The Philosopher, the Priest and the Painter by Stephen Nadler: Descartes goes Dutch

An admirable portrait of Descartes’s life in the Netherlands, but one which gives no sense of the strangeness of Descartes’s vision.

The Philosopher, the Priest and the Painter
Stephen Nadler
Princeton University Press, 254pp, £19.95

In 1616, a young French nobleman named René Descartes, deeply dissatisfied with the methods offered to him by his teachers, determined to abandon further academic study. Although he had proved himself a brilliant student, he would now seek truth not in books but in the world and in himself.

His first steps into the world were as a soldier serving in the modern bureaucratic armies of the Thirty Years War. On the night of 10 November 1619, while stationed outside Neuburg an der Donau, Descartes climbed into a large stove to keep himself warm. The experience of that night is perhaps best understood as a mystical experience in which he was granted a vision of certainty. This vision was, paradoxically, a method of doubt. By doubting all the evidence of his senses, the only certainty that remained was the reality of his thinking self. And it was on the basis of this reality that he would elaborate a method with which to investigate all of knowledge.

Descartes continued his search for truth; he took a long trip to Italy, before he made the decision that, his method perfected, he would settle down to work through the entire range of human inquiry, from mathematics to biology. He chose not to live in Paris, then the intellectual capital of Europe, as he thought his time would have been devoured by friends and relatives. Instead, he went to the Low Countries, where he could pursue his research uninterrupted by social intrusion.

Steven Nadler’s new book examines Descartes’s life in the Netherlands by tracing the history of the portrait of Descartes by Frans Hals. The painting has become our received image of the philosopher, decorating the frontispiece of countless editions of his work. The method of Nadler’s book is new historicist: attention to a fragment of the historical record – in this case, a painting – reveals a web of connections that freshly illuminate a period and an author. Nadler paints a compelling picture of Descartes’s life in the village of Egmond, northern Holland, and makes it clear that Descartes’s life was not as isolated as he represented it. He had a small circle of friends who met in the nearby town of Haarlem – educated men alive to the most modern intellectual debates. At the centre of Nadler’s story is Descartes’s closest friend in this period, the priest Augustijn Bloemaert. It is he who commissions Hals’s portrait when Descartes is to leave the Netherlands for the court of Queen Christina of Sweden, where he later dies of cold.

Nadler’s book contains fascinating information but the parts never become a whole. The exposition of Descartes’s philosophy is competent but unconnected either to the general history of the multi-faith Netherlands or to the explosion of portraiture of which Hals’s painting is one example.

Descartes’s epiphany in his stove is one of the founding moments of modern western subjectivity but it poses a host of problems that Nadler never considers. The emphasis on the individual self might seem to align Descartes more closely with Protestant than Catholic thought but as the record seems to attest – and Nadler would appear to confirm – Descartes remained a faithful son of the Roman Church. The Netherlands in the 17th century was characterised by complicated relations between Catholics and Protestants, having a dominant Calvinist faith but a tolerated Catholic Church. Nadler sketches these relations well but doesn’t interrogate Descartes’s beliefs. Even more strangely, he does not investigate the conflict between portraiture’s embodiment of a self and the completely disembodied Cartesian self.

The oddness of Descartes’s philosophy is perhaps best brought out by contrasting it with another experience of enlightenment. When, 2,000 years earlier, the young Nepalese prince Siddhartha, better known as the Buddha, used the shade of a Bodhi tree, as Descartes used the heat of his oven, to reflect on the ultimate nature of knowledge and existence, one of the first certainties to dissolve was the self, which for Descartes remained immune from all doubt.

Nadler’s book, though an admirable portrait of Descartes’s life in the Netherlands, gives no sense of the strangeness of Descartes’s vision. Reading it one has the sensation of reading preparatory notes for a book yet to be written.

A portrait of Descartes, after Hals's lost painting. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

Photo: Getty
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Sean Spicer's Emmys love-in shows how little those with power fear Donald Trump

There's tolerance for Trump and his minions from those who have little to lose from his presidency.

He actually did it. Sean Spicer managed to fritter away any residual fondness anyone had for him (see here, as predicted), by not having the dignity to slip away quietly from public life and instead trying to write off his tenure under Trump as some big joke.

