Paul Valéry

Regards sur le monde actuel


This essay first appeared in Regards sur le monde actuel in 1931. It was then translated in English in the book that was originally published in 1962 by Bollingen Foundation as Part I of History and Politics, which is Volume Ten of The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, constituting Number XLV in Bollingen Series. Translated by Denise Folliot and Jackson Mathews.

History is the most dangerous product evolved from the chemistry of the intellect. Its properties are well know. It causes dreams, it intoxicates whole peoples, gives them false memories, quickens their reflexes, keeps their old wounds open, torments them in their repose, leads them into delusions either of grandeur or persecution, and makes nations bitter, arrogant, insufferable, and vain.

History will justify anything. It teaches precisely nothing, for it contains everything and furnishes examples of everything.

How many books have been written entitled “the lesson of this, the teaching of that”! Nothing could make more absurd reading, after the events that actually followed, instead of the ones the books told us would be the way of the future.

In the present state of the world the danger of letting oneself be seduced by history is greater than it ever was. The political phenomena of our time are accompanied and complicated by an unexampled change of scale, or rather by a change in the order of things. The world to which we are beginning to belong, both men and nations, is only similar to the world that was one familiar to us. The system of causes controlling the fate of every one of us, and now extending over the whole globe, makes it reverberate throughout at every shock; there are no more questions that can be settled at one point.

History as it was formerly conceived was pictured as a group of parallel chronological tables, between which certain transverse accidentals were sometimes marked here and there. A few attempts at synchronisation produced no results, apart from a kind of demonstration of their futility. What was happening at Peking in Caesar’s time, or on the Zambezi in Napoleon’s time, happened on another planet. But melodic history is no longer possible. All political themes are now intermingled, and each event as it occurs immediately takes on a number of simultaneous and inseparable meanings.

The policy of a Richelieu or a Bismarck loses its way and its meaning in these new surroundings. The notions they employed in their schemes, the aims they could propose to the ambition of their peoples, the forces that figured in their calculations, all these have become unimportant. The chief business of politicians was – and still is, for some – to acquire territory. Force was applied, the coveted land was taken from someone, and that was that. But who can fail to see that those enterprises which used to be limited to a talk followed by a duel followed by a pact, will in the future inspire such inevitable generalisations as nothing can ever happen again without the whole world’s taking a hand; that no one will ever be able to predict or circumscribe the almost immediate consequences of any undertaking whatever.

All the genius of the great governments of the past has been exhausted, rendered impotent and even useless by the enlarged field and the greater number of connections between political phenomena, for there is no genius, no vigour of character or intellect, no tradition – even the British – that can henceforward pride itself on countering or modifying at will the mood and reactions of a human world in which the old geometry of history and the old mechanics of politics no longer in the least apply.

Europe makes me think of an object suddenly transported into a more complex space where all its known characteristics, though remaining the same in appearance, are subjected to quite different relations. In particular, the forecasts that were possible, the traditional calculations, have become emptier than they ever were. 

The aftermath of the recent war [that of 1914-18] has shown us events that would formerly have determined for a long time, and precisely in the direction they indicated, the shape and progress of general policy; but now, after a few years and in consequence of the number of parties engaged, the enlargement of the theatre and the complication of interests, those events are deprived of their energy and absorbed or contradicted by their immediate consequences. 

We must expect such transformations to become the rule. The farther we go the less simple and predictable the effects will be, and the less any political operations and even interventions of force – in a word, obvious and direct action – will turn out as they were expected to do. The sizes, areas, and masses involved, their relations, the impossibility of localising anything, the prompt repercussions, all will more and more impose a policy very different from the existing one. 

Effects are so rapidly becoming incalculable from their causes, and even contradictory to their causes, that henceforward it will perhaps be thought puerile, dangerous, and senseless to look for the causal event, to try to produce it or prevent it; perhaps the political mind will stop thinking in terms of events, a habit that is essentially due to history and sustained by it. It is not that there will be no more events and even “monumental moments” in time; there will be immense ones! But those whose function it is to anticipate them, to prepare for them or against them, will necessarily learn more and more to be wary of their sequel. It will not be enough to have both desire and ability to engage in an undertaking. Nothing was more completely ruined by the last war than the pretension to foresight. But it was not from any lack of knowledge of history, surely?

Posted: January 2018
Category: Essays