For Christ’s Sake, Who’ll Help Me Out of this Skin!?

Justin E. H. Smith

There is a scene from Jean Renoir’s magnificient 1939 film, La regle du jeu, in which the members of a decadent French nobility, looking for ways to pass the time at a country estate, decide to put on a little play.  There is a man in a bear costume played by Jean Renoir himself, the son of the great painter Auguste, and the self-declared enemy of all reigning values and of the class that enforces them. Renoir fils seems like such a good sport: the French communist intellectual, the genius artist, up there on stage, dressed up like a bear. The whimsical scene in which he plays is followed by a skeleton dance, to the tune of Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre. As the music plays Renoir’s character, Octave, rushes through the mansion looking for someone to help him remove his costume. Qui va tirer cette peau d’ours?! he moans. And the English subtitles would have him saying: For Christ’s sake, who’ll help me out of this skin?!

There is a scene from the life of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, in which he is encouraged by Princess Sophie Charlotte, of the still-thriving royal house of Prussia, to dress up like a bear for a play she is putting on with her friends in the palace at Charlottenburg. It is the turn of the 18th century, and Leibniz is Sophie Charlotte’s tutor. Their correspondence clearly reveals that she is in love with him, though the court philosopher himself seems not to have noticed. Leibniz’s love life seems to have consisted in two chapters: first, a letter he wrote, at the age of 50, to a man of good standing, inquiring as to whether he might take the man’s daughter’s hand in marriage; second, a note written at the age of 70, the year of his death, in which he recalls the incident, along with the fact that the man never wrote back. Leibniz died a lonely man, with a shrunken reputation. Ossa Leibnitii, his gravestone read matter-of-factly: “Leibniz’s Bones.” In any case, Leibniz refuses to dress up like a bear, and Sophie Charlotte has to ask the Duke of Wittgenstein (not that Wittgenstein), who gamely accepts. Leibniz sits in the audience, and will later claim to have had a great time in that passive role. I’ve long wondered: was he not secretly envious of the duke?  Did he not wish to be more free-spirited, less constrained by his own seriousness? Did he not wish to nail the princess, perhaps even in ursine disguise?

There is a note that Leibniz made to himself in 1675, to which he gave the title, Une drôle de pensée: “a funny thought.”  He had just been to a spectacle in Paris in which an automaton in the form of a man was made to run across the surface of the Seine. The experience filled him with excitement, and with ideas of his own. He rushed home and jotted them down. He imagined “une nouvelle sorte de représentations,” which would involve “Magic Lanterns, kites, artificial meteors, all manner of optical marvels; a representation of the sky and the stars.” There would be “fireworks, jets of water, vessels of strange forms; Mandragores and other rare plants, … [r]are and extraordinary animals,” as well as a “Royal Machine for races with artificial horses,” not to mention “speaking trumpets.” He imagines that “the representation could be combined with some sort of story or comedy,” and that this story might include “extraordinary tightrope dancers. Perilous jumps.” The public could see “a child who raises a great weight with a thread,” and there would be an “anatomical theatre,” as well as a “garden of simple [elements].” There would be “little number machines and other [things]… Instruments that play themselves.” Leibniz imagines that “all honest men would want to have seen these curiosities, so that they would be able to speak about them.” “Even women of quality,” he adds, would wish to be taken there. At this wonderland of “new representations,” “one would always be encouraged to push things further,” though it would also be necessary that in this charmed place “no one ever swears, nor blasphemes God.”

What was Leibniz thinking? Down to the ban on profane language, the institution he envisions would seem to have more in common with Disneyland than with an Academy of Sciences. Both, I want to say, are more or less direct products of the European Enlightenment. But anyway I bring up this drôle de pensée only to give a picture of the mode of Leibniz’s operation. He seems to have written out everything that ever crossed his mind, including the funniest of funny thoughts. The volumes of his writing, the editing of which was begun by the Prussian Academy of Sciences in 1923 and is now only about 30% completed, amount literally to the reconstruction of a man’s inner life.

