They condemned the barbarous acts of knowledge, the brutal feats of
engineering on the landscape, the tyranny of machines, the reduction of human types as counterbalance to the growing complexity of collective organisms. Already by i84o they were up in arms against the first effects of transformation which had only just begun. Although contemporaries of such figures as Ampère and Faraday, the Romantics knew quite simply nothing of the sciences, or they disdained them, retaining only their element of the fantastic. Their minds found a refuge in a Middle Ages which they created for themselves, fleeing from the chemist into the hands of the alchemist. They were happy only in Myth or History - that is to say, at the opposite pole of Physics. They ran away from organized life into the world of passion and the emotions, out of which they formed a culture (and even a theatre).
During this period, however, there was a quite remarkable contradiction in the intellectual behaviour of one great man. The same Edgar Poe, one of the first to denounce the new barbarism and the superstition within modernity, was also the first writer to think of introducing into literary practice, the art of fiction, and even poetry, the same spirit of analysis and calculated form, the effects and infamy of which he would elsewhere deplore.
In short, the idol of Progress was countered by the idol of cursing Progress, so producing not just one, but two platitudes. As for us, we do not know what to think of the prodigious changes visible around us, even in us. New powers mean more hardship, and the world has never known less where it was going.
As I was reflecting on this antipathy of artists towards progress, several related ideas occurred to me which are worth only what they are worth, and that might be nothing at all.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, the artist discovered and defined his opposite - the bourgeois. The bourgeois is the exact inversion of the Romantic. Moreover, he is made to assume contradictory qualities, for he is both a slave to routine and an absurd partisan of progress. The bourgeois likes solidity and believes in perfectibility. He is common sense personified, attached to the most real of realities, but he has faith in I know not what growing and inexorable improvement in the conditions of life. The artist reserves for himself the realm of ‘Fantasy’.
And yet the course of time, or better still, the demon of unexpected combinations (that draws and deduces from the present the most surprising conclusions with which to then compose the future), has taken great pleasure in confusing quite admirably two completely opposing notions. An astonishing alliance between the irrational and the positive was formed, and these two former enemies swore to engage our fives in an indefinite career of transformations and surprises. It could be said that men are now coming to regard all knowledge as transient, and all modes of their industry and relations as provisional. All this is new. At the level of life in general, the unexpected must be taken more and more into account. The real is no longer clearly defined. Place, time, and matter allow for freedoms once undreamt of. Severity engenders dreams. Dreams start to take shape. Common sense, a hundred times confounded and ridiculed by successful experiments, is no longer evoked except through ignorance. The value of ordinary evidence is as good as nothing. The fact of being generally accepted, which once gave judgements and opinions an unassailable strength, leads today to their depreciation. What was once believed by everyone, everywhere, everytime, no longer seems to mean very much. Over and against the certainty born of the concordance of the opinions or statements held by a great number of people, there is now the objectivity of recorded fact, controlled and interpreted by a small number of specialists. Perhaps the value once attached to the general consensus (on which our customs and civil laws are based) was only the effect of the pleasure felt by the majority in agreeing amongst themselves, at one with their fellow men.
Finally, almost all the dreams of mankind, which figure in the range of our fables - flight, submersion, the appearance of absent things, the word arrested, transported, and detached from its period and its source - and many a strange thing not even dreamed up - all have now surfaced from the mind and the impossible. The fabulous is now on sale. The manufacture of wonder-machines provides thousands of people with a livelihood. But the artist has played no part in this production of marvels. It arises from science and wealth. The bourgeois has invested his capital in fantasies, and is relying now on the ruin of common sense.
Louis XIV, at the height of his glory, did not possess one hundredth of the power over nature and the ways to amuse oneself - to cultivate the mind or offer it sensations - that are enjoyed today by so many men of rather lowly status. I am not including, it is true, the delight of being waited on, of ordering, intimidating, dazzling, striking, or absolving, which is a divine and theatrical rapture. But time, distance, speed, freedom, the images from all over earth...
A man of today, if young, healthy, and prosperous enough, can fly wherever he likes, racing across the world, and sleeping every night in a palace. He can assume a hundred lifestyles; taste a little love, a little certitude, just about everywhere.
If he is not without a little intelligence (but no more than necessary) he can partake of the best that’s available, constantly transforming himself into a contented man. There is no reason for him to envy the greatest monarch. The body of the great king was much less indulged than his own can now be, whether it is a question of hot or cold, skin or muscles. If the king was ill, he could not be adequately cared for. He was forced to writhe and groan on his feather bed, underneath his plumes, without hope of a sudden reprieve or that insensitivity to pain afforded by chemistry for the least modern men in their suffering.
Thus, for the sake of pleasure, against pain, against boredom, and for the stimulation of all kinds of curiosities, a large number of men are better provided for than was the most powerful man in Europe of two hundred and fifty years ago.
