"Quand meme je dormirais": philosophy and secondary revision in Descartes.
It has been said that Descartes was largely responsible for the devaluation of dreams which occurred during the Classical Age, and this passage would seem to warrant that view since the certainty of the Cogito is opposed to the confusion of the dream. But the recurrent dream tests and the constant juxtaposition of dreaming to the truth which occur throughout Descartes' writings suggest that the dreamwork performs some essential function in Cartesian discourse. The oneiric state is always a moment of epistemological confusion and authorial insecurity, but also the occasion of the most decisive breakthroughs of reason. Why reason always emerges in the wake of a dream and what rhetorical moves or secondary revisions are necessary to separate philosophy from dreaming is the subject of this study. The undecidability of dreaming versus wakefulness is a topos which runs throughout Descartes' work; from the earliest writings on dreams (Olympica) to the final work (Le Traite des passions de l'ame), the formulas for posing the question echo one another: "La dessus, doutant s'il revait ou s'il meditait ..." (Olympica (1619) X: 184); "Toutes les mimes pensees que nous avons etant eveilles, nous peuvent aussi venir quand nous dormons" (Discours (1637) VI: 32); "...car soit que je veille ou que je dorme," (Meditations (1641) IX: 16); "...mais encore qu'on soit endormi et qu'on reve" (Traiti (1649) XI 349). The impossibility of deciding whether one is dreaming or awake is a question which haunts the texts of Descartes' baroque predecessors, and, in some sense, the texts alluded to above are responding to and attempting to settle a period-specific philosophical quandary.(3) But the relation of dreams to philosophy also had great personal significance for Descartes; he had a dream of authorship at the age of twenty-three, an event which he considered to be "le plus important de sa vie" (X: 186).
In Part Two of the Discourse on Method, Descartes mentions a decisive moment in his intellectual development, several days in November 1619 when, at the age of twenty-three, he locked himself away in a small room heated by a wood stove, meditating intensely about a new philosophical system: "Je demeurais tout le jour enferme dans un poele ou j'avais tout loisir de m'entretenir de mes pensees" (VI: 11). His fundamental intuition, the one that served as a basis for all of his later thought, was that the mathematical mode of demonstration could be extended to all branches of knowledge. It would be a "science admirable," a uniform method capable of producing rigorous truth in all domains of science and assuring the commensurability of all knowledge. In the Discourse, Descartes also says that at this moment he had come to the conclusion that the new method had to be the work of a single author who, like the master architect, the absolute monarch, or the monotheistic God, is alone capable of conceiving and executing an integral masterpiece. Descartes' biographer, Adrien Baillet, says that enthusiasm for this ambitious project caused the philosopher's brain to "catch fire." The young mercenary soldier who was about to change the history of philosophy had prepared his mind for this discovery by systematically rejecting all of his former beliefs. The exercise left his mind "naked": "son imagination lui presentait son esprit tout nu" (X: 180). The day of meditation left him exhausted and exalted, susceptible to visions and dreams.
The experience culminated on the night of November 10, when Descartes had three vivid dreams which he interpreted as coming from "en haut." God had sent him a symbolic message confirming his enthusiasm of the previous days that he had indeed been called to be an author, that he would make an historic contribution to philosophy, that he would be the single architect called upon to reconstruct the edifice of Philosophy: "Il fut assez hardi pour se persuader que c'etait l'Esprit de Verite qui avait voulu lui ouvrir les tresors de toutes les sciences par ce songe" (X: 185). However, this interpretation of the three dreams is a product of the third dream which Descartes began to interpret while still asleep. It was also only after the third dream, and under its influence, that Descartes decided to record all three in Latin and call them his Olympica meaning a meditation on the highest spiritual or "Olympian" truths.(4) It was one of the few documents that he carried with him throughout his life and which was found among his personal effects upon his death in Sweden. We do not now possess the actual text of these dreams. Descartes did not include details of the dreams in the Discourse on Method, and the original copy of the text was lost. We have only a French translation of the text furnished by his biographer, Baillet.
Dream I. "une douleur effective"
Despite the lofty meaning that Descartes assigned to the three dreams, in all probability, the first dream was of the sort described by Freud in which "local pains produce ideas of being ill treated, attacked, or injured" (IV: 37)(5) A painful stimulus enters into the dream formation and eventually causes the dreamer to awaken. At the start of the dream, Descartes is assailed by several phantoms; he feels a sharp pain on the right side of his body which forces him to lean to the left and walk with great difficulty. A whirlwind ("une espece de tourbillon") spins him around four times on his left foot. He seeks refuge in a college which he passes along the way where he is greeted by several acquaintances. Unable to return their salutations, he is again seized by the violent wind and hurled against the doors of a church in the college courtyard. He notices another friend who tells him that a Monsieur N. has something to give him. The dreamer somehow knows that the gift will be a melon from a foreign land ("un melon qu'on avait apporte de quelque pays etranger" (X: 181). He notices that none of the other people in the dream have the same difficulty standing upright as himself. The wind subsides; he feels a painful sensation and awakens, convinced that an evil spirit, a "mauvais genie" (malus spiritus in Descartes' original Latin quoted by Baillet) has been tormenting him in this dream. He mentions that he had been sleeping on his left side, the probable cause of the discomfort which provoked the painful physical images in the dream. He awakens, turns over to his right side, says a prayer to God asking not to be punished for his sins, and falls back to sleep.
