Who Do We Think We Are?   /   Spring 2021   /    Essays

Paul Valéry and the Mechanisms of Modern Tyranny

All modern forms of government presume an objectification of their citizens.

Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody

French poet and essayist Paul Valéry (1871–1945), c. 1910, by Georges d’Espagnat (1870–1950); photograph © CCI / Bridgeman Images..

In 1922, the former director of the Havas News Agency, a certain Edouard Lebey, died in Paris. The man who had been Lebey’s private secretary for more than two decades, handling his correspondence and personal affairs, reading aloud to him for hours from novels and travelogues, suddenly found himself out of a job, at the age of fifty, with a family to support and no other qualifications than being a famous poet. From Lebey’s death until the end of his own life, in 1945, Paul Valéry did what he could to transform his literary fame into an income, turning out essays, speeches, prefaces, and limited editions of his work seemingly on demand. His celebrated dialogue Idée fixe (1932) was written on commission for an association of surgeons; he was even accused of forging his own original manuscripts in order to sell them multiple times, a joke truly worthy of this master of self-reference, if joke it was in the face of simple financial necessity. The accusation, in any case, caused the prices of his manuscripts to plummet on the rare books market. So when Antonio Ferro, the Portuguese propaganda minister, offered the poet 2,400 escudos for a preface to his book Salazar: Portugal and Its Leader, the only second doubts that likely crossed Valéry’s mind were the ones with which he opens his short essay: “I know nothing about practical politics, where I presume one finds everything I flee.”11xPaul Valéry, “Idée de dictature,” in Regards sur le monde actuel (Paris, France: Gallimard, 1945), 92. All translations are my own except where noted.

Then, too, in 1934 the word dictatorship had very different connotations than it would even a few years later. And even among the many dysfunctional democracies of that tumultuous era, the First Portuguese Republic had been a study in instability, an endless succession of governments, intrigues, and attempted coups, budget deficits and runs of inflation. So when in 1926 a successful coup d’état finally put the fledgling republic out of its misery, the event was greeted by a sigh of relief, on one end of the political spectrum, at least. Shortly thereafter, the economics professor António de Oliveira Salazar was given the task of balancing the country’s books. By financial measures he was spectacularly successful, and in 1932 the frugal, religious, professorial Salazar was appointed premier and began drafting the constitution for the “conservative and corporatist” Estado Novo (“New State”) that would last some forty years. The new dictator framed himself as a defender of tradition and family, social order and hierarchy, against the frenetic pace of modernization and industrialization which he saw tearing European societies apart. Among the threats to be defended against: peasant literacy and, worse, organized labor. Yet the violence underpinning his defense of those supposedly Portuguese values was understated in comparison with that of his autocratic peers and allies. The former American secretary of state Dean Acheson, who was struck by “the beauty of his hands, appropriate to his sensitive face,” found Salazar “the nearest approach in our time to Plato’s philosopher king.”22xAlden Whitman, “Antonio Salazar: A Quiet Autocrat Who Held Power in Portugal for 40 Years,” New York Times, July 28, 1970, https://www.nytimes.com/1970/07/28/archives/antonio-salazar-a-quiet-autocrat-who-held-power-in-portugal-for-40.html. So maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on Valéry for writing a notably uncritical article on dictatorship with the Portuguese dictator as its model, just as Europe was poised on the brink of tyranny and totalitarianism.


Then again, maybe we should. Despite the essential modernism of his poetry and the tremendous life it contains, despite his undeniable influence on Modernists of all stripes and his continued publication of incisive essays and evocative prose poetry, by the 1930s the image of Paul Valéry as France’s poetic stuffed shirt extraordinaire was not without basis. He hobnobbed with princesses and ministers, scientists and diplomats. “The Duc de Luynes recalled,” he writes nonchalantly in his notebooks in 1920, following with a king- and emperor-laden account of the start of the Great War. Younger poets like Henri Michaux and Louis Aragon could take unmistakable aim without needing to name their target. The provincial acolyte of Mallarmé had been adopted by high society. And was it not precisely this complacency on the part of Europe’s elites, their fear of disorder and the masses (not to speak of labor unions), their placid, passive acceptance of dictators promising law and order, that paved the way for Hitler? Of course, there’s much to be said in Valéry’s defense, and his dismissal of the “mediocre and vulgar”33xQuoted in Michel Jarrety, Paul Valéry (Paris, France: Fayard, 2008), 568. Mussolini’s ideas as “three bits of rubbish”44xIbid., 875. only scratches the surface of a complex and intelligent political sensibility. He does, moreover, seem to have realized that his entry into the realm of “practical politics” was a major faux pas. Several years later, when Ferro and company tried to rope him into an honorary post in Coimbra (Portugal’s former capital), he politely but firmly refused to have anything to do with them. Yet faux pas or not, Valéry included “The Idea of Dictatorship” in his collected works and the second edition of his widely read collection of political and social essays Regards sur le monde actuel (1945), and from there it entered the canon.

