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A selection of writings that portray the inner life of the artist. Included are several short autobiographical pieces in which Valéry talks about his early childhood, his adolescence, his military experience, his travels, his poetry, and his acquaintances. The volume contains selections from the Valéry-Gide and Valéry-Fourment correspondence and two additional pieces, "The Avenues of the Mind," a magazine interview with Valéry printed in 1927, and Pierre Feline's "Memories of Paul Valéry."
Originally published in 1975.
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The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, Volume 15
Bollingen Series XLV
By Paul Valéry, Jackson Mathews, Marthiel Mathews
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1975 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Paul-Ambroise Valéry was born on October 30, 1871 of a Corsican father and an Italian mother. On his father's side, he knew nothing or almost nothing about his ancestry. On his mother's side, lie learned from certain bundles of legal documents, certified at the tribunal of Rota (?), that he was descended from a family of northern Italy that numbered such illustrious members as a certain Cardinal de Grassi and the famous Galeazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan and conqueror of Bayard. Although he came of Mediterranean stock, his ancestors bequeathed him his clear blue eyes and his hair. His complexion, moreover, was white before it was burnt by a military sun.
A rather poor student at the university, he came out of it with the usual asinine diploma, bringing from his lessons only disgust for prescribed things and a love for his own fantasy.
At the age of twelve — perhaps before! — he was already possessed with Notre-Dame de Paris and certain obscurities known as Han d'Islande and Bug-Jargal. Then came poetry. He never even read Lamartine, nor Musset, but rather the Feuilles d'automne, the Voix intérieures, etc.
... Meanwhile the young man drew, painted, and questioned certain objects, searching for multiple light.
He studied the learned arts of the Middle Ages, of Byzantium, and a little of Greece.
Finally Baudelaire conquered him. Then the Others. And he could one day claim the merit, himself a provincial among provincials, of having discovered and cherished a few of the secret poems which manifest the solitary Glory of Mallarmé.
The task of explaining his exact mind and of reflecting the various currents of his thought in the too clear mirror of writing is illusory. You might as well try to explain the vagrant Whirlwind! ...
Yet here are certain traits that may be real.
He detests what is called sentiment and Rolla is loathsome to him. Not that he does not have his tears and his anguish, but to him it seems ugly to make of them a rule of life or a theory of arr. He understands all the kinds of affection, but for him they must be beautiful. He abhors easy weeping and melting over detestable love, with no splendor and no recklessness.
He adores the religion that makes beauty one of its dogmas, and Art the most magnificent of its apostles. He adores above all his own kind of Catholicism, a bit Spanish, very Wagnerian and Gothic.
As for pure belief, this is what he thinks (meaning above all to be frank, and above all, with himself):
"The crudest of hypotheses is to believe that God exists objectively. ... Yes! He exists and the Devil too, but within us!
"The worship that we owe Him — this is the respect that we owe to ourselves and it should be understood as the search for the Better by way of our strength in the direction of our aptitudes.
"In two words: God is our particular ideal. Satan is that which tends to turn us away from it."
Women are for him graceful little animals who have the perverse ability to draw the attention of too many minds. They are placed on the summit of the altars of art, and our elegant psychologists know better, alas, how to note their bitchy sulking and their catlike clawing than to analyze the difficult brain of an Ampère, a Delacroix, or an Edgar Poe.
Finally, to terminate this autopsy, let us say that he has loved very little, and always by way of a dream.
He is made up of many different persons and a principal witness who watches all these puppets bobbing.
* * *
To him the future seems mostly glum. The obligation to work frightens him, for he has always chafed under rules. However one must live! ...
He regrets writing verse, which can break a career and make him lose a good place; moreover, he writes poorly and makes it too much his own to please others.
He has few illusions about things. But many inner illusions. He often thinks that there is nothing outside himself and ends by believing it.
His particular sign: he reduces all theory to schemata and strives to fit it into his practical life.
