Fear of great men: fictionalising Descartes

There were times, when I was writing my novel, when I was struck by an incapacitating fear. It was this: who was I to put words in Descartes’ mouth?

More than once, this fear of speaking for Descartes, of fictionalising him, brought me to an abrupt halt. I backed away from the work, intimidated by it and by him. I worried I didn’t know enough. Would re-reading Discourse on Method or doing a crash course on geometry help?  To a point.  Not really.

I remembered my first meeting with my writing mentor, Katharine McMahon. We had talked about the difficulty of fictionalising known historical figures and why she had decided not to do so in her own writing. She is by no means alone. Novelist, Helen Dunmore, has said that writers stray into ‘dangerous territory’ when they fictionalise real people.

But if I wanted to tell Helena’s story, the woman with whom he had an affair, then I had no choice but to fictionalise Descartes. I could not tell her story without, in part, telling his. I faced the page with new resolve. But this determination to tell her story, in itself, was not enough to set me back on track.

As I thought about it, I realised that part of the problem seemed to be the pull that Descartes’ character had on the narrative, as though I’d set a magnet to one side of the page, and my words, like iron filings, were flying towards it, and him. This wasn’t the book I wanted to write. I had to elbow Descartes away. I rewrote a whole chunk of the book, not just holding him at arm’s length, but pretty much shutting the door to him. Then bolting it. And I told myself, again and again, so that I would not forget – this is Helena’s story, not his.

I used Descartes’ Correspondence as a way to find his voice and to escape the clichés that exist about him. I discovered a witty, acerbic, impatient, ambitious man; a man who did not tolerate fools. I found something gentle in his letters too: advice to friends, his grief.

The evidence, although scant, is tantalising. I believe Helena mattered to him.

And I saw then that Descartes, in the 1630s, was a considerably more uncertain man, not the towering figure of modern philosophy we now understand him to be.

And I realised that history could go only so far and that fiction was a means, (an equally valid one at that), of interrogating the past. Realising that was profoundly liberating.

I was able to put Descartes in his place and it set me free to write him.



One thing I love about Descartes is how, even now, his work catches me unaware. How about this, the idea that everything connects?

‘The long chains of simple and easy reasonings by means of which geometers are accustomed to reach the conclusions of their most difficult demonstrations, had led me to imagine that all things, to the knowledge of which man is competent, are mutually connected in the same way, and that there is nothing so far removed from us as to be beyond our reach, or so hidden that we cannot discover it, provided only we abstain from accepting the false for the true, and always preserve in our thoughts the order necessary for the deduction of one truth from another.’

René Descartes, Discourse on Method, 1637. http://www.bartleby.com/34/1/2.html


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