Sunday, April 21, 2013

"We'd now be living in a different world"

Early in Karl Ove Knausgaard's A Time for Everything (my post about the book is here), but after we've learned of Antinous Bellori's encounter with the angels and briefly of his own investigations, is this tantalizing passage:
And what was the legend of Faust warning against, if not the activities of Copernicus, Bruno, Descartes, Galileo, Leibniz, and Newton? We don't normally see it this way because of the impressively effective operation that was mounted during the Enlightenment, when demonic was the label attached to the obscure and the vague, the speculative and the occult, and truthful to the precise and rational, obvious and provable, with all the fateful consequences that would entail.

Because darkness isn't the danger, light is. That is where all the pitfalls are to be found.

Antinous Bellori's name is on the whole remarkable for its absence in such contexts, something that at first glance isn't in the least bit strange, considering the subjects that preoccupied him. It seems a long way from Newton's books on optics and gravity to Bellori's work on angels. But if we put what they wrote about to one side, and concentrate instead on the underlying mentality and philosophy, we will discover that the similarities outnumber the differences. Bellori employed the same methods as the others, he'd read the same literature and possessed the same knowledge. The only thing that distinguished him from them was that he looked in a different direction. That the secret into which he'd thereby gained insight would never be recognized was something of which he was ignorant, just as  the other movers of the age hadn't the slightest inkling of the consequences of their own discoveries. They lived in a period suspended between two contrasting views of the world and, like hermit crabs changing shells, were quite naked and vulnerable, always alert, always on the brink of scampering back to the old shell, until they'd crossed the invisible line and the new shell lay closer, after which they simply had to keep pushing on. The openness, fluidity, and uncertainty of the moment is there in Baroque art alongside a fascination with infinity and fixation on death. But the choice was made, the world's new boundaries were laid, and everything that was outside them sank slowly into oblivion. And rightly so, we might cry today, for Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton were right! After all, the ideas of Paracelsus, Landmark, and Bellori are monstrous, unscientific, superstitious. But if we remember that these writings date from the very start of the Enlightenment, before the new world philosophy was determined, it may be easier to see that such channels of thought represented an alternative to the road that was chosen, the one that has brought us to where we are today, and that it's precisely this choice that makes the ideas in, for example, On the Nature of Angels seem so outlandish and unfashionable. They weren't then. And therein lies the enticing point: what if Bellori's ideas had won through, and Newton's had sunk into oblivion?

We'd now be living in a different world.



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