René Descartes

Re-Thinking "Being" in the Promised Land--
With the Help of Some Humor

A conversation triggered by Grobstein's
Writing Descartes ...

Promised Land State Park

I laugh, and therefore can change who I am.
We laugh, and thereby can change the world.

One may not be able to find true engagement of the human comedy
without realizing its inherent tragedy.--Rachel Berman

Ahab: "There is a tragicalness in being human."
Una's inner reply: "Yes--but that is only one way.
There are many ways. We choose."--Sena Naslund

During a long hike around Egypt Lake last weekend, the Dalkes again took up this "matter" of Descartes. Sam, who had read Meditations on First Philosophy in a course on Global Wisdom at Haverford last fall, offered his mother an alternative interpretation of the text--one which highlighted Descartes' investment in the existence both of God and the human soul. He called her attention to the fact that Descartes begins the Meditations, addressed to the Dean and Doctors of the Sacred Faculty of Theology of Paris, by saying the the two questions of God and the soul are the principal ones needing demonstration by rational philosophy rather than theology. In other words, Descartes sets out to demonstrate a certain truth, by thinking his own way toward it, and without relying on the received wisdom of the church. So far, so good.

But the experiment gets very shaky very quickly. In seeking valid demonstrations for the existence of God and the human soul, Descartes is aiming (and, not surprisingly, arriving) at a very particular end: proof for ideas in which he is heavily invested. (Bells going off here, at the reminder that scientists need to be particularly skeptical about the data that demonstrates what they WANT it to prove....) A keynote throughout the Meditations is actually the "finite and limited" nature of our minds. Descartes places great emphasis (and spends considerable time lamenting) the "imperfection" of the self, observing that its errors are the result of "deficiency," the result of reaching, willfully, beyond what we fully understand. Contra those philosophical pragmatists-to-come (who explain the logic and wisdom of acting on the basis of incomplete knowledge), Descartes advises acquiring the habit of not erring, by vowing "never to pass judgment upon things whose truth is not clearly known."

What particularly surprised Anne, as Sam walked her through the Meditations, was the location Descartes chose for his proferred alternative to such "unclearness" and "instability. "I," for Descartes, is "soul, by virtue of which I am what I am": that is, he defines the essential self, the substantive self, as the "immortal portion"--so clearly distinct, and thus easily separable from, that which is mortal--the body. The mind is "just" an agent in this "proof": in Paul's terms, Descartes is using "thinking" to demonstrate the fundamental "being" of humans: his goal is to demonstrate the certainty of "treeness." Paul suggests (to him and others), that it is not thinking that is the sine qua non of being but the other way around. We are, and (because of what we are) we can think.... Contra Descartes' claim that "I knew nothing to pertain to my essence except that I was a being which thinks, that is, a being having in itself the faculty of thinking," Paul argues that it is the structure of "beingness" (which he calls "treeness") that enables our "thinkingness": so he tells Descartes--who uses "thinkingness" to prove the existence of "beingness"--that he's got it all backwards.

I want to try another formulation, one that is interested less in such chronologies regarding what comes "first" than in the loopy nature of the relation between them--and its particular engine: that which keeps us moving back and forth between "being" and "thinking." Out of these dialogues, I'm getting a clear understanding that "to think" is to have an awareness of self--a sense of doubleness, the ability to see ourselves (as Elizabeth Catanese has said) as "characters in a novel," able not only to observe ourselves feeling and acting, but to imagine (and feel and act) otherwise, to do something other than what we are doing. To "be," in contrast, is to immerse ourselves in the present, to be entirely engaged, without the doubleness and doubt that such a sense of "otherness" engenders. So--what gets us going, and perpetuates the going-back-and-forthness, between observation and immersion? I want to propose that it's something missing from Descartes' Meditations: humor, which lays out a very accessible bridge between thinking and being, moving us from the tragedy of what must inevitably be to the comedy of what might, just MIGHT, happen instead....

So: first (two) questions in this analysis are: "What is the relationship between humor and thinking? And between humor and being?" I can imagine (at least) three answers:

A particularly acute explanation of the ways in which playfulness can open us to new possibilities can be found in Adam Phillip's (just re-issued) book On Flirtation, which he describes as "a productive pleasure, keeping things in play, letting us get to know them in different ways, allowing us the fascination of what is unconvincing." According to the reviews, Phillips' is a book about "risks and instructive amusements--about the spaces flirtation opens in the stories we tell ourselves, particularly within the framework of psychoanalysis." The essays themselves have been called "intellectual flirtations that use the wiles of paradox to tease us into liberating ourselves from the old stories, to make us accept the madcap contingency of our lives," and a "glimpse into the pleasures of uncertainty. Flirtation is Phillip's metaphor for playing with stimulating ideas so that we can explore anew their complexity without fear of adhering to stultifying orthodoxy or succumbing to overearnestness..... fascinating to all those who wish to restore the importance of contingency in human life and who, committed to open psychoanalytic inquiry, realize that not everything can be neatly understood or mastered...honoring the idiosyncrasy of human experience and ... wielding method lightly, playfully, humanely."

