The Dreamer's Path: Descartes and the Sixteenth Century

[First published in Renaissance Quarterly 49 (1996): 30-76, this essay had a long pre-history. An early outline of its arguments was presented in a paper delivered to the research seminar of the School of English and American Studies at the University of Sussex in November, 1975; subsequent developments appeared in the final chapter of my doctoral thesis (“This Fatal Mirror”: Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, the Legend and the Context [University of Sussex, 1980]), and in a conference paper, “'The Order of Discovery': Descartes, Faustus, and the Place of Literature in the Teaching of Philosophy,” 14th Atlantic Philosophical Association Conference, Université Sainte-Anne (4-6 November 1983).]


[Descartes] ne croioit pas qu'on dût s'étonner si fort de voir que les Poëtes, même ceux qui ne font que niaiser, fussent pleins de sentences plus graves, plus sensées, & mieux exprimées que celles qui se trouvent dans les écrits des Philosophes. Il attribuoit cette merveille à la divinité de l'Enthousiasme, & à la force de l'Imagination. . . .

Adrien Baillet, Vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes (1691), paraphrasing Descartes' Olympica manuscript of 1619-1620 (Descartes, 1974, 10: 184)1


Methode ist Umweg.

Walter Benjamin, “Epistemo-Critical Prologue,” The Origin of German Tragic Drama (Benjamin, 1985, 21, 28)



Jacques Derrida begins a recent reflection upon Descartes' Discours de la méthode by remarking upon the metaphor of the path, the way or road contained within the etymology of the word 'method': “methodos, metahodos, c'est-à-dire 'suivant la route', suivant le chemin, en suivant le chemin, en chemin.” Implicit in this metaphor, as also in any concept of method, he finds a certain historicity: “There can be no method without, necessarily, an advance (cheminement)..., or proceeding (démarche); ... without a flow (cours), a sequel, a sequence: so many things which also form the structure of any history” (Derrida, 1983, 36 [my translation]). If method and history (including the sense of history as narrative) thus meet and overlap in the metaphor of the road or way—hodos in Greek, and in Latin via, iter—so too, Derrida suggests, they share a certain iterability. History, though it may be the domain of the singular event, is only constituted as history through iteration and reiteration. Method, on the other hand, which consists precisely of the rules of transposition that ensure iterability and repetition, annuls a certain historicity of the singular event.

The relation between history and method is thus, he proposes, a paradoxical one—and this paradox is displayed in an especially provoking form in the singular historical event constituted by Descartes' autobiographical discourse on method, a story told in a historically determined language which at the same time sets out to provide the foundations for a rational and universally valid system of precepts, maxims and laws. Derrida finds that the etymology of the word 'discourse' compounds the paradox. Discurrere, meaning to run about, to make an excursion, and also to digress, later came to signify, in addition, to follow an itinerary in speech. Discursivity is thus in effect itinerant speech, and the notion of a discourse on method acquires an element of redundancy through the traces in both its terms of the same hodos, cursus, path or itinerary (Derrida, 1983, 37-40).

After commenting on Parmenides' Poem of the hodos as an inaugural discourse of the path which resists incorporation either into a Platonic reflection on method or an Aristotelian system of rhetoric, and on Heidegger's view of the Wegcharakter des Denkens as a second instance of a discursive itinerary which exceeds the delimitations of direction, rules, or method, Derrida concludes by remarking on the doubleness, the duplicity of methodos and its cognates in Greek (in some contexts the word means artifice, fraud or perversion—voie détournée, meta hodos), and by observing how insistently roads and paths—“diverses voies,” “le droit chemin”—recur in Descartes' Discourse on Method (Derrida, 1983, 41-51).

Given Derrida's insistent blurring in this essay of method and history, of rationality and rhetorical sequentiality; given also his express dissatisfaction with Heidegger's attempts to ascribe to “the Cartesian moment” the origins of an “ideology of method” (46),2 it may seem surprising that he does not take this occasion to reinsert the Cartesian discourse on method into history, to recognize it as a re-direction and extension of discursive itineraries that had perhaps been well-travelled by Descartes' immediate predecessors.

Rather than reproaching him for this omission, I would like here to explore a small stretch of this 'road not taken.' I will not be concerned with what is, for rhetoricians at least, the most familiar immediately pre-Cartesian 'method,' the dichotomizing dialectic of Peter Ramus and its anticipations in such earlier writers as Rudolf Agricola and Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples.3 Descartes was conspicuously not interested in static, spatial schemata of this kind, preferring instead to elaborate a method which, though aimed at the discovery of operative eternal truths, was itself conceived of in temporal terms, as a discursive path, a narrative. Nor do I intend to comment on Descartes' indebtedness to another more obviously scientific method, the metodo risolutivo and metodo compositivo developed by Galileo out of the analytic and synthetic logic of Giacomo Zabarella and the other Paduan Aristotelians (see Randall, 1968, 222-51, and Randall, 1962-70, 1: 339-60).4

My own method in this essay, following the dictum of Walter Benjamin—“Methode ist Umweg”—will at times be deliberately digressive. However, my deviations from some of the standard paths of critical exegesis are undertaken with the aim of bringing to light certain continuities between Descartes' own narratives and earlier discursive paths. I want to argue that two of these, Renaissance Hermetism and its near-opposite, Calvinist theology, are of large (and largely unrecognized) importance in Descartes' development of his own distinctive path.

Étienne Gilson's demonstration that Descartes' philosophical vocabulary is affiliated to the scholastic traditions of the via antiqua and the via moderna has not prevented more recent commentators from continuing to understand Descartes as the fons et origo of a specifically modern mode of philosophizing. My intention here is less to disrupt than to complicate this perception. I do not wish to challenge Descartes' originality, much less to suggest that he was passively 'influenced' by two currents of sixteenth-century thought which, though both obsessively concerned with a recovery of origins, differ from one another in doctrinal terms as much as from his own project of returning to first principles. I am interested rather in considering the possibility that Descartes' originary rationalism may have been marked, in no merely superficial manner, by tendencies of a quite different order which were implicated in its primal gestures of constitution and exclusion.

Descartes was, if anything, reacting against Renaissance modes of speculation (in this sense he belongs to what has been called the “anti-Renaissance”). However, he was also re-using them, though very selectively. His path remains, by this analysis, original; but it seems to have begun, in a characteristically Renaissance manner, with a return ad fontes—in one case to Hermetic sources which owed their prestige to the belief that they antedated the Greek philosophers, and were as ancient as any of the Hebrew scriptures; and in another to theological writings which, in their analytical and exegetical rigor, were professedly a return to the uncorrupted teachings of the early Church.



Where better to begin than with the first appearance in Descartes' writings of the path, the hodos or iter that so interests Jacques Derrida? The text in question, a mere jotting preserved in the notes which Leibniz made in 1676 from Descartes' manuscript remains, could hardly be simpler:

Somnium 1619 nov., in quo carmen 7 cujus initium:

Quod vitae sectabor iter? . . . Auson[ius] (Descartes, 1974, 10: 216).

(“The dream of November 1619, and in it the seventh poem of Ausonius which begins: 'What path in life shall I follow?”)

Though simple, this jotting is of enormous import—for according to Descartes' first biographer, Adrien Baillet, the dream (or rather dreams) referred to here coincided with what Descartes himself in his Discourse on Method said was the first enunciation of his philosophical method, and hence the starting point of his path as an independent thinker. But this brief text is at the same time elusive. Henri Gouhier took it to represent an inaugural moment—the moment at which, having woken from his dreams, the young Descartes began the process of retrospectively reconstructing them as a legitimation of his philosophical project.5 However, it seems no less probable that these words are Leibniz's rather than Descartes'—that they amount to a reading note, rather than a transcription from that “petit registre en parchemin” which was found among Descartes' papers after his death, and which at some time in the eighteenth century was lost or destroyed. But whatever the authorship of this text, another sentence of Leibniz's—this time definitely in his own words—confirms Baillet's view of the importance of the dream or dreams:

Descartes for a long time devoted himself to studies at the Jesuit college of La Flèche, and as a young man formed the plan of emending philosophy after some dreams, and long meditation on that passage of Ausonius: “What path in life shall I follow?” (Leibniz, 4: 311, qtd. from Browne, 265)6

Moreover, Descartes' own account of this episode is preserved, though in distorted form, in Baillet's paraphrase of his lost Olympica manuscript.

In what sense, then, is it significant that the question remembered in these brief annotations—“Quod vitae sectabor iter?”—and remembered, it would seem, as a metonymy for the whole of Descartes' annunciatory experience of the night of November 10-11, 1619, came to him not as part of a methodical sequence of thought, but in a dream-revelation, one which he received (to cite his own words, quoted by Baillet) “cùm plenus forem Enthousiasmo”—in a state, that is, of divine exaltation, inspiration, or possession? (Descartes, 1974, 10: 179).7 And what should we make of the fact that the choice of paths presented itself, at the moment which Descartes then and subsequently understood as the inauguration of his own hodos and his own method, in the form of a citation from the poet Ausonius, and thus as something already iterated and reiterated?

Let us consider these dreams. Adrien Baillet's Vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes (1691), which paraphrases extensively from the manuscripts to which the biographer had access, reveals that Descartes' philosophizing in his famous “poêle” in the winter of 1619 was, initially at least, a different process from that orderly sequence of thoughts recounted in the Discourse on Method. This process appears to have culminated in three dreams on the night of November 10th, 1619, in the course of which Descartes was crippled by ghosts, whirled about by a sudden wind, pushed by an evil spirit—this same wind—towards (of all places) a church, advised that an unnamed person wished to give him a melon, frightened by thunder, and finally engaged by another unknown person in conversation over a Dictionary, which signified “nothing other than all the sciences brought together,” and an anthology of Latin verse, by which Descartes understood “Philosophy and Wisdom joined together” (Descartes, 1974, 10: 181-84).

For what it may be worth, we have Descartes' word that his meditations in 1619 were bound up with an exercise of deliberate doubt. In Part Two of the Discourse he says of this aspect of his meditations in the “poêle” that “as regards all the opinions which up to this time I had embraced, I thought I could not do better than endeavour once for all to sweep them completely away, so that they might later on be replaced, either by others which were better, or by the same, when I had made them conform to the uniformity of a rational scheme” (Descartes, 1973, 1: 89; cf. Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 581). If Baillet's Vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes can be trusted, this was a painful experience: “he had no less to suffer than if it had been a matter of stripping away his very self.” And according to Baillet, this self-imposed torment, this attempt to represent his mind to himself “entirely naked,” led directly to the night of dreams. Descartes' efforts “threw his mind into violent agitation.... He tired it to such a degree that his brain became overheated, and he fell into a kind of enthusiasm which so worked upon his already exhausted mind that he prepared it to receive the impressions of dreams and visions” (Descartes, 1974, 10: 180-81).8 The dreams thus seem not to have been an accidental by-product of this process, but rather its desired consummation. Indeed, Baillet attributes to Descartes' Olympica manuscript the statements “that the Genius which excited in him the enthusiasm by which he had felt his brain heated for some days had predicted these dreams to him before he went to bed, and that the human mind had no part in them” (Descartes, 1974, 10: 186).9

What path can be traced in these dreams? In the first of them, Descartes was terrified by the apparition of “quelques fantômes,” and thinking he was walking in the streets, he felt himself to be struck by such a weakness on his right side that he could not maintain himself upright, and had to “lean to his left side in order to be able to get to the place where he wanted to go....” Ashamed of this posture, he tried to straighten himself, but a sudden swirling gust of wind spun him around three or four times on his left foot. Hardly able to stand, he noticed a school in front of him—one is reminded of the Jesuit college of La Flèche where he was educated—and entered it “to find a refuge, and a remedy for his disorder”: he hoped to reach the school church and to pray there (Descartes, 1974, 10: 181).

The structure of the dream seems clear up to this point. It is the right side of Descartes' body image that is struck with weakness. If one can apply to the imagery of this dream some of the conventional associations of 'left' and 'right,' then the phantoms, the sinister wind and the weakness of Descartes' right side would together represent opposition, both internal and 'demonic,' to his conscious project of ridding himself of his former opinions, of stripping his mind naked. The most conspicuous clothing of the mind (to fill out the Neoplatonic metaphor) is the body; one might say that through the humiliating terrors of this dream the demonic body is fighting back. And in so doing it deflects the dreamer from his initial path, meta hodos: almost from the first moment of his dream, then, he is following a “voie détournée.”

Having decided to enter the church, the dreaming Descartes would seem, rather curiously, to have begun to find reasons for not doing so. Realizing that he had passed a man whom he knew without saluting him, he attempted to turn back, but was violently rebuffed by the wind. At the same time, though, he noticed another person, who called him politely by name, and informed him that a certain gentleman had something to give him—the famous melon. As a group of other people formed around him, Descartes, still hunched over, observed that they stood upright and firm on their feet, and also that the wind was greatly diminished in force. At this point he awoke—without having entered the church, one may remark.

The path marked out by this first dream is a paradoxical one. Descartes at its beginning had a goal, “the place where he wanted to go”; but crippled by the ghosts, and spun about by the wind, he directed his steps instead to a church as a place of refuge, only to find that the wind which had previously obstructed him was now pushing him in that direction, while at the same time blowing against the church (“le vent … souffloit contre l'Eglise”). What seems really to have frightened Descartes—Baillet's wording is unfortunately imprecise at this point10—was not so much his own disability, or the humiliation of being spun around like a top, as the discovery that the wind which had attacked him was furthering his decision to seek refuge in a church. His own pious will was suddenly revealed to be in accord with the demonic force which was oppressing him. One could hardly ask for a clearer dream image of psychic overdetermination. The issue raised is that of autonomy or free-will: if Descartes wills what the wind wills, then what is his will—or, more precisely, whose is it? The young Descartes has no answer to this question: as he wrote in what Henri Gouhier believes to have been part of the Olympica manuscript, “God made three marvels: things from nothing, free-will, and the Man-God” (Descartes, 1974, 10: 218).11

Descartes' own interpretations of this first dream only heighten the sense of paradox. On waking, “he felt a real pain, which made him fear that this might have been the work of some evil genius who wished to seduce him.... He prayed to God, asking to be guarded from the evil effect of his dream....” But the process of interpretation which continued after he awoke from his third and last dream complicated this identification of the power at work in the first one. According to Baillet's paraphrase, “The wind which pushed him towards the college church when his right side was weakened was none other than the evil Genius which was trying to throw him by force into a place where he was planning to go voluntarily.” In the margin Baillet quotes Descartes' own words: A malo Spiritu ad Templum propellebar.” He continues: “This is why God did not permit him to advance further and let himself be carried, even into a holy place, by a spirit whom He had not sent—although Descartes was convinced that it had been the Spirit of God who had made him take his first steps towards this church” (Descartes, 1974, 10: 182, 185-86).12

The dreamer's behaviour is thus, in retrospect, doubly overdetermined—first by the demonic forces represented in the dream, and then, simultaneously, by the God whom his interpretation inscribes in it as the initial prompter and final preventer of his movement towards the church, and thus as the unseen author of what had seemed to be Descartes' own actions. One is left with a disturbing overlap between the (presumably good) Genius who excited Descartes' state of enthusiasm and predicted his dreams to him, the evil spirit or evil Genius who in the first of those dreams attempted to push him into a church, and the God whom his interpretation summoned up to dispose of this paradox.

Baillet tells us that after dreaming his first dream, Descartes meditated for some two hours. He then fell asleep again, but was awakened at once by a sound like a clap of thunder, “and opening his eyes, he saw many sparks of fire scattered about the room.” This second dream, which he initially found as terrifying as the first, he later understood to be “the signal of the Spirit of Truth which descended on him to possess him”; the terror which it inspired was “the remorse of his conscience over the sins he might have committed in the course of his life till then” (Descartes, 1974, 10: 182, 186).13

The third dream, while lacking the narrative shape of the first, condenses its vivid imagery into a textual metonymy, and supplements this with what is quite clearly a response to the project of Descartes' waking mind. In this dream, which he took to signify his future, Descartes found two books upon his table, a dictionary and an anthology of Latin poetry: it was in the latter of these that he found the poem of Ausonius beginning with the words Quod vitae sectabor iter?” which he appears later to have remembered as a metonymy for the whole dream-experience. Before he awoke, Descartes understood the dictionary to mean “nothing other than all the sciences brought together,” while the anthology “indicated in particular, and in a distinct manner, Philosophy and Wisdom joined together”; upon waking, “he was bold enough to persuade himself that it was the Spirit of Truth who had wished to open the treasures of all the sciences to him by this dream” (Descartes, 1974, 10: 184-85).14


But in what manner were these dreams related to the path Descartes did in fact follow, or to the philosophical method which is its most important textual residue? Baillet interpreted Descartes' words “X. Novembris 1619, cùm plenus forem Enthousiasmo, & mirabilis scientiae fundamenta reperirem &c.” as meaning that on the day preceding the night of dreams he had discovered, in a state of exaltation, the foundations of a marvellous science. By this account, the dreams would seem not to have constituted his discovery, but rather to have confirmed it, and perhaps expanded its implications.

The nature of the “marvellous science” remains to some extent a mystery. That it was initially unclear to Descartes himself may be suggested by a marginal note which, according to Baillet, he added to the Olympica manuscript: XI. Novembris 1620, coepi intelligere fundamentum Inventi mirabilis” (Descartes, 1974, 10: 179): “November 11, 1620, I began to understand the foundations of the marvellous invention.”15 This marvellous science would seem to have included some of the ideas on method developed in the Rules for the Direction of the Mind (written by 1628). The concept of a universal wisdom to be attained through a recognition of the interrelatedness of all the sciences (Rule 1) is clearly present in the dictionary and the anthology of the third dream. And the evident parallel between Descartes' “simple natures” theory (Rules 6, 8, 12) and the geometrical problems upon which he had been working in 1618 and early 1619 suggests that he had struck upon the idea of generalizing that mathematical logic, which he described to Isaac Beeckman in March 1619 as a “fundamentally new science,” and also as “an incredibly ambitious project” (Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 37-39), into a universal method of inquiry. More important, from my point of view, is the strong probability that the meditations which culminated in the dreams of 1619 embodied a process of deliberate doubt that was aimed at establishing an unshakeable “knowledge of the naked understanding”—upon which “the knowledge of all things else depends” (Rules for the Direction of the Mind, Rule 8; Descartes, 1973, 1: 24-25).

Almost a decade after the annunciatory experience of his dreams, Descartes returned to this use of doubt in a more rigorous manner: in Part III of the Discourse he dates to the years 1628-29 his formulation of the arguments which led him through a systematic doubt of everything that could be doubted to the Archimedean point of “I think, therefore I am,” and from thence to a reconstruction of philosophy (Descartes, 1973, 1: 100).16 His letters, as R. H. Popkin has noted, also indicate “that around 1628-29 he was struck by the full force of the sceptical onslaught [that is, of the contemporary revival of Pyrrhonism], and the need for a new and stronger answer to it” (Popkin, 174).

There are clear differences between the doubt of 1619 and that of 1628-29. The latter formed part of a sophisticated argument, while the former, though in some sense methodical, and evidently expected to produce a guarantee of reliable knowledge, appears not to have been integrated into any systematic philosophical construction. Moreover, while the doubt of 1628-29 could be described as abstract and theoretical, that of 1619, as the dreams attest, was inextricably linked to the path of Descartes' own life. But despite these differences, Descartes seems to have seen a close connection between his meditations in the “poêle” and the argument he constructed almost a decade later. In Part II of the Discourse (which also contains a masked allusion to the dreams of 1619),17 the description of his doubting in 1619 is closely followed by the enunciation of the four elementary rules of his method, the first of which proposes a criterion of clarity and distinctness as the basis for determining which judgements may be accepted as indubitable. The use of this criterion is thus made a part of the 1619 meditations—even though its philosophical basis is established only in Part IV in the argument which follows from the systematic doubt of 1628-29.

A more conclusive link between the experience of 1619 and the argument of 1628-29 can be found in the unfinished dialogue La recherche de la vérité par la lumière naturelle, in which Descartes' spokesman responds to objections against the systematic doubt which he is proposing with the assurance that

these doubts which alarmed you to begin with, are like phantoms and vain images which appear at night in the uncertain glimmer of a feeble light. If you flee from them, your fear will follow you, but if you approach as though to touch them, you will discover them to be no more than air and shadow, and will in the future feel more confident in any such encounter. (Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 1121)18

This is, unmistakably, an echo of the first of Descartes' three dreams: he was frightened by phantoms, and crippled by a demonic wind; but he resisted, and after the thunderbolt of his second dream and the revelation of the third, could look back on these terrors without fear. Perhaps more importantly, this passage provides a link between the evil genius of Descartes' first dream and that other evil genius who constitutes the final, 'hyperbolic' form of Cartesian doubt in the Meditations of 1641: the phantoms, who in the dream of 1619 were clearly allied to the wind, here represent systematic doubt.

This linkage between the doubt and dream-experience of 1619, the argument refuting scepticism which Descartes developed in 1628-29 and to which he gave literary form in La recherche de la vérité and in the Discourse, and the Meditations in which he cemented the metaphysical foundations of his new philosophy, draws our attention to the banal fact that the arguments of systematic doubt are a threat to, and the Archimedean point of cogito, ergo sum a proclamation of, human autonomy. The connection may also serve as a reminder that what Cartesian philosophy identifies as its own primal scene remained substantially unchanged between 1619 and the 1640s. The dream-walker of 1619, or the thinker of the Meditations who is willing to assume that his thoughts may be a dream, encounters or hypothesizes an evil Genius who threatens to make him the helpless object of its manipulations. In this sense the evil spirit of 1619 poses the more radical threat, raising the unanswerable question of whether Descartes' decision to seek refuge in a church was psychologically overdetermined; the power of the evil Genius in the Second Meditation, in contrast, is restricted to the epistemic level by Descartes' insistence that his own thoughts “spring up of themselves” in his mind, and are inspired by nothing beyond his own nature (for the Latin and French versions of this passage, see Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 183, 417 respectively).

The dreamer escapes from this predicament through an act of resistance—in the first case by refusing to let the spirit push him into a church, and in the second by insisting, “let [the evil Genius] deceive me as much as he will, he can never cause me to be nothing so long as I think I am something” (Descartes, 1973, 1: 150; cf. Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 183, 415)—an act which is then divinely authenticated. In 1619 Descartes subsequently discovers in his resistance the agency of a benevolent God who wanted to reveal to him the treasures of all the sciences; in 1641 he argues the existence of a similarly benevolent God, who “cannot be a deceiver” (Descartes, 1973, 1: 150 [Meditation II], 1: 171 [Meditation III), and who thus provides him with the criterion of clarity and distinctness that legitimizes his method of discovery.



The very improbability, the extravagance of a path which, beginning in religious enthusiasm and dreams, appears to lead without detour to the method of Cartesian rationalism, will perhaps justify a degree of interpretive indirection on our part. The result may be a kind of fable. But so also, by Descartes' own account, is the Discourse on Method—which, in a well-known passage, modestly indicating that he does not insist that others should adopt the paths he himself has followed, he likens to “a history, or, if you prefer it, a fable....”

Three paragraphs later, speaking not of his own text but of the histories and fables of the ancients, Descartes remarks that “fables make one imagine many events possible which in reality are not so, and even the most accurate of histories, if they do not exactly misrepresent or exaggerate the value of things in order to render them more worthy of being read, at least omit in them all the circumstances which are basest and least notable....” He compares the reading of such texts, which he himself abandoned once his schooling was finished, to travel in foreign lands, too much of which, he says, makes one “a stranger in one's own country”—this from a man who had spent more than half of the preceding two decades outside his native France (Discourse, I; Descartes, 1973, 1: 83, 84-85).

One notes with interest the inadvertent warning here, and also the implicit link between Descartes' own history or fable and those of the ancients, which it seems to be part of his purpose to supplant. Is there perhaps, in addition, some more intimate connection between this autobiographical narrative and certain ancient fables (a word which Descartes' text does not require us to understand in a narrowly literal sense)? In one of the paragraphs which intervene between the passages I have quoted, he writes that “la gentillesse des fables réveille l'esprit”: “the grace of fables awakens the mind” (Discours, I; Descartes 1963-73, 1: 572). He is speaking here of the education of children. But it may shortly come to appear that the connection between fables and intellectual awakening has deeper resonances in the writings of this dreamer, this consummate story-teller.

Taking the word 'fable' in its widest sense, as applying not merely to a certain kind of moralized or didactic narrative, but also more generally to discursive paths and narratives of legitimation to which we grant at best a partial or conditional assent, let us ask which of the 'fables' current in Descartes' early manhood could have provided him with the materials—including the dream-revelation of November 1619—for the construction of his own history or fable, the Cartesian Bildungsroman.

The answer will not necessarily be a simple one. Writers of the period were almost inescapably caught up in complex ideological, and often also physical, conflicts. Descartes was himself serving as a volunteer with the Imperial army in the opening campaign of the Thirty Years' War when he experienced his dream-revelation, and while in Germany he experienced some of the excitement generated by the apocalyptic fantasies of those bizarre offshoots of Lutheranism and Hermetic magic, the Rosicrucian manifestos (texts which, as Frances Yates showed, there is good reason to connect with the political and ideological tensions that led to war).19 During his absence from France there occurred the Huguenot revolt of 1621, one of the instigators of which, the tragic poet Antoine de Montchrestien, was killed in a skirmish in Normandy that October (Griffiths, 14-18). And on Descartes' return to Paris in 1623 he was himself briefly suspected of being one of the Rosicrucian 'invisibles,' over whose supposed arrival in the city to spread their 'atheistical' and magical doctrines writers like the Jesuit François Garasse were trying to stir up alarm. For Descartes this was a dangerous situation: in 1619 Giulio Cesare Vanini had been burned at the stake in Toulouse for 'atheism,' and there seems to have been around this time an epidemic of sorcerer-burnings in France, one of whose victims in 1623 was a man executed at Moulins for the crime of possessing a copy of that sixteenth-century encyclopaedia of magic, Cornelius Agrippa's De occulta philosophia.20 The climate, in short, was an increasingly repressive one.

