Always demand proof, proof is the elementary courtesy that is anyone’s due.
—Valéry, Monsieur Teste
The name Paul Valéry carries its own music. For those who know something of what lies behind it, the music deepens, is suggestive, and always richly complex. (“Complex,” said Ravel, about his own artistic aims, “never complicated.”) To know Valéry only from his melodious but difficult poems—“Le Cimitière marin,” “La Jeune Parque,” and others—turns out to be to know him scarcely at all. “Poetry,” he wrote, “has never been a goal for me—more an instrument, an exercise, and its character derives from this—an artifice—product of will.” Poetry provided him with fame, but he found his real intellectual stimulation elsewhere.
Today, Valéry is perhaps best...