PAUL VALERY'S The Evening With Monsieur Teste

Victor Suchar, BRLSI Member, on 18 June 2002


If literature is confession, then Valery proves the case in spades. His life was ultimately one of intense, one may say ferocious study, as clearly shown in his Cahiers (notebooks) - 257 in all, 26,600 pages written daily from 4 to 7 a.m. over a 50 year period. This is the crucible of all of his work. It has been contended by some that to describe the `work' is to stay in the domain of literature, to include the context, particularly the intellectual context is to stray into history of ideas. In Valery's case, in my view, there is no distinction between the two. The Cahiers unveil a process of transformation, from a gifted and dreamy young man to a great literary figure, the realisation of his potential and his unceasing preoccupation with the process of forming expression. Teste is, of course, a first step.

In effect, the speaker's argument here, is that to spend an evening with M.Teste, is first to know Valery, so in an attempt to grasp his thought, his forms of expression and his sources of inspiration, I propose to proceed along the following lines:

1. Some biographical notes.

2. Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci - a few words about a work that he wrote at about the same time, but published earlier than Teste. It is germane to understanding Teste.

3. Monsieur Teste.

4. The dialogue with Eliot, and Eliot's criticism - in the speaker's view, essential to understanding Valery's work.

5. Conclusion - what is unique and lasting in Valery

Some biographical notes

Paul Valery was born in 1871 in Cette (now Sete), a small Mediterranean port near Montpellier. At age 13 he moved to Montpellier to enter the lycèe where he took his baccalaureate, then entered the Law Faculty at the University of Montpellier where he finished his studies. In 1890, in a lucky encounter, Valery met Pierre Louys, a young but already known Parisian poet, who introduced him to Andre Gide, already established as a novelist, and to Mallarmé, the leading symbolist poet. At the beginning of 1894, Valery moved to Paris and became a habitual member of Mallarmé's circle which included Degas, Louys, Gide, and older writers such as Leon Daudet, and which had the reputation as the highest artistic group in France. It is at that time, in his small apartment in Paris, that Valery started writing his Cahiers. In August of 1894, he returned to Montpellier for holidays and started The Evening with Monsieur Teste, his first novel. Later in the year, in Paris he started The Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci, for which he had a commission and which was published first. Valery was a natural autodidact: he was able to learn only from his intense solitary studies. Totally put off by his formal studies in mathematics at the lycèe, he becomes attracted to geometry because of his interest in architecture, then in mathematics in general and in mathematical physics. Intense study of these subjects became his main intellectual preoccupation for the remainder of his life, and particularly over the next twenty odd years, his years of obscurity. It is in this period, in 1897, that he took a position as Editor at the Ministry of Defence were he stayed for five years, then he became private secretary to Ed. Lebey, an important director of the Havas news agency. He married Jeannie Gobillard, the niece of Berthe Morisot, the well-known painter in 1900.

The speaker attempted to draw a portrait of Valery in his formative years and the years of obscurity, using some photographs for illustration, but also some small research conducted on his own and by quoting from the journals of Valery's contemporaries and friends. He stressed the importance of this formative period Valery's work. The years of obscurity were over in 1917, at age 46, with the publication of his poem The Young Parque to great acclaim, and later of the poems The Cemetery by the Sea and Charms. In 1925, he was elected to the French Academy and in 1936 to the Chair of Poetry at College de France (the highest accolade). He died in July 1945, and was interred at the Maritime Cemetery in Sete, the site of his famous poem. Valery has been well served outside France, through Rilke's translation of Charms, of C. Day Lewis' translation of the Cemetery by the Sea and of the Bolingen's 15-volume edition of his complete works in the U.S.

The Introduction to the Method of Leonardo Da Vinci

The speaker then started to describe Valery's early work with a few words on The Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci, which was published in 1895, in La Nouvelle Revue. It is germane to the understanding of Teste.