Although the dream was probably caused by a painful physical stimulus, it is not devoid of psychological and philosophical significance. As Freud observes about attempts to explain dreams solely in terms of external stimuli, "scientific enquiry cannot stop here... sensory stimulus plays only a modest part in generating a dream; other factors determine the choice of the memory images which are aroused" (IV- 43). The pain in Descartes' right side might have provoked the dream, but the imagery which Descartes' unconscious furnished to represent the situation is revelatory of his own psychological conflicts.
Although we can not delve very deeply into the dream without the assistance of its now defunct author, several plausible meanings of the condensed images in the first dream suggest themselves. The dream seems to refer to Descartes' childhood at La Fliche. The Monsieur N. who appears in the dream is perhaps an assonance for Marin Mersenne, Descartes' mentor and teacher. The dreamer's attempts to take refuge in a college chapel and his effort to maintain decorum are evocative of the atmosphere of friendship and scholarly exchange which the young Descartes experienced at La Fleche. The persecutory demons, the violent whirlwind, the flight into a church, and the prayer for forgiveness suggest that some divine law has been transgressed. Descartes' enthusiasm and intellectual pride upon having discovered the admirable science in the days preceding the dream must have evoked feelings of guilt. The division between left and right sides of the body suggests an unresolved conflict between Descartes' secular philosophy and the religious education he received at La Fliche. Many commentators have also been struck by how this bodily conflict seems to adumbrate the metaphysical dualism of Descartes' later philosophy.
The "melon from a foreign land" strikes one as an authentic yet obscure image, perhaps the "navel" of the dream which can never be completely explained. It might represent the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge which Descartes has violated. Since it is an exotic, imported fruit, it might stand for the work of Galileo whom Descartes admired but was afraid to emulate. Mersenne was familiar with Galileo's work and probably introduced Descartes to the new ideas, just as in the dream it is Monsieur N. who brings him the foreign melon (Meltzer 87).
The dream also seems to express in plastic form another methodological principle Descartes was elaborating at the time and which he mentions in the Discourse: "J'avais toujours un extreme desir d'apprendre a distinguer le vrai d'avec le faux pour voir clair en mes actions et marcher avec assurance en cette vie." In the dream, Descartes constantly tries to orient himself and walk in a single direction, but he is cast about by the whirlwind. It is as though a spiral, baroque counter-force is waging war on the classical linearity of Cartesian discourse.
More important than any attempt to interpret the dream, however, is a consideration of Descartes' own reaction to the dream because it reveals the dialectic between dream work and dream interpretation in the definition of the Cartesian philosopher. But before pursuing these matters further, it will be useful to borrow several other concepts from Freud's writings on dreams.
Shreds and patches
In fact, Freud was asked by Maxime Leroy to comment on the Olympica. The reply, echoing Descartes' own terminology ("trois songes venus d'en haut"), was that it was a "Traume von Oben" whose processes were similar to that of conscious thought and whose deeper psyghoanalytic meaning could only be explored by interrogating the dreamer.(6) In the Interpretation of Dreams, however, Freud makes several remarks about secondary revision (sekundare Bearbeitung) that are of great interest to a reading of the Olympica. He compares secondary revision to philosophical activity: "This function behaves in the manner which the poet maliciously ascribes to philosophers: it fills up the gaps in the dream structure with shreds and patches. As a result of its efforts, the dream loses its appearance of absurdity and disconnectedness and approximates to the model of an intelligible experience" (5: 490).(7) The Olympica seems to confirm that secondary revision not only can be compared to philosophy but that, in this case, it coincided with the emergence of a philosophical system. The work of interpretation which begins in the third dream and continues upon Descartes' awakening fills in the gaps and supplies the "shreds and patches" which simultaneously provide a coherent interpretation of the first two dreams and confirm the vocation of the philosophical author. The dream sequence is organized, globally, around Descartes' interpretation of the third dream that the Spirit of Truth was communicating with him and foretelling a future life as a philosopher. This fantasy serves as the narrative template which finks all three dreams together and explains each particular symbol encountered in the dreams. From the vantage point of the interpretation of the third dream, the first two dreams are seen to represent Descartes' benighted, sinful youth; and all of the events and symbols in these two dreams, no matter how contradictory (for example, the fact that a supposedly evil spirit pushes him towards a church), are made to fit the conversion-to-philosophy interpretation of the third dream.
Freud's explanation of rational activity and judgments in dreams is that they reflect the work of censorship attempting to disguise the real meaning of the dream. There can be no real rational activity in dreams; reasoning and judgments in dreams are borrowed from past experiences and spliced into the dream to provide an appearance of rationality which satisfies the preconscious. All abstract reasoning, including the first interpretation of a dream upon awakening, is a wishfulfilling gesture which is part of the dream itself. Even the philosophical, Cartesian question of "am I awake or dreaming?" is understood by Freud as a mechanism for denying the importance and significance of the dream. "It's just a dream, a harmless illusion" is the ego's final censoring ploy for dismissing the content of a dream.
