Paul Valéry

Paul Valéry, the French poet and essayist, was born in 1871 in the small town of Cette overlooking the Mediterranean. His childhood was made memorable by the light and sea of a coastwise village and by the magnificent architecture of Genoa, where he spent his vacations. Italy, whose language and literature he soon mastered, became his “other country.”After his military service, his friendship with André Gide, Pierre Louÿs, and Stephen Mallarmé became a pivotal influence in his career. He turned away from the study of law and began to contribute to the Nouvelle Revue. To his son, FRANCOIS VALÉRY, We are indebted for this intimate and perceptive portrait of a poet’s preoccupation, which has been translated for the Atlantic by Esther P. Shiverick.



IN STATURE and bearing my father, Paul Valéry, resembled the French foot soldier: he was short and well-proportioned, spare and lively; nothing mannered or affected. He did not like tall men — not that he envied them, but he suspected that their brains were relatively smaller.

He had pale eyes, not exactly blue; silver blue or gray at. times, deepening to violet if he chose to gaze at you directly. He spoke quickly, without raising his voice, which was flat, with some barely perceptible traces of the Midi accent: “Speak out, will you,” Degas used to say. lie smoked fifty or sixty cigarettes a day; he rolled them himself, very neatly.

My father’s hands were not so much fine as clever and symmetrical; they were warm and virile. He liked to use his hands, and he entertained us children with marionettes. He had a fancy for pointless little objects, and one of the drawers of his worktable contained rags, bits of string, candle ends, and pliers, with a few useless tools bought from street peddlers; he called it his slops drawer.

He was not orderly and was always losing things, rummaging in all his pockets before he came on his lighter or his spectacles. Doubtless he wore his monocle around his neck for that reason, but it often escaped his eye socket to dive into the soup.

Not many authors have been content with such inconvenient working conditions: a room heaped with the books people sent him, which he rarely read (though he rather liked undoing packages), and strewn with notes and files. Sometimes a pile would topple and an inkwell tip over; then we would hear his voice through the closed study door: “Nom de Dieu de nom de Dieu!” He dreamed of a big room, with a plank on trestles, where he could have spread out his notes to sort them. But he always returned, with soldierly regularity, to his painted white table, his window, and the two or three chimney pots on which he gazed before sunrise.

He could, on the whole, put up with a good deal of noise, objecting only feebly to the racket we made as children; hurdy-gurdies and scales bothered him, but he came to endure the radio’s gabble and static without apparent annoyance.

His naturalness put him at ease with everyone, with royal personages and (more remarkable and doubtless more difficult) with children. We seldom confided in him, but I think he received confidences with difficulty; still, there was nothing strained or conventional in our relations.

My father punished us very rarely, and generally mistakenly; he could not bring himself to make a punishment outlast his rancor, and he had no rancor. When sometimes he did make a remark, he would add hastily, and quite without indignation, “I know you won’t pay it any mind,” and things were left at that.

When we were sick, he told us stories, dancing a marionette at the foot of the bed. The devil always came into it; my father enjoyed the devil. Perhaps that accounts for his delight in Punch-andJudy. One particular demon never would appear until the sorceress piously kissed the behind of a black hen. He could have written marvelous tales in the manner of the Thousand and One Nights, of which he was very fond.

Before I was born, at a time when he had more leisure for his children, he built cardboard créches for my brother and sister, to shelter the figures my grandmother sent from Italy. In my turn, I had a little theater and he made sets for Die Walküre and Parsifal. He liked children to use their ingenuity by inventing their own games.

He would make faces at us, and take us walking “as far as the Metro of the Place Victor Hugo,” which he pretended was a place of vast delights, or to the Trocadero aquarium. He walked very fast and never noticed that we could barely keep up. For my father, though kindly to a fault, seldom put himself in the place of another. Just as he walked too fast for his children, he never tried, or seemed to try, to understand them.


MY FATHER was perfectly at home in hotel rooms. I suspect that it was these rooms, anonymous but comfortable, which he most enjoyed when he traveled. Trips generally bored him. Any capital, river, or bridge was just another capital, river, or bridge. Foreign ports did not beguile him: nor did the country, where he was much annoyed by bugs that stung and scratched—“all that little hostile world.”