I have set myself up in the world as a “Leibniz scholar,” which means that my salary, my 401k, my health and dental, all get paid in exchange for my willingness to regularly hold forth on the life and work of this man who died 294 years ago. Leibniz wrote about theology, jurisprudence, mathematics, physics, physiology, chemistry, medicine, hospital administration, mineralogy, paleontology, etymology and entomology; I write about Leibniz. Plane tickets are bought, hotel rooms reserved, crates of bottled water lugged about by hotel staff in places like the Lake Superior Conference Room of the Minneapolis Sheraton, all so that Leibniz scholarship can happen. My carbon footprint is Leibniz’s posthumous carbon footprint. Everywhere I go, I go thanks to Leibniz: he has taken me to Norway, Argentina, Israel, the Canary Islands, Australia. (I note in passing that comparable employee benefits have been extracted from the bones of Emily Dickinson, Sergei Eisenstein, Andy Warhol, and even an illiterate 16th-century miller from Friuli.)

Thanks to Leibniz, I have had more surreal conversations with passport control agents around the world than I could possibly recall. Israeli security agents are of course required to engage all who travel into and out of Israel in long, surreal conversations, prying for details about their personal and professional lives in order, I presume, to make sure they really are who they say they are. Twice, on leaving Israel, I’ve found myself delivering from memory the papers I’d just presented at academic conferences in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv the days before. I would stop every five minutes or so –after sentences like, “and so we see that in fact Leibniz continues to propose new models of the structure of the organic bodies of corporeal substances right through the 1704 publication of the Nouveaux essais sur l’entendement humain“– to ask: shall I continue? They nodded their heads yes, and so I did… for 40 more minutes. They were doing their job, and I was doing mine.

The second time I was in Israel, in 2005, I had presented a paper on, among other things, Leibniz’s theory of the origins of Chinese, his argument that it was not, as many had thought, a deformation of Hebrew, and his general denial that there ever was such a thing as an “Adamic” language, that is, a prelapsarian way of speaking in which words zapped directly into the essences of things, giving the first man and woman perfect, God-like knowledge of the objects of reference in the world. I spoke for 45 minutes, and one of the agents, a girl, 19 or so, with a blonde ponytail, sat taking notes. What, or who, were these notes for, I wondered. Her rabbi? The file Mossad was keeping on me? Her own interest in the nature of language? 

I recently found myself passing through JFK (the airport, that is). For me, coming home to the US is like entering the Green Zone: a highly protected, highly charged spot where every sign of normalcy seems only to point towards the chaos radiating out of it. What disturbs me most are those damned blue latex gloves that ever more Americans seem to be wearing: toll-booth workers, Rite-Aid employees, DHS agents. The gloves are supposed to signal: This is a sterile operation here, everything’s above-board and impervious to corruption, but they remind me of nothing so much as Abu Ghraib. I want to say: they are what made Abu Ghraib possible. The hygienic separation provided by the gloves in turn enables a sort of moral separation from one’s own shit-dirty deeds. Get a few of the other guy’s germs on you, and you might be reminded he’s your brother.

The agent to whose window I was sent wore the blue latex gloves and a name-tag that identified him as “Ferency.” On the form that asked me which countries I’d visited since last in the United States, I’d listed over a dozen (including Hungary), which was all the allotted space would permit. “What line of work takes you to so many interesting places?” Ferency asked in a sort of bored and laconic mumble.

“I’m a professor of philosophy,” I told him.
“Cool,” he said. “
“Who’s your main guy?”
“Is it true he stole the calculus from Isaac Newton?”
“No, that’s a scurrilous slander,” I replied to the Department of Homeland Security agent.
“OK, just asking,” Ferency said, clearly interested. “But seriously, I don’t think I could spend my life studying Leibniz. He’s too logical. There’s more to life than just logic: premise-conclusion, premise-conclusion. Too dry. I mean, what about, like, poetry?” Without even having opened it to confirm my identity, he handed my passport back with his blue-gloved hand.
“Leibniz wrote poetry, too.” I told him.
“He did?””
“Yes. He once wrote a very whimsical ode to a princess’s parrot.”
“Well, maybe I underestimated the guy,” Ferency said as he waved me along.

