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MLN 117.5 (2002) 1003-1027

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Return to Monsieur Teste?, or "What is a man capable of?":
Valéry, Anthropologist of Modernity

Anne N. Mairesse


The present work on Valéry needs to be situated within the framework of collective concerns and a shared sensitivity, relative to our passage into the new millennium and, given the period in which I wrote it, to the uncertainties that were born in the wake of the tragedies of the fall of 2001. I am writing about Valéry today, fifty-seven years after his death, not because he is the ineffable poet of The Young Fate, nor the worldly member of the French Academy, whom Paul Nizan, scornfully but not entirely undeservedly, described as "a senior functionary of French literature" (Auster 18). 1

I would like to present the Valéry who, in my opinion, has been significant in the 20th century, as a witness and testifier, as Teste (testis, testa) undoubtedly, but also, as I would qualify here, as "the anthropologist." I refer specifically to the anthropologist of the Homo Europœus or the Homo Multiplex, as he sometimes called modern European man (CV: 12). This is the Valéry who appears in 1896, at the heart of The Evening with Monsieur Teste, as well as at the dawn of the Notebooks in 1894, who asks the fundamental question, "What is a man capable of?" (ŒII: 23), and never offers a definite response, yet continues to consider the question throughout the course of his work. This question may also be understood as "Who am I," or better still, "Which am I?", 2 what are my capabilities or my possibilities in the [End Page 1003] modern age, how can I represent them to myself, and give them to be seen, in order to possibly communicate them to others?

I believe this to be an original anthropological questioning, which must be distinguished from what is called, for example, during that same period, "poetic anthropology" in Alain's work. 3 This anthropology is also different from the so-called utopian humanisms of that time, as found in the works of, among others, Jules Romain or Roger Martin du Gard.

If Valéry is still relevant for us today, it is because he constantly seeks out this representation, a mimesis of modern man in the face of Power, in both senses of the word: "power" understood as the force exercised by the Real on individuals, and as that against which an individual, in turn, opposes his possibilities. Certainly other authors have shared with their own words what seems to be a similar preoccupation due in part to a changing world as reflected, for example, in Gide's The Immoralist: "What more can a man do, what else can a man be? That was what I had to know"; or, as Breton ponders, at the very beginning of Nadja: "Who am I, who do I haunt?"; but also, Sartre, who, going beyond existentialism at the end of his life returns to a similar questioning and asks himself in regard to Flaubert's work?": "what, at this point in time, can we know about a man?" 4

This can also explain why François Valéry, the poet's youngest son, entitled his book of memories, L'Entre-trois-guerres de Paul Valéry Paul Valéry: in between three wars). 5 Valéry the father was, indeed, the individual caught between the great conflicts that shaped the 20th century, and who formulated the division, the fragmentation, the impossibility of a unity of the world, which henceforth translated into man's impossibility to grasp the reality of this world, in one global thought. "What is a man capable of?" Valéry is to be commended for not offering an answer to this question, at least not a simple, unique answer; indeed, he left the question open-ended throughout the 50 years' time during which he wrote his Notebooks, a total of nearly 30,000 hand-written pages.

Following in Nietzsche's steps...


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