I haven’t taught Descartes for twenty-odd years. When I pulled down my book I was intrigued to see in the margins of the Sixth Meditation a note reading “> Shk.” What could that possibly mean?

The passage in question:

… je me persuadais aisément que je n’avais aucune idée dans mon esprit, qui n’eût passé auparavant par mes sens. Ce n’était pas aussi sans quelque raison que je croyais que ce corps (lequel par un certain droit particulier j’appelais mien) m’appartenait plus proprement et plus étroitement que pas un autre. Car en effet je n’en pouvais jamais être séparé comme des autres corps; je ressentais en lui et pour lui tous mes appétits et toutes mes affections; et enfin j’étais touché des sentiments de plaisir et de douleur en ses parties, et non pas en celles des autres corps qui en sont séparés. (Translation by the duc de Luynes.)

… In this way I easily convinced myself that I had nothing at all in the intellect which I had not previously had in sensation. As for the body which by some special right I called “mine,” my belief that this body, more than any other, belonged to me had some justification. For I could never be separated from it, as I could from other bodies; and I felt all my appetites and emotions in, and on account of, this body; and finally, I was aware of pain and pleasurable tickling in parts of this body, but not in other bodies external to it. (Translation by John Cottingham.)

The cryptic abbreviation, I realized, had to mean “greater than or equal to Shklovsky.” Shklovsky, who in “Art as Device” had proposed that the most intimate aim of writing is to alienate you from what’s taken for granted, to cause you to see things in a new light and question old assumptions. Shklovsky’s favorite examples come from Tolstoy, who often narrates rituals or formalities as if from the point of view of someone who doesn’t know what they’re about, who witnesses the behavior but not its meaning; and in one case he gives the narrative voice over to a horse, who is a piece of property to his “owner” but doesn’t recognize the meaning of “property” at all. Ostranenie or estrangement unsettles our social arrangements by describing them without assenting to them. But Descartes in this passage tells us what it’s like to be embodied in the words that would be used by someone for whom it’s not at all obvious that a living person inhabits a body, or that the body has sensations that are felt by the person whose body it is. The effect is profoundly alienating in its half-hints that if things were otherwise than they chance to be, our selves might wander from body to body or pluck a string of sensation from this or that random flesh-envelope on the horizon. The reader of such a passage wants to know “why?” about something that had never been questioned before. It’s of a pair with this other wondrously alienating passage from the Second Meditation:

… si par hasard je ne regardais d’une fenêtre des hommes qui passent dans la rue, à la vue desquels je ne manque pas de dire que je vois des hommes… et cependant que vois-je de cette fenêtre, sinon des chapeaux et des manteaux, qui peuvent couvrir des spectres ou des hommes feints qui ne se remuent que par ressorts?

… But then if I look out of the window and see men crossing the square, as I just happen to have done, I normally say that I see the men themselves… Yet do I see any more than hats and coats which could conceal automatons?