A strange saga: Despite reports and fans, a heritage bridge in Eden Mills is in danger of being destroyed

First published in The Record, Kitchener, Ont. (30 May 1998): A19.

Eramosa Township may be the only place in Canada where a man can saunter out of his house at 6 o'clock on a Monday evening, stumble home at 3 a.m., tell his wife he's spent the intervening hours at a meeting of the township council, and be believed.

It's not that people are abnormally gullible in this little corner of rural Ontario, or that we're so tired of life we have nothing better to do than cool our heels in the township's barren council chambers. Yet odd things have been happening in those chambers recently, and the oddest of them have to do with the heritage Bowstring Bridge in my own village of Eden Mills.

Just 50 miles west of downtown Toronto, a side road winds down from the Guelph Line into the Eramosa River valley.

The houses on either side are mostly mid-19th century and there are two stone churches of the same vintage, a stage-coach hotel (now a private home) and a couple of ruined mills.

If you've had the good sense to bring a canoe, you can drift on the millpond (restored by villagers with 3,000 hours of volunteer labor and $60,000 worth of fund-raising), encountering beaver, snapping turtles, kingfishers, a great blue heron—or perhaps even the osprey that pulled a bass out of the pond not 30 feet from where I was swimming two summers ago.

The population swells

Sleepy Hollow? Hardly. On the second Sunday of September every year, thanks again to the work of volunteers, this village hosts one of Canada's major literary events, the Eden Mills Writers' Festival, where many of our finest writers give open-air readings of their works, and the village's population swells for the day from 350 to as much as 5,000.

But Eden Mills has also become the focal point of a long-running political controversy. In the middle of the village, straddling the east branch of the Eramosa, stands the Bowstring Bridge—a graceful survivor of pre-First World War technology, and a structure, according to the Ontario Ministry of Culture's conservation review board, that is of provincial, national and international heritage significance.

In the United States, heritage experts tell us, this bridge would be protected by inclusion in the National Registry of Historic Sites. But since we are in Eramosa, township council wants to tear it down. And although the Ontario government has assessment procedures that are designed to prevent such aberrations, no one seems willing to apply them.

But I'm getting ahead of my story. It wasn't until late in 1993 that council, which had previously supported retaining the heritage bridge, for unknown reasons changed its mind.

Threat was frightening

A majority of village residents petitioned council to preserve the bridge; it responded in the spring of 1994 by threatening to impose an area tax levy of some $2,500 per household for the full cost of bridge repairs. Although clearly illegal, this threat frightened some villagers.

Over the following months, the evidence in favour of retaining the bridge mounted. Council members learned that the provincial Ministry of Culture rates the bridge high among Ontario's heritage bridges, and Ministry of Transportation officials stated that it could be rehabilitated for a fraction of the cost of a new bridge.

Village residents secured assessments of the bridge by three experts of international standing in heritage architecture, traffic engineering and urban planning. All three recommended its rehabilitation, on grounds that included heritage factors, pedestrian and traffic safety, and the village's social and economic well-being.

These recommendations were echoed by the 82-page report of a committee of council itself. The provincial minister of Culture wrote to offer her assistance and co-operation in preserving the bridge.

But council wasn't going to let its head be turned by mere facts, or by such trifling considerations as democratic due process. On Aug. 22, 1994, council announced that it would not have space on its Sept. 6 agenda to hear any delegations from Eden Mills.

But at that Sept. 6 meeting, a previously tabled motion was revived—even though the bridge wasn't on the agenda and even though no formal notice had been given. At 2:15 a.m., an unusual hour for business of any kind, let alone business not on the agenda, council voted to replace the bridge.

One might think that even the most mulish township council wouldn't want to repeat a trick like that. But this council has since openly proclaimed its intention to “open up Eden Mills to the trucking industry.” We're not talking subtle here.

Early this year, the Ontario Ministry of Culture's conservation review board held a three-day hearing about whether or not the bridge's heritage status should be removed so council can demolish it.

On April 6, 1998, the board announced that it found the evidence in favour of preserving the bridge “overwhelming.” The board found Eramosa Township council to be in contravention of the Ontario Heritage Act, declared that demolition would contravene the township's own official plan and the Grand Strategy (the Canadian Heritage River management plan for the Grand River basin, which includes the Eramosa), and stated that Council needed to do a full environmental assessment of the project.

Reeve David Adsett announced a public meeting on Aril 14 to discuss these findings. On April 12 he cancelled this meeting, promising to re-schedule it. And then, on April 20, with no public notice and at a meeting whose agenda contained no inkling of the matter, his council voted—in defiance of the conservation review board's report—to remove the bridge's heritage designation and to let tenders for its demolition.

A fight is brewing

The Friends of Eden Mills, a group of local ratepayers, has taken the township to court; a judicial review of the township's decisions is scheduled for the week of June 3.

As might be expected from a village like Eden Mills, there's a literary angle to the story. Jeffrey Stinson, the heritage architect who assessed the Bowstring Bridge in 1994, is an expert on the 1925-1930 construction of Toronto's Bloor Street viaduct over the Don Valley—an engineering feat that forms the context for Michael Ondaatje's novel In The Skin Of A Lion.

In his 1994 assessment, Stinson went so far as to compare the Bowstring Bridge to to the Bloor Street viaduct: “Although from the perspective of a government official at Queen's Park this bridge may seem small and distant,” he wrote, “it is of greater importance to this locale than the much larger bridges over the Don Valley are to the Toronto community, which interacts with them in less significant ways.”

If township succeeds in demolishing the Bowstring Bridge, something more precious than steel and concrete will be lost. The bridge is at the heart of Eden Mills: it keeps fast, heavy traffic out and safeguards the human scale of a village that is unique in retaining a largely 19th-century streetscape.

