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A Note on Paul Valéry

ISSUE:  Summer 1970

In 1932 I was in France for the second time, and I hoped to accomplish what I had failed to do on my first visit four years earlier: an introduction to Paul Valéry. I had met, in 1928, through the kind offices of Sylvia Beach, Valéry Larbaud; and now, in 1932, I was reading a small book, just out a year, by Larbaud, entitled “Fauteuil XXXVIII Paul Valéry.” Larbaud’s essay—it is only some twelve thousand words—was my first view of Valéry’s early life and career; and I still think, having looked at it again after almost forty years, that it is perhaps the best brief introduction to Paul Valéry for the foreign reader. The greater part of the book, following Larbaud’s essay, is composed of “Pages Inédites” by Valéry himself. At that time I had read about a dozen of the poems, including the four masterpieces, but I had not read any of the essays and dialogues. “Pages Inédites” is a miscellany of short discourses, aphorisms, and epigrams in a tradition that was not unknown to me. I had read in and around the “Pensées” of Pascal; Valéry was in that tradition, which only the precision of the French language could have made possible: the formally balanced, elegant aperçu tossed off with an air of spontaneity concealing the hard labor of calculated thought.

I never met Valéry: I cannot remember what went wrong—whether a conflicting engagement prevented Larbaud from taking me to see him, or whether it was Julien Green who had promised to take me but at the last minute couldn’t. It was just as well: the hero-worship to which I was still susceptible might have clouded, for a few years, the image of the man in the work; and it is the work that, in order to be contemporary, must never become wholly contemporaneous. Here, in “Pages Inédites,” was a man educated in the French classical tradition and fired imaginatively by his early entretiens with Mallarmé; whose apparently casual utterances gave me something more than the shock of recognition. It was rather a sense of my own identity, of a sameness within vast, elusive differences. Two of the aperçus I have never forgotten, and I quote them here because to my mind they contain the essence of the elaborate, complex, and subtle speculations that Valéry from time to time issued to relieve the tedium of creative paralysis.

Uintuition sans Vintelligence est un accident.

Les belles oeuvres sont filles de leur forme, qui NAIT AVANT ELLES.

These opinions—so easily and so gracefully tossed off— have inexhaustible implications which Valéry in his fifty-odd years of intermittent speculation, and even less frequent experiments in verse, was trying to define ever more precisely, not only in poetry (they contain his entire poetics), but in his essays and dialogues: the relation of intelligence and form is the underlying subject of the “Introduction á la Méthode de Léonard de Vinci,” his first ambitious work, published in 1895.

The scope of this discussion will not allow me to notice, with anything like justice to their merit, the vast number of prose works dealing with the role of the intellect (or of method, as Valéry was trying all his life to understand it) in the creative process. The typical Valerian irony of the claim to ignorance in the numerous little essays on painters—Degas, Morisot, Manet—might trap us into thinking that he was better qualified to understand the philosophical or scientific mind, since most of his prose is concerned with ideas. But we must not be misled; the irony I have noted is perhaps a little disingenuous intellectually; for there is no reason to believe that Valéry knew more about mathematics than about painting. It was simply that what little he knew he could use with greater precision than he could bring to bear upon the problem of form in painting. This is true of the twelve-year-old boy, who to the extent that he knows algebra at all, knows what he knows precisely; but the seasoned art-critic can never have knowledge more precise than the nature of the subject will allow; and this knowledge can never be as precise as one’s knowledge of quadratic equations. It was not different when Valéry became interested in architecture, as he inevitably would; for here was engineering—method—an art with a specific mathematical aspect that could be abstracted from the esthetic. But his investigation of this subject is cast into a Platonic dialogue, where dialectic permits him to evade direct formulations of the relation of concrete architectural forms to their engineering, or their rationale of method conceived Platonically. Here, even with an art the most mathematical of all after music, he was not able to show that the form was “born” before the “work.”

