Blaise Pascal had an extraordinary life and career. Renowned as a child prodigy, he engaged with the intellectual ferment surrounding the mathematician Father Mersenne before turning to his scientific experiments, his work on mathematics and construction of mechanical calculating machines, his correspondence with Pierre de Fermat and René Descartes, and his ‘Memorial’, a scrap of paper he always wore close to his heart on which he described an overwhelming religious experience.
This book considers Pascal’s modes of writing – whether he is arguing with the strict puritanical modes of Church politics, in the guise of a naive ‘provincial’ trying to understand the Jesuitical approach (Les Provinciales), or meditating on the ways to present his own thoughts on religion (Apologia) to the world outside Port-Royal, the convent his sister Jacqueline had persuaded him to enter.
Pascal’s so-called ‘worldly period’, in which his relation to his libertine friends motivated his celebrated ‘wager’ about belief, is discussed alongside his Jansenist writings, his meditations on thinking about thinking, and finally his invention of the first means of public transport in Paris, shortly before his untimely death at 39 following a lifetime of illness.
The book, which includes a preface by Tom Conley, covers many aspects of Pascal’s life and work that are seldom found side by side: his religious motivations and his belief in miracles, his scientific passions, his practical savvy and the aphorisms of the Pensées, so influential worldwide. This is a valuable account of a fascinating figure of the early modern period, and will interest the wide audience for the history of mathematics, philosophy, religion and science.
‘Mary Ann Caws, one of the world authorities on the international avant-garde, both in poetry and in the visual arts, here turns her attention to the life and work of a seemingly very different writer, the great 17th Century thinker Blaise Pascal. As she shows brilliantly, Pascal’s Pensées and other writings, which she has in fact been reading and ruminating on all her life, pave the way for the avant-garde of our own century, and they anticipate in uncanny ways Wittgenstein’s similarly informal ways of doing philosophy. It is the quality of Pascal’s writing – his abrupt, abbreviated, aphoristic, gnomic utterance – so mysterious and yet so authoritative – that fascinates Caws, and her book is eloquent testimony to Pascal’s continuing relevance today. We need Pascal – the precise logician as well as the philosopher and religious thinker – more than ever. Mary Ann Caws here gives us another beautiful book.’ – Marjorie Perloff is Professor Emerita of Humanities at Stanford University. Her most recent book is Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire
‘Mary Ann Caw’s delightful commentary on the life and influence of Pascal provides a compelling short account of the brilliant and provocative inventor, mathematician, theologian, and essayist. Caws makes each of the main events of Pascal’s life and work into parables filled with awe for his protean intellect, literary style, and unshakable faith tempered by palpable empathy for his oddness, physical frailty, and piety.’ – Charles Bernstein, Donald T. Regan Professor of English and Comparative Literature, University of Pennsylvania, and Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Mary Ann Caws is Distinguished Professor of English, French and Comparative Literature, Graduate School, City University of New York. She is the author of several books for Reaktion, including Pablo Picasso (2005), Salvador Dalí (2008) and The Modern Art Cookbook (2013). Tom Conley is Abbott Lawrence Lowell Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures (French) and of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University.