So what are Eramosa council's motives for destroying this bridge and gutting our village? What exactly is being hidden—development interests, aggregate hauling interests—inside the skin of this mule?


Michael Keefer of Eden Mills wrote Lunar Perspectives and is a professor at the University of Guelph.







Violence and Extremity: Nashe's Unfortunate Traveller as an Anatomy of Abjection

Nashe has carried out a reinscription of abjection, in which the victims of aggression are reconfigured as the aggressors, abjection is transformed into the truculence by means of which actual historical abjection was produced, and the victimized Jews and Moors expelled from Spain are reinscribed as the [murderous] Esdras of Granada and Zacharie of Rome [...].

Read More

Sidney’s Aesthetic of Delight

Sidney is aware not just of the applicability of an Augustinian psychology of delight to the problem of legitimizing poetry, but also of the fact that once applied, it may be less likely to lead one into the chaste embraces of Continence than into a warm involvement with the folds and protrusions of the beloved's, and one's own, fleshly garment [...]. 

Read More

Henricus Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim

[First published in The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward Craig (10 vols.; London and New York: Routledge, 1998), vol. 1, pp. 130-33.]


Henricus Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535)

Famous in the sixteenth century for writings in which he steps forward variously as magician, occultist, evangelical humanist and philosopher, Agrippa shared with other humanist writers a thoroughgoing contempt for the philosophy of the scholastics. In his more evangelical moods Agrippa could be taken for a radical exponent of the philosophia Christi of his older contemporary Erasmus, or mistaken for a follower of Luther, whose early writings he actively disseminated in humanist circles. However, his deepest affinities are with magically inflected philosophies: the Neoplatonism and Hermetism of Marsilio Ficino, and the syncretic Christian Cabala of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Johannes Reuchlin and Johannes Trithemius.

As well as expounding an influential magical view of language, Agrippa contributed to the sixteenth-century revival of scepticism, denounced the “tyranny” of those who obstructed a free search for truth, criticized the subjection of women and (with a courage unusual in his time) resisted and mocked the instigators of the witch-craze. Finding in Hermetic-Cabalistic doctrines the inner truth both of religion and of philosophy, Agrippa was also aware of parallels between these magical doctrines and the Gnostic heresies. His heterodoxy made him a target for pious slanders: within several decades of his death he became the protagonist of demonological fictions which were soon absorbed into the legend of Doctor Faustus.


1  Life

2  Verbal magic

3  Agrippa as sceptic and free-thinker

4  Agrippa as feminist

5  Agrippa's philosophical influence


1  Life

Born to a family of the lesser nobility in Cologne (from whose Latin name, Colonia Agrippina, he drew his humanist cognomen), Agrippa took his first degree at Cologne in 1502; after further studies in Paris and elsewhere, he claimed to have doctorates in canon law, civil law and medicine—and also to have been knighted in recognition of military service.

In 1508 he took part in an unsuccessful military adventure which a secret occultist society of which he was a member undertook in Spain, possibly at the behest of the emperor Maximilian I. Members of this society subsequently became prominent in French humanist and court circles, providing Agrippa with a network of supporters upon whom, as his reputation for encyclopedic learning grew, he was able to draw in his searches for patronage. When in 1509 he lectured on Reuchlin's Cabalist philosophy at the University of Dôle in Franche-Comté and wrote De nobilitate, Agrippa had hopes of preferment in the court of Margaret of Austria, regent of Franche-Comté and the Low Countries. These were dashed when he was denounced at court by a prominent Franciscan as a “judaizing heretic.” Returning to Germany, he completed the first version of De occulta philosophia in 1510, and in the same year travelled to England, apparently in the service of Maximilian I.

For the first several years of his Italian sojourn, which lasted from 1511 to 1518, Agrippa continued to serve the emperor both as diplomat and soldier. But by 1515 he was lecturing on the Hermetica at the University of Pavia—a position which he promptly lost, along with his library and other possessions, after the French victory at Marignano. In 1518 Agrippa moved north again, taking up a position as city orator and advocate in Metz. Intervening there in the case of a woman accused of witchcraft, he secured her freedom, recovered her property, and accused the inquisitor responsible for torturing her of heresy. But this and other instances of resistance to tyranny and obscurantism made him unpopular with the orthodox. He returned to Cologne in 1520, lived from 1521 to 1523 in Geneva (where he was at the centre of a group of reforming tendencies), and then moved to Fribourg, where he practised medicine.

In 1524 Agrippa secured a place at the French royal court at Lyons as personal physician to the queen mother, Louise de Savoy. But by 1526 he was in trouble, having rashly revealed his sympathy for the rebellious Duc de Bourbon and the emperor Charles V, who was at war with king François I. During the same year Agrippa wrote De vanitate, which includes a vehement critique of the corruption and venality of court life. Perhaps as a result, his salary was withheld, while at the same time he was refused permission to leave the court.

Dismissed at last in 1528, Agrippa obtained a place in the court of Margaret of Austria at Antwerp as historiographer to the emperor Charles V. But when Margaret died in late 1530 he was again unable to secure payment for his services. And he was now in more serious trouble. The printing of De vanitate in 1530 had earned him condemnations from the theological faculties of Paris and Louvain, which led to difficulties with the imperial privy council. In 1531 the printing of a much expanded version of De occulta philosophia was blocked after the first of its three books had been printed; two years later, thanks to the patronage of the reform-minded Archbishop of Cologne, Agrippa was able to see this book and several others, including De nobilitate and a commentary on the art of Ramon Lull, through the press.

Returning in 1535 to Lyons, Agrippa was imprisoned by François I for having written against Louise de Savoy. Released through the intervention of friends, he died shortly afterwards in Grenoble.


