Descartes, A Character Assassination

Written in response to an exam question in 2007; 2017, same.

  1. How does Descartes understand himself?

The Discourse on Method is without a doubt a peculiarly autobiographical book. It stands right up there with Augustine’s Confessions (and perhaps OJ Simpson’s If I Had Done It) as a work that demands immediate intimacy with and sympathy of the reader. Often, I am tempted to read some great book or other as telling more about the author than they quite imagined. (Virginia Woolf quite properly points out that our greatest authors, e.g. Shakespeare or Austen, do the best job of saying nothing at all about themselves and everything about their subject.) Today, talking about character as if we could learn something about the content of an author’s thought is perhaps justifiably dismissed as mere psychology; but when an author begs us to judge his life for ourselves, as Descartes does in Part I, and lays so very many of his personal opinions before us, albeit in the most servile of manners, can we do otherwise but to consider his life, thoughts, and manner in the strictest of lights? We will only be doing what he asked us.

I have never met with an author quite so vain as Descartes. Indeed, sometimes he appears to me to be the wickedest of men, though to be fair, it is from considering the result of his vanity, in fact the general dissemination of it, that makes me particularly severe. Of course his rhetoric is constantly making me angry; using the language of moderation, humility, and decent self-doubt, he manages to say the most outrageous things about his general excellence and prowess, and still have many a reader, unused to judging character, believe he is basically a humble man. In his youth, he tells us, he learnt all that philosophy, poetry, theology, or history could teach him, and thus abandoned what he had so quickly learnt to see through. While still in his youth! Learned all there was to know! Many a teenager has made this claim before, in their heart, and many will make it in the future. Of course he was very intelligent, perhaps one of the greatest geniuses that ever lived. But I am used to praising thoughtfulness and wisdom, and polumaqhw, as Heraclitus has said, is not that. Absolute self-determination, a desire to be disciplined only by one’s own imagination, is the natural result of hardened vanity, and the god loved Descartes enough to allow him to think up a way the content of his thoughts could be precisely consistent with his own childish willfulness. Vanity and the god allowed him to claim the centrality of his rock-solid belief in himself as the only thing, and the best thing. His first principle is himself, and well might he find it relatively easy to doubt the rest of the world before breakfast. What wonder in the outside world could compare to the wonder of seeing himself in it?

But perhaps, I hear someone say, Descartes was vain. Perhaps he only knew himself part-way. But doesn’t his marvelous statement of his partial self-knowledge, cogito ergo sum, have some merit abstracted from his character? A common defense of the partial knowledge modern mathematical knowledge gives us is that “it works.” It builds bridges, cures diseases, and so forth. Mastery of nature, or rather, trying to wrench out parts from its whole that will be immediately useful, does indeed work—partially. It has indeed brought us partial goods. The non-organic compounds we make give us cancer, and the ones we made to cure diseases have led to diseases getting stronger. The too-large cities we have built with our bridges have given us all ‘stress’ and depression, and their distance has allowed us to live altogether too far away from our families. Descartes gave us the beginning of the mathematical tools that would allow us to become isolated as he was isolated, to participate in his vanity and eschew the self-knowledge that comes from the painful things our families tell us, our neighbors tell us. It allows us to push off the day when we come face to face the necessity of nature, real nature, as we hope to somehow avoid our own death. We shall all, I suppose, have an opportunity to judge the success of this.


The Turtle, and the name of Feminism

So, I’m sitting there reading this fall Elena Ferrante against my better judgment since I should be doing other things, and finding that in every memory the narrator recounts, I have a parallel memory, one that I haven’t thought of in a while, one that if I have thought of, I’ve put back. All these memories have somehow remained piecemeal, and one (I) has (have) been pleased (occasion occurring) to find it’s not central to the story of self; that it never had that much effect, or that my official story continues on without these troubling outlying subplots.

But the way E. tells her narrator’s story reminds me of all the damn pieces of stories, carefully kept as fragments, that have a larger life in the very quality of the memory. Reading her story, one is reminded of the viscosity of this so-thought fragment; it is not some silly visual flash but a full several hours of viscerally passing time.

