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French Forum 26.3 (2001) 127-128
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Figures de Valéry
Anne Mairesse, Figures de Valéry. Paris: L'Harmattan, 2000. 320 pp.
This largely biographical study offers suggestive interpretations of the different ways in which Valéry saw himself in others. It culls material from Valéry's own writings on acquaintances, model thinkers, fellow artists, and from his correspondence to friends and family members. Dividing her book into four chapters, on the poet's early friends, his literary models, his essays on Degas, and his writings to—and on—women, Prof. Mairesse proposes that Valéry both "hid and reproduced himself" in the portrait gallery of contemporaries that constitutes an important part of his prose writings (213).
By exploring three meanings of the word "figure" in her book's title, Prof. Mairesse often arrives at stimulating hypotheses, and occasionally at some original interpretations of the poet's most famous works. First, when understood as reflections or mirror-images of Valéry, the figures who marked his adolescence and early literary life (such as Gustave Fourment and Jean de Tinan) offer us a rare glimpse of the young man who valued his friends' ability to understand him. Juxtaposing the correspondence between the three with passages from La Soirée avec Monsieur Teste proves that Teste's witnessing the gaze of others as it was directed at him produces the same mediated self-reflexivity that Valéry found in his early letters. Second, when we consider the faces of others who did not yet know Valéry, but whom the latter recognized from afar, we find in such "figures" aspects of the person Valéry aspired to become. Such cases in point are Paul Verlaine or Henri Poincaré, the mathematician whom the poet would see walking past his apartment and who embodied the very ideal of a mind at work.
A third category of portraits illustrates the rhetorical use of the term "figure." These are displaced representations of fellow artists in which the portrait's subject is not merely reflected in the artist's rendition but is refracted through a third party. Hence the literary value of these written portraits, in which we shuttle back and forth between two representations, and discover new meaning in such displacements. One example is Valéry's 1925 essay "Fragment d'un Descartes" in which the author positions his rendition ambiguously between a personal reading of Le Discours de la méthode and Mersenne's perspective on the 17th-century master. A more telling instance of skewed portraiture occurs in Valéry's numerous essays on Mallarmé. The richest pages of the book can be found in Prof. Mairesse's critique of a misconception: that Valéry [End Page 127] extended the principles of Mallarmé's symbolism. By showing how "La Jeune Parque" works as a veiled "Tombeau de Mallarmé" and also how Valéry had constructed the legend of his filial relation to Igitur's author, Prof. Mairesse reveals more complex links between the two poets. In fact Valéry's writing hinges on the absence of Mallarmé in order to examine the possible sources of poetry (instead of subsuming these under a single notion of the Book). In the same way Degas Danse Dessin replaces its painter subject with a set of thoughts on creativity whose fragmented form underscores its investigation into possible works (rather than actual ones, painted by Degas or anyone else).
Prof. Mairesse concludes her well-documented study by claiming that the sheer multiplicity of self-portraits in Valéry's writings makes any fixed image of the Protean writer impossible. The ever-questioning style of the Cahiers is thus a key to Valéry's view of himself. One closes Prof. Mairesse's study with a sense of unease, however. Perhaps the search for "self" in Valéry is doomed to failure for the simple reason that his major works amount to an attack on this very concept, beginning with his deflation of "les professions délirantes" (and especially the life of intellectuals) in Monsieur Teste (Oeuvres II49). If we consider...