Crisis of the Mind

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Crisis of the Mind
by Paul Valéry

1919. Translated by Denise Folliot and Jackson Mathews from La Crise de l’esprit.

First Letter[edit]

We later civilizations... we too know that we are mortal.

We had long heard tell of whole worlds that had vanished, of empires sunk without a trace, gone down with all their men and all their machines into the unexplorable depths of the centuries, with their gods and their laws, their academies and their sciences pure and applied, their grammars and their dictionaries, their Classics, their Romantics, and their Symbolists, their critics and the critics of their critics... We were aware that the visible earth is made of ashes, and that ashes signify something. Through the obscure depths of history we could make out the phantoms of great ships laden with riches and intellect; we could not count them. But the disasters that had sent them down were, after all, none of our affair.

Elam, Ninevah, Babylon were but beautiful vague names, and the total ruin of those worlds had as little significance for us as their very existence. But France, England, Russia... these too would be beautiful names. Lusitania too, is a beautiful name. And we see now that the abyss of history is deep enough to hold us all. We are aware that a civilization has the same fragility as a life. The circumstances that could send the works of Keats and Baudelaire to join the works of Menander are no longer inconceivable; they are in the newspapers. That is not all. The searing lesson is more complete still. It was not enough for our generation to learn from its own experience how the most beautiful things and the most ancient, the most formidable and the best ordered, can perish by accident; in the realm of thought, feeling, and common sense, we witnessed extraordinary phenomena: paradox suddenly become fact, and obvious fact brutally believed.

I shall cite but one example: the great virtues of the German peoples have begotten more evils, than idleness ever bred vices. With our own eyes, we have seen conscientious labor, the most solid learning, the most serious discipline and application adapted to appalling ends.

So many horrors could not have been possible without so many virtues. Doubtless, much science was needed to kill so many, to waste so much property, annihilate so many cities in so short a time; but moral qualities in like number were also needed. Are Knowledge and Duty, then, suspect?

So the Persepolis of the spirit is no less ravaged than the Susa of material fact. Everything has not been lost, but everything has sensed that it might perish.

An extraordinary shudder ran through the marrow of Europe. She felt in every nucleus of her mind that she was no longer the same, that she was no longer herself, that she was about to lose consciousness, a consciousness acquired through centuries of bearable calamities, by thousands of men of the first rank, from innumerable geographical, ethnic, and historical coincidences.

So — as though in desperate defense of her own physiological being and resources — all her memory confusedly returned. Her great men and her great books came back pell-mell. Never has so much been read, nor with such passion, as during the war: ask the booksellers... Never have people prayed so much and so deeply: ask the priests. All the saviors, founders, protectors, martyrs, heroes, all the fathers of their country, the sacred heroines, the national poets were invoked. . . .

And in the same disorder of mind, at the summons of the same anguish, all cultivated Europe underwent the rapid revival of her innumerable ways of thought: dogmas, philosophies, heterogeneous ideals; the three hundred ways of explaining the World, the thousand and one versions of Christianity, the two dozen kinds of positivism; the whole spectrum of intellectual light spread out its incompatible colors, illuminating with a strange and contradictory glow the death agony of the European soul. While inventors were feverishly searching their imaginations and the annals of former wars for the means of doing away with barbed wire, of outwitting submarines or paralyzing the flight of airplanes, her soul was intoning at the same time all the incantations it ever knew, and giving serious consideration to the most bizarre prophecies; she sought refuge, guidance, consolation throughout the whole register of her memories, past acts, and ancestral attitudes. Such are the known effects of anxiety, the disordered behavior of mind fleeing from reality to nightmare and from nightmare back to reality, terrified, like a rat caught in a trap...

The military crisis may be over. The economic crisis is still with us in all its force. But the intellectual crisis, being more subtle and, by it nature, assuming the most deceptive appearances (since it takes place in the very realm of dissimulation)...this crisis will hardly allow us to grasp its true extent, its phase.

No one can say what will be dead or alive tomorrow, in literature, philosophy, aesthetics; no one yet knows what ideas and modes of expression will be inscribed on the casualty list, what novelties will be proclaimed.

Hope, of course, remains — singing in an undertone:

Et cum vorandi vicerit libidinem
Late triumphet imperator spiritus.

But hope is only man's mistrust of the clear foresight of his mind. Hope suggests that any conclusion unfavorable to us must be an error of the mind. And yet the facts are clear and pitiless; thousands of young writers and artists have died; the illusion of a European culture has been lost, and knowledge has been proved impotent to save anything whatsoever; science is mortally wounded in its moral ambitions and, as it were, put to shame by the cruelty of its applications; idealism is barely surviving, deeply stricken, and called to account for its dreams; realism is hopeless, beaten, routed by its own crimes and errors; greed and abstinence are equally flouted; faiths are confused in their aim — cross against cross, crescent against crescent; and even the skeptics, confounded by the sudden, violent, and moving events that play with our minds as a cat with a mouse... even the skeptics lose their doubts, recover, and lose them again, no longer master of the motions of their thought.