This is between us.CHAPTER 2
NIGHT IN THE BARRACKS
Ten o'clock. In my loathing, I wander about the dark stony courtyard, consoled a little by the vast splendor of the night, a night like the somber velvet cushion on which a jeweler pours rivulets of diamonds. A cool soothing calm scarcely troubled by intruder lamps flickering beneath the archways, by the flash of a bayonet, the distant rumble of wheels, or the whistling of an invisible man. A trickle of water purls in the water trough.
The far-off sound of carriages plunges me again into the anguish of my imprisonment amidst the stupidity, the brutality, and the square heads under their kepis.
In the barracks. On a cot without sheets, between my overcoat and a blanket. Voices in the background, whispering. Yawns, flickering of the single dim light hanging from the ceiling. Someone snuffs it out. Now it is only a blue dot in the darkness; it swings rhythmically. A pale light trembles in the narrow windows. Bodies turn over in the covers. Someone swears. Now and then, a patch of light crisscrossed by the black bars of the window grating is projected onto the ceiling, and the whole image revolves across the room as the lantern outside passes by.
I cannot sleep. Sonnets of Heredia, verses of Mallarmé come back to mc. I say them over to myself without savoring them, without enjoying them.
Someone is snoring. One loudly, another softly. Both follow a mysterious rhythm. An oppressive odor bothers me. I cannot identify it because it envelopes me, but I imagine it rotten. I go down to the courtyard.
The cold is pleasant. Morning is coming. It is still dark. The sky is faintly dappled. Suddenly a flicker of light toward the east, between two roofs. A cry of light, still dim and distant. As if in reply, the blare of a bugle tears the silence. A sharp bizarre phrase rising out of two or three notes.
And arms stretch in the cots, while a breath of light comes into the dark room, pits the iron pitcher with white, lights up the metal of the guns....
Uproar in the stairways. Water splashes in the water basins, and a wholesome morning wind bellies the new army overcoats appearing from all sides.
November 17, 1889 Morning
* * *
Sometimes I do not know whether I am more awake than asleep or more asleep than awake?
There is a conflict at times between the one who thinks and the one who wishes not to think but to sleep, and that which is thought and which wants to develop, to see its future.
Thus there are two possible outcomes to this moment.
Some mornings (today perhaps?) when I wake and sit down with this Notebook, I don't quite recognize myself.
I see myself as more stern, more stony than I am by nature, and old. I see myself as an old man, without pity for anything mental that tries to masquerade as total, and insignificant.
For, bear in mind, the mark of the real is absolute insignificance.
I get up. I go to make my first ritual cup of coffee without knowing whether it acts as substance on my chemistry, or a taste and stimulant through sensation, more than by molecular change in my composition, or a nervous effect of chronometric repetition. For it is possible to make these three hypotheses.
Thus I move about, and on the one hand I feel Ideas (very diverse) invading me, contesting life, etc., etc., but on the other hand I am aware of myself moving about and acting out of total automatism and somnambulism.
I am aware of my own phantom, my regular ghost. Everything I do has already been done. All my steps and gestures can do without me, as the imperceptible and essential acts of vegetable life can do without us.
My "lucidity" illuminates for me my mechanical nature. And — the last straw — it belongs to that nature. I am given to discovery and the unexpected at that early hour.
* * *
Waking up. There is no phenomenon more exciting to me than waking.
Nothing tends to give a more extraordinary idea of ... everything, than this autogenesis. This beginning of what was — which also has its beginning. What is — and this is nothing but shock, stupor, contrast.
Here, a state of equidifference takes place as if ... there were a moment (among the most unstable) during which no one is yet the person one is, and could again become another I A different memory could develop. Whence the fantastic. The external individual remaining, and the whole psyche substituted.