Suppose that the huge transformation that we are now experiencing, and which is moving us forwards, develops still further, and finally destroys what remains of our customs, articulating quite differently the needs and means of life - soon this totally new era will give birth to men unable to link up with the past through any habit of the mind. History will offer them strange and almost incomprehensible stories; for nothing in their time will have had a precedent, nor will anything of the past survive into their present. Everything that is not simply physiological about man will have changed, since our ambitions, politics, wars, morals, and arts are at the moment subject to a programme of very rapid substitutions; they depend more and more heavily on the positive sciences and thus less and less on what came before. The new fact is tending to assume the importance reserved up till now for the historical fact and tradition.
Already, any native from the new countries who comes to visit Versailles can, and must, look at those characters bedecked in volumes of dead hair, dressed up in embroideries, nobly arrested in parade-like poses, with the same regard in which we hold the dummies covered with mantles of skin of feathers at the Museum of Ethnology, and which represent the priests and chiefs of extinct tribes.
One of the most sure and cruel effects of progress is thus to add to death an extra pain, which is getting steadily more grave as the revolution in ideas and habits escalates and becomes more pronounced. It was not enough just to die; we must now become unintelligible, almost ridiculous; and, whether Racine or Bossuet, take one's place beside grotesquely daubed and somewhat frightening, tattooed figures, a prey to smiles, which throng the galleries and mix it imperceptibly with the stuffed replicas of the animal species...
I have once tried my hand at forming a positive idea of what is called progress. Eliminating therefore all moral, political, or aesthetic considerations, progress seemed to me reducible to a very fast and noticeable growth not only of the (mechanical) power of direct use to men, but also of the accuracy now attainable in their predictions. The number of horse power, the number of verifiable decimals - these are signs which, it cannot be doubted, have been increasing dramatically for over a century. A Paris street shakes and labours like a factory. In the evening, a display of fire and treasures of light express to half-dazzled eyes an extraordinary potential for waste, an almost criminal generosity. Has not waste become a permanent, public necessity? Who knows what a fairly detailed analysis of these increasingly familiar excesses would uncover? Some distant observer, looking at the state of our civilisation, might perhaps think that the Great War was only the very tragic, but direct and inevitable consequence of the development of our capabilities. The extent, duration, intensity and even atrociousness of that war corresponded to the magnitude of our powers. It was on the scale of our resources and industries in peacetime, and as different in its proportions from previous wars as our instruments of action, our material resources, and our superabundance required. But the difference was not only one of proportions. In the physical world, one cannot enlarge something without soon transforming its very qualities; it is only in pure geometry that similar figures exist. Almost always, similitude is only in the desire of the mind. The last war cannot simply be considered a natural extension of earlier conflicts. Those wars of the past ended well before the real exhaustion of the nations involved. In the same way, with one piece lost, good chess players stop the game. It was therefore by a sort of convention that the drama ended, and the event which sealed the imbalance of forces was more symbolic than real. But we have seen, conversely, only a few years ago, an all-modern war drag fatally on until the enemy was ground down, its entire resources, even those furthest away, all consumed one after the other on the firing line. The famous expression of Joseph de Maistre, that a battle is lost
only because one thinks one has lost it, has itself lost some of its ancient truth. From now on, battles are really lost, because men, bread, gold, coal, and oil are lacking not only for the armies, but also within the very depths of the country itself.
Among so many achievements in the name of progress, there is none more stunning than that produced by light. A few years ago, it was only of visual concern. It could be, or not be. It extended into space where it met matter which modified it more or less, but which remained a foreign substance. Now it has become the worlds foremost enigma. Its speed expresses and delimits something essential to the universe. It is believed to have weight. The study of its radiation scotches any ideas we might have had of empty space and pure time. It offers a mysterious mixture of resemblances to, and differences from, matter. Finally this same light, which was the typical symbol of knowledge, definite and perfect, now finds itself at the heart of a sort of intellectual scandal. It is compromised, with matter its accomplice, in the case being drawn up by the discontinuous against the continuous, probability against images, units against great numbers, analysis against synthesis, the hidden real against its pursuer, intelligence - and, to sum it all up, by the unintelligible against the intelligible. Science should find here its critical point. But all will work out in the end.
This is a translation of Paul Valéry’s text Propos sur Ie Progrès (originally Paris 1928) in: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, tome n: Regards sur le Monde Actuel et Autres Essais, Paris i960, pp.122-127.
Mediamatic Magazine vol 5 #1+2 1 Jan 1990
Remarks on Progress
It was not so very long ago that artists disliked what was called progress. It no more existed for them in works of art than it did for philosophers in morals.
They condemned the barbarous acts of knowledge, the brutal feats of