2  Verbal magic

Agrippa derived from the Neoplatonists (and ultimately of course from the Cratylus) the view that the power inherent in natural things lives on and is latent in “the form of the signification” (DOP, I. lxx). Because the hidden powers of things proceed in the first place from celestial causes, and because the celestial powers which move the elemental world, acting from circumference to centre, originate with “the word of God, which word the wise Chaldeans of Babylon call the cause of causes,” it follows that the philosopher or magician whose words can draw upon the power of this originary creative Word should be able to intervene powerfully in the natural order (DOP, II. lx). Agrippa's insistence on the purely natural quality of verbal magic cannot disguise the heterodox implication of this view of language, which is that the magician can get in at the top of the hierarchical structure of the cosmos because his “mysterious words” and “ingenious speech” draw upon the power contained within God's Word—a term which refers to the canonical scriptures as well as to Christ, the creative Logos.


3  Agrippa as sceptic and free-thinker

The main purpose of De vanitate is to being the reader to a position of Christian fideism (though one in which Christian faith is thoroughly infused with Hermetic and Cabalistic motifs). To this end Agrippa's chapter on logic makes a brief but effective deployment of sceptical arguments. Aristotle's principles of demonstration, he argues, require an understanding of causes and principles to which we give our assent on the basis either of authority or of sense-based experience (for knowledge is agreed to arise from the senses, and Averroes makes agreement with sensible things a criterion of truth). But the senses are often deceived, and furthermore cannot to the intellectual level at which we encounter the causes of lower things. It is therefore manifest that “the way of the truth is shut up from the senses,” and that sciences rooted in them are “uncertain, erroneous and deceitful” (De vanitate, cap. 7). Appeals to authority are no more acceptable, since the final recourse of the scholastics against those who deny the first principles of their science is to violence, “so that of philosophers they are made torturers and hangmen, since they compel us by force to confess that which they should teach by reason” (cap. 1).


4  Agrippa as feminist

In De nobilitate Agrippa argues that “between man and woman by the substance of the soul one has no higher pre-eminence of nobility above the other, but both have by nature equal liberty of dignity and worthiness. Yet in all other respects, apart from the divine substance of the soul, the excellence and nobility of womankind surpasses beyond limit the rude gross nature of men.” Some of the examples with which he develops this claim are deliberately frivolous, and yet he does insistently challenge the misogynist legal culture by which women, “being subdued as it were by force of arms, are constrained to give place to men, and to obey their subduers, not by any natural or divine necessity or reason, but by custom, education, fortune, and a certain tyrannical occasion.” François Rabelais's portrait of Agrippa as Herr Trippa, an occultist who is ready to predict Panurge's cuckoldry by all the magical arts at his disposal, while remaining unaware that the court lackeys are lining up to frolic with his own wife (Le tiers libre des faicts et dicts héroiques du bon Pantagruel [1546], ch. 25), can be understood as a sardonic response to Agrippa's feminism. A more positive response is evident in Johannes Wier's De praestigiis daemonum (1563), a book which in some parts of western Europe had a moderating effect upon the witch-hunts of the time: Wier, who had been Agrippa's student, adopted his opinion that the elderly women who were the prime targets of the witch-hunters were suffering from melancholia rather than demonic possession, and that Christians should give them spiritual and material comfort rather than persecuting and torturing them.


5  Agrippa's philosophical influence

The apparent contradiction between the sceptical fideism of De vanitate and the encyclopedic syncretism of De occulta philosophia is to some extent dissipated by Agrippa's reliance in both books upon a Hermetic-Cabalistic doctrine of spiritual rebirth and deification. However, Agrippa is neither a coherent nor in most respects an original thinker. His most strongly voiced opinions are often taken verbatim from the works of Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico and Johannes Reuchlin, and since he typically appears more interested in assembling diverse opinions on a subject than in assessing their relative truth, his own impulses may seem more antiquarian than philosophical. (Given the hostility he encountered from theologians of the mendicant orders from 1509 onwards, one may suspect that he was content to allow the material he had assembled to work within the reader's mind, without himself taking the risk of underlining its heterodox implications.)

Agrippa was widely read for well over a century after his death. He was, on the one hand, denounced by Jean Calvin in De scandalis (1550) as a mocker of sacred truths in the vein of Lucian of Samosata, by Jean Bodin in De la démonomanie des sorciers (1581) as the leading sorcerer of his age, and by André Thevet in Les vrais pourtraits et view des hommes illustres (1584) as having spawned hordes both of scoffers and magicians. On the other hand, his works were also cited and echoed by literary figures ranging from Jean de la Taille to Sir Philip Sidney, Fulke Greville, Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe, as well as by occult philosophers from John Dee and Giordano Bruno to Thomas Vaughan. Moreover, Michel de Montaigne's scepticism, which represents man as “naked and empty, acknowledging his natural weakness, apt to receive from above some strange power, disfurnished of human knowledge, and so much the more fit to harbour divine understanding, nullifying his judgment so as to give more place to faith” (Essais II. xii, vol. 1, p. 562), is clearly indebted to Agrippa's De vanitate. Perhaps more significantly, it has recently been argued that René Descartes's writings, from the early Olympica and Cogitationes privatae (1619-21) to the Meditations (1641), make sustained use of motifs derived from the philosophical Hermetica, and that Descartes' understanding of the Hermetic writings was conditioned by his early reading of Agrippa (see Keefer 1996).


List of Works:

Agrippa, Henricus Cornelius (1509, printed 1532) De nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus, Cologne; Of the Nobilitie and Excellencie of Womankynde, trans. Thomas Clapham (1542), London.

------ (1526, printed 1530) De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum et artium atque excellentia verbi dei declamatio, Cologne; Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences, trans. James Sanford (1569), ed. Catherine M. Dunn (1974), Northridge: California State University Press.

------ (1533) De occulta philosophia libri tres, Cologne; Three Books of Occult Philosophy, trans. James Freake (1651), ed. Donald Tyson (1993), St. Paul, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications.

