DESCARTES’ DEVIL: Three Meditations
(Translated by Anthea Bell, original artwork by Joseph Biel)
(January 2010)

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"American readers who'd like not to be caught off guard the next time the Nobel goes out to the German-speaking world ... may do well to acquaint themselves with the work of Durs Grünbein ..."
--Jeffrey Eugenides

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ISBN 978-0-9795829-4-3 (cloth)
ISBN 978-1-935830-17-7 (eBook)

In three beautifully wrought meditations on the import of René Descartes' legacy from a poet's perspective, Durs Grünbein presents us with a Descartes whom we haven't met before: not the notorious perpetrator of the mind-body-dualism, the arch-villain of Rationalism but the inspired and courageous dreamer, explorer, and fabulist. Reading Descartes against the grain of the widely accepted view of the philosopher as the proponent of a cut-and-dried, disembodied, and, hence, misguided view of humanity, Grünbein discloses the profoundly humane and poetic underpinnings of the legacy of this "modern man par excellence," and, by extension, of modernity as a whole. Uncovering the poetic foundations of Descartes' rationalism and, concomitantly, the poetic lining of the mantle of reason, Durs Grünbein, one of the world's greatest living poets and essayists, shows us that reason is never more alive than when it is most poetic.


“... a poet who is frequently described as the best to emerge in Germany since the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

“… an exemplary artist not only of his country but of the New Europe …”

“... unpredictably imaginative and psychologically penetrating.”

"An inspired poet, brilliant essayist and erudite explicator, Durs Grünbein, in his profound engagement with another genius, Descartes, has much to say in this book about poetry, history, science, philosophy and the human soul. An entirely remarkable work."
C. K. Williams, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and author of The Singing, Repair, and Flesh and Blood

"Descartes' Devil is a moving and beautifully constructed book that opens our eyes to the fantasy, humor, and imagination of Descartes. Grünbein's thought-provoking reflections on the poetry and modernity of the philosopher - this man 'chosen to set the course for all of us' - are heightened and made whole by his own playful poems, which conclude each meditation."

Heather Ewing, author of The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian and A Guide to Smithsonian Architecture: An Architectural History of the Smithsonian

"This book is nothing less than a rewriting – and a supremely convincing one at that – of the history of ideas of the last four hundred years. Durs Grünbein forces us not only to rethink how we view ourselves as rational, thinking human beings, but he also compels us to reimagine the task of philosophy in the modern era."

Christopher Young, University of Cambridge, author of The Munich Olympics 1972 and the Making of Modern Germany

"... Grünbein's poems read as if the forces of history pressing in on the present drove them into this world."

Melanie Rehak, The New York Times Book Review

"I ... couldn't help but stay awake all night reading Grünbein's severe work ... absolutely unignorable ..."

Helen Vendler, The New Republic, author of Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats

"Grünbein's ... work has a depth that deserves our attention."

David Hellman, San Francisco Chronicle

"With Descartes' Devil, Durs Grünbein, one of the leading figures in contemporary European poetry, joins the company of great European poet-thinkers such as Leopardi, Valéry and Unamuno. By locating the origin of the modern poetic 'I' in Descartes' provocations, he challenges contemporary assumptions about the kind of work poetry should do, and then proposes what it might be capable of doing. Through a boldly unfashionable reappraisal of Cartesian ideas, he invokes an almost pre-Socratic ideal: that poetry and philosophy are aspects of the same imaginative mode. But where Wittgenstein proposed it, Grünbein is in the process of realizing it. His own writing has now converged on a remarkable style, one capable of conducting powerful and original thought with no loss of lyric intensity. This book offers a timely corrective to much twenty-first-century Anglophone poetry and its pettifogging, idea-free tendencies: 'poetry', as Grünbein reminds us, 'is a guardian of the non-trivial', and the poet 'someone who puts language into a state of exception'. In this astonishing book Grünbein has richly honored his own definitions."

Don Paterson, winner of the T. S. Eliot Prize, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the Whitbread Poetry Award, and the Forward Prize, and author of Nil Nil, God's Gift to Women, Landing Light, and Rain

Translated by Anthea Bell,
original artwork by Joseph Biel

ISBN 978-0-9795829-4-3 (cloth)
ISBN 978-1-935830-17-7 (eBook)

Publication Date: January 2010


One of the world's greatest living poets and essayists, Dresden-born Durs Grünbein has had been the recipient of many national and international awards, including the Georg Büchner Prize (Germany’s most prestigious literary recognition) (1994), the Friedrich Nietzsche Prize (2004), the Friedrich Hölderlin Prize (2005), the Berlin Literature Prize (2006), the Premio Internazionale di Poesia Pier Paolo Pasolini (2006), and, together with Adam Sagajewski, the German-Polish Samuel Bogumil Linde Prize (2009). His book Ashes for Breakfast: Selected Poems (translated by Michael Hofmann) was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize 2006. He has also been a Fellow at the Villa Aurora in Los Angeles and the Villa Massimo in Rome, Italy. In 2009, he was awarded the Order Pour le Mérite for Sciences and Arts as well as the Great Cross of Merit with Star by the President of the Federal Republic of Germany. Since 1988, when the then twenty-five-year-old’s first collection of poems, Grauzone, morgens (Gray zone, morning), appeared — a mordantly poignant poetic reckoning with life in the former East Germany—Durs Grünbein has published more than twenty books of poetry and prose, which have been translated into dozens of languages. He holds the Chair for Poetics and Artistic Aesthetics at the School of the Arts in Düsseldorf, Germany, and lives in Berlin, Germany.