The swaying of the ship has been so violent that the best-hung lamps have finally overturned...

What gives this critical condition of the mind its depth and gravity is the patient's condition when she was overcome.

I have neither the time nor the ability to define the intellectual situation in Europe in 1914. And who could pretend to picture that situation? The subject is immense, requiring every order of knowledge and endless information. Besides, when such a complex whole is in question, the difficulty of reconstructing the past, even the recent past, is altogether comparable to that of constructing the future, even the near future; or rather, they are the same difficulty. The prophet is in the same boat as the historian. Let us leave them there.

For all I need is a vague general recollection of what was being thought just before the war, the kinds of intellectual pursuit then in progress, the works being published.

So if I disregard all detail and confine myself to a quick impression, to that natural whole given by a moment's perception, I see... nothing! Nothing... and yet an infinitely potential nothing.

The physicists tell us that if the eye could survive in an oven fired to the point of incandescence, it would see... nothing. There would be no unequal intensities of light left to mark off points in space. That formidable contained energy would produce invisibility, indistinct equality. Now, equality of that kind is nothing else than a perfect state of disorder.

And what made that disorder in the mid of Europe? The free coexistence, in all her cultivated minds, of the most dissimilar ideas, the most contradictory principles of life and learning. That is characteristic of a modern epoch.

I am not averse to generalizing the notion of "modern" to designate certain ways of life, rather than making it purely a synonym of contemporary. There are moments and places in history to which we moderns could return without greatly disturbing the harmony of those times, without seeming objects infinitely curious and conspicuous... creatures shocking, dissonant, and unassimilable. Wherever our entrance would create the least possible sensation, that is where we should feel almost at home. It is clear that Rome in the time of Trajan, or Alexandria under the Ptolemies, would take us in more easily than many places less remote in time but more specialized in a single race, a single culture, and a single system of life.

Well then! Europe in 1914 had perhaps reached the limit of modernism in this sense. Every mind of any scope was a crossroads for all shades of opinion; every thinker was an international exposition of thought. There were the works of the mind in which the wealth of contrasts and contradictory tendencies was like the insane displays of light in the capitals of those days: eyes were fatigued, scorched... How much material wealth, how much labor and planning it took, how many centuries were ransacked, how many heterogeneous lives were combined, to make possible such a carnival, and to set it up as the supreme wisdom and the triumph of humanity?

In a book of that era — and not one of the most mediocre — we should have no trouble in finding: the influence of the Russian ballet, a touch of Pascal's gloom, numerous impressions of the Goncourt type, something of Nietzsche, something of Rimbaud, certain effects due to a familiarity with painters, and sometimes the tone of a scientific publication... the whole flavored with an indefinably British quality difficult to assess! Let us notice, by the way, that within each of the components of this mixture other bodies could well be found. It would be useless to point them out: it would be merely to repeat what I have just said about modernism, and to give the whole history of the European mind.

Standing, now, on an immense sort of terrace of Elsinore that stretches from Basel to Cologne, bordered by the sands of Nieuport, the marshes of the Somme, the limestone of Champagne, the granites of Alsace... our Hamlet of Europe is watching millions of ghosts.

But he is an intellectual Hamlet, meditating on the life and death of truths; for ghosts, he has all the subjects of our controversies; for remorse, all the titles of our fame. He is bowed under the weight of all the discoveries and varieties of knowledge, incapable of resuming the endless activity; he broods on the tedium of rehearsing the past and the folly of always trying to innovate. He staggers between two abysses — for two dangers never cease threatening the world: order and disorder.

Every skull he picks up is an illustrious skull. This one was Leonardo. He invented the flying man, but the flying man has not exactly served his inventor's purposes. We know that, mounted on his great swan (il grande uccello sopra del dosso del suo magnio cecero) he has other tasks in our day than fetching snow from the mountain peaks during the hot season to scatter it on the streets of towns. And that other skull was Leibnitz, who dreamed of universal peace. And this one was Kant... and Kant begat Hegel, and Hegel begat Marx, and Marx begat...