------ (c. 1600) Opera, 2 vols., Lyons; ed. R. H. Popkin (1970), facsimile rpt., Hildesheim and New York: Georg Olms Verlag.


References and further reading:

Hermes Trismegistus [pseud.] (1992) Hermetica, ed. Brian P. Copenhaver, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (The best English translation of writings in which Agrippa was obsessively interested.)

Jordan, Constance (1990) Renaissance Feminism: Literary Texts and Political Models, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. (Includes an analysis of Agrippa's place on the feminist side of Renaissance debates on the status of women.)

Keefer, Michael (1988) “Agrippa's Dilemma: Hermetic 'Rebirth' and the Ambivalences of De vanitate and De occulta philosophia,” Renaissance Quarterly 41: 614-53. (Explores the commonalities and divergences of Agrippa's two major works in terms of their deployment of motifs derived from the Hermetica and their author's awareness of parallels between Hermetic texts and Gnostic heresies.)

------ (1996) “The Dreamer's Path: Descartes and the Sixteenth Century,” Renaissance Quarterly 49: 30-76. (Referred to in §5, this essay argues that Agrippa's writings led Descartes to Hermetic texts which were decisive in shaping his philosophical project.)

Montaigne, Michel de (1962) Essais de Montaigne, 2 vols., ed. M. Rat, Paris: Éditions Garnier Frères.

Nauert, Charles G., Jr. (1965) Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought, Urbana: University of Illinois Press. (The standard biography and the most detailed study of Agrippa's thought.)

Tomlinsin, Gary (1993) Music in Renaissance Magic: Toward a Historiography of Others, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, pp. 44-66. (The best summary account available of Agrippa's magic.)

Yates, Frances A. (1964) Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. (This compulsively readable account of Renaissance magical traditions includes a rather dismissive account of De occulta philosophia.)

------ (1979) The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. (Gives greater emphasis than Yates' previous books to the influence of Kabbalah on Renaissance occult philosophy.)

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

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

------ (1985) “Scholastiker und Humanisten: Agrippa und Trithemius zur Hexerei,” Archiv für Kulturgeschichte 67: 41-79. (These and other articles by the leading Agrippa scholar have been crucial in situating his writings in relation to Erasmian humanism, the radical Reformation, and overlapping views of magic and witchcraft.)

“Inter inextricabiles ... difficultatum tenebras”: Ficino's Pimander and the Gendering of Cartesian Subjectivity

[First published in Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme New Series 22.1 (1998):23-34. Available online at CNRS: CAT.INIST, http://cat.inist.fr/?aModele=afficheN&cpsidt=2009653; and at http://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/renref/article/viewFile/10846/7747.]


Summary: After reviewing the evidence that Descartes' philosophical itinerary was to a significant degree shaped by a reading of the Hermetic writings translated by Ficino, this article proposes that, in the Cartesian and Hermetic texts alike, the body from which an emergent autonomous subjectivity seeks to separate itself is gendered female. Some of the implications of this argument are explored through a reading of Marvell's poem “The Garden,” which is seen here as a parallel response to the Hermetic texts.


The Latin words of my title are from the concluding sentence of Descartes' first Meditation. In this quite labyrinthine passage Descartes is telling us how difficult he finds it to resist the hypothetical evil genius, to take his belief in his own body to be the result of daimonic deceptions, and to suspend all judgments. This task, he says,

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 should follow the tranquillity of this repose should have to be spent not in daylight, but—inter inextricabiles ... difficultatum tenebras—in the pathless shadows of the difficulties which have just been discussed.1

The Cartesian persuasions of which this is a striking sample are a matter, very largely, of divestment—a divestment by Descartes not just of his former opinions, beliefs and prejudices, but also of his material body.

As I have argued at length in an essay published in the Spring 1996 issue of Renaissance Quarterly,2 this philosopher's itinerary needs to be set within the context of philosophical texts which, if scarcely respectable in the eyes of most contemporary philosophers and historians of philosophy, were nonetheless read throughout Western Europe—often with a respect bordering on reverence—between the latter part of the fifteenth century and the mid-seventeenth century. I refer to writings which make up a part of what we now call the Hermetica, or Corpus Hermeticum, and which were translated from Greek to Latin by Marsilio Ficino in 1463 under the title of The Pimander of Mercurius Trismegistus, On the Power and Wisdom of God: Mercurii Trismegisti Pymander, de potestate et sapientia dei.3

In the first of these dialogues, which is a significant intertext for the passage I have just quoted from Descartes' first Meditation, what is at issue is also a matter of enslavement, confinement and subjection: we, who are enveloped in the shadows of ignorance (ignorantiae tenebris involuti), are exhorted by the Hermetic writer to return to the wakeful state in which we were created and recover our true selves by escaping from “the enticements of irrational sleep.”4 The project of the Hermetic texts which I believe Descartes to have read and reflected on in the course of working out his own philosophical itinerary is also one of divestment, and of an autonomous and incorporeal self's escape from “the irrational afflictions of matter,”5 from a darkness, a shadow or umbra which is identified with a material nature that is explicitly gendered feminine, and identified as well with corporeality, the senses of the body, and with death.6