The books written by François Garasse and by Marin Mersenne in the early 1620s are of interest as showing with some clarity what it was that was being repressed. Garasse makes clear at the outset of his loose-lipped attack upon the subversive currents of the age that he is primarily concerned with sceptical and libertine tendencies, with those “beaux esprits” who set themselves up as opponents of “the heavy yoke of superstition,” but he sees these tendencies as closely allied to an interest in “le secret des causes naturelles,” in Neoplatonist mysticism, magic, the cabala, and alchemy (Garasse, 1: 2-4).21

Although, unlike Garasse, Mersenne was a serious scholar, his Quaestiones celeberrimae in Genesim also attacks 'atheists' and deists like the unfortunate Vanini along with magi like Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico, Cornelius Agrippa, and (most emphatically) that Hermetic philosopher and avowed supporter of the Rosicrucians, Robert Fludd, who had recently published an extended cabalistic interpretation of Genesis—and whom Mersenne calls a cacomagus,” a haereticomagus," and (punning on his name) “one soon to be submerged in the eternal floods” (Mersenne, 1932, 62).22 It would be possible for analytical purposes to distinguish between Mersenne's treatment of these tendencies, but Robert Lenoble's conflation of the two as related aspects of “Renaissance naturalism” is probably closer to Mersenne's own view of the matter (Lenoble, 5 ff.).

Having discharged himself of this counterblast against magical or naturalistic appropriations of Christian doctrines, this summa against Renaissance magic, its whole way of thinking, and all its offshoots in the vast contemporary dissemination of magical practices” (Yates, 1964, 434), Mersenne in the following year attacked the scepticism of Pierre Charron, the 'Renaissance naturalism' of Jerome Cardan and the Hermetism of Giordano Bruno in L'Impiété des déistes, athées, et libertins de ce temps (1624). The main body of this work, however, is devoted to refuting a Deist poem, the mocking libertinism of which Mersenne correctly understands as prompted less by these currents of thought than by the harsh paradoxes of Calvinist theology. Mersenne argues against this anonymous “Poëte Calvino-déiste” (and also against Calvin) that God's will and his foreknowledge are in no sense the cause of our sins, and that our actions “do not follow the absolute will of God” Mersenne, 1624, 572).23 Not surprisingly, his defence of God's justice slides into the familiar equivocations that it was Calvin's purpose to confront and to eliminate: arguing in one chapter that we can do nothing, for good or evil, without divine aid, Mersenne maintains in the next that “God's foreknowledge, his will, and also his laws and all his works, are in no sense prejudicial to our liberty” (Mersenne, 1624, 471-72, 477-78 [ch. xvii], 517 [ch. xviii]).24

In 1625 Mersenne published another fat book, La vérité des sciences, a dialogue of some one thousand pages in which the opinions of an Alchemist, who believes his science “capable of renewing the whole world, and dispersing the shadows of ignorance by some extraordinary new light” (Mersenne, 1625, 3),25 are demolished by a Sceptic, whose tropes are in turn refuted by Mersenne himself in the person of the Christian Philosopher, and supplanted by his own mitigated, constructive scepticism. But if the primary target of this book is the current wave of Pyrrhonist scepticism, it also contains a reminder of Mersenne's opposition to “those magicians and charlatans known as Brothers of the Rosy Cross, who boast of understanding [Hermes] Trismegistus and all the cabalists of Antiquity...” (Mersenne, 1625, 566-67).

Catholic orthodoxy, then, saw itself as threatened in the early 1620s by searchers into “the secrets of natural causes” who, practising one or another form of Hermetic and Cabalistic magic or alchemy, at the same time appropriated Christian doctrine for their own purposes; by deists and libertines, whose reaction against the hard doctrines of Jean Calvin led them to scoff at all of the more punitive tenets of Christianity; and also, increasingly, by Pyrrhonist sceptics, who threatened not so much the faith as its appendages of rational theology and scholastic philosophy. Despite their obvious diversity, these tendencies were not roped together arbitrarily by Garasse and Mersenne: they in fact overlap in ways that have a direct bearing upon Descartes' meditations in November 1619.

That Descartes read Montaigne is well known. In the next section of this essay I wish to show that there is reason to believe that he was also acquainted with a tradition of sixteenth-century occultism to which Montaigne's scepticism is in certain respects connected. And in the concluding three sections I will propose that Descartes' thought took shape as an itinerary across a discursive field structured not only by the scholastic texts to which modern Cartesian scholarship has so insistently drawn attention, but also (and decisively) by two diametrically opposed groups of texts: the 'philosophical' writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, and the theological writings of Jean Calvin.



Montaigne and his successors argued that all human opinions are doubtful, and that consequently we should not merely suspend our judgment as to their truth or falsity, but should actually reject their claims to any truth value. Yet as R. H. Popkin has remarked, sixteenth and early seventeenth-century Pyrrhonists wished not simply to destroy the supposed certainties of human knowledge, but also to prepare the mind to receive a superhuman truth that could come only from above: the “nouveaux Pyrrhoniens” aimed, as much as the mature Descartes did, “to find certain knowledge. But they hoped”—rather like the Descartes of 1619—“to find it miraculously, to have it suddenly delivered to them by God” (Popkin, 182). Their Pyrrhonist tropes, demolishing any human criterion of truth, made them the more thirsty for a divinely authorized criterion. Thus, for example, Montaigne writes in his “Apologie of Raymond Sebond” (I quote from the translation of Florio) that Pyrrhonism “representeth man bare and naked, acknowledging his naturall weaknesse, apt to receive from above some strange power, disfurnished of all humane knowledge, and so much the more fitte to harbour divine understanding, disannulling his judgement, that so he may give more place unto faith” (Montaigne, 1904-06, 2: 233).26

At this point, as has often been observed, Montaigne's debt to the fideism of Cornelius Agrippa's De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum et artium (1530) is palpable (see Villey, 2: 166-70). And the writings of this early sixteenth-century humanist and magician anticipate in a remarkable way the full range of tendencies attacked by Garasse and Mersenne. Agrippa's De occulta philosophia libri tres (1533), which was of central importance to magi from John Dee and Giordano Bruno in the sixteenth century to Thomas Vaughan in the 1650s, made him notorious as a Hermetic magician and cabalist; and a spurious Fourth Book which was widely accepted as authentic exaggerated the demonic implications of his magic. But not only did Agrippa practise and write about all of the occult sciences, including alchemy, he also wrote against most of them in his De vanitate. In this book, setting out to demolish or at least to cast doubt upon all human arts and sciences, he presented himself as at once a radical evangelical reformer, a sceptic, and a mocking subverter of the established order and its pieties—as, in effect, the Lucianic ironist and libertine denounced by Calvin in his De scandalis.27

Agrippa seems to have been widely read in France. The Latin text of De vanitate, first published in 1530, was frequently reprinted, and the work went through at least five editions in French by 1617 (two more followed in 1623 and 1630).28 Different editions of Agrippa's Opera were also in circulation, the most recent being the one printed at Lyons in 1600. Needless to say, he was a controversial figure: Jean Bodin attacked him in 1580 as “the greatest sorcerer of his age” (Bodin, fol. 20, sig. E4, fol. 219-20, sig. IIi 3v-4), and four years later André Thevet lamented that “Had it pleased God that Agrippa should have drowned only himself in that abyss of impiety, we would not today be faced with such a heap of atheists, backbiters and lampooners as this century has produced.... He hatched infinite swarms both of magicians and of atheists...” (Thevet, 2: fol. 544).29 In the early seventeenth century Agrippa continued to attract comment: in 1603 Jean Belot criticized (at the same time plagiarizing) his occult philosophy (Belot; see Secret, 290); in 1623 Mersenne denounced him as an Archimagus” (Mersenne, 1623, col. 590); and two years later Gabriel Naudé defended his reputation, along with that of other “great men falsely accused of magic” (Naudé, 400-29).

Perhaps more to the point, Descartes mentions Agrippa in a letter of April 1619 to Isaac Beeckman. In March of that year he had written to Beeckman of his plans for a “fundamentally new science” which he contrasted to the Ars brevis of Raymond Lull. In April, he told of meeting a man who, while admitting that Lull's art and Agrippa's commentaries on it consisted of a mere ordering of the parts of dialectic, also claimed that there were, in addition, certain keys which could open up the secrets of this art. To Descartes' request that he check this in his copy of the book, Beeckman replied that the supposed keys are in Agrippa's text; “you yourself would have noticed them, not long ago, had you wished to” (Descartes, 1974, 10: 165-68). During the previous winter, then, when he and Beeckman were together, Descartes had access to this book—and as Charles Adam proposed, there is reason to believe that the book in question was the Lyons edition of Agrippa's Opera published in 1600 (see Descartes, 1974, 10: 63, note d, and Gouhier, 28, 111). From the contempt with which Descartes wrote to Beeckman of the Lullian whose claims of secret knowledge inspired his request—“his knowledge, drawn from books (libris), was on his lips (labris) rather than in his mind”—interpreters of this episode have too easily concluded that Descartes felt a similar contempt for Agrippa. But this opinion in fact echoes Agrippa's own dismissal, in De vanitate, of the Art of Lull as one which “availeth more to the outward shewe of the witte, and to the ostentation of Learninge, then to gette knowledge, and hathe mutche more presumptuousnesse, then efficacie” (Agrippa, 1974, 56 [ch. 9]).30

I have no intention of substituting, in place of the “roman rosi-crucien”31 of certain modern scholars who would have made Descartes an adherent of that shadowy sect, an even less substantial “roman agrippain.” On the other hand, it might be rash to accept at face value Descartes' statement in the Discourse that even before leaving La Flèche he knew well enough what false doctrines were worth “to be subject to deception neither by the promises of an alchemist, the predictions of an astrologer, the impostures of a magician, or the artifices or empty boasts of any of those who profess to know more than they do” (Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 576). For his attitude towards imposture and artifice was perhaps more complicated than this text would suggest. In La recherche de la vérité his spokesman Eudoxus lays out the order he will follow in expounding his method: beginning with “the rational soul, in which all our knowledge resides,” he will then consider its author and His nature, our knowledge of other creatures, the operations of our senses, and the manner in which our thoughts become true or false. “Then I shall display here the works of man upon corporeal objects, and having struck wonder into you with the most powerful machines, the rarest automata, the most specious visions, and the subtlest impostures that artifice can invent, I shall reveal to you their secrets, which are so simple and so innocent that you will henceforth wonder at nothing in the works of our hands” (Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 1114). What Descartes promises is to demystify the impostures of artifice: he will incite wonder only in order to efface it. But the first step of this double movement is one of self-imposition through artifice—and turning to Descartes' manuscripts of the years 1619 to 1621, one finds repeated intimations of this same first step, but no hint of a subsequent demystification. He proposes, for example, that

In a garden one can make shadows which represent diverse figures, such as trees and others. . .

Item, in a room, to arrange that the rays of the sun, passing through certain openings, represent various numbers or figures:

Item, to make appear, in a room, tongues of fire, chariots of fire and other figures in the air; all this with certain mirrors which focus the sun's rays on those points.... (Descartes, 1974, 10: 215-16)

Such “visions apparentes” as these, derived, it would seem, from a reading of Giovanni Battista Porta's De magia naturali (1558), were part of the stock in trade of Renaissance natural magic. So also were automata like the famous dove of Archytas, which is mentioned by Descartes in another note, and which, as Charles Adam remarks, he could have read about in Agrippa's De occulta philosophia.32

In 1628, according to Beeckman's journal, he and Descartes amused themselves by mocking Agrippa and Porta (Descartes, 1974, 10: 347). But it seems likely that nine years earlier, Descartes might easily have understood Agrippa—the more sceptical side of him, that is, the author of De vanitate—as writing from a situation not unlike his own. Ferdinand Alquié has remarked of Descartes' account of his schooling in the first part of the Discourse on Method that “At the end of such a description, one is convinced that Descartes' doubt was not simply voluntary and methodical. In his youth and at the end of his studies, Descartes experienced a doubt that was profound and spontaneous, a real disillusionment” (Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 576 n.2). This young man apparently had access to Agrippa's Opera omnia at the time of his encounter with Beeckman in the winter of 1618-19, if not before. He might then have been receptive to the Hermetic illuminism which pervades both the third book of De occulta philosophia and the later chapters of De vanitate—where Agrippa insists, for example, that

God alone contains the fountain of truth, from which he must drink who desires true doctrines: since there is not, nor can be had, any science of the secrets of nature, of the separate substances, much less of God their author, unless it be revealed by divine inspiration. For divine things are not touched by human powers, and natural things at every moment flee from the power of sense....33

Another text printed in the same edition of Agrippa's Opera, entitled De magia seu pneumatica veterum and ascribed to one 'Arbatel,' may help to explain the title of Descartes' Olympica (the word does not occur in classical Latin)—and may also in some sense underlie the revelatory experience recorded in that manuscript. Seven of the forty-nine aphorisms which constitute this short text are concerned with Olympic spirits or the spirits of Olympus. 'Arbatel' writes that these stellar intelligences are counted among the angels of God by whom, according to the New Testament and the traditions of the Egyptians (which is to say the writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus), all sciences have been delivered to mankind; the particular role of Olympic spirits is to declare human destinies and to impart wisdom (Agrippa, 1970, 1: 710-13 [Arbatel, De magia, aphorisms 12-15]). A magician is defined in this text as one to whom, by the grace of God, the spirits have given knowledge of the secrets of nature; shortly thereafter the writer adds—I quote from a seventeenth-century translation—that “The passage from the common life of man unto a Magical life, is no other but a sleep, from that life; and an awakening to this life...” (Agrippa, 1655, 213 [aphorisms 41 and 44]).34 Yet this transition may be a dangerous one, for while Olympus and the inhabitants thereof, do of their own accord offer themselves to men in the form of Spirits,” another kind of being is attracted to us by our sins—evil spirits, who in another aphorism are said to be the cause of all corruption in human knowledge, “sow[ing] tares amongst the children of disobedience, as it is manifest out of St. Paul, and Hermes Trismegistus.” Whoever therefore wishes spiritual illumination must “keep himself from all enormious sins, and diligently pray to the most High to be his keeper; and he shall break through all the snares and impediments of the devil...” (Agrippa, 1655, 194, 184 [aphorisms 19, 12, 19]).35

For all its naivety, this text reflects a mind-set not far removed from that of the dreams recorded by Descartes in his Olympica, in which the assault of an evil spirit and an incitement to remorse over his past sins was followed by a kind of revelation. His dreams seem to have authenticated, rather than transmitted, the mirabilis scientiae fundamenta. But their genre is clearly that of the dreams alluded to in a Paracelsan text according to which

Many wonderful Arts and Sciences also have seemed to be made appeare to Artists in their dreams. . . : this oftentimes happeneth, but the greatest part perisheth in oblivion: some rising early in the morning, say, This night a wonderful dreame appeared to me, as that Mercury, or this or that Philosopher corporally appeared to me in a dreame, who taught me this or that Art; but it is fallen out of my memory. . . .

The author of the Olympica was presumably familiar with the sort of advice this text offers: “To whom any such thing hath happened, he ought not to go forth out of his chamber, nor speak with any man … until he call to remembrance that which he had forgotten” (Paracelsus, 47-48).36



My argument does not require us to believe that the young Descartes was conclusively influenced by the writings of sixteenth-century occultists like Agrippa, Paracelsus, or 'Arbatel'—most of which he could with good reason have dismissed, even in 1619, as superstitious, silly, and vain. However, I would propose that he was familiar—whether directly or indirectly—with the 'philosophical' writings attributed to Hermes (or Mercurius) Trismegistus. Agrippa and other occultist writers would have pointed him in this direction: the philosophical Hermetica were a principal source both of Renaissance magical doctrines and of that prisca theologia, larded with supposedly pre-Christian anticipations of Christianity, which legitimized this magic. Oddly enough, more orthodox writers could also have directed him to Hermes. Even for those polemicists of the 1620s, Garasse and Mersenne, the name of Hermes was not one to be scoffed at. The former, in speaking of destiny, places “Mercure Trismégiste” at the head of a list of “les plus sages d'entre les Philosophes” who have written on this subject, if too obscurely for Garasse's taste (Garasse, 1: 345-46). And Mersenne, the first two chapters of whose L'impiété des déistes consist of a declamation in the Hermetic manner on the excellence of man, in a later chapter refers his reader for evidence of the piety of ancient philosophers to the De perenni philosophia (1540) of Augustinus Steuchus Eugubinus—a work which, presenting Mercurius Trismegistus as the “most ancient source” from whom the Greek philosophers derived their theology, also expounds his opinions in some detail.37 Other writers, whom Descartes might have read before 1619, are very much more positive. Pontus de Tyard, Bishop of Chalon-sur-Saône, compared the prayer at the end of the first dialogue of Hermes' Pimander to the psalms of David (Tyard, fol. 112v-113; qtd. in Walker, 69); and François de Foix, duc de Candale and Bishop of Aire, believing that Hermes had received from God “the same instruction as had Moses, the prophets and the apostles,” wrote that “since he agrees with and expounds the scriptures, … one cannot go wrong in revering his opinion” (Foix, sig. A2; qtd. in Walker, 69). (Foix de Candale, interestingly, was a mathematician as well as a Christian Hermetist: of his five published works, “three are editions and translations of the Pimander.... The remaining two are editions of Euclid's Elements” [Harrie, 503]).38

What, then, could Descartes have found in Hermes Trismegistus? An answer, of a kind, to that fear of psychological overdetermination which is imaged in the first of his three dreams (and which Mersenne's attack upon the deists might suggest was prompted by the doctrines of Calvin)—for the Hermetic writings contain repeated proclamations of the quasi-divine autonomy of the human mind. But much else besides.

I have proposed that in his meditations of November 1619 Descartes was trying to separate his mind from his body (the left-right asymmetry of his first dream suggests that he succeeded in creating such a psychic split), and that he was doing so in the expectation of being rewarded with a visionary revelation. His doubt, his rejection of all his previous opinions, was also an attempt to recognize and isolate that which in him could truly know: his own essential self. One need go no further than the first and thirteenth dialogues of the Hermetic Pimander in order to appreciate the Hermetic orientation of this project.

The first dialogue, the seminal Hermetic text (whose title Poimandres or Pimander Marsilio Ficino took to apply to the whole body of Hermetic writings he translated), consists largely of a vision and a divine discourse which result from the narrator's meditation de rerum natura: “my intellectual perceptions were borne aloft,” he says, “and my bodily senses lulled, as commonly happens to those who, through fatigue or satiety, are oppressed by sleep—when suddenly I perceived a being of immense size who called me by name, saying: 'What, o Mercury, do you wish to hear, to consider, to learn and understand?'” To this being, which identified itself as “Pimander, the mind of the divine power,” he replied: “I want to learn the nature of things, and to know God.”39

The eschatology of this text (which later dialogues of the Corpus Hermeticum, the thirteenth in particular, assimilate to the notion of a this-wordly rebirth or deification) involves a progressive release of the true self from what envelops it: the inactive character (ociosus habitus) is “relinquished to the [avenging] daemon and laid aside; the bodily senses … return to their sources...” (Hermes, 1532, sig. B3).40 Having received his revelation, Hermes cries out against the “enticement of irrational sleep”; he has learned that whoever recognizes himself “has obtained the good which is above being”; but he whom the body envelops “in the deception of love” remains wandering “in darkness, perceiving by sense the evils of death” (Hermes, 1532, sig. B3v, Bv).41 Secure in his possession of the truth about the creation of the world, the origins of mankind, and the way to salvation, Hermes says: “I inscribed the benefaction of Pimander in my innermost mind, and having obtained all that I had sought, reposed in joy. For the sleep of the body became sobriety of the mind, and the closing of the eyes true intuition (verus intuitus), and my silence a fertile gestation of the good, and the speaking of the word a begetting of all good things” (Hermes, 1532, sig. B4).42

In the thirteenth dialogue of the Corpus Hermeticum, the mystery of a this-worldly rebirth is associated with a similar kind of experience, and the dualist ascesis of other tractates (notably the first, fourth, and seventh) is developed into what might be described as an embryonic instrumental scepticism—instrumental, because its purpose is to prepare for a revelation which will efface all ignorance and doubt. Hermes' disciple has prepared himself for rebirth by “banish[ing] the deceptions of the world from [his] mind” (Hermes, 1532, sig. G4)43; he is then initiated into a mode of understanding from which the deceptions of the senses are excluded, and which is purely mental. Hermes' insistence that his own reborn form cannot be perceived by bodily sight excites in his disciple a state of inspired frenzy or madness—in effect, what Descartes' age called 'enthusiasm'—to which Hermes responds in these words: “May you too, my son, go forth from yourself sleeping, like those who are taken up by visions in their sleep” (Hermes, 1532, sig. G4v).44

What follows, however, is a waking initiation, a regeneration whose author, according to Hermes, is “the Son of God, the one man, by the will of God” (Hermes, 1532, sig. G4v).45 That which is true, says Hermes, is “that which is unperturbed, unlimited, without colour, without shape, undivided, naked, clear, comprehensible to itself, unchangeable, good, and wholly incorporeal.” This truth is accessible to the mind, because the mind's purged form is what constitutes it: “Return into yourself, and you will understand: desire it and it will be. Purge the senses of the body; release yourself from the irrational afflictions of matter” (Hermes, 1532, sig. G4v-G5).46 Rebirth and deification are achieved when Hermes' disciple is lifted by divine power into contemplation of the truth: the ten powers of God (of which the first is knowledge of God) descend into him to expel the twelve afflictions of matter. This descent of the powers of God is a begetting of intellect which permits a recognition of the self as divine, and also a form of understanding “not by eyesight, but by an act of mind” which gives an immediate knowledge, as though from the inside, of all nature (Hermes, 1532, sig. G6).47 To his disciple's exultant statement that he now sees the All, and sees himself in the Mind, Hermes replies: “This, my son, is regeneration: no longer to attend to three-dimensional corporeality” (Hermes, 1532, sig. G6v).48

There are strong grounds for claiming that Descartes' meditations and dream-revelation in November 1619 followed the Hermetic paradigm established in these texts. The dualist ascesis undertaken in the hope of a visionary illumination, the separation of mind from body, the pervasive 'enthusiasm' and the resulting sense of empowerment and certainty: all these suggest that Descartes' reading had led him to the writings of Hermes. “La gentillesse des fables réveille l'esprit”: these, it would seem, were among the fables which contributed at a crucial moment to the awakening of his mind. And they were fables in the additional sense that their supposedly ancient author was himself entirely fabulous. The Huguenot scholar Isaac Casaubon demonstrated in 1614 that the Hermetic writings—previously thought to be the work of an approximate contemporary of Moses—were composed no earlier than the first century A. D.; however, this work of demolition seems not to have become widely known until the late 1620s (Grafton, 145-61),49 and because it was published as part of a polemic against the Catholic church historian Baronius, it was not accepted in some circles until at least several decades later.

There may then be unsuspected reserves of meaning in Descartes' declaration in the Letter to Father Dinet appended to the Meditations and the Objections and Replies—a declaration which he admits “may seem paradoxical”—that while in the philosophy taught in the schools, “in so far as it is Peripatetic and different from others, there is nothing that is not new, on the contrary there is nothing in mine that is not ancient....” By this Descartes means that the principles of the Aristotelians were innovations when they were first introduced, and have since been the subject of constant revisions and wranglings; he, in contrast, accepts only those principles “which up to now have been known and admitted by all philosophers, and which for that reason are the most ancient of all...” (Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 1088). Would it be extravagant to construe these words as implying some degree of affiliation to that most ancient philosopher Hermes Trismegistus, who was still, in the 1640s and later, being held up by a distinguished member of Dinet's Jesuit order as the major source of what Steuchus a century earlier had called the philosophia perennis? (see Yates, 1964, 416-23).



The Hermetic writings mentioned above would seem to anticipate in certain respects the movement of Descartes' mature philosophy through scepticism to a perception of the irreducible incorporeal self, an abstract knowledge of God, and a division of the world into thinking substance and extension. Whether these anticipations are sufficiently distinct to be of analytical interest is another matter altogether. Yet it does seem worth remarking that there appear to be echoes of these texts (and of derivative Renaissance texts) in Descartes' mature writings.

Consider, for example, the concluding paragraph of the first of his Meditations of 1641. It is here that Descartes introduces for the first time the hypothesis of an “evil genius not less powerful than deceitful, who has employed all his energies in deceiving me....” Whatever the logical force of this supposition, its immediate rhetorical effect is to dispose of the speaker's body: “I shall consider myself as having no hands, no eyes, no flesh, no blood, nor any senses, yet falsely believing myself to have all these things” (Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 181).50

One way of responding to the evil genius hypothesis—perhaps, in any context but the present, a slightly eccentric way—would be to observe that this passage constitutes part of a rather peculiar sequence of metaphorical exchanges in Descartes' writings. These exchanges involve two primary terms, the body and the evil genius, and also a third term—“quelques fantômes”—which in some sense mediates between them. The sequence can be traced in three texts: in the Olympica and La recherche de la vérité, as well as in this passage of the Meditations.

In Descartes' first dream of November 10, 1619 the phantoms which make the right side of his body powerless are apparently allied to the wind, the evil genius. In a passage transcribed by Leibniz which Alquié believes formed part of the Olympica, Descartes himself commented on the more obvious of these dream-metaphors: Sensibilia apta concipiendis Olympicis: ventus spiritum significat....” “Sensible things enable us to conceive the things of Olympus: wind signifies spirit....” This linkage of wind with spirit is unexceptionable—though in the context of the first dream it may seem peculiar that Descartes makes no attempt to draw a line between the wind which is an evil genius and a wind blowing from Olympus. But what of the phantoms? Are they not also a metaphorical vehicle? Another remark copied by Leibniz from the same text indicates an awareness that metaphorical exchanges can operate in more than one direction: “Just as the imagination uses figures to conceive bodies (Ut imaginatio utitur figuris ad corpora concipienda), so the intellect uses certain sensible bodies to figure spiritual things (ita intellectus utitur quibusdam corporibus sensibilibus ad spiritualia figuranda)....” (Descartes, 1974, 10: 218, 217). The chiastic form of this sentence makes explicit a paradoxical doubleness: the figures bodied forth by imagination are an immaterial representation of the corporeal, while the sensible bodies summoned up by the intellect are a corporeal figuration of the spiritual. If Descartes' first dream incorporates a double exchange of this sort, then just as the wind signifies the evil genius, so the phantoms would signify the body from which it had apparently been the dreamer's waking project to divorce himself.

