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Exile in that Infinity: Giordano Bruno

Ed Simon

“If you had found planets circling one of the fixed stars, there among Bruno’s infinities I had already prepared my prison shackles, that is, my exile in that Infinity.”
– Letter from Johannes Kepler to Galileo Galilei, 1610

“I hardly ever read a book without wanting to give it a good censoring.”
– Robert Cardinal Bellarmine SJ, 1598

“O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space.”
– William Shakespeare, Hamlet, c. 1600

Ettore Ferrari, Giordano Bruno (1889)

Ettore Ferrari, Giordano Bruno (1889)

[1]  According to the Italian, the English were just as unimpressed with him as he was with them. On an Ash Wednesday in 1583 they sat in this dark-wood panelled dining room, tapestries keeping out the chill of late winter even as the cold couldn’t help but enter through the leaded window with its multicoloured glass diamonds. The Italian’s thin, stubbly black beard, his olive complexion and his shaggy dark hair that had grown out from his tonsure distinguished him from the gathering of fair skinned courtiers who had invited him to supper. Giordano Bruno, of Nola, born in the shadow of Vesuvius and raised on the peaches and lemons which grew in her fertile soil, and whose intellectual training was in Naples’ monasteries and chaotic streets, was very far from home here in damp, dark London. Chief among the English was Fulke Greville, author of arguably the first biography in English, who was perhaps dressed in his imposing ruffled Elizabethan collar and the rich satins and velvets of the aristocratic class. Greville was close friends with Sir Philip Sidney, who admired Bruno and who the Nolan dedicated a book to. Yet despite his affection for noble Sidney, for the cosmopolitan Bruno, who true to the humanist maxim had made wherever he happened to be residing at that moment his home, still found the English to be “disrespectful, uncivil, rough, rustic, savage and badly brought up.” While he disparaged their uncouth table manners and their inability to clean themselves before and after they ate, the Englishmen found Bruno to be obtuse and pretentious, answering his declarations about Copernicanism with snotty rejoinders quoted from Erasmus. And yet, in Bruno’s fictionalized dialogue Ash Wednesday Supper, which recounts the dinner, and which appropriated the form and structure of Plato’s Symposium and married it to the vulgar, obscene, practical and endlessly creative Neapolitan dialect of his youth, Bruno expressed some of the most sublime metaphysical speculation of the sixteenth century. It is as if Pulcinella, the clown of commedia dell’arte, was suddenly able to declare with utmost sophistication and beauty the infinite nature of the universe.

[2]  Almost exactly seventeen years later and also on an Ash Wednesday, the short former monk would find himself naked, chained to a bundle of cut faggots, with one spike pierced through both his cheeks and another one finishing a cross through his lips. Here, in the Campo de Fiori – the Roman “Field of Flowers” – he had finally returned to his homeland and faced Michelangelo’s massive and still unfinished dome as he was immolated. For what was the Nolan philosopher burned? He was executed because the Church feared what was printed in his dozens of books, spoken through his lectures at the top universities of Europe from Padua to Oxford, and scratched in the very margins of his personal library, composed as it was with the infernal syllabus that is the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. For several months in 1593 he was imprisoned by the relatively liberal Venetian Inquisition – the Doge always eager to keep his independence from the Pope – and then possibly tortured for the next seven in the dungeons of the Tor di Nona by the Roman Inquisition (for which no records survive, lost in the Napoleonic conquests). Bruno was made a martyr for his beliefs – but it remains difficult to classify those beliefs. Witnesses for the prosecution (and there was only a prosecution) claimed that he abjured Christianity, that in his earliest days as a friar in Naples he denied the Trinity, stripped his monastic cell of all but a crucifix (reminding his superiors of those iconoclasts beyond the Alps), that he defended the fourth-century heretic Arius, that he had consorted with and attended services amongst the Lutherans and Calvinists in the great schismatic capitals, that he had bragged about trying to start his own Rosicrucian religion, and that there were already cells amongst the swayable people of Switzerland and Germany who were attracted to Bruno’s hermetic faith with its blend of Christianity and the occult, his mythology as familiar with Thoth and Apollo as it was with Christ. A man who had been imprisoned with Bruno in Venice was brought forth as a witness to the many blasphemies in word and heresies in thought which the Nolan had supposedly uttered as he awaited trial. The prisoner – a cleric himself – claimed that Bruno denied that “bread transmutes into flesh” and “that he is an enemy to the Mass, that no religion pleases him” and that he claimed “that Christ was a wretch…. [and] that Christ….. was a magician.” This witness stated that while awaiting his trial Bruno often ironically compared himself to Christ, and claimed that the Son of God was no better than any of the prisoners, for even Christ wished to resist his execution during that human moment at Gethsemane. Sometimes the blasphemy was less sophisticated than that – sometimes in rage and frustration the philosopher would scream at God the Father “I despise you, fucked cuckhold, done and undone!” But Bruno also said more sublime things that for all their beauty enraged the Church no less, for he believed that “the world is eternal and that there are infinite worlds.”