In conceiving Leonardo, Valery is on the trail of an important discovery. He wants to establish for his own use a conception of the universal spirit. Instead of enumerating all the conquest of the human spirit, he wants to know the spirit in itself in his conquesting mode; he wants to unravel the secret of his success. One should not forget that Valery tackled this at the age of 23, before he had developed his technical form. The style is somewhat obscure, the vocabulary uncertain, but The Introduction to the Method of Leonardo leaves already a mark of authentic grandeur. From the start, he tells us that Leonardo is nothing but a convenient symbol to designate the universal spirit, in full power, that is able to reduce to intelligible elements all aspects of the universe. Here, Valery is under the great positivist spell of Comte. By the acuity of their perception, the genius discovers a world which is a great deal richer than ours, of ordinary men. They feel to begin with surrounded by general confusion, but then as they experience a need for establishing an order, they find the combinations that distinguish the unique character of each element of the world. Also, the role of the universal spirit is to show a well-knitted system of coherent images. Having experienced at the extremes of their consciousness the complexity of things, they are more capable to perceive the analogies and unify the variety of experience. These people discover the secret affinities between objects and beings. They do not hesitate to break the limits of ordinary perception, and because of their intervention, they substitute a new order to what was admitted. It is only the universal spirit, according to Valery, that can pass from perception to construction. The scientific discoveries and the artistic creations, are nothing else than perceptions arrived at a degree of supreme power. That of course is his other great influence - Nietzsche. So here then is Valery's thesis: the law of continuity - the speaker thinks that he means of pattern/regularity, is in his expression a psychical law - we are obligated to admit it as the form of all knowledge - all men without exception submit to it. But most often we don't use it other than in summary manner under the limits of practical life. It is otherwise with the universal spirits, who use their mental resources to change the face of the world. These geniuses resemble the mythical Leonardo imagined by Valery. Leonardo was often accused of wasting his talents with thousands of chimerical projects, which didn't leave any trace - error! Says Valery: "It is this that is grand. In these men there is a double mental life, which deserves the name of method. They observe their spontaneous perceptions which ignore internal logic, and force themselves to mimic them, to reproduce them. They observe the incessant flow of ideas, provoke new combinations and look for conjectures, for relating the results. To be in possession of the method we must know the organisation of the human spirit". Great game - the great optimism of Comtean positivism at the end of the 19th century.

The Evening with Monsieur Teste

Monsieur Teste is the realisation of a Leonardo without works and without glory. M. Teste is a study of character, a psychological essay presented in a life manner by a companion of the hero who speaks in the first person. Teste is for Valery, the model of the spirit purified of all vanity, and all complaisance to the values offered by outside opinion. The Soirée produced by a logician, is a novel of `the empty blackboard', of `tabula rassa', it presents a man who lives only by method, by a discipline of spirit which wants to distance from its intellectual field all that does not nourish the spirit. Certainly, this singular man finds himself in the midst of ordinary life, but Valery attributes him with the apparent traits of resigned mediocrity - small stock exchange speculations to keep himself in funds, like any small rentier, daily meals at a miserable restaurant, a flat with the austerity of a cell. In fact the genius is not to have the appearances of the genius. He is one of these great-unknown men, who don't believe they have to abandon their values in exchange for a tip from the public. One could say that in fact it was in 1892 that Teste took over Valery's imagination. His law studies increased his dislike of daily school tasks, and the love without hope for a Mlle R. must have increased his convulsions. As for Teste, he borrows from reality what it looks necessary to maintain the existence of pure spirit. He has only one idol - the spirit, he is in effect the monster of spirit that the young Valery is searching to breed, as all novelists, by convincing himself that he is possible. He is the Stranger by excellence, perhaps not dissimilar with the portrait painted by Camus.