This imaginative figuration recurs in La recherche de la vérité in what may at first seem a strikingly different manner: the “phantoms and vain images” by which Descartes represents the systematic doubt he is proposing will, he promises, be revealed upon a close approach as nothing but air and shadow: “rien, que de l'air et de l'ombre.” In what way are these phantoms related to the body?

I would like to suggest that the last word of that sentence in La recherche de la vérité—“rien, que de l'air et de l'ombre”—may have resonances inaudible to the modern reader. In a commentary on Paracelsus by Jacques Gohory, a sixteenth-century occultist, one reads that “The Olympic spirit who plucks away the shadow (Spiritus Olympicus qui umbram avellit), and in this the cabalistic art consists, is the star in man” (Suavius, 52; qtd. in Gouhier, 88, n. 7). The shadow or umbra is explained by Marsilio Ficino in his Theologia Platonica as the term applied by the 'ancient theologians' to the elemental murk (caligo elementalis) with which the soul is surrounded, most particularly during this life (Ficino, 233). Iamblichus, similarly, in his De mysteriis Aegyptiis, identifies the body and matter with shadows and irrationality (Iamblichus, VI. 4, 185). So also does one of their common sources, the first dialogue of the Pimander of Hermes Trismegistus—where, in Ficino's translation, the key word is again umbra, and where the insistent lesson is of a separation of mind from body which will free the self from the deceptions of the senses and from what in the thirteenth dialogue are called “the irrational afflictions of matter” (Hermes, 1532, sig. B2).51

Did Descartes' Olympic spirit, in proclaiming his destiny, free him from his umbra at the same time as from any lingering fear of those “ombres” which had appeared to him at the beginning of his first dream? What then of the act of demystification in La recherche de la vérité which undoes the metaphor of the phantoms, reducing them to air and shadow? Might one describe this as a controlled repetition of that foundational experience? The phantoms which in the dream were linked to the body now signify fears prompted by doubt—a shift in signifieds which may seem less startling if it is remembered that what Baillet wrote of as Descartes' attempt to represent his mind to himself “entirely naked” was recalled by the philosopher in his Discourse as a project of ridding himself of his former opinions. There is, surely, no reason to regard these two descriptions as mutually contradictory.

In the Meditations the same complex of metaphorical exchanges resurfaces. One encounters in the First Meditation not the phantoms of doubt, but in their place the evil genius (whose earliest appearance, in the dream of 1619, was as their supplement and ally)—and the act of confronting this demon of doubt effectively does away with the body by imposing a recognition of the self as incorporeal, as radically disembodied—as a res cogitans.

The extraordinary labyrinthine simile with which Descartes concludes the First Meditation may contain less distant echoes of Hermetic texts. Descartes writes that the task of resisting the hypothetical evil genius, of taking his belief in his own body to be the result of demonic deceptions, of suspending all judgments,

is a laborious one, and insensibly a certain lassitude leads me back into the course of my ordinary life. And just as a captive who in sleep enjoys an imaginary liberty, when he begins to suspect that his liberty is but a dream, fears to be awakened, and conspires with these agreeable illusions to prolong his deception, so insensibly of my own accord I fall back into my former opinions, and I am anxious about being roused from this slumber, lest the laborious wakefulness which would follow the tranquillity of this repose should have to be spent not in daylight, but in the excessive darkness of the difficulties which have just been discussed. Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 181-82 [Latin text], 1: 412-13 [French version]).52

This simile achieves a remarkable inversion. Ordinary waking consciousness is compared to a captive's dream of liberty, an agreeable illusion, a state of repose. And the peculiar disembodied state into which Descartes has projected himself—in which he has raised the fear of insanity, and suspects he could be dreaming, or subject to the systematic deceptions of the evil genius—is a true, a strenuous wakefulness (in which, presumably, resistance to captivity becomes possible). If Plato's allegory of the cave seems the most obvious source for this passage, that is only because modern Cartesian scholars are more likely to have read Plato than Hermes. The first dialogue of the Pimander links slavery and confinement with the enticements of “irrational sleep,” and preaching a return to the wakeful state in which we were created, calls upon us “who labour in want, enveloped in the shadows of ignorance,” to recover our true selves (Hermes, 1532, sig. A8v)53 Descartes may have been remembering either—or more probably both—of these ancient fabulists when he wove together this brilliantly persuasive text.



When Cornelius Agrippa in his De vanitate turned from the labour of refuting the philosophers to the more congenial business of calling them names, one of the most provoking things he could think of to say was that philosophy first developed out of the “trifles and fables” of the poets—which, he says in another chapter, were “written to no other ende, but to the delite of fooles...” (Agrippa, 1974, 143 [cap. 49], 33 [cap. 4]). I have been suggesting here that Descartes' philosophy was decisively indebted to those writers of the first centuries A. D.—one might almost call them poets—who effectively created Hermes Trismegistus by fathering upon this Hellenized form of the Egyptian god Thoth a body of quasi-philosophical writings. This is not to challenge Descartes' claim to have returned to first principles; it is, rather, to give force and specificity to what would otherwise be a banal observation: namely, that any sense of what first principles are, and any project of returning to them, must both be textually conditioned.

Descartes' own insistent metaphor of the path suggests as much. Quod vitae sectabor iter? Before it can be followed, the path must in some sense be already delineated—failing which, one is at the mercy of that blind curiosity which, in Rule 4 of the Rules for the Direction of the Mind, Descartes says leads men to “conduct their minds along unknown routes,” hoping to find by pure chance the truth they seek (Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 90). Yet while the existence of a “vrai chemin” which is to be followed is implied by the notion of method, the formulation of this notion also suggests the projection of previously undiscovered paths, and the construction of new roads.54 The metaphor is inescapably duplicitous.

To say that the path which became Descartes' fully elaborated method was in some sense supplied to him by the revived Hermetic tradition of the Renaissance does not therefore amount to rejecting what must be obvious—that his interest in certain features of this tradition, partial to begin with, was in most respects rapidly outgrown. In Part II of the Discourse, speaking of his meditations of November 1619, and of his decision to strip himself of his former opinions, Descartes writes: “But like a man who walks alone and in darkness, I resolved to go so slowly, and to use so much circumspection in all things, that even if I advanced only very little, I would at least take care not to fall” (Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 584). This, it would seem, is a masked allusion to what I have called the primal scene of Cartesian philosophy, in which Descartes' best efforts barely sufficed to keep him from falling—yet it appears to be back-dated from the first dream of November 10 to the period immediately preceding the dreams. When, by my analysis, Descartes was re-fashioning himself according to a Hermetic paradigm—entering, that is to say, a path marked out by Hermes and his Renaissance interpreters—he was thus, by his own retrospective account, advancing alone, cautiously and in the shadows. The duplicity of the path metaphor validates this statement: even if one believes that, in recalling his past, Descartes was also revising it, one can concede that, whatever his debts to a Hermetic paradigm, he was also in late 1619 engaged in searching out a new path.

This process, as Étienne Gilson demonstrated long since, involved an appropriation of elements of the scholastic tradition. And to the literary expression of the resulting system even the egregious François Garasse may have contributed: a sentence in La doctrine curieuse des beaux esprits anticipates closely the famous first sentence of the Discourse on Method, and may well be its immediate source.55 I will not attempt to explain how Descartes' Hermetic borrowings may be related to his appropriations of certain features of scholastic philosophy, much less how he could have read as far as page 56 of Garasse's book before throwing it aside in disgust. But an indication, in concluding, of another tradition to which Descartes appears also to have been responding may help both to reveal more fully the originality of his itinerary and to complete my analysis of his relations to Hermetism.

In the second section of this essay I remarked on the image of psychic overdetermination provided in Descartes' first dream of November 10, 1619 by the wind's attempt to push him into a church in which he had already decided to seek shelter from that same wind; and I commented also on the curious overlap, in Descartes' own interpretation of his dreams, of his good Genius, the evil spirit, and the God who governs the entire episode. If the wind, and the spiritual force it represents, threatened the dreamer's autonomy, his resistance implies a counter-assertion by—one might say—either the self-determining mens of the Hermetists or the nascent Cartesian subject. In the following section I observed that the arguments of systematic doubt, in the culminative form of the evil genius hypothesis, constitute an analogous threat to human autonomy—one which is triumphantly resisted by the proclamation of cogito, ergo sum. Tullio Gregory and other scholars have with admirable precision situated the evil genius of the Meditations, and the closely-linked issue of whether God can be a deceiver, in relation to late-scholastic discussions of the same questions.56 But I would propose that the evil spirit of the Olympica and the evil genius of the Meditations are more pressingly related to that Calvinist theology which Mersenne's refutation of the “Poëte Calvino-déiste” shows to have been a live issue at the time. In confronting these spirits, Descartes was standing up to the most extreme contemporaneous threat to the autonomy he wished to assert: he was in effect confronting the God of the Calvinists.

There are several good reasons why a young man who wished to establish a secure and metaphysically-grounded method of discovering the truth should have found himself engaged in such a confrontation. Politically speaking, Calvinism may have been a spent force in France by 1619, but it continued to pose an intellectual challenge as a persuasive explanation of the relationship between an omnipotent and omniscient deity and a creation which is somehow distinct from him.

The insistence on the complete and uncompromised sovereignty of God's will which is one of the distinguishing features of Calvin's theology entails a rejection of the autonomy of created beings, the possibility of free-will, and the very notion of contingency, as derogations from the majesty of the Creator.57 The ethical consequences of this doctrine are disturbing: God's will, according to Calvin, is the active cause of every event or action, either good or evil; and God foreknows who will be damned and saved for the very good reason that he has willed it from all eternity. This judgment actualizes itself in humans, through divine grace or the lack of it, in the form of the individual's self-validating conviction (which amounts either to faith or to despair) with respect to his or her eternal destination.

Calvin can avoid the conclusion that God is evil (a conclusion drawn by the poet whom Mersenne took such pains to refute in L'impiété des déistes) only by asserting God's utter incomprehensibility. He distinguishes repeatedly between the inscrutable reality and the accommodated forms in which the divinity typically represents himself to humankind. But accommodation, a trope of mediation between the human knower and the unknowable, is also one which invests with an aura of the fictive the divinely-authored discourses to which it is applied, making them fables as well as vehicles of—here one needs inverted commas or scare quotes—of 'truth.' As a result, the attributes ascribed by God to himself are deprived of any distinct meaning, since they correspond neither to the incomprehensible divine reality nor to human realities (God's justice and human justice, to take one example, are said to be incommensurable).58

In effect, contingency is displaced by this theology from the phenomenal to a transcendental realm—where it assumes the alarming form of a divine will which the faithful will term inscrutable, but which others (at their own risk) may prefer to call arbitrary and capricious. This divine will empties the concept of natural law: according to Calvin, the sun rises each day by God's command alone (Calvin, 1960, I. xvi. 2), and “not even an abundance of bread would benefit us in the slightest unless it were divinely turned into nourishment” (Calvin, 1960, 2: 909 [III. xx. 44]). The system of nature serves to confirm that state of condemnation which is the common lot of all except those who receive the arbitrary gift of divine grace: “The purpose of natural law,” Calvin writes, “... is to render man inexcusable” (Calvin, 1960, 1: 282 [II. ii. 22]). The problem posed on the ethical level by a deity who cannot reliably be distinguished from the evil spirits who are among his agents thus appears to resurface on the epistemic level: the natural world is as much a structure of entrapment as it is an object of knowledge, and any sense that it is bound by law is subverted by assertions that the divine will which in every respect controls it is itself both unconstrained and unintelligible.

In his Second Meditation, Descartes determines that whatever the efforts of the evil genius, “without doubt I exist also if he deceives me”—from which it follows “that this proposition: I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time that I pronounce it, or that I mentally conceive it” (Descartes, 1973, 1: 150; cf. Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 183, 415-16). But this position of decipior sive cogito, ergo sum is separated by a wide chasm from the assurance that such a reflexive self-recognition can provide a criterion of certainty from which other truths can be deduced. Descartes' movement in the Meditations from the evil genius hypothesis to the assurance that God is the guarantor of truth is, in effect, an act of faith. In his reply to the second set of Objections (composed by Mersenne), he insisted that an atheist cannot possess true science: “he cannot be sure that he is not deceived in the things that seem most evident to him...; and though perchance the doubt does not occur to him … he can never be safe from it unless he first recognizes the existence of a God” (Descartes, 1973, 2: 39; cf. Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 565).

To Mersenne's remark that the Scriptures themselves indicate that God may sometimes deceive us, Descartes responded with an intriguingly duplicitous use of the trope of accommodation. “Everyone,” he says, “knows the distinction between those modes of speaking about God which are commonly used in the Scriptures, and which are accommodated to the vulgar understanding (ad vulgi sensum accommodatos)..., and those others which express a more naked truth (magis nudam veritatem)..., and which everyone should use in philosophy...” (Descartes, 1974, 7: 142; cf. Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 566-67). Yet having thus dismissed inconvenient scriptural passages as irrelevant, on the grounds that philosophy should concern itself with the underlying verity rather than with accommodated representations of God, he then refuses even to consider the possibility that what we perceive as true may appear false to God or to an angel, and thus, as an accommodated representation, be relatively true but, in absolute terms, false. “Why should we be bothered with this absolute falsity, since we neither believe in it nor even suspect its existence? We have assumed a conviction or persuasion so strong that nothing can remove it, and this is clearly the same thing as perfect certitude” (Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 569-70). Scepticism is thus vanquished, not by necessary arguments, but by an irresistible subjective conviction that is objectively self-validating.

A suspicion that there is something reminiscent of Calvinism both in Descartes' evil genius and in his intuitionism can draw support from R. H. Popkin's assertion of structural parallels between the arguments of the Meditations and Calvin's understanding of the nature of religious knowledge. In Popkin's words, “The same mental event in which [the Calvinist] gains his assurance somehow transcends itself and reveals to him God, the source of the event, who then guarantees that the content of the event, the religious truths, are not only personal beliefs, but also truths that He has ordained.” In an analogous way, “The cogito leads us to the rule of truth, the rule to God, and God provides the objective assurance of our subjective certitude. Having started on the way to truth by experiencing the illumination of the cogito, one ends by realizing that the indubitability of all clear and distinct ideas is not only a psychological fact that one accepts and lives with, but is a God-ordained fact, and hence objectively true” (Popkin, 190-91).

However, the analogy is not complete, for Descartes' act of faith follows, not the Calvinist's admission of total helplessness, but rather a proclamation of irreducible autonomy. He does not throw himself upon God's mercy; rather, he demonstrates that even the evil genius whom in the First Meditation he substitutes for the notion of a possibly deceptive deity could not deprive him of one basic truth—and his defiance of this demon is a kind of exorcism.

The dreams of November 1619 contained a similar element of exorcism. Unhappy consciences, Calvin wrote, “find no rest from being troubled and tossed by a terrible whirlwind...” (Calvin, 1960, 2: 1007-08 [III. xxv. 12). But Descartes' willed fulfilment of a Hermetic paradigm of regeneration enabled him to confront and to transcend a similar challenge to his autonomy: having resisted the wind which spun him around like a top, he was granted a revelation by the Spirit of Truth.

Appropriately enough, given Descartes' interest in fables, this interweaving of motifs derived from Hermetism and from Calvinism is itself anticipated by the culminative Renaissance version of a fable which originated in the sixteenth century (and which in its canonical post-Enlightenment versions has become a vehicle for explorations of the dilemmas of subjectivity in the modern era). I refer to the legend of Faustus, which Descartes could have encountered in his youth in Palma Cayet's French translation of the German Faustbook—and, in particular, to Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, a play which Descartes is most unlikely to have encountered in any form.

Marlowe's Faustus proclaims his affiliations in the first scene of the play when he expresses his desire to be “as cunning as Agrippa was, / Whose shadowes made all Europe honor him” (Marlowe, 1968, A: 150-51).59 In what might seem to be an exaggerated anticipation of Part I of the Discourse on Method, but is more clearly a parody of Agrippa's attempted demolition of all forms of human knowledge in De vanitate, Faustus dismisses the academic disciplines he has mastered (“Philosophy is odious and obscure, / Both Law and Physicke are for pettie wits,” and “Divinitie” is “Unpleasant, harsh, contemptible and vilde” [Marlowe, 1968, A: 139-42]), and turns instead to magic, which he praises in terms reminiscent of the more enthusiastic chapters of De occulta philosophia:

O what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honor, of omnipotence
Is promised to the studious Artizan?
All things that moove betweene the quiet poles
Shalbe at my commaund.... (Marlowe, 1968, A: 83-7)

The extent to which this trajectory parallels the path that led Descartes from a rejection of “all the opinions to which I had hitherto assented” (Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 581) to a method which promises to make us “masters and possessors of nature” (Descartes, 1973, 1: 119; cf. Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 634) should not be exaggerated. This stage magician, however, confronts a challenge to his autonomy which is closely analogous to the problem of overdetermination faced by Descartes in 1619. The key moment in his turn to magic (and to the invocation of his evil genius Mephastophilis) is a passage, packed with Calvinistic overtones, in which Faustus finds in the New Testament an iron doctrine of necessity that condemns him to “everlasting death” (Marlowe, 1968, A: 76).60 Magic, which at certain points in the play acquires clear Hermetic resonances (cf. Marlowe, 1991, xlv-xlvi), is thus for Faustus a response to despair, and a despairing assertion of autonomy and self-determination: “A sound Magitian is a Demi-god, / Here tire my braines to get a Deity” (Marlowe, 1968, B: 88-89). The futility of this stance is made evident when, in the play's final scene, Faustus finds himself so thoroughly permeated by external agencies that he cannot make even the gestures of penitence:

. . . ah my God, I woulde weepe, but the divel drawes in my teares, gush foorth bloud, instead of teares, yea life and soule, Oh he stayes my tong, I would lift up my hands, but see, they hold them, they hold them. (Marlowe, 1968, A: 1416-20)

Like Descartes' dreams, the play contains a scene of reading; in this case, however, the act of reading appears to be overdetermined, and guided not by the Spirit of Truth but rather by demonic powers—a notion made explicit in lines added to the play early in the seventeenth century in which Faustus learns from his attendant spirit that even his initial dismissal of Christian theology was not an autonomous act:

'Twas I, that when thou wer't i'the way to heaven,
Damb'd up thy passage, when thou took'st the booke,
To view the Scriptures, then I turn'd the leaves
And led thine eye. (Marlowe, 1968, B: 1989-92)

Even if he never encountered any form of this fable, Descartes might be said to have effectively revised it: confronting the manipulations of his evil spirit at the beginning of his itinerary, he subsequently integrated them into an argument designed to provide a firm metaphysical footing for an autonomous subjectivity.

However, his contemporaries, among them Meric Casaubon, son of the Isaac Casaubon who in 1614 had dated the Hermetica, were not uniformly impressed with the resulting rationalism.61 In A Treatise Concerning Enthusiasme (1655), Meric Casaubon ranked Descartes' philosophy with the “Mysticall Theology” of Numa Pompilius and Minos, who, “to make their law received as oracles, did their best to perswade, that they did not come by them as other men did theirs, but that they were the fruits of Caves and darknesse...” (Casaubon, 172-73; qtd. in Spiller, 19-20). And in an unpublished text written in the late 1660s—a quarter-century still before the publication of Baillet's biography revealed the details of Descartes' meditations in November 1619—the younger Casaubon returned to the attack: “... for his Method: I took him for one whome excessive pride and self-conceit (which doth happen unto many) had absolutly bereaved of his witts.... A cracked brain man, an Enthusiast … I took him to be...” (Spiller, 21). Meric Casaubon's writings do not, on the whole, give evidence of unusual perspicuity. But in recognizing Descartes' method as a product of 'enthusiasm,' he had identified a feature of it that has been largely neglected by modern readers of the Discourse on Method and the Meditations.

Casaubon's contemptuous identification of 'enthusiasm' with folly or madness (the latter deprived, quite clearly, of the heroic resonances given it by Ficino and other Renaissance interpreters of Plato) is very much a reflex of his time—which was the time, also, of Butler's Hudibras and of Henry More's polemics against 'enthusiasm.' But another more interesting and less dismissive understanding of the relation between reason and madness in the philosophy of Descartes has recently become available. I am thinking, again, of Jacques Derrida—this time of the well-known essay “Cogito and the History of Madness,” in which he has this to say of Descartes' Evil Genius hypothesis and its resolution in the 'cogito':

The hyperbolical audacity of the Cartesian Cogito, its mad audacity, which we perhaps no longer perceive as such because, unlike Descartes' contemporary, we are too well assured of ourselves and too well accustomed to the framework of the Cogito, rather than to the critical experience of it—its mad audacity would consist in the return to an original point which no longer belongs to either a determined reason or a determined unreason, no longer belongs to them as opposition or alternative. Whether I am mad or not, Cogito, sum .... for even if the totality of what I think is imbued with falsehood or madness, even if the totality of the world does not exist, even if nonmeaning has invaded the totality of the world, up to and including the very contents of my thought, I still think, I am while I think. Even if I do not in fact grasp the totality, if I neither understand nor embrace it, I still formulate the project of doing so, and this project is meaningful in such a way that it can be defined only in relation to a precomprehension of the infinite and undetermined totality. This is why, by virtue of this margin of the possible, the principled, and the meaningful, which exceeds all that is real, factual, and existent, this project is mad, and acknowledges madness as its liberty and its very possibility. (Derrida, 1978, 56)

Despite my invocation of Derrida at the beginning and end of this essay, it should be apparent that the itinerary of this essay is not a Derridean one. For that philosopher, though claiming to locate “the very historicity of philosophy” in what he describes as a dialogue between hyperbole of the kind exemplified by the Cogito and “determined historical structures,” at the same time maintains that the Cartesian hyperbole “cannot be enclosed in a factual and determined historical structure, for it is the project of exceeding every finite and determined totality” (Derrida, 1978, 60).

My argument is a quite different one. For while in identifying the indebtedness of this dreamer's path to the discourses of Hermetism and of Calvinism I would not want to obscure the sense in which his thinking remains (to borrow the words of Walter Benjamin) “a leap in the open air of history” (Benjamin, 1973, 263), I hope to have shown that it is most precisely in the pivotal hyperbolic gestures of his thought that Descartes makes manifest his participation in a particular historical moment.

It is only, I think, in historical terms that one can begin to appreciate the multiple ironies of the Cartesian itinerary. A century before Descartes, the magus Cornelius Agrippa hoped all his life for a miraculous illumination that he never received; nor did Michel de Montaigne claim to have received the illumination that he thought possible. Descartes, however, had in 1619 rendered his mind “bare and naked”—and had indeed received from above a guarantee of truth and certainty. A fitting reward, presumably, for his belief that the writings of poets, since they are inspired by enthusiasm and the force of imagination, contain profounder thoughts than those of the philosophers.





1 In quoting from Renaissance and seventeenth-century sources, I have modernized u/v and i/j, but have not altered spellings in any other way.

2 Derrida remarks that “there is always a moment in [Heidegger's] analysis when, more or less furtively, discretely, he discloses before Descartes—notably in Plato rather than in Aristotle, but in the Greeks at any rate, the beginnings of this Verstellung, this disfiguration” (46). Derrida would of course object to the notion that any secure point of origin can ever be identified.

3 On Ramus and Agricola see Ong. Ramus was no doubt familiar with Lefèvre's Introductio in Ethicen Aristotelis (Paris, 1525), which begins (sig. a.ijr-v) with a table of dichotomized virtues and vices, states of mind etc., each of which is then treated in three sections: a definition, a sequence of quaestiones, and answers to these (elementa).

4 In addition to a directly methodological indebtedness, one might suggest that Descartes would have found resonances with the 1619 experience discussed in this essay in a passage like the following, from Galileo's The Assayer (1623): “that [philosopher] will indeed be fortunate who, led by some unusual inner light, can turn from dark and confused labyrinths in which he might have gone perpetually winding with the crowd . . .” (Galileo 240). The thinking of Zabarella may also have reached Descartes through other channels: see for example Alister McGrath's suggestive remarks on the influence of Zabarella on Théodore de Bèze's systematizing of Calvin's theology (McGrath 191-95).

5 Ascribing this text to Descartes' Experimenta manuscript, Gouhier identifies it as the experiential basis of the dream-narrative in the Olympica manuscript, according to which Descartes awoke for the third and final time while meditating on the poem of Ausonius beginning “Quod vitae sectabor iter?” Gouhier argues that the further removed in time anything in the narrative is from this waking moment, the more completely it is a retrospective reconstruction rather than an account of any actual dream-experience (Gouhier, 32-41). Resting as it does upon the assumption that the words in question are Descartes' rather than Leibniz's, this argument scarcely justifies Gouhier's reference in inverted commas to “les 'songes' de Descartes.” Even if the words are Descartes', it is not evident to me why one part of an autobiographical text should be privileged as being somehow less a retrospective reconstruction than all the rest of it.

6 Leibniz's Latin original: “Cartesius diu Flexiae in collegio Jesuitarum studiis operam dedit, juvenisque emendandae Philosophiae consilium cepit post somnia quaedam et illud Ausonii diu expensum: quod vitae sectabor iter?”

7 'Enthusiasm here carries a sense close to that of 'divine inzpirtion.' See Henry More, Enthusiasmus triumphatis, sect. II (More, 1: sig.s4v). My quotations in English from Descartes' writings are, where possible, based upon the translation of Haldane and Ross (Descartes, 1973)--although in places where this translaton seems to me inaccurate, I have not hesitated to modify it. Page references are in most cases given to the Latin and/or French texts in the editions of Adam and Tannery (Descartes, 1974) or of Alquié (Descartes, 1963-73).

