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REVIEW: Braider, Christopher. The Matter of Mind: Reason and Experience in the Age of Descartes. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4426-4348-2. Pp. 340. $75.

Article Citation: 
XVI, 1 (2015): 109–111
Ellen McClure
Article Text: 

Christopher Braider’s The Matter of Mind: Reason and Experience in the Age of Descartes, winner of the 2012 Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for French and Francophone Studies awarded by the MLA, is an impas­sioned and engaging effort to put paid to the image of seventeenth-century France as a staid bulwark of rational classicism. This “tenacious idol to which most accounts of the early modern West pay homage” (3), tends to rest, Braider notes, on a vision of Descartes as the century’s emblematic figure, an intellectual hero whose dualist philosophy encapsulated the pe­riod’s longing for the certitudes afforded by a well-founded and transparent order. To counter this vision, Braider introduces his survey of seventeenth-century French cultural production with a reading of Mon­taigne’s essay “De l’expérience,” a provocative choice that serves to place the age of classicism against the messiness of contingent embodiment ra­ther than, say, against the geometric reflecting pools of Versailles. As such, this reading prepares the analyses that follow, which draw out the repressed Montaigne-ness of some of the century’s most notable writers and thinkers in order to locate what Braider calls “the duplicities that charac­terize French classical culture as a whole, engendering the nagging se­cond thoughts that put it on both sides of every issue” (31).

Appropriately, then, Braider moves on to Descartes, reminding the reader that the philosopher’s metaphysical masterpiece, the Meditations, never, in fact, enjoyed the status of an authoritative document. Instead of the warm welcome that the familiar narrative of the classical era might lead us to expect, the text was greeted with a series of objections from scien­tists, philosophers, and theologians inside and outside of France. Braider demonstrates how the inclusion of these objections along with Des­cartes’s responses in the published work exemplifies not duality, but dialogism, resulting in a work that can never quite attain the triumphant abstraction for which it strives. Descartes does, in the end, provide a use­ful framework through which to view the century, but only insofar as his aspiration for the clear, the distinct, and the universal is undercut by the inevitable pull of chaotic contingency. 

Braider goes on to trace the ways in which the stubbornness of the particu­lar subverts the willed universality of classicism through the art of Pous­sin, the plays of Corneille and Molière, the thought of Pascal, and the sat­ires of Boileau. The wide range of works considered, as well as the looseness of Braider’s theoretical apparatus, can at times lead the reader to wonder to what extent the conflict between universal and particular is spe­cific to seventeenth-century France. Yet answering this question would entail engaging in precisely the kind of clumsy causality or easy infer­ences that Braider argues miss the point; it is impossible to tie the century with a neat bow, especially since the seventeenth-century thirst for order is also our own.  Accordingly, Braider’s study succeeds especially well in his close readings of the works he considers. His account of the delicate equilibrium between the abstract sovereignty of the rational and the seduc­tive materiality of color in Poussin’s painting is masterful. In the following chapter, he offers a reading of Médée that convincingly argues that Cor­neille’s identification with strong female characters reflects the author’s consciousness of the unseemliness of pursuing literary greatness and per­sonal autonomy in a century devoted to classical conformity. His attention to Molière’s relatively little-studied play Le Cocu imaginaire focuses on the play’s circulating portrait in order to demonstrate the playwright’s sly and persistent subversion of the classical ideals of univocity and transpar­ency with an eye to “the often tragic potential of comic embodiment” (152). His chapter on Pascal points to the ways in which his philosophy and science intersect to complicate the apologetic goals of the Pensées. Finally, his examination of Boileau’s satire on l’équivoque deftly illus­trates the ways in which this rhetorical category denotes the supplément that is at once unavoidable and unassimilable to the classical ideal of clar­ity.

Braider’s wide-ranging work is not without its flaws. Although he in­cludes a sympathetic reading of Corneille’s female characters, the absence of female writers is glaring, especially given recent work, most notably by Faith Beasley, that argues that the "tenacious idol" of classicism is at least partly the result of centuries of overlooking women’s contributions to seven­teenth-century French culture.  Braider’s treatment of religion can also be puzzling. While he does acknowledge that theology, in the early modern period, was “an intellectual discipline to which, despite the era’s growing secularism, all others remained subordinate” (156), religion gets relatively short shrift. The chapter on Descartes focuses on mind-body dual­ism while hardly mentioning the Meditations’ other avowed pur­pose—to prove the existence of God—and Gassendi is described as a materi­alist and an Epicurean, but never as a priest. I also remain uncon­vinced that Mme Sganarelle’s infatuation with the portrait of Lélie in the Cocu imaginaire can be described as idolatry, insofar as idolatry typically involves overlooking, not (as is the case here) admiring, the materiality of the worshipped object.

That said, Braider’s provocative arguments, supported by readings that are often no less than ingenious, are a joy to read. Braider’s humor and light touch are also on display, as when he notes that Descartes is “no old fart of a sorbonnard” (53) or refers to the coups d’état theorized by Naudé as “the baroque equivalent of Bush-era ‘shock and awe’ ” (95). The reader fre­quently has the delightful impression of being in the classroom of an exceptional professor, whose attention to detail and refusal to accept re­ceived wisdom at face value push his students towards a deeper apprecia­tion of these infinitely complex texts.  Braider’s efforts to destabilize the classical canon, or, more accurately, to point to the ways in which the canon destabilizes itself, constitute a compelling argument that seven­teenth-century French culture is more relevant than ever—even, or espe­cially, in twenty-first century American universities where the struggle between the quest for Truth and the particularities of historical embodi­ment continues to be passionately and urgently fought.

Ellen McClure, University of Illinois at Chicago

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