[3]  Like Erasmus, whose books he had hid in his monastic cell when he was young, he made no single town his home, but rather the whole of a rapidly disintegrating Christendom was his study. From a provincial settlement some thirty miles from Naples – which at the time ranked among one of the largest cities in the world – he would travel to, write in, and teach at universities in Paris, Venice, London, Geneva, Oxford, Prague, Wittenberg, Venice and Padua. He would meet the crowned heads of Europe: Henri III of France, humbled by the violence of the massacre on St. Bartholomew’s Day, when the Seine was bloodied by the martyred Huguenots; Elizabeth of England, who for some time seemed to offer the promise of toleration to persecuted Bruno but whose via media was more Machiavellian strategy than intellectual position; and Rudolf II of Prague, with his court filled with not just jesters and magicians, but astronomers and artists, and always with that regent’s aching desire to pierce that shadow veil between the world as it seems and the world as it is. On these journeys, over the course of a short life of only a bit more than a decade of writing, he had printed dozens of arguments, dialogues, plays, pamphlets, poems and even instruction manuals with exotic titles such as The Song of Circe, The Candlemaker, Ash Wednesday Supper, and On the Limitless and Numberless. In his writing, his lectures, and his private tutoring (to among others Henri III) he argued for a strikingly original interpretation of the universe. And what was this vision? For Bruno reality did not end at the conclusion of the nine crystalline spheres of the Ptolemaic world: it extended indefinitely into pure infinity, and was aged on a scale of eternity and not the prosaic few millennia that organized Christianity believed in. That in this immeasurable universe there are other suns, with other planets, which have their own inhabitants. That our reality is structured by atoms, and that we are unified in our compositional substance, and that as God is somewhere, God is everywhere. In On the Immense he writes “Now, if you please, ask me: Where is place, space, vacuum, time, body? In the universe. Where is the universe? In every place, space, time, body. Is there anything outside the universe? No. Why? Because there is no place nor space nor motion nor body.”

