Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Timothy Harrison reviews Cartesian Poetics

Andrea Gadberry. Cartesian Poetics: The Art of Thinking. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020. 206 pp.

Review by Timothy M. Harrison

12 May 2021

René Descartes is often understood to be the most antipoetic of philosophers. His younger contemporary, Nicholas Boileau, is even known to have accused him of having “cut poetry’s throat” (quoted in p. 5). In Cartesian Poetics: The Art of Thinking, Andrea Gadberry offers a dazzling reinterpretation of Descartes’s relation to poetry. Written in beautiful and witty prose, this book argues that Cartesian philosophy is underpinned, shaped, and, in important ways, determined by the pressures and forces of literary genre: poetry is a vital form of thinking that is in no way confined to literary texts. Organized around a bildungsroman that traces Descartes’s quest to leave the errors of infancy, childhood, and ignorance behind, Cartesian Poetics shows how the riddle, the love lyric, the elegy, and the anagram—literary genres studied in Jesuit classrooms—provide a hidden possibility space that conditions his philosophical agenda.

Searching for evidence of a “negative poetics,” a reliance on poetic form that eschews or denies that reliance, Gadberry works across five languages to provide revelatory readings of the Rules, the Discourse, the Meditations, the Principles, and the Passions, among other texts (p. 7). But this book is not just about Descartes. It is also dedicated to the elliptical and learned procedures of reading that Gadberry brings to bear on the Cartesian corpus. Descartes’s ostensible distance from poetry provides a limit case for showcasing the power of close reading, “with all of its provocative hazards” as well as its affinity with skepticism: “How do I know that what I perceive” in a given text “is really there at all?” (p. 19). Using the risks and the modes of attention opened by close reading, Gadberry follows the traces of literary form as they become manifest in philosophical argument, thereby offering readers a new and defamiliarized Descartes. Cartesian Poetics intertwines method and object, demonstrating that the relationship between “thinking and poetry” or even “thinking and literature more broadly” requires “literary-critical explanation” in order to become visible (p. 19).  

Consider the book’s second chapter, which is dedicated to the role of lyric love poetry in Descartes’s presentation of the malin génie. Arguing that the I of the Meditations is indebted to the I of the Petrarchan love-lyric tradition, Gadberry illuminates a current of desire in the relationship between the Meditator and the evil genius. What does the latter really want? The “mystery of the evil genius’s motives puts the mystery of desire at the center of Cartesian skepticism,” Gadberry argues: Descartes’s attempts to resist the malin génie’s hypothesized powers in turn crafts a scenario in which the Meditator aims to eliminate both falsehood and, in a provocative twist, seduction (p. 62). Turning the fine-tuned subjective relationality of Petrarchan verse against its source, Descartes uses the generic forms of love poetry as a scaffolding for philosophical ambition, performing a negative blazon (a “metonymy of subtraction”) in order to transform himself into nothing more than a thinking thing and thereby defend himself from the advances of “the evil genius as a seducer” (p. 63).

This novel interpretation is made possible through the close reading for which Gadberry advocates. In the book’s fourth chapter, Gadberry claims: “In breaking ‘linearity,’ the anagram announces itself as the ur-trope of poetry” (p. 127). Poetry “breaks lines,” and Descartes’s own discussion of the anagram in the Rules reveals “an interest in a kind of thinking that disobeys the usual rules—that can think out of time, out of joint, in a scramble, all at once” (p. 127). This interest is suggestive because Descartes is known for thinking in a “step by step” way (p. 129), for following what Martial Gueroult famously called “l’ordre des raisons.”[1] Descartes’s arguments unspool carefully, one move at a time, each claim in its proper place. If one reads for argument, the malin génie is not fundamental to Descartes’s skepticsm, for this figure appears only at the end of the First Meditation—and even then, not as a reason for deepening the Meditator’s skepticism, but rather as a mnemonic device to help turn his will away from what he cannot help but believe so as to “deceive myself, by pretending for a time that these former opinions are utterly false and imaginary.”[2] When read in a logical “step by step” way, then, by the time the malin génie appears on the scene, Descartes’s reasons for hyperbolical doubt have already been established. By contrast, Gadberry’s reading focuses on the Meditator’s relationship with the evil genius, testing it for what it can teach us about the place of desire and its attendant fears in the construction of Cartesian skepticism as such. By reading Descartes’s texts out of time, out of joint, Gadberry treats them as Descartes might a poem, breaking lines. Reading philosophical texts in this literary way opens up a new dimension of meaning hiding in plain sight: the dynamism of poetic form, which may become visible only when the malin génie appears on the scene but which has nevertheless been present from the opening sentences of the Meditations, quietly shaping the fundamental dispositions of the Meditator’s I.

It is very difficult to reveal form while reading for argument. But reading for form can, as Gadberry's excellent and evocative book demonstrates, reveal much we might have otherwise missed about argument.



[1] See Martial Gueroult, Descartes selon l’ordre des raisons (Paris, 1953).

[2] René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans. and ed. John Cottingham (Cambridge, 2017), p. 19.