Towards the end of his life, as his muse, Jeanne Loviton, is about to leave him, the French poet Paul Valéry collected in the many pages of his Cahiers some aphorisms, maxims, speculations and questions under the title Mauvaises pensées (Evil Thoughts).
The man who enjoyed the status of the official poet has already been a victim of his outdated and faded image. The poetry of this former disciple of Mallarmé is rarely read. His books on Da Vinci or Degas have been all but forgotten. Posterity is often harsh and cruel. In his case, it seems to be even unfair. Even Valéry’s old friend Léautaud, after having praised his ‘great spirit’, considered him as the ‘Oronte of our time ‘.
What do we know today of Paul Valéry? Do we remember him? What do we retain of him except a few aphorisms such as ‘Optimists write badly’ or ‘Genius means a long impatience’. But a recently republished pocket edition of Mauvaises Pensées, brings under one cover a collection of stimulating aphorisms penned by the poet. This new paperback edition of the book (brilliantly presented by the novelist Mathieu Terence) should be well accepted. We discover in it an altogether different Paul Valéry, full of verve and a humour that is incisive. The temporary, the immediate, the indefinite and the uncertain mix and mingle in these pithy phrases. We find here a sharp spirit that regales us with the spectacle of a thought that bears the stamp of a supremely intelligent mind.
The author of Cimetière Marin is firing on all cylinders here. Nothing eludes him: infancy and youth, age, our faults, our pettiness, our desires and vices, literature and the men of letters. Indeed, we are not far away from the French moralists like Joseph Joubert here. Valéry calls these fragments ‘my scraps’. From this fascinating proscenium arch let us draw a few examples to illustrate the mind of this enchanting poet: ‘To be oneself! … But is it worth it?’ Or this terse aphorism: ‘Happiness has its eyes closed.’ Somewhere he asks ironically: ‘Who has never quickened his steps towards a clown?’ We would also remember: ‘Pain is what we have more in us and have more for others.’ Some others are: ‘Goodbye, said the dying man to the mirror when we held it to him. We won’t see each other anymore.’ Or ‘Who is an idiot? Perhaps it is a spirit that is undemanding, content with little. Could a fool be wise?’
At the time of publication of this small but indispensable book in 1942, the poet wrote: ‘It is true that to write these notes every morning, may be construed as a need that may not be as weird, as urgent and thoughtless as that of the tobacco (…). It is quite comical that my reflections are the product of reckless thoughts…’. Paul Valery knew how to use words and their opposites, how to make the words interact with each other so we are obliged to think. His thoughts are not to be read in one sitting. They are to be savoured in small quantities. They prompt the readers to think, to reflect or dissect. After all, we are dealing with a poet who said: ‘I am a living protest.’