Sleepless and pensive, I pick up the Pensees. (The entire book is available online, yet I — who spend the better part of every day reading a computer screen — paid for a print edition. This may say something about the current prospects for e-books.)
Pascal’s jottings are a glorious mess. I love this book for passages like this:
For, in fact, what is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything. Since he is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret; he is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he was made, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up. …
Let us, then, take our compass; we are something, and we are not everything. The nature of our existence hides from us the knowledge of first beginnings which are born of the Nothing; and the littleness of our being conceals from us the sight of the Infinite. Our intellect holds the same position in the world of thought as our body occupies in the expanse of nature. …
This is our true state; this is what makes us incapable of certain knowledge and of absolute ignorance. We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end. When we think to attach ourselves to any point and to fasten to it, it wavers and leaves us; and if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips past us, and vanishes for ever. Nothing stays for us. This is our natural condition and yet most contrary to our inclination; we burn with desire to find solid ground and an ultimate sure foundation whereon to build a tower reaching to the Infinite. But our whole groundwork cracks, and the earth opens to abysses.
But tonight I stumble across a passage in which old Blaise seems a bit of a grump and a subject on which I beg to differ — the theater.
Pascal, ever the mathematician, seems doubtful of any art form that makes such an appeal to “the passions,” as he calls it. (Pascal actually doesn’t even regard theater the dignity of being an art form — he calls it a “great amusement.”)
Here is the great mathematician/philosopher/theologian’s fearful dismissal of Shakespeare and all the rest:
All great amusements are dangerous to the Christian life; but among all those which the world has invented there is none more to be feared than the theatre. It is a representation of the passions so natural and so delicate that it excites them and gives birth to them in our hearts, and, above all, to that of love, principally when it is represented as very chaste and virtuous. For the more innocent it appears to innocent souls, the more they are likely to be touched by it. Its violence pleases our self-love, which immediately forms a desire to produce the same effects which are seen so well represented; and, at the same time, we make ourselves a conscience founded on the propriety of the feelings which we see there, by which the fear of pure souls is removed, since they imagine that it cannot hurt their purity to love with a love which seems to them so reasonable.
So we depart from the theatre with our heart so filled with all the beauty and tenderness of love, the soul and the mind so persuaded of its innocence, that we are quite ready to receive its first impressions, or rather to seek an opportunity of awakening them in the heart of another, in order that we may receive the same pleasures and the same sacrifices which we have seen so well represented in the theatre.
Part of what’s so remarkable about that is that Pascal foreshadows many of the same criticisms that would be leveled centuries later by the William Bennets and all those other grumps who think PAX’s “Doc” is the best thing on television.
While I disagree with Pascal’s condemnation of theater — specifically with the idea that transcendent beauty is the enemy of transcendent good, rather than its necessary complement — I do think the old boy was on to something. What he describes here is the classic “showmance.” This “love which seems to them so reasonable” can blossom even on the sets of not-so-great amusements like Gigli and Jersey Girl.
Yes, Pascal — writing, Nostradamus-like, in 1660 — correctly predicted the star-crossed engagement and break-up of Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck.