Reasonable Doubt | Chapters
Multiple-screen video installation, 2016
Multi-lingual with English subtitles
Focusing on Descartes, this scene integrates the sense of avid learning, curiosity and ambition, and the obstacles this combination sometimes presents in a young person unaware of what makes things difficult for him. The mood is one of eagerness and insecurity, and we also get a glimpse of the young philosopher’s economically easy but emotionally difficult everyday life, where caring men surround him. Beginning with a preface that puts all relevant ideas on the table, the scene ends on a nonnarrative cliffhanger of sorts.
A still insecure Descartes visits an art exhibition on 17th century emotions (curated by Gary Schwartz for the Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem). He wants to explain to a friend his views on the human as an integration of body and mind. Asking his friend questions in the hope of getting confirmation of his views, he seeks to understand the bond between body and soul, and its visibility in painting. The harp music his sister played when the two were little lingers in his head.
This connects the preface to the scenes of childhood that follow. Waking him to tentative harp music, his sister Jeanne playfully teaches the little boy about the senses, their deceptive nature, and the need to understand the world through them in combination with thinking. After asking her about the absence of their parents, young René walks off alone into the woods, representing the wider world, and continues to walk until he turns into the young philosopher who has made walking outside a substitute armchair: this is his method of thinking.
After dreaming about making choices, he turns to intellectual work without ever sitting at a desk. As avid a learner as he was in childhood, after thinking and exploring botany in his own garden, we see him walk endlessly through nature, thinking about the mineral world in a dune landscape – a fragment from the artwork A Thing Among Things by Giovanni Giaretta (2015). Given his belief in the usefulness of studying in practice, in a butcher shop he seeks an artisan’s help in understanding anatomy. Then, while hunting for a house the grandeur of which will never be good enough, he meets the mathematician Isaac Beeckman, with whom he strikes up a friendship. The new friend becomes the recipient of his first writing, a treatise on music. For Beeckman’s eyes only! This will lead to his first serious break-up.
But the fictional imaging kicks in when I give him another friend to test his social clumsiness. Among his practice-based learning experiences is his search for a dialogue with the lens makers of Amsterdam when he was studying “dioptrics” - the science of the refraction of light. Descartes writes about this wish at the beginning of the treatise. This opening suggests that he sought to be “democratic” in his writing, wanting it to be accessible to the men of practice even if they had no scientific background. What, I ask, if one of the men of practice, the artisans working for a living around him, happened to be one Baruch Spinoza, the next of the world’s most brilliant philosophers, about twenty years his junior? There is no historical impossibility; nor is there evidence that they ever met. But they could have; and what would have happened then? Testing Descartes’ democratic mind-set, I stage a meeting of the two in a lens shop. Descartes solicits the young man’s help; they agree to meet. What happens thereafter becomes the intellectual cliffhanger.