The Dialogue with Eliot

Among his many interpreters one stands out: T.S. Eliot, as both admirer and critic. From 1918 when he first read The Young Parque, Eliot studied Valery's poetry with care, and the esteem in which he came to hold him was as great as that which he felt for any of his major contemporaries. One should remember that Eliot's reading in French literature was vast - his essays on Pascal and Baudelaire are landmarks in Modern English criticism and he meditated on the work of Mallarmé. His relationship to Valery was in a way unique, a kind of fascination. Indeed, in 1958, Eliot described Valery as "a singularly fascinating mind" and spoke of the "perennial fascination" of his work. The two men appear to have met for the first time in October 1923, when Valery came to London to lecture on Baudelaire and Victor Hugo. Both men were just reaching the height of fame in their respective countries. Although Eliot was 17 years Valery's junior, their careers up to that time presented some parallels: university studies were followed by a sojourn in Paris (Eliot arrived there in 1910, was tutored by Alain Fournier and attended Bergson's lectures), then by perfunctory work (Valery as redacteur at the War Ministry, then as secretary to Lebey; Eliot as schoolmaster at Highgate, then `un peu banquieur'). Finally in 1917 at a few weeks interval, The Young Parque and Prufrock appeared. These poems and several critical observations by both writers were followed by the publication in 1922 of the volumes that won them lasting notoriety: Charms and The Waste Land. Over the next twenty-odd years, they met several times, the last one in May 1945, (when they dined with Andre Gide) two months before Valery's death. Eliot wrote five essays in which he spoke in some detail of Valery - Dante in 1920, A brief introduction to the method of Paul Valery in 1924, Lesson of Valery in 1946, a remarkable contribution to Valery Vivant, the collaborative number published by Cahiers du Sud, From Poe to Valery in 1948 and The Art of Poetry in 1958. Eliot admired in Valery, as he put it "the perfection, the culmination of a type of civilised mind." Eliot's views were frequently echoed and clarified by Valery, but despite the similarity of their opinions on many subjects they were separated by a gulf - Eliot's spiritual itinerary and ultimate convictions were foreign to the scepticism that he found in his friend. Both writers were classicists in literature and conservatives in politics, but nothing in Valery corresponded to Eliot's pastoral concerns. But the biggest difference was in their concept of philosophy. For Eliot, a philosophy is: "a vision of life, an articulate formulation of the world." Valery, on the other hand, takes the analyst's and disciple of Comte's attitude that philosophy today is not a meditation on God and nature, life and death, time and justice; it is not a preoccupation with ends; philosophy has become aware of itself as form, an instrument, and its concern is to refine the subtlety of its own logic, its form.

According to Valery: "Our philosophy is defined by its own apparel and not by its own object. It cannot separate itself from its own difficulties, which constitute its form. Philosophical activities thus conceived cannot coincide with that of the poet, that is to say, the author of a poetic form. An analytic philosopher may write verse, but if this verse is to be poetry and not rhymed ideas, the laws of poetry must prevail." Valery would agree with Eliot in placing Dante's poetry among the greatest, but the term `philosophical poetry' is, to him, a logical monstrosity. Analysis may inform the poem as it constantly informs his own work in the most striking way, but it should not dictate it.

According to Eliot, (in A Brief Meditation on the Method of Paul Valery) "if Mr. Valery is in error in his complete exorcism of philosophy, perhaps the basis of his error is his apparently commendatory interpretation of the effort of the modern poet, namely that the latter endeavours to produce in us a state." "No," he said, " the aim of the poet is to state a vision, the poet does not aim to excite - that is not even a test of success - but to set something down, the state of the reader is merely the reader's mode of perceiving what the poet has caught in words." For Eliot the vision pre-exists the poem and the author must express it.

Valery, however, is saying: "since Baudelaire poetry has become more self conscious, in the same way as philosophy, and that the poet does not write to say but to create." Against the quasi-romantic concept of Eliot, Valery places the idea of the poet who discovers his vision word by word.

Conclusion: What is Unique and Lasting in Valery?

First of all, his preoccupation with intellect.

"The things of the world interest me only as they relate to intellect. Bacon would say that this notion of the intellect is an idol. I agree, but I have not found a better idol." Further: "My only constant, my only permanent instinct was without doubt to represent more and more clearly my mental development and to preserve as much as possible my liberty against the illusions and the parasites which the use of language imposes inevitably on us. Analysis is the hygiene of the mind, the care to see what one knows - whereby knowledge converges with the act of making.

From disorder to sensation and back again, the sensibility fluctuates - this is our self variance. But we produce many more sensations than we functionally need, just as we can perform many more acts than for us to go on living. These sensations and acts constitute the domain of the arts, in which the creative mind endows useless sensations with utility, arbitrary acts with necessity."

Always the point of reference is Valery himself, his attempt to pursue his own analysis, to make his own notations (analects), to compose a system - or table of relations, or mode of transformations. His project is vast and his conceptions refined. Yet despite his elaborate research in the name of precision, Valery recognised that the creative act remains mysterious. " All is reduced to consciousness, but the consciousness does not respond to its content. The very disorder of the sensibility is our chance to discover the treasure we did not know. A path can suddenly be cleared by a rhythm, a rhyme, a combination of words, something magical. The true commencement of a poem (which is not necessarily the first verse) must come to the author like a magic formula where he ignores still what it will open. Because it opens in effect a space, a labyrinth, a cave which is unknown to him but intimate at the same time."