My argument for the relationship between Descartes' central philosophical writings and certain of the writings attributed to the entirely legendary Egyptian sage Hermes Trismegistus is not merely a matter of the ways in which some of the Hermetic dialogues anticipate the movement of Descartes' thought from a rejection both of previously accepted opinions (“the deceptions of the world”)7 and of corporeality, to a perception of the self as autonomous and irreducibly incorporeal, an abstract knowledge of God, and a distinction between the domain of mind and that of what one Hermetic writer calls “three-dimensional corporeality”8—or, in Cartesian terms, res cogitans and res extensa. I have re-examined, possibly in greater contextual detail than previous scholars, the evidence that Descartes' early reading included such sixteenth-century Hermetists as Cornelius Agrippa and Baptista Porta—and also the anonymous work Arbatel de magia, which was printed with Agrippa's Opera omnia, and which contains a series of aphorisms about the benefits to be derived from commerce with what Arbatel (whoever he or she may have been) calls Olympic spirits, or spirits of Olympus. This is arguably the source both of the title of that lost early work, Olympica, in which Descartes recorded his dreams of November 10, 1619, and of the remarks about “the things of Olympus” and the metaphorical equivalence of spirit and wind that survive among the passages transcribed by Leibniz from Descartes' early manuscripts.9 As I have also argued, there is compelling evidence to suggest that Descartes was familiar (in one of the many sixteenth-century editions of Ficino's Pimander) with the Hermetic texts to which these writers so incessantly refer; and furthermore, that the revelatory dream-experience of November 10, 1619, which constitutes what I have called the primal scene of Cartesian philosophy, follows a Hermetic paradigm established in the first, fourth, seventh, and thirteenth tractates of the Pimander. This paradigm is one in which a dualist ascesis, deliberately undertaken, leads to a state of extreme distress accompanied by fears of madness, and thence to religious enthusiasm, divine revelation, an assurance of mental autonomy, and the arrival, with gnostic certitude, of an unshakable and divinely authenticated knowledge. All of these elements are present in the Olympica manuscript in which Descartes recorded his dream-revelation—a text which, though lost (or, more probably, deliberately destroyed) in the early eighteenth century, we have some access to through the paraphrase of it by Baillet, Descartes' first biographer, and the excerpts copied from the manuscript by Leibniz in the 1670s.

One of the advantages of this kind of approach to the Cartesian textual corpus is that it makes possible a recognition in these texts of recurrent metaphorical exchanges, involving figures which signify corporeality, mental autonomy, and a daimonic force that threatens any possible autonomy. In these metaphorical exchanges one can trace the self-representation of Cartesian subjectivity at the moment of its emergence. As I would now like to emphasize, this emergence is bound up with a rejection of the Cartesian body. Explicitly in the Hermetic writings and implicitly in Descartes, this body is feminine: in its absence and exile it guarantees the masculinity of the wholly intellectual subject whose dark other it has become.

Let us consider briefly the structure of the three dreams of November 10, 1619—dreams which constitute the primal scene of Cartesian philosophy and the moment Descartes would identify in his Discourse on Method as the starting-point of his philosophical itinerary. The second and third dreams—an anunciatory warning and a revelation from “l'Esprit de Vérité”10 (the third person of the Christian trinity: Descartes was not a very modest young man)—are less interesting than the first, which images both a mind-body split and the purported attainment of mental autonomy.

In this dream, Descartes, walking at night in the street, encounters “quelques fantômes,” by whom the entire right side of his body is struck with weakness; when he attempts to straighten himself, he is attacked by a wind which he identifies as an evil genius, and spun around like a top. Seeking refuge from this wind, he directs himself towards a collège, intending to shelter in its chapel—only to find that that the evil spirit, the wind, is pushing him in precisely that direction, toward the church. In Descartes' own words, quoted by Baillet in the margin of his paraphrase, A malo Spiritu ad Templum propellebar.11 This is a perfect image of psychic overdetermination. However, the dream throws up obstacles to Descartes' entering the church: an unnamed gentleman, who tells him another gentleman wishes to give him a melon; and a group of people among whom he is able finally to arrest his movement toward the church.

In at least two subsequent texts Descartes returns to this primal scene of a night-time encounter with phantoms in the street. In Part Two of the Discourse on Method, speaking of his thought-processes of November 1619 and of what he claims was his initial formulation of the program of systematic doubt, Descartes appears to be remembering his crippled state in that primal scene: “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.”12 This allusion to the 1619 dreams is well known: as Georges Poulet remarked a half-century ago, “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.”13 But another more important allusion to what I have called the primal scene of Cartesian philosophy seems largely to have escaped the notice of commentators. In the unfinished dialogue La recherche de la vérité par la lumière naturelle (c. 1635), Descartes responds to objections against the systematic doubt that 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.”14

This passage is important because it links the evil genius which is allied to the phantoms of the 1619 dream with the evil genius which appears in the Meditations of 1641 as the hyperbolic form of systematic doubt. In 1619 the phantoms, seconded by the evil genius which is also a wind, block Descartes from pursuing his itinerary, which is fleetingly figured in the first dream (where was he going when the phantoms appeared before him?), and which becomes an explicit object of concern in the third dream when Descartes seeks out in an anthology of poetry the line of Ausonius, Quod vitae sectabor iter: “What path in life shall I follow?”15 The 1619 phantoms and evil genius are intimately connected with corporeality: the latter strikes the dreamer with such lameness that he is scarcely able to stand. The evil genius of 1619 is also very clearly a force of daimonic overdetermination. The fact that the dreamer is pushed by this explicitly evil power towards the church he is struggling to reach as a refuge from that same power confronts him with an insoluble riddle: is his decision to seek out the church autonomous or overdetermined? In the Meditations of 1641 the daimonic power of the evil genius is confined to the epistemic level (in that sense this power is a less urgent menace than its predecessor, who infects the dreamer's very acts of choice with uncertainty). But the link between the early evil genius and the later one is confirmed by the fact that La recherche de la vérité identifies the phantoms of the primal scene with the argument of systematic doubt. Whether in dream or in philosophical argument, Descartes' itinerary involves a confrontation with the phantoms and the evil genius.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Descartes' early fragmentary texts is that they appear to have contained instructions as to their own interpretation. In a passage transcribed by Leibniz that probably formed part of the Olympica, Descartes wrote: Sensibilia apta concipiendis Olympicis: ventus spiritum significat. (“Sensible things enable us to conceive the things of Olympus: wind signifies spirit.”) What then of the phantoms? Are they not also a metaphorical vehicle? In another sentence from what must be the same passage, Descartes tells us that metaphorical exchanges can work in more than one direction:

Just as the imagination uses figures to conceive bodies [Ut imaginatio utitur figuris ad corpora concipiendis], so the intellect uses certain sensible bodies to figure spiritual things [ita intellectus utitur quibusdam corporibus sensibilibus ad spiritualia figuranda].

