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Tuesday, May 11, 2004

"Larvatus prodeo." – Descartes' motto.
“I advance, masked.”

In 1641, Descartes published his Meditations. The book contains a reference to a man who “imagines” he is made of glass. The reference is embedded in the first of the meditations, the one dedicated to doubt: And how could I deny that these hands and this body belong to me? If only, perhaps, by comparing myself to those insane people whose brains are so troubled and obscured by the black vapors of bile that they are constantly assuring people that they are kings, when they are actually poor; or that they are arrayed in gold and purple, when they are nude; or who imagine themselves to be pitchers, or to have bodies of glass?”
(“Et comment est-ce que je pourrais nier que ces mains et ce corps-ci soient à moi? si ce n'est peut-être que je me compare à ces insensés de qui le cerveau est tellement troublé et offusqué par les noires vapeurs de la bile qu'ils assurent constamment qu'ils sont des rois lorsqu'ils sont très pauvres; qu'ils sont vêtus d'or et de pourpre lorsqu'ils sont tout nus; ou s'imaginent être des cruches ou avoir un corps de verre?”)

Some have imagined that the man made of glass might be a reference, or a memory, of Cervantes’ novella, the Glass Student. It is, at least, nice to think so. In fact, given that Cervantes story had been out for three years in 1619, Descartes great year and the one that shaped his Discours, one hopes that he read it in one of the tents he lived in when he served in the troops of Maximilien of Bavaria. It was in that year that, as we know from the Discourse, Descartes was “lying on a stove” … but here is how a very comprehensive biography describes him:

“So in 1619, Descartes engaged himself with the troops of Maximilian of Bavaria. But he didn’t participate in the terrible Thirty Years War. The Catholic Army to which he belonged took its winter quarters on the banks of the Danube. We can easily imagine Descartes quartered on some civilian “in an oven,” meaning in a room well heated by one of those porcelain ovens which were beginning to become common, served by a domestic in livery, and entirely delivered over to pure reflexion. On the 10 of November, 1619, marvelous dreams alerted him to the fact that he was destined to unify all the disciplines by an admirable science, of which he would be the inventor. Descartes therefore abandoned the military life and returned to France, going through Germany and Holland. In the course of his journey he had occasion to defend himself victoriously with a sword on board a crossing boat, against some sailors who aimed at stripping him and murdering him.”

The French have always remembered that Descartes was a soldier first. It is, in fact, possible to see the method of doubt as a sort of metaphysical tactical assault, with the tactics threatening to entirely overthrow the grand strategy of the mind in search of certitude. What we like to think, however, is that Descartes – who was using his soldiering as a way of escaping the books of his early schooling – might still have picked up a book that tells the story of another soldier – one Tomas Rodaja, the “glass student.”

Cervantes ““El licenciado Vidriera” has, according to an essay by George Shipley, been both one of the most commented on and one of the most disparaged of Cervantes novellas. Shipley tends towards disparagement himself. After re-reading the story, we understand why. But we also understand why we have been thinking about the “glass student” all week.

To be continued...

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