When you put it like that, it’s maybe probably important. It’s just that one had put it aside, taking a lower standard for what constitutes memory. But these rather different memories splay out over time, they have a life and a narrative in themselves that earlier & later memories find it harder to possess; one finds one has lowered one’s standard for what constitutes past itself.


And so, reading, I found myself of a sudden thinking back to the last time I really felt strongly about this particular word (do I want to say it?), the word (in ’96) one used, that was foreign at the time, and no one said this (in Louisiana), it was foreign and alarming in the way that is not even a big deal given how trivial it is (now, outside, even when one is back in the same land), considering how far away it used to be from anything else:

For E., there are jargon-words she doesn’t say, but I am pleased to connect and deepen the jargon to her story, having heard her nonchalantly toss the circumstances into the narrative: what I knew before, barely, as: Italian, radical, feminist these are the names in volatility– The remoteness, initially, of her own story to what a few women were talking about more (more), that she saw from the fringes, what she ended writing about but then even her father-in-law (book 2) is singing silly rhymes about like it’s a made-for-tv movie, well all that was helpful. It was a thing people were saying. it was good to read.

For myself, merely, “feminism,” in all its jargon, in the heavy symbolism of the word, which at the time (in ’96) (in Louisiana) bore religious (anti-religious) weight, which now (rejecting much) one somehow wishes to reject (jargon is not right as such, have come to believe) and yet for the pity of it all even this act (of proposed rejection) (which I have still not officially said) involves somehow me in over my head (language speaks nevertheless).

In it now (I’m in for it now) (yeah I gave up and started a class on this very name it’s sinister), I’m starting to recall to see what my small town students see, what I saw then, instead of the shibboleth of the wealthy, the way to make sure we’re all friends here, the way to pass heedless through the gates in the satisfaction of mindless predication,

am recalling again something different about this name; from the zero sum game of the present in which intellectual propriety obliges me to reject it now (it still feels dangerous but right to do so), which I would have certainly (?) rejected in sum (in life), if not for:


three dudes

the strange tall inexplicable economics teacher who had been at Harvard (? ? but how did he get here, to this lonely-ass town, no one knew, it was definitely sinister) who lost the respect of the class early, but in the course of international politics indulged in chess metaphors. there was a moment where I let the class down, by nevertheless somehow accidentally siding with the man, in which I helped out and engaged in this chess metaphor about international politics, it was both interesting/a way to stave off boredom and a kindness at once. no one really knew his story. but he launched into teaching this class at a small school in a small town, he had to have had a story, he left after a year. but

there was this one point where (among the radical subjects haphazardly introduced) something was said, I responded beyond the normal

the (unconsciously perhaps brokenly) fey one, the one who was doing just a few increments better than me in grades (he and erin doing better, the latter my friend in the sense of the one person who I would talk to in class but we negotiated how I was not going to do so outside of it much at length), who at the decisive moment (and how did it even come up, in response to what?) said women are for <making?> babies <pretty much that’s it> definitely it was babies that was the straight pin of the very short two (one?) sentences. he said something like women are for babies that’s what they’ve got ha. as you all know ha the memory of the language is hard to pin, not used then to seeing the good of the habit that you have to work right then to sew down the string of words exactly as they came or else you might lose it forever. but women are for making babies. this is a paraphrase.

the rage from this there was this first moment of that strange initial acceptance of the wrong as such that flickers for a second, then (first as pure doubt, then building) strong sense that it had wait to be wrong, then gathering conviction & so strength of the wrongness, enough to reply strongly enough, that he pedaled back on quick enough disclaiming any merit to this argument, intent, meaning; the deepening suspicion with which I took it, and then;


then, and who knows if it was the next hour or the next week or what, I think maybe (probably?) it was the next hour, I sat more upright than usual in math class (though indeed it was math class that inspired posture ???) and I felt I was burning the earth, that the earth burned around me. I ‘m staring down the earth, sitting straighter, reading, writing, and thinking never—

the backstory is, this math professor, he had a short neck but the impression then and confirmed by now is, he must have taught college at some point, he was the one who told us to read the first chapter of trig like a novel, that was insight and benefice at once, just head on through, only at the end do you get (and this I add from experience) what to ask about what you didn’t see in the middle. I thought of him as an aged turtle.