"DESCARTES' DEVIL" — Durs Grünbein in Conversation with Michael Eskin

Michael Eskin: You once said that your book Descartes’ Devil: Three Meditations is the most important work you have written to date. Could you be more specific about this?

Durs Grünbein: Descartes’ Devil is a companion to another book that is closest to my heart: the long narrative poem On Snow, Or, Descartes in Germany, in which I went out on a limb as a poet more than in any of my other writings. In this novel in verse, I have achieved the greatest possible distance from the contemporary world, seeing it, from a Baroque bird’s eye view, clearly for the first time: as the great modern age that it is. This is the whole purpose of my Cartesian expedition. Like little Nils in Selma Lagerlöf's story Nils Holgerson and the Wild Geese – my favorite children’s book – I struck out to reconnoiter the terrain in which we modern, technology-driven beings move about. But in order to do this, I had to travel through time, fly back to the age of the Thirty Years’ War, the wars of religion, and the scientific discoveries in a Europe that was marked by radical new beginnings: The Copernican revolution had just been registered, telescopes were beaming the moon and the planets into the familiar proximity of the everyday, microscopes began exploring the human body from within. It was at that time that reality split in two: into an extended substance on the one hand (matter, the cosmos, the manifold manifestations of Being), and, on the other hand, into a thinking substance (mind and consciousness), which would, henceforth, drill itself into nature with the help of every technological means at its disposal, changing and civilizing it forever. I was interested in observing the adventures of the famous Cogito, the epistemological ‘I’, at the very moment of its inception and at the very site of its origination. It’s about the birth of Rationalism from the spirit of winter, Descartes’ vision on the margins of the so-called Little Ice Age that, at the time, spread across Europe. That’s what my narrative poem deals with, and Descartes’ Devil, in turn, deals with the poem’s background. This book of meditation and my narrative poem of forty-two chapters belong together, they are the two sides of a coin. Unfortunately, they have so far been translated separately.

ME: Even if Descartes’ Devil could really be read as a mere ‘commentary’ on your long narrative poem On Snow, or, Descartes in Germany, and even if you yourself refer to it as such – reading and rereading it, I, for one, cannot help experiencing its profoundly meditative, and virtually entrancing, quality. It seems to me that as a poetic-philosophical book of meditation harking back to Descartes’ own Meditations on First Philosophy (as well as Edmund Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations) it enjoins being read squarely on its own terms – if, that is, one is to engage with it seriously and authentically. Could it be that what you refer to as a mere commentary is more than just that? Just like René Descartes’ Discourse on Method, whose “audacious coup” you see in the fact that what looks like a “mere preface addressed to the lay reader” and reads “like yet another dry treatise” reveals itself as the “most consequential bildungsroman of the modern period,” as you write in your own Meditations? Isn’t Descartes’ Devil a manifesto on a par with Descartes’ Discourse on Method – if in a completely different mode?

DG: The age of manifestoes is over. Our poetic statements of account have become much more humble, yet also more specific. Recently, I used the following phrase in a lecture on poetry: “Resented like military service and state bureaucracies is the artists’ and literati’s self-serving cause.” Today, a poet can only think from his very own limited perspective. That’s why I prefer the term ‘meditation’ – it has something of seclusion and self-searching about it, it emphasizes the moment of self-gathering. We meditate in order to gain clarity about something – it’s an expedition with an open ending, not a trotting out of established concepts. Thus, to this day I don’t know how poems work. I can feel their condensed verbal energy, and I sense that poetry stirs something within us that may have been slumbering there for a long time, waiting to be awakened. But how this wake-up service for sealed-up emotions and experiences through poetic language exactly works, why certain lines trigger something in our psyche, while others don’t – that’s a question that a Baroque philosopher has as much to say about as a contemporary literature professor. What does neuroscience know about the functioning of metaphors? How is it possible that a poetic line can haunt us all life long? These are questions for a physio-poetics of the future. I merely wanted to spin out a number of thoughts that came to me on my alexandrine sleigh ride with the philosopher Descartes.

ME: Toward the end of Descartes’ Devil you write: “You need a well-ordered brain … to write poetry, but even more so to understand it adequately, that is to say, to encounter it at the level of intimacy commensurate with its flashes of inspiration.” Could you explain this?

