Valéry’s philosophical tale first appeared in the literary review Le Centaur, published in Paris by Valéry and several friends, including André Gide and Pierre Louÿs. It was not widely read at first; eventually, however, its significant impact dictated several more editions and its translation into at least six languages.
The tale is the story of the narrator’s meeting with a strange individual, Edmond Teste, a pure intellectual. Monsieur Teste’s motto is: “Que peut un homme?,” meaning “Of what is man capable?” Teste has suppressed all unnecessary gestures involved in human relations, such as shaking hands, and has devoted years of study to discovering the laws of the workings of the human mind. Monsieur Teste is Valéry himself. Valèry’s notebooks are filled with notations quoting “opinions of Monsieur Teste.” It was through the figure of Teste that Valéry was able to impart to the world his ideas of creative genius and intellect in their purest states. Many of his abstract reflections on mathematics, philosophy, and language are presented via the character of Teste. Valéry explored, with Teste, the conflict between emotion and intellect and being and nonbeing.
Valéry’s fascination with the creative process was first truly awakened in his study of the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, which culminated in a commissioned essay about Leonardo in the Nouvelle revue française in 1895. The exploration of the same theme continued with Monsieur Teste and is apparent in Valéry’s notebook entries generally. His writing on poetic theory, arguing that the process of creation is more important than the eventual product, also revolved around the same ideas. His preoccupation with the workings of his own mind and with the eternal problems of life’s choices are central to all his writing.
After publishing the original Monsieur Teste essay, Valéry continued to be fascinated with the character of the superhuman intellectual. Three more Teste essays appeared in 1920. In 1946, five more previously unpublished fragments were added in a posthumous volume. The development of the Teste character throughout all of Valéry’s works parallels the development of intellectual theories in the mind of the poet himself. The importance of the essays, therefore, lies mainly in the fact that they afford a glimpse into the workings of Valéry’s mind.