He preferred trees to flowers. He liked the sea, lateen sails, the shape of hulls and anchors, sailors’ knots, cordage, and the names of nautical things. The delight of swimming recalled his boyhood holidays at Genoa; he liked to swim under water, not, however, risking any great distance — he had almost drowned twice, and told of being attacked by an octopus. On the beach, he scavenged for shells and dry bones, and brought them back to Paris for his collection of valueless objects which he defended bitterly from the covetousness of his children.

He never went to the theater or the cinema, and to very few concerts. He read very seldom—no novels, little verse. Sometimes he would reread a tragedy of Corneille, a fable by La Fontaine, a Dossuet sermon, or even Monsieur Nicolas by Restif. His last reading, undertaken especially for a lecture at the Sorbonne, was Voltaire’s correspondence. He usually went to bed early and there would be a mathematical treatise on the bed table, or a copy of Virgil or Tacitus; sometimes a book on French or Latin etymology, or even a crossword puzzle. In this way he overcame insomnia; he was always able to fall asleep easily, but he was awakened by terrible fits of coughing.

This nervous man was indulgent and perfectly easy to live with. He never said or did anything to create or further a quarrel. He was courteous and detested squabbling; but he did reply to those attacks, absurd as they were, which bore on himself rather than on his work; for he was serious about integrity and such virtues as have been called middle-class. He respected the rules of the game. Put his tolerance, though it was generous almost to a fault, could wear thin. He was often mistaken in people, either through ingenuousness or pure indifference. Once disabused, he turned his back on them.

My father was immensely grateful for any favor: admiration affected him all the more because he neither sought nor expected it. One day, when we were looking at a very elaborate heating plant in a big Parisian railroad station, one of the workers showed him a filthy book, with torn bindings and the back unglued; it was a ragged copy of Eupalinos by Paul Valéry. I saw that my father was moved.

He did not pass judgment on others, his colleagues in particular. He did not know them well, nor did he take any interest in them. Even if he had been better acquainted with their work, it would probably have made no difference; for, as he said positively, he “wouldn’t have known what to make of it.” Things held his attention only when he could learn from them or when he thought he could not have done them himself. After one of his rare visits to the theater (in this case to see a clever popular play), he said he was “quite impressed" find added, “I wouldn’t be able for the life of me to do such a piece of work.”

Much as he might complain of it, his memory was remarkable. He knew a great deal of poetry by heart, and had a good background in all subjects, particularly history, which he disparaged. He was interested in everything that the history books left out.

Contrary to what has been said of him often, he was no mathematician — his studies had not taken that direction — but he understood mathematical methods of reasoning; concepts of function, transformation, grouping, and substitution always held his interest and directed his own researches into the fields of language and the workings of the mind. He liked to work out problems and make algebraic calculations. But when he helped one of his children with a lesson, the results were often pathetic — partly because his correct reasoning often led him to a false numerical solution; partly because he would not stoop to elementary methods, with the result that the teacher could not fail to suspect.

In mathematics, as in almost all things, Paul Valéry, without being self-taught, behaved as though he were. This he did conscientiously.

When I was a child, I didn’t know what my father did; I seem to remember that the nature of his profession— which he did not regard as such — was revealed to me by his sudden election to the Academy. I wouldn’t have been surprised at being told that he was a colonel, an engineer, a civil servant.

Later, when I became acquainted with the world of letters, I realized how accurate my instinct had been; my father was not a man of letters, even though he placed tremendous value on language. I mean that the odor of literature did not hover about him. He had the pride and the humility of a scientist. He could have applied his “system" to other fields — to military science, for instance, or political economy. His notebooks bear witness. He dealt as a man of action with the things of the spirit. His system was a system of powers. He was inspired all his life by the idea of “doing.”

Paul Valéry profoundly admired Wagner’s work — Die Walküre above all. To him Wagner was a strategist, supremely conscious of his designs, deliberate in his attack on the sensibility of his public. My father, who loathed the piano, would refuse Chopin and ask my mother to play a passage from the Ring cycle. Sometimes, too, he would play with one finger — to which his technique was limited—the themes of Brünnehilde or Wotan. His ear was accurate and retentive. When he was cheerful he would hum whole passages from the operettas of Lecocq or Offenbach, or Gounod’s Faust, imitating a provincial baritone. He did at one time like Beethoven, but eventually wearied of him, finding him tedious, inclined to be repetitive, and sometimes vulgar. He admired Gluck’s recitatives and some Bach, but they soon bored him: “‘It might as well go on forever.”