[4]  It would be easy to read this as a scientific world view (and it often still is read this way), but it would be a mistake. Bruno was conversant in the emerging new science, but Bruno was not a scientist. His was not an empirical world – at least not exactly. For Bruno it was the manipulation of numbers and symbols, memory and word, which generated knowledge of the cosmos. It is true that he embraced Copernicus’ heliocentrism, but not necessarily because it simplified complex calculations involving epicycle upon epicycle or because it explained the retrograde motion of Mars, but rather because in restoring the sun to the center of the solar system it gave due reference to Apollo. “Sun, who alone bathes all things in light” as Bruno said in his Apollonian hymn, his Copernicanism justified more by a type of Neo-Paganism than by the telescope. Kepler, for his witchy associations, or Tycho Brahe even with his astrological ones, and certainly Galileo (who sometimes seems so modern that he may be a refugee from the future), all began to speak in the language of science. Bruno was a hermeticist: however, his unseen forces were not things like gravity but substances of a more occult sort. Bruno’s laboratory was not Brahe’s Danish island observatory espying the supernova of 1572, but rather the libraries of Italian occultism. He was the embodiment of the mystical, otherworldly, transcendent perspective of men from the previous century like Giovani Pico della Mirandola or Marsilio Ficino, or even Plethon who still worshiped the gods of old, and who attended that Medici-funded Florentine conclave in 1438 which was the closest the Catholic Church ever came to suturing that amputation from the Greek east. None of this is to disparage the Nolan – far from it. It is merely to explain that his was not a modern heresy, but rather a golden thread of a heresy which stretched back to the beginning. Bruno was thinking of that thrice-great Hermes, who the Egyptians believed was baboon-faced Thoth, who first invented writing, and who the Christian kabbalists of Florence and Prague believed had even taught Moses in his youth, when he wrote that “Egypt is the image of heaven, and to state it more clearly, the colony of all things that are governed and exercised in heaven.” In believing that the reality could be infinite, and that time could be eternal, Bruno did not justify his beliefs by science, yet he still may have been right. And regardless, his vision remains beautiful. And he tried to spread that vision throughout that disunited continent. Giordano Bruno’s career is a story of cities – Naples, Geneva, Paris, London, Prague, Venice, Rome.

[5]  It was Naples that gave the Nolan his tongue. The dedication to his Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast reads “Giordano speaks the common language, he names names freely…. He calls bread bread, wine wine, a head a head, a foot a foot, and other parts by their proper name.” Neapolitan is a frank, no-bullshit dialect, which trades freely in wit, insult, obscenity and casual blasphemy. At Oxford they laughed at him when he lectured because his accent was so thick, and even in Venice fellow Italians had trouble understanding what he was saying. But it was in that low dialect that he was able to express that which was highest. He would learn not to fear authority in Naples, whether among his own Dominicans, or later among the Calvinists of Geneva who would excommunicate him from a faith which wasn’t even his, or among the fearsome and brilliant new Jesuits. He once quipped that Naples was a paradise inhabited by devils, and indeed life was not always at a premium in a city that existed under the threat of continual volcanic annihilation (and which still does). This was the dirty but also the beautiful city, where that fellow heretic, the utopian Thomas Campanella would dream of his City of the Sun and of an Age of Spirit which would commence in 1600, and where half a century after Bruno’s death the fishmonger Masaniello would expel the Iberians in Europe’s first modern revolution. In Florence there was magic practiced in the institutes of the Medici, and the hermetic corpus and the Sibylline oracles were consulted as Plato’s Academy was reopened. But Naples was a different city, full of not just philosophers and monks, but pick-pockets, prostitutes, and murderers. Where Pico della Mirandola consulted the writings of Plotinus and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, the young Nolan would have seen magic of a more practical manner – the buttara la fava of men forecasting the future by throwing beans, of women scrying oil floating on water. Here, in Naples, the Renaissance was maybe not always the high-class affair it would be in Florence, but it was a crowded, dynamic, confusing, and violent one. It is only appropriate that in the heat-blanched fields of the Mezzogiorno that a man like Bruno could turn his eyes to that celestial orb and see infinities of light. And yet the Church did not take to Bruno’s philosophical improvements upon Catholicism, and so they expelled him from the community of the faithful, and he exiled himself from Italy.

