Dualisms: The Agons of the Modern World, by Ricardo J. Quinones (472 pages, University of Toronto Press, 2007)

Dualisms stand at the very beginning of Western ways of viewing the world. Aristotle bears witness to this by recording in his Metaphysics the Pythagorean Table of Opposites, the contraries that are the complementary principles of all that is: good and bad, rest and motion, one and many, and so on. Ricardo Quinones’s Dualisms is an embodied version of such oppositions as they determine the modern European West.

This impressive book has three aspects. One is to give definition to the ever-evolving dualisms by displaying them incarnate in four pairs of human antagonists: Erasmus and Luther, Voltaire and Rousseau, Turgenev and Dostoyevsky, Sartre and Camus. As these encompass modernity in time so they cover modern Europe in space, from France to Russia. The dualisms, so concretely alive in these persons, are rooted in their times, places, and temperaments, but are also perennial in significance.

Right away a question arises: does America lack these great embattled opposites? Or is it, perhaps even more generally, that people with Anglo-Saxon attitudes antagonize each other in different modes? One of the great virtues of this big book is that it stimulates large questions of this sort.

The second aspect of Dualisms is its torrential supply of learning—textual, biographical, historical—and here I must enter a regret. A book so large and multifarious deserved a much more detailed index to help the reference-seeking reader recover spots of special interest. For the lay reader—and this is a book to be read across the disciplines—this second aspect is an education in the small facts that illumine large scenes. For example, people who knew merely that “Voltaire” is a pen-name might delight in the fact that it is self-descriptive: Arouet knew himself as a man of intellectual volts, quick turns—a fact that would figure in his duels with Rousseau.

The volume’s third and most intellectually engaging aspect is the business of delineating these fundamental dualisms and enforcing Quinones’s thesis:

[T]hese dualisms become so dominant, and eclipse others of their time, because they…expose and represent perennial tensions within Western culture and the Western psyche.

He surely succeeds in proving this proposition. In fact the multifarious dualisms are reducible to one, which is then shaped by various circumstances: the age-old difference between those whose first need is to know themselves, to be, so to speak, self-possessed, but who are by that fact somewhat inhibited in action; and those who are carried away by a great passion, who are as it were other-possessed, and who are by that very submission empowered to prevail.

* * *

But Quinones, an Emeritus Professor of English at Claremont McKenna College, also expresses a broader fact of our philosophical tradition, that it is dialectical, one long “agon” (or, in kinder, gentler terms, conversation) of opposing views whose bearers are individuals. Think of those two initiatiors of the dialectic of Being as flux versus stasis, the near-contemporaries Heraclitus and Parmenides, both alive at the turn of the 5th century B.C., or of their epigones, contemporaries in the century just past, Wittgenstein and Heidegger, the philosophers respectively of language as spoken by people and language as self-revelatory.

This tradition, this “handing-down,” does indeed, as its name implies, generally establish itself successively over time. Quinones, however, has chosen to exemplify it more through the acutely personal confrontations of its contemporaneous protagonists, so that the agon, the contest, becomes an agony, a tribulation. Here again the book helps to formulate a problem: granted that every thesis spawns an antithesis, are there in this drama characters, perhaps even the greatest, who are singular and universal at once, who comprise and transcend the antagonisms? Or to descend to a more immediate question, are Quinones’s pairs in actual agonistic equilibrium?

My sense is that Quinones himself doesn’t think so. Nor would one expect it, for the issues that so fiercely embattle them can scarcely leave the scholarly observer disengaged. He does his heroic best to treat each side equally, but he is fully aware of the brute fact that the representatives of the moderate or self-possessed side of the dualisms are men of lesser endowment; the “genius,” the deep radicality, religious or social, is all on the other side. Erasmus, Voltaire, Turgenev are—very high-grade—lightweights, who run off before the Future with their tails between their legs, defeated by the personal potency and the historical instrumentality of their agonistic nemeses, Luther, Rousseau, Dostyoevsky. (The case is somewhat different for the “hybridity” of Sartre and Camus, whose dualism “cross-breeds.”)

One consequence of what I sense to be Quinones’s predisposition is that, for all of his descriptive copiousness, some long-range historical consequences, wreaked by the more potent partner in the pair, are suppressed. We are not reminded that Luther, in some respects a great bully, was so spiritually delicate about works (including very bad ones) spoiling the purity of faith that four centuries later a Prussian-Lutheran officer corps could not bring itself actually to act against evil; or that sensitive Rousseau made it acceptable to denigrate civilization and to repose the will of all in the will of one, permissions that surely contributed to making Hitler and Hitlerism respectable for a time. Quinones ends the book by emphatically distinguishing the “daemonic” members of these pairs from fascists or radical fanatics, but what of the demons’ spawn? Aren’t the usherers-in of the Future at least partly responsible for its actuality? Indeed, the book raises yet another perplexity: wouldn’t Europe have been a better place if the self-controlled thinkers had won out?