Actually, in music as elsewhere, he sought that on which his intellect could feed. He envied musicians, feeling that, unlike poets, they were not obliged to use a language meant for general purposes, nor did they have to consider the everyday meanings in the elements they combined. Poetry seemed to him the most difficult of the arts.

He drew well, using his fountain pen, and made shadows by licking his finger to spread the line. Occasionally he did water colors and oils. He was interested in composition, the problems of projecting the three-dimensional forms onto one plane, and the play of these forms in light. His preference for Leonardo, Rembrandt, Daumier, Degas, and Claude Lorrain is not surprising. He himself chose a little sketch to put by his bed; it was by Berthe Morisot, his wife’s aunt: two swans, barely decipherable, yet beautifully poised on the surface of an illusory lake. But he was irritated by those canvases which represented three pears or four apples, unless they were by Chardin and the execution made up for the subject.

He loathed the dullness of museums; ho thought the curators absurd in their mania for turning them into catalogues of art history by grouping works chronologically. He would have liked them to erase the names from the canvases.


HIS day began with coffee, about five or fivethirty in the morning; very black coffee, almost like syrup, which he concocted himself. Before dawn, in pajamas, his shoulders shawled, holding a cigarette as he watched day come above the chimney pots, my father would devote himself with implacable regularity, with an inhuman perseverance, to a solitary rite: the attempt to create a personal language, to recast the dictionary to his own use, to follow certain themes to vanishing point, to accumulate notes, never including anything which had not been genuinely thought through — which, that is, even after deepest introspection, could not be “depersonalized.”

Nothing would have made him give up his morning’s work; no matter what happened, he was at his table. The day after he had got word of his adored mother’s death, we could hear the typewriter as usual. This showed no lack of feeling on his part; it was a discipline and a defense. Every morning, no matter what, for more than fifty years, his “little factory” smoked away, whether he was happy or dismal, carefree or worried, tired or fresh, traveling or in Paris, whether his mother had died or a child had been born.

For my father was a man of absolute values. His withdrawal from life had been for him, as for an ascetic, entirely voluntary; he had made a discipline of denial and a strategy of flight. No one could have been more vulnerable, nor indeed sensitive, but the shell was inside the man. I think that he suffered from it, sometimes, as from a foreign body: this hard core, within himself and opposed only to himself, could be painful.

He was a strong man and a weak one. The strong man was strong indeed; he had his prototypes, his heroes, his myths: Narcissus, Monsieur Teste, Faust, Leonardo, and Napoleon. The weak man was almost a child, dreamy-eyed, sensitive, mischievous, sometimes wretched.

At eleven o’clock, after five or six hours of work and two or three cups of coffee, black or white, my father dressed to go out. He shaved with abandon, nicking himself occasionally; struggled with his collar button; stuffed his pockets with his collection of keys and his tobacco; and sometimes made the butterfly bow which he called “the cravat of the French peasant.” (This was, in fact, his only nod to agriculture, whose slow labors he found dismal and barbarous.)

By that hour he would have filled several pages of his notebook. His hand was simple and remarkably consistent, though it did evince a certain cyclical development. He worked out his poems both on his machine — an old Oliver, rugged and primitive — and by hand. Thus hundreds of scraps of La Jeune Parque remain. It was also on the machine that he did what he called his “extra homework”: lectures, prefaces, and so on. The fervor of his labors did not imply lack of facility. He scribbled off a good many occasional poems, some of which may turn out to have surprising importance, on photographs or flyleaves. But he did not seek facility.

He despised the affectation of sincerity. Sincerity to him meant work. Despite his friendship with Gide, he could not look into the Journal without a sensation bordering on discomfort. In 1945, however, he saw Gide for the first time in several years and was taken aback by the depth of his own emotion.

Around eleven, as I say, my father would go out. It was his escape from himself, from the kind of intellectual onanism to which he was dedicated; and from his family—five or six large and small persons established in a flat which, though fairly large, was not intended for more than three.