but, he,
alone, I think
among the many teachers who had to witness this and figure out how the hell to respond,
put up with me “reading in class” in these largely wasted years:
no bones about it, I just flat out read a book
straight up on the desk, didn’t have to pretend
definitely I sat straight up, gave the book the angle up, the better to see
I made A’s on the damn tests and so; I
didn’t turn in my homework,
he let me do this,
he even ( I think?

at the time he was a benevolent but deeply stupid turtle.

so there I sat, in “advanced math,”
in the stupid class that erin and david (so I do remember his name after all)
didn’t have to take, because they had been to the better schools with quicker classes and were a year ahead of me in math,
which (I think) became two (years?), before we were done.

anyway, I’m sitting up straight in class,
I’ve forgotten the awkwardness of the economics guy with his chess metaphors equal part kindness which I didn’t recognize as such
but remembering the pleasantness of chess in a foreign place,
if not also the phrasing, really, of what david said, except for the word babies
and his desire to beat me without—well without much, but
with what was obviously a trump card,
he knew he wouldn’t miss or fail
that his audience would be on his side,
and sure enough, he got the laugh.

this is burning away: what consumes me
with my book (but I’m beyond my book right then, though I’m still liking to hold it up the better to stare out)
is that never, never
never never
will I ever let
(and here I can’t remember the words)
nature consume me,
no one will ever tell me,
sit in the kitchen, eat in the kitchen (langston talking here)
I refuse to be <determined> by that
(determination is such a silly word that I did not even know at the time)
I refuse
I will not
will not
there will be of this I the not
of (of what is not even conscious of itself in any definite sense) there will nevertheless be the not
(and this not I think was somehow all-not  and now wondering if this was my first proper all)
that what is true is not, of the
the free in the sense of not, that there are things other than—that this won’t it is not

(my carefully later-learned greek vocabulary hesitates over my precise phrasing here,
I think I did it better than this; it’s only the jargon of the last decades now that intervenes with something other than the purity of the insight)

mainly I remember the burning
and the posture
and the book
and the conviction, the word never, the word no
and the all-encompassing (flaming)
sense of insistent (flaming) freedom:
freedom in what I later saw as kin, reading of the greek freedom (such a very few cities that said it, and not even greek ones particularly) in the face of the Persians: burn me down, burn me up,
you’re never going to get me,
being free means dying a free man, and not a slave:
you die if you have to ,
but no one is going to get you,
not if you understand
that death is all it takes.


there were three men
(there were many more involved in this posturing moment, but one can only bring so many piecemeal to the table)
but it’s three I see now:

and at the time, the one I saw the least was the turtle.
rage for the most trivial one, stupid benevolence for the awkward chess other,
what a waste.

but the damn turtle: he let me sit there, he let me read, everyone else made me pretend that I was doing work in their stupid class, sitting there empty-handed in increasingly burning boredom, or just hiding the stupid book under the desk when I could, or if not this (having been found out again) then reading on top of the desk in February what had exhausted itself in September, the textbook again.

in second-tier math class however nothing was said about the book on the table: freedom was there, discovered in transgression, secured by mutual if astonished respect.

(once I remember he greeted me after graduation with some benevolence in the hall (elena f., this memory was completely buried until the moment of you!)

other (male) teachers praised
other (female) teachers recommended (with caveats)
other (lady) teachers let me hide,
bless them, in the labyrinth of the library, as far in the tangle as the tangle allowed.

this dude let me read,
no fucking subterfuge,
the hour was my own, given and earned by shameless facility, without shame or payback, no fealty required.

that’s where I first read A Room of One’s Own,
after all I had the leisure
and thought,

and that’s the last time the word feminism made any sense to me.