Valéry, Paul (1871–1945)
As a law student in Montpellier, Valéry published poems and befriended such influential authors as André Gide and Stéphane Mallarmé. As a result of a personal crisis in 1892, he resolved to abandon literature and devote himself to his autodidactical pursuit of knowledge. While serving in the Ministry of War, and then as private secretary to a powerful businessman, Valéry found time to read and write. In 1894 he began the first of some 261 notebooks in which he developed his matinal reflections for over fifty years. At Gide's instigation Valéry began to prepare a volume of poems, and ended up writing La jeune parque (The young fate) (1917), a hermetic allegory of consciousness that established him as an eminent French poet. In 1927 Valéry was elected as a member of the French Academy. He went on to lecture and write about an astounding array of topics, including science, history, architecture, dance, the visual arts, literature, politics, globalization, modern warfare, psychology, and moral philosophy. His achievement includes volumes of poetry, melodramas written to the music of Arthur Honnegger, philosophical dialogues, and numerous collections of essays and aphorisms. A chair in poetics was created for Valéry at the Collège de France in 1936.
Valéry's relation to philosophy was ambivalent. The philosopher, he ironizes, is a "specialist of the universal" (Oeuvres, vol. 1, p. 1235). And the universal is only what is "grossier" (coarse or crude) enough to be so (Oeuvres, vol. 2, p. 881). The philosopher is an artist who does not admit it. Every abstract theory is at bottom a fragment of an autobiography. Words that serve people perfectly well in ordinary transactions become the object of infernal, Sisyphean labors when philosophers wrongheadedly take words as ends instead of means and look for their ultimate meanings. Words are like a board thrown across an abyss; we can cross over if we move quickly, but not if we linger and test the board's strength. As the past no longer exists, the idea of historical truth is problematic. Origins are elusive, and "everything begins as an interruption" (Oeuvres, vol. 2, p. 881).
In spite of his misgivings about philosophical generalizations, Valéry did elaborate various philosophical theses, especially in aesthetics. He critiques inspirationist models of artistic creation; moments of inspiration can only produce fragments. The making of artworks is always a combination of deliberate and spontaneous processes, only their proportion varies. Appreciating a work requires the imaginative reconstruction of the creative process. Yet the creator's thoughts about a work's meaning have no special privilege. In literature, language is an end in itself. Poetry is to prose as dancing is to walking. To describe or sum up a work—in five hundred words or more—is necessarily to fail to convey what is most essential to it.
The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, edited by Jackson Mathews. 15 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1956–1975.
Oeuvres, edited by Jean Hytier. 2 vols. Paris: Gallimard, 1957–1960.
Cahiers. 29 vols. Paris: Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1957–1961.
Paisley Livingston (2005)