No End in Sight: Michel Serres on Harlequin, the Errant “Philosopher-Writer”


One picks things up as one goes along. And although one may forget this or that thing, he or she may have something fascinating right there in front of his or her face. By working with what one sees, by writing about it, coloring it, in short, interacting with it, something unknown is breached. It is this excitement of interaction with things – seen, touched, heard, read, or written – that the writer and thinker Michel Serres focuses on in his book The Troubadour of Knowledge.   For writers, reading Serres is inspiring since it gives the writer a sense of what s/he is doing, in a philosophical sense, when s/he writes.

The writer, for Serres, “experiences, experiments. He tests, he assays”(79).   The experiments done on language by the “philosopher-writer” are based on the “construction” or combination of words and letters. The philosopher writer is, says Serres, like a (al)chemist. S/he looks for affect. But this experimentation “carries a risk” which is “aleatory, the unknown.” In other words, the philosopher-writer may become dumbfounded. More importantly, Serres says that in experiencing the unknown, the “philosopher-writer” becomes “exposed,” “fragile,” and “naked.” However, in what he calls “unmaking” (or what one might call “deconstruction”) one is “never wrong.”

One exposes oneself when one makes, one imposes oneself when one unmakes. When one unmakes, one is never wrong, in effect. I know of no better way to be always right. I do not believe I know, on the other hand, a better definition of man that the old adage errare humanum est, to which I saw, Whoever makes mistakes is human. At least he tried. (79)

The model for Serres book, which he discusses in the preface is a clown: Harlequin.   After he lies to the audience about the things he has found on his “travels” around the world, Harlequin takes off all his clothes. Each layer of clothing, however, speaks the truth; namely, there is a diversity of color and form in each garment. And when he strips down to his naked body…there are tattoos and his sexuality is ambiguous. His flesh, in the end, is his coat. It is a surface which has taken in many different things over time:

What could the current, tattooed, ambidextrous monster, hermaphrodite and half-breed, make us see now under his skin? Yes, flesh and blood….flesh…Life throws the dice or plays cards. Harlequin discovers, in the end, his flesh. (xvi)

According to Serres, the “miracle of tolerance” is to act “as if” all the things one has become over time don’t change the fact that Harlequin is Harlequin.   And it is this humility and naivite which Serres sees central to being a “philosopher-writer.”

He can “miss, make mistakes, or lose himself,” but that is what happens when one experiments or moves from one thing to the next. Taking risks, one “experiences the pain and courage of wandering in order to pay for newness”(80). Against the dictates of experiences, the “philosopher-writer” must greet every experience as if it were his or her first and experiment with each making suppositions. He doesn’t – like Harlequin doesn’t – care about mistakes. And he will lie just to get things “going.” Whatever it takes, do it. Just move. But there is one rule: “don’t copy.”

He never knows who will enter on the next page. Never mind the fall, he tests! If he loses he will not have done anything wrong, and if he wins he will rejoice. To hell with the mistakes, he essays…Leave, go….Take off your clothes, go down to the field, paly. Criticism is easy, art difficult…Enough said, let’s have acts…..In any case, try. If not, you lie. You will lie, even if you tell the truth, supposing that you are content with talking. Live, taste, leave, do, play, don’t copy. (80)

If we keep moving, traveling over unknown spaces (whether on the page or in reality), and testing what we see, we can become “troubadours of knowledge.” And that, for Serres, is greater than being a scientist.

Although Serres’s enthusiasm for experience, experimentation, and knowledge is inspiring, there is something missing. What seems to be missing is a sense of evil and the ethical imperative that relates to addressing evil. The wandering, aleatory mind that the deconstructionists celebrated misses what Levinas knew so well: the ethical. Levinas’s reading of Don Quixote is interesting in this regard since it is, in his view, the “hunger of the other man” that brings Quixote out of his endless journey.

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