Monday, December 27, 2010

The Ten Best Books Of 2010: Descartes' Devil by Durs Grunbein

A pause for the holidays, of course, and I hope you've excused me. To make it up I've assembled the first of a trio of book reviews that have not appeared on the DA to date. The first of which is of the charmingly brilliant study of Descartes by German poet, Durs Grunbein.

Grunbein, in my humble estimation, is one of the best living writers. It is rare to find a writer in any era, but especially these times, that so effortlessly moves from poetry to philosophy. I should rather say his writings live in the legitimate nexus of those supposedly different forms.

Earlier this year I reviewed Grunbein's other publication from 2010, The Bars Of Atlantis and paired that Front List title with his only other English language work, Ashes For Breakfast. The latter is the first (hopefully of many) collections of Grunbein's poetry. At long last Grunbein is making his way into English and we should all be the better for it. A sort of more earnest than postmodern version of Leopardi, Grunbein ranks in my estimation among the truly rare living minds.

Imagine an being composed of Italo Calvino, Joseph Brodsky and, well, Renes Descartes. If you can picture that then you can understand why this exemplary book lands itself on my top 10 list.

So... Let's have at it.

Descartes’ Devil: Three Meditations by Durs Grunbein. Translated from the German by Anthea Bell. Upper West Side Philosophers, Inc. Philosophy. Hardcover. 136 pps. ISBN: 9780979582943. $22.95.

What if not only the world and what we know of it were the work of a genius malignus, a divine deceiver, but our perception of it as well? Such an assumption would take one to the brink of madness, Descartes feared, like the madness of those who claim that they have heads made of clay or pumpkins or glass. But does this in itself make it false? Thus speaks radical skepticism – a blast of doubt of such explosive force that it blows the distinction between body and mind to smithereens.

-Descartes’ Devil, pg. 98-99

This idea of a reality administered by some powerful trickster is clearly more than just a Cartesian nightmare. Durs Grunbein is somewhat generous in his above estimations. A world of violent bad faith, manipulation and relentless cunning would be quotidian for the alcolytes of this cruel entity that Grubein dubs the genius malignus. Please, no mention of the concept of the corporate entity, advertising and politics. No, I’m actually begging. Please, I don’t want a head made of glass or pumpkin.

Sad jokes dispensed with, it is precisely this malicious entity that provides Grunbein with the material to create not just one but two poetic metaphors for Descartes’ legacy, the restoration of which is the driving point of this book. One is a foe and the other a brilliant ally and yet they appear on one coin bearing the same old name. The Devil in Grunbein’s ingenious book becomes both an indomitably personal Platonic daemon – the relentlessly assertive spirit of “I” – and in turn also the malevolent intelligence manifest in a legion of superstitious doubts.

In Grunbein’s estimation “cogito, ergo sum” becomes a sort of archangelic sword and shield bequeathed to us by Descartes and with which man can battle effectively the demons of doubt. The championing of our internal “I think” is obviously something Descartes is famous for but Grunbein goes forth from this firm ground and preaches a lurid but detailed (perhaps akin to the Dutch masters contemporaneous to Descartes himself) portrait of the man himself. He invests in Descartes’ achievements a grandeur that at first seems outlandish or extreme. Descartes the father of science. Descartes the father of poetry. Descartes the father of modern man. Descartes the liberator. These are tall orders for any gospel, let alone a secular one.

No one is more aware of this difficulty than Grunbein himslef. He writes:

Attempting to understand Descartes is like diving into a sunken emblematic world. It contains the ground plan of our modern technological intelligence. But who was the man himself in whom this world congealed and crystallized into living allegory?

-Descartes’ Devil, pg. 35

The title of Atlantean is among Grunbein's highest praises. In his collection of essays, The Bars Of Atlantis the sunken world provides him with a sort of ideal place towards which to travel and in turn here, with Renes Descartes, he conjures the notion of Atlantis to inform you of a concept of Descartes as ideal human.

One gets the sense that this great German poet was nearly moved to tears at several points throughout the process of his slender philosophical biography of Descartes. His frustration with Descartes' detractors is obvious and provides him with an unstoppable sense of purpose throughout the three meditations. At times Grunbein seems on the verge of hyperbole and yet in his singular way he grounds his arguments with solid conceptualization made along poetical and philosophical lines. Something, Grunbein argues, that is exactly as the great Frenchman did himself. He goes so far as to even dub Descartes the father of modern poetry.

Descartes, perhaps more so than any other Enlightenment philosopher, has a host of modern day opposition. In some circles he is made out to be a paragon of all that is wrong with science, a Descartes-as-Devil if you will. Like Aristotle, perhaps even more whimsically (thus more charming?), Descartes was slightly prone to filling in the grey areas of a theory in an offhand sort of way. Okay, so he would just flat-out make up the stuff of fables to close loops and tie off ends. More so than this unforgivable whimsy, it is the supposed austerity of Descartes that motivates Grunbein the most.

