Natural and personal mythology
Today I realized something amazing. René Descartes’ name means, essentially, “rebirth of maps.” René = Renatus = Rebirth, and Descartes = Des Cartes = Of Maps. Among other amusing consequences, this means that when we call something a Cartesian grid, we’re really calling it a “map-like” grid.
But really, someone named “Rebirth of Maps” being at the forefront of a revolution in philosophical thinking defined by greater emphasis on natural science? It’s just too perfect. I’m half-convinced either that Descartes had a different name at birth and changed it midway through life, or, better, that Descartes didn’t exist. He’s a mythological figure, a modern-day Prometheus, a “fore-thinker.” I did have professors in undergrad who seemed to think he was the devil.
Anyway, in honor of Descartes’ birthday–though I’m a bit late, since it’s March 31st–here’s all the youtube videos from Minute Physics. If you’ve never watched any of them, do. You’ll learn a lot. Though you won’t really learn any science, I don’t think. To learn a science you have to learn an organized body of knowledge. These are more like mythology. We enjoy them the way I imagine ancient Greeks enjoyed looking out at the world and imagining it peopled with dryads and river-gods.
Natural mythology, we might call it. I think of Robert Frost, in “Mending Wall”: “I could say “Elves” to him, / But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather / He said it for himself.” Or Gerard Manley Hopkins: “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame.” Speaking of dragonflies, there was a fascinating article about them recently in the New York Times. Read that too. You’ll learn a lot about dragonflies. But no science. You’ll learn how to mythologize, that is, how to read poetry.
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.
Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
The first half of the poem, anyway. To read the second half you need something else. Not theology, though that would help. I mean learning to recognize Christ in the living of human life. For example, in the chiming between René Descartes’ name and his life. Even if you don’t much like Descartes philosophical accomplishments you shouldn’t demonize him. Mythologizing is the opposite of demonizing: it’s seeing someone as so much a person that he becomes more than “merely” a person, becomes an archetype.
“To the Father through the features of men’s faces”; my point, I guess, is that it doesn’t much matter if those faces are metaphorical and in the past. Saints are in the past but we still see Christ when we read their hagiographies. We find it easy, at least I find it easy, to start seeing certain historical figures–mostly poets or philosophers–as something like “secular saints,” and I don’t think that’s a bad thing (though it can be dangerous when over-indulged–like hagiographies can be dangerous when they’re overly falsified).
Poetry may be “impersonal” in Eliot’s sense but it’s also deeply personal. Think of Canto 4 of the Divine Comedy, the limbo of the poets and philosophers. Reading poetry gives a sense of participating in a literary community. This is why we enjoy reading literary biographies; they don’t help us understand the poetry, but the poetry helps us understand the man, and when we love a poem we want to understand the man who wrote it. That’s part of the argument of the literary biography I read most recently, John Keats by W. Jackson Bate.