Written by Andrew Pessin
Published by Open Books
Review by Richard Moorton
The Irrationalist is a brilliant and complex novel, chiaroscuro in tenor, rich in humor and horror, fact and fiction, full of myriad mysteries finally all resolved, set in counter-reformation Europe at many sites, and unified by the intertwining lives of a junior Jesuit Adrien Baillet, coopted to investigate the circumstances of Rene Descartes’ death in Stockholm, and the multifaceted and, as it turns out, mysterious Philosopher himself. Although it is a novel, it is based closely on the real events of Descartes’ life and mysterious death.
The book begins with a rapier duel to the death by two unidentified men in a field in Germany. One is able to move below the guard of the other and inflict a crippling wound to the ankle. When the disabled man falls helpless on his back his antagonist runs him through the chest and walks away. Though cryptic, the scene is crucial. It is precisely dated, and as this novel moves forward and backward in time, dates mark a causal order that must be carefully noted.
In 1649 Descartes had been invited to join the Academy of intellectual luminaries being assembled by the young Swedish Queen Christina—accurately described as one of the most brilliant, eccentric, and colorful queens in history. Soon after his arrival in Stockholm Descartes died, allegedly of pneumonia. Arriving shortly after Baillet meets the sinister Chancellor Zolindius who is arranging the gala to celebrate Sweden’s victory in the just concluded Thirty Years war full of Christian slaughtering Christian over religious hatred and power politics in the Hapsburg Dynasty’s rivalry with France. Zolindius insists that Baillet write a report concluding that Descartes’ death was by natural causes—lest the murder of France’s prominent Catholic philosopher in Lutheran Sweden unravel the fragile peace—but Baillet’s sleuthing tells him otherwise.
With this beginning, the novel flashes back to the birth of Descartes, and his later enrollment in the School for future Gentlemen and Jesuits at La Flèche. Descartes is a lazy if brilliant student, who takes years longer than the usual to graduate and then sets out, accompanied by a servant he has purchased from the Rector of the school, to find a life of pleasure and adventure far different from that which Joachim, his ambitious father, intends for him. From this prologue, a long and fascinating tale unfolds. This is enough of an introduction, as I wish neither to stumble into spoilers nor further encroach on the art of a master.
Andrew Pessin is a philosophy professor at Connecticut College, though I knew him only in passing when I retired from there four years ago. His novel came as a complete surprise. Many professors try their hands at a novel, but this one is different. It is a masterful work of literary art. The author has an authentic and major creative gift. This is literature, and in time it may become a classic. Pessin’s academic specialty is apparently Descartes’ philosophy, and he obviously prepared for writing the novel by researching Descartes and his period in fantastic depth and scope. He made himself an expert on every facet of life of the philosopher and his times. The detail is microscopically rendered. The result is that the reader lives this novel instead of just reading it. The characters are complex and convincing, and their experience runs the gamut from tragic, hilarious, suspenseful, diverting, astonishing, idyllic, and elegiacally sad. The plot is a Chinese box of mysteries, each intriguing, built and unpacked with amazing skill. The book is incredibly subtle, and a two-word phrase in one part may unlock a puzzle beginning hundreds of pages away. The very title is a puzzle: “Who exactly is ‘the Irrationalist’?”
This world is dangerous. Again and again Baillet is told to trust no one, for good reason. He is an unlikely hero who squeaks when threatened, as he often is, but in the end he finds his courage and solves his case. Descartes is a chameleon who will shock the expectations of many readers. The novel is built like a mobius strip, a geometrical anomaly co-discovered by Mobius and (in the novel) Descartes, but it is Descartes who sees in this trinket he invents for his daughter a whole new world of mathematics. In a mobius strip, a geometrical figure which has only one side, a line drawn on it always returns to its starting point. The action of the novel does likewise, as Baillet realizes at the end.
Crafting such a novel is a tour de force, but this book has many wonders. One could go on at length about the arts of the polymath who built a riveting, exciting, relentless and explosive quest for justice, but no review can capture the many arts rich and strange which Pessin has fused into an unforgettable narrative. The only satisfactory review is that discovered by the fortunate reader who experiences the polyphonic ensemble. If you would do this book justice, read it, but beware. It is not for the unwary.
Richard Moorton, Jr., is Emeritus Professor of Classics at Connecticut College. His interests include Greek comedy, Roman history, Vergil, the evolution of culture, the nature of religion, and Eugene O’Neill.