The New Baroque of Monads and Folds: Ethan Spigland and Suzanne Verderber’s recent MLA Talk

From a Performative Talk delivered at the Modern Language Association, January 2010, by Ethan Spigland and Suzanne Verderber.

—–

History is a Dream: A Philosophical Allegory

As performed by Ethan Spigland and Suzanne Verderber

Cast of Characters

– A Narrator

– René Descartes (1596-1650).  French philosopher, author of The World (now lost, never published); Discourse on Method (1637), which included The Optics, The Meteorology, and The Geometry; The Meditations (1641).

– A Student

– Baltasar Gracián (1601-1658).  Spanish Jesuit and philosopher whose many works attempted to convey a system of ethics that embraced appearance and illusion in a witty, aphoristic style term “conceptismo.”  His works include The Hero (1637); “Subtlety and the Art of Genius” (1642); The Complete Gentleman (1646); The Oracle or The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1647); and El Criticón or The Critic (1651).

– Sigismundo: The protagonist of Spanish playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s drama, Life is a Dream (1635).

– Melody 1 & Melody 2: Voices that momentarily detach themselves from the universal harmony of monads.

Preamble: The following presentation emerged from a course that we teach together at Pratt Institute called “The Baroque” in which we merge art, literature, film, philosophy, and music from both the seventeenth and twentieth centuries in order to explore the “baroque” in both its specificity as a historical period and as a concept and style that continues to permeate contemporary art and thought.  We have chosen to trace one of our lines of inquiry in the form of an allegorical play, both for the frivolous reason that we thought this would be more entertaining at this early hour than a conventional conference paper, and for the more serious reason that the “baroque” implies an interrogation of conventional forms.  By embracing the dramatic form, We are also implicitly asking whether the time has come for the form of the conference paper itself to come under serious question as a means for generating new thought.  We would also like to alert the spectator that if, at any time, you become bored by the proceedings, you may raise your hand and we will stage a brief sword fight.

NARRATOR:  The Baroque can be entered through many doors.  One morning, a student resolved to try to pass through one of the main entrances.  A dilapidated neon sign above the doorway intermittently flashed “Beware Appearances.”  Descartes, the elderly doorkeeper, stopped her as she tried to pass.  She noticed that he had fleas in his fur collar and hoped she would not be kept waiting long enough to become familiar with them.  The doorkeeper interrogated her:

DESCARTES:  Whoa there, where do you think you are going, young lady?  Not just anyone has permission to pass.  Prove your worthiness and reveal your motives.

Theatrum Mundi

STUDENT:  Certainly.  I am not a mere dilettante and will answer your questions truthfully.  I’ve been inside before, having gained admittance in other ways, but have realized that to make headway I need to follow this well-beaten path.  You, Descartes, have articulated one of the profoundest problems plaguing baroque thinkers.

DESCARTES:  What is this profound accomplishment of mine to which you refer?

STUDENT:  That concerning the difficulty of distinguishing between reality and appearance, between reality and dream.  In your first meditation, you were in conversation with madmen and dreamers. Perhaps you were haunted by the great confinement of the insane happening all around you.[1] You admitted that if madmen exist who believe they are kings when they are paupers, or who are naked when they believe they are clothed, or who believe their heads are made of clay, then the possibility exists that you, too, are mad, not being able to be certain of the of the state of your own body.  You even acknowledged that in our dreams, we are all insane.

DESCARTES:  I recall the series of troubling dreams that led to the discovery of my science admirable (wonderful science). At first I thought they were the handiwork of an evil genie trying to bewitch me.

STUDENT:  And these thoughts caused you to reject sciences that depend upon the observation of nature–to rely instead upon those that function at an extreme level of abstraction and generality, like geometry.

DESCARTES:  Ah, I remember that time clearly.  It was so cold, and I was so young.

STUDENT:  Indeed, far from flattering you, I feel the need to criticize your suspicion of the senses and your bogus proof of God.  I could never understand why, after such a promising debut—your radical doubt, your desire to challenge all clichéd modes of thought—you resorted to conventional arguments to establish certainty.  Even you must have felt that your proof of the existence of God—that one could only have an idea of the infinite if God exists—was untenable.