Another metaphor resonant with Cartesian overtones which Freud employs to describe secondary revision is that of "building up a facade for the dream" V- 491). "[The rational thoughts of secondary revision] stand in much the same relation to the childhood memories from which they are derived as do some of the baroque palaces of Rome to the ancient ruins whose pavements and columns have provided the material for the more recent structures" (V: 492).
These architectural metaphors are very similar to the ones employed by Descartes in the Discourse to describe the meditations in the poele which preceded his night of dreaming: "Ainsi voit-on que les bitiments qu'un seul architecte a entrepris et acheves, ont coutume d'etre plus beaux et mieux ordonnes, que ceux que plusieurs ont tiche de raccommoder, en faisant servir de vieilles murailles qui avaient ete bities a d'autres fins" (VI: 11). Descartes' philosophical project, couched in the same terms as Freud's description of secondary revision, is to reconstruct the edifice of philosophy. In the use of these metaphors, however, one can detect two different, conflicting hermeneutics:(8) Descartes would raze the existing ruins and reconstruct philosophy according to the rational plans of a single architect; Freud insists on the persistence of archaic material within rational structures and directs his attention to prior meanings which are disguised by the operations of the rational mind.
Yet another passage from the Interpretation of Dreams is particularly suggestive to a reading of the Olympica. Freud compares secondary revision to a technique used by humorists in the Viennese newspaper, the Fliegende Blatter. The reader thinks he or she is looking at a Latin inscription when, in fact, the text is actually in German, preferably the most scurrilous and popular dialect: "Here and there a genuine Latin word appears; at other points we seem to see abbreviations of Latin words before us; and at still other points in the inscription we may allow ourselves to be deceived into overlooking the senselessness of isolated letters by parts of the inscription seeming to be defaced or showing lacunae. If we are to avoid being taken in by the joke, we must disregard everything that makes it seem like an inscription, look firmly at the letters, pay no attention to their ostensible arrangement, and so combine them into words belonging to our own mother tongue" (V- 501).
The actual text of the Olympica reads something like the jokes in the Fliegende Blatter. Baillet's French translation is punctuated by Latin inscriptions from Descartes' original text. The key words which assign philosophical meaning to the whole text are in Latin--the title, Olympica, the marginalized notation that the dream is about an admirable science ("mirabilis scientiae fundamenta reperirem"), the Latin poems from the Corpus Poetarum which confirm Descartes' vocation as a philosopher, Ausonius "Quod vitae sectabor iter?" and "Est et non." Translation from Latin to French already functions to a second degree in the Baillet text since Descartes recorded the dreams in Latin, presumably after having dreamt them in French. Thus philosophy, like secondary revision, is at work in Descartes' text as the imposition of Latin inscriptions upon a palimpsest of confused words and images in French. Before pursuing this equivalency between psychological and textual process further, however, we will first complete a brief summary of the three dreams before attempting to exploit Freud's insights in a reading of all three dreams from the vantage point of the third, interpretive dream.
Dream II: "un bruit aigu eclatant"
After the first dream, Descartes remained awake for two hours pondering its meaning and reflecting on "les biens et les maux de ce monde" (X: 182). He then fell asleep again and had another brief dream. He hears "un bruit aigu et eclatant" which is represented in the dream by a thunder clap. Thus the second dream, like the first, appears to originate in an external stimulus which the dream then interprets from its repertoire of images. (Freud discusses a reverse case in which "a peal of thunder will set us in the midst of a battle" (IV- 37).
The thunder clap frightens Descartes so much that he awakens and sees a shower of sparks in his room. Baillet says that the philosopher had experienced this sensation before, but that this time he deliberately opened and shut his eyes to see, experimentally, if the sparks were familiar physical symptoms or part of the dream. This reality-testing reassured him, and he went back to sleep "dans un assez grand calme."
According to Baillet, Descartes interpreted the second dream to be a divine warning calling him to repent for the disorder of his youth represented by the first dream: "L'epouvante dont il fut frappe dans le second songe, marquait, a son sens, la synderese, c'est-a-dire, les remords de sa conscience touchant les peches qu'il pouvait avoir commis pendant le cours de sa vie jusqu'alors. Le foudre dont il entendit l'eclat etait le signal de l'Esprit de Verite qui descendait sur lui pour le possider" (X: 186). But this interpretation of the second dream comes from the third dream and its interpretations. The second dream in itself was a response to an external stimulus represented in the dream as a thunder clap. Only later was the thunder clap inscribed in a personal and biblical narrative of divine wrath, forgiveness, and authorial election.
