Descartes Appears, We Talk

I wake up with a start, face to face with René Descartes’ unsmiling ghost. His broad features, oily hair, and white collar float before me in an ensemble more Dutch than French. He commands my space. He is insubstantially solid.

I’m not intimidated – we’ve been speaking frequently over the last fifty years. When I was a teenager, we met in the afternoons, usually at home in the room I shared with my sister. I sat on my bed while he hovered rather ponderously over my desk. Later on, our rendezvous were more public (though to others I appeared solemn and solitary) – in cafés, once in a movie theater. For the rather wide gentleman I have come to respect, he has always been endearingly self-effacing.

I point out that our meetings haven’t usually occurred at this dark hour. Tonight, his filmy gaze betrays a shadow’s urgency. Dare I say it? He senses that these encounters are becoming increasingly problematic for me. Despite long acquaintance, we are not intimate. I cannot call him René and of course we use the “vous” form of polite address. Now I feel his pallor chilling rather than friendly. No matter: dreams, dissociation, and the exercise of intellectual acuity, albeit humble, are the gist of our talk. I feel we express a commonsensical, a timeless ease – my Gap pajamas and absence of nightcap do not clash with his severe academic attire. We are, as I reflect on our differing styles, both quite threadbare.


I admit that I am beginning to find these trysts unsatisfying. Unlike my esteemed interlocutor, I am flesh and blood, and if as his gauzy self weaves before me, I too am pale, it is due to the effort to maintain a stance of uncommitted ambiguity in the face of his confusing, though no longer novel, arguments.

Perhaps this is the reason for tonight’s unexpected apparition: he is here to examine with me yet again the persistent dispute of my inner world between thinking and feeling – a dispute which feeds loneliness and bewilderment. Can he counter with bright reason, not my doubt, salubrious in its mournful longevity, but my fear? His solidity is become my quicksand. I shake slightly as I fix his gaze. What and who am I?

We have never engaged even in the lightest handholding, as together we have attempted to plumb the deep questions: ideation, self, existence, discriminative power, using the correct method whereby to assure us of their certainty. I have believed (hoped is more accurate) since childhood that philosophy could lead to the wisdom that it worships too often from afar. I have needed (desperately) to trust in the force of my thinking mind to bring order to an interior world filled with disorientation spatial and emotional, and I have sought proof that organized – one could say, transparently graded – thinking processes could calm and stabilize the terror cruelly rehearsed in waking and walking into each day.

He wants to continue last month’s (was it?) conversation. Though it is a repetitive one, revolving around thinking and being, being and thinking, we both find repetition engaging and natural, like doing pliés and tendus each morning or driving the same bus route for an entire career – no two the same. We don’t bore each other, even as I wonder sometimes whether it isn’t “mes beaux yeux” (my baby blues) and my dancer’s leggy energy that are the draw for him here. As I sit up in bed, the covers loosely folding, we are both aware that I am less present to him and as a result perhaps, I feel the Cartesian shade reach me now through the cooling glow of three centuries past. He continues his thought:

After all, it is possible I may be mistaken; and it is but a little copper and glass, perhaps, that I take for gold and diamonds. I know how very liable we are to delusion in what relates to ourselves, and also how much the judgments of our friends are to be suspected when given in our favor.

Is he (unconsciously) suggesting that our intercourse has been less stimulating than I presumed? But that yes, there has been some contact – and our minds, like a mosquito landing on an iron bull, ready to bite, are sensing just before the sting that the substance beneath them is neither nourishing nor valuable and that since no blood can or will be drawn, there’s no insight to be gained. I am struck by the disconnect: the hard and shiny, whether cheap or precious – copper and glass or gold and diamonds against the soft, the feint, the uncertain – the definite vs. the blurry not-quite … a misprision of the subject opening, even offering his palm, seeking touch and being touched. Midas, after all, not the mosquito, starved.

And finally, when I considered that the very same thoughts (presentations) which we experience when awake may also be experienced when we are asleep, while there is at that time not one of them true, I supposed that all the objects (presentations) that had ever entered into my mind when awake, had in them no more truth than the illusions of my dreams.

