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||Paul Valéry (1871-1945) - in full Ambroise-Paul-Touissaint-Jules Valéry|
French poet, essayist, and critic, who ceased writing verse for twenty years to pursue scientific experiments. Valéry was a member of the 19th-century poetic school of Symbolism, and its last great representative. Throughout his life Valéry filled his private notebooks with observations on creative process and his own methods of inquiry. He insisted that the mental process of creation was alone important – the poems were a by-product of the effort. "Enthusiasm is not an artist's state of mind", stated Valéry. T.S. Eliot has compared Valéry's analytical attitude to a scientist who works in a laboratory "weighing out or testing the drugs of which is compounded some medicine with an impressive name."
"Poetry is simply literature reduced to the essence of its active principle. It is purged of idols of every kind, of realistic illusions, of any conceivable equivocation between the language of "truth" and the language of "creation." (from Littérature, 1929)
Paul Valéry was born in Cette (now Sète), the son of a Corsican
customs officer, Barthelmy Valéry, and Fanny Grassi, who was the
daughter of the Genoese Italian consul and descended from Venetian
nobility. Valéry spent his childhood in the port town of his birth, and
remained through his life close to his Mediterranean origins. In youth
he occasionally complained to his friends of being bored by his
surroundings: "The fact is that I'm not amused here, among the
bourgeois and the brutes. Only the sea and a few books keep me
interested in life. I live in the library, and the rest of the time I
am bored. . . . " (Collected Works of Paul Valéry, Volume 15: Moi, translated by Marthiel and Jackson Mathews, 1975, p. 69) Bicycling was his favorite way to relax.
In 1878 Valéry was
enrolled in the town grammar school and then he went to study at the
lycée in Montpellier, where he was a very mediocre student. His father
died in 1887 and was buried at Cette. Valéry studied law at
the University of Montpellier, and obtained his licence in 1892.
Mathematics fascinated Valéry, but before his voluntary service in the
infantry he had been prevented from entering the Naval
School due to his weakness in this subject.
After moving to Paris, where Valéry lived in the rue Gay-Lussac, in a student hotel, he became a regular attendant at Stéphane Mallarmé's literary "Tuesday evenings" and the older poet's favorite disciple. Valéry's other early idols were Edgar Allan Poe, whose poems he also translated, and J-K.Huysmans. Mallarmé's influence is seen in Valéry's masterpiece La Jeune Parque (1917). Inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, Valéry started to write in notebooks, which were published posthumously in 1957-60 in Cahiers (Notebooks).
Following a passionate attraction for a young Spanish girl, whom he only saw in Montpellier but never ment, Valéry
went through a personal crisis. During a
stormy night in Genoa in 1892 Valéry experienced a "revolution of the
mind". He decided to free himself "at no matter what cost,
from those falsehoods: literature and sentiment" and set on a path that
would lead to gaining "maximum knowledge and control of his
intellect." The very act of writing, he decided, was one of vanity.
With a new goal in life, Valéry published two prose works. In Introduction à la méthode de Léonard de Vinci (1894)
he stated that "all criticism is the cause of the work as in the eyes
of the law the criminal is the cause of the crime. Far rather are they
both the effects."
La soirée avec monsieur Teste (1896) was the first of the numerous pieces of the Teste cycle. The painter Edgar Degas, who called him "Monseur Angel," refused the dedication of the book. M. Teste (Mr. Head) is an intellectual monster, whose whole existence is given up to the examination of his own intellectual process. The work was published in Le Centaure, and reprinted by Paul Fort, in his periodical Vers et prose.
In 1896 Valéry was employed in London by the press bureau of the British South Africa Company. He then served for three years in the artillery munition bureau of the French Army. In 1900 he married Jeannie Gobillard, a niece of the Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot. They had a son and a daughter.
Valéry's day-to-day living was quite uneventful. He worked as
private secretary to Edouard Lebey at Havas news agency. Lebey, a key
executive of the company, was afflicted with paralysis agitans.
Valéry held his position until Lebey's death in 1922, a turning point in his life.
One of Valéry's major ideas was that architecture, music, and poetry were the offspring of the science of numbers, echoing the thoughts of Pythagoras – "all is number". The writer André Gide and the publisher Gaston Gallimard, who persuaded Valéry to collect and revise the poetry he had written in the 1890s, interrupted his immersion in mathematical and philosophical speculations. "A poem is never finished, only abandoned," had Valéry himself once said. With La Jeune Pataque, one of his major works, Valéry broke his silence after 20 years of solitude and study. This work brought him immediate fame. Originally he planned to produce a poem of some forty lines, but he eventually finished with five-hundred-line poem.