DESCARTES:  Enough!  Why did you come?  Why can’t you leave an old man alone?  I did my part to turn the wheels of knowledge.  I never intended to become a conceptual persona.[2] That role was imposed upon me by the history of philosophy that proceeded from my feeble efforts.

STUDENT:  Let me pass.  I will listen to the cries of the madmen and the dreamers you dismissed, the cries of those locked behind the walls of asylums.  (pointing to a door labeled “Modern Science”) What happened beyond this door excluded madness in a historically unprecedented way.  I will take the door to the left–the one you fear the most!

NARRATOR: The student approached a doorway labeled “Powers of the False.” The door was ajar and she tried to pass through, but it was only a trompe l’oeil painting of a door. A man laughed bitterly. It was Balthasar Gracian, dressed in a Jesuit priest’s robes and a three-cornered hat.

GRACIAN:  Impetuous fool. You chide Descartes, who is evidently your superior, but do you yourself know what you are seeking?  You seek to ally yourself with madmen and dreamers, but do you recognize the danger with which you are flirting?

STUDENT:  I am not afraid.

GRACIAN:  The truth shall not allow herself to be seduced so easily. Dispel your naïve and sentimental illusions, my dear.  You have not sufficiently learned the art of disengaño (undeluded truth). In order to live, you must arm yourself with eyes, from head to foot: eyes in the ears, to discover so much falsehood; eyes in the tongue to consider what to say; eyes in the heart, to guard against first impressions; eyes in the eyes themselves, to see how they are seeing. You must become an Argos of attentiveness! Come with me.

Salvador Dali's rendering of Sigismundo

NARRATOR:  The actual door opened and Gracian and the student passed through, entering a dark undefined space. Then, with a sweep of his arm, four spotlights switched on, illuminating four small stages concealed by crimson velvet curtains.

GRACIAN:  Behold! The great theater of the world!

NARRATOR:  With a clap of his hands, the curtain concealing the first stage drew back to reveal a painting of a death’s head, set against a swirling, incomprehensible background.

GRACIAN:  Painters deploy the technique of anamorphosis in two opposed ways: they either show us an image in perspective, with a distorted shape inserted somewhere within it to betray the perspectival illusion, or they show us a distorted shape that can only be viewed from an extreme angle in order to be legible.  I favor the latter.  What I admire is actually rather odd: after the main construction has been completed, the painter attempts to redeem the chaotic image seen from the central viewing point by turning it into a picture of something.  The swirls and curves that will ultimately, viewed from an extreme lateral angle, take shape as a John the Baptist or Christ on the Cross, are turned into a landscape or a town.  I don’t know quite why this delights me.  Perhaps it simply reveals man’s desire to always impose a form upon chaos, even if it is mere appearance.

NARRATOR:  With a sweep of Gracian’s other arm, the second stage’s curtain parted, revealing a sad figure wearing a crown. He rose from his throne and began to speak.

SIGISMUNDO:  I am Sigismundo, King of Poland.  My story is horrific, but perhaps you can learn from it, you who dared choose the door open only to dreamers and madmen.  My father became obsessed with reading the book of heaven, those golden letters on sapphire leaf that distinguish the page of day and night, night’s glistening syllables that register the destinies of men.

On the day of my birth, my mother died, and bloody eclipses told my father that I would become a monster who would kill him and destroy the kingdom.  He declared to all that I had died with my mother, but instead had me chained within a grotto to live out my life in desperate solitude, denied the essential freedom due to all creatures.

Then, one morning, I awoke to an unbearable spectacle of courtly splendor, wrecking my brain with its brightness, even catching sight of myself in a mirror for the first time.  I sought that fast-anchored self of yesterday, and all my life before, before I drifted clean from self-identity upon the fluctuation of that day’s mad whirling circumstance.

If I could have, I would have sought council from the renowned Descartes, for I too believed that I had been bewitched by a genie.  I was told that I was no longer a despised leper, but rather a prince with a nation and subjects.  But then darkness engulfed me, I awoke in my cave, and was told that all that had happened at court was a dream, a dream that seemed as swear-able as reality.  But the genie was not finished with me yet!  Again, I was awoken and told I was a prince!  Having been played so harshly, I had grown wiser, insisting that the current scene too was a dream!  My soldiers, desperate, advised me that even if I had to believe that I was dreaming, I needed to play my role within the dream as well as I could.