At one period he would go to see M. Lebey, whose secretary he was. M. Lebey, a businessman and director of the Havas news agency, was paralyzed. His nephew, André Lebey, my father’s great friend, had found him this employment, which gave him time for his own work while it supplemented his income. My father would read to the paralytic, Bossuet in particular. These readings had the surprising result of contributing to M. Lebey’s reconversion to Catholicism, in remembrance of which he bequeathed to my father a hideous gold and platinum watch with a complicated chime.

After M. Lebey’s death, my father found himself unemployed. My mother persuaded him, against his long-standing conviction, that he could live by his pen. He was sure that his researches were useless. He could not imagine that what he called his exercises might be exchanged for food for his generally voracious children. It seemed to him so unlikely that La Jeune Parque might be transformable into bread and butter that, without the mediocre security of his job, he had a real fear of going under.

It is doubtless this quite natural fear which gave a certain credence to the story, still current to some extent, that Paul Valéry was mercenary. If he had been, he would have pursued his literary career quite differently. As he sometimes said, “If I had wanted cash, I would have written an obscene book or a life of St. Francis.”

I regret that he didn’t, for his idea of eroticism or of holiness would have been as characteristic as everything else in his works. His marvelous incomprehension of anything which was not himself isolated him from any subject which chance or necessity compelled him to treat. Whether, that is, it were Proust, Pétain, France, Foch, Swedenborg, or even Goethe, he re-created them in his own image. If he were forced to talk about philosophers who bored him, poets he had never read, or marshals of France whose strategy struck him as dubious, he got out of it less by changing the subject, as most people would, than by fabricating a person to fit his own universe. If he had had to welcome his thirty-nine colleagues to the Academy, or to pronounce their funeral orations, he could have created thirty-nine Testes disguised as generals, ambassadors, journalists, bishops, or statesmen.

A newspaper once called Paul Valéry “the great prebendary of the Republic.” He had, actually, no prebend other than the Mediterranean University Centre, to which he devoted much care and interest, and of which he would have liked to make an original creation, entirely independent of the University proper; and the Collège de France, where he was, as he put it, an old man but a young professor.

His two courses tired him; he had to rely on himself for material — not, like so many professors, on the works of others or on notes based on them. During the German occupation, he was accosted in front of the Collège by a German officer who asked him what the building was. My father answered, “It’s a place where speech is free.” The surprised officer passed on without a word. A great prebendary! Paul Valéry never had a car, nor a secretary, nor room to work in. He would not permit himself taxis; he enjoyed walking anyway and, until the last, went at a lively gait.

Despite his frugal nature, he was generous at home. lie never refused me a trip or a concert; I think that, unlike most husbands, he never made difficulties about giving his wife housekeeping money. This liberality was all 1 he greater because it was very hard for him to see that others might need things which he did not.

As a result either of indifference or benevolence, Paul Valéry could not say no. This was well known. Of the very many—I might say, too many — prefaces he wrote, the majority were extracted from him gratis, for various reasons — including friendship, which was abused. Many of his most important works, however, were commissions originally. Such work seemed to him worth while only in so far as an extra limitation on his freedom might prove valuable. But the necessity of writing was burdensome to him. Unlike another writer, he might well have said, ”If I were forced to write, I would kill myself.”


MY FATHER’S “success” after 1920 was unquestionably a paradox. In five years’ time it brought this retiring, even bashful writer, of whom few spoke except to complain that lie had not fulfilled his carly promise, to membership in the Academy. He would otherwise have been the solitary seeker, whom the Abbé Mugnier called the lay monk of the morning. Scholars would have enjoyed the posthumous discovery of his work. If they are deprived of this luxury, and if Paul Valéry underwent the great test of fame in his own lifetime, it is due to chance, to the aftermath of war, to a certain snobbism, to a few fanatic admirers, and to the decency and charm of this difficult poet who gradually became a sort of poet laureate to the Third Republic.

