Paul Valéry and the Civilized Mind, London: Oxford University Press, 1954
Virtanen, Reino, L’lmagerie scientifique de Paul Valéry, Paris: Vrin, 1975
Whiting, Charles, Paul Valéry, London: Athlone Press, 1978
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