I learned to live, and rule, as if the trappings of power in which I was cloaked were a perpetual dream from which I could easily awaken, embraced again by the cold cavern in which I had been enchained.  Not strong enough to trust Reason, like Descartes, I rather chose to live as if life itself were a dream.

NARRATOR:  With that, Sigismundo fell silent, returned to his throne and sat there perfectly still like a statue as his stage faded to black.

GRACIAN:  Ah, mundo inmundo! (miserable world!)

NARRATOR:  Gracian waved his hand again, and the curtain of the third stage drew back, revealing Don Quixote and Sancho Panza laughing as they read the story of their own adventures. Jorge Luis Borges stood behind them, squinting over their shoulders and smiling.

The curtains of the fourth stage lifted to unveil a door inscribed “The Monad.”  It swung open of its own accord, sweeping the student into the strange room that lay beyond.  The undulating walls were made of striated white marble, and the floor covered by viscous fluid.  There were several small windows, and the room seemed to be gently moving, occasionally halting, stuck to another, outside entity.  It emitted its own light, and from a window it was possible to occasionally discern the open door through which she had come, and from there the grayish outlines of Gracian’s three other stages.  All the while, the marble walls and the viscous floor were in continual movement, sometimes assuming one shape, sometimes another.  The student realized that she was indeed within the living heart of matter.  But what gave it life?

She picked out a hatchway on the ceiling labeled “Reasonable Soul.”  Because the air in the room was also viscous, she was able to easily swim upwards, undo the hatch, and enter the room above.

Windowless, it was decorated only with stretched canvas, diversified by folds that occasionally shook and billowed, as if being agitated by a breeze that was otherwise impalpable.  As her eyes became better adjusted, the Student noticed that the canvas seemed to stretch down the wall, below the level of the floor, connecting the two levels.  It was more of a vibration than a breeze.  All seemed to be in gentle motion.  Voices echoed through the room, bouncing off the walls.

Curious, she swam back through the hatch to the lower level, which now had a completely different appearance.  Looking through the window, she saw Sigismundo sleeping, but he no longer wore a crown and was dressed in tattered rags.  There were now only two stages.  The room, which felt like a kind of spaceship, rammed into something and appeared to stick to it.  More voices, like monks chanting, emanated from above.  After a few moments of discordance, the new voices and the old fell into perfect harmony.  At a loss, she again swam to the upper floor to listen to the voices more closely.  Two melodic lines suddenly separated themselves from the universal harmony and addressed her.

MELODY 1 & 2 (singing):  What is it you seek?

STUDENT:  I have lost the thread of my quest!  I began with a relatively simple question: how to distinguish reality from appearance, reality from dream, reality from madness, but even more, how to learn to live while accepting the impossibility of ever knowing for certain. I was under the impression that my thinking was sophisticated.  Now, I have no idea where I am.  And it’s noisy and stifling in here! I can’t breathe!

MELODY 2:  Reality!  Reality!  Reality!  You use that word so cavalierly, assuming that it is stable and attainable!  You will spend your life

MELODY 1:  in a fruitless quest unless you change your object.  Give up the truth.  Give up the absolute.  Look!

NARRATOR:  A large television screen mounted onto the wall suddenly became illuminated. An object, occasionally resembling a death’s head, occasionally a Frisbee, occasionally a syringe containing the blood of the grail, undulated on the screen.  It was in constant motion, never quite obtaining the coherent shape that would make it recognizable to a conventional pair of eyes.

MELODY 1:  Which is its true form?  Can its movement be halted such that you can be certain of its

MELODY 2:  identity?  Isn’t that what you want?  And doesn’t that desire have a deeper, darker motive, that is, to assure you of who you are?

STUDENT:  Am I supposed to just succumb to chaos?  I have a strange feeling.  Suddenly, even saying “I” at this point feels uncouth, excessive.  I have now rejected two ethical systems: The Cartesian, based on skepticism of the sensual world and the elevation of reason, and Gracian’s, based on the need to decipher appearances in order to discover a truth hidden behind them.