There is a scene from the life of Leibniz, in which we find him in Bohemian Karlsbad, taking a hot-spring bath with Peter the Great, the Tsar of Russia. It is late in his life, 1714 or so. He is suffering from severe gout, and has taken to trying any and every possible remedy. By now he has constructed a homemade wooden clamp, meant to reduce the circulation of blood to his affected foot, a measure which certainly did not help at all. Leibniz’s first letter on the self-treatment of gout, so far as I’ve been able to find, was written in 1676, decades before he himself would die of over-treatment. Diogenes Laertius, who had believed that a philosopher’s death must reflect the work of his life, would have been impressed by Leibniz.


One source of difficulty I’ve often encountered in trying to imagine my way into the world as lived by 17th-century European men of letters is presented by those goddamned wigs they wore. What could they have been thinking? And why do publishers today insist on reproducing images of their wigged heads every time a new book comes out? (I continue the practice here just to drive home my point.) What do these horrid perruques have to do with the theory of monads or the discovery of gravity? Whenever I see that famous portrait of Louis XIV (reproduced here in a slightly blurred form, so as not to blind the reader with his radiance), with his waist-length curls, his furs, his tights decorated with fleurs de lys, I think to myself: that was a world that had to collapse. Hair-wise, there’s no denying that Leibniz’s wig places him much closer to le roi soleil than to, say, Kant, whose dignified ponytail positions him, a century later, in the respectable company of Thomas Jefferson and other good men.

Leibniz and Peter were in Karlsbad to discuss the establishment of an Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, after the model of the one Leibniz had already helped to found in Berlin. There is no record of their meeting, but I have often attempted to reconstruct how it might have unrolled. The bare physical details take precedence in exercises of the imagination such as this. Did they get fully naked before entering the baths? Did they have towels? What did Leibniz look like, stripped down, without his wig? A colleague insists that without his wig Leibniz looks like no one so much as Ben Kingsley, and that this wide-ranging actor, who has already played Gandhi, should also play the philosopher in any future movie about his life. But there will never be a movie about the life of Leibniz, and if there is it will be a disappointing wigs-and-tights period piece with an invented and implausible romantic twist.

Ferency may very well have been itching to tear that damned glove off, like Octave with his peau d’ours. The Israeli girl no doubt wanted to strip off that uniform, which she would do soon enough, once her obligatory period of service had ended, to go off and dance on a beach somewhere to Goa trance, or Balearic house, or God knows what. Often I would like to tear off the skin under cover of which I move across frontiers, to be waved through by the border guards not in view of what I have to say about Leibniz, but in virtue of everything I have ever thought or felt, my own infinite repository of drôles de pensées. But a job’s a job, and it pays to be a good sport.

By the time he hot-tubbed with Leibniz, Peter the Great had much experience tearing beards right off the faces of men in the streets of St. Petersburg; it was to be a Western city, with an Academy of Sciences and all, and the Tsar could not stand to have his subjects looking like backward Orthodox monks. In France, when the Revolution that relegated the wigs and tights of absolute monarchy to the realm of nostalgia finally came, its heroes were not content to yank off the coiffures of the ancien régime and start fresh from there, but instead removed entire heads. Leibniz for his part believed that when a worm is cut in half, a previously subordinate soul in the weaker half rises up and becomes the dominating soul in the newly independent body. He thought human souls have an even brighter destiny, no matter what their gravestones might read, but I hope to be reborn a few more times before it comes to that.

21 June, 2008

For an extensive archive of Justin Smith’s writing, please visit .

For the original French text of the “Drôle de pensée,” go here. .