Valéry all his life, as poet, wrote like an Aristotelian; that is, he came to know the “form” (the meaning) in the completed work; but he talked like a Platonist whose ideas must always precede the intuition. I am inclined to believe that he might not have written the prose works (or as many as he did) had his philosophical interests developed after he had written his great poems. The early poems of “Album des Vers Anciens” are the work of a minor symbolist poet who had gone to school to Hérèdia and Mallarmé (with Baudelaire and Poe in the background); these poems could not have revealed to him the deeper movements of his creative powers. Had he not got fixed in the convention of a kind of Platonic Pyrrhonism, the “play” of ideas, which began as youthful intellectual inquiry and continued into old age as the vain mask of the sage, he would have learned from the great poems that the inquiry, as he conceived it, into form and intuition was irrelevant to his actual purpose as a poet. I take it that anybody who has any familiarity at all with “Ébauche d’Un Serpent” or “Le Cimetivre Marin” would reject the idea that there is form apart from the clusters of symbol which constitute the “intuition”—this, in spite of the somewhat elaborate hocus-pocus which Valéry offers us in his long meditation on the writing of “Le Cimetière Marin.” I call it a meditation, though “Fragments de Mémoires d’Un Poème,” published eighteen years after “Le Cimetière,” purports to be an analytical inquiry into the method that he had presumably adopted before he began to write the poem. Immensely more resourceful and sophisticated than Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition,” “Fragments” is the direct descendant of Poe’s essay and perhaps the most distinguished of its hundreds of descendants in what has become a new critical genre. This genre may be described as the rationalization of the imaginative act, in the attempt to reduce the poem to a pseudo-Cartesian criterion of “clarity” and “distinctness.” The word method appears almost obsessively in Valéry’s prose: he said many times that after poems were written he felt no interest in what he had said in them, but only in how he had been able to say it. This quasi-Platonic theory of antecedent form dominates all his writings on poetry, and form he equates with method. In this tradition of critical thought—a tradition which T. S. Eliot has described in his valuable essay, “From Poe to Valéry”—there is the progressive mechanization of the poem and the supremacy of method, until the poem itself becomes an esthetic machine. The machine produces a calculated effect upon the reader. If this is what Poe and Valéry thought they were doing, they were actually doing something smaller philosophically, and at the same time something poetically greater, than their calculations would have allowed them to do; with Valéry, at any rate, the great poems remain, and his idolatry of method cannot divert our attention from their full and mysterious wholeness. Valéry was a greater poet than his “intellect” wanted him to be; Poe’s intellect, narrower than Valéry’s, allowed him to see his poems, particularly “The Raven,” as greater than he could make them; there is a similar appeal in both from the poetry to omnipotent rationality.

Shortly after Valéry’s death T. S. Eliot wrote a short memoir, “Lecon de Valéry,” for a volume of hommages entitled “Valéry Vivant” (1946); Eliot said:

He could play different rôles, but never lost himself in any. Of some great men, one’s prevailing impression may be of goodness, or of inspiration, or of wisdom; I think the prevailing impression one received of Valéry was of intelligence.

Eliot’s remarks would justify, I think, the addition of an adjective—an impression of uncommitted intelligence. In “L’Idée Fixe” (1932) Valéry had written:

Je fabrique ma petite terminologie, suivant mes besoins … Ces sont mes outils intimes. Je me fais mes ustensiles, et les fais pour moi seul: aussi individuels et adoptés que possible à ma maniere de concevoir, et de combiner.

Vous n’êtes pas denué d’orgueil [says his interlocutor; then Valéry continues:]

En quoi? Est-ce que Robinson vous semble plus orgueilleux que quiconque? Je me considere comme un Robinson intel-lectuel.

An intellectual Robinson Crusoe improvising his tools and his philosophical food and shelter is a characteristic irony; for Valéry’s intellectual pride was so great that he could not accept a philosophy that offered ontological truth. Such “truth,” si arbitraire où si absurde, it is only necessary to develop a little pour rendre cette pensée ridicule, ou odieuse, ou naïve.

This side of Valéry is so well-known that I may seem to labor it. But since with his death a great literary tradition may have come to an end, I wish to explain it to myself a little more precisely than would be desirable were post-symbolism still a powerful force.

I know of no more engaging image of the angelic intellect than that of Robinson Crusoe: an intellect that is self-sufficient, starting from scratch, an intellect not only “unaided” in the theological sense, but dispensing with the great European philosophical traditions and relying upon its own improvisations. The situation of Robinson Crusoe on his island is that of the society without arts, which Plato said must “live by chance,” limited in its power to accumulate surpluses of material goods or of spiritual resources. By “arts” the Greeks meant techniques, our technologies. Yet by analogy the intellectual improvisation must likewise rely upon chance, moving from one petite terminologie to another—suivant mes besoins. Some ten years after he had been acclaimed in France as the greatest living poet, he published a small book entitled “Littérature,” which I suppose contains more wisdom about the possibilities and limits of poetry than any other work of this century. Between the extremes of the classical and the romantic sensibility the poet of our time, cast up on Crusoe’s island, and living by chance, may arrive by a sufficient cunning at an art which occupies the entire stretch between the extremes. I shall quote a long passage from “Litterature” because it seems to me that Valéry is talking about himself, defining what he thought he had done as poet (and perhaps in the greater poems, did):

Since the advent of romanticism singularity has been imitated instead of, as in the past, mastery.