[6]  It was Geneva that gave him division. The Inquisition would make great purpose out of Bruno’s attending of Calvinist services in that Swiss city, but the philosopher had always maintained that he was simply following local custom. It was an unusual town for him to migrate to. Though Italian Protestants had been crossing the mountains now for two generations to find amnesty here in Beza’s theocracy, it was not a place conducive to the temperament of a scholar like Bruno. Surely he knew the cautionary tale of the Spaniard and possible marrano Miguel Servetus. Some decades before Bruno, that unfortunate had come to Geneva fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition only to find himself the first heretic ever condemned and executed by a Protestant regime. Some say that his incineration was a sort of perverse favor that the Catholic Church had asked of their Calvinist enemies. That earlier heretic, whose life and fate so mirrors that of Bruno’s, was guilty of Socinianism, of denying the Trinity, something which Bruno had flirted with since he was a teenager. Servetus’ prosecutor was John Calvin, who had failed at everything he had ever tried – be it the Parisian legal trade, or a career as a rakish, humanist dandy penning homoerotic poetry. And so, since he had failed at everything to that point, he decided to move to Switzerland and redefine God. And some half-century before Bruno’s arrival, Calvin had looked at Servetus and with those cold eyes with their cold gospel he sentenced the Spaniard to a burning flame. The only reason Servetus’ work survives is because a sole copy not consigned to the bonfire of the vanities was maintained by that old scholar himself, whose name was once Jean Chauvin, and who ironically couldn’t part with the Spaniard’s book. When the Nolan arrived Geneva was still a city dictated by Calvin’s interpretation of biblical law, and for Bruno with his exultation of human freedom the dark theology of double predestination was as psychologically restrictive as the town’s puritanism was socially. The Calvinists excommunicated the Italian for the second time in his life: once an exile from the faith of his fathers, he was now an exile from those that had rebelled against the same fathers Bruno had.

[7]  It was Paris that gave him memory. Henri III had invited Bruno to be his personal tutor, to explain to him the Ars Magna, the art of memory, which he travelled the continent teaching at universities. Bruno had been inspired by the medieval Catalan Ramon Llull, a thirteenth-century Franciscan who invented a complex calculus of intellectual interconnectedness, finding parallels between disparate phenomena and ideas to generate new concepts. Llull’s method of intellectual computation involved a simple yet ingenious mechanism – paper wheels turning within wheels marked with a complex set of symbols representing various forms and thoughts, with different categories lining up and generating new concepts, and intricate tree-like diagrams that he used to create a type of spiritual physics, hoping to generate the doctrine of Christianity through calculation and pure reason and thus to demonstrate to Jews and Muslims the intellectual superiority of the Catholic Church. The Muslims of North Africa were less than impressed with his theological calculating machine, and ended up stoning him to death. But from his Ars Magna came the earliest articulation of what could be thought of as a computer, and Bruno’s inspiration for his own great art, a complex mnemonic system for improving one’s memory. Inspired by how Llull’s rotating circles within circles made connections between different phenomena, Bruno invented a method of combining various divergent concepts so as to better commit to memory tremendous amounts of information and text. Drawing not just from Llull, but from classical rhetorical theory as well, Bruno developed a system whereby ideas and words were metaphorically associated with elements of actual physical buildings, and in recalling the details of their architecture one could almost magically bring forth the memorized works in question. It was a system of memorization by divide and conquer, texts broken down into their smallest elements, and then perhaps arbitrarily wed to some element of a place so that when the student mentally returns to said building they only need to imagine themselves walking throughout to recall all of the stored information. Brought to Paris by the king, Bruno may have taken a concrete space such as Notre Dame Cathedral to explain to Henri how a given text, say something from Bruno’s long-dead yet respected sparring partner Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, could be memorized as effortlessly as the ancient druidic bards were once able to recall their epics. A few sentences may be associated with one stained glass pane, a whole chapter with the window, a book with the side of the nave, the conclusion with the altar. Bruno converted text into space, and made calling forth whole books as simple as visiting a place in your imagination. With all the enthusiasm of some sort of back-woods confidence man, Bruno advertised his amazing skills by writing “This art required much less work, industry, and practice than all the others you might read about, so that within three or four months it offers an easier, more certain method for those who choose it than those who follow other methods will attain in three of four years.” But for Bruno this was no parlour trick, this was, as it was for Llull, the very physics of thought, the means by which the great code of reality could be interpreted.