8 Baillet's French: “.... il n'eut pas moins à souffrir, que s'il eût été question de se dépouiller de soy-même. Il crût pourtant en être venu à bout. Et à dire vrai, c'étoit assez que son imagination lui présentât son esprit tout nud, pour lui faire croire qu'il l'avoit mis effectivement dans cét état. Il ne lui restoit que l'amour de la Vérité.... Ce fut la matiére unique des tourmens qu'il fit souffrir à son esprit pour lors.... La recherche qu'il voulut faire de ces moiens, jetta son esprit dans de violentes agitations.... Il le fatigua de telle sorte, que le feu lui prît au cerveau, & qu'il tomba dans une espéce d'enthousiasme, qui disposa de telle manière son esprit déjà abatu, qu'il le mit en état de recevoir les impressions des songes & des visions.” Baillet does not indicate any textual source for these statements. For a discussion of the problems raised by the fact that Descartes' Olympica survives only in a few fragments, and in Baillet's paraphrase and commentary, see Moyal.

9 Baillet's French: “Il ajoute que le Génie qui excitoit en luy l'enthousiasme dont il se sentoit le cerveau échauffé depuis quelques jours, luy avoit prédit ces songes avant que se mettre au lit, & que l'esprit humain n'y avoit aucune part.”

10 Baillet wrote as follows: “Etant honteux de marcher de la sorte, il fit un effort pour se redresser; mais il sentit un vent impétueux qui, l'emportant dans une espéce de tourbillon, lui fit faire trois ou quatre tours sur le pied gauche. Ce ne fut pas encore ce qui l'épouvanta. La difficulté qu'il avoit de se traîner, faisoit qu'il croioit tomber à chaque pas, jusqu'à ce qu'ayant apperçu un collége ouvert sur son chemin, il entra dedans pour y trouver une retraite, & un reméde à son mal. Il tâcha de gagner l'Eglise du collége, où sa prémiére pensée étoit d'aller faire sa priére; mais s'étant apperçu qu'il avoit passé un homme de sa connoissance sans le saluër, il voulut retourner sur ses pas pour lui faire civilité, & il fut repoussé avec violence par le vent qui souffloit contre l'Eglise.” The dreamer's terror might have been inspired by the fact that he found himself scarcely able to stagger along, but given that he was a young man with philosophical ambitions, it was more probably prompted by the paradox with which the episode of his turn towards the college church culminates.

11 See Gouhier, 11-17, for an analysis of the relations between the Olympica manuscript and the texts preserved in Leibniz's copy under the title Cogitationes privatae.

12 Baillet's French: “Il se réveilla..., & il sentit à l'heure même une douleur effective, qui lui fit craindre que ce ne fût l'opération de quelque mauvais génie qui l'auroit voulu séduire. […. ] Le vent qui le poussoit vers l'Eglise du collège, lorsqu'il avoit mal au coté droit, n'étoit autre chose que le mauvais Génie qui tâchoit de le jetter par force dans un lieu, òu son dessein étoit d'aller volontairement. C'est pourquoy Dieu ne permit pas qu'il avançât plus loin, & qu'il se laissât emporter, même en un lieu saint, par un Esprit qu'il n'avoit pas envoyé: quoy qu'il fût trés-persuadé que c'eût été l'Esprit de Dieu qui luy avoit fait faire les prémiéres démarches vers cette Eglise.”

13 Baillet's French: “... il crût entendre un bruit aigu & éclatant, qu'il prit pour un coup de tonnére. La frayeur qu'il en eut, le réveilla sur l'heure même; et ayant ouvert les yeux, il apperçût beaucoup d'étincelles de feu répandües par la chambre. […. ] L'épouvante dont il fut frappé dans le second songe, marquoit, à son sens, sa syndérêse, c'est-à-dire, les remords de sa conscience touchant les péchez qu'il pouvoit avoir commis pendant le cours de sa vie jusqu'alors. La foudre dont il entendit l'éclat, étoit le signal de l'Esprit de Vérité qui descendoit sur luy pour le posséder.” A connection between sparks and synderesis appears to be traditional. Meister Eckhart wrote as follows about the parable in Luke 14: 16-17 of the man who prepared a great feast and sent his servant to invite his friends: “It seems to me that this servant is the spark of the soul [daz vünkelin der sele], which is created by God and inserted [into the soul] as a light from above. It is an image of divine nature, contantly opposed to everything that is not of God. But it is not a power of the soul.... It is called a synteresis, and that designates both a connection [with God] and an aversion [from all that is not God]. It has two activities. The one is bitter combat against every impurity. The other is constant attraction to what is good” (qtd. from Ozment, 7).

14 Baillet's French: “Il jugea que le Dictionnaire ne vouloit dire autre chose que toutes les Sciences ramassées ensemble; & que le Recueil de Poësies, intitulé Corpus poëtarum, marquoit en particulier, & d'une maniére plus distincte, la Philosophie & la Sagesse jointes ensemble. [… ] Voyant que l'application de toutes ces choses réüssissoit si bien à son gré, il fut assez hardi pour se persuader que c'étoit l'Esprit de Vérité qui avoit voulu lui ouvrir les trésors de toutes les sciences par ce songe."

15 Jacques Maritain followed G. Milhaud in rejecting Baillet's interpretation of the mirabilis scientia and proposing that “the plenitude of enthusiasm, the dream and the discovery are but one and the same event” (Maritain, 189n.). Most interpreters, however, associate the mirabilis scientia with the method, and regard the dreams as an authentication of meditations which preceded them. See, for example, Schuster, 83-84 n. 32, 87 n. 64.

16 Descartes' allusion to Archimedes occurs at the beginning of the Second Meditation (Descartes, 1973, 1: 149). The Regulae or Rules presumably antedate the precise formulation of these arguments; they show, nonetheless, that he had already worked out some of their elements. Consider his first example of an intellectual intuition: “... each individual can mentally have intuition of the fact that he exists, and that he thinks” (Rule 3; Descartes, 1973, 1: 7). In Rule 12 he writes that “If Socrates says he doubts everything, it follows necessarily that he knows this at least—that he doubts”; and he presents the following propositions as necessary rather than contingent: “'I exist, therefore God exists' … 'I know, therefore I have a mind distinct from my body'” (Descartes, 1973, 1: 43).

17 Descartes writes: “But, like a man who walks alone and in darkness, I resolved to go so slowly, and to use so much circumspection in all things, that even if I advanced only very little, I would at least take care not to fall” (Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 584). As Georges Poulet observed, “toute cette seconde partie du Discours est, sans que Descartes y fit formellement mention du songe, remplie de l'expérience même que le songe lui communiqua” (Poulet 24).

18 The French text: “... je vous avertis que ces doutes, qui vous ont fait peur à l'abord, sont comme des fantômes et vaines images, qui paraissent la nuit à la faveur d'une lumière débile et incertaine: si vous les fuyez, votre crainte vous suivra; mais si vous approchez comme pour les toucher, vous découvrirez que ce n'est rien, que de l'air et de l'ombre, et en serez à l'avenir plus assuré en pareille rencontre.”

19 See Descartes, 1974, 10: 193-200, 214; also Yates, 1975.

20 Vanini combined the Aristotelianism of Averroes and Pomponazzi with the naturalistic philosophy of Cardano and Telesio. On the burnings of sorcerers at this time, see Lenoble, 30 ff. For the man burned at Moulins, see Mersenne, 1932, 51 n3.

21 “[L]e pesant ioug de la superstition” is Garasse's own phrase. Two further books by Garasse, published in 1624 and 1625, repeated and expanded his vituperations, but also brought on a crushing counter-attack by the Jansenist theologian Saint-Cyran which resulted in the condemnation of Garasse's “buffooneries” by the Sorbonne in 1626. See Popkin, 111-15.

22 The wording of Mersenne's pun on Fludd's name (the Latinized form of which was De Fluctibus) is “brevibus submergendum fluctibus aeternis.”

23 I have quoted from the title of Ch. xx: Auquel il est monstré que nos actions ne suivent pas l'absolu vouloir de Dieu....” On p. 539 Mersenne writes, “Pour moy je croy que cet homme a esté Calviniste...”; on p. 580, after attacking the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, he refers to him as “ce Poëte Calvino-déiste.”

24 Mersenne, 1624, 517 (ch. xviii): “... la volonté de Dieu n'est point cause de nos pechez, mais nous tous seuls: … sa prescience, & sa volonté, aussi bien que ses loix, & toutes ses oeuvres ne prejudicient en rien à nostre liberté....”

25 This is in fact the Sceptic's characterization of alchemy: “On diroit à vous ouyr parler, que vostre Alchymie seroit capable de restaurer tout le monde, & faire évanouyr les tenebres de l'ignorance par quelque éclat extraordinaire....”

26 What Florio translates as “bare and naked” is “nu et vide” in Montaigne's text (see Montaigne, 1965, 2: 226).

27 For Calvin's denunciation of Agrippa and other Lucianici homines,” see De scandalis, in Calvin, 1552, sig. Ccc2-3; and for analyses of Agrippa's ironies and libertine tendencies, Korkowski, 594-607, and Wirth, 609-13. On Agrippa's relation to the 'radical reformers,' see Zambelli, 1969 and 1976. De vanitate has often been discussed as an early instance of sixteenth-century scepticism; R. H. Popkin in surveying these discussions finds the work to be an instance less of scepticism than of “fundamentalist anti-intellectualism” (Popkin, 24); Backus argues for different reasons that the term 'sceptic' is inappropriate. But neither Popkin nor Backus takes any notice of Ch. 7 of De vanitate, where there is a brief but coherent argument to the effect that our senses are often deceived and cannot in any case “attaine to the intellectual nature, and the causes of the inferiour things,” from which it follows that “al these derivations and sciences, which are fast rooted in the senses shalbe uncertaine, erroneous, and deceiptful...” (Agrippa, 1974, 49).

28 See Gouhier, 114, and Graesse, 1: 45.

29 Thevet's French: “Et, pleut à Dieu, que tout seul il se fust noyé en ce goulfre d'impieté, auiourd'huy nous n'aurions un tas d'Athees, de mesdisans & brocardeurs, comme ce siecle les nous a produict.... Pour la Magie & Atheisme Agrippa en a esclos une infinité de formillieres....”

30 Agrippa's Latin reads as follows: “Hoc autem admonere vos oportet, hanc artem ad pompam ingenii & doctrinae ostentationem potius, quàm ad comparandam eruditionem valere, ac longè plus habere audaciae, quàm efficaciae” (Agrippa, 1970, 2: 40).

31 The expression is Henri Gouhier's; see Gouhier, 150-57.

32 For the evidence that the young Descartes had read Porta, see Gouhier, 112-13. The natural magic of optical illusions could be used to demystify commonly accepted superstitions: thus Vanini had proposed in his De admirandis naturae deaeque (1616) that stories of angelic apparitions could be accounted for by mirrors; see Mersenne, 1623, cols. 475-8, 500-37, and Hine, 167-70. On Descartes' allusion to the dove of Archytas, see Descartes, 1974, 10: 232.

33 Agrippa, 1970, 2: 299-300 (cap. C): “DEUS enim solus fontem veritatis continet, a quo haurire necesse est qui vera dogmata cupit, cum nulla sit nec haberi possit de secretis naturae, de substantiis separatis, deque ipsorum authore Deo scientia, nisi divinitus revelata: divina enim humanis viribus non tanguntur, & naturalia quovis momento sensum effugiunt....” 'Separate substances' means spirits or intelligences. On that Hermetic illuminism which is the basis of Agrippa's understanding both of the highest forms of magic and of the Christian religion, see my article “Agrippa's Dilemma” (Keefer, 1988a).

34 Compare Agrippa, 1970, 1: 735: “Transitus de communi hominum vita, ad vitam magicam, non est alius nisi de cadem vita dormientem ad eandem vitam vigilantem.”

35 Cf. Agrippa, 1970, 1: 719, 711. The reference in aphorism 12 is to Romans 1: 18-23 and to the 'Hermetic apocalypse' in the Asclepius—for the text of which see Hermes, 1960, 2: 326 ff., and Hermes, 1992, 81-83.

36 For detailed discussions of the genre of Descartes' dreams in terms of the classical tradition of dream-interpretation, see Browne and Wagner.

37 In the first two chapters of L'impiété des déistes Mersenne is clearly appropriating for his own uses that discourse on human power and dignity one of the major sources of which was the Hermetic Asclepius; the speaker in his dialogue who delivers this declamation is “Aesculape.” On p. 140 Mersenne refers the reader to Steuchus—who devoted the major part of I. viii-x, xxiii-xxvi, II. xvii, and X. x of his De perenni philosophia to expounding Hermetic texts; in I. x he writes: “Is ut apparet fuit fons Graecae Philosophiae, inde Theologiam hauserunt”; and in X. x: “Mercurius Trismegistus vetustissimus fons, unde manavit Graecorum Theologia...” (Steuchus, 21, 577). As Mersenne was well aware, Steuchus was also an unimpeachably orthodox Counter-Reformation polemicist whose other books include Pro religione christiana adversus Lutheranos (1530) and Contra Laurentium Vallam, de falsa donatione Constantini, libri duo (1547): see Delph, 104-36.

38 For indications of the range of writings in which the young Descartes could have encountered similarly laudatory references to Hermes, see Yates, 1964, Marcel, and Dronke. On the Hermetic writings, see Festugière, Fowden, and Copenhaver's very useful bibliography in Hermes, 1992.

39 Hermes, 1532, sig. A6: “Cum de rerum natura cogitarem, ac mentis aciem ad superna erigerem, sopitis iam corporis sensibus, quemadmodum accidere solet iis, qui ob saturitatem vel defatigationem somno gravati, sunt: subito mihi visus sum cernere quendam immensa magnitudine corporis, qui me nomine vocans, in hunc modum clamaret: Quid est ô Mercuri, quod et audire & intueri desideras? quid est quod discere atque intelligere cupis? Tum ego: Quisnam es inquam? Sum inquit ille Pymander, mens divinae potentiae, ac tu vide quid velis, ipse vero tibi ubique adero. Cupio inquam rerum naturam discere, deumque cognoscere.” Rather than quoting from Cophenhaver's excellent translation (Hermes, 1992), which is made from the Greek texts of the Hermetica and draws upon the best contemporary scholarship, I have preferred to use Ficino's Latin translation, which was the most widely available version of the Hermetica during the period with which I am concerned.

40 The Latin of Ficino's translation: “Morum ociosus habitus daemoni conceditur atque dimittitur. Sensus corporei partes animae facti, suos in fontes refluunt....” The daemon alluded to here is presumably the avenger mentioned several sentences previously by Pimander (sig. B2v): “Contra ab ignaris, improbis, ignavis, invidis, iniquis, homicidis, impiis, procul admodum habito, permittens eos daemonis ultoris arbitrio, qui ignis acumen incutiens, sensus affligit....”

41 Ficino's Latin: “O populi viri terrigenae, qui vosmetipsos ebrietati, somno, & ignorantiae dedidistis, sobrii vivite, abstinete a ventris luxu vos, qui irrationali somno demulcti estis” (sig. B3v). “Demum qui seipsum recognovit, bonum quod est super essentiam consecutus est. Qui vero corpus amoris errore complectebatur, is oberrabat in tenebris mortis mala sensu percipiens” (sig. Bv).

42 “Ego autem Pymandri beneficium inscripsi penetralibus animi, atque adeptus quae petieram omnia in gaudio requievi: Corporis enim somnus animi sobrietas extiterat. Oculorum compressio verus intuitus. Silentium meum bonitatis foecunda praegnatio. Sermonis prolatio bonorum omnium genitura.”

43 “Ecce iam paratus sum pater, a mente mea mundi deceptiones excussi.”

44 “Cernis me oculi fili? Quando vero meditaris intentus corpore atque aspectu, non oculis hisce videro. TAT. In furorem me insanumque mentis oestrum ô pater nimium concitasti, in praesentiarum meipsum haud video. TRIS. Utinam fili charissime tu quoque teipsum dormiens transcurrisses, instar eorum qui in somno insomniis occupantur.”

45 “TAT. Dicage quis erit regenerationis autor? TRIS. Dei filius, homo unius voluntate dei.” Passages like this encouraged Renaissance readers to accept Hermes as a pagan prophet of the coming of Christ.

46 “TAT. … Quid ergo verum Trismegiste? TRIS. Quod non perturbatum, non determinatum, non coloratum, non figuratum, non concisum, nudum, perspicuum, à seipso comprehensibile, intransmutabile, bonum, ac penitus incorporeum.” Sig. G5: “TRIS. Absit hoc ô fili: recurre in teipsum, & consequeris: velis, ac fiet: purga sensus corporis, solve te ab irrationabilibus materiae ipsius ultoribus.”

47 “Quicunque igitur propter benignitatem generationis, quae secundum deum est, sensum dimittit corporeum, seipsum cognoscit ex divinis compositum, factusque indeclivis divina potentia tota mente laetatur. TAT. O pater concipio, non oculorum intuitu, sed actu mentis, qui per vires intimas exercentur. In coelo sum, in terra, in aqua, in aëre, in animalibus sum, in arboribus, in corpore, ante corpus, atque post corpus, & ubique.”

48 “TAT. Eia pater universum video, meipsum in mente conspicio. TRIS. At haec est regeneratio fili, non adesse ulterius corpori quantitate dimenso.”

49 In 1630 Mersenne made use of Casaubon's demolition of Hermes in his controversy with Fludd; his earlier writings show no awareness of Casaubon's work (Yates, 1964, 434-40).

50 In the French text (Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 412) this last paragraph is divided into two paragraphs.

51 “TRIS. … cur digni morte sint ii qui in morte iacent? PYM. Quia praecessit proprio corpori tristis umbra, ex hac quidem natura humida, ex hac vero corpus in mundo sensibili constitit....” In the vision of the cosmogonic process with which this text begins (sig. A6v), an “umbra quaedam horrenda” turns into the “natura humida,” with great effects of son et lumière. In the “dialogus decimitertius” Hermes exhorts his disciple: “... purga sensus corporis, solve te ab irrationabilibus materiae ipsius ultoribus” (sig. G5).

52 The translation offered here is largely based on that of Haldane and Ross in Descartes, 1973, 1: 148-49.

53 “Homo igitur harmonia superior extitit: in harmoniam vero lapsus, periclitatus, servus effectus est. Hic utriusque sexus foecunditate munitus ab eo qui amborum sexuum fons est, vigilque factus ab eo qui est vigilans, continetur, atque eius dominationi subjicitur.” Sig. B3v: “O populi viri terrigenae, qui vosmetipsos ebrietati, somno, & ignorantiae dedidistis, sobrii vivite, abstinete a ventris luxu vos, qui irrationali somno demulcti estis.... Revocate iam vosmet, qui laboratis inopia, ignorantiae tenebris involuti.”

54 For the metaphor of a pre-existent path, see Discours, III (Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 594, 598); the notion of building a new road appears in Part II, where the idea is said to be inapplicable to “la réformation des moindres choses qui touchent le public” (Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 582).

55 Garasse, 1: 56: “Jamais Platon n'avança plus belle maxime que celle par laquelle il dit qu'il n'y a partage au monde si bien faict que celuy des Esprits, d'autant, dit-il, que tous les hommes en pensent avoir assez, il n'y a si pauvre idiot qui ne s'en contente....” Compare Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 568.

56 See Gregory, and the works by other scholars, especially H. G. Frankfurt, R. Kennington, and G. Rodis-Lewis, which are cited in his article.

57 Calvin's view of divine sovereignty and of its consequences with respect to contingency, free-will and human autonomy is set forth in Calvin 1960, 1: 197-217 (I. xvi.1-9, I. xvii.1-5). On free-will, see further II. ii.1-11, II. ii. 26-7, II. iii. 5, II. v.1-19. On the primacy of the divine will, see III. xxiii. 6. In these remarks on Calvin I am drawing upon my essay “Accommodation and Synecdoche” (Keefer 1988b).

58 For instances of Calvin's reliance on the notion of accommodation, see Calvin, 1960, I. xi. 2-3, I. xiv. 3, I. xvii.12-13, II. xi.13, II. xvi. 2. The notion is also implicit in I. xvi. 9 and III. xviii. 9. David Hume was to write, with obvious reference to Calvinism: “The Deity, I can readily allow, possesses many powers and attributes, of which we can have no comprehension: But if our ideas, so far as they go, be not just and adequate, and correspondent to his real nature, I know not what there is in this subject worth insisting on. Is the name, without any meaning, of such mighty importance?” (Hume, 158).

59 Quotations from this play are identified by the text cited (A refers to the text of 1604, and B to that of 1616) and by line numbers. The “shadowes” alluded to in A: 151 are usually taken to refer to the spirits of the dead raised in necromancy.

60 For analyses of the interweaving of Hermetic and Calvinistic motifs in this play, see Keefer, 1985-86 and 1987, and Marlowe, 1991, xlv-lv, 181-211.

61 In one respect at least, the son followed in his father's footsteps: Isaac had exploded the reputation of Hermes; Meric did the same for Dr. John Dee, the English Hermetist, mathematician and magus, when in 1659 he published a large part of Dee's “spiritual diaries.”   




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McGrath, Alister. The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation. Oxford, 1987.

Mersenne, Marin. Quaestiones celeberrimae in Genesim. Paris, 1623.

----. L'impiété des déistes. Paris, 1624.

----. La vérité des sciences, contre les septiques ou Pyrrhoniens. Paris, 1625.

----. Correspondance du P. Marin Mersenne. Ed. Cornelis de Waard and René Pintard. Paris, 1932.

Montaigne, Michel de. Essais. Ed. Pierre Michel. 3 vols. Paris, 1965.

----. The Essayes of Michael Lord of Montaigne. Trans. John Florio. 3 vols. London, 1904-06.

More, Henry. A Collection of Several Philosophical Writings. 2 vols. Facsimile rpt. New York and London, 1978.

Moyal, Gabriel. “La traduction et ses interprétations: les songes de Descartes.” Texte 4 (1985): 161-76.

Naudé, Gabriel. Apologie pour tous les grands personnages qui ont esté faussement soupçonnez de magie. Paris, 1625.

Ong, Walter J. Ramus: Method and the Decay of Dialogue. Cambridge, MA, 1958.

Ozment, Stephen. Mysticism and Dissent. New Haven, 1973.

Paracelsus, Theophrastus (attrib.) Paracelsus Of the Supreme Mysteries of Nature. Trans. Robert Turner. London, 1656.

Popkin, Richard H. The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1979.

Poulet, Georges. Études sur le temps humain. Vol. 1. Paris, 1949.

Randall, John Herman. The Career of Philosophy. 2 vols. New York, 1962-70.

----. “The Development of Scientific Method in the School of Padua.” In Renaissance Essays, ed. P. O. Kristeller and P. P. Wiener, 217-51. 1968; rpt. Rochester, NY, 1992.

Schuster, John A. “Descartes' Mathesis Universalis: 1619-28.” In Stephen Gaukroger, ed., Descartes: Philosophy, Mathematics and Physics, 41-96. Brighton, 1980.

Secret, François. Les kabbalistes chrétiens de la renaissance. Paris, 1964.

Spiller, Michael R. G. “The Idol of the Stove: the Background to Swift's Criticism of Descartes.” Review of English Studies n.s. 35 (1974): 15-24.

Steuchus, Augustinus. De perenni philosophia. Lyons, 1540.

Suavius, Leo [pseud. of Jacques Gohory]. Theophrasti Paracelsi philosophiae et medicinae utriusque universae, compendium. Basle, 1568. (Qtd. by Gouhier)

Thevet, André. Les vrais pourtraits des hommes illustres. 2 vols. Paris, 1584.

Tyard, Pontus de. Deux discours de la nature du monde. Paris, 1578. (Qtd. by Walker)

Villey, Pierre. Les sources et l'évolution des Essais de Montaigne. 2nd ed. 2 vols. Paris, 1933.

Wagner, Jean-Marie. “Esquisse du cadre divinatoire des songes de Descartes.” Baroque: revue internationale 6 (1976): 81-95.

Walker, D. P. The Ancient Theology. London, 1972.

Wirth, Jean. “'Libertins et 'Epicuriens': aspects de l'irréligion au XVIe siècle.” Bibliothèque d'humanisme et renaissance 39 (1977): 601-27.

Yates, Frances A. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Chicago, 1964.

----. The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. 1972; rpt. St. Albans, 1975.

Zambelli, Paola. “Cornelio Agrippa, Erasmo e la teologia umanistica.” Rinascimento 21 (2nd series, 10; 1969): 29-88.

----. “Magic and Radical Reformation in Agrippa of Nettesheim.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 39 (1976): 69-103.



Ellis on Deconstruction: A Second Opinion

[First published in English Studies in Canada 18.1 (1992): 83-103.]


The book review section of English Studies in Canada has customarily been reserved for the evaluation of books by members of the Canadian academic literary community. The appearance in the June 1991 number of a review of John M. Ellis's Against Deconstruction would therefore seem to indicate (since Ellis is not, I think, Canadian, and does not address himself to Canadian scholars, unless as members of a larger scholarly community) that this is a book of unusual importance.

Such is indeed the reviewer's opinion. David Jeffrey, who shares Ellis's puzzlement that “the incoherence he patiently analyzes” should have acquired “such wide appeal,” describes Against Deconstruction as an “exposé of a project [Ellis] takes finally to be an insult to critical intelligence, even granted the debatable terms it proposes,” and judges it to be “so thorough-going, so cogently argued, and so patently destructive, that it seems to this reviewer either essentially unanswerable by contemporary versions of deconstruction or, at the very least, so fundamentally corrosive of their central positions that an effort to sustain them can only be at the expense of further commitment to discussion and debate” (243).

The rhetorical anticlimax of this last sentence may produce an odd effect of diminuendo (from what point of view can a commitment to discussion and debate be regarded as disabling? Could any position, sensible or otherwise, be sustained without such a commitment?).1 Yet this anticlimax also reveals a degree of openness that, given the strength of Professor Jeffrey's convictions, is surely commendable. While viewing Ellis's prosecution of deconstruction as an open-and-shut case, he has nonetheless left the door ajar.

