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Paul Valery, What is to Become of the European Spirit?

From La Crise de l'esprit, Variété I, Letters, 1919


An extraordinary shiver ran through the marrow of Europe. She sensed, through all her thinking centres, that she no longer recognised herself, that she was no longer herself, that she was about to lose consciousness - a consciousness acquired from centuries of bearable misfortunes, from thousands of first-rate men, from geographical, ethnic, historical, countless chances.

Then, as if desperately seeking to defend her physiological being and assets, her whole memory came back to her confusedly. She remembered her great men and her great books all mixed up together. We have never read so much or with such passion as during the war - ask the bookshops. We have never prayed so much or so deeply - ask the priests. We called upon all the saviours, founders, protectors, martyrs, heroes, great leaders, holy heroines and national poets.

And in the same mental confusion - in response to the same anguish - cultured Europe experienced the rapid reviviscence of her innumerable thoughts: dogmas, philosophies, complex and manifold ideals; the three hundred ways of explaining the world, the thousand and one shades of Christianity, the two dozen kinds of positivism - the entire gamut of intellectual enlightenment spread out its incompatible colours, illuminating the agony of the European soul in a strange glow.

(...) Now, on a vast terrace of Elsinore stretching from Basel to Cologne, touching the sands of Nieuwpoort, the marshes of the Somme, the chalk of the Champagne, the granite of Alsace, the European Hamlet looks at the millions of ghosts.

But he is an intellectual Hamlet. He meditates on the life and death of truths. His ghosts are all the subjects of our controversies; his remorse is all the titles of our glory; he is overcome by the weight of discoveries and knowledge, incapable of fathoming this limitless activity. He contemplates the problem of restarting the past, the folly of the desire for constant innovation. He wavers between the two abysses, for the world is forever threatened by two dangers: order and disorder.

When he picks up a skull, it is a famous one. - Whose was it? This one was Leonardo's. He invented flying man, but flying man has not exactly done what the inventor intended. These days, we know that flying man mounted on his great swan (il grande ucello sopra del dosso del suo magnio cecero) has better things to do than to take snow from the summits of mountains and throw it on the streets of cities on hot days. This other skull is Leibniz, who dreamed of eternal peace. And this one is Kant, Kant who begat Hegel, who begat Marx, who begat…

Hamlet really does not know what to do with all these skulls. But if he abandons them, will he no longer be himself? His terrifyingly perceptive brain contemplates the transition from war to peace. It is a transition that is more obscure and dangerous than that from peace to war; it troubles all nations. "And I," he says. "I the European intellect, what is to become of me? What is peace? It is perhaps a state of things in which Man's natural hostility towards his fellow expresses itself in creation rather than degenerating into the destruction of war. It is a time of creative competition, of the struggle of products. But I, am I not tired of producing? Have I not exhausted the desire for extreme attempts and have I not abused scholarly mixtures? Must I leave aside my difficult duties and my transcendent ambitions? Must I follow the trend and imitate Polonius, who is now directing a major newspaper? Or Laertes who is somewhere in aviation? Or Rosenkrantz, who is doing I know not what under a Russian name?

- Farewell, phantoms! The world no longer has need of you. Nor of me. The world which calls its tendency to fatal precision by the name of progress seeks to unite the advantages of death with the benefits of life.

      Cf.  Paul Valery, The Crisis of the Mind (at the margin of J. O. y Gasset), La Crise de l'esprit (in French)  * Pope Benedict XVI, The Papal Science  * David Turner, Byzantium : The 'alternative' history of Europe


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