May 1944CHAPTER 3
Today I am going to confide in you; I am going to talk about myself. Do not imagine that I would venture to tell you the kind of secrets that everyone knows from his own experience. What I want to talk about has to do only with the relations between my mind and my sensibility in their formative period and the Mediterranean sea, which since my childhood has been ever present to my eyes and to my mind. These will be only a few specific impressions, and a few perhaps general ideas.
I begin with my beginning. I was born in a middling-sized seaport situated at the end of a bay and at the foot of a hill, whose mass of rock juts out from the line of the shore. This rock would be an island if two sandbanks — sand constantly washed up from the mouth of the Rhone and deposited by sea currents carrying the pulverized stone of the Alps toward the west — did not attach or join it to the coast of Languedoc. The hill, then, rises between the sea and a vast saltwater pond where the canal du Midi begins — or ends. The harbor it overlooks is made up of canals and docks connecting this pond with the sea.
Such is the place of my origin, about which I will make the ingenuous remark that I was born in one of those places where I should have liked to be born. I am happy to have been born in a place where my first impressions were those that came from facing the sea and from being in the midst of human activity. For me there is no spectacle to compare with what can be seen from a terrace or a balcony pleasantly situated above a harbor. I spent my days looking at what Joseph Vernet, a painter of beautiful seascapes, called "the various activities of a seaport." From that vantage the eye takes in the intoxicating expanse and the uniform simplicity of the sea, while, closer by, human life and industry traffics, builds, maneuvers. At any moment when the eye turns to nature — a nature eternally primitive, untouched, unchangeable by man and constantly and visibly subject to universal forces — it sees exactly what the first man saw. But closer to land it first notices the erratic work of time continually reshaping the shore, and then the reciprocal work of man — the accumulation of constructions with their geometric forms, straight lines, planes, and arcs — contrasting with the disorder and accidents of natural forms, just as the spires, towers, and lighthouses built by men contrast the falling and crumbling shapes of geological nature with an opposed will to construct — the stubborn and as it were rebellious work of our human race.
Thus, at the same time, the eye encompasses the human and the nonhuman. It is this that the great Claude Lorrain felt and magnificently expressed and, in the noblest of styles, exalted — the order and ideal splendor of our great Mediterranean ports: Genoa, Marseille, and Naples, all transfigured, by the architecture of the port, the contours of the shore, the perspective of the water, making a sort of stage set, where only one actor moves, sings, and sometimes dies: LIGHT!
Halfway up the hill I spoke of was my school. There I learned rosa, the rose, without being too much bored, and I was sorry to leave after my second year. The very small number of pupils allowed each of us to satisfy his pride. There were four in my grade, and, by the simple law of probability, I was first one time out of four without trying at all. Those in the final form were even more fortunate since they were only two. Inevitably, one got the first prize and the other the second. How could it have been otherwise? But fairness demanded that the one receiving the second prize should win the first prize in composition, and the other (naturally) the second. And so on. ... To the strains of a military band, both would march down from the platform on prize-day, crowned with laurels and carrying gilt-edged books....
Corneille claims that there is no glory without risk: To win without risk is to triumph without glory!
(Cid: II, 2.)
But Corneille was mistaken, and the mistake is naive. Fame and glory depend not on effort, which is generally undetected, but on proper staging.
This school had rare charms. The courtyards overlooked the town and the sea. There were three terraces, one above the other: the little ones, the bigger ones, and the biggest were blessed with horizons of increasing vastness, which is not altogether true in later life! So, there was always something to look at during our recreation time, since there is always something happening at the frontier between land and sea.