To what end? it might be asked, if any effective rejoinder is out of the question. But perhaps, drawn by the echoes of Ellis's forensic vehemence, a flâneur—one who would count himself neither as a partisan nor as an enemy of deconstruction, yet who has strolled (not without incident) on both sides of the street2—may take this occasion to slip into the courtroom.



I re-emerge (several hours later) with disconcerting news. On one issue at least—his challenge to Jacques Derrida's critique of Saussure—John Ellis is thoroughly stimulating. And he is occasionally trenchant, as when he argues, in opposition to the practitioners of what as been called Teflon Theory, that there is “no room in [theoretical argument] ... for claims of exemption from logical scrutiny, for appeals to an undefined unique logical status, for appeals to allow obscurity to stand unanalyzed...” (1989: 159).3 One might well applaud—as Christopher Norris, one of the foremost British deconstructionists, has in a muted way already done (134-36)4—his brisk exposure of these and similar tactics of evasion.

And yet Ellis's book seems to me, on balance, neither “thorough-going” nor important. He has in effect rounded up a number of the usual suspects (some of them only very tenuously related to the writings of Jacques Derrida), and invoked against them the full penalty of the law—in the form of “theory” understood as a means of regulation and control. What “annoys everyone,” Ellis asserts, “is the flood of critical writing” that the present “randomly pluralistic” theoretical consensus permits; what will presumably please this same “everyone” is a “genuine, rather than illusory” form of theory designed to provide “some check on and control of the indigestible, chaotic flow of critical writing through reflection on what is and what is not in principle worthwhile” (1989: 156, 159).

Several questions spring at once to mind. Would it be imprudent to inquire what form of check or regulation might be envisaged for those who do not find this project of flood control, with its implications of nostalgia for a mythical status quo ante diluvium, to be itself either compelling or worthwhile? Are we to understand theory as a species of heresiology, and Ellis's Against Deconstruction as situating itself in a tradition inaugurated in the second century of this era by Irenaeus of Lyons with his treatise Against Heresies? Should exclusionary gestures of this kind be acknowledged as implicit in any description of literary studies as a “discipline,” or are other less restrictive conceptions of what we are engaged in also available? But intriguing though such questions may be, I will defer any discussion of them until later, for other, perhaps smaller, issues are more immediately pressing.

The first is a matter of Ellis's definition of his target. With all due allowances made for the elisions necessary in a short polemical book, I would like to ask how close Ellis comes to honouring his own ideal of theoretical discourse as a site where “one careful attempt to analyze and elucidate the basis of a critical concept or position is met by an equally exacting and penetrating scrutiny of its own inner logic” (1989: 159). The second overlapping issue I will consider is one of methodology. Logic is very much in play throughout Ellis's polemic, both in his contemptuous dismissal of the claim of deconstructionists to be working with a non-traditional logic and in his recurrent arguments to the effect that Derrida's positions are either intrinsically foolish or else entail absurd or self-contradictory consequences. To what extent is this dismissal justified, and how adequate is Ellis's own logic as a basis for literary-theoretical inquiry?



First, then, how carefully does Ellis define the object of his attack? There is, I believe, a wide gap between his own practice and the ideal of theoretical discourse that he advances. For although Ellis inveighs against “intellectual laziness” (1989: 135), he is not himself a very scrupulous reader. To be sure, all the signs of scrupulosity are there. In his first reference to Derrida's Of Grammatology, for example, he remarks that

I have cited the English version of the published translations of Derrida throughout this book but in each case have checked them against the original French to make sure that they do not introduce changes of emphasis that would have any significant bearing on the course of my argument. Responsibility for any distortion of the issues discussed here because of the translation is thus also my responsibility, not solely that of the translator. (1989: 18n1)

But one's faith in this admirable declaration may be shaken when, later in the same chapter, Ellis informs us that Derrida's notion of the deferral of meaning is elaborated most fully “in the essay 'Différance,' the closing chapter of his La Voix et le Phénomène (translated under the title Speech and Phenomena)” (1989: 52n44). This magisterial allusion to the French text happens to be wholly misleading. “Differance”—spelled without an accent aigu—is indeed the last essay in the book Speech and Phenomena: And Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs. But the text of which this essay is a translation is entitled “La différance”—and it does not appear in La voix et le phénomène. As the translator of Speech and Phenomena indicates in a prominently placed note that Ellis apparently did not read, “La différance” was first published in the Bulletin de la société française de philosophie 62.3 (1968), and was reprinted that same year in the collective work Théorie d'ensemble (Speech 129). (One might add that the essay subsequently appeared in Derrida's Marges de la philosophie [1972]; in the translation of that book, Margins of Philosophy, it bears the title— “Différance”—that Ellis ascribes to the French text.)

The most charitable explanation of this little gaffe would be that a scholar with an intimate knowledge of the primary texts has in this one instance made the mistake of relying on a perhaps overcharged memory. But Ellis's cavalier way with his sources may by this point already have strained the reader's generosity. In the opening pages of Chapter One, Ellis takes aim at Derrida's claim to be moving beyond the exclusionary categories of traditional logic. His tactic is not to analyze a paragraph, even, from one or another of Derrida's writings; rather, he finds it sufficient to examine a brief passage from an essay by Barbara Johnson—on the grounds that “since it takes its cues from Derrida's writings, it can claim his authority” (1989: 5). The gesture is breathtaking: one might by the same token ascribe the “authority” of Aristotle to any one of his innumerable commentators, that of St. Paul to Faustus the Manichaean—or, since Professor Ellis is a Germanist, that of Goethe and Nietzsche together to Oswald Spengler.5

When on the next page Ellis declares that “Johnson is certainly abstracting from Derrida's writings in a way that does not distort them” (1989: 6), the reader may suspect that the emphatic adverb in this sentence at once represses and reveals the first stirrings of synderesis—of a bad scholarly conscience. But Ellis's conscience does not prevent him from doing his best to give a distorted impression of one of the texts from which Johnson quotes. Many readers will feel a twinge of irritation when Derrida writes that “It is thus not simply false to say that Mallarmé is a Platonist or a Hegelian. But it is above all not true. And vice versa” (Derrida, Dissemination 207; qtd. in Ellis 1989: 6). But how should we categorize the following comments by Ellis?

Presumably, one could pursue a serious and subtle inquiry into the particular ways in which Mallarmé shares common features with, or is indebted to, Plato or Hegel and the ways in which he does not.... By the time the inquiry has been pushed to any reasonable degree of depth, the question whether Mallarmé is or is not a Platonist will begin to seem rather trite and anyone who insists on that level of generality will only seem to be interrupting and disrupting something that has gone well beyond this elementary level of analysis. Derrida's statement that it is neither true nor false to say that Mallarmé is a Platonist works only on that level of generality, and is therefore surely devoid of substantial content. (1989: 6-7)

I am tempted to call this passage dishonest. For at no point does Ellis indicate that the Derridean paradox that he cites from Barbara Johnson's essay is not simply an isolated aphorism. How many readers, then, will suspect that it is drawn from a text, “The Double Session” (Dissemination 173-286), in which for more than one hundred pages Derrida conducts what might well be described as a “serious and subtle inquiry into the particular ways in which Mallarmé shares common features with ... Plato [and] Hegel”? Is it possible that Ellis did not bother even to skim this text before sitting down to refute its author? Or is his emphatic adverb—“surely”—once again the sign of a bad conscience?

Elsewhere in Ellis's book, a different kind of carelessness is evident. In Chapter Five his principal target turns out to be American reader-response theory and neo-pragmatism, which Ellis blandly conflates with deconstruction on the grounds that their “major points are virtually the same” (1989: 113). Although there has indeed been an overlapping of these and other tendencies in North American critical practice, Jacques Derrida and Stanley Fish might well be surprised to find themselves so casually tossed into the same bucket. To be fair, one should remark that blatant misrepresentations of one's opponents are common enough in polemical writings: Jonathan Culler, for example, has found it convenient to assume that opponents of structuralism must all be practitioners of a simple-minded thematic criticism (20). Misrepresentation on this scale, however, does not sit well with Ellis's ideal of theory as an “exacting and penetrating scrutiny” (1989: 159).

Chapter Four is slipshod in a different sense. In refuting the view that “all interpretation is misinterpretation,” Ellis repeats this catch-phrase twenty-seven times in less than sixteen pages—though only once does he quote a passage by any theorist in which something resembling it occurs. (The passage in question is ten words in length.)6 One reason for this reticence may be an awareness on his part that the various more or less sceptical approaches to interpretation that this slogan reductively summarizes are by no means the exclusive property of deconstructionists.

One such approach is, I think, implicit in any cultural materialist understanding of textual transmission. Hamlet, for instance, has been effectively decontextualized by the passage of nearly four centuries; it comes to us mediated (which is also to say recontextualized) by discursive factors of which its first shapers had no inkling; and we turn to it with ideologically conditioned motivations that differ in many respects from those of its Elizabethan audiences. What, then, would it mean to claim that even the most historically scrupulous contemporary readings of this play are not also misreadings? A related sense of the conditioned and conditional nature of interpretation can be derived from post-Heideggerian hermeneutics—as when Hans-Georg Gadamer writes that according to Heidegger's description of the hermeneutical circle, “the understanding of the text remains permanently determined by the anticipatory movement of fore-understanding.... The circle, then ... describes understanding as the interplay of the movement of tradition and the movement of the interpreter” (261).

On the other hand, it is by no means evident that deconstructionists would as a group subscribe to the view that “all interpretation is misinterpretation.” Paul de Man, for example, proclaims that “Technically correct rhetorical readings may be boring, monotonous, predictable and unpleasant, but they are irrefutable.” Although with characteristic irony he complicates this declaration by adding that such readings “can rightly claim to contain within their own defective selves all the other defective models of reading-avoidance, referential, semiological, grammatical, performative, logical, or whatever,” and that they “still avoid and resist the reading they advocate” (19), his position is clearly unlike any of the ones attacked by Ellis.

It is of course Harold Bloom who most forcefully equates reading with misreading, and declares that “there are no right readings, because reading a text is necessarily the reading of a whole system of texts, and meaning is always wandering around between texts (Kabbalah 107-08). And indeed Ellis describes Bloom as “a leading advocate” of the view of interpretation he wishes to refute—a writer who, “though allied with deconstructive critics, is also an independent figure who reaches this position by his own path” (1989: 97n1). What exactly Bloom's position is Ellis does not trouble to tell us.7 Nor does he remark that Bloom's “alliance” with deconstruction is, to say the least, problematic. Bloom did in 1979 edit the book Deconstruction and Criticism, which contained essays by himself, Derrida, Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, and J. Hillis Miller, but he has since described the title as “my personal joke, which no one can ever understand: I meant that those four were deconstruction, and I was criticism.” He adds, “Nothing is more alien to me than deconstruction” (Salusinszky 68). In the same interview, Bloom clarifies his differences with this theoretical tendency by recounting a conversation with his colleague de Man:

“The trouble with you, Harold,” he would say with a smile, cupping my head in his hands and looking at me with an affection that always made me want to weep, “is that you are crazy: you do not believe in the 'troot.'” I would look at him, shake my head sadly and say:
“No, I do not believe in the 'troot' because there is no 'troot,' dear Paul. 
“There is no method: there is yourself, and you are highly idiosyncratic. 
“And you clone, my dear: I dislike what you do as a teacher, because your students are as alike as two peas in a pod.” (Salusinszky 67)

Jonathan Culler may be right to suggest that in Derrida's view of reading truth has no more than a residual or trace function: “'misreading' retains the trace of truth, because noteworthy readings involve claims to truth and because interpretation is structured by the attempt to catch what other readings have missed and misconstrued” (178). But Derrida has himself denied ever having espoused an equation of interpretation with misinterpretation. In Culler's agonistic view of interpretation one may detect more than a trace of the theories of Harold Bloom—while Derrida, rather than proclaiming misapprehension as a general principle, seems to have been concerned (most particularly in his exchange with John Searle) to argue that insofar as positive theories of linguistic apprehension have been instituted though a systematic idealization, an exclusion of so-called parasitic, deviant, transgressive, or marginal cases, they are adequate neither in theoretical terms nor as an account of actual usage. As he himself wrote (as a time when Ellis's book may already have been in press):

I do not think nor have I ever said that “any interpretation is inevitably a false interpretation, and any understanding a misunderstanding.” Why? In what way? This is what I discuss and argue at length (for I am one of those who love “arguing,” as can be seen), for instance in Sec [i.e. Signature Event Context] and in “Limited Inc....” The relation of “mis” (mis-understanding, mis-interpreting, for example) to that which is not “mis-,” is not at all that of a general law to cases, but that of a general possibility inscribed in the structure of positivity, of normality, of the “standard.” All that I recall is that this structural possibility must be taken into account when describing so-called ideal normality, or so-called just comprehension or interpretation, and that this possibility can be neither excluded nor opposed. An entirely different logic is called for. (Limited 157)

There is no reason to take a statement like this at face value: Derrida may in this passage be revising an earlier position, or he may be refusing to admit the direct implications of his own arguments. But I do not see how one could even tentatively judge such possibilities without reading those of his writings that are relevant to the matter—a labour that John Ellis, on the evidence of Against Deconstruction, would find superfluous. It is, after all, easier to refute an opponent on the basis of suppositious arguments extrapolated from reductive slogans than it would be to engage with the possibly more challenging arguments which that opponent's writings may contain.

More could be said about Ellis's distortions of deconstructive theory and practice. In Chapter Three, for example, he conflates Derrida's early practice of deploying metaphysical terms sous rature with the quite different notion (of which he cites no published instances) that deconstructive literary criticism makes a similar use of, and indeed “requires ... the literal, obvious meaning sanctioned by tradition and authority”—in the form of a unitary traditional interpretation, which is then subverted and preserved by the deconstructive reading as though “in eternal purgatory instead of being laid to rest” (1989: 74, 81). But even if one felt that deconstructive readings tended all too often (in de Man's words) to be “boring, monotonous, predictable and unpleasant”—and, moreover, far from irrefutable—it would be hard not to lose patience with shadow-boxing of this kind.



I turn therefore to the issue of logic. I have already quoted Derrida's claim that, if one wishes adequately to analyze the structural possibility of error or aberration that he sees as inscribed in the standard of the normal, “An entirely different logic is called for.” Is such a logic possible? 

John Ellis thinks not. He quotes amusingly from an essay by a deconstructive adept who, asserting that deconstruction has supplanted the “old” logic of “binary oppositions,” proceeds to “pin down the 'unclear' logic of deconstruction” by setting it in binary opposition to traditional logic: “the clearest distinction between traditionalist and deconstructive logic resides in....” Without completing the quotation, Ellis is able to comment that “binary logic is needed to characterize deconstructive logic,” and to suggest that “claims for an 'other' logic have often been too lightly made without being adequately thought through” (1989: 8-9n3).

But will such a gesture as this suffice to dispose of Jacques Derrida, or even of the Derridean whose sentence Ellis does not complete? It seems to me that two further interrelated questions need to be posed. First, is the word “logic” being deployed here in more than one sense, and if so, how significant are the differences? And second, is the relationship between a “traditional” or “binary” and a putative Derridean logic one of supersession or rather one of supplementarity?

In common usage the word “logic” occurs in a variety of senses. These range from the popular “logic of events” or “logic of facts” (where “logic” is a sign of the persuasive force of things beyond our control) to expressions like “the logic of liberalism” (where the reference is to an ideology, a particular manner of arguing or repertoire of arguments) to “Aristotelian” or “modal” or “symbolic logic” (where “logic” means a formalized system of rules that define the legitimacy of different forms of argument) and finally to a generalized recognition that any such system involves the deployment of binary structures of signification.

Let us accept that the rational mind operates in terms of binary oppositions: does it therefore follow, as Ellis seems to assume, that the binary terms with which we reason must be mutually exclusive categories, and that there can thus effectively be only one formalized logic and one way of using the word “logic”? What, one wonders, would he make of Edmund Burke's “logick of taste,” of the comment of a writer in Mind, more than a century ago, that in Germany “Logics swarm as bees in spring-time”—or indeed of one John Ellis's remark that the “alternative views of war and society” of the sixties' generation “had their own logic” (1989: 82)?

Although Ellis (who complains of “the equation of obscurity and profundity that has been readily available in European thought since Kant and Hegel”) [1989: 147]) might not like the idea, it is clearly possible to speak, as a writer for the Encyclopaedia Britannica did in 1882, of the “metaphysical logic of Hegel ..., the formal logic of Kant.”8 Why not also, then, of a “Derridean logic of supplementarity,” or a “Derridean logic of the margin”? And if the dialectic of Hegel has accustomed us to the notion that the categories of thought need not be fixed, mutually exclusive entities, but may rather be dynamically interrelated in a number of ways, can we not entertain the possibility that Derrida's attempts to provide a vocabulary with which to talk about the slippage of terms, the interpretation of categories, and the challenge posed to regulative codes by “hard cases” and parasitic or transgressive instances may permit a more accurate account of what is going on around us (and within us) than might otherwise be available?

What Derrida speaks of as “la logique de la marge” (Marges xix) does not, as I understand it, imply the same level of formalization as does “syllogistic logic” or “formal logic”—but as anyone who has wrestled with the complex meanings of Derridean terms like “tympanum” or “hymen” can attest, it is also far removed from the unformalized and ideological plane of an expression like “the logic of neo-conservatism.” In my opinion, this intermediate level of formalization does not detract either from the rigour and strenuousness of the arguments Derrida conducts or from the importance of what he is attempting. As he himself claims of the essays brought together in Margins of Philosophy:

If they appear to remain marginal to some of the great texts in the history of philosophy, these ten writings in fact ask the question of the margin. Gnawing away at the border which would make this question into a particular case, they are to blur the line which separates a text from its controlled margin. They interrogate philosophy beyond its meaning, treating it not only as a discourse but as a determined text inscribed in a general text, enclosed in the representation of its own margin. Which compels us not only to reckon with the entire logic of the margin, but also to take an entirely other reckoning: to recall, doubtless, that beyond the philosophical text there is not a white margin, virginal and empty, but another text, a weave of differences of forces without any present center of reference (“History,” “politics,” “economy,” “sexuality,” etc.: everything which was said not to be written in books...). (xxiii)9

One may want to remember that the etymology of “context” (con plus the past participle of texere, “to weave”) suggests something woven into a text that is itself, Derrida would claim, “a weave of differences.” The logic announced here thus appears to be one that would seek (among other things) to make visible within the text the traces of those exclusions and repressions by means of which it was instituted. In challenging any fixed sense of identity, this activation of context also brings into play the notion of supplementarity—and with it, another set of Derridean coinages: supplément, différance, pharmakon, parergon. Whatever one's opinion of the value of these deliberately elusive terms, the logic involved is evidently a double-edged one. The French verb suppléer means both to supplement and to supplant; and it is characteristic of Derrida's arguments that they likewise both complicate and cast doubt upon the philosophical structures that they inhabit. There may be good reasons for finding this a troubling tactic, but if this is the kind of relation in which Derrrida's texts stand to the philosophical tradition of which they are a part, I fail to see why the scholar whom Ellis mocked could not legitimately declare Derrida's logic to be one that unsettles and challenges exclusionary binary opposites, and then proceed to explain in what respects it differs from a logic that, like Ellis's, assumes the distinction between p and not-p to be settled and impermeable.10 The ensuing explanation might well be a feeble one. But what would that tell anyone but the most blatant sophist about the validity of Derrida's work?

With respect to John Ellis's own logic, I have two points to make. His arguments, first, are on occasion too elliptical to be valid. He wishes, for instance, to show that because of their supposedly unconstrained insistence on textual indeterminacy, deconstruction and reader-response criticism tend to reduce texts to “an indiscriminate, shapeless chaos of meanings” (1989: 127)—as a result of which, any identification of the specific features of a text becomes problematic. Three critical studies by a fellow-Germanist, James McGlathery—a book on E. T. A. Hoffmann, a second one on Kleist, and an article on Kafka—provide Ellis with an example of this. By McGlathery's account, Ellis says, all three writers turn out to be obsessed with “sexual guilt and unacknowledged sexual shame” (1989: 130). This, with no further analysis, prompts the comment that

By now, a judgment of this situation will be irresistible: this recurrent idea has its source in the mind of the scholar concerned, not in the work of Hoffmann, Kleist, and Kafka. That there is some overlap in the thematic concerns of different authors is not difficult to believe; but that a variety of very different writers really all have the same predominant concern is another matter. Surely, no one should pay much attention to criticism when it is, as here, clear that the ideas expressed have little to do with the writers who are the claimed subject of the criticism. (1989: 130-31)

But the one thing that is clear to me from this passage is that Ellis has not earned the right to the conclusion he draws. He has not shown that McGlathery's analyses of Hoffmann, Kleist, and Kafka are undifferentiated; indeed (as the recurrence of his emphatic “surely” may in itself be taken to indicate), he has shown nothing at all. To this I would add that the first volume of McGlathery's study of Hoffmann, the only one of his writings that I have consulted, is a sturdily documented and thoroughly traditional piece of critical scholarship in which there is not the slightest trace of deconstructive or reader-response methodology. Odder still, this book contains an acknowledgment that “as two recent studies by John M. Ellis, a British-American critic, have shown ..., there is much to be gained by a willingness to see sexual implications in the riddles posed by Hoffmann's tales...” (38).

A related weakness in Ellis's logic stems from the all too frequent recurrence in his arguments of what I would describe as a kind of logical monadism. By this I mean that he repeatedly seems ready to assume that the doctrines of Jacques Derrida must in some mysterious manner by fully present in any fragment, however small, of his writings. Ellis's second chapter, it should be said, escapes censure on these grounds: in challenging Derrida's interpretation of Saussure he quotes liberally from both of them, and the result is a forceful argument that deserves close study. But elsewhere Ellis does not put himself to equal trouble. Thus, in his first chapter, he can refute Derrida's logic on the basis of a total of thirty-three words quoted (in English) by Barbara Johnson from two separate books. Given Derrida's views on the subject of metaphysical presence, there is a mordant irony to this—an irony that can only be redoubled if one remembers how often Derrida's readers have complained that, for all his love of lapidary paradoxes, he is far from being the most concise of philosophers.

However, a further irony reflects back more distinctly upon Ellis himself. Derrida is sometimes betrayed by his very expansiveness into what seem, upon analysis, to be clearly fallacious statements. But Ellis is seldom there to catch him out: an unfortunate consequence of that recurrent reluctance to engage in serious reading that may be attributable to what I have called “logical monadism,” or that might equally well be ascribed to something Ellis says is encouraged by deconstruction and reader-response theory, although he seems to suffer from it as well—“intellectual laziness” (1989: 135).



One scholar, then, has taken a run at another (who happens to be the most frequently abused, as well as the most frequently cited theorist alive); his polemic, although it receives a glowing review in English Studies in Canada, turns out on close examination to be a rather shoddy piece of work. How important is all this? The only reasonable answer must be: Hardly at all.

And yet there may be a sense in which this little episode is symptomatic of something that should be of more than passing concern to readers of this journal. In 1988 Jacques Derrida complained that

Everywhere, in particular in the United States and in Europe, the self-declared philosophers, theoreticians, and ideologists of communication, dialogue, and consensus, of univocity and transparency, those who claim ceaselessly to reinstate the classical ethics of proof, discussion, and exchange, are most often those who excuse themselves from attentively reading and listening to the other, who demonstrate precipitation and dogmatism, and who no longer respect the elementary rules of philology and interpretation, confounding science and chatter as though they had not the slightest taste for communication or rather as though they were afraid of it, at bottom. Fear of what, at bottom? Why? That is the real question. What is going on at this moment, above all around “deconstruction,” to explain this fear and this dogmatism? Exposed to the slightest difficulty, the slightest complication, the slightest transformation of the rules, the self-declared advocates of communication denounce the absence of rules and confusion. And they allow themselves then to confuse everything in the most authoritative manner. (Limited 157-58)

I must confess that my first reaction on reading this passage three years ago was a kind of guilty pleasure. (So: the anxieties of living in a situation in which the rules of discourse are routinely transgressed have rebounded on a writer whose own “transformation of the rules” was perhaps more profound than he wished to acknowledge? Too bad!) However, this response gave way to a recognition that Derrida's complaint is justified—and not only with regard to his treatment at the hands of journalists and ideologues. It does indeed seem bizarre that reputable critics and philosophers—the examples of Howard Felperin's Beyond Deconstruction and Jürgen Habermas's Philosophical Discourse of Modernity come immediately to mind—should feel at ease with the notion of publishing extended critiques of Derrida's work in which not a single text is quoted or even named. For if one wishes to defend certain rules of evidence, certain standards of interpretation and argumentation, does it make sense to throw these same rules and standards to the wind for the sake of obtaining a merely rhetorical advantage over a particular opponent?

The Greek word kanón, meaning “rule” or “standard,” refers more strongly in Hellenistic usage to the principles governing comparison, selection, and ordering, than to any system of texts that may result from these processes. This same word also means “measuring rod”—and before that, it would seem, meant simply “rod” or “stick.” In the behaviour of scholars who cast aside the rules and standards that they themselves profess, and proceed to belabour an opponent with any old stick that lies to hand, one can, I think, identify a regression that is as much ethical as etymological.

In the text from which I have just quoted, Derrida claims to be underscoring “a situation that is unfortunately typical—and politically very serious—at a juncture that I will not hesitate to qualify as worldwide and historic; which is as much to say that its scope can hardly be exaggerated and that it deserves serious analyses” (Limited 157). Three years ago this claim seemed to me to be very precisely an exaggeration, and a self-interested one as well. But in the interim the controversy over “political correctness,” which has been simmering on American campuses for nearly a decade, has burst upon us. The same words now have a different ring.