Dream III: Corpus Poetarum
The third dream, it appears, was not produced by a painful or startling physical stimulus like the first two. Baillet gives this account: "Un moment apres, il eut un troisieme songe, qui n'eut rien de terrible comme les deux premiers. Dans ce dernier, il trouva un livre sur sa table, sans savoir qui l'y avait mis" (X: 182). The mysterious book, with no causal attachments to a real world of the materiality of discourse, the work of authors, and the transmission of knowledge, turns out to be a dictionary: "Ill'ouvrit, et voyant que c'etait un Dictionnaire, il en fut ravi." Shortly thereafter, he finds another book under his hand: "C'etait un recueil des Poetes de differents Auteurs, intitule Corpus Poetarum. Il eut la curiosite d'y vouloir lire quelque chose; et a l'ouverture du livre, il tomba sur le vers "Quod vitae sectabor iter?" (X: 183). It is a poem by Ausonius which begins with the question "What path will I follow in life?"
It is our contention that these dreamed books provide the patches and inscriptions, the facades, with which Descartes will construct the secondary revision of the three dreams and his philosophy. The dreamwork here furnishes Cartesian discourse with the image of an immaterial book and a body of signifiers, the Corpus Poetarum, which is at the same time a collection of wisdom and science reaching back to Pythagoras and the Ancient World and a fantasy of Descartes' own absolutely original admirable science.
The Dictionnaire, source of reliable and stable meanings, and the Corpus appear in the dream as floating signifiers at the disposal of the philosopher serenely seated in a library. This is in stark contrast to the troubled physicality of the first dream. It also compares favorably to the pronouncements of Descartes' own father on the scholarly ambitions of his son: "De tous mes enfants je n'ai de mecontentement que de la part d'un seul. Faut-il que j'aie mis au monde un fils assez ridicule pour se faire relier en veau!" (XII: 434). For the aristocratic father, book making is an ignoble profession which binds the author in a ridiculous and awkward signifier. In the dream, Descartes' metier assumes its proper dignity; the Spirit of Truth opens up to him "les tresors de toutes les sciences" (X: 185).
The Corpus Poetarum and the two poems also represent several authorial wishes which will be fulfilled in Descartes' mature writings. The Corpus represents "la Philosophie et la Sagesse jointes ensemble"--love of knowledge and wisdom, two themes which are intimately linked in the Discourse on Method, where the discovery of the truth is inseparable from the existential unfolding of a life of travel and observation. The dream book, the compendium of truth and wisdom, is a work of poetry because poets express the truth more forcefully than philosophers; they are inspired by "la divinite de I'Ethousiasme et la force de l'Imagination qui fait sortir les semences de la Sagesse avec beaucoup plus de facifite et beaucoup plus de brillant meme que ne peut faire la Raison dans les Philosophes" (X: 184). Again, this ideal is premonitory of the Discourse which refers to itself as a fable- and relies on many literary conventions to achieve its effects: the entertaining, picaresque aspect of the narrative, the heroic persona who risks even madness for the sake of truth, the dramatic encounter with the malin genie which concludes in the ringing pronouncement, "Cogito ergo sum," a striking formula, if ever there was one, "qui fait sortir les semences de la Sagesse."
The two poems by Ausonius are also clues to Descartes' ambitions as an author. The "Est et Non" bears the Greek title "Nai kai oy [pi][psi]THATPIKON ("The Pythagorean ~Yea' and ~Nay") which Descartes added in Greek in a marginal notation.(9) He interpreted the appearance of this poem in the dream to mean "la Verite et la Faussete dans les connaissances humaines et les sciences profanes" (X: 185), and it was the one detail which so filled him with confidence that he was convinced he had understood the whole dream. If the dream made perfect sense, it must have been sent from God: "Voyant que l'application de toutes ces choses reussissait si bien a son gre, il fut assez hardi pour se persuader que c'etait l'esprit de Verite qui avait voulu lui ouvrir les tresors de toutes les sciences par ce songe" (X: 185). The real is rational and the rational is real.
However, the Pythagorean Nai Kai is a meditation on the very truth which all of Philosophy stumbles upon and becomes an object of the poet's derision: the linguistic contingency of difference.
The Pythagorean "Yea" and "Nay"
"Yes" and "no": all the world constantly uses these familiar monosyllables.
Take these away and you leave nothing for the tongue
of man to discuss. In them is all, and all from them; be it a matter
of business or pleasure, of bustle or repose. Sometimes two parties
both use one word or the other at the same time, but often they
are opposed, according as men easy or contentious in character
and temperament are engaged in discussion. If both agree, forthwith
"Yea, yea" breaks in; but if they dispute, then disagreement
will throw in a "Nay." From these arises the uproar which splits
the air of the courts, from these the feuds of the maddened Circus
and the widespread partisanship which fill the tiers of the theatre,
from these the debates which occupy the Senate. Wives, children,
fathers, bandy these two words in peaceful debate without unnatural
quarreling. They are the instrument with which the schools
fit for peaceful learning wage their harmless war of philosophic
strife. On them the whole throng of rhetoricians depends in its
There you have the source of countless squabbles: that is why
some--nay, many--tondering on such things, smother their gruff
protest and bite their lips in raging silence.