The instinct of imitation has been the same. But to it the modern has added a contradiction.

Mastery, as the word indicates, is to appear to have command over the technical resources of an art—instead of being visibly commanded by them.

The acquisition of mastery then presupposes the acquired habit of always thinking, or combining, with the technical means as point of departure, and of never thinking of a work except in terms of its means.

The contradiction of modernism lies in the end in the impossibility of relating the singular to anything else, of combining it with another singular, since each intuition of the singular, being unique, defies the means: a method of the singular is thus a contradiction in terms. To the passage quoted above Valéry adds:

But it sometimes happens that mastery is taken off its guard and overcome by some innovator who by chance [italics mine], or by gift, creates new technical means and seems at first to have given the world a new work. But it is never more than a question of technique.

He is not to be reproached if here, as elsewhere, he fails to solve the ultimate problem of poetry, which is the relation of the means to the subject. We are concerned only with his characteristic way of allowing for innovation or singularity. Since the classical method as starting-point cannot deal with innovation, the innovation of singularity hits upon the right means by chance; and he adds, or by gift, as a question-begging afterthought.

Singularity as an effect to be aimed at, rather than a quality of the poet’s mind which suffuses the work as a secondary quality, is no doubt the hallmark of romanticism. Singularity would thus be the element of chance for the classical sensibility, but for the romantic, the means itself is hit upon by luck. The intolerable burden of the romantic sensibility cannot depend upon an objective continuity of forms and techniques. Yet it is important to remember that Valéry holds that it is only technique which counts in the end.

He seems to have conducted from youth to old age a circular argument in which means and ends chase each other round a ring, but which is the pursuer and which the pursued it is impossible to determine. Technique, or mastery of the means, would appear to be the only possible object of calculation, the focus of “clear and distinct ideas”; and I suspect that Valéry’s dialectic was doomed to irresolution by his Cartesian dualism, which made a clean break between sensibility and “ideas.” But in glancing at the great poems, we shall not be able to believe of Valéry, any more than of Poe, that his techniques were as calculated as he thought, or tried to think, or tried to make us think.

If we eliminated from Valéry’s poems five titles there would be little left to justify his great reputation: he would be a minor post-Symboliste poet of the school of Mallarmé. I suppose it is generally agreed that the principal poems are “La Jeune Parque,” “La Pythie,” “Fragments du ‘Narcisse,’ “ “L’Ébauche d’un Serpent,” and “Le Cimetière Marin.” Since my first acquaintance with these poems I have had difficulty with them, for I can never be sure that I have got them in my ear. (Mr. Justin O’Brien, Mr. Wallace Fowlie, and Mr. Jackson Mathews are perhaps the only American French scholars who can possess the auditory meaning of French verse.) The late Yvor Winters believed that “L’Ébauche d’un Serpent” is the greatest poem in any language. I wonder how he could be sure; but I am sure that it is a very great poem, though I prefer “Le Cimetière Marin” (which Winters acknowledges to be great); and in trying to set forth a few of the reasons why I think this I shall say all that I know enough to say about the poetics of Paul Valéry.

There is something a little haphazard about Valéry’s development as a poet, in the sense that from the early nineties to his death in 1945 there is no clear line of development of either subject or methods—in spite of his obsessive preoccupation with method. There seems to have been a sudden burst of imaginative energy which lasted about five years, during which he wrote the “great” poems; and he then subsided. From this, it does not necessarily follow, as Winters seemed to think, that Valéry must therefore be a lesser poet than Baudelaire, though for other reasons I think he probably is. Baudelaire produced one book, and he very early set out to do so. But apart from the structure of “Les Fleurs du Mal” as a single work, we could extract eight or ten poems which for range and depth of experience and of consciousness, might surpass any similar selection from Valéry. Yet it would be difficult to find any single poem by Baudelaire that comes as near perfection in intellectual structure, and in implicit imagery, as the two great Valéry poems. By implicit imagery I mean a kind of unity of idea and symbol, so that most markedly in the “Cimetière” one never knows whether the “argument” is really there, or exists only in our sense of it. The development of the “Serpent” is somewhat different: the argument is formidable and paraphrasable. I shall comment on this, and in the course of doing so comment on Winters’ brilliant commentary.

