Tuesday, October 21, 2008

cartesian fear?

Alas, Poor Descartes: Meditations on a Well-Traveled Skull
By JANET MASLIN - New York Times
A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason
By Russell Shorto

Russell Shorto met René Descartes at the Musée de l’Homme, the anthropology museum in Paris. Mr. Shorto gives no physical description of himself during this 2005 encounter. As for Descartes, he emerged from a white paper wrapping within a wooden box. And he had been scribbled on in both Latin and Swedish. At that moment, more than 350 years after his death, Descartes existed as a partial skull with a checkered, peripatetic history. “Voilà le philosophe” (“Here is the philosopher”), the museum’s director of conservation said to Mr. Shorto.
Many strains of thought converge around Descartes and his physical remains. Although those thoughts are scattered and by no means linear, Mr. Shorto has used them as the basis of an investigative book, one that goes off on frequent philosophical, historical and forensic tangents. That leaves “Descartes’ Bones” less substantial than “The Island at the Center of the World,” Mr. Shorto’s superlative history of 17th-century Dutch Manhattan. But both books attest to Mr. Shorto’s intellectual adventurousness and dogged curiosity.
As its title makes clear, “Descartes’ Bones” addresses a ghoulish subject. The great man’s physical remains have been dug up and reburied several times since he died in Sweden in 1650. Initially they were moved for the purpose of repatriating him to his native France, but the story becomes stranger as it escalates. During the course of their bizarre posthumous travels, Descartes’ skull and the rest of his skeleton parted ways. This alone would make the subject appealing to Mr. Shorto, who savors the way the man famed for exploring the mind-body problem wound up with his head and body in different places.
“Descartes’ Bones” has two favorite types of discourse: expanding on Descartes’s place in the history of ideas and pointing out strange coincidences that shaped his path through posterity. These interests are so different that “Descartes’ Bones” has built-in organizational problems. But Mr. Shorto leaps from one intriguing topic to another, doing it with verve if not consistency. He naturally begins with the living, breathing Descartes, whose proclamation “Cogito ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”) can be seen as the cornerstone of modern scientific thought.
Mr. Shorto goes on to demonstrate why this idea became divisive (and remains so today). He analyzes the ways in which Cartesian thinking drove a wedge between faith and reason. He also charts the life of the French national treasure who wound up at the court of Queen Christina of Sweden. Her abdication of her throne and conversion to Roman Catholicism would force Descartes’s body out of its grave and into the daylight.
A 17th-century taste for holy relics helped to ensure reverence for any part of Descartes, starting with his right index finger, which seems to have been pilfered in 1666, the first time his bones were unearthed. Yet as Mr. Shorto notes, “The man whose remains were treated in this quasisaintlike way would go down in history as the progenitor of materialism, rationalism and a whole tradition that looked on such veneration as nonsense.”
The book illustrates how Cartesian thought, as opposed to physical Cartesian relics, became enough of a repudiation of religious faith to anger the Catholic Church. It also traces the very different roles played by Descartes’s philosophical legacy in both the French and American revolutions — and then, later, in applied science.
There are detours about the Marquis de Sade, the vandalism that ravaged Paris in revolutionary times, the invention of the museum as a cultural institution, the study of phrenology and the birth of the detective story. One of the book’s more striking bits of minutiae involves how Paris accomplished the startling feat of synchronizing clocks that stood in public places.
By 1821 an artifact purporting to be Descartes’s skull had attracted enough interest to warrant analysis by the French Academy of Sciences. (The same meeting also devoted serious study to a paper titled “The Membrane of the Hymen.”) And the skull raised a plethora of questions. Was it authentic? Mr. Shorto describes the strange process of tracing its provenance through many changes of hands. The skull was apparently once auctioned off to “a tax assessor named Ahlgren, whose signature can today barely be made out behind where the left ear would be.”
Art history entered the equation when a Frans Hals portrait of Descartes — and thus that portrait’s usefulness as proof that the skull fit the man — had its authenticity challenged. The portrait of Descartes that hangs in the Louvre was thought to be Hals’s work. A much homelier image of the same man is now credited to Hals and thought to be more accurate.
Even if “Descartes’ Bones” happens to use the better-looking image on its cover, this book does no prettifying; it delves into the oddest and most unappetizing aspects of Descartes’s story along with the inspiringly lofty ones. The best physical equivalent of Mr. Shorto’s own dualism is Paul Richer’s surpassingly strange 1913 bust of Descartes, which sought to extrapolate physiognomy from the contours of the skull. It is an artwork that has a skull beneath a detachable face.
“Descartes’ Bones” provides an image of its author just as surely as it homes in on that of Descartes. Mr. Shorto is a rambling philosopher-reporter whose versatility can be more impressive than his coherence. But his insights are keen. And he is as drawn to great, overarching ideas as he is to historical factoids. Descartes’ posthumous journey happens to be rich with both.

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