What a thing is the life of man which two monosyllables toss
The minimal graphic difference between Nai and Kai is the basis for all human utterances, take these away and you leave nothing for the tongues of man to discuss." They are at the origin of the "harmless war of philosophical strife." Ausonius concludes: "What a thing is the life of man which two monosyllables toss about," in direct contradiction to the mastery over representation which Descartes claims to have arrived at in the dream. All of the strife and clamor which characterize the linguistic activity of man in the poem might better be forsworn in favor of the Pythagorean virtue of silence, when the truth has not yet been "tossed about" by language: . . . many-pondering on such things smother their gruff protests and bite their lips in raging silence.
By citing only the title of Ausonius' poem in the dream and interpreting it to mean the discernment of Truth and Falsehood which God had granted him, Descartes performs, literally, the operation which Freud equates with secondary revision and philosophy: the patching up of the gaps in the structures of the universe. Here, the secondary revision of the dream and the construction of philosophy turn upon the avoidance of the gaps in the universe opened up by Ausonius' poem. The whole poem is about the disruption caused by the signifier, the secondariness, the throwness of being in regard to language. It is perfectly ironic that the interpretation of a poem about the strife caused by monosyllables should somehow launch Descartes to Olympian heights. Perhaps, most profoundly, if Descartes' dream interpretation can successfully gloss a poem about the contingency of language in human affairs and give it the antithetical meaning of "la Verite et la Faussette dans les connaissances humaines et les sciences profanes," he will have accomplished the enabling gesture of philosophy, he will have turned the most anti-philosophical poem imaginable into an endorsement of reason.
Descartes noted with particular accuracy the date of his philosophical dream: "X Novembris 1619, cum plenus forem Enthusiasmo..." Curiously enough, he added another date to his register exactly a year and a day later to celebrate another discovery: "XI Novembris 1620," as though all future discoveries would be a repetition of the experience of November 1619. Each discovery would confirm the divine prophesy of the night of dreams. And yet, embedded in that dream at its very center of intelligibility, is a poem attesting to the futility of philosophical strife based upon an arbitrary difference between Yea and Nay. Perhaps the profoundest wish of the philosophical unconscious of this text is that language would cease to exist and man would sit in nondiscursive silence and somehow intuit the truth of the universe.
Descartes and Freud: Quod iter?
Freud and Descartes. What path will I follow in life? What intellectual itinerary (iter) will I choose? What discourse (discurrere) will I invent? Both journeys begin in dreams. Two paths open: the royal road to the unconscious or the ascent of Mount Olympus; both are passages through and out of language. Out of the interpretation of the Trois Songes sprang Modern Philosophy, the science of filling in the gaps in the universe, the escape from language(10) by an upward Olympian leap. The Traumdeutung is a downward fall through language to the Acheron where, one day, Freud believed, biological science would close the gap between the fictive elaborations of the primal scene and the body itself. For Descartes, rational thought had to be possible in a dream, the Cogito had to be thinkable, "quoi que je veille ou que je dorme"; for Freud, rational thought had to be impossible in a dream: "Everything that appears in dreams as the ostensible activity of the function of judgment is to be regarded not as an intellectual achievement of the dreamwork but as belonging to the material of the dream thoughts and as having been lifted from them into the manifest content of the dream as a ready-made structure" (V: 445 emphasis added). In Freud, rational thought is lifted downward to its unconscious, and, ultimately, bodily sources; dream language is almost body language.
The thought of both Freud and Descartes attempts to espouse the dreamwork, one as the source of an immaterial signifier that can both convey a divine message and then disappear in the blink of an eye, the other as the voice that will confirm Freud's greatest discoveries yet somehow let itself be mastered, somehow allow a break to appear between its own repetitive wish-fulfilling rationality and the science of the analyst. Both thinkers attempt to capture the totality of dreams and reason while remaining at a critical distance, one by thinking the dream as absolutley the same as reason, the other as the totally other. Derrida's phrase to describe Descartes' relation to madness--"penser la totalite en lui echappant"--could be applied equally well to Freud or Descartes who both attempt, in oposite ways, to think the totality of dreams and reason while escaping.(11)
Precartesien et postmoderne
In November 1619, Descartes emerged from a series of dreams convinced that he had a vocation as a philosopher and author. By interpreting his own dreams, by imposing a secondary revision on them, he vanquished confusion and doubt and found a truth so convincing and coherent that it could only have been sent by God. Eighteen years later, when Descartes publishes the Discourse on Method, he evokes in considerable detail the winter spent "en Allemagne," when "la vraie methode" began to take shape in his mind as the project to organize all knowledge into "longues chaines de raisons, toutes simple et faciles" (VI: 19). He does not, however, mention the Trois Songes in his account of this period. It is as though the work of secondary revision has continued to the point of effacing all reference to the prophetic dreams in Ulm. We are left with a purely rational version of the call to philosophy.