* * *

But leaving consequences aside, what exactly are these dualisms that Quinones struggles to work out? They are not bald logical contradictions of the “A and not-A” type, but rather more concrete contrarieties, extremes in an element of sameness, the poles of a spectrum such as are black and white in the chart of pigments. His types are the “writer of consciousness” and his opposite, the “daemonic writer.” The former is witty, wily, accommodating, even temporizing; the latter visionary, self-exceeding, even extremist. Each actual figure has his individual penumbra of temperamental characteristics. One fascinating consequence of this typology is that rationality, which conservatives tend to decry as radical and thus revolutionary, is here pitted as the weak but sweetly reasonable defense of a valuable tradition against a powerfully subversive passion for innovation.

These dualisms lead to yin and yang-like involvements—journalistic encounters, epistolary explanations, public polemics—that have great pathos, intensified by the fact that the issues and often the positions are the same among the pairs, and that the men of enlightened compromise are confounded by a defeat that casts them in a light in which they cannot recognize themselves. Quinones depicts the pathos of the losers very vividly, which is particularly welcome because most readers will be more familiar with the “daemons,” the “singularities,” Luther, Rousseau, and Dostoyevsky. (Voltaire in fact writes to Rousseau: “true merit consists not in being singular, but in being reasonable.”) The defeated cannot understand how their “good sense and practical wisdom,” their standing by “the combined wisdom of the ages,” should leave them so vulnerable to sidelining by these demonic energies.

I think the receptive reader might well be torn when it comes to the unavoidable side-taking. Who would prefer the experience of endeavoring to laugh at Erasmus’s learned Latin jokes to that of being reluctantly carried along by Luther’s tremendous German vituperations, or of plodding through Voltaire’s elegant witticisms to that of being stopped short by Rousseau’s paradoxical depths? And yet—the lesser talents might teach the more livable lesson. It seems to me that the decision might finally depend on the route by which we come to our modernity: back from the future to see beginnings or up from the past to see endings.

Quinones pits not only the authors but also their fictional characters against each other. Thus Turgenev’s Bazarov in Fathers and Sons, a “wild” man whose uncompromisingly destructive dogma brought the word “nihilism” into circulation, is to his reader Dostoyevsky a forerunner of the future, but to his own author, the gentle Westernizer Turgenev who is—here Quinones quotes the critic Pisarev—”looking at him from the past,” he is a man to shrink from so as to avoid “the slightest contact with the bouquet of Bazarovism.” Dostoyevsky’s Stavrogin in The Demons, on the other hand, whose very name, “Cross-horn,” signals him as savior and demon at once and who, laden with crimes of flesh and spirit, is adulated by a band of terroristic lost souls—this morally ambiguous hero clearly has his author’s compassionate commitment. And whatever a reader may think of the dreadful possibilities he projects, Stavrogin stays sharply delineated in the memory when Bagarov has faded into a label—for his creator temporized in the making of him.

In the center of the book, Quinones inserts a chapter about his predecessors in the dualistic pitting of pairs, among whom the most obvious, Plutarch, is not really to be counted, since in his Parallel Lives he compares Greeks with Romans, characters whose lives don’t actually cross. Instead, Quinones cites two writers active at the end of the 18th century: one Antonino Valsecchi, “who first brings out the major interests of dualistic comparisons”; and Friedrich Schiller, whose essay “On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry” Quinones regards as establishing the pattern for such dominating 19th-century dualisms as Nietzsche’s Apollonian-Dionysian opposition.

* * *

The epilogue sets out persuasively ways in which the consideration of dualism can help to rescue the humanities from their present state of crisis and allow them to emerge as “arbiters of moral choice.” These agons affirm the past and present vitality of dualistic truth-seeking: first, they confirm the presence of the past, because these opposites are still alive and still recognizable as our heritage. Second, we learn to engage with the authors in their totality, including their moments of doubt. (Quinones here mentions only the daemons, not the consciousness-men). Third, they induce rational debate and thus clarification.

Might I add a fourth, a reflexive, way? Dualisms, and the book named from them, invite pondering this significant dilemma: types, the most indispensable tools for marshalling human affairs are, it seems, by and large either so abstract as to be true of nothing or so qualified as to be self-confuting. Thus in an eloquent final appreciation of “the beauty of genuine dualisms,” Quinones accords to each man of consciousness the accolade of having “turned his face toward the future” along with his daemonic partner—but that is just what each of them was previously said not to have done or to have done ineffectively; it is precisely what distinguished him from his radical other. Nonetheless, it seems to me that this little dose of self-contradiction is itself an invitation to the sort of revivifying thinking Quinones is so admirably intent on fostering.

This essay was originally published here in April 2013, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday. Republished with gracious permission from The Claremont Review (Volume 8, No. 3, 2008).

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Editor’s Note: Pictured above is “Augustus Orders the Closing of the Doors of the Temple of Janus” (c. 1681), painted by Louis Boullogne the Younger.

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