The evil genius of Descartes

IF YOU ARE LOOKING TO point the finger at a philosopher on the evils of modernity, then there are quite a few potential suspects. Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Occam, Duns Scotus, even Parmenides have all found themselves at one time or another on the dock. But the character with his prints all over the crime scene and his prints all over the murder weapon is surely René Descartes. The isolated individual subject, the dualism of mind and body, the rise of bloodless reason, the transformation of the world into so many quantifiable things to expand: all the fault of Descartes. It is Descartes who is responsible for the evisceration of the quality and the non-identical, of intuition, of feeling and of the body.

Whether or not this is a good way to imagine “modernity” (a term much more problematic than even some of its most thoughtful users think), the suspicion that the ways of meeting and to meet with the world which had been the prerogative of poetry came to be buried under the edifice of a mechanizing and downright rational philosophy is tenacious. The quarrel between poetry and philosophy goes back a long way – at least as far as Plato’s exclusion of poets from his ideally constituted political regime – but Descartes has regularly been accused of stabbing poetry in the name of the philosophy. In the 18th century, Jean-Baptiste Rousseau (that is to say the oldest and least famous Rousseau) reports the judgment made on Descartes by the critic and poet Nicolas Boileau:

I have often heard [Boileau] to say that the philosophy of Descartes had cut the throat of poetry; and it is certain that what poetry has borrowed from mathematics has dried up its mind and accustomed it to a concrete or material precision which has nothing to do with what one might call the properly metaphysical precision of poets. and speakers. Geometry and poetry have their separate and distinct rules, and those who want to judge Homer by Euclid are no less impertinent than those who want to judge Euclid by Homer.

As Andrea Gadberry repeatedly points out in her intricate and captivating new book, Cartesian poetics: the art of thinking, there is something a little strange in the indictment of Boileau (and Rousseau). On the one hand, the crime scene is both ‘strangely wet and dry: the blood of poetry may have been spilled, but the real crime is its’ drying out’.[ion]. ‘ For another, Rousseau seems to suggest that the old gulf between poetry and philosophy had in fact been bridged in the embodiment of “metaphysical precision” by poetry. But more importantly, the question of who is really to blame for the disappearance of poetry becomes less clear the closer we take a closer look. Was it Descartes with a knife? Or was it poetry itself, thanks to its own misguided borrowings from geometry?

It is Rousseau here who puts all his weight in a “modernizing push towards rigid disciplinary borders”. (For my part, I would be intrigued by a Euclidean reading of Homer – and even more by a Homeric reading of Euclid.) Strawman. “It is the purpose of his book to show that Descartes was made of more than In particular, as its seemingly incongruous title indicates, Gadberry wants to show that, far from slitting his throat, Descartes was not only influenced by poetry, but that it allowed and shaped many of the most important and characteristic aspects of his thinking. In a sequence of densely woven but also richly informative chapters, Gadberry shows how the enigma, the words of love, the elegy and the anagram are deeply interwoven. , respectively, to Descartes’ considerations on common sense and language, his famous episode of evil genius. which fools us into believing in the outside world, his struggle with error and other minds, and his understanding of relationship between the mortal body and the e immortal sprit.

Most readers will find Gadberry’s readings dazzling with innovation; other less attentive and open-minded readers may find them bizarre. While elements of, say, the last chapter on anagrams may at times seem to present a Descartes to crossword enthusiasts, the innovation of Gadberry’s narrative is, in fact, bolstered by careful historical contextualization – lightly displayed, of course. – and a careful analysis of Descartes’ analysis. texts in Latin and French. Following a number of intellectual historians who laid the groundwork to complicate Descartes’ image as a parched rationalist, Gadberry shows that he was steeped in the traditions of Renaissance humanism, rhetoric and neoclassical poetics and strange techniques of Jesuit spirituality. And she is also an accomplished linguist: we do not skimp here on the particular resonances of Descartes’ own terms, nor on the sometimes revealing shifts between his Latin and French translations that he sanctions.