Let us consider just one Canadian product of this controversy, the issue of Maclean's magazine that was timed to coincide with the 1991 Learned Societies Conference and carried a cover photograph of two gagged models dressed to represent academics. The integrity of the first of two stories that developed this theme can be judged by the fact that its subtitle—the declaration in block capitals that “A NEW WAVE OF REPRESSION IS SWEEPING THROUGH THE UNIVERSITIES” (Fennell 40)—was supported in the text by a list of exactly four incidents. One of these—the harassment of anthropologist Jeanne Cannizzo at the University of Toronto by activists who interpreted as racist an exhibit she had curated at the Royal Ontario Museum in 1990—seems genuinely disturbing. A second case, that of Philippe Rushton at the University of Western Ontario, is troubling in a quite different sense, insofar as it appears to suggest that what most Canadians would regard as overtly racist discourse has been found acceptable within the academic discipline of psychology.11

What remains of the “wave” would scarcely fill a teacup. It appears that feminists at Acadia University wrote to protest the reproduction in the university calendar of an Alex Colville painting that they believe dehumanizes women. The Maclean's story does not tell us whether their letter was rude or insensitive—nor in what sense Colville, who in addition to being a superb artist is also the chancellor of Acadia University, was “repressed” by it. And it appears, finally, that unidentified feminists at a Vancouver Shakespeare conference criticized the bard “for being sexist and racist” (Fennell 41). On the other hand, the murder of fourteen women in 1989 at the École Polytechnique de Montréal, on the supposition that female students at such an institution must be “feminists,” did not qualify for mention in the Maclean's story as an instance of repression within the universities. How could it, if feminists and other “politically correct” people are by definition the agents, not the victims, of repression?

The editors of Maclean's might respond to such comments, if at all, by pointing to the balanced declaration with which this article ends: “Canadians will increasingly have to occupy the middle ground—taking the most worthy ideas from the reformers, while keeping the best of the Western tradition” (Fennell 43). Setting aside the gross distortion involved in the assumption that advanced work in the human sciences is automatically opposed to “the Western tradition,” connoisseurs of journalistic balance may want to consider how much space the second cover story about the universities in this same issue of Maclean's (Jenish and Lowther) gives to statements of opinion abut “political correctness.” By my count, the article is weighted by a ratio of more than eight to one in favour of those like President Bush who want to persuade us that a monolithic leftist conspiracy is threatening free speech and deforming the study of literature and the human sciences on this continent. Perhaps it would be worth asking why, if ideologically motivated intolerance had indeed become a major problem on our campuses, exaggeration and slanted reporting on this scale should be required to make us aware of the fact.



But have I been digressing? Is an allusion to the “political correctness” furore, in which George Bush and other supposed defenders of free speech seem to be trying very hard to close down certain forms of literary-theoretical discourse (while at the same time accusing those whom they would like to intimidate and silence of McCarthyism), wholly irrelevant to the issues raised by John Ellis's polemic Against Deconstruction?

I think not. For if the wilful distortions by Maclean's magazine of the current situation in our discipline and our universities seem scandalous, so also (if on a different scale) do Ellis's misrepresentations of contemporary literary theory. And, given the manner in which journalistic attacks upon “political correctness” have fed upon earlier misrepresentations of literary-theoretical work, one might anticipate that Ellis's formulations will resurface in future journalistic accounts of academic literary criticism as a senseless and irrational, yet simultaneously menacing and transgressive subculture.12 Indeed, Ellis has himself provided some useful signposts for journalistic mudslingers: in an essay published in 1990 in the London Review of Books, he describes the politics of “Radical Literary Theory” as “a disaster of simple-mindedness,” and likens the overlapping of deconstruction and Marxism in contemporary theory to the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 (1990: 8).

It could of course be argued that what we are witnessing in such polemics as John Ellis's, as in the much larger phenomenon of the “political correctness” furore, is a reaction against certain kinds of excess. I am willing to concede the legitimacy of John Ellis's irritation with “Teflon Theory”—and indeed to add that during the controversy which followed the rediscovery of Paul de Man's wartime writings some of those, including Derrida, who wrote in his defence, engaged in sophistries of a kind that did credit neither to the rhetoric of deconstruction nor to themselves.13 But I find it hard to escape the conclusion that Ellis's violations of the ideal of theoretical discourse that he himself enunciates surpass the worst such offences on the part of deconstructionists.

Let us also admit that there have been recent occasions in the United States when, as in the Cannizzo case in this country, over-zealous or injudicious opponents of racism, misogyny, and homophobia within the universities may have infringed upon the rights of other people.14 A principled stand is called for in such cases—and more distinctly, I would insist, in the far more numerous instances in which people within the universities have been wronged on account of their “subversive” methodological commitments or political views, have been subject to racial or sexual harassment—or, more subtly, have been and still are victimized by a systemic racism, misogyny, and homophobia.

Those who take such a stand will very quickly find themselves in opposition to the drum-beaters of the American right—about whose high-minded professions of humane values there is no need to be naïve. To give just one example, Dinesh D'Souza, author of the much-discussed book Illiberal Education, has written in a conciliatory tone that “It is not always possible” in disputes like those that have arisen in American universities “for a reasonable person, in good conscience, to take any side; there is a good deal of excess all around. The middle ground seems to have disappeared on campus, and whether it can be restored is an open question” (“Illiberal” 52). But are his own credentials as a bemused would-be occupant of this “middle ground” any better than those of Maclean's magazine? D'Souza does mention, among the supposedly scattered forces still engaged in resistance to the “victims' revolution” that he blames for this unhappy situation, the off-campus Dartmouth Review—as editor of which in the early 1980s he says (in curiously bland terms) that he “witnessed first-hand engagement with the administration...” (“Illiberal” 18-19). What he neglects to say is that this “engagement” took place over Dartmouth College's efforts to attract women, blacks, and native Americans as students—and that under his direction the Review published a series of violently racist attacks on minority groups at Dartmouth.15

While D'Souza's recent past cannot be taken to invalidate the arguments of his book, it may tarnish somewhat his claim to the “good conscience” of a neutral witness. His past (which also includes the writing of an adulatory biography of the evangelist Jerry Falwell, published in 1984) may in addition raise the possibility that he has chosen and manipulated his evidence in the service of an extremist agenda16—although the more charitable hypothesis that he has failed to understand his evidence will on occasion seem more persuasive. (Where else could literary scholars learn that “Much of modern literary criticism is based on the surprising premise that poems and novels do not mean anything in particular,” and that this notion, which is shared by “numerous schools of criticism based on the denial of textual meaning: formalism, hermeneutics, psychoanalytic theory, semiotics, structuralism, Marxism, deconstructionism,” can be traced back to René Wellek and Austin Warren's Theory of Literature [Illiberal 177]?)

I believe there is a similar need for scepticism with respect both to the arguments and, more important, the goals of polemicists like John Ellis who would like to re-define literary theory as a system of checks and controls, the principal function of which could only be to silence critical work that those with power in such matters felt to be subversive. Of course, since theoretical writing of any kind tends to imply that certain critical orientations are more interesting than others, it might be remarked that dominant theories, whether New Critical or deconstructive, have already tended to displace and thus to silence those other forms of criticism that by their criteria are not of interest. But this has never been more than a secondary effect of literary-theoretical discourse, a by-product of the preoccupation of theorists with issues of representation, context, authority, intention, and the like.

What would be the results of making “reflection on what is and what is not in principle worthwhile” (Ellis 1989: 159) into the primary function of literary theory? One, I suspect, would be a gradual re-moulding of the literary theorist into the image of the cultural commissar;17 another might be a legitimizing of academic muggings of the sort perpetrated by John Ellis upon his fellow-Germanist James McGlathery.

To conclude. In evoking the current “political correctness” controversy as a context within which contemporary debates over literary-theoretical matters must now unavoidably be situated, I do not mean to suggest that we should mute our discussions for fear of their being taken up and distorted by journalists or unscrupulous politicians. Prudential arguments are seldom very appealing; and it is now perhaps late in the day to warn that should literary scholars fall into the habit of routinely identifying this or that group among their peers as kettle-menders, Visigoths, head-bangers, jackdaws, gangsters, or what you will, there is some chance that the word will start to get around in a manner that may not reflect credit on the level of intellectual discourse within the profession as a whole.

But there may be better reasons for subjecting to a cool and sustained examination the tone in which we conduct our debates, the kinds of argumentation and of evidence that we regard as acceptable, and the forms of closure and exclusion that our arguments imply. For if we would like journalists and politicians, on those occasions when they deign to take notice of literary scholarship, to make some effort to tell the truth about us, do we not have a prior obligation to tell the truth about one another? And if, whatever our methodological commitments, we are willing to accept as valid, let alone to praise, such declensions as those of John Ellis from the standards of our discipline, with what degree of integrity can we uphold those standards ourselves?




1  Actually, Professor Jeffrey's sentence could mean either that any effort by deconstructionists to sustain their “central positions” will cost them a “further commitment to discussion and debate”—or, alternatively, that given the mauling they have had at Ellis's hands, they can hope to sustain their views only if they forego any commitment to further debate. The reader is thus left to choose between an anticlimax and a paradox. I have chosen the former, as making better sense. But deconstructionists, should there be any about, might prefer to regard this sentence as a tidy illustration of their claim that “When one writes, one writes more than (or less than, or other than) one thinks” (Johnson 46)—and to maintain that the ambiguity of Jeffrey's “at the expense of” indicates, in effect, a polite willingness on his part to listen to whatever deconstructionists have to say, so long as they remain silent.

2  I have on two occasions discussed texts by Derrida in some detail—in University of Toronto Quarterly 55.1 (1985), and, in more measured tones, in the 1989 volume of this journal. Since John Ellis has difficulty in distinguishing between the theories of Jacques Derrida and those of Stanley Fish, I should perhaps add that I have also criticized Fish, in an essay published in University of Toronto Quarterly 56.4 (1987) that had impolite things to say about more traditional modes of textual criticism and literary interpretation as well. I have since developed some of the latter points in the introduction to my edition of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (Peterborough: Broadview, 1991).

3  Ellis's gesture of exclusion—his announcement that there is “no room” for this or that—may nonetheless seem disturbing, especially given the eccentricity of his own philosophical judgments (he dismisses Kant and Hegel as obscure, and Husserl as a kind of philosophical simpleton [1989: 147, 142]).

4  Of course, having expressed sympathy with Ellis's “insistence that deconstruction—or those who speak in its name—be held accountable to the standards of logical rigour, argumentative consistency and truth” (134), Norris argues that Derrida's writings meet these standards, while Ellis's book, which in other respects as well is glaringly inadequate, does not. I differ with Norris's view of the logic of deconstruction; elsewhere in this essay I have avoided dwelling on aspects of Ellis's book already discussed by Norris.

5  Professor Jeffrey seems oblivious to the oddity of Ellis's manoeuvre: he writes, with no apparent awareness of possible tension between the expressions italicized below, that “Ellis builds his critique solely on the authorized representations of deconstruction. He makes extensive use of statements by Derrida and by Jonathan Culler, Christopher Norris, Barbara Johnson, and other self-proclaimed apostles” (244; my italics).

6  Ellis quotes, from Culler's On Deconstruction, the words that I have italicized in the following passage:

According to the paleonymic strategy urged by Derrida, “misreading” retains the trace of truth, because noteworthy readings involve claims to truth and because interpretation is structured by the attempt to catch what other readings have missed and misconstrued. Since no reading can escape correction, all readings are misreadings; but this leaves not a monism but a double movement. Against the claim that, if there are only misreadings, then anything goes, one affirms that misreadings are errors; but against the positivist claim that they are errors because they strive toward but fail to attain a true reading, one maintains that true readings are only particular misreadings: misreadings whose misses have been missed. (Culler 178)

7  Here, to supply the deficiency, is a passage from Bloom's Kabbalah and Criticism: “An empirical thinker, confronted by a text, seeks a meaning. Something in him says: 'If this is a complete and independent text, then it has a meaning.' It saddens me to say that this apparently commonsensical assumption is not true. Texts don't have meanings, except in their relations to other texts, so that there is something uneasily dialectical about literary meaning. A single text has only part of a meaning; it is itself a synecdoche for a larger whole including other texts. A text is a relational event, and not a substance to be analyzed. But of course, so are we relational events or dialectical entities, rather than free-standing units” (1975: 106). Whatever one may think of this position, it is at least more interesting than the banal suppositions that Ellis attaches to the slogan “All interpretation is misinterpretation,” and then so easily refutes.

8  This and the preceding unreferenced quotations are derived from the Oxford English Dictionary.

9I   have made some minor changes to the translation of the last sentence quoted here. Derrida wrote, in that sentence: “Ce qui oblige non seulement à tenir compte de toute la logique de la marge, mais à en tenir un tout autre compte: à rappeler sans doute qu'au-delà du texts philosophique, il n'y a pas une marge blanche, vierge, vide, mais un autre texte, un tissu de différences de forces sans aucun centre de référence présente (tout ce dont on disait—l''histoire', la 'politique', l''économie', la 'sexualitié', etc.—que ce n'était pas écrit dans des livres...).” (Derrida 1972: xix)

10  This seems an appropriate point at which to correct a curious slip on the part of Professor Jeffrey, who declares that “At the psychological level merely narcissistic, philosophically [the deconstructive] theory of meaning echoes that found in nineteenth-century logical positivism (a theory not now of much interest to philosophers of language). That Derrida's garbling of Saussure was meant to serve as ardent anti-essentialism is clear; that the project he erects on this foundation is incoherent, at least partly as a result of his garbled Saussure, is equally clear” (245). Whether or not Derrida garbles Saussure, it seems evident that Jeffrey is himself garbling Ellis—who in his second chapter wrote that Newton Garver, “in his preface to the English translation of La voix et le phénomène, sees that the logocentric error diagnosed by Derrida really amounts to the theory of meaning inherent in logical positivism” (Ellis 42). Moreover, Jeffrey's “nineteenth-century logical positivism” is an oxymoron: he is presumably confusing the nineteenth-century positivists (Auguste Comte, Ernst Mach) with the logical positivists (Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap, and others), whose activities as a group are usually held to have begun with the founding of the so-called Vienna Circle in 1923.

11  The Rushton case does raise the issue of free speech—but also, more distinctly, that of professional competence. Any scholar has the right, within the limits of our legislation against the dissemination of racial hatred, to air claims about race, sexuality, and intelligence. But if the “scientific” work adduced in support of these claims is racially motivated and methodologically unsound, it is by no means evident what right such a person has to air them as a university professor. Nor is it evident, given that the attributes in question cannot be meaningfully studied in abstraction from a social context, and that no social context untainted by systemic racism is available, in what sense work of this kind could ever claim scientific respectability.

12  David Lehman has already written, in Signs of the Times, that “John Ellis in his book Against Deconstruction alternates between contesting deconstructive notions and proving that the valid parts of the theory could be gleaned—without the excess doctrinal baggage—in the works of linguists and philosophers who preceded Derrida by many years” (75-76). But Lehman's book, though openly prejudiced against literary theory, is above the level of “mere journalism”; moreover, in the passage to which Lehman is referring, Ellis makes a serious attempt to document his claims (1989: 37-44). Characteristically, though, while in this passage Ellis takes Newton Garver's comments on certain parallels between La voix et le phénomène and the later Wittgenstein as evidence that Derrida is both ill-read and unoriginal (1989: 42n34), he ignores Garver's further remark hat Derrida's concept of différance “seems to me to be original with him and to be highly interesting,” as well as his judgment that Derrida's critique of Husserl is a first-class piece of analytical work in the philosophy of language” (Derrida 1973: xxiv, ix). (It should be remarked that this positive assessment has recently been challenged by J. Claude Evans.)

13  I refer to certain of the essays which appeared in Hamacher, Hertz, and Keenan—and most particularly to Derrida's “Like the Sound of the Sea Deep Within a Shell: Paul de Man's War” (which appears also in Derrida 1989). While honouring Derrida's grief and his wish to defend the memory of a close friend, I would at the same time argue that his reading of de Man's wartime journalism evades and obfuscates some of the hard issues which those writings present to us.

14  The most notorious instance of the suppression of free speech by the “politically correct” turns out, however, to have been a malicious fiction created by unprincipled journalists and members of the right-wing National Association of Scholars. A lecture by two members of the NAS was delivered at the State University of New York at Binghamton on March 14, 1991. According to a videotape and audio recording of the event, and also to the evidence of eyewitnesses (including a student newspaper reporter, a reporter for a local TV station, an on-campus plainclothes policeman, and members of the faculty), the lecture was interrupted for some four minutes by a student in the audience, who was then restrained by other students, among the head of the Black Student Union. The lecture was delivered without further interruptions and was followed by a question and answer session, after which the lecturers and their audience dispersed peaceably. A quite different account of this event, derived from NAS members, appeared in the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin in early April. According to this version, a violent “mob” had imitated the tactics of “the Nazis' heyday,” “Stalin's reign of terror,” and “Mao's cultural revolution.” This story was taken up by the Wall Street Journal in an editorial entitled “Return of the Storm Troopers” (April 10), and subsequently by the New York Post, under the titles “Outrage at SUNY-Binghamton,” and “The Brownshirts and the Cowards.” (See Beers 34-35, 64).

15  “During D'Souza's tenure at The Dartmouth Review, the paper published an interview with a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, illustrating it with a staged photograph of a black man hanging from a tree on the Dartmouth campus, and an article on affirmative action written in what was supposed to be a parody of black speech ('Now we be comin' to Dartmut and be up over our 'fros in studies, but we still not be graduatin' Phi Beta Kappa'); it once ran the slogan 'The only good Indian is a dead Indian' on its back page; and it printed documents stolen from the office of the Gay Student Alliance, that revealed the homosexuality of at least two Dartmouth students who did not wish it to be made public” (Menand 101).

16  It seems worth noting that D'Souza, in claiming that Stanford University's revised liberal arts survey course substitutes radical third-world texts for European classics in a wholesale manner, does not bother to mention that seven of the eight “tracks” available to students in this course retain the traditional structure. Since the presence of a significant number of European classics in the eighth track as well—the only one he discusses—cannot be disguised, D'Souza objects to the manner in which these are taught, finding it an “indignity” to suggest (in the words of the course outline) that Shakespeare in The Tempest drew on “contemporary reports of natives in the newly discovered 'new world'” (D'Souza 1991s: 70-71). Has D'Souza perhaps not bothered to read this play?

17  I am thinking of Stalin's cultural commissar A. A. Zhdanov, who on the basis of his moral and political principles had no difficulty in determining what was or was not worthwhile: his literary interventions included the declaration that there could be “no place” in Soviet literature for a satirist like Zoshchenko, or for poets like Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova who sought “to deprive literature of its high ideological and social significance and to drag it down into the morass of meaninglessness and cheapness”—and no place either for the “bestial malice” of theorists like Merezhkovsky (Craig 518-21).    




Beers, David. “PC? B.S. Behind the hysteria: how the Right invented victims of PC police.” Mother Jones 16.5 (September-October 1991): 34-35, 64-65.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Deconstruction and Criticism. 1979. New York: Continuum, 1987.

----. Kabbalah and Criticism. New York: Seabury, 1975.

Craig, David, ed. Marxists on Literature: An Anthology. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.

Culler, Jonathan. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism After Structuralism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982.

de Man, Paul. The Resistance to Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesote Press, 1986.

Derrida, Jacques. La voix et le phénomène. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1967.

----. Marges de la philosophie. Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1972.

----. Speech and Phenomena: And Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs. Trans. David B. Allison. Preface by Newton Garver. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973.

----. Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

----. Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

----. Limited Inc. Ed. Gerald Graff. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988.

----. Memoires for Paul de Man. Revised edition. Trans. Cecile Lindsay et al. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

D'Souza, Dinesh. “Illiberal Education.” The Atlantic Monthly (March 1991): 51-79.

----. Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. New York: Free Press, 1991.

Ellis, John M. Against Deconstruction. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.

----. “Radical Literary Theory.” London Review of Books (8 February 1990): 7-8.

Evans, J. Claude. Strategies of Deconstruction: Derrida and the Myth of the Voice. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

Felperin, Howard. Beyond Deconstruction. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985.

Fennell, Tom. “The Silencers” A New Wave of Repression is Sweeping Through the Universities.” Maclean's 104, no. 21 (27 May 1991): 40-43.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. 1975. New York: Crossroad, 1986.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. Trans. F. Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.

Hamacher, Werner, Neil Hertz, and Thomas Kennan, eds. Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons. Against Heresies. The Writings of Irenaeus. Trans. A. Roberts and W.H. Rambaut. Vol. 1. Ante-Nicene Christian Library 5 Edinburgh, 1868.

Jeffrey, David L. Review of Against Deconstruction by John M. Ellis. English Studies in Canada 17.2 (1991): 243-47.

Jenish, D'Arcy, and William Lowther. “A War of Words: Academics Clash Over 'Correctness'.” Maclean's 104, no. 21 (27 May 191): 44-45.

Johnson, Barbara. “Writing.” Critical Terms for Literary Study. Ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. 39-49.

Lehman, David. Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man. New York: Poseidon, 1991.

McGlathery, James M. Mysticism and Sexuality: E.T.A. Hoffmann. Part One: Hoffmann and His Sources. Las Vegas, Bern, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1981.

Menand, Louis. “Illiberalisms.” The New Yorker (21 May 1991): 101-07.

Norris, Christopher. What's Wrong with Postmodernism: Critical Theory and the Ends of Philosophy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Salusinszky, Imre. Criticism in Society: Interviews with Jacques Derrida [et al.]. New York and London: Methuen, 1987.



For and Against the Moon

[First published in English Studies in Canada 15.3 (1989): 305-18. I have corrected several typographical errors, and have added a few words (in square brackets) to note 14. The text of this essay is otherwise unchanged.]



Vacuous, white bone; everyone sees it
Who knows what it is for? 
It is said the moon can drive men mad
Are you for or against the moon?1


One senses a hint of autumn in the air: it is in fact early September as I write this, but I mean another kind of autumn. Not long ago it might have seemed that the high summer of deconstruction in literary theory was going to be indefinitely prolonged. Yet suddenly the signs of change are all about us: a nuanced past tense in the Modern Language Review (“When Deconstruction was at its height, one never quite knew how serious a posture of response was required”); a measured declaration in the first issue of New Formations (“The decade of deconstruction, it seems, is over”); and in the first issue of Textual Practice, more decisively still, a reviewer's discovery in recent work by a leading American deconstructionist of “a return to logocentrism of the most daring and unrepentant kind....”2 Daring and unrepentant logocentrism? The literary theorists are flocking together, it would appear, in preparation for one of their periodic migrations.

The prospect of their colleagues' impending change of climate, and perhaps also of coloration, would no doubt be a source of satisfaction to the winter birds among us, were it not that the latter perhaps harbour some suspicion of the migrants' imminent return in another less gaudy and more serviceable plumage (that, say, of the new historicism, or of cultural materialism—both of which challenge more fully the doctrines of New Criticism and its successor theories than do the deconstructive modes referred to by some of their American practitioners as the new New Criticism). In the meantime, those who are not sure whether they belong to either flock may find profit in returning to certain of the inaugural texts of deconstruction, which it may now be possible to read in a new and cooler mood, with diminished anxiety and with greater pleasure.

Of course, it may well be that predictions of the withering away of deconstruction are premature. Critics who have seen a relation between the metaphysical obsessions of deconstruction and a failure to engage with problems of historicity3 are unlikely to side with trend-spotters who would allot to each critical tendency a fixed span (“the decade of deconstruction”), after which period it is to be erased and supplanted by the next manifestation of a rootless present. And others may share the view of Alan Kennedy, who does not want to see deconstruction passed by before he has “even begun to feel confident about what the limits of deconstruction might be.”4 This mode of criticism may thus continue to be widely practised. Indeed (to lapse once more into metaphor), as I write there is a spring tide in the Annapolis Basin a hundred yards from my window, and the moon seems no less full than it did last night. But what is this moon?

Let us define it, with the help of Wittgenstein, as a kind of absence. If we are willing to take the word of one eminent contemporary critic and theorist (Harold Bloom), it would appear that reading, whether wilfully so or not, is also inevitably misreading. Consider, then, the opening aphorism of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “The world is all that is the case.”5 Wilfully misreading these words, I would like to ask: But is there not also the moon?

In the context of Derridean deconstruction, the question may be less witless than it seems. Elsewhere in the Tractatus Wittgenstein wrote: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (proposition 5.6), and “Logic pervades the world: the limits of the world are also its limits” (proposition 5.6 1)—from which follows the doctrine, announced in the preface and repeated as the concluding sentence of the work (and thus itself an enactment of those limits), that “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”6 In contrast to the early Wittgenstein, Jacques Derrida has persistently defied any such limits, both by placing himself outside them in his practice as a writer, and also by insisting (especially in those early books and essays which are still the basis of his reputation in the English-speaking world) that any act of delimitation is subverted by the weave of differences and deferrals, of absence, trace, and supplément, which he sees as constituting language itself. Challenging, like Nietzsche,7 the first principles of logic (those of identity and non-contradiction), his aim has been to make enigmatic, to deconstruct, any possible metaphysic of presence, and thus to undo or at least expose the “logocentric repression”8 which by his account has characterized the whole tradition of Western metaphysics.

This Derridean project has in many respects enjoyed a remarkable success. Lucretius proved the universe to be infinite by arguing that if a person went to the edge—wherever one took that edge to be—and threw a spear, it would ether be blocked by something or else would speed on its way. Since the thought-experiment can be repeated from whatever new edge one's spear-throw reveals, either case shows that the universe continues without end or limit.9 Similarly, Derrida, throwing spears in both directions from the edge of the world defined by Wittgenstein's Tractatus, has revealed receding infinities on both hands: one spear, thrown into the gap between signifier and signified, splinters the latter into an infinite regress of supplemental signifiers; another, hurled at the “transcendental signified” which in “logocentric” metaphysics puts an end to this regress, sails on without resistance.10 Standing, then, within the labyrinth (his metaphor) that is raised by his banishment of metaphysical presence, Derrida wrote in La voix et le phénomène, in what may seem to be deliberate opposition to the last words of the Tractatus: “It remains, then, for us to speak, to make our voices resonate throughout the corridors in order to make up for the breakup of presence [pour suppléer l'éclat de la présence].”11 Suppléer, éclat: the words themselves resonate with ambiguity.