This is indeed a split that we haven’t addressed: I am awake while he is asleep, though we have thoughts with references both true and false, in both states. No – his dark transparency tells me that he is subject neither to sleep nor to waking and it is I who think and dream. But no, again, we are communicating, and this confirms, at least in the moment, the un-bodied nature of thought, so let’s not worry at the problem for the moment. Our minds are touching, if I may confuse metaphor and reality to avoid argument where carnal confirmation is impossible. On an impulse, moved by what I take to be his hesitation between multiple pretend-worlds and the assumed facts of common day, I decide to tell him the dream I was puzzling with just before his arrival:

Sentences move towards me, streaming, streaming by, like commuters in rush-hour, faceless and determined, while along the edges, sentinels at the entrances to the station shops that line the concourse (Au Bon Pain, Blimpie’s, Europan), stand the soldiers, armed and silent. Eventually we get used to them, as you would to a dictionary of unused adjectives, waiting to modify the heedless nouns still faceless like commuters dashing in the train station while above their chattering back and forth the high clouds move doggedly east to west, drearily, in long files of accumulated grief, refugees of the sky.

Il baille. (He yawns.)

Without transition, and lack of transition is exactly the property of dreams, now free of sentences, thoughtless, I walk across an esplanade. Many people stream by me, families, friends with arms locked; the sun is shining thinly and there is a chill breeze, the feeling is that we are many, we are together but, here’s the word, we’re spacious.

Many people, clumped together but striding freely, like Soixante-huitards[i] with their Arab red and white scarves – unkempt, earnest young women and men, who are they? What of me are they? They appear in the press of my sleep and sweep away earlier dreams. Why not join them and fold into their mass? I can do this. I feel them bumping me as they jostle forward across the plaza. Now it’s wet and cold. We protect each other from the wind with movement and laughter. The dream ego can describe them from the outside, a strong and solid phalanx, and feel them from the inside, happy and surging, but beyond this immediate description and sensation I (it) cannot seem to move.

The group pauses as though thinking twice of its destination and turns to me, asking: “Pardon, madame, we’d like to buy a guillotine, but we don’t know where. Can you help us?” I have no idea where one might buy such a contraption, let alone why, now, here, but it is my habit always to respond to questions, even if it means inventing an answer from whole cloth. I tell myself I don’t lie, I am being helpful, I am satisfying a need in the questioner, her need for reassuring contact, his faith in my ability to continue engagement through dialogue regardless of subject matter. I search where in an unfamiliar autumn city, one would find a guillotine for sale. “Go over to the Humanities Division, it’s not far, you’ll find historians there who will be able to inform you.”


I’ve given my phantom-philosopher a synopsis of the dream and now I begin to analyze it – such I know was his preference and employ, so I take for granted his revenant’s interest. Is it off the subject of our meeting? Hardly. Executions were a daily occurrence in his time, as alas they are in ours, and analysis is a crucial key in debate-as-combat: watch concepts slash and parry one another daily, from Lhasa to Washington, D.C.

I reach back to adjust the pillow behind me. At the outset, I take the dream as a set of image-propositions, neither metaphor nor desire for action, but a suggestion towards inquiry (une tranche de monpassé – a slice of my past) from my nighttime psyche. I ask the dreamer: Will the young seekers use the guillotine (of course it will be used) to cut themselves off from the past? If it’s a symbol of the will not-to-remember and of radical separation, why send them to those whose profession it is to illuminate human behavior by establishing connections between disparate events that baffled or escaped contemporaries and following generations alike, and to demonstrate what present society owes, shares and gains – to, with, from – the bygone?


I imagine what I would tell them if they came to see me (as a specialist in La Révolution) and found me sitting in my cozy office, hugged in by books of many ages and shapes accustomed to open under the motherly touch of my warm hands. I think I might start impromptu here: that it is not easy to kill a human being. I wouldn’t be speaking of impulses wild, disorderly, always changing with the circumstances of heart, hand, weapon. Rather, we’d be examining acts of studied execution. They too change with causes and conditions – over time, people have devised all sorts of procedures for getting rid of each other, though we are witnessing nowadays repetition, not invention: torture and decapitation techniques perfected centuries ago have still not gone out of style. What can be learned about the time when we (it is we) passed from legal beheading with an axe or sword to beheading with an enormous razor blade? A moment when Fury, exhausted with the daily swings of a blade that shattered and scattered but didn’t always neatly split head from heart, his arms’ strength depleted by repeated heaves and chops, and, prodded at last by compassion – for the victim? for the killer? – paused to ask, how can we do this more efficiently? Comment trancher net (how to cut clean)? So enters the stage (the scaffold), Docteur Guillotin.

