Descartes’s Evil Genius

By Ross WilsonAugust 9, 2021

Descartes’s Evil Genius

Cartesian Poetics: The Art of Thinking by Andrea Gadberry

IF YOU’RE LOOKING to finger a philosopher for the ills of modernity, then there are quite a few potential suspects. Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Occam, Duns Scotus, even Parmenides have all at one time or another found themselves in the dock. But the figure with his footprints all over the crime scene and his fingerprints all over the murder weapon is surely René Descartes. The isolated individual subject, the dualism of mind and body, the elevation of a bloodless reason, the transformation of the world into so much quantifiable extensa: all Descartes’s fault. It is Descartes who is to blame for the evisceration of quality and the non-identical, of intuition, feeling, and the body.

Whether or not this is a good way to imagine “modernity” (a far more problematic term than even some of its most reflective users realize), the suspicion that ways of encountering ourselves and the world that had been the preserve of poetry have come to be buried under the edifice of a mechanizing and bluntly rational philosophy is tenacious. The quarrel of poetry and philosophy goes back a long way — at least to Plato’s exclusion of the poets from his ideally constituted polity — but Descartes has regularly been charged with sticking the knife into poetry on behalf of philosophy. In the 18th century, Jean-Baptiste Rousseau (the earlier and less-celebrated Rousseau, that is) reported the judgment passed on Descartes by the critic and poet Nicolas Boileau:

I have often heard [Boileau] say that the philosophy of Descartes had cut poetry’s throat; and it is certain that what poetry has borrowed from mathematics has desiccated its spirit and accustomed it to a concrete or material precision that has nothing to do with what might be called the properly metaphysical precision of poets and orators. Geometry and poetry have their separate and distinct rules, and those who wish to judge Homer by Euclid are no less impertinent than those who wish to judge Euclid by Homer.

As Andrea Gadberry points out on a couple of occasions in her intricate, gripping new book, Cartesian Poetics: The Art of Thinking, there is something a bit odd about Boileau’s (and Rousseau’s) charge sheet. For one thing, the crime scene is at once “weirdly wet and dry: poetry’s blood may have been spilt, but the real crime is its ‘desiccat[ion].’” For another, Rousseau seems to suggest that the ancient rift between poetry and philosophy had in fact been healed in poetry’s embodiment of “metaphysical precision.” But most important of all, the matter of who is really to blame for poetry’s demise becomes less clear the closer one looks. Was it the knife-wielding Descartes? Or was it poetry itself, thanks to its own ill-advised borrowings from geometry?

It is Rousseau here who is putting his weight behind a “modernizing push toward rigid disciplinary boundaries.” (I, for one, would be intrigued by a Euclidean reading of Homer — and even more so by a Homeric reading of Euclid.) But the holes in Boileau’s and Rousseau’s cases notwithstanding, Descartes remains, as Gadberry nicely puts it, “our favorite straw man.” It is the aim of her book to show that Descartes was made of more than straw. In particular, as its incongruous-seeming title indicates, Gadberry wants to show that, far from slashing its throat, Descartes was not only influenced by poetry but had many of the most important and characteristic aspects of his thinking enabled and shaped by it. In a sequence of densely woven but also richly informative chapters, Gadberry shows how the riddle, the love lyric, the elegy, and the anagram are deeply enmeshed in, respectively, Descartes’s considerations of common sense and language, his famous episode of the evil genius who dupes us into believing in the external world, his wrestling with error and other minds, and his understanding of the relation between the mortal body and immortal mind.

Most readers will find Gadberry’s readings dazzlingly innovative; other less attentive and open-minded readers may view them as outlandish. Though elements, say, of the closing chapter on anagrams may occasionally appear to present a Descartes for crossword enthusiasts, the innovation of Gadberry’s account is, in fact, bolstered by scrupulous historical contextualization — lightly displayed, to be sure — and attentive analysis of Descartes’s texts in both Latin and French. Following a number of intellectual historians who have laid the groundwork for complicating the picture of Descartes as a desiccated rationalist, Gadberry shows that he was steeped in the traditions of Renaissance humanism, neo-classical rhetoric and poetics, and the strange techniques of Jesuit spirituality. And she is a consummate linguist too: there is no stinting here on the particular resonances of Descartes’s own terms, nor on the occasionally revealing slippages between his Latin and the French translations he sanctioned.