But where is this labyrinth? I hope that I can answer, “On the moon,” without being misunderstood. In the course of his brilliant study of “Plato's Pharmacy,” Derrida investigates Socrates' allusions in the Phaedrus and the Philebus to Theuth or Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing and of the moon, and in a brief digression into Egyptian mythology argues the metaphorical identity of these two divine functions. Ammon-Ra—Ammon (the hidden), Ra (the sun)—“is god the creator, and he engenders through the mediation of the word.... we encounter here a hidden sun, the father of all things, letting himself be represented by speech.”12 Thoth, the moon-god, divine scribe, and eldest son of Ra (and thus a secondary, engendered god), announces in language “an already formed divine thought, a fixed design. The message itself is not, but only represents, the absolutely creative moment. It is a second and secondary word.”13 To Thoth's secondariness, both as god of the moon and as god of writing, is added the fact that he is made responsible in several papyri for the plurality of languages—and in Plato's Philebus for differentiation within language. In what follows, the familiar terms of Derrida's deconstruction of presence—absence, trace, supplément—assert themselves forcefully:

As the god of language second and of linguistic difference, Thoth can become the god of the creative word only by metonymic substitution, by historical displacement, and sometimes by violent subversion.

This type of substitution thus puts Thoth in Ra's place as the moon takes the place of the sun. The god of writing thus supplies the place of Ra, supplementing him and supplanting him in his absence and essential disappearance. Such is the origin of the moon as supplement to the sun, of night light as supplement to daylight. And writing as the supplement of speech.

Citing, from ancient Egyptian texts, examples of this substitution of Thoth for Ra, of the moon for the absent sun, and of the subsequent word-play which establishes further chains of signification, Derrida remarks that

This process of substitution ... thus functions as a pure play of traces or supplements or, again, operates within the order of the pure signifier which no reality, no absolutely external reference, no transcendental signified, can come to limit, bound, or control....14

Through the analysis of this mythical structure the moon thus becomes not merely a conspicuous example of the Derridean supplément, but also a metaphorical vehicle whose tenor is the whole play of substitution and supplementarity—which is to say, superimposing a spatial metaphor, the topos where these substitutions take place. It is, surely, in recognition of the further lunar overtones of this analysis that Derrida writes, in the same sentence from which I have just quoted, of “this substitution, which could be judged 'mad' since it can go on infinitely in the element of the linguistic permutation of substitutes, of substitutes for substitutes....”15

Other suppléments quickly manifest themselves and proliferate in the tenor of this lunar metaphor. Depending on the degree of blindness involved in the world's attempts to define itself, Derrida's discourse may not seem indisputably a part of “that which is the case”; yet through his deconstructive analyses of Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, and Austin it has raised tides even within the most strictly delimited of logical worlds.16 It is also consciously eccentric, both in its challenge to the idea of a centre, point of presence, or fixed origin which would inform “the structurality of structure,” and also in its choice of a ludic rhetoric that is meant to exemplify the free-play of signifiers opened up by this de-centring.17 But is this free-play not to some extend illusory, since by Derrida's own admission it resolves itself into an orbit around the traditions that he wishes to deconstruct? And once the rules of the language-games of deconstruction have been assimilated, is there not some danger that his arguments, however unexpected certain of their swerves, may become in their extended form as predictable as the phases of the moon?

Lunar and orbital, again, is Derrida's relation to the problem of institutional appropriation. For if the serene resistance to appropriation which is an important recurring feature of his writings constitutes the angular momentum of his path, it is balanced by the gravitational pull of those institutions in France, America and England—most evidently the Tel Quel group, the Yale formalists, and the New Accents writers—which in disseminating his thought have also appropriated it for their own ends. Gerald Graff, describing deconstruction as “a strategy for making texts immune to appropriation by the consumer,” at once added that “the very procedures by which texts are made to seem unmanageable rather easily become a critical commodity fetish—that is, the styles of resisting commodification themselves become commodities.”18 Whether or not this description is fair, such a drift was wryly exemplified by Christopher Norris when he wrote in his book Deconstruction that “Critical theory is nowadays a reputable academic business with a strong vested interest in absorbing and coming to terms with whatever new challenges the times may produce.”19 (Is not this precisely the vaguely upbeat language of the corporate Annual Report to shareholders?)

Derrida is himself well aware of this problem of appropriation, but his stance with regard to it has remained paradoxical. Calling in 1983 for a “new responsibility” that would seek to “unmask—an infinite task—all the ruses of end-orienting reason, the paths by which apparently disinterested research can find itself indirectly appropriated, reinvested by programs of all sorts,” he pointed to the intrusion of a state-directed military or 'national-security' orientation into all fields of research, including his own:

From now on, so long as it has the means, a military budget can invest in anything at all, in view of deferred profits: 'basic' scientific theory, the humanities, literary theory and philosophy.... What is produced in this field can always be used. And even if it should remain useless in its results, in its productions, it can always serve to keep the masters of discourse busy: the experts, professionals of rhetoric, logic or philosophy who might otherwise be applying their energy elsewhere.20

In the face of this apparent admission that there may after all be a hors-texte, and that even if (thanks to his dialectical ruses) the deconstructionist's pure free-play in language cannot be directly appropriated, it may in some sense be always already appropriated, Derrida's continued adherence to a kind of sceptical ataraxia seems courageous, if also perhaps naïve. Gerald Graff appears to have cut deeper into the question of appropriation when he asked:

Isn't it at least possible that nature, essence, immanence, and other logocentric concepts are less of a live issue than they once were, that these and other hierarchical concepts were rendered negligible long ago by a more powerful 'deconstructive' force than that of any school of philosophy or criticism, namely, the force of consumer capitalism itself? Aren't strategies of textual dissemination of questionable effectiveness if the culture they seek to strike against is already more like a disseminated text than an organically unified one?21

Derrida of course regards with distaste and alarm the transformations being worked in our culture by the hegemonic forces of consumer capitalism, and he has spoken out strongly against these forces. But to the extent that the strategies of deconstruction repeat these transformations on an intellectually rigorous level, there would seem to follow from Graff's comments another, harsher question—which I will pose in the form of an allusion to Derrida's analysis in “Plato's Pharmacy” of the Platonic pharmakon: Is deconstruction itself a remedy, or has it rather been a poison? To put the question in these terms is already to reveal a distortion, an incomprehension even, of the Derridean text: for the word pharmakon means both “remedy” and “poison,” as well as several other things; and this appropriation of the term constitutes an allegorizing of his text that Derrida might well reject with contempt. Yet the insistence with which this or similar questions have been raised, and with which one or the other answer has been pressed, may serve as a reminder that the Derridean intervention has not occurred in a vacuum, and that the various appropriations of his thought have not been without consequences.

“Hands, hold you poison or grapes?”22 Either alternative seems inappropriately apocalyptic. We are concerned here with a secondary phenomenon (though one which emphatically reveals the secondariness of all other cultural phenomena), and therefore with a symptom, as much as with a cause. Deconstruction may be a poison for the paranoid, and a remedy for dogmatism (though ironically, some of its American offshoots have at times tended to acquire certain of the vestments of dogma). But as I have been trying to insinuate for several paragraphs already, deconstruction is also, on Derrida's own account, the moon.

What the early Wittgenstein excluded from “the world” and consigned to silence can, in his own terms, still be thought—“for in order to be able to draw a limit to thought, we should have to find both sides of the limit thinkable (i.e. we should have to be able to think what cannot be thought)”—but it can, by his definition, only be thought as nonsense.23 To which Derrida would reply that a refusal to examine the institutions and exclusions of the principle of reason itself, when compounded by a pre-emptive definition of the thought which does so as “nonsense,” is no more than obscurantism.24

Wittgenstein's “world,” Derrida's “moon.” Those who have found the relentlessly inquiring stare of the latter alarming may wish to summon up the image of that space, adjacent to “the neighbouring moon,” yet on the outside of the limit which defines “the firm opacous globe / Of this round world” and separates it from Chaos: the image of that “windy sea of land” which Milton, in Book III of Paradise Lost, calls limbo or the Paradise of Fools, and which he reserves for “embryos and idiots,” for

All the unaccomplished works of nature's hand, 
Abortive, monstrous, or unkindly mixed....25

Others, who for whatever reason have not felt threatened by the deconstructive enterprise, might prefer to evoke the thirty-fourth canto of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, in which Astolfo, travelling to the moon, discovered “no folly, / For still that here with us remaineth wholly.” Instead he found, in receptacles of different sizes, the mislaid sanity and wisdom of those on earth

That think they have great store of wit and boast it
When here it plain appeared they quite had lost it.

There also, in a scene suggestive of Derrida's account of the quasi-originary weave of différance, Astolfo encountered the Parcae or Fates, who out of “diverse fleeces”—wool, lint, silk, and cotton—spin “Threads infinite of divers stuff and hue.”26

One further aspect of the moon-metaphor set in motion by Derrida and pursued here remains to be considered. Quite simply, the moon itself is not a novelty—a fact which may seem of some significance should we attempt at some point to assess our responses both to this writer and to his critics. According to Derrida's own analysis of Egyptian mythology, an awareness of différance and of the linguistic archi-trace goes back at least as far as to the priests of Memphis; and as I wish briefly to indicate, certain features of Derrida's thought are anticipated by the sophist Gorgias, by the ancient sceptics, by Valentinus the Gnostic, and by a number of Renaissance writers.

Let us consider these anticipations in historical sequence. Although Derrida protects himself in “Plato's Pharmacy” by remarking that “this reading of Plato is at no time spurred on by some slogan or password of a 'back-to-the-sophists' nature,”27 his argument in this text is nonetheless profoundly Gorgian. In saying this I am not referring primarily to his extended use of Gorgias' Encomium of Helen to establish the important point that the analogy (logos) between the relation of pharmakon to body and that of persuasive logos to soul is anomalous, in that one of its terms recurs as the name of the analogy—from which it follows that “The pharmakon is comprehended in the structure of logos.”28 I am interested rather in the co-presence of Gorgias, earlier in Derrida's text, in a well-known passage on “the dangerous supplement” which contains no mention of the old sophist. The supplément “is not, so to speak, dangerous in itself, in that aspect of it that can present itself as a thing, as a being-present. In that case it would be reassuring. But here, the supplement is not, is not a being (on). It is nevertheless not a simple non-being (mé on), either. Its slidings slip it out of the simple alternative presence/absence. That is the danger.”29 I find it hard not to hear this, in context, as an echo of Gorgias' refusal to permit any clear distinction between being and non-being (on kai mé on)—an echo, in particular, of the argument in Gorgias' text On Nature or that which is not (peri tou mé ontos) that “it is not possible [for anything] either to be or not to be” (ouk estin oute einai oute mé einai).30 Gorgianic overtones are strengthened when, two paragraphs later, Derrida exemplifies the workings of this Platonic supplément-pharmakon by alluding to what Freud called 'kettle-logic': “1. The kettle I am returning to you is brand new; 2. The holes were already in it when you lent it to me; 3. You never lent me a kettle anyway.”31 This, again, sounds very much a displaced reminiscence of the principal argument of Gorgias' Peri tou mé ontos, which is, “firstly, that nothing exists; secondly, that even if anything exists it is inapprehensible by mankind; and thirdly, that even if anything is apprehensible, yet without a doubt it is inexpressible and incommunicable to one's neighbour.”32 Derrida's argument would thus appear itself to be anomalous, with respect to its Gorgianic roots, in precisely the same manner as that in which it shows logos to be anomalous: the same form of inquiry which reveals the pharmakon to be embedded in logos also shows Derrida's argument to be itself permeated by the meontic logic of Gorgias.

Derrida's affiliations with the ancient sceptical tradition, which in recent decades has attracted renewed scholarly interest,33 are perhaps more obvious. It may then be sufficient to quote A. D. Nuttall's observation that

The third of [the Pyrrhonist philosopher] Agrippa's “five modes of perplexity,” the mode of relativity,” neatly encapsulates the history of structuralism and its resolution into scepticism: “The mode derived from relativity declares that a thing can never be apprehended in and by itself, but only in connexion with something else. Hence all things are unknowable.” Agrippa's second mode of perplexity mirrors Derrida's principle of indefinite deferral: “The mode which involves extension ad infinitum refuses to admit that what is sought to be proved is firmly established because one thing furnishes the ground for belief in another, and so on ad infinitum.” Agrippa applies the principle to rational demonstration, Derrida to semantic confirmation. The end result in either case is virtually the same.34

In alluding, next, to Derrida's Gnostic affinities, I do not wish to be mistaken for a practitioner of the kind of heresiological polemic of which there have been some notorious recent examples.35 I would simply suggest that any reader of the hostile accounts of Valentinian Gnosticism in Irenaeus and Hippolytus, of Valentinus' own Gospel of Truth, and of some of Derrida's early texts, among them the essay “Force et signification” and the opening chapters of De la grammatologie, can hardly fail to observe certain very striking parallels.36

The Renaissance anticipations of Derridean deconstruction, if more diffuse, resonate oddly with that Derridean text, “Plato's Pharmacy,” from which I have drawn the key metaphor of this essay. Beginning in the latter part of the fifteenth century, recurrent tides of excitement were generated among humanist scholars by the recently translated writings attributed to the Egyptian sage Hermes Trismegistus—who is none other than the Hellenized form of Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing and of the moon. The fact that this Hermes, the king, priest, and prophet who gave laws and letters to the Egyptians, was wholly legendary, and that his supposed writings actually date from the first centuries of the Christian era, came to light only in the early seventeenth century.37 He had in the meantime been accepted by many scholars for more than a century as an approximate contemporary of Moses, as the author of a professedly inspired account of the creation which overlaps with and pulls against the book of Genesis, and as a philosopher from whose writings the doctrines of Plato were derived. One of the results of this was a quasi-deconstructive reversal of the normal flow both of causality and of textual authority—the establishment of a habit of reading which made the Hermetic appropriation of commonplaces from the schools of Middle Platonism into the ancient sources of Plato's thought, and the Hermetic creation myth (thanks in part to its parallels with the Kabbalistic speculations then being revealed to Christians by Jewish scholars exiled from Spain) into a revelation of the esoteric meaning of the Genesis story. Another result—perhaps appropriately, since to Hermes was traditionally ascribed the definition of God as “an infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere, and whose circumference nowhere”38—was a certain de-centring of originary authority: the divinely inspired Hermes was a direct challenge to the exclusivity of the Judaeo-Christian revelation, and however much a Hermetist might strive to reconcile the two (“I am a Christian,” wrote one of them, “and at the same time not ashamed to be a Hermetist”),39 interpretive tensions, which rapidly also acquired political dimensions, were inescapable.

Among the manifestations of the Hermetic vogue of the Renaissance could be cited the strange career of another Agrippa—not the Pyrrhonist philosopher, but the humanist, lawyer, and also magician and doctor (and thus pharmakeus), Henricus Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim. Author of the notorious De occulta philosophia, this Agrippa was also, like the Pyrrhonist, a refuter of first principles: his most widely read and translated book was a quasi-encyclopaedic 'deconstruction' of all arts and sciences as vain and uncertain.40 Cornelius Agrippa was praised by later writers as another Hermes Trismegistus—and also, as befitting a proto-Derridean pharmakeus, attacked as a sorcerer; his writing, which he himself announced should be of medicinal value, was by hostile polemicists declared to be a “mortal poison.”41 Nor was he soon forgotten. André Thevet, writing a half-century after Agrippa's death, bewailed among “les malheurs de nostre France” the fact that his country still supported followers of Agrippa, who, “making as though to take the moon between their teeth, trim, clip, cut back, limit, divide and dismember the power of Eternal God....”42

If these anticipations, however shadowy and incomplete, suffice to remind us that the moon is indeed no novelty, they also lead to a slightly embarrassing question. The fields to which I have alluded have all been the objects of intensive scholarly study over at least the past several decades. Why, then, should literary critics have been so startled by the reappearance and the creative adaptation in Derrida's writings of motifs which during the intervening centuries had never been wholly eclipsed—so eager, on the one hand, to carry the moon in their pockets; and, on the other, to howl against its minions like Irish wolves?

One might at the same time ask whether there has not been an element of conscious self-deception in Derrida's own repeated rhetorical representations of logocentric metaphysics as an effectively monolithic tradition of thought. His own forms of argument tend very quickly to dissipate this phantom: any apparent monolith is revealed by a deconstructive reading to be traversed by fissures, to be openly ruptured—indeed, to be constituted on and in response to the network of indeterminacies of which these are only the first ostensible signs. The Platonic logos—to revert to the example at hand—is built upon and subverted by the Gorgian/Socratic pharmakon. But has this, or something analogous, not been the case throughout history as well as in this inaugural textual example? Does the duplicitous relationship between hegemonic construction and sceptical devolution—between, on the one hand, the selective appropriations of dogmatism, and, on the other, a mélange of collaboration, resistance, and subversion—not seem to be repeated in perpetually different ways in the ideological and literary strugglers of other ages, including our own?

The Derridean mythos of a monolithic metaphysical tradition of logocentric repression is thus to some extent undercut both by the forms of analysis which Derrida himself has practised and also by the traces, sometimes visible within his own writings, of counter-traditions which have in various ways anticipated his sceptical stance. But at the same time, paradoxically, the receptions of his thought, the positions taken for and against the moon, effectively legitimize this story by demonstrating that it was one which we urgently needed to have told to us. Only in a literary-academic culture in which subversive counter-traditions had been and were being very efficiently repressed—a culture which indeed was instituted in the nineteenth century for the purpose, among others, of reproducing orthodox ideologies and mystifying class and gender oppression43—could such a narrative have been believed. And believed, because while Derrida's own writings may give it the lie, the aggressive manner in which orthodox academic critics initially responded to them are at least partial evidence of this story's truth.

* * *

I could claim that this essay has been an exercise in what Derrida calls “la mythologie blanche.” Or it might more fittingly be described, in a phrase of the poet Émile Nelligan, as “clair de lune intellectuel.”44 From the play with metaphor in which I have indulged it might seem rash to draw even tentative conclusions. However, one question does return with a certain insistency: namely, to what extent has Derrida succeeded in his stated desire to be exorbitant? He wrote, in De la grammatologie:

But what is the exorbitant?

I wised to reach the point of a certain exteriority in relation to the totality of the age of logocentrism. Starting from this point of exteriority, a certain deconstruction of that totality which is also a traced path, or that orb (orbis) which is also orbitary (orbita), might be broached.45

The echo in this passage of the Archimedean gesture of Descartes' Second Meditation (which suggests a deeply ingrained metaphysical habit of mind);46 the lunar, and thus orbital, quality of the “point” chosen from which to deconstruct the orbis terrarum of logocentricity; the tendency of deconstructionist texts to fall into a different rut (orbita) of their own: all these may indicate that the project was in certain respects constrained from the start.

Yet the attempt can be honoured—and seconded, if perhaps in other modes. A half-century ago Walter Benjamin wrote that “In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.”47 In the interim these words have not ceased to be true; and it continues to be the case that conformism—in a gesture which is the precise opposite of Derrida's characterization of his own project—designates as 'exorbitant' the Other which it seeks to exclude, to silence, and to suppress. It is also the case that the vigour of any discipline in the human sciences is directly related to the extent to which it incorporates the exorbitant—with the aim not of domesticating it, but rather of bringing about a critical reorientation both of the discipline and of the society which that discipline serves as one of its modes of reproduction.




1  Tom Wayman, “Full Moon in Winter 5 O'Clock Unemployment Spaceshot Era,” lines 15-16, 25-26, in his For and Against the Moon: Blues, Yells, and Chuckles (Toronto: Macmillan, 1974), pp. 15-16.

2  A. D. Nuttall, “Solvents and Fixatives: Critical Theory in Transition,” Modern Language Review 82.2 (1987), 273; Gregor McLennan, “Rescuing Reason,” New Formations 1 (1987), 142; Roger Poole, “Midrash” (rev. Of Geoffrey Hartman and Sanford Budick, eds., Midrash and Literature), Textual Practice 1 (1987), 86.

3  See, for example, Edward Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983); and also my article “Deconstruction and the Gnostics,” University of Toronto Quarterly 55.1 (1985), 74-93.

4  Alan Kennedy, “Criticism of Value: Response to John Fekete,” in Literature and Politics/Literary Politics, ed. Michael H. Keefer, Dalhousie Review, special double issue, 66.1-2 (Spring/Summer 1986), 87. Kennedy is course well aware that Derrida insistently questions the very possibility of delimitation; see, for example, Derrida's Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. ix-xi, 25.

5  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness (1961; rpt. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974), p. 5.

6  Proposition 5.6 and the first sentence of 5.6 1 appear on p. 56. The aphorism about silence appears on pp. 3 and 74.

7  See, for example, Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. W. Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1968), section 516, pp. 279-80.

8  Jacques Derrida, De la grammatologie (Paris: Minuit, 1967), pp. 103, 74.

9  Lucretius, De rerum natura, ed. Cyril Bailey (2nd ed., 1922; rpt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954), i.968-83. (I am indebted for this reference to A. D. Nuttall, Dostoevsky's “Crime and Punishment”: Murder as Philosophic Experiment [Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, for Sussex University Press, 1978], p. 123.)

10  See De la grammatologie, chapters 1 and 2.

11  Derrida, Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs, trans. D. B. Allison (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), p. 104; La voix et le phénomène (Paris: P.U.F., 1967), p. 117. (I am indebted to Newton Garver, in the preface to the English translation of this work [p. xxviii], for the perception of a link between this sentence and the first proposition of Wittgenstein's Tractatus.)

12  Derrida, Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), “Plato's Pharmacy,” p. 87.

13  Ibid., p. 88.

14  Ibid., p. 89. The translation of the opening phrase of this passage seems clumsy. Derrida wrote: “Dieu du langage second et de la différence linguistique, Thot ne peut devenir le dieu de la parole créatrice que par substitution métonymique, par déplacement historique et parfois par subversion violente.” La dissémination (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1972), p. 100. [I would translate this as “God of secondary language....”]

15  Dissemination, p. 89.

16  See, for example, Richard Rorty, “Philosophy as a Kind of Writing: An Essay on Derrida,” in his Consequences of Pragmatism (Essays: 1972-1980) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), pp. 90-109, and the essays cited in Rorty's first note to that essay; also Christopher Norris, The Deconstructive Turn: Essays in the Rhetoric of Philosophy London: Methuen, 1983), and The Contest of Faculties: Philosophy and Theory After Deconstruction (London: Methuen, 1985); and, in addition, the Philosophy and Literary Theory issue of The Monist 69.1 (January 1986).

17  See the well-known essay “La structure, le signe et le jeu dans le discours des sciences humaines,” in L'écriture et la différence (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1967), pp. 409-28.

18  Gerald Graff, “The Pseudo-Politics of Interpretation,” Critical Inquiry 9.3 (March 1983), 606-07.

19  Christopher Norris, Deconstruction: Theory and Practice (London and New York: Methuen, 1982), p. 1.

20  Derrida, “The Principle of Reason: The University in the Eyes f its Pupils,” Diacritics 13 (Fall 1983), 16, 13.

21  Graff, “The Pseudo-Politics of Interpretation,” 606.

22  Dylan Thomas, Collected Poems 1934-1952 (London: Dent, 1967), p. 58.

23  Wittgenstein, Tractatus, p. 3.

24  See Derrida, “The Principle of Reason,” 7-15.

25  Milton, Paradise Lost, ed Alastair Fowler (London: Longman, 1971), Book III, 418-98, pp. 167-72.

26  Ariosto's Orlando Furioso: Selections from the Translation of Sir John Harrington, ed. Rudolf Gottfried (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1971), canto 34, 638-704, pp. 296-98.

27  Derrida, Dissemination, p. 108.

28  Ibid., p. 117.

29  Ibid., p. 109.

30  I am quoting from the work De Melisso Xenophane Gorgia, attributed to Aristotle, as cited and interpreted by G. B. Kerferd, “Gorgias on nature or that which is not,” Phronesis 1 (1955), 3-25. (As Kerferd observes, there are several possible English renderings of this passage.)

31  Derrida, Dissemination, p. 111. Derrida at once characterizes the 'kettle-logic' of 'Plato-Rousseau-Saussure' as follows: “Analogously: 1. Writing is rigorously exterior and inferior to living memory and speech, which are therefore undamaged by it. 2. Writing is harmful to them because it puts them to sleep and infects their very way of life which would otherwise remain intact. 3. Anyway, if one has resorted to hypomnesia and writing at all, it is not for their intrinsic value, but because living memory is finite, it already has holes in it before writing ever comes to leave its traces. Writing has no effect on memory.” As Christopher Norris remarks, “This 'kettle-logic' is the means by which the Phaedrus both persistently raises the question of writing and just as persistently manages to evade, suppress or contain its large implications.” Norris, Derrida (London: Fontana, 1987), p. 40.

32  Gorgias, Peri tou mé ontos, as reported by Sextus Empiricus, Against the Logicians, I. 65. The translation makes use of the version of R. G. Bury, Sextus Empiricus with an English translation (4 vols., Loeb Classical Library; London: Heinemann, 1933-49), vol. 2, p. 35, and that of R. K. Sprague, ed., The Older Sophists (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1972), p. 42. Howard Felperin, describing it as “The first work of thoroughgoing (what I shall later term 'hard-core') deconstruction to come down to us,” suggests that this Gorgian text is “so striking in its wholesale anticipation of the contemporary project as to demand reconsideration of the cultural and philosophical context that could have conditioned it” (Beyond Deconstruction [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985], p. 104n). Felperin, who performs the remarkable feat of attacking Derrida at length without quoting him or even so much as naming one of his writings, does not attempt such a reconsideration.

33  Instances of which in the past few years include Myles Burnyeat, ed., The Skeptical Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), and Julia Annas and Jonathan Barnes, The Modes of Scepticism: Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

34  A. D. Nuttall, A New Mimesis: Shakespeare and the Representation of Reality (London and New York: Methuen, 1983), p. 36. Nuttall is quoting from Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, trans. R.D. Hicks (Loeb Classical Library; London: Heinemann, 1925), ix.89, 88, vol. 2, pp. 500-01. See also A. J. Cascardi, “Skepticism and Deconstruction,” Philosophy and Literature 8 (1984), 1-14.

