Paul Valéry: The Mind in the Mirror by Dr. Elizabeth Sewell, Professor of Literature, Cambridge University, Vassar, and Notre Dame.

For the past two years, I have been on a Paul Valéry quest and have posted 16 blogs just from his book of Poems, Alphabet [see post]. I first read Alphabet in August 2021, and was fascinated by this new idea (for me) of the birth of self and its world at dawn—the recreation of self each new morning. As there is no English translation, I set about translating each poem from French, chewing on these philosophical ideas in English, and synthesizing these new ideas into my blog posts.

I recently found a wonderful little treasure to complement my Valéryquest at the Fondren Library at SMU: Paul Valéry: The Mind in the Mirror, written by Dr. Elizabeth Sewell, Professor of Literature, Cambridge University, Vassar, and Notre Dame. It was Edited by Erich Heller, Professor of German at the University College of Swansea, from the Series of Studies in Modern European Literature and Thought.  Inside this book is a plate from the University of Windsor Library in Oxford, England. So fun!

Mirror Themes in 19th Century Literature

Magic mirror on the wall,

Who is the fairest one of all?

“There are some people who cannot pass a looking-glass, (modern day mirror, Iphone camera) without a slight disturbance in their imagination. It is not just vanity…it is partly a sense of a hidden significance in the mirror’s inverted images (5)”. Do we need a sense of reassurance at the sight of our own image? A mirror is not neutral as a picture—as Descartes noted, “I reflect, therefore I am”.

As I was brainstorming this topic of reflecting in a mirror, I had two ideas: the first, which is literal, is my daily reflection in a mirror in order to make myself presentable to the outside world! This “presentable” standard is based, unfortunately, on our worldly standards of beauty: hairstyle, makeup, attire, etc. How can one ever reach the world’s standards of beauty? It is impossible, it can often be discouraging, but it is part of our daily routine.

The second, which is more important, is the reflection of self. Who do I see in the mirror? Do I like the person I see?

The Book of James, 1:23-25, states:

 “For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror, for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was”. And in Proverbs 27:29,

As in water face reflects face,  So the heart of man reflects man.

Man in the Mirror

According to Elizabeth Sewell, the collection of mirrors in literature becomes increasingly frequent at the end of the nineteenth century. Paul Valéry uses this reference to mirrors in many of his works such as La Jeune Parque, Ebauche d’un Serpent, Narcisse Parle (Narcissus fell in love with his own face mirrored in the lake), Charmes, and Cantate du Narcisse (1938).

Why was the reference of the mirror such an important theme in Valéry’s work?

Similar to Lewis Carroll who sends his small heroine through the looking-glass into some new country of the mind in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Valéry was continually trying to discover himself by reflecting in a mirror: watching himself making poetry, watching his mind thinking, and making a form and structure out of his thoughts (8). The Latin word for a mirror, speculum, suggests looking in a mirror to exercise the intellect. Carroll, an expert in mathematics and logic, considers the ambiguity of the word ‘reflection’ which can mean either the face in the mirror or the workings of the mind. Valéry sees no distinction between poetry and abstract thought. His idea of speculation (Latin speculum) is constructive-the mind in speculation is trying to build up a framework of thoughts whether the framework may serve some purpose, or not.

“As much consciousness as possible” was his device for his poetry, “the union of poetic enthusiasm ad precise directed thought, the mind watching the mind, inverted simulacrum in the mirror. If Valéry was thinking about thinking, that is what we are going to have to do (10)”.

After all, Aristotle says in his Metaphysics that thinking about thinking must be a characteristic activity of the mind of God.

Secondly, Valéry uses the reflection in a mirror image to remind us that one cannot imagine without an image. When we look in a mirror, there is in reality only one face and not two; but nonetheless, an image of that one face appears before one’s eyes, and so can be studied. A mind may construct its thoughts, may make them into something, a book or a poem, perhaps. But at the same time, the mind is undergoing its work as well as creating it, being constructed as well as constructing (13). “An idea is a means or a signal of transformation…minds and ideas transform one another.” In our reflection, we transform from one person to two. Monologue becomes dialogue.  The Scholastics who perfected the art of the dialectic understood Think of Carroll’s Tweedledee and Tweedledum—a personality divided against itself and needing reintegration of not being at peace with oneself.

Valéry and Leonardo da Vinci

Sewell reminds us of this same theme in Goethe’s Faust, Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, and Valéry’s Introduction a la Méthode de Léonard de Vinci (my next read!!) in which the great mind has first to unify not its subject-matter but itself. Valéry gives an example of da Vinci’s great intellect as he recalls the enormous, varied interests and activities of Leonardo, art, science, speculation, philosophy, engineering, aeronautics, stage design, ballistics, architecture, and anatomy (whew). I have always admired Da Vinci for this reason. In the same way, Goethe, Longfellow, and Victor Hugo had enormous, varied interests which made them universal. [see posts]. “The man of genius is the man who makes me a genius(54).”

Valéry calls Leonardo’s brain a “monstrous creature, the strange animal which has spun myriads of pure relations between so many forms. He had one advantage over everybody which he had given himself: that of possessing a suitable idea of himself” (21). In Note et Digression, Valéry mentions Leonardo’s view that death is a disaster for the soul, reaching home to the soul’s dearest work by destroying the architecture which it had made for itself to live in (24).  It is appropriate that da Vinci, a Master architect, would see the body this way. I love this! We are the architects of our own body, mind, and spirit. Therefore, we can choose to improve this edifice with each day we are given on this Earth, or we can choose not to which could lead to atrophy or disrepair. [However, I do not see death as a disaster for the soul as I believe my soul will live through eternity with God.]

Finally, we see Valéry’s use of the mirror in La Jeune Parque: “I prefer to die rather than to reflect.” His own reflection might be the looking-glass version of this; sooner reflect than die. The answer is not suicide, according to Sewell, it is somewhere in that complete reflection of Valéry, and we have to try to find it (49).

Work Cited

Elizabeth Sewell. Paul Valéry: The Mind in the Mirror. Cambridge, 1952.