Ever since 2017, when a cancer diagnosis made me think more about life’s finitude, I’ve been mentally reviewing all the things I’ve learned so far, in a life in love with “great books” and the history of ideas. Part of what has happened is that I find myself making connections that are new (at least to me) between different fields of knowledge. One example comes from reading about Maurice Merlau-Ponty (pictured here with the nice smile that apparently was typical of his personality, as well as his not-so-great teeth, typical of mid-twentieth century French dentistry). M-P (as I call him for short), was one of the most important writers who helped Western philosophy move beyond Descartes’ separation of mind and body. M-P wanted us to think about how human beings are both mind and body at once, in order to explore what that means about how we relate to the world and what we can know about it. (An earlier post I did about organ transplant recipients having memories from their donors would be directly relevant to his concerns.)
So the ideas of Descartes, we can assume, were a major focus for M-P, because he was developing his own ideas in contradistinction to them. For that reason it struck me as fascinating when I read on Wikipedia that M-P died of an apparent stroke while preparing to teach a class on. . . . you guessed it, Descartes. I was suddenly reminded of the belief I’ve read that devout Hasidim have, that a truly pious scholar could potentially die from the Divine Kiss—a bolt of love and insight straight from God that sends the recipient over the edge of what an embodied soul can hold and into the Great Beyond, without the tedious detour into debility and illness that most of us undergo. The idea is that this is the best possible death, and a sign that you have pretty much maxed out what you can do and learn in this lifetime. I think other spiritual traditions, such as Buddhism, have analogous concepts; so why couldn’t it happen secularly? What if, in other words, old Maurice was felled by an insight, one t that arrived while re-reading, for the umpteenth time, the words of his intellectual nemesis/inspiration/forbear? It would have to be a solution to something that had bothered him for a long time, the answer to some question he’d been turning over and over in his mind—-something that felt like a career-capping “a-ha.” That would be great, for him; but sad for us, since he didn’t live long enough to write it down.
But what further intrigues me about this is that it’s a researchable question—or at least, one open to fairly informed speculation. I believe the notes he was writing as he prepared for the lecture have survived; and I know he left an unfinished manuscript, The Visible and the Invisible, for which Descartes, as usual, was important. One could look at the notes and that manuscript, and maybe letters he wrote or received around that time, and try to recreate his thought process and the key issues he was wrestling with. Then one could make a leap of intuition (hopefully a survivable one) of one’s own.
And so I dream, ueber-nerdily, of teaching a continuing ed class for phenomenologists, or editing an anthology of writings by the same. In it I would solicit their answers to the question: what was the insight about Descartes that killed Maurice Merleau-Ponty? And how does your answer suggest that, had he lived, he would have finished The Visible and The Invisible?