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Authors: Russell Shorto

Descartes' Bones

BOOK: Descartes' Bones
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For my mother


“what can we bequeath
save our deposèd bodies to the ground?”

III , 2



the Musée de l'homme, the great anthropology museum in Paris, is a tall, narrow man, thin of hair, with wire-rimmed glasses and the aspect of a bird of prey. Suitably enough, his office is something of an aerie, a low-ceilinged, rectangular box built as an afterthought on the roof of the museum's headquarters, which you get to by climbing a portable metal staircase. Up here, he has surely one of the grandest workplace vistas on earth, taking in much of the Paris skyline. The view also gives a metaphorical frame to the work that Mennecier and his staff do: on one side, so close you can't get a full picture of it, is the Eiffel Tower, that nineteenth-century obelisk to reason and order; on the other is the Passy Cemetery, one of those wondrous Parisian cemeteries that, with their tangle of paths and tombs and high surrounding wall, resemble medieval cities in miniature, but ones populated by the dead rather than the living.

Death and order: that sums up the work that goes on here. The museum is not on the standard tourist itinerary, but it's a place for which the French have a particular fondness. It was founded in the early nineteenth century, as part of the first burst of enthusiasm for the search for human origins, when explorer-scientists—hale, moustachioed, fanatically dedicated—combed the far reaches of the earth for anthropological specimens and human remains. Reflecting those origins, the museum has a retro feel. You might think of it as a temple devoted to the cult of evolution, which brings reason to bear on the conundrum of life and death by using bones to tell the modern story of who we are and how we got here. The cemetery below, meanwhile, with its mute stone crosses, gives another version.

Echoing the views and their bookended representations of reason and mortality, Mennecier's office is cluttered with computer equipment and human remains—a tray randomly placed on a shelf neatly holds six human skulls, as if six were a standard set. But Mennecier is not himself an anthropologist but a linguist, as he made a point of noting when we first met. And what languages are his specialities?
“Esquimau et russe,”
he declaimed with a flourish: Eskimo and Russian. To properly appreciate this response you should know that it had already been established that he didn't speak English. What could be more exquisitely right for a French linguist than that he profess no working knowledge of the world's dominant language but be one of the leading experts on the Eskimo dialect spoken exclusively in eastern Greenland and author of the only Tunumiisut-French grammar? On top of which, his pursuit of Inuit language variations around the earth's northern reaches eventually led him to Siberia, so that he became fluent in Russian and now, as a sideline, translates contemporary Russian novels into French.

All of which is to say that Mennecier is a French intellectual. To many people in this age of universal dumbing down, that would be considered a slur, suggesting things like arrogance and a focus on narrow, cerebral, navel-gazing concerns. But the term can also encompass a way of looking at the world that is becoming sadly rare—call it a serious commitment to idiosyncrasy. People who are configured this way can give you a headache, but they can also delight you with their inexorable weirdness. They work the way a joke does, pulling you unexpectedly off the easy chair that is your customary vantage point. They make you remember, if only for a moment, what a wild place the world really is. So I was happy to ride this wave for the next few minutes, to listen to a little discourse on the seven Eskimo dialects, how they divide into two families, what linguistic markers separate them, and the efforts to preserve the dialects and their cultures.

Eventually, we clattered back down the metal staircase to the floor below. Here, two women in lab coats sat at a table handling human bones: long leg bones with porous, knobby joints; skulls of a slightly sickening orangey-brown hue. In the next room we passed a group of maybe four dozen complete human skeletons hanging on hooks, with a single gorilla skeleton standing in front of them like a short, thick sergeant drilling a lanky squadron. As we went back out through the entry to this area, we walked by a bust of Pierre-Paul Broca, the nineteenth-century anthropologist and pioneer of brain study. We headed downstairs, passing the main exhibition floor of the museum, with its quaint permanent exhibition, an almost aggressively confident display devoted to human evolution, in which a succession of dramatically lit dioramas hit the milestones in the march of bipedalism, from
with its wide arching plates of bone across the eyes, to Cro-Magnon, with its voluminous cranial capacity and frontal bulge, to their more delicate modern cousins.