But one wonders if there is a link between the Descartes of 1619 and 1637. Is the absence of any reference to the Olympica an indication that a whole mode of thought has been abandoned bewteen "la science admirable" and the first major work of philosophy? Is there an epistemological rupture between 1619 and 1637? At the moment of the Olympica was Descartes, as Henri Gouhier has said, "precartesien"?(12) The mature philosophy certainly has no credence in premonitory dreams; the highest truths can no longer be conveyed by the sensible vehicles alluded to in the notes which follow the Olympica: "Les choses sensibles nous permettent de concevoir les olympiques: le vent signifie l'esprit; le mouvement avec la duree signifie la vie; la lumiere signifie la connaissance" (Baillet 62). However, Descartes still retains the pattern of foregrounding his greatest discoveries with dreams. The habitual illusion of dreams is used to deconstruct perception, to "derealize" the world by making ordinary sense perception no more reliable than the distorted images encountered in sleep. Dreams have thus become the emblem of the errors to which human reason is prone. But the question arises as to whether Descartes has retained anything of his Olympian night in the later philosophy. Does the dreamwork of 1619 persist in the Discourse and the Meditations? Does one find the same gap-filling inscriptions that formed the nexus of dream interpretation and philosophy in 1619?
It would seem that in the mature philosophy the dream is no longer taken seriously, that it exists henceforth only as a useful hypothesis which the philosopher can summon and dismiss without seriously considering the possible significance of the personal details recorded in the Olympica. The philosophical vocation is no longer communicated by God in the language of dream symbols. However, if dreams appear to be at a greater critical distance from philosophy in 1637 and 1641 than in 1619, they have gained in seriousness as a threat to rationality.
In the 1619 text, the boundary between dreams and waking thought is crossed with the same indifference that will mark the mature philosophy. The revelation of the truth occurs at a moment when Descartes is not sure whether he is awake or dreaming ("la dessus, doutant s'il revait ou s'il meditait") and, ultimately, in both texts the saving truth, whether it be the conviction of a philosophical vocation or the Cogito, will have to be affirmable even if the philosopher is dreaming. But the question of the undecidability of dreaming versus wakefulness is not posed as part of a strategy of hyperbolic doubt. The most important interpretive moment of the Olympica begins in a dream, but Descartes never questons radically whether or not all of his philosophical work is voided by the possibility of a continual dream state. The 1637 and 1641 texts, however, create hyperbolic dream states that threaten to engulf all of reality and the act of writing itself.
The transcription of the Olympica is organized, punctuated by clearly defined periods of dreaming and wakefulness. After the dreams, Descartes wrote them down. In the Discourse and the Meditations, however, Descartes incorporates dreaming into the act of writing itself:
Combien de fois m'est-il arrive de songer la nuit que j'etais en ce
lieu, que j'etais aupres du feu, quoique je fusse tout nu dedans
mon lit. Il me semble bien a present que ce n'est point avec des
yeux endormis que je regarde ce papier, que cette tete que je remue
n'est point assoupie, que c'est avec dessein et de propos delibere
que j'etends cette main, et que je la sens. (137)
The existence of the finished book in the reader's hand seems to confirm that Descartes wasn't dreaming when he wrote the Meditations. Tangible writing is proof positive that it wasn't all a dream; but Descartes' text also purports to be the record of an experience which could have been dreamt and still produced an unshakable truth. Even if Descartes only dreamed that he had transcribed the Cogito, it would still be true, and although the reader retains in his or her hands the physical evidence of the reality of the scene of writing, there is also the desire to turn writing into a dream. By simultaneously furnishing the physical evidence that it wasn't just a dream yet continuing further and making the question of dreaming or wakefulness irrelevant to the truth value of the Cogito, Descartes is offering the reader a writing which is both tangible yet the record of an event which could have been, and on some level is desired to be, in the language of secondary revision (and philosophy), "just a dream."
A similar encounter with the irrationality of dreams followed by a reversal of doubt occurs in the Discourse, just as it had in the Olympica. The dream no longer contains a divine revelation of authorship and is no longer interpreted according to a hermeneutics of physical objects signifying spiritual qualities ("vent" = "esprit," "mouvement" = "vie," "lumiere" = "connaissance," etc.), but a similar pattern of rationalizing one's way out of the dream towards the truth can be observed. The origin of dreams and the principles of interpreting them may have changed, but dreamwork and philosophy are still two surfaces of the same text; and the enabling moment of philosophy is still a process of secondary revision, of recovering truth and rationality through the invention of a metalinguistic inscription.
The Cogito, the one truth, the Archimedian fulcrum which provides the pivot for an entire philosophy, is bracketed by a dream. Descartes induces the same state of uncertainty as to being asleep or awake which had produced the liberating dream interpretation of 1619:
... considerant que toutes les m'emes pensees, que nous avons
etant eveilles, nous peuvent aussi venir quand nous dormons, sans
qu'il y en ait aucune, pour lors qui soit vraie, je me resolus de
feindre que toutes les choses qui m'etaient jamais entrees en l'esprit,
n'etaient que les illusions de mes songes. Mais, aussitot apres,
je pris garde que, pendant que je voulais ainsi penser que tout etait
faux, il fallait necessairement que moi, qui le pensais, fusse quelque
chose. Et remarquant que cette verite: je pense, donc je suis, itait
si ferme et si assuree que toutes les plus extravagantes suppositions
des sceptiques n'etaient pas capables de l'ebranler (VI: 32).
Again, as in the 1619 text, the truth emerges when a discredited referential language is overwritten, secondarily revised, in favor of a metalanguage. In Descartes' dreams, referentiality is suspended and language can become the transparent vehicle of thought needed by philosophy.