The Monsieur Teste, Cahiers, poetics, poetry, are then implicitly a self portrait, for if he refused the facility of anecdotes and confessions, he gave time without counting to the preservation of the best moments of his thought. "I am the geometrical locus of all contradictions. To know yourself - is it not like sensing that you can be another? He undewrote seemingly contrary manoeuvres - adherence to the world and detachment from it, fragmentation and construction, voluptuousness and scorn; his attitudes to life literature, even God, were subject to continuous restatement, since they mirrored the all or nothing of an intellect ready to consume or be consumed."

Second, his constant preoccupation with form and the process of expression. . When he met the French philosopher Bergson in 1929, who talked to him about his intellectualism, Valery wrote in the Cahiers "I told him not to be mistaken, that I am a formiste - and the fact of beginning with forms, going from form to the matter of works or ideas, give the impression of intellectualism, by analogy with logic - but the forms are intuitive in origin." In the same period, he met Einstein at the Institute Henri Poincare, and wrote in his Notebooks: "He talked about his uncertainty and beliefs founded on the architecture (or beauty) of forms. This struck home to me. He can operate as I would have liked to do - by way of forms. Einstein declared that: `the distance between reality and theory is such that we have to take an architectural point of view.' Nothing could have given me more pleasure to hear, nothing confirms me more in my own ideas."

Third, related to the first two, his use of description of physical phenomena as metaphors to illuminate cultural history. For example, a quote from his Crisis of the Mind (1919): "This coming phenomenon, moreover, may be connected with another to be found in every nation: I mean the diffusion of culture, and its acquisition by ever larger categories of individuals. An attempt to predict the consequences of such diffusion, or to find whether it will or not inevitably bring on decadence, would be a delightfully complicated problem in intellectual physics. The charm of the problem for the speculative mind proceeds, first, from its resemblance to the physical fact of diffusion and, next, from a sudden transformation into a profound difference when the thinker remembers that his primary object is men, not molecules. A drop of wine falling into water barely colours it, and tends to disappear after showing as a pink cloud. This is the physical fact. But suppose now that after it has vanished, gone back to limpidity, we should see, here and there in our glass - which seemed once more to hold pure water - drops of wine forming, dark and pure - what a surprise! This phenomenon is not impossible on intellectual and social physics. We then speak of genius, and contrasted with diffusion. Just now we are considering a curious balance that worked in inverse ratio to weight. Then we saw a liquid system pass as though spontaneously from homogenous to heterogeneous, from intimate mingling to clear separation.

These paradoxical images give the simplest and most practical notion of the role played in the World by what - for five thousand years - has been called Mind."

The speaker found in Valery's an exquisitely elegant style, reminiscent to him of Matisse. Furthermore, he found Valery's drive to intense study impressive - when Valery analyses his consciousness, he doesn't simply stare at the void, he looks at the effect of these studies on his own thinking. Finally, in the speaker's view, Valery is the only writer who was capable of looking at science as an art object, of also understanding its concepts, and then bridging the gap between the two.

Victor Suchar


It was touching to see the speaker Victor Suchar on his pilgrimage to Valery's places of work; standing outside the house where he wrote Monsieur Teste, and sitting on the same bench on which Valery had sat.

The first member of the audience to speak, Professor Honderich, brought up the important question of truth in art generally. And if, when the art involved a language as obscure and personal as Valery's, and which seemed apparently so full of conflicting images difficult to interpret, did it still manifest a universal truth? Or was it just the truth of Valery's mind only. The speaker said he thought Valery's aim was to organise the chaos of the infinite variables of the world and that his sense of form was intuitive and preceded content. He then emphasised the scientific mathematical and philosophical background of Valery, and his interest in the `Method of Leonardo' as partly explaining his unusual and often scientific analogies.

The convenor suggested that it was the way a writer used his previous education or life experience, for his or her creative ends, that really mattered, not the education itself, which could be used in so many different ways.

Another member asked how we recognise the truth and genius when it is shown to us, and what exactly was the truth anyway. The speaker replied that: "talent was born but genius made".

Summing up, the speaker said he saw Valery's literary elegance as comparable with Matisse's painting.

Peter Valentine