Paul Valéry (1871-1945)

From the website of the Poetry Foundation:

“…Valéry conceived himself as an anti-philosopher, and he despised the new discipline of psychology as it was emerging in the work of neurologist and psychoanalytical pioneer Sigmund Freud, because both philosophy and psychology sought to do precisely what he wished to avoid: to interpret, to reduce, the form of thought, event, and act to a content. He criticized French novelist Marcel Proust for this very tendency, though in doing so he misread Proust. Valéry, it must be admitted, was blinded to a great deal in literature by his obsessive commitment to purity of thought. In Margins of Philosophy Jacques Derrida has discussed Valéry’s aversion to Freud: “We will not ask what the meaning of this resistance is before pointing out that what Valéry intends to resist is meaning itself. What he reproaches psychoanalysis for is not that it interprets in such or such a fashion, but quite simply that it interprets at all, that it is an interpretation, that it is interested above all in signification, in meaning, and in some principal unity—here, a sexual unity—of meaning.” 

Derrida sees Valéry’s formalism as both reflection and instrument of his “repression” of meaning, and indeed, Valéry’s rigid adherence to classical prosody is another trait that sets him very much apart from other 20th-century French poets. He is undoubtedly the last French poet to write such intensely regular verse; to this extent at least his influence on later French poetry has been nil. Yet his reasons for remaining faithful to form—more so, in many instances, than Baudelaire and Mallarmé who were formalists but innovative ones—were much more interesting than a mindless traditionalism. “To write regular verses,” he declared in the Notebooks, “is without a doubt to submit oneself to a law which is strange, rather meaningless, always difficult, and sometimes atrocious …  Let us however try to find a matter for rejoicing in this …  The exigencies of a strict prosody are the artifice which confers upon natural language the qualities of a resistant matter.” 

Perhaps the most salient characteristic of Valéry’s work and person, and certainly the one to which he himself would have attached greatest importance, was his cult of the intellectual self. His fascination and personal identification with the Narcissus myth is well documented. Of an early poem on this subject, “Narcissus Speaks” (“Narcisse Parle”), he wrote (quoted in volume I of Oeuvres [Works]): “The theme of Narcissus, which I have chosen, is a sort of poetic autobiography which requires a few explanations and indications. There exists in Montpellier a botanical garden where I used to go very often when I was nineteen. In a rather secluded corner of this garden, which formerly was much wilder and prettier, there is an arch and in it a kind of crevice containing a slab of marble, which bears three words: PLACANDIS NARCISSAE MANIBUS (to placate the spirit of Narcissa). That inscription had brought on reveries in me, and here, in two words, is its story. In 1820, at this place, a skeleton was discovered, and according to local traditions, it was thought to be the tomb of the poet [Edward] Young. This girl, who died in Montpellier toward the end of the eighteenth century, couldn’t be buried in the cemetery, since she was a Protestant. Her father is supposed to have buried her, on a moonlit night. The dead girl’s name was Narcissa. The remains that had been found were identified as hers. For me the name Narcissa suggested Narcissus. Then I developed the idea of the myth of this young man, perfectly handsome or who found himself so in his reflection. I wrote at the time the very first Narcissus, an irregular sonnet … ” 

Why the young man should have been so inspired by this circumstantial evocation of the Narcissus story is perhaps suggested by a line—“I endlessly delight in my own brain”—appearing in a poem written in 1887. Indeed, Valéry’s poetic output slowed to the merest trickle from 1892 to 1912 because at that time he apparently judged literature not the best medium for “enjoying his brain.”…”

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