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  • Cogito Interruptus:The Epistolary Body in the Elisabeth-Descartes Correspondence, June 22, 1645-November 3, 1645
  • Kyoo Lee

Cogito interruptus is typical of those who see the world inhabited by symbols and symptoms. Like someone who, for example, points to the little box of matches, stares hard into your eyes, and says, "You see, there are seven . . . ," then gives you a meaningful look, waiting for you to perceive the meaning concealed in that unmistakable sign.

Cogito interruptus is also typical of those who see the world inhabited not by symbols but by symptoms: indubitable signs of something that is neither here below nor up above, but that sooner or later will happen. . . .

Cogito interruptus is not a great prophetic, poetic, psychological technique. Only that it is ineffable. And it takes real faith in cogito interruptus—and a wish that readers understand me—for me to venture to speak of it, no matter what.

—Umberto Eco, "Cogito Interruptus," Travels in Hyperreality

Introduction: Back to the Letters Themselves

While looking through the private letters that the philosopher M. René Descartes (1596-1650) exchanged with Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia (1618-1680) for the last seven years (1643-1650) of his life, I was fascinated [End Page 173] by the discussion of experiences of inconveniences, just small everyday interruptions that get in the way of the life of the so-called mind. They conversed and debated on matters ranging from metaphysical conundrums to psychosomatic troubles, on issues both extremely metaphysical and physical, ultimately impersonal and personal, all at once, such as pain; including other people's pain and especially other people as a pain. We are hardly short of such troubles in our own lives. The philosophical genius of Elisabeth, called by some "the first Cartesian" (Zedler 1989, 41), a title Descartes himself would not have deserved as he confesses but would have given her unreservedly (AT VI 325/CSM I 190-2), detects a fatal irony of an insulated and disciplined subjectivity.

My concern in this paper is to keep alive Descartes's "mind-body problem" especially as a feminist issue. I am interested in reanimating that classical problem somehow otherwise. Here, I am hearing the voice of an unhappy and restless character, Elisabeth "la Grècque" (Nye 1999, 8), the autodidact who, embarrassed and curious, always has a question for the knowledgeable one, especially on that problem that mattered to her most. For some reason that becomes vitally important as we will see, the lady philosopher keeps reporting to the bearded one, without being asked to, how and how many times her act of letter writing has been interrupted by those around her who want every piece of her: "more than seven" at one point (Elisabeth to Descartes, Sept. 30, 1645, AT IV 303; Nye 1999, 64).

From the early stage of correspondence that began in May 1643 and ended in December 1649 with Descartes's death, and specifically between June 22, 1645, and November 3, 1645, on which my analysis focuses, Elisabeth highlights, over and over again, this particular issue of sociomaterial obstacles and somatic disruptions in life. The young princess is constantly drawing and keeping the old philosopher's attention to the lived and living body; Descartes is relentlessly reminded of the blind spot in his carefully constructed house of the cogito, the mental foundation of selfhood. Consequently, almost precisely on November 3, 1645, just a year after publishing Principles of Philosophy (1644) where the key idea, floated between the two letter writers, on the obscure but "substantial" union of the mind and the body had already begun to surface, Descartes set out to pen the Passions of the Soul (1649) as a way of explicating answers to and for Elisabeth; she had been forcing him to think seriously and serially about the role of passions in the complementarily interactive relation between the mind and the body and, more significantly, the debilitating disrelations or dissonances between the two at times of psychosomatic troubles.

What engages my attention here is the contextual porosity of epistolary cogitation: the bidirectional, transferential dance of the textured soul, in search of its truth. Call it an aesthetic phenomenology of correspondence; a [End Page 174] co...


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