Finally we could descend no further. The basement was in the process of being remodeled, and the fresh plasterwork and exposed bulbs gave it the pleasingly appropriate feel of a catacomb. My host produced a set of keys and opened a storage room door. Once we were inside, he unlocked a wall cabinet and pulled out a finely polished, curiously elegant wooden box whose lid was fastened with metal hasps. He unsnapped these; there was a flourish of gauzy white paper, then he reached in and extracted the object I had come to see.

It was small, smooth, surprisingly light. The color varied: in places it had been rubbed to a pearly gloss while other areas were deeply grimed; but mostly it had the look of old parchment. And indeed, it was an object with stories to tell, not only figuratively but literally. More than two centuries ago someone had written a lofty poem in Latin on its crown, the letters of which were now faded to a watery brown. Another inscription, right across the forehead, hinted darkly—and in Swedish—of a theft. Tightly scrawled signatures of three of the men who had owned it through the ages were faintly visible on the sides. It was the skull of René Descartes, the so-called father of modern philosophy and one of the more consequential humans who ever lived. Mennecier set it on a table before me.
“Voilà le philosophe,”
he said drily.

, while sitting in the Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library plowing through a volume of seventeenth-century philosophy, I had chanced upon the fact that, sixteen years after his death in 1650, Descartes had suffered the indignity of having his bones dug up, after which people began taking pieces of his remains.

Why do certain thoughts stick in the mind? They seem to have no practical value but stand out from sheer strangeness. Typically you'll entertain them for a while, like a child's toy found between sofa cushions, then forget them, uselessness having defeated novelty. Certainly this item about Descartes' bones seemed a pristine example of a useless piece of information. And yet I fell in love with it, the way you can only fall in love with something truly odd that you find buried in a very old book. It has happened to me only a few times: you have the feeling, improbable but strong, of having uncovered a dormant seed, one that was planted in just that spot by someone now long dead who knew, or hoped, that one day you would find it, water it, and bring it to life.

So I pursued it, first in off moments, in books, then, as it took hold, moving my family to Europe for a year, where I spent long days in the postmodern cloisters of the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, contacted philosophers and historians, traveled from the house in the Loire Valley where Descartes was born (which still stands) to the house in Stockholm where he died (which also still stands), and followed the trail of the bones across western Europe. Eventually I found myself standing in the basement of a museum in Paris, staring into a skull's blasted eye sockets, like Hamlet contemplating poor Yorick.

As I investigated, the story of Descartes' bones unfurled before me and stretched across the centuries, and it revealed itself to be more than a curiosity. Today Descartes is most readily thought of as a mathematician—the inventor of analytical geometry—and as creator of the modern philosophical puzzle of dualism, which holds that the mind and its thoughts exist in a different category or somehow on a different plane from the physical world, so that neither can be translated into the other or understood in terms of the other. On this score, he has long since been put in his place: the prevailing wisdom in neuroscience and philosophy is that Descartes was dead wrong in conjuring up his two dissimilar substances. Mind and body—mind and brain—aren't fundamentally different after all. This notion has all sorts of consequences, which are being explored by philosophers, linguists, spiritual thinkers, computer scientists, and others.

But during his lifetime, and in the decades following, Descartes loomed larger. He was seen by many of his contemporaries as the man who laid the intellectual foundation for the whole modern program, which grounds everything from morality to law to politics and social organization on reason and the individual perception of reason. There is truth in this view of Descartes' influence. His famous “method”—which involved questioning assumptions, taking no assertion on faith, and building our understanding of the world on provable observations rather than tradition—became the basis for the scientific method. His reorientation of knowledge so that it was no longer based on collective authority (what the king decrees, what the church demands) but on a newly empowered
the individual mind and its “good sense”—became a starting point for the development of democracy, psychology, and much else that we think of as modern.