DG: This does sound a bit provocative, doesn’t it? If you go back to the beginning of the book, you will find a quote from one of Descartes’ letters, in which the philosopher speaks of the “well-ordered brain” (“un cerveaux bien rassis”). It was this phrase that struck me most and that triggered everything. For months on end, it haunted me, until I finally sat down and wrote my Meditations. I read the phrase in the light of Descartes’ theory of the soul, which continues and further develops the ancient doctrine of temperaments, while taking into account the medical discoveries of the Baroque, thus becoming the predecessor of nineteenth- and twentieth-century psychophysics. As far as I know, there is no school of psychoanalysis that picks up where poetry leaves off. That’s way I was forced to look about in the works of older writers. The well-ordered brain, as Descartes understands it, is one that knows how to deal with the quakes caused by the sublime. It is capable of sustaining verbal shocks, just as the professional cineast is capable of dealing with the most disturbing images on screen. This has nothing to do with numbness, and everything with aesthetic education. But a certain level of intellectual talent is also indispensable. The reader, too, must show talent as well as strength of character, without which poetry can neither be sounded nor endured. In the age of Descartes, poetry had no competition when it came to putting the soul into a state of vertigo – literature, the Baroque drama with its steamy passages was the amphetamine of choice. Today, a well-ordered brain is required in order not to be overwhelmed by all the horrific images flashing across the media and sink into depression in the face of the daily visual barrage by photography and television, the porn of the real.

ME: How should one engage with Descartes’ Devil for its meditative thrust to take maximum effect in the reader? Or, put differently: How am I to imagine a way of reading your Meditations that would we a meditating with you?

DG: When I read a book, I usually underline passages that I can then connect with passages in others books. I thereby create a network of text passages that go together, supplement and expand on each other. I have always wanted my readers to engage with my writings in a similar way. I see myself as situated along a continuum of core thoughts that have long been at the center of art and philosophy, and poetry allows me to participate in this conversation. I have to be able to rely on poetry and vice versa. Poetry demands surprise, spiritual adventure, astonishment, and it has permission to utilize every technical means at its disposal. Poetry enables me to leap, to move through the landscape of the imagination like a kangaroo. The philosophical meditation (in the age of Descartes), on the other hand, had a clearly assigned function, it came from a long theological tradition and could claim descent from the Christian monastic meditatio, which referred to a rigorous disputation with oneself, an attempt to give one’s own argument the form of a public confession. Others were invited to join in by voicing disagreement, making additions, and offering objections, which, in turn, had to be parried, until the argument had been satisfactorily defended. Poetry doesn’t have to persuade through argument, it ought to inspire and seduce. However, the term ‘meditation’ indicates that the poet, too, would like to participate in the epistemological conversation. Imaginative thinking is a subject on which philosophy and poetry have to meet half way. It concerns the ways in which we convey knowledge and is, consequently, both universal and non-exclusive.

ME: How do you envision your book’s potential in the English-speaking world? Is it fair to say that Descartes holds a particularly prominent place in the American cultural consciousness and that Descartes’ Devil will appeal to the American reader in particular?

DG: In matters ‘Descartes’ almost everything is happening in the US. It seems to me that the list of new publications there by far surpasses anything that has lately been published on the philosopher’s works even in his own native country. Much criticism comes from the neurosciences. Think of Damasio’s bestseller Descartes’ Error. Unfortunately, neuroscientists and doctors know Descartes only superficially. For them he seems to be somewhat of a scarecrow in the open field of the history of philosophy. Academic philosophers, on the other hand, tend to engage with him far more matter-of-factly. For a master philosopher like Stanley Cavell, Descartes even becomes the crown witness for an indictment of certain excesses of analytical philosophy. Remarkably, some even recognize the dynamic evolution of Descartes’ thought – for instance, Peter Machamer and J. E. McGuire, in their recent study Descartes’s Changing Mind, which further attests to the lively interest that Descartes continues to generate. Apart from that, the philosopher has become the darling of biography sections. We must realize that Descartes is as important for an understanding of modern consciousness and the development of Western philosphy as Sigmund Freud for the entire twentieth century. Those who don’t realize this must be intentionally blind. Descartes is one of the great founding figures of modernity, a pioneer who pushed the frontiers, and as such he will probably, time and again, be of interest to American readers. Let’s not forget that we are dealing here with an intellectual entrepreneur, the metaphysician as self-made man. In a way, Descartes was his own traveling university, he was constantly on the road in Europe (in Holland, mainly) and corresponded with the most important minds of his time. In this respect, philosophers like Leibniz or Pascal – his severest critics – would try to emulate him. This, then, was le chevalier Descartes on his lifelong forays into the cool, exciting world of pure thinking and vivisection. And the greater part of humankind has followed him since, consciously or unconsciously. In one of my early poems, I once envisioned the poet as a Cartesian dog.

ME: This may explain why Descartes seems to be so popular in the US, although, as a European par excellence, as it were, he ought to be much closer to his fellow Europeans?

DG: Descartes is so popular in the US because he gives the American adventurer a flattering idea about how exponentially to enlarge his Ego. The world is at your feet, take it! The means are at your disposal, your tough cognition-‘I’ will break every limit. Yes, you can …

© 2010 Upper West Side Philosophers, Inc.

(Translated by Michael Eskin, this is an excerpt from a much longer conversation conducted in German on the occasion of the publication of Descartes' Devil: Three Meditations. An abbreviated version of the original conversation has appeared in the spring 2010 issue of the literary journal Trans-Lit2; the complete conversation is featured in the May/June 2011 issue of Sinn und Form).