Hamlet hardly knows what to make of so many skulls. But suppose he forgets them! Will he still be himself? His terribly lucid mind contemplates the passage from war to peace: darker, more dangerous than the passage from peace to war; all peoples are troubled by it... "What about Me," he says, "what is to become of Me, the European intellect?... And what is peace? Peace is perhaps that state of things in which the natural hostility between men is manifested in creation, rather than destruction as in war. Peace is a time of creative rivalry and the battle of production; but I am not tired of producing? Have I not exhausted my desire for radical experiment, indulged too much in cunning compounds?... Should I not perhaps lay aside my hard duties and transcendent ambitions? Perhaps follow the trend and do like Polonius who is now director of a great newspaper; like Laertes, who is something in aviation; like Rosencrantz, who is doing God knows what under a Russian name?

"Farewell, ghosts! The world no longer needs you — or me. By giving the names of progress to its own tendency to a fatal precision, the world is seeking to add to the benefits of life the advantages of death. A certain confusion still reigns; but in a little while all will be made clear, and we shall witness at last the miracle of an animal society, the perfect and ultimate anthill."

Second Letter[edit]

I was saying the other day the peace is the kind of war that allows acts of love and creation in its course; it is, then, a more complex and obscure process than war properly so-called, as life is more obscure and more profound than death.

But the origin and early stages of peace are more obscure than peace itself, as the fecundation and beginnings of life are more mysterious than the functioning of a body once it is made and adapted.

Everyone today feels the presence of this mystery as an actual sensation; a few men must doubtless feel that their own inner being is positively a part of the mystery; and perhaps there is someone with a sensibility so clear, subtle, and rich that he senses in himself certain aspects of our destiny more advanced than our destiny itself.

I have not that ambition. The things of the world interest me only as they relate to the intellect; for me, everything relates to the intellect. Bacon would say that this notion of the intellect is an idol. I agree, but I have not found a better idol.

I am thinking then of the establishment of peace insofar as it involves the intellect and things of the intellect. This point of view is false, since it separates the mind from all other activities; but such abstract operations and falsifications are inevitable: every point of view is false.

A first thought dawns. The idea of culture, of intelligence, of great works, has for us a very ancient connection with the idea of Europe — so ancient that we rarely go back so far.

Other parts of the world have had admirable civilizations, poets of the first order, builders, and even scientists. But no part of the world has possessed this singular physical property: the most intense power of radiation combined with an equally intense power of assimilation.

Everything came to Europe, and everything came from it. Or almost everything.

Now, the present day brings with it this important question: can Europe hold its pre-eminence in all fields?

Will Europe become what it is in reality — that is, a little promontory on the continent of Asia?

Or will it remain what it seems — that is, the elect portion of the terrestrial globe, the pearl of the sphere, the brain of a vast body?

In order to make clear the strict necessity of this alternative, let me develop here a kind of basic theorem.

Consider a map of the world. On this planisphere are all the habitable lands. The whole is divided into regions, and in each of these regions there is a certain density of population, a certain quality of men. In each of these regions, also, there are corresponding natural resources — a more or less fertile soil, a more or less rich substratum, a more or less watered terrain, which may be more or less easily developed for transport, etc.

All these characteristics make it possible, at any period, to classify the regions we are speaking of, so that at any given time the situation on the earth may be defined by a formula showing the inequalities between the inhabited regions of its surface.

At each moment, the history of the next moment will depend on this given inequality.

Let us now examine, not our theoretical classification, but the one that actually prevailed in the world until recently. We notice a striking fact, which we take too much for granted:

Small though it be, Europe has for centuries figured at the head of the list. In spite of her limited extent — and although the richness of her soil is not out of the ordinary — she dominates the picture. By what miracle? Certainly the miracle must lie in the high quality of her population. That quality must compensate for the smaller number of men, of square miles, of tons or ore, found in Europe. In one scale put the empire of India and in the other the United Kingdom: the scale with the smaller weight tilts down!

That is an extraordinary upset in equilibrium. But its consequences are still more so: they will shortly allow us to foresee a gradual change in the opposite direction.

We suggested just now that the quality of her men must be the determining factor in Europe's superiority. I cannot analyze this quality in detail; but from a summary examination I would say that a driving thirst, an ardent and disinterested curiosity, a happy mixture of imagination and rigorous logic, a certain unpessimistic skepticism, an unresigned mysticism... are the most specifically active characteristics of the European psyche.

A single example of that spirit, an example of the highest order and of the very first importance, is Greece — since the whole Mediterranean littoral must be counted in Europe. Smyrna and Alexandria are as much a part of Europe as Athens and Marseilles. Greece founded geometry. It was a mad undertaking: we are still arguing about the possibility of such a folly.

What did it take to bring about that fantastic creation? Consider that neither the Egyptians nor the Chinese nor the Chaldeans nor the Hindus managed it. Consider what a fascinating adventure it was, a conquest a thousand times richer and actually far more poetic than that of the Golden Fleece. No sheepskin is worth the golden thigh of Pythagoras.