So much for the scholarly credentials. But this is more than another book arguing that Descartes is more complex than outline summaries have led us to believe. There is a strangeness — an uncanniness, even — to the Descartes emerging from Gadberry’s treatment. For example, many readers will be familiar with the episode in the Meditations on First Philosophy (1641) where the philosopher supposes that the external world is the creation of an evil genius (malin génie). The point is to try to establish a distinction between what it is possible to doubt (the external world) and what cannot be doubted (that I am doubting), and thus it is a crucial moment in Descartes’s thinking. This episode has been accommodated to the stock of tedious philosophical thought-experiments — where the evil genius led, a thousand trolley problems have come thundering down the track after him — but Gadberry shows convincingly that it is profoundly indebted to a tradition of love lyric, structured as an attempted seduction and a determined, gorily suicidal repulse.

It is perhaps worth briefly digressing here to mention that Gadberry at moments casts the evil genius’s fabrication of an external world as mimetic — as a treacherous copy of the real world that does exist — and thus the episode is seen as continuous with other imaginings of hallucinated worlds in the philosophical tradition — above all, with the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave. In so doing, Gadberry is in venerable company because Thomas Hobbes, objecting to the Meditations, invoked this association as well. But the genius’s world isn’t an imitation. Rather, as Gadberry also puts it, the evil genius “manufactures a false world” — false not because it is an illusory copy of a real world (it isn’t) but because, as Descartes tells us, it is “merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgment.” It’s a strange thought, which can easily plunge us into an abyss of uncertainty (that, after all, is the idea): let’s suppose that the world we experience isn’t real in any sense, that it isn’t even a copy or perversion of a real world, and certainly that it wasn’t created by a beneficent intelligence. What then? Of what can I be certain?

Some of the most convincing answers to these questions have been articulated in the work of the phenomenologist Michel Henry, who reads Descartes’s distinction between the doubtable and the indubitable as the radical basis of a materialist phenomenology of life. (Gadberry quotes Jean-Luc Marion, with whom Henry has been associated, but not Henry himself.) Gadberry comes close to the concerns of Henry’s materialist phenomenology when she remarks, rightly, that “[i]t would be harder to knock the cogito for ruining modernity, to be sure, if we expanded its definition to include all of the possibilities that being a thinking thing might entail,” but some engagement with Henry’s articulation, inspired by Descartes, of a sharp distinction between the life that I am and the world that I can doubt might have clarified this aspect of her account of what exactly the evil genius is up to.

Happily, though, this wrinkle in her account of the evil genius does not interfere too much with her brilliant reading of his weird, resisted, and ultimately miscarrying seduction of the Cartesian meditator. Gadberry shows that the evil genius is cast as having created the false world just for the meditator and no one else, but so determined is Descartes to refuse this exclusive yet dangerous gift that he subverts the blason anatomique, the subgenre of love lyric in which the parts of the body are anatomized and praised, instead imagining away first the world and then his hands, eyes, flesh, blood, and senses, until he reaches the safe, chaste redoubt of the ego. It is a reading that is at once convincing and utterly unexpected: Descartes as upside-down, inside-out love poet. Gadberry’s readings of the riddle, elegy, and anagram in Descartes’s hands likewise don’t simply show the influence of these genres in his education and writing (though they do that as well) but also how they are adapted and deformed at the very roots of his thinking.

In the closing pages of her book, Gadberry turns from the poetic influences on Descartes to the Cartesian influences on poetry. There is already plenty of historical work on the reception of Descartes’s thinking in 18th-century poetry, but the poets Gadberry invokes here are Valéry, Beckett, Mallarmé. Nous n’avons pas compris Descartes, said the last: “We haven’t understood Descartes.” This is a view Gadberry endorses, noting, in a formulation that crops up more than once in her book, that the attempt to understand Descartes “is painfully strange.” The book ends with a deft miniature reading of the much-discussed opening of Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (1897), and its final words are, irresistibly, “un coup de Descartes.” Andrea Gadberry’s Cartesian Poetics is a coup all its own. It ought to change the way we read Descartes, certainly, and thus also “point […] toward new histories of feeling and thinking, toward a more sensitive measure of an environment in which the poetic suspends the need for ‘refutation’ and infiltrates — even suspends — our thoughts.”


Ross Wilson is associate professor in Criticism at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Emmanuel College. He is the author of Shelley and the Apprehension of Life (Cambridge University Press, 2013) and Theodor Adorno (Routledge, 2007). His essays on poetry, criticism, and aesthetics have appeared in the Times Literary SupplementFrieze, the New StatesmanNew Literary History, and elsewhere.

LARB Contributor

Ross Wilson is associate professor in Criticism at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Emmanuel College. He is the author of Shelley and the Apprehension of Life (Cambridge University Press, 2013) and Theodor Adorno (Routledge, 2007). His essays on poetry, criticism, and aesthetics have appeared in the Times Literary SupplementFrieze, the New StatesmanNew Literary History, and elsewhere. He is currently completing a project on the forms of literary critical writing from 1750.


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