In Descartes, modern science has a figure that can be easily pointed at and scorned. His rigid Catholicism coupled with his icy love of anatomy and dissection, not to mention his unnerving devotion to experimentation (Descartes is supposed to have engendered his lone child, using the convenience of a servant woman, in order to study the gestation processes). All of these create a sort of ideal monster of science, a sort of inhuman marriage of dogma and cold analytics. One look at a portrait of the great philosopher and this notion becomes even more perverted as we see a certain cunning mirth playing on his pointed visage.

Durs Grunbein sees it differently though. In the Descartes' fine features he sees the man who charmed women and delighted in their company. In the supposedly smug smile he sees the cocksure grin of Descartes the accomplished swordsman and soldier. In the story of his daughter and the servant woman he spies a lone moment of fragility in the otherwise rock-solid existence, where the death of his beloved child at five-years-old derails the supposedly machine-like Frenchman.

Instead of scorn, Grunbein would have us owe Descartes for the creation of modernity itself. Taken to its ends we find Cartesian philosophy laying stolid groundwork for modern neural science, or perhaps more accurately it provides a stolid foil for the new wave of theory. Beyond such lofty science we find an even more solid and somewhat shocking extrapolation from Cartesian philosophy, namely that of the body as expression of the mind. Spinoza may have slain Cartesianism as it was but in an even more profound way it lives on in the cause and effect of Sartesian existentialism. The French existentialist's notion of life within the ensemble of choice suddenly seems a mere addendum to "I think, therefore I am." Scandalous, I know.

Finally this wonderful book is about Descates himself. At no point is Grunbein more clever than when he evokes the physical component to the book's ingenious title. The "Cartesian Devil", or "Diver", is an invention attributed to or in celebration of Renes Descartes. Here, allow Wikipedia to explain the experiment.

The Cartesian diver experiment is set up by placing a "diver"—a small, rigid tube, open at one end, such as an eyedropper—in a much larger container with some flexible component; for example, a two litre soft drink bottle. The larger container is filled with water, and must be airtight when closed. The "diver" is partially filled with a small amount of water, but contains enough air so that it is nearly neutrally buoyant, but still buoyant enough that it floats at the top while being almost completely submerged.

The "diving" occurs when the flexible part of the larger container is pressed inward, causing the "diver" to sink to the bottom until the pressure is released, when it rises back to the surface.

Grunbein takes this dynamic experiment, which becomes a celebrated toy for children, and turns it into the avatar of the beneficent "devil" of Grunbein's somewhat Manichean metaphor. In his brilliant way, Grunbein has doubled yet again this metaphorical spirit as both the unstoppable assertiveness of the individual "I think" and saddles it upon the notion of Renes Descartes as tireless experimenter, thinker and champion of mankind. Like the little glass "devil" who always returns to the surface, so too does "I think" remain constant in its push towards the surface - a way toward sanity despite how lost that concept might seem under the pressure of the external world.

This is where Grunbein hits his stride.

Tiger-like, it leaps across space and time, forging ahead with space programs, tracking down viruses and genes, and belaying itself down the ropes of airy terminology ever deeper into the various spheres of knowledge. Its strength consists in its capacity to imitate nature, to overhear nature’s little, well-guarded secrets. But while, as if with playful ease, it has been able to uncover chemical structures and synthesize plastics, it has never succeeded in doing one thing: synthesizing pure self-awareness on the basis of strict logic.

- Descartes’ Devil, pg. 86

Durs Grunbein is of that rare order himself. A brilliant poet-philosopher who is as concerned with his interlocutors as anyone has ever been. In his writings logic and fable walk hand-in-hand and with a poet's eyes and ears Grunbein renders their intimate conversation as though it were a cooking recipe. From what I've written and quoted Descartes' Devil seems to be extremely lofty but the reality is that one, perhaps, might not need to even have read Descartes to enjoy and understand this amazing book. This book is as much a biography as it is an intellectual investigation and perhaps above all that, Descartes' Devil is a praising "thank you" sent forward and backward through time. This is easily seen in the trio of poems Grunbein crafted to close each meditation. These celebratory poems speak to Grunbein's earnest, open approach. He, like his hero Descartes, simply does not care what the rules say or how his work will be perceived.

He is only concerned with your understanding.


driftinscotty said...

Sounds like a fascinating book. Makes me want to dust off my old philosophy books and plunge back in.

The Devil's Accountant said...

You should also check out his poetry collection: Ashes For Breakfast and the other title released in 2010, Grunbein's first collection of essays translated into English: The Bars of Atlantis.

Yes. As in drinking establishments.

Upper West Side has a Grunbein title on poetry slated for the new year. Their attention to detail and the smoothness of translation definitely make me want to check out more of their slender but impressive catalog.