One day, from the height of our happily situated schoolyard, we saw a prodigious cloud of smoke rising into the sky, much thicker and more voluminous than the usual smoke from the steamers and freighters putting in at our port. The noon bell had hardly rung when the day-pupils rushed out the doors in a yelling mob to the mole, where a crowd had been watching a good-sized ship burn for several hours. It had already been towed from the docks and left to its fate beside a fairly isolated jetty. All at once flames shot up to the crow's nest, and the masts, undermined by the fire burning furiously in the holds, suddenly came down with all their rigging, as if mowed off, stripped, abolished, while a great jet of sparks leapt up and a sinister muffled roar reached us on the wind. You can imagine that many a student missed class that afternoon. By evening, the beautiful three-master had been reduced to a dark hull, apparently intact but filled like a crucible with an incandescent mass whose fiery brilliance intensified as night came on. The hellish derelict was eventually towed out to sea, and finally sunk.
At other times we would be on the lookout from our school for the arrival of the fleet, which came every year and anchored a mile off shore. How strange the battleships of that time were, the Richelieu, the Colbert, the Trident, with their rams shaped like ploughshares, their sheet iron armor plates at the stern, and, beneath the flag, the admiral's bridge, which filled us with such envy. These ships were ugly and imposing; they still carried a considerable structure of masts and spars, and their bulwarks were lined with the crews' sea-bags in the old-fashioned way. The fleet sent ashore its boats, beautifully kept, decorated, and equipped. These long boats skimmed over the water; six or eight pairs of oars, perfectly synchronized, were shining wings flinging out, every five seconds, a flash and a swarm of sparkling drops. In the foam from their sterns trailed the colors of their flag and the edge of the scarlet-bordered blue rug on which the officers sat, dressed in black and gold.
These splendors engendered many a naval vocation; but between the cup and the lip, between the schoolboy and the midshipman's glorious life, there were very grave obstacles: the incorruptible forms of geometry, the systematic snares and enigmas of algebra, the grim logarithms, the sines and their fraternal cosines discouraged many a boy who despairingly saw, between the sea and himself, between his dream-navy and the real navy, the implacable surface of a blackboard falling like an iron curtain. So he had to be content with melancholy gazing at the open sea, and enjoy only through his eyes and his imagination, and direct his thwarted passion toward literature and painting, for at first it seems that desire is enough to open up those careers which look so attractively easy. Only those who arc predestined suspect and exact of themselves at an early age all the imponderable difficulties. For such there is neither a course of study nor an examination.
These dreamers, whether budding poets or painters, contented themselves with the impressions lavished on them by the ever-eventful sea, creator of extraordinary forms and projects, mother of Aphrodite and soul-giver to many an adventure. It could still be said in the days of my youth that History lived on these waters. Our fishing boats, many of them carrying on their prows the same emblems used by the Phoenicians, were in no way different from those used by the navigators of antiquity and the Middle Ages. Sometimes at twilight I would watch these sturdy boats returning to port, heavy with their catch of tunny, and a strange feeling would possess me. The sky, extremely clear, but suffused with fiery rose at its base and its blue fading to pale green toward the zenith; the sea, already dark, with breakers and spume of a dazzling white; and, toward the east, just above the horizon, a mirage of towers and walls which was the phantom Aigues-Mortes. At first nothing could be seen of the fishing fleet but the sharply pointed triangles of their lateen sails. As they came closer in, one could make out the heaps of enormous tunnies they had caught. These powerful fish, some as large as a man, blood-spattered and glistening, would remind me of men at arms whose bodies were being brought ashore. It was a picture of epic grandeur which I was fond of calling "Return from the Crusades."
Excerpted from The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, Volume 15 by Paul Valéry, Jackson Mathews, Marthiel Mathews. Copyright © 1975 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Three Wakings, 15,
Mediterranean Inspirations, 19,
Impressions and Recollections, 36,
My Early Days in England, 41,
A Timely Recollection, 55,
Valéry–Fourment Correspondence, a selection, 60,
Valéry–Gide Correspondence, a selection, 108,
In Marcel Prévost's Time, 265,
Graduation Ceremonies at the Collège de Sète, 274,
Remarks About Myself, 287,
My Work and I, 335,
The Avenues of the Mind, 343,
Memories of Paul Valéry, by Pierre Féline, 354,