Une esclave aux longs yeux chargés de molles chaines
Valéry's early poems were collected in Album de vers anciens 1890-1900 (1920). With the Charmes ou Poèmes (1922)
Valéry attained the status of most significant contemporary French
poet. Readers of the literary review Connaissance named Valéry the greatest contemporary French poet and Le Divan published a special number in May 1922 honoring him. In his most famous poem, 'Le Cimetière marin,' the poet meditates
as he looks at the cemetery by the sea at Sette where his parents – and
he himself ultimately – are buried. He initially feels that he loves
and envies the stillness of death, but comes then to the famous lines:
"The wind rises!... We must try to live!" The poem is composed is
Lebey's death left Valéry without employment, and he had to earn his living by publishing his writings. He lectured, wrote prefaces to ancient and modern works, and contributed to periodicals. However, Valéry was horrified to find out, that his letters to Pierre Louÿs were sold without his own consent on the rare-book market. The letters were retrieved by Julien-Pierre Monod, the grandfather of the director Jean-Luc Godard, and published in 1925 as XV Lettres de Paul Valéry à Pierre Louÿs. Eventually Monod began to manage the poets money, organized his lecture tours, and served as his secretary. Valéry referred to him as his "minister".
Jean-Paul Sartre noted once that "[Paul] Valery is a petty-bourgeois intellectual, no doubt about it; but not every petty-bourgeois intellectual is Valery". (The New Art History: A Critical Introduction by Jonathan Harris, 2001, p. 57) Valéry was elected to the Académie Française in 1925 and in 1933 he was made administrative head of the Centre Universitaire Méditerranéen at Nice. His fee as member of the académie was eighty-three francs. Valéry's "mélodrames" Amphion and Sémiramis, with music by Arthur Honegger, played at the Paris Opera in 1931 and 1934. In 1939 he wrote the libretto for Germaine Taillefer's Cantate du Narcisse.
In spite of being seemingly indifferent to his public, Valéry was a keen observer of his age. Until his death, Valéry was almost looked upon as a kind of state poet. As a member of the French Academy and President of the French P.E.N. Club, various representative duties fell upon him on many occasions, in spite of his complaints. There was always a flow of assignments, speeches and lectures to be done. ". . . be toastmaster at the Perrin manquet, participate in the Spinoza ceremonies (!) and type, type forever on the Oliver, type a Stendhal, type a Mallarmé, type a Europe, type a Lafontaine, type a Paris, type and Alphabet, type, type, type . . . " (Collected Works of Paul Valéry, Volume 11: Occasions, translated by Rober Shattuck and Frederick Brown, 1970, pp. xiv-xv)
On Anatole France's death Valéry had bee
admitted to the Academy, but instead of composing an "éloge" about
France he broke the precedent by unconventionally criticizing the
author, whose name he avoided mentioning. In the same speech (June
1927) he said that he disliked an honor "for which men of the first
rank often had to wait for so long, sometimes in vain, and some were
among the greatest and meritorious. . . " Whereas France had occupied
himself with politics and finally
declared himself a Communist, Valéry was not a political thinker. Also
France represented to many French literary people all that was
Valéry was appointed in 1937 professor of poetry at the Collège de France, but according to the poet Yves Bonnefoy who attended his lectures, he was not an inspiring lecturer. Standing in front of his audience, he just read his notes, in a low and monotonous voice.
Valéry died in Paris on July 20, 1945. His last principal work was the Faust fragments on which he began to work in 1940. 'Station sur la terlasse' (1942) in Cahiers was a poetic meditation on the aftermath of the end of the world he knew. Between the years 1957 and 1961 the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique published a facsimile reprint of his Cahiers. Two large volumes of selections came out in 1973.
For further reading: Paul Valéry: études by E. Noulet (1938, 1951); The Art of Poetry, Collected Works, vol VII by T.S. Eliot (1958); The Poem Itself, ed. by S. Burnshaw (1960); Paul Valéry by A. Berne-Joffroi (1960); The Poetic Theory of Valéry by W.N. Ince (1961); Paul Valéry by E. Sewell (1961); Paul Valéry: Consciousness of Nature by C. Crow (1972); Paul Valéry et le théâtre by H. Laurenti (1973); The Poet as Analyst: Essays on Paul Valéry by J.R. Lawler (1974); Paul Valéry by C.G. Whiting (1978); Margins of Philosophy by J. Derrida (1982); Literature and Spirituality, ed. by David Bevan (1992); Paul Valery Revisited by Walter Putman (1995); Paul Valery: Illusions of Civilization by Paul Kluback (1996); Paul Valery: A Philosopher for Philosopgers, the Sage by William Kluback (1999); Paul Valery: l'ecriture en devenir by Brian Stimpson (2009); The Figure Concealed: Wallace Stevens, Music, and Valéryan Echoes by Lisa Goldfarb (2011); Valéry: tenter de vivre by Benoît Peeters (2014); Reading Paul Valery, ed. by Paul Gifford (1999); Un été avec Paul Valéry by Régis Debray (2019) - Suom.: Valéryn runoja on julkaistu teoksissa Helikonin lähde ja Tuhat laulujen vuotta, toim. Aale Tynni (1974). 'Kalmisto meren rannalla' löytyy Lauri Viljasen suomentamana teoksesta Ranskan kirjallisuuden kultainen kirja (1934). - See also: Saint-John Perse, Colette