In the Olympica, the move to metalanguage occurs when the dream is interpreted from within, when the confusing array of sensations and objects are rearranged and ordered around the central symbols of the Dictionnaire and the Corpus Poetarum. In the Discourse and the Meditations, the uncertainty as to sleep or consciousness produces a similar emptying-out of the referential responsibility of language followed by a return of the truth-bearing, representational status of words. "Que je reve ou que je dorme," whether the language that carries these thoughts really exists or is only dreamt, the conclusion of the Cogito is undeniable. The Cogito could be dreamed; it has to be considered as having occurred in a dream because at that point in the argument, Descartes can not say with certainty whether he is or isn't dreaming. At this moment, the only thing that language can denote is other language. The universe might not exist, but in his mind Descartes can designate a proposition that exists: "Cogito ergo sum." Language's ability to designate itself when all reference to a material world is suspended by a dream produces the illusion necessary to found Descartes' philosophy. Only in a dream can the materiality of language be denied yet its citational, auto-referential quality still be invoked to produce the desideratum of an immaterial, evanescent signifier that leaves the mind in untroubled self-reflectivity, sure that it has grasped itself and not been thrown about by monosyllables.
For Descartes, the dream is thus the strategic place where language is thoroughly discredited as a confusing assemblage of unreliable signs yet reinvented on the far side of madness and doubt as the bearer of the first certainty of the mind. In the dream, language is reduced to the level of a meaningless test pattern which nevertheless confirms the existence and proper functioning of the machine. Whatever thoughts the Cogito-thinker thinks, whatever mad dreams or vain philosophical speculations he entertains, the brute fact that this activity is recorded by language and can be designated as such creates the necessary metalinguistic space necessary to affirm the Cogito. In this sense, the most important phrase in Cartesian discourse is not the Cogito itself, but the one that designates it, the one that opens up a space of interpretation: "Et remarquant que cette verete: Je pense, donc je suis. . . " In the Olympica it was a poem, Ausonius' "Est et Non," which stood for "la Verite et la Faussete dans les connaissances humaines"; in the Discourse it is a proposition, a sentence which can be quoted in a dream, which is called "cette verite."
This is the essential gesture that remains the same in Cartesian discourse from the Olympica to the Discourse and that relies upon dreams to accomplish itself. It is more visible in the Olympica, and the recourse to fictive, poetic texts as the substrata of philosophy is more apparent there, but the fashioning of philosophical discourse out of the meaninglessness of dream language continues throughout Descartes' works. For this reason, the Olympica remains the primal scene of Cartesianism, one that must be brought to the surface of all instances of dreams in the later texts.
The Olympica is necessary to an appreciation of the modernity, the postmodernity, even, of Descartes. It reveals him to be what Michel Foucault calls a "fundamental author," one whose texts initiate a new discourse while at the same time inviting its deconstruction. Foucault says that our relation to such authors always involves a return to certain texts, "to a text in itself, specifically, to a primary and unadorned text with particular attention to those things registered in the interstices of the text, its gaps and absences. We return to those empty spaces that have been masked by omission or concealed in a false and misleading plenitude" (1977: 135). The Olympica is such an unadorned text about gaps and absences and the constitution of the philosophical author as the filler of such gaps and absences. To read the Olympica is to discover a Descartes, "precartesien" . . . et postmoderne.
Ausonius, Decimus Magnus. Opuscula. Trans. Hugh G. Evelyn White. London: Loeb Classical Library, 1919. Baillet, Adrien. La Vie de monsieur Descartes. 2 vols. Paris, 1691. Derrida, Jacques. "Cogito et histoire de la folic." L'Ecriture et la difference. Paris: Seuil, 1967. Descartes, Rene. Oeuvres de Descartes. Eds. Charles Adam and Paul Tannery. Paris: Vrin, 1965. Feuer, Lewis. "The Dreams of Descarres." American Imago 20 (Spring 1963): 326. Foucault, Michel. Histoire de la folie a l'age classique. Paris: Gallimard, 1972. --. "What is an author?" Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Ed. Donald Bouchard. Ithaca: Cornell University , 1977. Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Vols. 4,5 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. and trans. james Strachey. 24 vols. London: Hogarth Press, 1953. --. "Some Dreams of Descartes." Standard Edition, 21: 199-204. Gouhier, Henri. Les Premieres Pensees de Descartes. Paris: Vrin, 1979. Judovitz, Dalia. Subjectivity and Representation in Descartes: The Origins of Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Maritain, Jacques. Le Songe de Descartes. Paris: Buchet Chastel, 1922. Meltzer, Francoise. "Descartes' Dreams and Freud's Failure, or the Politics of Originality." The Trials of Psychoanalysis. Ed. Francoise Meltzer. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1987. Minahen, Charles D. "~Olympian Vertigo'--Deconstructing Descartes' Reconstruction of the ~Trois Songes." Symposium (Summer 1987): 127-39. Poulet, Georges. "Le Songe de Descartes." Etudes sur le temps bumain. Vol. 1. Paris: Editions du rocher, 1949. Ricoeur, Paul. Le Conflit des interpretations. Paris: Seuil, 1969. Scharfstein, Ben-Ami. "Descartes' Dream." Philosopbical Forum 1 (Spring 1969): 293-317. Sebba, Gregor. The Dreams of Descartes. Ed. Richard A. Warson. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Universiry Press, 1987. Simon, Girard. "Descartes, le reve et la philosophic au XVIIesiecle." Revue des sciences humaines 211 (juillet-septembre 1988).