I do not know whether he was overcome by his honors; one must of course suspect some vanity even in a man of the greatest quality. He certainly received the honors with a modesty he did not feign, and which I have sometimes thought excessive. He had inherited from a Venetian mother his respect for official functions; my grandmother always said, in her charming accent., “One must, have one’s position.” Besides, official tasks probably seemed to him a good security for the material existence he thought so precarious, believing as he did that modern society has no room for the artist, especially one so rigorous and difficult as himself. And he loathed attitudinizing; he had no intention of posing as a rebel. The familiar anecdote concerning Goethe and Beethoven, in which the latter refuses to acknowledge the imperial presence before which Goethe bows low, seemed to him a proof of the composer’s vulgarity. Vulgarity to him meant giving disproportionate importance to a gesture or a ceremony. He was at once humble and supremely proud.

This extraordinarily swift official success arose also from a misunderstanding. My father was thought to be the average sort of Frenchman: Radical-Socialist, secular, even anticlerical (but with a few close friends among the clergy), patriotic, sometimes chauvinistic, but a good European who favored international coöperation. To a limited extent, this was so.

In reality, though, Paul Valéry was an individual of the most dangerous sort, in that he never took the popular view. His sayings and writings may not always be original, especially since he systematically disregarded the works of others, and thus cared very little whether something had been said or written before. Whatever he did say or write was conceived of in the perspective of his own system and referred to coördinates he had established for himself. Having an individual point, of view about everything, he perforce denied any real value to the modes of thought, expression, conduct, or action current in modern societies.

Unable to adhere to one country, party, or religion, he was the archetype of an anarchist, but one who avoided revealing himself as such for fear of jeopardizing his redoubtable freedom — an anarchist who so delighted in rules that he invented them for himself.

Strange that a certain public should be so naïve as to gauge the corrosive force of an idea by the vehemence, if not the incoherence, of its expression, and so have failed to realize how outrageous Valéry was. With respect to morality, metaphysics, and politics, my father behaved like a man who, holding a bank note, would hasten to make sure that its counterpart in specie was actually there in the vault. Not that he condemned currency credit. Despising inflated words, he nonetheless recognized that the sign cannot be the object and that it can only represent an actual value. He could not bear to see the appearance taken for the substance, in ethics and philosophy as well as in politics.

The whole basis of the political system thus seemed to him absurd and obsolete. He was an anarchist (as he smilingly put it, “an anarchist of the government”); but he would equally have welcomed an authoritarian regime of a unique sort, one free from propaganda, beliefs, or taboos, such as would have encouraged rather than suppressed the mind’s freedom; he would have rallied to a sort of intellectual Napoleon.

He felt that the political universe was a system of forces and not a static entity; but he thought these forces to be other than those recognized by historians. He thought that the kind of politics to be found daily in the papers resembled an absurd, endless movie, ridiculous in any case, and almost completely dependent on the abuse of language. When, at the end of his life, he reread Voltaire’s correspondence, he deplored the present lack of such a mind, one that could cut away underbrush and topple idols.

It is odd that he should have passed for a Republican or a Radical-Socialist. I think that he believed in democracy only in so far as he thought that suffrage injected sufficient anarchy to prevent oppression.

My father’s patriotism was emotional. Born in 1871, he had the almost chauvinistic sensitivity of his generation. Resides, despite his Latin origins, he was intellectually as French as a man could be; how could anyone so enchanted with words not have felt, despite his universalism, the bonds which linked him to a culture and a tongue?

In this domain, as in some others, his thought, however bold and radical, did not seem to influence his reactions. He reacted very simply and just like everyone else.

Whatever his “extra homework” might be, he worked at it. In spite of the difficulties of his existence, he was never tempted to make concessions to the public. He never compromised. Legend to the contrary, he existed within a carapace of integrity uncommon in the world of letters. Two hundred fifty workbooks, 50,000 pages of typed or manuscript. notes, written for no one but himself; poems, frequently difficult, fully comprehensible only to a limited number of readers; commissions accepted by necessity, executed scrupulously; a few lectures, often as detailed as his written works — this was the labor of a lifetime.

He did not like to reread his own work. He cared about neither the past nor the future. If he did happen to like some earlier work, he feared he would no longer be able “to do as much”; if, on the other hand, he turned up some old fragment which seemed to him inferior, he was hardly better pleased.

It was in any case the act of thinking, not the result, which beguiled and rejoiced him.

If some demon had offered him Faust’s bargain, I think he would have destroyed all his finished work in exchange for a few more moments of the supreme intellectual power he had known sometimes as he sat by himself and watched the morning come.