Reasonable Doubt | Chapters
Multiple-screen video installation, 2016
Multi-lingual with English subtitles
2. Mastery, in Doubt
Here the mood is the intolerable combination of pride and fear. Beginning with the meeting with Spinoza, throughout the scene, Descartes acquires the status of the famous master of thought he had become in his lifetime, and simultaneously runs into his personality problems. The philosophical doubt of his somewhat sceptical leanings converges with his paranoid tendency and his suspicion of others. In a series of short scenes I merge the many friends and correspondents of these episodes into one, called, after the loyal and longstanding one, Hector-Pierre Chanut, French ambassador to Kristina’s court. This friend regularly appears.
The meeting with Spinoza shows that Descartes’ attempt to consider others collapses under the weight of his sense of superiority. When he pontificates to the young man about the interaction of light and colour, for which I inserted a fragment from the artwork Deep Orange by Ann Veronica Janssens (2010), the future master of ethics interrupts him with challenges. He puts forward the need of the imagination, and of the togetherness of people in the present. Somewhat flabbergasted, Descartes’ understanding emerges. Who is this young craftsman, he asks, he sounds like a philosopher!
After challenging his interlocutor’s class prejudice, Spinoza disappears, after which a symbolic expression of the lonely Descartes’ ambition is enacted as he visits the Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences in a professorial robe. There, he encounters a portrait of Christiaen Huygens, the son of his good friend Constantijn, and prophetically, or anachronistically, recognises the successful scientific career of the young man. Then he recalls the death of the young scientist’s mother. These moments are my way of showing how we merge personal memories of childhood with what we notice about others and what we strive to achieve. Descartes’ father was not proud of him the way Huygens was of his brilliant son. And he, too, had lost his mother, here invoked by a painting of the Allegory of Teaching by Ferdinand Bol (1663). Disgusted with the futility of ambition he tosses the robe on a chair and leaves the grand room.
Home again, a young collaborator is practising the violin. Chanut visits, and whispers something in his ear to which we are not privy. Upset, Descartes shouts out that Beeckman has betrayed him. The historical issue is that the mathematician appears to have spoken about the music treatise to others. Scholars agree that the philosopher’s angry reaction is excessive; we might call it hysterical. The violinist attempts to take the fury over in his music. Chanut suggests René should see a “soul doctor” - the theoretical fiction kicks in again. If it doesn’t help, it will at least teach him something about the body-soul relationship; instruct him about the “passions of the soul” - the subject and title of his last and, for me, most important book.
The attempt to get professional help with his anger fits comes to naught when the doctor picks up on a metaphor Descartes’ father had used to malign his son: he was ashamed to have produced a son who “let himself be bound between two layers of leather”. The allusion disturbs the patient, who runs off in fury. End of story. The fictional scene is meant to hint both at Descartes’ interest in men and at the idea that his conception of the subject made psychoanalysis possible. His view of subjectivity, especially as articulated in “the passions of the soul” will prove the foundation for psychoanalysis. The relationship between the two scenes is based on a sense of futurality. Not only does this excitable man have a great impact on the world in his inauguration of modern thought; also, his own life is filled with hints of the future, including difficulties anchored in his complex personality.
Meanwhile, Kristina, impressed by his work, writes to him with her magnified metaphysical questions. Chanut - now in his capacity as Kristina’s ambassador - tries to persuade his friend to make the trip to Sweden. Knowing what happens next, the scene is ambivalent. We see Descartes’ wavering determination slowly being influenced by flattery; the dream of grandeur wins over prudence. In the end, we see a frail man walking on the beach, a view that insinuates his voyage North. In exhibition, this runs simultaneously to the encounter with Spinoza in Scene 1. Then full of plans, now he is heading for his demise: chronology is made redundant.