Study Guide

Paul Valéry Biography

Basic Information

Name

Ambroise-Paul-Toussaint-Jules Valéry. Mais non, Shmoop did not make that up.

Nickname

APTJ, Val, V-Man, The Poet's Poet, The Scientist's Poet, The Aphorist, The Last of the Humanists, Monsieur Teste

Sex

Male. (We didn't think about "constructing gender" and all that postmodern stuff at the turn of the last century. Men were men, get it?)

Home town

I was born in the charming little village of Sète, France, located right on the Mediterranean Sea, but it wasn't long before we packed up our pots and pans and moved to the far less enchanting urban setting of Montpellier. Dad was a customs officer, so we needed to be in a port town.

Work & Education

Occupation

It's not like I wanted to become a gifted thinker whose talents transcended disciplinary boundaries. Actually, I wanted to be a ship's captain, but I wasn't good at the whole mathematics gig. You can't stop fate, I guess. I'd like to just put "thinker" here, but that may come across as pretentious. Nonetheless, I really and truly spent my days thinking, recording little aphorisms, publishing my symbolist poems in avant-garde journals, writing novels, and thinking long and hard about thinking. But you gotta pay the rent, right? That's why I worked in (downer alert) the War Department (of all places), and then at a newspaper agency, where I stayed for two decades, if only because it allowed me to support my family and have time to write. 1925 was a year of dramatic professional advancement for me: I was elected to the Académie Française (a crazy big deal) and was designated the chair of poetry at the Collège de France (also a crazy big deal). From then on, I lectured all over the place, served on elite committees, founded an institution dedicated to furthering the understanding and appreciation of French culture, and just enjoyed being labeled an intellectual. And to think it could have been a sailor's life for me...

Education

It's not so much about where I went to school as it is about how much I taught myself. In other words, no, I did not, like every other intellectual, attend that foremost institute of learning in France, the École Normale Superieure. My school was more modest, but look: it didn't end up mattering. So let that be a lesson to you. I went to a humble little lycée at Montpellier and studied law at the University of Montpellier. Sure, I went to Paris—but not to earn a higher degree. I went there to answer the call of my talents.

Beliefs

Political views

I know there were several wars going on during my lifetime, but I was not a political disciple of anything. Really, my political thinking was more directed at abstract issues like civilization and culture than with taking up arms against the Nazis. Still, even though I wasn't very political, the Nazi collaborators in the Vichy Government sure were, and they took away my job as director of the Mediterranean University Centre (source), which definitely made me like fascists even less. I did write a book called Reflections on the World Today (1931), which discussed shifting borders and the changing identity of the nation state. I said that with Europe expanding its empire, each country's boundaries were getting blurrier. I also got pretty down on all of the greedy European colonialism—so you could almost call me an anti-globalist before anti-globalism even existed.

Religious views

In my early years, I had a Roman Catholic education, but religion didn't really play a big part in my life. Of course, religion was a subject of study in my work. Being a man who loves science so much, I just couldn't accept all of the unknowns in religion. To me, intellect and sensuality were far more important than faith and mysticism. Perhaps one of my aphorisms will make my position clear: "A man and his wife. She, very pious. He absolutely free (or purified) from all religion" (source). In other words, I saw religion and freedom as opposites.

Activities & Interests

Likes

Complex scientific theories
Mathematicians
Goethe
Optics
Being a member of the Académie Française
Joris-Karl Huysman
Solitude
Dance (as an art, not an activity)
Architecture
Female nudes (paintings, people!)

Dislikes

The Vichy Regime
Lightning
Dishonest friends
Anatole France
Politics
Lecturing (snooze…)
Sentiment
Public life
Universalisms
Other people's opinions of me

Interests

Penning aphorisms before the sun comes up
Rhyming couplets
Liberating myself from falsehoods
Intellectual meditation
Brooding
Contemplating imperfection
Bucking trends
Pondering the laws of nature
Being clever (can't stop, won't stop)

Groups

Académie Française
The Aphorists
French Symbolists
Lovers of the Mind
Constructivist Epistemologists
The Precisionists
Humanists
Pre-Postmodernists Against Postmodernism
Anti-Causists
The Literary Warriors

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