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Saturday, June 07, 2008

Don Juan, Newton's secret sharer

Despite its adherence to the rather old fashioned notion that the history of ideas is concerned solely with the development of philosophical arguments, Schlomo Biderman’s project in Crossing Horizons, to contrast “Indian” thought and “Western” thought, is suggestive. One of the things it suggests it does not examine: how is it that idealism arrived so late in Europe? As a coherent, consistent doctrine, that is, not as a mystical hint?

In the three stories post, I meant to set up a rough edged answer to that problem. It is an answer that involves ‘adventure’. In the pre-capitalist, post-conquest society of the seventeenth century – in which a fully functioning global economic and political system exists, but lacking an industrial base – adventure is a symbol of social mobility. It is under the sign of adventure that social mobility happens. The adventure narrative and the adventurer penetrate inwards, as it were, from the margins. Print culture, at the same time, is the necessary condition not only for the spread of the adventure tale, but as the producer of that material which allows adventure to become a locus for new practices of imitatio.

In the relationship between Don Quixote and the mysterious Cide Hamete, the author of Don Quixote – or the ‘discoverer’ of Don Quixote (since he claims, or one of the characters in his story claims, that he ‘discovers’ books, which is surprising in the way that Columbus’s discovery of America is surprising – how can one man discover another man?) we have, in outline, the kind of ontological relationship that Descartes, later on, imagines with the problem of the evil demon. And if that demon were not evil, if, indeed, it were God, and if all our sensory impressions are as ambiguous as discoveries – sense impressions that are followed, only and inevitably, by sense impressions, as far back as we can go, just as discoveries follow discoveries on some Terra Incognita – then we approach the precincts of the idea that the Irish clergyman, George Berkeley, unfolds in The Principles of Human Knowledge.

Where, in this hasty sketch, is Newton?

Newton, drawing his symbols in new gravel in Cambridge walks. A man who writes, but doesn’t send, one personal letter in thirty years, and this in the age of personal letters, when the society of scholars was as much bound together by their gossipy correspondence as by their discoveries. Newton, utterly incapable of explaining his thoughts to an amiable princess, the way Descartes explained his in his letters to the Princess Elisabeth of Palatine. Newton, who stayed put.
To stay put was one way to advance – if you were Newton. He disappears into his study, his books – whereas Don Quixote pops out of his. Both have an adventurous view of their missions. Don Quixote literally wouldn’t have existed without the book culture, and Newton ... well, it is hard to say what he would have done. Become a village visionary?

There is another story of a book. It is in Mothe de la Vayer’s Discourse on History. Mothe de la Vayer takes up a story from Sandoval, the historian who recounted the conquest of Peru, to critique, in his own way, the geopolitics of the book:

He is at such pains to justify the right of the Spaniards and to exalt their prowess that it is perhaps one of the most farcical pieces [like a theater piece – a sketch] that is seen in any history. As to the right, unless one is very austere, it is hard to keep from laughing seeing the beautiful harangue that he puts in the mouth of one Valverde, a Dominican bishop, in order to persuade poor Atabalipa to cede his kingdom to the newcomers. He talks to him, in two words, about the trinity, the incarnation of the Word, of the passion of the son of God, and of what is the most mysterious in our religion, in order to come to the point at which the Pope, the lieutenant of this God on earth, had made a present to the Emperor, their master, of all Peru, and thus that he had to quit his present estate and become a Christian. Atabalipa responded that he held his kingdom from his predecessors, that he recognized no superior on earth, and that the Pope of whom they were speaking must be a crazy man, devia de ser loco, to give what doesn’t belong to him; and that he was not resolved to quit his religion, which seemed good to him, for another, nor to worship a dead god, in place of the sun, which never dies. On which Valverde presented him with his breviary, assuring him that this book taught the truth of everything he had been saying. Atabalipa took it, not ever having seen anything like it, and as he saw that the book didn’t speak, he believed he was being mocked, and threw it to the ground. There was no need for anything else: the Bishop cried out reveng to the Spaniards who were only waiting for the signal, they put their boot in, killed without resistance all the Indians found there, and Pizarro made the great Monarch a prisoner of his hand. Sandoval thinks the actions was so beautiful that in this place he reports the words of the Dominican, Los Evangelios por tierra Christianos, justicia de Dios, vengaca, Christianos vengaca, a ellos, que menosprpecian, y no quieren recebir nuestra ley, ny ser nuestros amigos. I recognize that the reply of Atabalipa is full of impiety towards our God, our religion, and the visible head of the Church. But what else could one expect of a poor Gentile, unequipped with divine grace, who spoke only according to his common sense [sens naturel], and who had never heard of the propositions of the Evangelist, than at the very instant when, in pronouncing them, they held a knife to his throat?”

I’ve been trying to make a case for the libertines, based on my perception of that fragile, half complete structure of sensibility – volupte – that they never succeeded in making either coherent or popular. And of the libertines themselves, after Theophile’s imprisonment, one sees a retraction – and a search for shelter. Shelter they found in the households of the great – Naudé working for Mazarin, Saint Amant becoming the panagyrist of the Cardinal de Retz, Mothe de la Vayer working as the court historiographer under Louis XIV. They, too, didn’t move, but their stillness was not pregnant, as Newton’s was, with adventure. They were office holders, useful men, off hours skeptics.

Adventure found the libertines only in fiction. In Don Juan. In Cyrano de Bergerac’s act, who was to trace a path the inverse of Don Quixote’s – instead of a fictional character becoming independent of an author, the author became a fictional character, and fixed himself in the mind of posterity as such.

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