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Jonathan Rée DESCARTES'S COMEDY Descartes was an ambitious and arrogant young man. He believed that his talents, if properly invested, would enable him, as he put it in a letter of March, 1619, to construct a "totally new science." ' Later the same year he wrote of pulling away the "masks" which hide the lovely countenance of the sciences (AT, X, p. 215), and in November he had the sequence of dreams which, he thought, pointed to his life's vocation as a great scientist. He then set about composing a treatise for publication the following Easter, 1620, when he wouldjust have passed his twenty-fourth birthday (AT, X, pp. 215, 216-18). Few writers have been more conscious than Descartes of the danger that death might carry them away before their work was done;2 but his plans kept collapsing under the strain of his perfectionism. He could not bear to publish anything that was not flawless: comprehensive but beyond criticism or correction . The project of 1619 came to nothing, and it was not till eight or nine years later that he attempted to write another book, intended to consist of thirty-six "Rules for the Direction of the Mind," with extensive explanations of each rule. Unfortunately he lost heart again, and the project petered out at Rule Twentyone . A bit later, probably in 1629, he was engaged in writing an "Elements of Metaphysics"; but nothing seems to have come of this either.3 Descartes began to think that his career was becoming a comedy, with the public calling him Celebris promissor — "the great promiser" — and murmuring that he was one of those characters who "for many years boasted that diey were going to bring out books, to which they had not even set their pen" (AT, VII, p. 576; HR, II, p. 356). All in all, then, Descartes's life was getting off to a bad start, especially considering that he had long ago sold his share of the family estates and opted for exile, celibacy, and urban solitude in the hope of being able to pursue his intellectual concerns undistracted. In 1630 he began to search for a way around his block against writing. In an uncharacteristically shamefaced letter to his unfailingly helpful and encouraging adviser Marin Mersenne, he wrote: 151 152Philosophy and Literature You will be appalled at the amount of time it is taking me to complete what is supposed to be a very short Treatise, which people could probably read straight through after dinner. ... In case you find it strange that I have started writing several Treatises . . . only to abandon each of them, the reason is quite simple: I kept gaining new knowledge as I worked, and in order to make room for it I had to start afresh on a new plan. . . . But now at last I am sure that I shall not change course again, since my present design will remain serviceable whatever new knowledge I may acquire in the future. (AT, I, pp. 137-38) What was this new approach to writing, and how was it supposed to protect Descartes from the inevitable risk that he might change his mind, or that his theories might turn out to be mistaken? The oudine ofDescartes's new policy can be discerned in several ofhis literary experiments in the next couple of years. They are marked by a self-conscious "writerliness," a bit playful perhaps, of the kind that was to be developed into parodie gimmickry by Sterne and Diderot a century later. Timidly but unmistakably , the writings of this period tell stories; and the beauty of storytelling, from the point ofview of a nervy perfectionist like Descartes, is that it enables an author to attribute ideas to fictional characters, and so avoid taking personal responsibility for them. Storytelling was nothing new in theoretical prose: Plato's dialogues are stories, and so too, in a rudimentary way, are the many Medieval and Renaissance textbooks which took the form of catechisms or of dialogues between Master and Student. But Descartes's new approach to writing involved a different way of presenting the story — namely narrative, and specifically the kind of narrative which presents, amongst...


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