What I began to realize was that people who lived in the generations that followed Descartes treated his bones as symbols—relics—of the new turn the world had taken. Yet, because they differed as to what this new turn was and what it meant, they treated the bones in different ways. The story on which I became fixated—small, weird, serpentine, insignificant—intersects some of the grandest events imaginable: the birth of science, the rise of democracy, the philosophical mind-body problem, the ongoing confusion over the terrains of science and religion. The story crisscrosses Europe and encompasses people from all walks of life—Louis XIV, a Swedish casino operator, poets and priests, philosophers and physicists—as these people used the bones, stole them, sold them, revered them, tussled over them, passed them from hand to hand.

Yet it wasn't until two or more years after my first exposure to the fact that Descartes' bones were dug up and passed around that I got an inkling of the real source of my interest. In college I studied Western philosophy. Like numberless humanities undergraduates before and since, I spent those four years reveling in the work of philosophers, poets, novelists, artists: the men and women who created the mental space that I have lived in ever since, the architects of the modern mind.

Many of us used to think that “modern” was a given, a common ground. And by modern I don't just mean the big things—science, reason, democracy—that we associate with the word but all the reactions to and offshoots of these concepts, too, from Romantic poetry to the Sex Pistols, from Internet dating to hedge fund trading. For better or worse, all of this is somehow bound up together and tied to who we are—and mainly, we think, it's for the better. Don't we?

Apparently a lot of people do not. Today, the very idea of modern society—which, at least in theory, relies on the tool of reason and notions such as equality to solve problems and lumber forward—seems to be under assault from several directions. Islamic terrorism, which is not just anti-Western but antimodern, is of course a dominant concern in the West, but other forms of religious intolerance—Christian, Jewish, Hindu—seem to be flourishing as well.

If these constitute a right wing of attack on modernity, there are other threats. Within secular Western society there are those who say that modernity is passé, that in a postmodern world developments such as globalization, the Internet, and asymmetrical warfare mean that the old verities of the modern era—the idea of “progress,” for example: the notion that you can get a reasonably objective view of things and then make decisions and move forward to something better—are out the window. To some, modernity has come to be synonymous with colonialism, the exploitation of non-Western peoples, the use of science and technology for inhuman purposes, environmental catastrophe. Many secularists also see religion itself as an enemy, arguing that it promotes war, division, and prejudice. Responding to the upsurge of faith-based fundamentalism, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others have written secularist manifestos against religion, some of which have become best sellers.

In the perennial conflict between faith and reason, we tend to think of the one as old and the other as new, but today both the left and the right rely on Descartes. His remains—his metaphorical remains but also his actual bones—are so elemental that both of these competing camps put them to use. It's not surprising that the archetypal modern philosopher would be godfather to the left; since Cartesianism was based on doubt, on questioning everything until you reach a bedrock of fact, it can be seen as the root not only of the scientific method but of self-government, the modern idea of individual rights, and of the equally modern distrust of authority. At the same time, another element of Descartes' philosophy—what is known as Cartesian dualism, the notion that our minds (and souls) exist separately from the physical world—has been embraced by the right. Conservative thinkers—monarchs, theologians, philosophers—have followed Descartes' mind-body distinction to buttress their argument that there is an eternal realm of thought, belief, and ideals that can't be touched by the prying fingers of science and that human morality and earthly power are grounded in this timeless sphere.

Most people seem to be caught between these tidal currents—the pull to faith and tradition in a dangerous world, the argument that religion is at the core of the world's problems and only a revived commitment to individual freedoms and rights will steer humanity into a better future. They are troubled by religious fundamentalisms, with their dead and deadly certainty. But they can appreciate some of the criticisms of modernity, both from the right and from the left. You might say that there is not so much a split as a three-way divide in the world today. Colin Slee, the dean of the Anglican diocese of Southwark in London, put it this way in talking about the new society that he sees coming into being in England: “You have a triangle with fundamentalist secularists in one corner, fundamentalist faith people in another, and then the intelligent, thinking liberals of Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, baptism, methodism, other faiths—and, indeed, thinking atheists—in the other corner.”

BOOK: Descartes' Bones
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