A historian of the period, however, would not jump straight to Guillotin (1738-1814), for his is a Second Act appearance. The initial respondent to the faint voice of compassion was a well-regarded French surgeon named Antoine Louis (1723-1792). Before receiving its definitive moniker, La Guillotine was called La Louisette (either name compels me to protest the feminization of such a device). In dream territory, names are important signifiers and games with names are among the psyche’s delights. Most famously, Marie-Antoinette (1755-1793), the Queen who had it, ate it and gave it all up, is linked to the beheading engine, and since Marie-Antoinette is one of my mother’s names and Louis, also French, in honor of the Sun King (1638-1715), one of my father’s, I am prompted to investigate further. Names – my mother had a lot of them, perhaps because as the first-born in a family of eight children, she benefitted from the genealogical enthusiasm of her mother as her later siblings did not – matter.

My mother had fifteen syllables to her maiden name. My father, who had only five, slicing off whatever cords were left to the Old Country as the couple settled in the New World, reduced the married lady to three – “now you are Tina Hess.” A clean break. I don’t think, however, that the search for a guillotine is about doing away with the family past. While my father could act decisively, and was a good man with his fists, he was not given to introspection. He buried in silence what was painful. It isn’t past identities that are being cut, nor links (chains) severed to those left behind. This is about interior worlds, and the actors are all I.


Let’s posit that my dream is a direct slash at Descartes, though his present demeanor signals that he doesn’t get it. And, when the unconscious is, so to say, forefront, at my mother as well. In sum, it’s a slicing by me of me. Or her of it, or I of us. The historian of revolutions will confirm sadly: the first to go are the guys and gals with glasses, the intellectuals. Although I’ve read that Marie-Antoinette was not considered a bel esprit (and we allow, French was not her language) – the great minds of her time met in other ladies’ salons – it is acknowledged that she had a keen sense of fashion, a talent that requires discernment even amid excess. My mother was not inelegant and she was a good seamstress, understood line and pattern, color perhaps less so. She was mathematically astute; she approached people and situations analytically, whether a Chopin Etude or a dinner guest. She taught me with great success, and for her own purposes, how to think clearly, speak distinctly, avoid feeling (that is, how to keep a little kid out of your skirts). Thinking was refuge; mind was proof of (roof over) me. In a family where so many events went ignored, where pain stabbed the more keenly because what caused it wasn’t there, intellect reigned and thought validated existence. She thought, therefore I thought, that because we could think, we could create a place free from despair. She was practiced in thinking her way out of a muddle, and since everything was a muddle, thought could, did, bring order and comfort. At the price of the vast sensory world. Her belief system was constructed with concepts, thoughts were bricks, rules were mortar; it was hard, it was angled, I bought what she thought I ought – to. Not to, not two, just me up here, alone (mountaintop, syllogism, cranium).

The dream offers a contradiction of images: On the one hand, a guillotine’s edge severs the head, the thinking portion of the human being, from its unpredictably supple torso, its dancing legs, and while defending from contamination, isolates it definitively from earthy life. Its sharpness is a tool for trimming flabby thinking. A fine method for staying clean. It distances as it kills, turns the human being cold and removes her (me, us) from the give and take of relationship. Kills sensation (Marie-Antoinette was insensitive to the suffering of her people). The guillotine is the metaphor for clear reason (a modern sword to the Gordian knot? a frightening development of Ockham’s razor?). In a sense, Robespierre used it so – to eliminate all those from the ancien régime who would question the Revolution.

On the other hand, the revolutionary instrument feeds blind, blood frenzy. Severing (quickly, cleanly) those who act without pausing to reason, it effectively removes from circulation sophists and scholars alike. Not justice, but equality before the blade. Act now, think later (or never), start fresh.

As the dream ego sends the young people left, she wonders, shouldn’t they go right – she isn’t sure where the University is. Indeed, knowledge is neither left nor right, neither totalitarian nor fascist, it’s to be gathered freely from all ten directions – and importantly, also from inside. I remember, the dreamer is a stranger here too – a questing psyche in an open, windy space. I’ve got to cut my musings short. I can surmise  that the guillotine my young cohorts are seeking will be used to lop off my mother’s (that is, in dream-speak, my own) proclivity for the rational, intellect over emotion, mind over mutter. A gruesome ending indeed to my thinking/feeling dilemma. Off with her head! The oneiric solution proposed to the mind/body split. More soberly, this guillotine is a macabre reference to a new impulse in me, daring to cut off the “intellectualizing defenses” that my mother taught so well. Add: abused so well. After seventy plus years of this, I can understand a certain impatience from the unconscious.


