Monday, August 28, 2006

Rene Descartes: Action Adventure Hero

So I'm writing a biography of Descartes for the high school reader. I love the idea of exposing kids who generally don't see it to philosophy, the history of science, and the history of math. But I'm starting to wonder if the themed narrative biography is really the way to go. Kids today are "visual learners" and I'm thinking that it should be screenplay.

With the Philosophers' Drinking Song and "G'day Bruce," Monty Python (holy be thy name) has the nerd comedy angle covered and the little known Stealing Heaven which depicts the story of Abelard and Heloise covers the cheesy, romantic, chick-flick genre. What we still need is something for the adrenaline-soaked, testosterone-laden, 14-year-old boy thriller niche. We need someone to do for philosophy what Indiana Jones did for archaeology. That's why I am suggesting -- Rene Descartes: Action Adventure Hero.

Stay with me here. Descartes contracted tuberculosis as a newborn from his mother and was pale and sickly throughout his childhood. But as a young adult he found himself in robust health and compensating for his early years, he studied fencing, becoming quite good with a sword, and became a mercenary, learning the military arts from Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange, a famed tactical genius. The Catholic Descartes lived in Holland and served under the Protestant Maurice as he was engaged in battle against the Spanish-Austrian monarchy, a mutual enemy of Holland and France. But once the war enlarged and became sectarian, Descartes fought for the Catholic Bavarian army of Maximilian I against Maurice and his former comrades.

Historians disagree over whether Descartes saw combat with either force, but they do agree on one episode... After leaving Maximilian's army, Descartes returned home to France following a leisurely, circuitous route seeing much of central Europe on the way. Taking a boat to Holland, Descartes traveled with only his manservant. At the time, wealthy men were often accompanied by large entourages, including bodyguards. Seeing that Descartes had no such protection, hearing him speak well-heeled French to his servant, and seeing him dressed in taffeta with an ostrich-feather plumed hat, the rough-necked crew took Descartes to be a wealthy French merchant, and a bit of a pufter at that. Thinking he could not understand Dutch, they openly plotted to rob and murder Descartes, feeding his corpse to the fishes. Of course, having lived in holland, Descartes understood every word and realizing he was outnumbered, saw the element of surprise as his best tool. Waiting for just the right moment, in one smooth motion, Descartes drew his sword and pounced on one of the sailors, knocking him against the side of the boat putting the tip of his sword to the man's throat. In a calm, clear voice, Descartes explained in Dutch that he understood every word said. He was tired from the war, he declared, but no so tired that he would not happily kill each and every one of them himself. Seeing his desired destination from the ship, he then politely asked if one of the crew would mind rowing him and his manservant ashore. The suddenly genial sailors thought this was a smashing idea and Descartes was taken to land where he went on to discover analytic geometry, modern philosophy, a version of Copernican cosmology based on an early form of the principle of relativity, and the strange idea that dogs are just hairy little robots (can't win 'em all, I guess).

This is exciting stuff, but for Hollywood it would still need some puffing up. So I'm thinking that in the movie version, Descartes rows himself and his manservant (the bumbling sidekick used for comic relief) ashore. But when they get halfway there, Descartes turns to the camera and says, "Cogito ergo BOOM." Camera cuts to the ship which is torn apart in a fiery explosion with flaming bodies flung in all directions. Quick cut back to a close up to Descartes who winks and says, "I think, therefore they are not."

So the only thing I can't figure out is who plays Descartes. I'm thinking it should be someone British because there is nothing that says continental Europe in American cinema like a British accent. But I'm also open to other possibilities. Suggestions?