The Demonic Arts and the Origin of the Medium

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(ProQuest Information and Learning: Foreign text omitted.)

Guiding us through his exercises in skepticism, seeking to show us how our world might be illusory, Rene Descartes first invokes the condition of the dream:

Let us suppose, then, that we are dreaming, and that none of these particulars-neither the opening of the eyes, nor the moving of the head, nor the putting forth of the hands, nor even that we have these hands or this whole body-are true; let us suppose, rather, that they are seen in sleep like painted images, which could not be fashioned except in the likeness of real things.1

For a moment, the dream seems to be a fair model for deception, a familiar experience that involves the feel of both sight and self-motion, but which any of us can also easily appreciate as "unreal." The dream, remembered from the moments of wakefulness, represents a kind of dispossession; it allows us to imagine how we might no longer have even the things that are most immediate to us, the hands that guarantee the world through their touch, or the bodies that we might think we are.

The dream, however, quickly proves insufficient for Descartes's purposes:

Nevertheless, we must admit that at least these general things-eyes, head, hands, the entirety of the body-are not imaginary things, but rather things that truly exist. For clearly painters themselves, even when they aim, with the most extraordinary forms, to represent sirens and satyrs, cannot assign them natures that are in every way new, but can only mix the members of different animals; or if by chance they should conceive something so novel that nothing similar has ever been seen before, something that is, therefore, wholly fictitious and false, it is at least certain that the colors of which they composed this must be real.2

Dreams cannot provide a model for true deception because dreams are made of real things. Like paintings, which, however rearranged for perception, nevertheless depend on the existing world for their being, dreams cannot be entirely false. Their most radical fictions are mere Horatian chimeras, and what's more, even the chimeras are hampered by their dependence on their substance; every invention is an invention built of colors. Dreams have sources in the very things of which they are supposed to dispossess us; they cannot take away our world, because they are made of it.

Dreams and paintings having failed, Descartes finally refers his readers, for their comprehension of deep skepticism, to the experience of demonic possession:

I will suppose, then, that not almighty God, the source of truth, but rather some evil spirit, one that is at once exceedingly potent and cunning, has set all of his industry to deceiving me. I will imagine that sky, air, earth, colors, figures, sounds, and all external things are nothing other than the mockeries of dreams, by means of which this being seduces my credulity. I will consider myself not to have hands, eyes, flesh, blood, or any of the senses, and to have falsely believed that I have these. I will remain resolutely fixed in this meditation, and thus, if indeed it not be in my power to recognize some part of what is true, I will at least, with strengthened mind, beware of what is in me, so that I do not assent to what is false, and so that that demon, however powerful and however cunning he be, not be able to impose anything on me.3

The demon, like the painter of dreams, is an artificer. Yet for the would-be skeptic, possession by a genio maligno overcomes the drawbacks of mere sleep in its total separability from reality. In this perfect nightmare, all that belongs to us-our bodies, our sensory apparatuses, as well as the colored, figured worlds they take in-can be reduced to the "mockeries of dreams." The condition of true skepticism is the condition of complete painting. Both in its total invention and in its pure illusion, possession promises to be an artifice with nothing behind it. …