It is time for me to stop talking and give Descartes his opportunity. He patiently – I could say guilelessly, seamlessly, elegantly – reiterates the philosophical foundation of the Modern European Age for which he is greatly responsible: that he’s been thinking himself into pretending (feindre) that he hasn’t a body, a world, a place, but cannot pretend that he isn’t. Our twenty-first-century bedroom setting confirms that he’s had a good run of it. Etre et avoir, reversed, negated, reaffirmed. It’s become a jumble to me.

(…) I attentively examined what I was and as I observed that I could suppose that I had no body, and that there was no world nor any place in which I might be; but that I could not therefore suppose that I was not; and that, on the contrary, from the very circumstance that I thought to doubt of the truth of other things, it most clearly and certainly followed that I was; while, on the other hand, if I had only ceased to think, although all the other objects which I had ever imagined had been in reality existent, I would have had no reason to believe that I existed.

Our verbal history is complicated. For many years I lay in bed sleepless, desperately trying to repair the day past and to find the wherewithal to face the next one. I needed (my life depended on it) to think that I could pretend not to have a body, and still be. By extension, I could believe that I didn’t have a body, and still exist. I was often tired. Thinking keeps you up. My famous visitor says, thinking – ceasing to think – doubting, but when he says croire, he means, must mean, “assume,” not “think,” not “believe.” I know issues of faith – croire – come later for him, but I know too, though he doesn’t yet, that there will be no later for us. I listen.

I thence concluded that I was a substance whose whole essence or nature consists only in thinking, and which, that it may exist, has need of no place, nor is dependent on any material thing.

There it is, it’s been said and the words float in the air between us. I paraphrase (how translate a ghost?) and comment, my margins are needs be wide, “from this I knew that the essence of my substance is to think, and thinking needs no place, nor does it depend on anything material.”

I leap up and begin jumping wildly on my bed, covers flying, pillows sending out a substantial snowfall of feathers: Off with his head! I yell. Off with hers! Ours, mine, all of ‘em, off! Then, settling, more calmly, I proclaim my truth: Yes, I was born into the world head first, but buzzing, bubbling, burping, limbs a-flounder, all babybodybabybodybody. I will leave when death, ever at my heels, at last guides my steps. I’ll be dancing!



So now I’ve done it, have I? Done away with the forces that would cleave me from emotion, relation, the harried and friendly fray of the world. Did I go too far? I do wish to preserve the thinking faculty in all its splendor, but the dancer in me knows it must not gain primacy. Moving backwards: no thought without mind, no mind without brain, no brain without body. Tonight, in the company of this genial thinker, it’s clear I cannot save appearances, nor yet an apparition, however honored he may be.

Through the dream’s images, yet with the watchman’s clear eye, I keep vigil as the Shade hovers quaintly above the graveyard bones of the once-Descartes. Groaning, he rolls over – and comes to him, I sense, a memory, the odor of composting leaves, earth at once moist and gritty, while shapely adjectives nuzzle his ears, sweeten his tongue, modifying surfaces and orifices with smell, sound, taste, touch …

I turn to notice dawn slowly spreading her milky light through an overcast sky. It seeps gently between the spaces where door and sill meet, curtain and window part.

Je baille. I yawn. He’s gone.

Endnote: Descartes, R. (2008), A Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences, Release Date: July 1, 2008 [EBook #59], trans. John Veitch Accessed March 9, 2018.]

[i] Soixante-huitards: Student protesters during the May 1968 strikes at the Sorbonne and throughout France.

Author's Comment

I grew up in the French educational system. We read René Descartes early and often. Later on, I developed the habit of going over philosophical arguments in bed before falling asleep. For years, my dancer-self questioned the Cartesian mind/body split in a struggle to move away from the tyranny of the intellect. I felt if only I could talk, reason out my confusion with the original perpetrator, I’d see deeper into my sense of self-alienation. The guillotine image, a recent dream gift from the unconscious, helped me to situate the inner dialogue in the contexts of cultural and personal history.


Sally Hess is a dancer who has performed and choreographed worldwide. She began her career as The Child in Doris Humphrey’s Day on Earth, with José Limón. She danced with Dan Wagoner, Remy Charlip, and several other modern dance companies, and toured in her bilingual, one-woman show, Dancetales/Récitsdanses. Hess was an associate professor in the Department of Music and Dance at Swarthmore College (1991-2010), and also taught at Barnard College, Yale, and Princeton Universities. She is currently an award-winning Competition Ballroom dancer. A native New Yorker, Hess writes frequently on dance, philosophy, and poetry.