Paul Valéry was a connoisseur of self-isolation. In 1910, the French poet wrote in his Notebooks that he felt “awake and alert in the dark, amid the absence of everything else,” but “asleep and unfeeling in the sun, in the midst of all the noise and flowers.”
Valéry was no recluse. He had a lively social and romantic life, worked for two decades as private secretary to a former head of the Havas news agency, and accepted all the public honors that came his way, including the French literary establishment’s ultimate accolade: membership in the Académie française. But Valéry’s central preoccupation was the intensely private endeavor of exploring the reaches of his own mind. After his death in 1945, the full scale of that commitment to solitary introspection became clear upon publication of the Notebooks, whose first complete facsimile edition runs to over 25,000 pages.