Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Descartes and Rumford

James Miller and our old kinsman, Nick Delbanco read tonight. The former on a particular philosopher, the latter on a polymath who seems to have transcended categorization. Both historical figure, the one was presented in fact, the other in a rollicking, bawdy fiction somewhere among Richardson, Boswell, and, well Tom Jones himself, if he could write.

James Miller read from his new work on brief lives of philosophers (from Socrates and Aristotle to Kant and Nietszche). A very interesting idea, to focus biographies on the subjects least likely to admit to having lives: philosophers - seekers of truth and students of the queen of the sciences. James Miller read parts of his sections on Descartes, and we commend anyone who can lift Descartes back in to shared reality. Long we remember the Discourse on Method, and the Meditations, but Miller took us back, at least twenty years before their publications to recorded journals and diary notes that make Descartes appear somewhere between a jesuitical buddhist focused on the supreme eternal and a pre-freudian on the awareness of self and consciousness, the philosophically famous cogito.

We did not get the whole ball of wax, but Miller left us poised on a cliff's edge between Descartes's sense of meditation and dream, and Descartes sense of a divine force. One gets the impression Miller, who did after all write an intellectual study of Foucault (might there be another type?), will look at least deeper into Descartes's dreams, one of which was articulated by a voice that first said, "Yes, and No."

Nick Delbanco, a man of brightness, vivacity, and measure wrote from his finally completed effort of some twenty years, "The Count of Concord," (due in the spring of 08 from Dalkey Archive), a fictionalized life of Count Rumford, whom Delbanco described as one of FDR's choices for the three greatest Americans: Franklin, Jefferson, and Rumford.

Research Rumford on your own and you'll find that he was a very Ben Franklin-like figure, inventing things at will: from efficient stoves to elegant gardens. The historically accurate Rumford Delbanco gives us is charming, lascivious, sparkling with with and imagination. His reading was a sheer tour de force of nearly over-the-top echoes of eighteenth century purple prose that had people joyously laughing, to a point where Delbanco had to quiet them by breaking his reading mode and addressing the audience: "Look, it's the 18th century!"

There hasn't been a more delightful reading so far in the Summer Institute season so far.