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Reviewed by:
  • Paul Valéry: ‘regards’ sur l’histoire
  • Paul Ryan
Paul Valéry: ‘regards’ sur l’histoire. Edited by Robert Pickering, with Micheline Hontebeyrie. (Collection Littératures). Clermont-Ferrand: Presses universitaires Blaise Pascal, 2008. 366 pp., ill. Pb €28.00.

Valéry’s legendary dislike of the past and his deep distrust of history — not of specific histories but, more accurately, of general History — might in part account for his failure to establish a justified reputation as a major political thinker. Pickering successfully takes up this challenge in this heterogeneous collection of essays that brings together twenty-five critical perspectives on this largely neglected domain in Valéryan studies. Grouped into six strands that include rethinking and rewriting history, its links with poetics and politics, as well as Valéry as writer of history and historiographical critique, the compilation comprises very interesting philosophical and socio-historical perspectives on the condition of man, civilization, the conceptual triangle of Nation — State — People, death and memory, the past and Time. However, it also situates Valéry in contemporary history — between Pétain and de Gaulle, both of whom he knew personally — by examining the similarities of his conception with that of Nietzsche, his view of Europe and its multifarious crises, his thoughts on education, an appraisal of his political and cultural vision through the critical perspective of Derrida, Nora, and Ricœur. Of course, Valéry’s own life span — he was born just after the end of the Franco-Prussian war in 1871 and died in May 1945 — coincided with the most traumatic and calamitous events in recent French history, which some of his celebrated essays reflect: ‘La Conquête allemande’ in 1896, with its insight into Bismarck’s Germany, ‘La Crise de l’esprit’ from 1919, and ‘La Liberté de l’esprit’ from 1939. The present essays draw extensively on these writings (published under the title ‘Regards sur le monde actuel et autres essais’ from 1931 onwards) as well as on the numerous but little-known notes of the Cahiers, which Valéry classified as one of the thirty-one rubrics of his ‘Système’ under the title ‘Histoire-politique’ (‘HP’). Unsurprisingly, half of these entries date from the period 1939–45. While Valéry likened History to the most dangerous product of the chemistry of the intellect, it is above all his intellectual engagement with historical discourse that emerges as his principal preoccupation and the source of his scepticism and deprecation of the subject. He viewed History as a naive form of literature, fundamentally speculative, and hypothetical to the point that all historical reflection can be placed, as the title of one article affirms, ‘sous le signe SI’ (p. 317). If History is not objective fact but an indeterminate fictional discourse that can be employed to justify any political end or doctrine, no lessons can be usefully drawn from it, thereby resulting in a constantly unpredictable future; hence Valéry’s most celebrated maxim on history, amply cited across this text: ‘nous entrons dans l’avenir à reculons’. Comprehensive, challenging, yet eminently informative, this excellent volume, prefaced by Valéry’s granddaughter Martine Boivin-Champeaux and [End Page 360] containing a selection of photographs of the writer in different political contexts, presents us not only with his unique vision of History, tempered by his profoundly humanist consciousness, but a penetrating analysis of history in the making in the first half of the twentieth century.

Paul Ryan
Waterford Institute of Technology


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pp. 360-361
Launched on MUSE
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