(1.) AR citations from Descartes are taken from Oeuvres de Descartes, ed. Charles Adam and Paul Tannery, 13 vols. (Paris: J. Vrin, 1965), referred to in the text parenthetically by volume and page number. (2.) This is the conclusion of Girard Simon: "Le rive est devalue non seulement dans son contenu, mais dans son origine: l'un n'irait pas sans l'autre" (143). For further information about dreams in the seventeenth century in their religious, legal, and medical aspects, see the other articles which appear in the same issue of La Revue des sciences humaines (juillet-septembre 1988). (3.) "The exclusion of madness, and later dreams, and their subsequent displacement of hyperbolic doubt, correspond to the break with the paradigms of the previous baroque allegorical tradition" (Judovitz 143). (4.) The Olympica has been abundantly commented on; the most detailed analysis and the best introduction to the subject is Henri Gouhier's Les Premieres Pensees de Descartes. See also Maritain, Poulet, Feueur, Scharfstein, Sebba, Meltzer, and Minahen. (5.) All citations of Freud are taken from the Standard Edition and are referred to parenthetically by volume and page number. (6.) For psychoanalytic readings of the Olympica see Feuer Meltzer, and Scharfstein. Meltzer sees significance in Freud's indifference to the dream. Detecting in his terse remarks a defensive reaction to a dream about the anxieties of influence, she postulates "a rivalry Freud feels perhaps with Descartes himself, whose Olympica founded ~modern philosophy' with no questions asked about originality" (97). (7.) The poem alluded to here is Heinc's "Die Heimkehr": "Mit seinen Nachtmutzen und Schlafrockfetzen / Stopft er die Lucken des Weltenbaus." ("With his nightcaps and the tatters of his dressing-gown he patches up the gaps in the structure of the universe.") (8.) In Le Conflit des interpretations, Paul Ricoeur presents philosophy and psychoanalysis as diametrically opposed hermeneutics of consciousness. He proposes a synthesis based on the fact that both Hegelian dialectic and Freudian psychoanalysis define the subject as mediated by language, the former by a symbolic order which engages the subject in an upward movement of recognition in higher and more impersonal operations of Spirit, the latter which forces the subject to come to terms with certain primordial signifiers encountered in childhood. In Ricoeur, as in Descartes and Freud, the locus of the conflict of interpretation is the metaphor of building:"Les symboles, ici, expriment en promouvant ce qu'ils expriment. C'est de cette facon qu'ils sont une paideia, une Education, une Erudition, une Bildung; ils ouvrent a ce qu'ils decouvrent" (118).
(9.) Clear evidence as to what the Pythagoreans actually taught is difficult to ascertain, but it is known that they believed the essence of things to be in numbers and that knowledge of the numeric construction of the Cosmos could establish links between mathematics, astronomy, and music. Through Platonism, the desire to establish correspondences between all levels of the universe and to construct integral mathematical systems of knowledge was perpetuated. Descartes' reference to Pythagoras in the three dreams suggests that he considered himself a modern Pythagoras whose linear algebra and mathematical physics would open the door to a unitive understanding of the universe. (10.) Dalia Judovitz describes eloquently the denial of the materiality of language in Descartes: "Unable to represent the act of representation, neither the discursive procedures he is engaged in, nor, more important, the material nature of language, Descartes will found the fiction of a philosophical system that can define itself autonomously. This new metaphysics will make use of literary and rhetorical conventions only to constitute itself as precluding them.... The autonomy of philosophical discourse, the possibility of its new metaphysical foundation, thus emerges as a fiction that denies its own character as linguistic representation" (5). (11.) The phrase occurs in Derrida's response to Foucault's brief discussion of Descartes in Histoire de la folie a l'age classique as an example of the "e1nfermement" of madness during the Classical Age. In distinction to Foucault, Derrida speaks of the "audace folle du Cogito," and sees in Descartes a daring thinker who invites madness into the Cogito itself in an attempt to found a discourse capable of thinking both madness and reason. Following a similar logic, we would agree that there is an epistemological rupture with Descartes but it involves a passage through and not a rejection of dreams and madness. The break involves, primordially, a confrontation with language which poses questions as old as philosophy itself. Derrida questions any attempt to periodicize such a confrontation by using historical categories which are themselves derived from philosophy's first reckoning with language. (12.) "Le contenu des Olympica, recit et notes, les schemes de pensee mis en oeuvre, l'idee meme d'une traduction sensible des choses spirituelles, tout cela revele un esprit precartesien" (90).
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|Title Annotation:||Rene Descartes|
|Publication:||The Romanic Review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1993|
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