This was an enterprise requiring gifts that, when found together, are usually the most incompatible. It required argonauts of the mind, tough pilots who refused to be either lost in their thoughts or distracted by their impressions. Neither the frailty of the premises that supported them, nor the infinite number and subtlety of the inferences they explored could dismay them. They were as though equidistant from the inconsistent Negro and the indefinite fakir. They accomplished the extremely delicate and improbable feat of adapting common speech to precise reasoning; they analyzed the most complex combinations of motor and visual functions, and found that these corresponded to certain linguistic and grammatical properties; they trusted in words to lead them through space like far-seeing blind men. And space itself became, from century to century, a richer and more surprising creation, as thought gained possession of itself and had more confidence in the marvelous system of reason and in the original intuition which had endowed it with such incompatible instruments as definitions, axioms, lemmas, theorems, problems, porisms, etc.

I should need a whole book to treat the subject properly. I wanted merely to indicate in a few words one of the characteristic inventions of the European genius. This example brings me straight back to my thesis.

I have claimed that the imbalance maintained for so long in Europe's favor was, by its own reaction, bound to change by degrees into an imbalance in the opposite direction. That is what I called by the ambitious name of basic theorem.

How is this proposition to be proved? I take the same example, that of the geometry of the Greeks; and I ask the reader to consider the consequences of this discipline through the ages. We see it gradually, very slowly but very surely, assuming such authority that all research, all the ways of acquiring knowledge tend inevitably to borrow its rigorous procedure, its scrupulous economy of "matter," its automatic generalizations, its subtle methods, and that infinite discretion which authorizes the wildest audacity. Modern science was born of this education in the grand style.

But once born, once tested and proved by its practical applications, our science became a means of power, a means of physical domination, a creator of material wealth, an apparatus for exploiting the resources of the whole planet — ceasing to be an "end in itself" and an artistic activity. Knowledge, which was a consumer value, became an exchange value. The utility of knowledge made knowledge a commodity, no longer desired by a few distinguished amateurs but by Everybody.

This commodity, then, was to be turned out in more and more manageable or consumable forms; it was to be distributed to a more and more numerous clientele; it was to become an article of commerce, an article, in short, that can be imitated and produced almost anywhere.

Result: the inequality that once existed between the regions of the world as regards the mechanical arts, the applied sciences, the scientific instruments of war or peace — an inequality on which Europe's predominance was based — is tending gradually to disappear.

So, the classification of the habitable regions of the world is becoming one in which gross material size, mere statistics and figures (e.g., population, area, raw materials) finally and alone determine the rating of the various sections of the globe.

And so the scales that used to tip in our favor, although we appeared the lighter, are beginning to lift us gently, as though we had stupidly shifted to the other side the mysterious excess that was ours. We have foolishly made force proportional to mass!

This coming phenomenon, moreover, may be connected with another to be found in every nation: I mean the diffusion of culture, and its acquisition by ever larger categories of individuals.

An attempt to predict the consequences of such diffusion, or to find whether it will or not inevitably bring on decadence, would be a delightfully complicated problem in intellectual physics.

The charm of the problem for the speculative mind proceeds, first, from its resemblance to the physical fact of diffusion and, next, from a sudden transformation into a profound difference when the thinker remembers that his primary object is men not molecules.

A drop of wine falling into water barely colors it, and tends to disappear after showing as a pink cloud. That is the physical fact. But suppose now that some time after it has vanished, gone back to limpidity, we should see, here and there in our glass — which seemed once more to hold pure water — drops of wine forming, dark and pure — what a surprise!...

This phenomenon of Cana is not impossible in intellectual and social physics. We then speak of genius, and contrast it with diffusion.

Just now we are considering a curious balance that worked in inverse ratio to weight. Then we saw a liquid system pass as though spontaneously from homogeneous to heterogeneous, from intimate mingling to clear separation... These paradoxical images give the simplest and most practical notion of the role played in the World by what — for five or ten thousand years — has been called Mind.

But can the European Mind — or at least its most precious content — be totally diffused? Must such phenomena as democracy, the exploitation of the globe, and the general spread of technology, all of which presage a deminutio capitis for Europe... must these be taken as absolute decisions of fate? Or have we some freedom against this threatening conspiracy of things?

Perhaps in seeking that freedom we may create it. But in order to seek it, we must for a time give up considering groups, and study the thinking individual in his struggle for a personal life against his life in society.

[Source: "The Crisis of the Mind" was written at the request of John Middleton Murry. "La Crise de l’esprit" originally appeared in English, in two parts, in The Athenaeum (London), April 11 and May 2, 1919. The French text was published the same year in the August number of La Nouvelle Revue Française. (From History and Politics, translated by Denise Folliot and Jackson Mathews, vol. 10, pp. 23-36.)]

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).