35  I am referring in particular to the Charles Eliot Norton lectures given at Harvard in 1979-80 by Dame Helen Gardner and published as In Defence of the Imagination. Frank Kermode, one of Dame Helen's targets, replied with devastating effectiveness in “On Being an Enemy of Humanity,” Raritan 2.2 (1982-83), 87-102.

36  I have discussed some of these in my essay “Deconstruction and the Gnostics.”

37  See Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964; rpt. Chicago: University of Chicasgo Press, 1978), and Anthony Grafton, “Protestant versus Prophet: Isaac Causaubon on Hermes Trismegistus,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 46 (1983), 78-93.

38  The earliest surviving text in which this aphorism occurs is the twelfth-century Liber XXIV philosophorum. See Robin Small, “Nietzsche and a Platonist Tradition of the Cosmos: Center Everywhere and Circumference Nowhere,” Journal of the History of Ideas 44 (1983), 89-104. I have studied certain implications of this definition in “The World Turned Inside Out: Revolutions of the Infinite Sphere from Hermes to Pascal,” Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Réforme n.s. 12.4 (1988), 303-13.

39  Ludovico Lazzarelli, De summa hominis foelicitate dialogus, qui inscribitur Calix Christi et Crater Hermetis, in Eugenio Garin et al., eds., Testi umanistici su l'ermetismo (Rome Fratelli Bocca, 1955), p. 56: “Christianus ego sum ... et Hermeticum simul esse non pudet.”

40  The standard study of this writer is Charles G. Nauert's Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965); see also my article “Agrippa's Dilemma: Hermetic 'Rebirth' and the Ambivalences of De vanitate and De occulta philosophia,” Renaissance Quarterly 41.4 (1988), 614-53.

41  Gabriel Naudé, in his Apologie pour tous les grans personnages qui ont esté faussement soupçonnez de magie (Paris, 1625), p. 404, calls Agrippa “un nouveau Trismégiste”; Jean Bodin, in De la démonomanie des sorciers (Paris, 1581), fol. 219V, denounced him as “le plus grand Sorcier qui fut oncques de son aage.” In the preface to De occulta philosophia, Agrippa proposes that what he writes of magic might be put to use in the same way as doctors use poisons as antidotes: “nam & medicorum volumina inspicientibus contingit cum antidotis & pharmacis simul etiam venena legere.” Opera, ed. R.H. Popkin (2 vols., Lyon, c. 1600; facsimile rpt. Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 1970), vol. 1, sig. a2v. André Thevet, in Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres (2 vols.; Paris, 1584), vol. 2, fol. 544, wrote of Agrippa's book De vanitate that “Il n'y a coin ny secret d'aucune discipline, lequel il n'ait fureté & y ait vomy quelque regorge de sa mortelle poison.” 

42  Thevet, Les vrais pourtraits, vol. 2, fol. 544V: “I'ay honte qu'il faille que ie ramentoyve les malheurs de nostre France, qui encores pour le iourdhuy soustyent des Agrippins, esquels soubs quelques traicts estranges & espouventables font estat de prendre la lune avec les dents, taillent, roignent, retranchent, moderent, partissent & despiecent la puissance de l'Eternel, lequel ils veulent assubiectir aux niaiseries, qu'asses sottement ils s'impriment dans la cervelle.”

43  See, for example, Robert Holton, “A True Bond of Unity: Popular Education and the Foundation of the Discipline of English Literature in England,” in Literature and Politics/Literary Politics, Dalhousie Review 66.1-2 (Spring/Summer 1986), 31-44.

44  Jacques Derrida, “La mythologie blanche: la métaphore dans le texts philosophique,” in Marges de la philosophie (Paris: Minuit, 1972), pp. 247-324; Émile Nelligan, Poésies complètes 1896-1899, ed. Luc Lacourcière (1952; rpt. Montréal and Paris: Fides, 1968), p. 41.

45  Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), pp. 161-62.

46  René Descartes, “Méditation seconde,” in Oeuvres philosophiques, ed. F. Alquié (3 vols.; Paris: Garnier, 1963-73), vol. 2, p. 414: “Archimède, pour tirer le globe terrestre de sa place et le transporter en un autre lieu, ne demandait rien qu'un point qui fut fixe et assuré. Ainsi j'aurai droit de concevoir de hautes espérances si je suis aussi heureux pour trouver seulement une chose qui soit certaine et indubitable.”

47  Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1973), p. 257.    

Gorgias Redivivus: Sophistic Rhetoric and Propaganda

[This is the text of a paper presented at the 15th Atlantic Philosophical Association Conference, Acadia University, 26-26 October 1984. It is reproduced here without alterations, and has not previously been published. This paper contains material that was subsequently integrated into my essay “Deconstruction and the Gnostics,” published in 1985—but also other material that was not, and that might still be of some fleeting interest. It shares with that essay a somewhat partial—which is to say incomplete, as well as polemical—understanding of Derrida.]



For at least part of the next twenty minutes I shall be talking about nothing—or rather, about arguments on the subject of nothing. In moments of darkest scepticism, I am myself inclined to share the memorably expressed doubt of H. L. Mencken that “There may not be no nothing.”1 However, one purpose of this paper is to suggest that, whatever we make of the lexical, linguistic, logical, or ontological status of nothing, the idea has at certain moments, both in the distant and the very recent past, exercised a fascination that makes it a powerful lever, or should I say pivot-point, in the hands of those who have known how to make rhetorical use of it. Since this notion of nothing as a pivot-point or lever is obviously a paradoxical metaphor, let me explain what I mean by it.

At the beginning of his Second Meditation, Descartes wrote that “Archimedes, in order that he might draw the terrestrial globe out of its place, and transport it elsewhere, demanded only that one point should be fixed and immoveable....”2 Refusing to attend to the obvious message of this boast, which is precisely that there are, and can be, no topoi external to our own world and yet accessible to our manipulations, Descartes chose to believe that, in metaphysical terms, the indubitable certainty of his cogito provided him with just such a point. But if there can be no place outside the world, if by definition we cannot occupy a position outside our own conceptual universe in order to dislodge it from its orbit—and this I take to be the essential meaning of Wittgenstein's “The world is all that is the case”—then the idea of nothing will serve just as well.

Perhaps I should offer an example or two of the pivotal or levering power of nothing. That the universe was finite was a commonplace of ancient cosmological thought. But Lucretius proved it to be infinite by arguing that if a man went to the edge—wherever one took that edge to be—and threw a spear, that spear would either be blocked, or else would speed unobstructed on its way: either case showing that the universe continues without end or limit, since the thought-experiment can be endlessly repeated.3

This argument, though forceful and persuasive, is undeniably eerie. For in order to stand at the outer limit of the cosmos, one would have to have reached a place beyond which nothing was perceptible or apprehensible. The notion of throwing a spear into such a vacancy is odd enough: what its unobstructed flight would reveal would be empty geometrical extension, which even if unapprehended is not the same as nothing—and with a spear moving through it, is no longer empty either. Odder still is the notion of the spear being blocked, within what had seemed vacancy, by some hitherto unapprehended object—as though nothingness could condense itself into an obstacle.

Something of the same eeriness is evident in the definition of “nothing” given by The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia: “No thing; not anything; not something; something that is not anything. The conception of nothing is reached by reflecting that a noun, or name, in form, may fail to have any corresponding object; and nothing is the noun which by its very definition is of that sort.”4 Without stopping to dwell upon the fact that one interpretation of this definition would make nothing the basis of our entire philosophical vocabulary, we can remark that what Lucretius's spear moved unobstructed through—or hit—must have been not just unapprehensible, but also (to borrow from one of Samuel Beckett's titles) unnameable as well.5

Another example of the conceptual and linguistic strain imposed by the idea of nothing will bring us closer to my main subject. Elsewhere in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, from which I have already quoted the famous opening epigram, Wittgenstein wrote: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (proposition 5.6), and “Logic pervades the world: the limits of the world are also its limits” (proposition 5.6.1)—from which follows the doctrine, announced in the preface and repeated as the concluding sentence of the work (and thus itself a performative enactment of those limits), that “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”6

In contrast to the early Wittgenstein, Jacques Derrida persistently attempts to defy any such limits, both by attempting to place himself outside them in his practice as a writer, and also by insisting that any act of delimitation is subverted by the weave of differences and deferrals, of absence, trace, and supplément which he sees as constituting language itself. Challenging, like Nietzsche,7 the first principles of logic (those of identity and non-contradiction), his aim has been to make enigmatic, to deconstruct, any possible metaphysic of presence, and thus to undo or at least to expose the “logocentric repression” which, by his analysis, has characterized the whole of Western metaphysics. Throwing spears in both directions from the edge of the world defined by Wittgenstein's Tractatus, Derrida has revealed receding infinitudes—or perhaps one should say absences—on both hands. One spear, thrown into the gap between signifier and signified, splinters the latter into an infinite regress of supplemental signifiers; another, hurled at the “transcendental signified” which in “logocentric” metaphysics is said to put an end to this regress, sails on without resistance.8 Standing, then, within the labyrinth (his metaphor) that is raised by his banishment of metaphysical presence, Derrida writes, in what may seem to be deliberate opposition to the last words of the Tractatus: “Il reste alors à parler, à faire resonner la voix dans les couloirs pour suppléer l'éclat de la présence.”9

As these examples suggest, the idea of nothing, or asymptotic variations on the theme, can provide a powerful tool, if not for levering the world out of the way, then at the very east for imposing strain upon ideas about the world and upon the language in which we habitually express them. It might even be said that the idea of nothing, in one sense or another, appears to be essential if one wants to think about any sort of change at all. To take a gross example, Descartes' theory of physics failed in part because, envisaging the world as an absolute plenum, he was unable to account for the rather basic fact of motion. Nothing might thus be said to provide the necessary lubricant for conceptual change (in other terms, for dialectical negation)—a notion that may provide ambiguous comfort to philosophers who see their solid, carefully constructed plenitudes of thought shot full of holes and ventilated with the winds of absence by their colleagues.



At this point I would like to pause. My own presence here, as a literary specialist among philosophers—as, to reverse the proverb, a pigeon among the cats—is evidence of an attempt to lever myself out of the familiar world of literary texts, and to breathe, if only briefly, a thinner and more bracing air. But this is a situation that inevitably prompts certain anxieties. I have been talking about nothing for several minutes now. Is it possible that I have also been talking abut nothing in another sense—that is, about nothing of very pressing interest to an audience of philosophers?

I am reassured, to some degree, by two considerations. The first is that the air that I breathe in the company of philosophers seems very much like what I am used to in the other—I nearly said “the real”—world of literary studies. Which is to say that the pleasures to be derived from philosophical texts, if more austere, appear similar to those which are offered by confessedly fictive writings. Heidegger's claim that “The metaphorical exists only within the metaphysical” suggests, in the words of Paul Ricoeur, “that the trans-gression of meta-phor and that of meta-physics are but one and the same transfer”; and as Ricoeur himself admits, there is a very considerable “interanimation of philosophical and poetic discourse....”10 The remarks of someone educated on a steady diet of metaphor may thus have at least a scattered metaphysical bearing.

Secondly, I may be able to profit from the generic indeterminacy of the mode of writing, literary criticism, that I have been brought up to practise. One might say that this indeterminacy constitutes a refutation of Wittgenstein's views on the radical heterogeneity of language-games—for contemporary critics or rhetoricians often seem to be playing several language-games at once. Insofar as their writings are descriptive, evaluative analyses of other (usually poetic or fictional) texts, they are literary-critical as such; but they also commonly have philosophical pretensions, and often complete their conflation of speculative and poetic modes of discourse by insisting on their own proper status as literary texts, as metafictions. It is thus possible that some of my remarks may be mistaken for philosophical arguments.

I am not, for all this, quite convinced that under our different plumage we are birds of the same species. Jacques Derrida's inversion of Heidegger's claim that the metaphorical exists only within the metaphysical has been eagerly taken up by many literary theorists, who have a clear professional interest in arguments that reduce philosophy to rhetoric—and in this they have been joined by some philosophers, notably Richard Rorty. Rorty, it seems to me, is right to argue that we should think of philosophy as “a kind of writing.” In his words, to think this

is to stop trying to have a philosophy of language which is “first philosophy,” a view of all possible views, an epistémé epistémés, a bootstrap self-elevation to a point from which all past and future writing can be seen as contained within a permanent framework. Only one who had levitated to such a point would have the right to look down on writing, to view it as a second-best (like Plato) or as an abnormal activity to which sin has condemned him (like Rousseau), or as something which a discipline can dispense with on reaching the secure path of a science.11

But not only does Rorty seem oblivious to the wholly disabling consequences of Derrida's scepticism (which follow, one should remark, from unexamined axioms that are themselves open to challenge);12 he also never bothers to consider whether, and in what sense, there might be different kinds of writing. The argument of Paul Ricoeur that there are fundamental discontinuities between the analogical methods of speculative discourse and the metaphors of poetic discourse is at least worthy of consideration.

But what does it mean to give primacy to metaphor over metaphysics in Derrida's wholesale manner? Ricoeur has suggested that “the 'place' of metaphor, its most intimate and ultimate abode, is neither the name, nor the sentence, nor even discourse, but the copula of the verb to be. The metaphorical 'is' at once signifies both 'is not' and 'is like.'”13 Clearly, Derrida's position is that there can be no such thing as a non-metaphorical 'is'. His use of terms like différance, supplément, trace and so on is consistently designed to show that any use of language initiates a semiological regression of endless indeterminate and supplementary signifiers—an infinite regress of metaphorical substitution. This is especially the case with statements of identity, and in particular with that tautological “I am that I am” which, taken literally, would institute the “transcendental signified,” the end-point of signification, and with it the reign of “logocentric repression” that Derrida is urgently concerned to deconstruct.

We have circled back to the subject with which I began this paper: that of nothing. In Derrida's view of things, metaphor is—the ground, I would like to say, but foundational metaphors are disallowed—metaphor is the ever-present banana-peel beneath the feet of signification; and it cannot be avoided by a detour, for the streets of Derrida's cinquième arrondissement of the mind are paved with banana-peels. The necessary lubricant in these slippery objects is provided, once again, by the idea of nothing. The plenitude, the presence, the ousia evoked by a non-metaphorical 'is' becomes, through Derrida's insistence on metaphor, an ambiguous absence, a trace: for, to repeat Ricoeur's words, “The metaphorical 'is' at once signifies both 'is not' and 'is like.'” We are projected back into the old problem of being and not being, of on kai mé on. And since, within metaphor, 'is like' registers a simultaneous perception both of similitude and of difference—which is to say that 'is like' includes the perception 'is not'—the opposition of two significations within metaphor becomes an anomalous one, in that one of its terms is pervaded by the other. The emphasis of Derrida's arguments this falls heavily on the meontic side, the side of not being, of absence.



The words on kai mé on are not, as might be thought, an Aristotelian phrase: their earliest occurrence seems rather to be in the writings of the sophist Gorgias, as cited by Sextus Empiricus in his Adversus mathematicos (vii, 66). In the concluding section of this paper I would like to consider the possibility that there may be some grain of truth in Nietzsche's doctrine of the eternal return—the possibility that some of what we encounter in the pages of Derrida is not altogether a new thing under the sun, but rather a renovation of the meontic arguments of Gorgias. Gorgias redivivus, one might say. The text to which I will be referring is the long and brilliant essay “La pharmacie de Platon,” which is reprinted in Derrida's book La dissémination.

Although Derrida protects himself by remarking that “cette lecture de Platon n'est à aucun moment animée par quelque slogan ou mot d'ordre du genre 'retour-au-sophistes',”14 his argument is nonetheless profoundly Gorgian.

In saying this I am not referring primarily to his extended use of Gorgias' Encomium of Helen to establish the important point that the analogy (for which Gorgias' term is Logos) between the relation of pharmakon (medicine, or poison) to the body, and that of persuasive logos to the soul is an anomalous analogy, in that one of its terms recurs as the name of he analogy—from which it follows that “Le pharmakon est compris dans la structure du logos.”15 This argument, one notes, is identical in its structure to Derrida's argument on metaphor alluded to above. It forms part of his attempt to show that Plato's dialectic operates in the same manner as the rhetoric of Gorgias, that its claim to be something different is specious. The distribution of pharmakon and its cognates across the semantic field of Plato's dialogues and of Gorgias' Encomium—always in contexts of bewitching, magical, drug- or poison-like effects both of sophistic persuasion and of Socratic dialectic—is used to deconstruct Plato's division of that semantic field between the predatory sophist, that trader in virtue, eristic athlete, and sorcerer, and the true philosopher, the doctor of souls.16 The Platonic logos is undercut by the fact that it is repeatedly supplemented by the pharmakon—so that the Platonic position, as unravelled by Derrida, effectively appears to deconstruct itself.

But this, as I have said, is not the main issue. In describing Derrida's procedures as Gorgian, I am pointing rather to a well-known passage earlier in this essay—a passage which contains no mention of Gorgias—on “the dangerous supplément.” Derrida writes that the supplement is not dangerous,

si l'on peut dire, en soi, dans ce qui en lui pourrait se présenter comme une chose, comme un étant-présent. Il serait alors rassurant. Le supplément, ici, n'est pas, n'est pas un étant (on). Mais il n'est pas non plus un simple non-étant (mé on). Son glissement le dérobe à l'alternative simple de la présence et de l'absence. Tel est le danger.17

I find it hard not to hear this, in context, as an echo of Gorgias' argument in his text On Nature or that which is not (peri tou mé ontos) that “it is not possible [for it] either to be or not to be” (ouk estin oute einai oute mé einai).18 Gorgianic overtones are strengthened when, two paragraphs later, Derrida exemplifies the workings of the Platonic supplément-pharmakon by alluding to what Freud called “kettle-logic”: “1. Le chaudron que je vous rends est neuf; 2. Les trous y étaient déjà quand vous me l'avez preté; 3. Vous ne m'avez d'ailleurs jamais preté de chaudron.”19 Is this not also a displaced reminiscence of the argument of Gorgias' Peri tou mé ontos (which is, precisely, kettle-logic): “firstly, that nothing exists; secondly, that even if anything exists it is inapprehensible by man; thirdly, that even if anything is apprehensible, yet without a doubt it is inexpressible and incommunicable to one's neighbour.”20 Derrida's argument is thus itself anomalous, with respect to its Gorgianic roots, in precisely the same manner as that in which it shows logos to be anomalous. The same form of inquiry that reveals the pharmakon to be embedded in logos also shows Derrida's argument to be itself permeated by the meontic logic of Gorgias.

But what, it may be asked at this point, has all this to do with propaganda? The reduction of Derrida's very complex and wide-ranging writings to a remote echo of the surviving texts of Gorgias (who for all his rhetorical and eristic brilliance seems to have been regarded finally by his younger contemporaries as a slightly silly old man)21 might itself be taken to illustrate two of the basic tactics of the propagandist: namely, relentless oversimplification and deliberate distortion. However, leaving my own rhetoric aside, I would like to suggest that there may exist a different and more subtle link between propaganda and the kind of meontic kettle-logic or sophistic rhetoric that I have been considering.

One familiar way of talking about propaganda is to distinguish between “integrational” and “agitational” propaganda. The former, in the words of Jacques Ellul, is “self-reproducing propaganda that seeks to obtain stable behaviour in terms of the permanent social setting....”22 One might rather say that it is concerned to represent that social setting as permanent, and thus to ensure its permanence by eliminating even the conceptual possibility of radical change. Although it aims to mobilize support for the existing order, its minimal function is to ensure passivity. On the other hand, agitational propaganda, while it may be deployed by governments in time of war, can for present purposes most usefully be understood as oppositional, as a call to subversive action.

There is obviously a structural parallel between these terms and the kind of polemical vocabulary, laden with political metaphors, that commonly surfaces in academic debates over issues of conceptual, as well as social, change. Derrida's treatment of the whole tradition of Western metaphysics as a reign of “logocentric repression,” and his concern (also in De la grammatologie)23 with a liberation of “the semiological project” from the rule of linguistics, is a case in point, as is Umberto Eco's notion of “semiotic guerilla warfare,” which involves “a tactic of decoding where the message as expression form does not change but the addressee recovers his freedom of decoding.”24 Though these political metaphors, like other forms of academic bravado, are vulnerable to a process of rapid trivialization, I believe them to be serious and valid: attacks upon entrenched practices of signification and interpretation are inevitably also ideological.

At this point, however, the analogy with propaganda breaks down—but with paradoxical results. Derrida is not a writer of agitprop. What his subtle and tortuous demystifications of philosophical and literary texts lead to is rather a kind of immobilization, an aporetic recognition of the radical indeterminacy of any text, and of the corresponding instability of any interpretation. But if, as Gerald Graff suggests, this is “a strategy for making texts immune to appropriation by the consumer,” it can hardly be said to strike any very effective blow against the hegemony of consumer capitalism. For, as Graff adds, “the very procedure by which texts are made to seem unmanageable rather easily becomes a critical commodity fetish—that is, the styles of resisting commodification themselves become commodities.”25 I wonder whether students of Derridean eristic do not also rather easily become political speechwriters.26

I began by talking about nothing, and by hoping that you might see some difference in my words between this and having nothing to say. In the latter part of this paper, I have been suggesting that there may be another current meaning to 'having nothing to say'—a meaning which, in literary-critical circles at least, has in recent years become distinctly trendy.

But to have nothing to say, in the sense of believing that anything that might possibly be said could lead one only to a paralyzing aporia, is to abandon the field of public discourse to other people who have a great deal to say (not all of it entirely stupid)—but who are wholly untroubled by such irritating scruples as concern for rules of evidence, for canons of intellectual probity, and for the perpetuation of traditions of independent critical thought.




1  My source for this, perhaps appropriately, is an anonymous, unpaginated text: The Quotable Nothing Book (Philadelphia: Running Press, 1980).

2  The Philosophical Works of Descartes, trans. E. S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross (2 vols., 1911; rpt. Cambridge University Press, 1973), vol. 1, p. 149.

3  Lucretius, De rerum natura libri sex, ed. Cyril Bailey (2nd ed, 1922; rpt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954), i. 968-83. I owe this reference to A. D. Nuttall, Dostoevsky's “Crime and Punishment”: Murder as Philosophic Experiment (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, for Sussex University Press, 1978), p. 123.

4  Cited from The Quotable Nothing Book.

5  See Samuel Beckett, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable (Paris: Olympia Press, 1959). We are perhaps entering a discursive space alluded to later in this essay—one marked out by the sophist Gorgias's claim, in his Peri tou mé ontos, “firstly, that nothing exists; secondly, that even if anything exists it is inapprehensible by man; thirdly, that even if anything is apprehensible, yet without a doubt it is inexpressible and incommunicable to one's neighbour.”

6  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness (1961; rpt. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974), pp. 56, 74, 3.

7  See, for example, Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. W. Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1968), section 516, pp. 279-80.

8  Cf. Jacques Derrida, De la grammatologie (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1967), chapters 1 and 2.

9  Derrida, La voix et la phénomène: Introduction au problème du signe dans la phénomenologie de Husserl (1967; rpt. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1983), p. 117. Newton Garver, in his preface to the English translation (Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs, trans. D. B. Allison [Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973], pp. xxviii-xxix), anticipates me in drawing a link between this sentence and the first proposition of Wittgenstein's Tractatus.

10  Paul Ricoeur, “Metaphor and philosophical discourse,” in Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-disciplinary studies of the creation of meaning in language, trans. Robert Czerny et al. (1977; rpt. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981), pp. 280, 259.

11  Richard Rorty, “Philosophy as a Kind of Writing: An Essay on Derrida,” New Literary History 10 (1978), 159.

12  See, for example, the arguments of A. D. Nuttall in the first chapter of A New Mimesis: Shakespeare and the representation of reality (London: Methuen, 1983).

13  Ricoeur, p. 7.

14  Derrida, La dissémination (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1972), p. 123.

15  Ibid., p. 133.

16  See Plato's Sophist 223b, 224c, 231d-e, 235a, 230b-c for his arguments justifying these epithets.

17  Derrida, La dissémination, p. 124.

18  I am quoting from the work (often attributed to Aristotle) as cited by G. B. Kerferd, “Gorgias on nature or that which is not,” Phronesis 1 (1955), 6-7. As Kerferd observes, there are several possible different English renderings of this passage.

19  Derrida, La dissémination, p. 126.

20  Gorgias, Peri tou mé ontos, as reported by Sextus Empiricus, Against the Logicians, i. 65 (=Adversus mathematicos, vii. 65). The translation given here conflates the version of R. G. Bury, Sextus Empiricus (4 vols.; Loeb Classical Library; London: Heinemann, 1933-49), vol. 2, p. 35, with that provided in R. K. Sprague, ed., The Older Sophists (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1972), p. 42.

21  Cf. the comments of Athanasius on that “kind of rhetoric ... which is concerned with something ridiculous, awakening the guffaws of the young and being basically a shameless flattery. The circle of Thrasymachus and Gorgias practiced this in style and in their invalid arguments....” (Sprague, The Older Sophists, p. 48).

22  Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes, trans. K. Kellen and J. Lerner (New York: Vintage, 1973), p. 75; quoted from A. P. Foulkes, Literature and Propaganda (London: Methuen, 1983), p. 11.

23  De la grammatologie, p. 74.

24  Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 1977), p. 150; quoted from Foulkes, Literature and Propaganda, p. 31.

25  Gerald Graff, “The Pseudo-Politics of Interpretation,” Critical Inquiry 9.3 (March 1983), 606-07.

26  This question received an answer, for me at least, a decade after this paper was written and delivered, when one of the students I had guided through some of Derrida's texts in the University of Guelph's MA theory course became a speechwriter for Ontario's neoconservative Premier, Mike Harris. (Perhaps, if anyone was to blame for this outcome, it was the teacher rather than the texts.)