So much for university degrees. But this is more than another book claiming that Descartes is more complex than the outline summaries have led us to believe. There is a strangeness – a strangeness even – in Descartes that emerges from Gadberry’s treatment. For example, many readers will be familiar with the episode of Meditations on the first philosophy (1641) where the philosopher assumes that the outside world is the creation of an evil genius (clever genius). It is about trying to distinguish between what is possible to doubt (the outside world) and what cannot be (which I doubt), and so this is a crucial moment in the process. thought of Descartes. This episode was adapted to the stock of tedious philosophical thought experiments – where the evil genius drove, a thousand wagon trouble thundered after him – but Gadberry convincingly shows that he is deeply indebted to a tradition of talkative talk. love, structured as an attempt at seduction and a determined and bloody repulsion from suicide.

It may be worth digressing briefly here to mention that Gadberry at times presents the evil genius’ making of an outside world as a mimetic – as a treacherous copy of the real world that exists – and therefore the episode. is considered continuous with other imaginations of hallucinators. worlds in the philosophical tradition – above all, with the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave. In doing so, Gadberry is in venerable company because Thomas Hobbes, opposing the Meditations, also invoked this association. But the world of genius is not an imitation. On the contrary, as Gadberry also says, the evil genius “makes a false world” – false not because it is an illusory copy of a real world (it is not) but because, like us Descartes says, it is “simply the illusions of dreams that he imagined to trap my judgment. It’s a strange thought, one that can easily plunge us into an abyss of uncertainty (it is, after all, the idea): suppose the world we live in is by no means real, that it is not real. not even a copy or perversion of a real world, and certainly it was not created by a beneficent intelligence. Then what ? What can I be sure of?

Some of the most compelling answers to these questions have been articulated in the work of the phenomenologist Michel Henry, who reads Descartes’ distinction between the doubtful and the unmistakable as the radical basis for a materialistic phenomenology of life. (Gadberry quotes Jean-Luc Marion, with whom Henry was associated, but not Henry himself.) Gadberry comes close to the concerns of Henry’s materialistic phenomenology when she remarks, rightly, that “[i]It would of course be more difficult to strike the cogito to ruin modernity, of course, if we broadened its definition to include all the possibilities that being a thinking thing might entail, ”but some engagement with the articulation of ‘Henry, inspired by Descartes, of a Distinction between the life that I am and the world that I can doubt could have clarified this aspect of his account of what exactly the evil genius does.

Thankfully, however, that wrinkle in his tale of the evil genius doesn’t interfere too much with his brilliant read of his weird, resisted, and ultimately abortive seduction of the Cartesian meditator. Gadberry shows that the evil genius is presented as having created the false world just for the meditator and for no one else, but Descartes is so determined to refuse this exclusive but dangerous gift that he subverts the anatomical coat of arms, the sub-genre of words of love in which the parts of the body are anatomized and praised, imagining on the contrary first the world, then its hands, its eyes, its flesh, its blood and its senses, until that he attains the sure and chaste dread of the ego. It is a reading that is both convincing and totally unexpected: Descartes poet of love upside down and upside down. Gadberry’s readings of the enigma, elegy, and anagram in Descartes’ hands also don’t simply show the influence of these genres in his upbringing and writing (although they do, too). but also how they are adapted and distorted at the very roots of his thought.

In the last pages of his book, Gadberry goes from poetic influences on Descartes to Cartesian influences on poetry. There are already many historical works on the reception of Descartes’ thought in eighteenth-century poetry, but the poets Gadberry invokes here are Valéry, Beckett, Mallarmé. We did not understand Descartes, said the last: “We did not understand Descartes. This is a point of view that Gadberry endorses, noting, in a formulation which recurs more than once in his book, that the attempt to understand Descartes “is painfully strange”. The book ends with a skilful miniature reading of Mallarmé’s much-discussed opening. A roll of the dice chance will never abolish (1897), and his last words are, irresistibly, “a stroke of Descartes. “that of Andrea Gadberry Cartesian poetics is a cut all its own. This should change the way we read Descartes, of course, and therefore also ” […] towards new stories of feelings and thoughts, towards a more sensitive measure of an environment in which the poetic suspends the need for “refutation” and infiltrates – even suspends – our thoughts.


Ross Wilson is Associate Professor of Criticism at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Emmanuel College. He is the author of Shelley and the apprehension of life (Cambridge University Press, 2013) and Theodore Adorno (Routledge, 2007). His essays on poetry, criticism and aesthetics have been published in the Times Literary Supplement, Frieze, the New statesman, New literary history, and elsewhere.

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