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Malo spiritu ad templum propellbar-(Translation: I was pushed towards/against the church by an evil spirit)

Carolyn Dahlgren

Chilly November winds blew through the darkened alleys of Touraine but the man staggering and stumbling over the rough cobble stones paid them no mind. The hood of Rene Descartes' cloak whipped around his head while its body flew snapping behind him, like spirits grasping and pulling his cloak as if trying to drag him back to the graveyard. Descartes paid no head to the tempest outside him as he wended his way home; his inner turmoil far surpassed the blustery night around him.

Streets were dark where hours before there had been laughter and singing, running and dancing. Gradually, the crowds of Saint Martin's Day had dissipated. After a long night of music, the tired couples who had paired off for a jig during the night stumbled back home. Their feet were stiff from stomping and bruised from the mistakes of their partner. Even the drunks and beggars had forsaken the streets; seeking shelter from the biting winds. The children had returned to their homes and their beds, taking their Saint Martin's Day lanterns with them. They were flimsy, hand made paper structures with glowing rushes stuck inside. Unwary children would find that without the proper caution the whole contraption would set itself on fire. The only solution at that point was to cast the flaming thing upon the cobblestones and smother it.

While others had returned to their homes and their beds, Descartes could find no rest. His mother, he had been told, had died bringing him into the world and this night, a night of remembrance, he had felt obliged to visit her grave and pay his respects. Ever since he had kneeled down and prayed beside the sepulcher, however, he had felt strangely. A dull prickle in his stomach, an ache in his head. It has started small but had grown to an almost unbearable heat. His vision was blurred, the street, the night, and his thoughts all became one. He was having difficulty walking. He was "'obliged to lurch to his left side... because he felt a great weakness on his right (Rodis-Lewis p.39).' Madness seemed to have taken over his body. His brain shuddered inside his skull; his chain of thought had slipped a gear. The pale moonlight did nothing to hide the burning flush of his fevered face.

Once he returned home, Descartes was again drawn to his mother. She lived an eternal life in the gallery at La Haye. There was housed a full-length the portrait of her painted in oils. Descartes was usually of the opinion that her visage was serene and peaceful. Tonight, however, she seemed animated with discontent. It was as if an enraged shade had taken residence in very oils and canvases of her being. A disapproving frown marred her face which was illuminated by the moonlight shining from the adjacent window casement. "What have you done?" she demanded.

Her accusation struck to the very core of his being. It pierced both his mind and his heart. Under her glowering gaze, his weak and fevered body went slack and he fell to the floor at her feet.

In the gallery, Descartes dreamed three dreams: one of turmoil, one of choice and one of consequences. In the first dream, he was once again surrounded by wind. It "blew him violently... a malo spiritu ad templum propellbar...[It translates :] I was pushed against the church by an evil spirit... his first intention [had been] to take refuge inside [the church], to entrust himself to God (Rodis-Lewis p 39)" but the wind had swallowed him up.

The howling winds outside La Haye jarred Descartes out of slumber, but soon he was asleep again.

The tempest outside grew and as he was "carried this 'impetuous wind,' Descartes was astonished to see those around him 'upright and firm on their feet,' talking among themselves with 'another person in the middle of the college yard,' who called hum by his name (Rodis-Lewis p. 39)." "Come," stated the figure. Descartes found that he could not disobey. The figure was made of both shadow and sun. Light and darkness cloaked the being equally, making it mysterious and frightening. The being led Descartes into the courtyard of the college church and gave to him a melon. It was a fruit from a foreign country and Descartes had never seen before. The weight of the fruit, however, felt oddly familiar in his hand.

Thunder clapped and struck down and Descartes awoke again, but once more he drifted back asleep.

He then found himself in his study room with an encyclopedia in front of him. He "extended his hand toward the encyclopedia, [but] he seized another book that had suddenly appeared, the famous Corpus poetarum...he opens it randomly to find counsel and 'stumbled on the line: Quod vitae sectabor iter?...'What path shall I follow in life?' (Rodis-Lewis p. 41)

A sinking feeling of dread overcome Descartes. A nausea and terror that roused him from his fitful slumber. His parting thoughts: "'I made a mistake'...'I am deceived'... 'we are always deceived, even in things we think we know best' (Rodis-Lewis p. 79) reverberated in his head.

The storm had past. Day was beginning and the light of the dawn filled the gallery with a preternatural light. Descartes roused slowly from his dreaming but was startled awake by the sudden realization that he was not alone. There! Across from him! A specter! His mother's portrait come to life! The oil painting hung behind him where he had collapsed in sleep; yet, here was her image before him. Frightened, he grabbed the first object before him and, with a great cry, flung it at the phantom. His aim was true. The phantom shattered, mirrored glass scattered across the floor. The room was reflected upon itself in each flying shard of glass and time stood still.