At yesterday’s Emmys, as a chaser to host Stephen Colbert’s jokes about Donald Trump, Sean Spicer rolled onto the stage on his SNL parody podium and declared, “This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period.” Get it? Because the former communications director lied about the Trump inauguration crowd being the largest in history? Hilarious! What is he like? You can’t take him anywhere without him dropping a lie about a grave political matter and insulting the gravity of the moment and the intelligence of the American people and the world. 

Celebs gasped when they saw him come out. The audience rolled in the aisles. I bet the organisers were thrilled. We got a real live enabler, folks!

It is a soul-crushing sign of the times that obvious things need to be constantly re-stated, but re-state them we must, as every day we wake up and another little bit of horror has been prettified with some TV make-up, or flattering glossy magazine profile lighting.

Spicer upheld Trump's lies and dissimulations for months. He repeatedly bullied journalists and promoted White House values of misogyny, racism, and unabashed dishonesty. The fact that he was clearly bad at his job and not slick enough to execute it with polished mendacity doesn't mean he didn't have a choice. Just because he was a joke doesn't mean he's funny.

And yet here we are. The pictures of Spicer's grotesque glee at the Emmy after-party suggested a person who actually can't quite believe it. His face has written upon it the relief and ecstasy of someone who has just realised that not only has he got away with it, he seems to have been rewarded for it.

And it doesn't stop there. The rehabilitation of Sean Spicer doesn't only get to be some high class clown, popping out of the wedding cake on a motorised podium delivering one liners. He also gets invited to Harvard to be a fellow. He gets intellectual gravitas and a social profile.

This isn’t just a moment we roll our eyes at and dismiss as Hollywood japes. Spicer’s celebration gives us a glimpse into post-Trump life. Prepare for not only utter impunity, but a fete.

We don’t even need to look as far as Spicer, Steve Bannon’s normalisation didn’t even wait until he left the White House. We were subjected to so many profiles and breathless fascinations with the dark lord that by the time he left, he was almost banal. Just your run of the mill bar room bore white supremacist who is on talk show Charlie Rose and already hitting the lucrative speaker’s circuit.

You can almost understand and resign yourself to Harvard’s courting of Spicer; it is after all, the seat of the establishment, where this year’s freshman intake is one third legacy, and where Jared Kushner literally paid to play, but Hollywood? The liberal progressive Hollywood that took against Trump from the start? There is something more sinister, more revealing going here. 

The truth is, despite the pearl clutching, there is a great deal of relative tolerance for Trump because power resides in the hands of those who have little to lose from a Trump presidency. There are not enough who are genuinely threatened by him – women, people of colour, immigrants, populating the halls of decision making, to bring the requisite and proportional sense of anger that would have been in the room when the suggestion to “hear me out, Sean Spicer, on SNL’s motorised podium” was made.

Stephen Colbert is woke enough to make a joke at Bill Maher’s use of the N-word, but not so much that he refused to share a stage with Spicer, who worked at the white supremacy head office.

This is the performative half-wokeness of the enablers who smugly have the optics of political correctness down, but never really internalised its values. The awkward knot at the heart of the Trump calamity is that of casual liberal complicity. The elephant in the room is the fact that the country is a most imperfect democracy, where people voted for Trump but the skew of power and capital in society, towards the male and the white and the immune, elevated him to the candidacy in the first place.

Yes he had the money, but throw in some star quality and a bit of novelty, and you’re all set. In a way what really is working against Hillary Clinton’s book tour, where some are constantly asking that she just go away, is that she’s old hat and kind of boring in a world where attention spans are the length of another ridiculous Trump tweet.

Preaching the merits of competence and centrism in a pantsuit? Yawn. You’re competing for attention with a White House that is a revolving door of volatile man-children. Trump just retweeted a video mock up where he knocks you over with a golf ball, Hillary. What have you got to say about that? Bet you haven’t got a nifty Vaclav Havel quote to cover this political badinage.

This is how Trump continues to hold the political culture of the country hostage, by being ultra-present and yet also totally irrelevant to the more prosaic business of nation building. It is a hack that goes to the heart of, as Hillary's new book puts it, What Happened.

The Trump phenomenon is hardwired into the American DNA. Once your name becomes recognisable you’re a Name. Once you’ve done a thing you are a Thing. It doesn’t matter what you’re known for or what you’ve done.

It is the utter complacency of the establishment and its pathetic default setting that is in thrall to any mediocre male who, down to a combination of privilege and happenstance, ended up with some media profile. That is the currency that got Trump into the White House, and it is the currency that will keep him there. As Spicer’s Emmy celebration proves, What Happened is still happening.