I'm not a psychoanalyst, but I teach at Bryn Mawr, which prides itself on offering a rigorous education, and so often looks askance at the "light and playful" (and "humane"?). Students here are often particularly hesitant to speak out in class, afraid that they will "get it wrong" and so be publicly corrected. I try to address such hesitations and disinclinations by making my classes into spaces of structured play where, if such deliberative self-censure happened less frequently, we might arrive at some unexpected places, worth examining. My courses very much resemble the playground that is Serendip, with an awareness that acknowledging a productive variability in brain function and behavior calls for a pedagogy that substitutes (for the more conventional positioning of one's interpretations within a disciplinary structure) a (necessarily) somewhat circuitous search for the serendipidous. To do so is not to try and "correct" what Descartes somewhat sadly calls the "errant wandering" of our minds, but rather to enjoy and exploit it. In an essay on "Play, Games, Sports and Athletics," Donald Siegel observes that the experimental quality of play, an "original and basic. . . fundamental phenomenon of existence," both enables individuals to experiment with finding ways out of situations in which they appear to be "stuck" and serves "society's need for innovation."

The process of engaging in this sort of playful exploration on the web or in the classroom has both a communal nature and a profoundly destabilizing quality. Students are invited, both on Serendip and in my classes, to see and experience themselves as porous, radically labile creatures, lacking a certain fixedness, and radically prone to alteration. The experience of "inwardness" to which both Serendip's forums and such classes invite them is constantly open to change by exchange, insistently under renovation because of interactions with others.

As a way of redressing the absence, so far, of attention to the role that this sort of playfulness has had in the exploration of new territory covered in these dialogues, I want to try my hand now (and again) at some playwriting. While Sam and I were hiking around Promised Land...

...Paula Viterbo, the fledging playwright to whom I had dedicated my first laborious venture into drama, wrote back:

Hi, Anne.
I finally read your play maps and Sam's interesting response. I must confess that what I enjoyed the most was the technical questions it raised, how to solve staging problems, how to use multi-media, how to keep the public interested, how to appeal to a broad audience, etc. As it is, there's too much stuff in there, no clear points to an outside audience, no tension in the story, necessary to keep people awake. It's very difficult to write about specialized themes in a way that is both meaningful and interesting. Most people do not know the characters and they are too many to introduce properly. What I would do: choose just a few characters and focus the discussion around a defined theme (all the other themes and musings can be made to fall within). The most promising scene for this, the one that interested me the most, is the story of Bergerac vs. Descartes.

Taking a leaf from Paula's playbook, emboldened by Sam's reinterpretation of Descartes "overearnest" search for the certainty of "soul," I want to try again to resurrect an alternative patron saint for both Writing Descartes and Serendip: the skeptic and satirist Cyrano de Bergerac, for whom (unlike Descartes) chance--and its humorous enactment--was the main thing.

The Only Act Around

In the first of his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italio Calvino introduces Cyrano de Bergerac, as both "the first true forerunner of science fiction" and "the first poet of atomism in modern literature: above all he conveys his sense of the precariousness of the processes behind [the variety of living forms]....That is, how nearly man missed being man, and life, life, and the world, the world.

In this scene, Edmond Rostand's well-known (but historically inaccurate) character, Cyrano de Bergerac, takes off his mask to reveal the "real" man, who steps center stage and says,

You marvel that this matter, shuffled pell-mell at the whim of Chance, could have made a man, seeing that so much was needed for the construction of his being....But you must realize that a hundred million times this matter, on the way to human shape, has been stopped to form now a stone, now lead, now coral, now a flower, now a comet; and all because of more or fewer elements that were or were not necessary for designing a man. Little wonder if, within a infinite quantity of matter that ceaselessly changes and stirs, the few animals, vegetables, and minerals we see should happen to be made; no more wonder than getting a royal pair in a hundred casts of the dice. Indeed it is equally impossible for all this stirring not to lead to something; and yet this something will always be wondered small a change would have made it into something else.

René Descartes
With this speech, de Bergerac clearly earns the right to replace Descartes as patron saint of the current conversation, and of the playground wherein it plays out. Born a quarter of a century after Descartes, de Bergerac was a satirist--and one of the objects of his satire was Descartes' idea that animals are soulless machines. De Bergerac's most striking literary gambits involved space travel; he used imaginary visits to the moon and sun to satirize both politics and people. Such travel was also a marvelous way for him to express a sense of a larger (=God's eye?) perspective than would be possible if one stayed grounded on earth:

Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac

If there is something you men cannot understand, you either imagine that it is spiritual or that it does not exist. Both conclusions are quite false. The proof of this is the fact that there are perhaps a million things in the universe which you would need a million quite different organs to know. Myself, for example, I know from my senses what attracts the lodestone to the pole, how the tides pull the sea, what becomes of an animal after its death.

