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An excerpt from Paul Valery's Crisis of Mind:

I was saying the other day the peace is the kind of war that allows acts of love and creation in its course; it is, then, a more complex and obscure process than war properly so-called, as life is more obscure and more profound than death. But the origin and early stages of peace are more obscure than peace itself, as the fecundation and beginnings of life are more mysterious than the functioning of a body once it is made and adapted.

Everyone today feels the presence of this mystery as an actual sensation; a few men must doubtless feel that their own inner being is positively a part of the mystery; and perhaps there is someone with a sensibility so clear, subtle, and rich that he senses in himself certain aspects of our destiny more advanced than our destiny itself.

I have not that ambition. The things of the world interest me only as they relate to the intellect; for me, everything relates to the intellect. Bacon would say that this notion of the intellect is an idol. I agree, but I have not found a better idol.

I am thinking then of the establishment of peace insofar as it involves the intellect and things of the intellect. This point of view is false, since it separates the mind from all other activities; but such abstract operations and falsifications are inevitable: every point of view is false.

I find it really hard to understand this but I have to since this is an assigned reading. The problem is that there are not a lot of information available on Valery, as compared to big name philosophers like Kant, Marx, etc. I'm not sure whether this is the right place to ask this, but how can I easily understand works this which is usually very complicated in language?

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    I don't have an answer but maybe guidance. You are dealing with a translation from the French, so you are hostage to how well the translator understood M. Valery. Second, Valery was a poet philosopher, so his meaning will not be mathematical and precise. You will notice the verb "feel" used over and over (probably sens in French.) He expresses disbelief in the very efficacy of language and intellect even as he uses them, and embraces error as a necessary step in gaining any kind of insight. Gaining comfort with this sort of paradoxical thinking is essential to "understanding" M. Valery. – memphisslim Apr 1 '15 at 13:43
  • You can find the complete text here. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Apr 1 '15 at 13:53
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First try to locate this essay of Valery in the critical apparatus that is already available; for example, the poetry-foundation suggests that:

Valery occupies a position in French Letters that is at once strategic and highly problematic. Critics have affixed to him various labels that are all partially correct: he has been called the last French Symbolist, the first Post-Symbolist...and an advocate of Logical Postivism.

So the difficulties you have with Valery are not all your own; critics too have found him 'problematic'; and it's in part because he is problematic that they have used him 'strategically' to position him as noted between Symbolism and Post-Symbolism/Logical Positivism; it's probably useful to view Symbolism as a late expression of Romanticism.

Try reading the text along this axis of interpretation; which means understanding what is meant by Symbolism and Logical Positivism - and that is objectively; and then also how you understand it - on which side are you on; and why.

Its useful to see what other responses form other texts - philosophical, scientific, artistic, political or literary the text evokes; and quote if appropriate; for example

I was saying the other day the peace is the kind of war that allows acts of love and creation in its course;

This to me - evokes Clausewitz description of peace as a kind of war ('politics is war by other means'); but Valery is going along a different axis - love not diplomacy.

Note inversions or affirmations of traditional themes; particularly when situated historically; for example:

it is, then, a more complex and obscure process than war properly so-called, as life is more obscure and more profound than death.

Valery inverts here the traditional opposition between life and death; life being the condition of daylight, and therefore clear; and death as night, and therefore obscure; consider Hamlets speech 'the undiscover'd country ... [which] puzzles the will'; Valery instead positions life as obscure, as mystery against the clear-cut finality of death.

Everyone today feels the presence of this mystery as an actual sensation; a few men must doubtless feel that their own inner being is positively a part of the mystery; and perhaps there is someone with a sensibility so clear, subtle, and rich that he senses in himself certain aspects of our destiny more advanced than our destiny itself.

Do you go along with this? If you do can it be justified - argument and illustration; for example:

One might consider Da Vinci here as an exemplar of 'our destiny'; his paintings prefigure the lasting and close symbiosis between Christian Theology and Greek Philosophy as a kind of exaltation; for example his Vittorrian Man is a pictorial representation of Nietzsches 'Gay [as in joyful] Science'; and later, the reversal of this sentiment and destiny in the 20C: Bacons Cruxifixions of the Spirit, and Ginsbergs Howl.