I feel as if I am called upon here to develop a third, but I need help.  There is too much movement, too much chaos, too much variation, too much noise!  Please, explain to me clearly where I am, what this dissonant music is, why everything is in motion, making me dizzy!

MELODY 1 & 2:  Many philosophers and scientists will follow Descartes’ method and will base their own thinking on the positing of an absolute

MELODY 1:  separation between mind and matter, and on the establishment of the mind as a stable point from which the material world can be analyzed.

MELODY 2:  Because the mind lacks extension, he said, it could have no contact with material bodies.  These presuppositions are abstractions that serve only to fictionalize the state of

MELODY 1:  matter and the state of the human mind, and the relation between them, in part by falsely considering both outside of time and flux, and

MELODY 2:  by positing a human central point, when the only true central point is that of God.  The rest, both mind and matter, is characterized by constant motion and flux.

STUDENT:  But where am I?

MELODY 1:  You are in a monad, the smallest simple substance, in its own way in constant flux, struggling to reach its development through a process of unfolding,

MELODY 1 & 2:  occasionally merging with other monads, in possession of only its one clear perception, and yet in some mysterious way reflecting the whole, participating in a universal harmony orchestrated by God!

MELODY 2:  Philosophers cannot deny the problem, though they try.  They know, deep down, that time throws the notion of truth into crisis because of the problem of contingent futures.

MELODY 1:  That is, if a given event can lead to multiple subsequent events, how can a stable notion of truth be sustained?

MELODY 2:  And yet, it is all so easy to understand.  There was really no reason for the philosophers to deny time:

MELODY 1 (at the same time as Melody 2’s previous line): all outcomes, all events, are possible: they simply take place in different worlds.

NARRATOR:  The television flickered and the student now saw her own image on the screen: she was sitting in the upper room of another monad reading a comic book. Suddenly, the screen went blank.  At that point the melodic voices faded into the universal harmony, and the student fell into a deep, troubled sleep.  She was tossing and turning, wondering what would happen to the monads were there no God, no universal harmony, no “truth.”  Just pure flux, contingency, and a proliferation of contradictory events. How could such things have been thought, without coming to the only possible conclusion: that there is no God orchestrating all of this diversity?

Then she had a dream.  In the dream, a swarm of monads were buzzing and vibrating happily and merrily, occasionally joining and separating.  Individual strings tethered all of the monads that all came together in a huge cumulous cloud from which light emanated, casting the whole of creation in an rippling field of light and shadow.  It was a marvelous vision, resembling a sort of rotating chandelier.  The student beheld the entire scene, as if she were contained within the cloud.

Suddenly, the harmonious sound collapsed, filling the air with jagged, fragmented notes that sounded almost like screams, and a gigantic hand reached out holding a pair of scissors, cutting the main knot that bound all the individual strings together.  The student expected chaos to ensue, for the monads to fly out in all directions, but instead they continued their accustomed motions.  It was mainly the sound that had changed.

She woke up in a sweat and gazed out the window of the monad’s lower level, and could now see Sigismundo off in the distance, a glimmer of Descartes’s coattail, and that was all.  The rest of was shrouded in darkness.  She sat down to wait for the monad to turn, so that she could perhaps catch a glimpse of something else.  The discordant notes continued to sound, and she waited for them, too, to perhaps one day cohere into some recognizable song to accompany her still troubled thoughts.  She waited and waited for that zone of clarity as time and events tumbled forward.

The End


[1] “It is well known that the seventeenth century created vast houses of confinement, but it is less well known that in the city of Paris, one out of every hundred inhabitants found themselves locked up there within a matter of months…Since the mid-seventeenth century, madness had been linked to this place of confinement, and to the gesture that designated it as its natural place.”  Michel Foucault, History of Madness, trans. Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalifa (London: Routledge, 2006) 47.

[2] According to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, the writing of philosophy relies upon what they call “conceptual personae,” a term they identify with both the “idiot” and the “private thinker,” and which is located somewhere between the concept proper and the plane of immanence or image of thought from which the concept emerges.  It refers to the “character” in the philosophical dialogue who sets out the main concepts of the philosophy in question.  What is Philosophy? Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994) 61-83.

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~ by chris on January 8, 2010.

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