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 wind, in the first dream of 1619, signifies the evil genius, then (I would suggest) the phantoms signify the body from which it had apparently been the dreamer's waking project to divorce himself. And if the phantoms are nothing but air and shadow (“rien, que de l'air et de l'ombre”), that connects them once again to the body. For, as I proposed in my Renaissance Quarterly article, the words ombre and umbra had resonances in Descartes' time that they have lost for modern ears. In his Theologia Platonica Ficino explains the umbra or shadow as the term applied by the “ancient theologians” to the “elemental murk” (caligo elementalis) with which the soul is surrounded, most especially during this life. The same associations appear in Iamblichus' De mysteriis Aegyptiis, which Ficino translated, and in one of Iamblichus' and Ficino's common sources, the first dialogue of the Hermetic Pimander—where, in Ficino's translation, the key word is again umbra, and the insistent lesson is of a separation of mind from body which will free the self from the deceptions of the senses.16

What these Hermetic intertexts also suggest is that the Cartesian body is gendered—and that its gender is feminine. For the first revelation dialogue of the Hermetic Pimander is, among other things, a revisionary account of the Fall of Man (and here one must use “man,” rather than any less strongly gendered word). Unlike the biblical Adam, the Hermetic Primal Man is divine and incorporeal: it is only because he wishes, like his Father, to create something that he descends through the encircling planetary spheres to the world. Nature, by this account, is watery and feminine, the product of a cloudy darkness (umbra) that unfolded itself from the primordial light. She sees the approach of this divine figure, loves him, and reflects back at him his own beautiful image, by which he is in turn infatuated.

Loving, like Narcissus (or like Milton's Eve), his own image, the Primal Man descends into nature and becomes entrapped, through this misrecognition, in corporeality and sexual reproduction. The Hermetic gnosis is thus a narrative of the entrapment of masculine mind in an order of passive-receptive, shadowed, and deceptive materiality that is also explicitly feminine, and the Hermetic texts contain a corresponding prescription of an ascesis of self-recognition and dematerialization that is also, very explicitly, a rejection and devaluation of the feminine.17

Am I being too wildly speculative in suggesting that something very close to this structure of thought is implicit in the primal scene out of which emerged the autonomous Cartesian subjectivity—a subjectivity to which most commentators would not dream of attributing the characteristic of gender?

Let us return to one particular moment in Descartes' first dream of November 10, 1619—the moment at which, fleeing from his phantoms or shadows toward the refuge of a church, and recognizing suddenly that the wind which has allied itself to these terrors is pushing him willy-nilly in the direction he has already chosen for himself, Descartes meets someone who tells him that a certain gentleman wishes to give him a melon. He is not yet able to stop; the wind pushes him on.18

What is this melon? Late-seventeenth and eighteenth-century readers, recognizing sexual overtones in the image, responded to this detail of the Olympica narrative in Baillet's Vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes (1693) with belly-laughs. But what, more precisely, does it mean?

Perhaps Descartes' English contemporary Andrew Marvell can help us here—for in his poem “The Garden,” written in the early 1650s, Marvell records a more directly erotic encounter with melons. There is some reason to think that this poem can be appropriately discussed in conjunction with the Cartesian meditations. Writings of the recently-deceased Descartes were known by this time in certain English circles: the Cambridge philosopher Henry More had corresponded with Descartes in the late 1640s,19 and by the mid-1650s at least one English thinker had convinced himself that Descartes' philosophy belonged to the category of “Mysticall Theology” or “Enthusiasme” which, thanks to the work of religious radicals like John Everard, had become an important part of the intellectual and political ferment of the Civil War and Commonwealth years.20 (It is relevant to note that Everard’s contributions to this ferment included English translations of the Hermetic writings and of related mystical and theosophical texts.)21

The central conceit of Marvell's “The Garden” is that it substitutes for male-female heterosexual desire an eroticism of solipsism and tautology. The poet attaches himself not to the colours of a woman's body, but to those of nature: “No white nor red was ever seen / So am'rous as this lovely green.”22 And unlike “Fond lovers, cruel as their Flame,” who “Cut in these Trees their Mistress name,” he, like a demented Adam naming the things of Paradise, cries out that he will inscribe them only with their own names: “Fair Trees! where s'eer you[r] barkes I wound, / No name shall but your own be found.” In Marvell's Latin version of the poem, this passage is expanded in a manner that literalizes the conceit:

Ast Ego, si vestras unquam temeravero stirpes, 
Nulla Neaera, Chloe, Faustina, Corynna, legetur: 
In proprio sed quaeque libro signabitur Arbos. 
O charae Platanus, Cyparissus, Populus, Ulnus!

[But I, if ever I shall have profaned your stocks, 
No Neaera, Chloe, Faustina, Corynna shall be read: 
But the name of each tree shall be written on its own bark. 
O dear plane tree, cypress, poplar, elm!]23

Marvell's garden responds to him with an eroticism no less powerful than his own:

The Luscious Clusters of the Vine
Upon my Mouth do crush their Wine; 
The Nectaren, and curious Peach, 
Into my hands themselves do reach; 
Stumbling on Melons, as I pass, 
Insnar'd with Flow'rs, I fall on Grass.

