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Saturday, May 10, 2008

Off to see the witches




LI is going to fumble around a bit. When I last left Robert Boyle, I was drawing an implicit contrast between his objections to the ordinary or scholastic use of the term “nature” and the use of nature as a touchstone of style in Theophile de Viau.

Since volupté emerges as a way of living in conjunction with the revival of Epicurus, and since that revival was a controversial part of the new learning – a way of introducing atomism into philosophy – “nature” is partnered with volupté among the libertines. In the chain of sememes, if volupté appears, soon nature will appear. Either as a term of reproach – the voluptuary who lives like a beast – or as a term of affirmation. The latter is new, it is modern, it is something that doesn’t yet have a full meaning. It is the promise of a program. Certainly, it leads the esprit fort to a negation – the negation of those things that are against nature, or supernatural. It is this slide towards skepticism that Boyle fears, and that we might not expect him to fear if we have the conventional expectations about the rise of science. He himself not only opposes the court libertines, among whom one can find his brother, but the skeptical attitude towards the supernatural. Though it might seem surprising that a writer who is so thoroughly imbued with the mechanical philosophy would be a believer in witches and ghosts, he not only is, but his belief in mechanism, as we saw, is fully incorporated into his theology, and that theology recognizes God, angels or spirits, and the human soul. Boyle contributed some witch stories to Joseph Glanvill, another broker between the Royal Society’s mechanism and the traditional belief in spirits, who was collecting them for a work defending the witch belief. In a note in his papers, Boyle set himself the standard objections against the commerce with the devil of “silly old women” and replied to it like this:

‘we men understand very little of the nature, costumes, & government of the iIntelligent creatures of the spirituall world: and particularly what concernes the Falne Angells or bad Daemons. And therefore they being themselves invisible to us, and capable of working in wayes that our sences cannot discern; and being Agents of great craft & long experience; tis no wonder that many of their actions, tho never so pollytickly contrived and carried on, should seem irrationall to us: who know so little of their particular inclinations & designes, and the subtil & secret methods in which they carry them on.” [Boyle on atheism, 32]

Theophile recounts his own visit to a possessed woman in Fragments in a very different spirit, having no regard for the Falne Angells, but casting a seigniorial glance at the exchange between the peasant and the priest. I’ll translate that in some future post. But I’ve been thinking that I need to cast my net further, here, since it isn’t only in France and England that Epicurus is re-introduced as an either respectable or dangerous model. In Spain, Francisco de Quevedo, also sought to revive Epicurus. And since Quevedo also was extremely interested in Daemons, I want to write about him. Also, he’s funny. And repulsive to the modern sensibility insofar as he truly finds cruelty funny. In 1990, Malcolm Kevin Read reviewed the recent critical literature on Quevedo and found a lack of it and attributed this to Quevedo’s “copraphilia”.

Quevedo lived about the the same time as Theophile de Viau, although he lived longer than Theophile. And Theophile was certainly aware of his work, as all the great Spanish writers were being read in France at the time. Meanwhile, Quevedo was certainly aware of some French writers, notably Montaigne, whom he quotes as an authority as great as the ancients. The quote comes in Quevedo’s essay on Epicurus. It was through Quevedo’s assimilation of Epicurus to the Stoics that a form of “Christian Epicureanism” was introduced into the Hispanic world, and notably in New Spain, where the vita of Epicurus was read and commented upon in the late 17th century by Siguenza y Gongora and Sor Juana. So we should remember that as Gassendi was writing his commentary on Epicurus, in Spain, Francisco de Quevedo was defending Epicurus from the slander that his notion of pleasure was all bodily. Quite the contrary, according to Quevedo, Epicurus put the whole of pleasure into virtue, and thus was as good as any Stoic – and in fact, a deal better. This unexpected defense of Epicurus, or at least unexpected if you have a stereotypical view of Habsburg Spain as a backwater is not unconnected with what Theophile calls writing a la moderne – Quevedo was, after all, the master of the criminal picaresque, and his El Buscar seems to repel the liberal imagination even now, with its delectation over the odors and struggles of human beings, those animate sausages, their scents, their money, their multiple paths to the gallows or the sick bed. Like Theophile – and in his own way, Boyle – Quevedo was concerned with dismantling what he viewed as an intolerable structure of linguistic obscurity, and sought the means to do it. His assimilation of Epicurus to the Stoics began a very common strategy, one that was defensively held by the erudits libertines, at least for public consumption, up until La Mettrie put paid to it by an all out attack on Stoicism in the eighteenth century. Epicurus seemed to Quevedo to be exemplary precisely because he was neither a Platonic nor an Aristotelian:

Epicurus placed happiness in pleasure and pleasure in virtue, which is such a Stoic doctrine that even the absence of this label does not render it unrecognizable. He freed the attention of his disciples from the stranglehold of the sophists’ dialectic, as if it were a load of rubbish; and if he mentioned dialectic, he did so only because in the classroom it is a large and important part of theology. This rejection of dialectic (by which one should understand that of the sophists), which was the greatest source of pride for other philosophyers, was the reason why Epicurus was loathed and discredited.” [Kray, 246]

Now, this is what I’m going to do. One of Quevedo’s great works is the Suenos, the Visions, which begins with an interview with a possessed beggar. I think I’m going to write a bit about that in my next post on these themes.

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