These are useful example as they juxtopose to responses to Valerys move towards the Intellect.

I have not that ambition. The things of the world interest me only as they relate to the intellect; for me, everything relates to the intellect. Bacon would say that this notion of the intellect is an idol. I agree, but I have not found a better idol.

He's announcing his break with Symbolism; and of the cult of sensibility; and a move towards the intellect; whilst agreeing that it too can be 'an idol'; in Hegelian terms from sensuality, to sensibility and then to thought.

I am thinking then of the establishment of peace insofar as it involves the intellect and things of the intellect.

The 'peace' of contemplation returns to the theme that begun essay.

This point of view

is false, since it separates the mind from all other activities; but such abstract operations and falsifications are inevitable: every point of view is false.

Again he's well aware of the falsity of this view; that is if it is taken as a clear-cut move; his views are, to use a Hegelian term, sublated: when his thinking moves into a new area, something of the old is kept.

Much more can be said; but you need to read and look widely; and assimilate it so that responses are fluid; this, unfortunately takes work.

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Read slowly.

While understanding texts like this will become easier with practice, the is no recipe to »easily understand works […] complicated in language,« no more than there is a simple recipe to easily understand, say, mathematical proofs. So instead of a recipe, let me give you some guidelines:

Details

While the text might seem somwhat poetical, that doesn't mean it is vague or imprecise. If there are ambiguities, that usually means you have to take both meanings into account. Let's take the first sentence:

I was saying the other day the peace is the kind of war that allows acts of love and creation in its course;

Here, »peace« and »war« are not to be understood as under international law (because there peace is not a kind of war); of course this technical meaning is meant as well (the context – Valéry wrote this 1919 – should give a hint). But obviously Valéry doesn't see peace and war as pure opposites and we can suspect that »war«, for Valéry, has taken quite an abstract meaning that also includes peace if it »allows acts of love and creation«. What this abstract meaning is we cannot decide from this portion of the text; we could, however, build a hypotheses – conflict? change? – which we test as we read along.

The Whole

To understand seemingly complicated texts, you have to relate the details, the single sentences and arguments to the whole text. First, there is an inner structure. The portion you cited has four paragraphs:

(1) Peace and its origin is more mysterious than war. (2) Some people may be intuitively sure of the answer. (3) Valéry wants to examine the problem by means of the intellect. (4) This method is limited, but so is any other.

Of course, there are some more details we have to examine, e.g. the juxtaposition of sensation and intellect. Does Valéry mean that some people simply feel that peace is right, but that he himself wants to give reasons? Or does he mean something else? To answer this, we need to take the outer structure into account: the cited portion is only the beginning of the second letter.

The Context

To understand the details, knowing the context is helpful. The context, however, is pretty much everything. So we have to think about which context we want to examine.

(1) Knowing the hole work is generally a good idea (in this case it is rather short). But usually, we should be able to make sense of an excerpt on its own. In fact, it often is a good idea to identify the questions which the complete text might answer: We might expect to find more in Valéry's concept of war, but not necessarily more on his distinction between »sensation« and »intellect«.

(2) Biographical and historical information can also help. World War I and its aftermath has obviously to be kept in mind.

(3) Intellectual context is probably the most difficult to establish. But again, we should be able to make some sense of the text, without knowing too much about what else people though. Questions of thinking vs. feeling were a hot topic back than; but we could suspect as much from the excerpt. Knowing what Bacon said about idols is also helpful; but it is quite clear to say »that this notion of the intellect is an idol« means the notion is somehow wrong or at least insufficient.

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The text is quite clear, Valery is expressing something obscure about something obscure - he uses the word obscure three times in that excerpt so simply take him by his word.

But really, why not refuse to interpret it? If people do their best to avoid being understood, let them remain that way; and if other people enjoy interpreting their beautiful obscurity, let them enjoy themselves.

Consider for example the process of learning physics - suppose you have two books teaching the same complicated matter, and that one of them is completely obscure and frustrating, while the other (for example by Feynman) is not only crystal clear but is so inspiring that it motivates you to become a physicist. The question is, why waste a single second with the obscure and frustrating book?

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