(Discours de la méthode)
(A scientist-philosopher wishes that all the deep questions of life could be as certain as his mathematical results—so he decides to start from scratch and make them that way.)
Figures 32 and 33 in L’Homme (Man), Descartes’ 1633 work, illustrating the accordance of the operation of the human body with mathematical principles.
The influence this little book has had over the past few centuries is (to make a ridiculous understatement) vastly out of proportion to its size. It is manageable in a single evening sitting, or (as Descartes is kind enough to inform us) in six roughly equal short sittings. My recent reading of it was over breakfast. It is strange to think that one can read a book so illustrious and philosophical over breakfast, but such is Descartes’ charm. He is of course a philosopher of the highest rank: the cogiter of that most famous phrase in the history of thought, cogito ergo sum. He is one of the chief inspirations for the modern movement in philosophy in which we still are steeped today, which emphasizes, among other things, a systematic and reasoned approach to all matters of inquiry in an effort to gain a scientific understanding of everything there is to know. Yet, again, the charm of Descartes is that he gives us this little journal, this series of ideas, as if he were chatting to us in front of a fire. He tells us how he came to think the way he does about things, rather than giving us “the way things are” in an authoritative or textbook manner. By this strategy he draws us in, perhaps unawares. This is an important quality to recognize in Descartes today, or at least it was for me. For I, like most students over the last fifty years or so, was warned about Descartes in college, as a naughty modernist, a reductionist, a disenchanter, a rationalist. What dry and impersonal words these are, and yet how personal is the Discourse compared with most philosophical writings! The criticisms may very well be true of his system, but there is more to this book than just a set of statements—we get to meet an author, a person. We should meet someone before we criticize him too harshly; often knowing the person tempers our antagonism.
(Le Roman de Tristan et Iseut)
(A knight and a lady pursue their magical love through bloodshed and sorrow.)
Detail from Tristan and Isolde with the Potion (1916), by John William Waterhouse. The philtre on the high seas cements their love for all time– a draught unto death. This painting is in the private collection of Fred & Sherry Ross. Read about this collection at the Art Renewal Center
When tales pass through centuries of retellings, they tend to become what of audio media we would call “overproduced”: too many interpreters have slanted the story their various ways, too many embellishments and new episodes have been inserted, too many accommodations and updates have aimed at suiting the fancies of each audience. In the process the story can lose some of its grip on our imagination and our romantic sensibilities. It can be so cobbled and abused that we are left to distill the heart of it as best we can from a variety of sources. The only way such a beautiful old tale could ever be told today in anything like its original form and spirit, would be for three literary virtues to unite: a single author must be simultaneously an expert scholar, a great poet, and above all, modest. Only a scholar will know the history of the work; will be able to distinguish the wheat from the chaff in elements of theme, characterization, and plot; and will sufficiently understand an ancient teller’s perspective so as to effectively reproduce it. And only a great poet will be able to convey this perspective, and the story itself, with convincing unity and supreme skill—for expectations of quality and beauty are very lofty when we pick up a beloved and popular story. And finally, many a great poet and scholar will have great pride as well, in which case there will be too much of the writer and not enough of the legend in the text. Granted, we love our authors’ egos when it is them we want to see; but if the aim is to represent something of the original (or at least old) character of a romance, an author must exercise admirable self-control. We can thank Joseph Bédier for being this author for the legend of Tristan & Iseult.