Descartes was no longer in the gallery. He was in a new world where Philosophy had evolved into Science. Men wore pristine, white laboratory coats to match their blonde hair, blue eyes and smooth, pale skin. A halo of light surrounded these men, these Scientists. An innate protective aura called truth was imbued in them. Descartes saw that, in this time, science and truth were inseparable... for how could one prove anything without proper experimentation and unyielding, scientific data. Within each scientist, each held the answers to all the questions in the world and they were constantly working to uncover this 'real truth'(Mayr p. 5). They walked in a hurried but dignified manner, as if they were urgently needed somewhere important. They were always busy, but if they seemed distracted while they worked, nobody thought anything of it... who would dare impede the progress of science? These men were ambitious and motivated creatures, with "an intrinsic drive toward a definite goal, particularly toward greater perfection" (Mayr p. 77). They lived their lives in and for the dream of science.

As these scientists scurried to and fro, they occasionally knocked into working men. Their hands were worn and cracked, their bodies were covered with a fine layer of filmy grim that clung to their bodies as a testament of their lowly vocation. The lived their lives on the earth and, while many of them were quite satisfied with their daily bread, they lived with the knowledge that society held them in a lower regard that reflected their earthly grounding. Like their scientific counterparts, they would return to their houses at night and dream their dreams. But the dreams of a working man were not protected by the aura science. They were naked, vulnerable... imperfect. Science did not tolerate imperfection. Only the fittest could survive. So, their dreams were broken; crushed under the feet of scientists like the fires of a burning Saint Martin's Day lantern. Order was a necessity.

Descartes flinched, turning away from this world. Behind him, though, was the figure from before. The being shrouded in darkness, but at the same time emitting an aura of radiance and knowledge. Impulsively, he called out to the figure. "What happened to my world?" he hoarsely croaked.

The response came, "It is 'old; [it is for a] God hundreds of years ago. Not about God now.'

'But God doesn't change.'

'Men do, though.'

'What difference does that make?'

'All the difference in the world...' (Huxley p. 277)"

"'Then you think there is no God?'

'No, I think there quite probably is one...But he manifests himself in different ways to different men...'

'How does he manifest himself now?...'

'Well, he manifests himself as an absence; as though he weren't there at all.'

'That's your fault.'

'Call it the fault of civilization. God isn't compatible with machinery and scientific medicine and universal happiness. You must make your choice...'(Huxley p. 281)"

The figure turned and retreated. Descartes reached at his hand to call him back but he could not reach the figure and his silent appeal went unanswered.

Abruptly Descartes awoke.

"What strange dreams!" he thought. The visions were still sharp in his mind, the afterimages were tantalizing but fading testaments to his dreams. What madness had raged through his body, fueling this unnaturally extended night? With the final dream, the psychosis that had held him captive, relinquished its hold. His fever had broken; his body was no longer possessed of the burning Promethean fires. Exhausted, his eyes drifted shut and he fell into a dreamless sleep.

In the morning, he woke and pondered the happenings of the night. He remembered the festivities that had occurred, the visit he had felt compelled to take to his mother's grave and the strange fever that had possessed him afterwards. He did not remember much about his walk home, his mind had been turned inwards in a fit of self examination. He remembered visiting his mother again, this time in the gallery, and though he did not remember falling asleep, he recalled the dreams he had dreamed while sleeping at his mother's feet. Overall, he felt the he had recollected a fair piece of the night, especially considering the strange events and possession of his body. What he could not remember, however, was returning to his bed or the dreams he had had thereafter. Nor could he account for the broken mirror across from his mother's portrait. All his memories of the dawn hours were either shrouded in darkness or were enveloped in a blinding brilliance. His mind was uneasy for a moment or two, griped by a phantom pain of the night fever. Gradually, the feelings dissipated and he began to explore his earlier dreams. These were more tangible and, therefore, more satisfying for him. As he lay in bed, a comprehension began to come to him. The dreams were inspiring and full of unrequited promises! He had the fruit of knowledge, the world was in his hands. Truth lay before him, he was a Philosopher. If he remembered another term for that word, a word from a later dream, he closed it up in his mind.

Descartes turned to his desk and animatedly began to write.


1. Binion, Travis W., Jr. "Evolution of the Scientific Method". Scientific Symposium I-1988. Date of Access: Feb. 10, 2005.

2. Brewins, Kester. The Emerging Church. "The Body of Christ Could Use Some Sleep (Or What the Church Could Learn from ITunes)". Date of Access: Feb. 10, 2005.

3. Calhoone, Lawrence (Ed). From Modernism to Postmodernism, an Anthology. "From Meditations on First Philosophy" by René Descartes. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing 2003.

4. Greenberg, g. and M. Haraway (Eds.). The Encyclopedia of Comparative Psychology. "Thermodynamics, Evolution, and Behavior" by Rod Swenson. New York, NY: Garland Publishers, Inc. 1997. Date of Access: Feb. 10, 2005.

5. Haynes, Judie. "Festivals of Light around the World". Date of Access: Feb. 11, 2005.

6. Huxley, Aldous. A Brave New World. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1932.

7. Lawhead, William. The Philosophical Journal. "The Philosophical Journal, an Interactive Approach." Date of Access: Feb. 10, 2005.

8. Mayr, Ernst. What Evolution Is. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2001.

9. Rodis-Lewis, Geneviève; translated by Jane Marie Todd. Descartes: his life and thought. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.

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