With these images of an implicitly feminine nature which offers itself to the male's appetites, and in nurturing him also ensnares him, Marvell is wittily revisioning the Hermetic fall. But because his erotic desire is directed to a green world, because his appetites are vegetative rather than sexual, he falls out of sexuality rather than (like the Hermetic Primal Man) into it; his “Mind, from pleasure less, / Withdraws into its happiness....”24 In this higher happiness, the masculine mind finds its own likeness in itself, rather than in a seductively deceptive image of that self reflected back at it by a moist female nature. Evading by a short-circuit of pure tautology the narcissistic misrecognition that entrapped the Hermetic Primal Man, the poet is able to fulfil that Man's desire to create:

The Mind, that Ocean where each kind
Does streight its own resemblance find; 
Yet it creates, transcending these, 
Far other Worlds, and other Seas; 
Annihilating all that's made
To a green Thought in a green Shade.

The movement of thought in these lines is vertiginous. If “shade” here carries any of the Hermetic and Neoplatonic resonances that I have argued are active in the ombres or umbrae of the Cartesian texts, then Marvell, having escaped the fall into sexual embodiment against which the Hermetic writings warn, might appear to be falling into some other form of embodiment. But by his account the mind is no less decreative than creative; its creative act is is so firmly committed to alterity, to “Far other Worlds, and other Seas,” as to be at the same time an act of annihilation. A green shade is presumably the antithesis of the red and white shade or umbra into which one would fall through heterosexual eroticism, and it incorporates—or should one rather say “decorporates”?—all of creation in ideal or pastoralized form, reducing it to the Cartesian categories of res cogitans (a “green Thought”) and res extensa (the “green Shade” which is both the body and also what surrounds it).25 These patterns are reinforced by the imagery of disembodiment in the following stanza:

Here at the Fountains sliding foot, 
Or at some Fruit-trees mossy root, 
Casting the Bodies Vest aside, 
My Soul into the boughs does glide: 
There like a Bird it sits, and sings, 
Then whets, and combs its silver Wings; 
And, till prepar'd for longer flight, 
Waves in its Plumes the various Light.

Marvell's poem is a tour de force: one may well suspect that its conceit of a reversal of the Hermetic fall, and a divestment of the body by the soul through vegetative eroticism, involves a complexity of metaphorical transfer that it would be idle to search for in Descartes' less elaborately worked Olympica—or at least in the no doubt impoverished paraphrase in which that text has been preserved. But Descartes' melon, no less than those of Marvell, is a metaphor—and, no doubt, a sexual one as well. (If there are times when, as Freud claimed, a cigar is no more than a cigar, this is not one of those times.)

What does become clear from a comparison of these projects of ascesis is that the poet is enjoying himself a great deal more than the philosopher. There is something slightly batty about Marvell's fall into a vegetative eroticism, and out of his body. In his poem the grapes, nectarines, peaches, melons and flowers are represented as the initiators of (a)sexual contact, and he as the passive object of their vegetative desires--though insofar as they are metaphor, we are still within the arena of sexual desire, if with certain valences reversed. Marvell expresses a more conventionally masculine—one might almost say, scientific—subjectivity when, like a mad precursor of Linnaeus or Cuvier, he proposes to engage in the charmingly daft activity of carving the name of each beloved tree into its own bark. A severe reader, inattentive to the delicious element of play that suffuses this poem, might want to propose that there is something infantile and regressive in the closed circuit of vegetative desire that Marvell finds in his garden. I would prefer to suggest that the poet may perhaps have succeeded, where so many others have failed, in what has by some been declared a futile quest—the search for a genuinely novel form of sexual perversion.

There is, on the other hand, a real sadness to the contrasting image of the windblown Descartes staggering off into the night, leaving behind not just the proffered melon, and the gentleman who wished to give it to him, but also the umbra of his own (feminine) body.

I find myself thinking, inconsequentially, of J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan. In that fable of infantilized heterosexuality there is a Wendy, the eternally mothering female, who with needle, thread and thimble reconnects the weightless male subject to his umbra. Should one regret, or perhaps rather be grateful for the fact that Descartes' sterner century was willing to accept, without this kind of compensatory make-believe, the grim consequences of psychic self-amputation?




1  René Descartes, Oeuvres philosophiques, ed. F. Alquié (3 vols.; Paris: Garnier, 1963-73), vol. 1, pp. 181-82 (Latin text), vol. 1, pp. 412-13 (French text). The translation is, with some modifications, that of The Philosophical Works of Descartes, trans. E. S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross (2 vols., 1911; rpt. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1973), vol. 1, pp. 148-49.

2  “The Dreamer's Path: Descartes and the Sixteenth Century,” Renaissance Quarterly 49 (1996): 30-76.

3  The standard edition of the Hermetic writings is that of A. D. Nock and A.-J. Festugière, Corpus Hermeticum (4 vols.; Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1960), which gives the Greek text with French translation; the standard English translation is that of Brian P. Copenhaver, Hermetica (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992). The most widely circulated version of the Hermetic writings during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries consisted of Marsilio Ficino's Latin translation of fourteen short writings (mostly in dialogue form), accompanied by brief introductions from the pen of Ficino's younger contemporary Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples, and followed by a longer text, the Asclepius, which had been available in Latin translation in Western Europe since the twelfth century. Because Ficino's translation differs significantly at some points from the critical editions of Nock-Festugière and Copenhaver, and because it is the form in which Descartes would have been most likely to encounter the Hermetic writings, I have chosen to use a sixteenth-century edition: Mercurii Trismegisti Pymander, de potestate et sapientia Dei, trans. Marsilio Ficino, ed. Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples and Michael Isengrin (Basle, 1532). The best introductions to the Hermetic literature are Copenhaver's introduction to his translation, and Garth Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986), which largely supplants A.-J. Festugière, La Révélation d'Hermès Trismégiste (4 vols.; Paris: Gabalda, 1950-54). See also Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964), and Michael Keefer, “Agrippa's Dilemma: Hermetic 'Rebirth' and the Ambivalences of De vanitate and De occulta philosophia,” Renaissance Quarterly 41 (1988): 614-53.