Winters’ statement of the theme of the poem is elaborate and I think exact, and it seems to me to exhaust the rational content. But there is a good deal of the poem left over, after the paraphrase; and it is this residue which seems to me intractable and even obscure beyond any obscurity that one may find even in “La Jeune Parque,” a poem which Albert Thibaudet called the most obscure in French literature. I shall not quote Winters, but shall refer the interested reader to his analysis in the essay, “Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature.” Winters sums up his statement of the theme as follows: “The theme is the most inclusive of tragic themes: one might describe it as the theme of tragedy.”

I am inclined to doubt that this is true, in the sense that I doubt that tragedy ever quite exhibits a theme as such apart from tragic action. What Winters describes as the theme of tragedy seems to me to be merely the historic paradox of imperfection and evil existing in a world that we can imagine only if we assume that it was created by a perfect being. God compromising and limiting his perfection, in the act of creating the material universe, is the theme of the “Serpent”; it is an ancient theme which received its philosophical formulation by the disciples of Plotinus—Iamblichus and Porphyry—and earlier informed the various Gnostic accounts of the mystery of evil. It is a great theme, and it allowed Valéry to write a great poem. But I believe that the magnificent residue of image, the subtle interplay of thought and sub-rational perception between Eve and the Serpent, is involved in an argument which we must scrutinize on its own merits, like any other philosophical position. And this argument seems to me deeply disappointing in a man of Valéry’s supposed philosophical resources. In stanza sixteen the Serpent, addressing Eve, says:

O chair mollement décidée,
Sans que je t’eusse intimidée,
A chanceler dans la splendeur!
Bientôt, je t’aurai, je parie,
Déjà ta nuance varie!

The last line here is an excellent example of Valéry’s power of reducing his argument to a sensuous image, and the triumph of the poem largely consists in the poet’s immense invention in this linguistic virtuosity which the French language far more than English allows.

What Winters called the tragic theme proceeds from the Gnostic theory of evil. The despair of the Serpent is his Gnosis of this evil, for it is knowledge of evil alone which constitutes evil for created beings. Hence the Serpent’s despair; and hence the fact that he has only despair to offer to God. Sin seems to be a little shadowy in this scene, in spite of the magnificent imagery in which Valéry presents the Serpent’s temptation of Eve. Winters points out the absence of Adam: he is not necessary to this intellectual drama, since it is not action but knowledge which dooms the Serpent, who is a surrogate of Adam. Winters’ commentary is not only of great value in itself; it compels one to rethink the structure of the poem. Valéry’s version of the myth seems to me a little off-center, a little “rigged,” although marvelously inventive. May we ask what he might have done with the full, traditional body of the myth? We shall not at any rate get an answer. I hope that I am not invading the privacy of Paul Valéry’s mind when I suggest that the Serpent is a methodologist too: that he is not interested in Eve (as Adam presumably was), that he is concerned with the method, not the action or the consequence, of temptation, and that the Gnostic philosophy of the Serpent is the inevitable projection of a mind obsessed with method.

I shall bring these observations to a close with a few cursory remarks on the “Cimetière.” This poem has been inundated with analysis, beginning with Valéry’s own. It seems to me a much greater poem than the “Serpent,” and its greatness was made possible because its subject did not contain the temptations to philosophical eccentricities that Valéry’s private myth of Eden offered. The “Cimetière” has no myth. It is a meditation in the poet’s own person upon a symbol which is first of all a natural piienomenon— the sea: the symbol is grounded in one of the eternal phenomenal mysteries. It has been suggested to me that the meaning of the title is: The Sea as Graveyard. We are not given a “philosophy” which we are tempted to argue with; the philosophy of “Le Cimetière Marin” is not reducible. If there is greater poetry in French or English in this century than the last stanza, I have not seen it:

Le vent se lève!… il f aut tenter de vivre!
L’air immense ouvre et referme mon livre,
La vague en poudre ose jaillir des rocs!
Envolez-vous, pages tout éblouies!
Rompez, vagues! Rompez d’eaux réjouies
Ce toit tranquille ou picoraient des foes!


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