Book Review: The Irrationalist by Andrew Pessin

Historical fiction is unique in several ways. In particular, while all fiction — at least good fiction — requires imagination and intelligence, historical fiction, according to bestselling author Alexander Chee, deals with “the plausibly hypothetical” and describes “what might have happened within what happened.” The constraints of real events, people and ways of life often mean, to paraphrase Longfellow, that when historical fiction is good, it’s very good, but when it’s bad it is horrid. Andrew Pessin’s The Irrationalist: The Tragic Murder of RenĂ© Descartes clearly is in the former category.

Built around the Thirty Years War and its surrounding religious conflicts, the book is an intelligent and entertaining contemplation of some “what ifs” in Descartes’ life. Pessin, a Connecticut College philosophy professor who’s written or edited several books about philosophy, combines fact, speculation and imagination in crafting the two narratives that culminate in an adeptly crafted revelation. One follows Descartes’ 1650 death in Sweden, where he moved the year before at the invitation of Christina, the queen of Sweden. The other starts with his birth in 1596 and brings the reader to the beginning of the first narrative.

With the latter, Pessin provides insight into the man rightfully recognized as a philosopher (often called the first modern rationalist) and mathematician (introducing Cartesian geometry, among other things) and scientist. By using and examining almost ordinary points in Descartes’ life and his reclusiveness, The Irrationalist humanizes him. “He was,” Pessin writes, “a man who could do a half-dozen calculations in his head simultaneously but he had not yet mastered how to navigate a world filled with actual human beings.” The book also pursues the lingering conjecture that Descartes was associated with the Brothers of the Rosy Cross, a forerunner of today’s Rosicrucians. The secret group sought to synthesize esoteric knowledge and symbols with science and math to gain a complete understanding of nature. Pessin also observes, though, that in those efforts “it was apparently also necessary to say some nasty things about the Pope and occasionally also Luther and Calvin.”

The postmortem tale is a mystery (two, actually) coming on the heels of the Peace of Westphalia, which helped make Sweden a great power. It is told from the perspective of Adrien Baillet, the historical figure with whom Pessin takes the most liberty. The real Baillet was a French priest, scholar and librarian who wrote the first biography of Descartes. Here, he is a rather inept errand boy and assistant for the now-retired rector of the Jesuit college in France that Descartes attended years before. For some reason, Baillet, who is not a priest, is sent to Stockholm to represent the Jesuits at a gala being held by Queen Christina. Descartes dies the morning Baillet arrives.

History has it that Descartes died of pneumonia. More recently, there’s been suggestions Descartes actually was assassinated. In The Irrationalist rumors to that effect surface immediately. The French ambassador to Sweden asks Baillet to investigate, even though he lacks any relevant experience. Baillet’s pursuit of his unwelcome task ultimately provides two twists, one under the surface from the beginning and the other perhaps cognizable only to those with in-depth knowledge of Descartes’ life.

The book is generally well-paced, although there are occasionally scenes that seem superfluous. The writing makes the book a pleasure to read and Pessin avoids obvious anachronisms. The skilled research and writing, though, makes one gaffe almost painfully conspicuous. In the same sentence, Pessin writes that Baillet got a “vibe” from a window, producing a “creepy” feeling. The latter term didn’t come into use for another 140 years while it would be more than 300 years before “vibe” gained the meaning for which it is used.

Regardless, the book is both strong and engaging. Pessin crafts time and place in a fashion that transports readers to and lets them become immersed in the story. His attention to detail in that regard and in drawing the characters — not just Baillet and Descartes — exhibits command of elements that create exceptional historical fiction. A reader leaves not only satisfied but understanding more about Descartes and his time.

…it soon became clear that bringing together large groups of armed men to resolve bitter religious and political disputes was not such a good idea.

Andrew Pessin, The Irrationalist

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