What seems to me central here is the sense of distance--the ability to step outside of one's senses/one's self/one's world, and see it from a longer view--combined with a close-up view, investment and thorough engagement in what is going on. (This works like a pun: holding two senses in the mind at once.) Doing so enables one to recognize the human tragedy--and its smallness; to laugh at it as human comedy, and to imagine counterfactual alternatives to what is. Laughter lays the "bridge" between being and thinking, in which each re-generates the other, neither in charge, neither "owning" any sort of "final" story.

George Herbert Mead calls this the "social process" of two distinguishable-and-dialectic phases in the development of one's identity: "the attitudes of others" reflecting on the "never entirely calculable" interior, "conscious responsibility" engaging "something novel in experience." When the former dominates, it's a tragedy; when the latter, a comedy. And when we shuffle continuously back and forth across the bridge...? Then, aware of our inclination to read in accord w/ our inclinations--we might learn to see differently, outside the frame of reference we bring to our initial engagement with the text, and with life.

All of which brings us back to the Promised Land (the imagined ideal, not the Pa. state park). At one of those playful dinner parties I've been enjoying with my friends this summer, I was asked whether, as I imagined the kingdom of heaven, there would be any discord, any "rubbing against," or whether all would be peacefully resolved. I said "no" to peace: too boring. I want to keep up the two-way rubbing--and the humor which allows us to enjoy the growth that ensues.

Building Two-Way Bridges:
A Conversation about Gender and Science

Bridges belong to no one....because a bridge has to belong to two parties, one on either side. There has to be an agreement, a mutual consent, otherwise it's a useless piece of wood, a wasted expanse of cement. Every bridge is, in this way...a monument to an accord (Monique Truong, The Book of Salt, p. 92).

A couple of other friends just stepped (back) onto the bridge....

I'm glad my critique inspired you.... I read your re-working and liked the introduction of humor very much!...I was also VERY, VERY pleased at Sam's interpretation of Descartes, and this sequel. As my Descartes personna tried to explain to Mr. Grobstein,

...for me, thinking is a much more inclusive category than for you and the people of your time. It not only includes reasoning, but also emotions, perceptions, and maybe even what you and your contemporaries would call unconscious processes. Had you recognized this, you would better understand why, for me, thinking is the essence of being...

In other words, for our Frenchman, his soul (which thinks, feels, dreams) is who he is. If we substitute PG's "brain-rooted" unconscious for RD's soul, we may end up with similar entities. Even though one might rise more easily than the other...

Thanks, Paula, for joining me in advocating humor. Here's someone else just stopping by to remind us both of its ground in tragedy.

Have you seen the movie Life is Beautiful? In light of this conversation, I think you will really enjoy it. What it made me think is the connection between humor and tragedy. Do you necessarily need to have tragedy to truly appreciate humor of life? I had a conversation with Paul about this in relation to creativity, imagination, etc. I am inclined to think that the greatest poets, thinkers, etc. HAD to experience tragedy (in some forms at least) in order to give way to beauty, in whatever form. Also, how much one is comfortable with humor and/or tragedy in the broad sense may influence ones reception of the ideas posted in your monologue. For instance, Paul enjoys/is comfortable with stories with only happy endings (Paul, if your philosophy has changed since our last dialogue about this, my apologies re "lying"). I, on the other hand am in some way inspired by tragedy. In fact most stories which move me are tragic in some ways. You "propose that the something which is missing from Descartes' Meditations is humor" and that it "lays out a very accessible bridge between thinking and being, moving us from the tragedy of what must inevitably be to the comedy of what might, just MIGHT, happen instead...."

For me, the very process of what Descartes was doing sets to mind a tragic hero on a journey of self formulation and acceptance. Why tragic? Well, I can not imagine any human being really digging inside themselves and their thoughts and it ALL being pleasant/humorous....Perhaps I can, but it just does not seem INTERESTING to me. Could be the reason that I feel that the proposition that humor is missing from the meditation may be an effort to hide from the "inherent tragedy" of the mediation itself. For me the latter is what makes it both moving and tantalizing on many levels. Or perhaps it is a way to look tragedy straight in the face and laugh at it because there is nothing else one CAN do? The latter sounds more appealing although I can not seem to be able to reconcile some things inside myself by simply laughing at it. A friend said I take self "too seriously", what the heck does that mean? I am the character I deal with the most in my novel (wonderful analogy, thanks!) so I can not imagine any other way of taking myself but would be grateful for suggestions!

Laughing to keep from crying, of course: but laughing also for the sake of revolution. Puts me in mind me of an infamous comment by the anarchist Emma Goldman. In the midst of having a very good time, she was called aside and told that "it did not behoove an agitator to dance." Her reply--"I did not believe that a Cause which stood for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy"--is commonly "squeezed"/paraphrased as "If I can't dance I don't want to be in your revolution."

We not just exploring, in these dialogues, the right to laugh and to dance which Emma Goldman advocated; seems to me we're actually using the playful dance of laughter to create such space...

Thanks again to both for your work in building this stage, this bridge, this springboard.

See on-line forum for continuing conversation and to leave your own thoughts.

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