Despite the Lusitanian pretext, the essay is true to its word: It is very much about the idea of dictatorship. The idea, that is, that we outside observers might form of such a regime, the abstract, Platonic idea of it, but also the more tangible idea in the minds of citizens and rulers alike that makes it politically possible. Society moves toward dictatorship, Valéry observes, when government dysfunction grows to the point where it impinges on private lives and it “becomes impossible for the majority of people to mind their individual affairs without encountering some difficulty imputable to the vices of the State.”55xIbid., 97. The resulting shift in popular opinion is a natural one: “The image of a dictatorship is the mind’s inevitable (and as if instinctive) response when it no longer recognizes, in the running of affairs, the authority, the continuity, and the unity that are the signs of deliberate will and the realm of organized knowledge.” (This does not mean, of course, that “it does not contain great illusions as to the extent and depth of the efficacy of political power.”66xValéry, “Idée de dictature,” 95, 96.)

The mind’s response is to project its own ideal of understanding and action on the ruling body. “In sum, as soon as the mind no longer recognizes itself—or no longer recognizes its essential traits, its mode of reasoned activity, its horror of chaos and the waste of its energy—in the fluctuations and failures of a political system, it necessarily imagines, it instinctively hopes for the promptest intervention of the authority of a single head, for it is only in a single head that the clear correspondence of perceptions, notions, reactions, and decisions is conceivable, can be organized and try to impose on things intelligible conditions and arrangements.”77xIbid., 97. While all governments aspire to transform society in some way, while all politics presuppose some view of people as objects in a larger theory of social organization, only a dictatorship can truly aspire to this ideal of mind acting intelligibly on inert society and material reality itself, as if they were simple political ideas.

This transformation of a question of mass politics into the exercise of a single mind will not surprise readers of Valéry’s work. He is no political theorist any more than he is a philosopher, and his protests against philosophy and philosophizing are notorious—which hasn’t prevented philosophers from engaging with him on equal terms. His notebooks are filled with political observations, often aphoristic, often mordant and unexpected. Valéry is a notoriously unsystematic thinker, and it can be misleading to extract consistent theories from this weave of notes and ideas. But the original impulse for the notebooks, faithfully pursued in the pre-dawn hours for more than fifty years, came from a quest to understand intelligibility and grasp the functioning of the thinking self that dates from his rejection of poetry in the early 1890s, and the period of scientific and psychological investigations that followed. Reading the mathematician Henri Poincaré, the linguist Michel Bréal, and the physicists Lord Kelvin and Niels Bohr had led him to dream of discovering a science of thought. This science was not to be one of empirical measurement à la Pavlov, nor guided analysis like Freud’s, but one of internal, and thus in some sense subjective, observation and study. Yet though internal, it remained objective, recording the facts and operations of the conscious and unconscious mind alike as a botanist makes note of the flowers and animals of remote Pacific islands. It owed to the modern scientific spirit a Cartesian and very fin-de-siècle predilection for systematic and rigorous definition. Although Valéry abandoned this grandiose project around 1908, its analytical reflexes imprinted themselves on his way of seeing the world, and the morning ritual of self-watching continued to fill his many notebooks.

Politically speaking, the analysis in “The Idea of Dictatorship” is certainly not revolutionary. Some would be tempted to follow Dean Acheson’s lead and chalk it up as one more variation on Plato’s philosopher king, though we may well wonder whether the discussion of the “importance of youth” to a dictatorship’s perpetuation is a reference to Plato’s educational plans or the Hitlerjugend. Supporters of Salazar, after all, saw him as the voice of reason, and in particular, economic reason, safeguarding the people from the corrupting forces of progress, ruling unperturbed by politics and free from self-interest. But that’s not how Valéry the antiphilosopher describes it. He puts his finger on what we can call the mental geometry, the idea, of the situation: the intelligibility of political action, and the necessary abstraction of the various means, social and material, to achieving it. Every political theory, as he says, “tends to treat men like things—since it’s always a question of disposing of them according to ideas sufficiently abstract to be translated into action.”88x Ibid., 99. But this abstraction of means, this political idea acting directly on the social body, implies a second term of the equation: the mind that conceives the idea. That second term, that self-conscious political will brought to its highest power, is by definition the dictator.

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).