4  Mercurii Trismegisti Pymander, sig. B3v (Corpus Hermeticum, tractate 1): “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.” (Compare Copenhaver, I [28], p. 6.)

5  Ibid., sig. G5 (Corpus Hermeticum, tractate 13): “... purga sensus corporis, solve te ab irrationabilibus materiae ipsius ultoribus.” (Compare Copenhaver, XIII [7], p. 50.)

6  The cosmogonic revelation recounted in the first tractate of the Corpus Hermeticum begins with a vision of a shadow (umbra) coiling down out of the primal light to form a natura humida (Mercurii Trismegisti Pymander, sig. A6v). The Fall of Man is then narrated. When the divine Primal Man penetrated the seven planetary spheres, this moist nature, perceiving his divine beauty, smiled up at him with love, and he, seeing his own form reflected back at him by the waters of nature, loved that image, wished to be united with it, and hence became progenitor of a form confined within the natural order (sigs. A8r-v). Our bodies are directly derived from the umbra and the moist nature: “praecessit proprio corpori tristis umbra, ex hac quidem natura humida, ex hac vero corpus in mundo sensibili constitit, ex hoc denique mors ipsa scaturiit” (sig. B2). (Compare Copenhaver, I [4], I [12-14], I [20], pp. 1, 3, 5.)

7  Mercurii Trismegisti Pymander, sig. G4: “mundi deceptiones.” Insofar as the first lesson of the Evil Genius of the Meditations is decipior, ergo sum (“I am deceived, therefore I am”), the expression might as well be Cartesian. (Compare Copenhaver XIII [1], p. 49.)

8  Ibid., sig. G6v: “At haec est regeneratio fili, non adesse ulterius corpori quantitate dimenso.” (Compare Copenhaver, XIII [13], p. 52.)

9  Descartes, Oeuvres, ed. Charles Adam and Paul Tannery (11 vols., 1897-1909; rpt. Paris: Vrin, 1974), vol. 10, p. 218: “Sensibilia apta concipiendis Olympicis: ventus spiritum significat.” (“Sensible things enable us to conceive the things of Olympus: wind signifies spirit.”)

10  Descartes, Oeuvres, vol. 10, p. 185: “... 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.”

11  Ibid., vol. 10, p. 182.

12  Ibid., vol. 1, p. 584.

13  Georges Poulet, Études sur le temps humain, vol. 1 (Paris, 1949), p. 24.

14  Descartes, Oeuvres philosophiques, vol. 2, p. 1121.

15  Oeuvres, vol. 10, pp. 184-85.

16  Marsilio Ficino, Marsilio Ficino and the Phaedran Charioteer, ed. and trans. Michael J. B. Allen (Berkeley: U of California P, 1981), p. 233; Iamblichus, Les mystères d'Égypte, ed. and trans. Édouard des Places (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1966), VI.4, p. 185; Mercurii Trismegisti Pymander, sigs. A6v, B2. (Compare Copenhaver, I [4], I [20], pp. 1, 5. The Greek word which Ficino translates as “umbra” and Copenhaver as “darkness” is skótos.)

17  Mercurii Trismegisti Pymander, sigs. B2-B3v, C2-C4v, G3v-G8v. (Compare Copenhaver, I [20]-I [28], VII, XIII; pp. 4-6, 24, 49-54.)

18  Descartes, Oeuvres, vol. 10, p. 181.

19  See Henry More, Epistolae quattuor ad Renatum Des-Cartes: cum Responsis Clarissimi Philosophi ad duas Priores, in More, A Collection of Several Philosophical Writings (2 vols.; London, 1662; facsimile rpt. New York and Lonson: Garland, 1978), vol. I, sigs. Z-Ff4.

20  See Michael R. G. Spiller, “The Idol of the Stove: the Background to Swift's Criticism of Descartes,” Review of English Studies n.s. 35 (1974): 15-24. For a helpful survey of the evidence of early interest in Descartes in England, see Daniel Stempel, “The Garden: Marvell’s Cartesian Ecstasy,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 28 (1967): 99-114 (esp. 99-101); Stempel argues in particular that Marvell’s “The Garden” shows signs of the poet’s familiarity with Descartes’ The Passions of the Soul (an English translation of which was printed in 1650).

21  See Nigel Smith, Perfection Proclaimed: Language and Literature in English Radical Religion 1640-1660 (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1989), pp. 107-36.

22  Quotations from “The Garden” and from Marvell's Latin version of the poem (“Hortus”) are from Miscellaneous Poems by Andrew Marvell, Esq; Late Member of the Honourable House of Commons (London, 1681; facsimile rpt. Menston: Scolar Press, 1969), pp. 48-52.

23  Translation from George de F. Lord, ed., Andrew Marvell: Complete Poetry (New York: Modern Library, 1968), p. 234.

24  A reading of “To His Coy Mistress” might suggest that Marvell did not regard vegetative and sexual eroticism as mutually exclusive: “My vegetable Love should grow / Vaster then Empires, and more slow” (lines 11-12). But such a love involves an effectively perpetual deferral of sexual consummation (“...you should if you please refuse / Till the Conversion of the Jews”), and could be entertained only, one might suppose, as a means of whiling away the tedium of immortality.

25  Stempel is I think right in arguing that “Margouliouth (and those who follow him) err in taking ‘annihilating’ in its literal sense as a reduction to nothing. The annihilation of ‘all that’s made’ can also mean the reduction of all creation to the two basic substances, thought and extension” (Stempel, 110).