[8]  It was London which gave him debate. That northern city was cold, and was unlike Apollo’s hazy land of the midday sun which had birthed the Nolan. It may have been a few decades since the Thames had frozen over and it was possible to walk from Fleet Street to Southbank without crossing at the city’s only bridge, but that early March Ash Wednesday when he dined with Greville there would have still been the unfamiliar chill which marked this planet’s last mini-ice age. For Bruno, London seemed encased in cold, though in other ways it was not dissimilar to Naples – it had the same mélange of cut-throats and cut-purses – a canting underclass with a colourful vocabulary who crowded the just opening theatres across the river from London, as well as her brothels and her bear-baiting pits. Ruling over that island was Spenser’s Gloriana, the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth. She was the monarch of a small island at the very western edge of the world, speaking a honking, guttural, monosyllabic branch of West Germanic, and like Bruno’s fellow countrymen under constant threat of attack by the seemingly omnipotent Spanish with their treasures of Aztec and Incan gold. And despite these seeming limitations, Elizabeth had apparently created a very Golden Age, her courtiers had taken the fourteen-line parsimony of the sonnet (so amenable to the easy rhymes of the Romance languages) and hammered earthy English into something that would perfect that form. The theatres south of London began to stage dramas by Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson which conveyed a type of interiority no literature had achieved before, and the difficult reformations she inherited from her sister, her brother, and her father made this Protestant island a surprisingly fertile field for all manner of creative thought. Here Bruno met and immensely admired the great Sir Phillip Sidney. They shared a name – Giordano was his confirmation name, his birth name was Filippo. And both Sidney and Bruno were named for the same Philip, ironically the one who sat on the Hapsburg throne at El Escorial. Many of Bruno’s teachers at the monastery of San Domenico Maggiore died in the Neapolitan revolt against Spanish rule; Sidney would be felled by a bullet at Zutphen as he aided the Dutch in their war of independence against Spain. There were other connections between them, Bruno and Sidney were like two divergent categories on concentric wheels of Llull’s apparatus rotated onto one another. How could Bruno not appreciate the aristocratic courtier-poet, whose magnificent sonnet cycle took that most astronomical of titles, Astrophel and Stella? But on the whole Bruno did not enjoy the English – their island cold, their people unappreciative. It is possible that he, like other continental refugees, could have found a home among the British. Despite the growing Puritan faction within the Church, Hooker’s burgeoning live-and-let-live latitudinarianism was at least for some a matter of genuine Anglican policy. But Bruno, who always loved the sun, could not abide this kingdom of short winter days, and he began his way back southward. Some believe however that before his departure he was recruited as an espionage agent by Sir Francis Walshingham, the reptilian head of the Privy Council. Knowing how he remained unwelcome by the inquisitions of many of the city-states of Italy, Bruno cheekily and ultimately appropriately took the codename “Faggot”, after the bundle of sticks that heretics were burnt alive on.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Rudolf II (1590-1)

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Rudolf II (1590-1)

[9]  It was Prague that gave him magic. Here the eccentric Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II forged a strange and occult kingdom, very different from the Counter-Reformation police state that his cousin Philip ruled over in Spain. Rudolf, who some saw as mad, was obsessed with oddity, aberration, and the spectacular. Here he assembled collections of Wunderkammer filled with ancient artifacts, exotic taxidermy, shells, minerals, and curiosities collected from around the world. Rudolf fancied himself a type of Prospero, and true to his desire to be both king and wizard he had summoned the greatest scientific and magical minds to Prague in an era in which the demarcation between those two spheres of knowledge was less clear than it is today. This claustrophobic capital of winding cobbled streets snaking over the Bohemian hills and of mist falling on the red-tiled roofs of its small stone houses was for a time the most occult city in all of Europe. Here, in the shadow of its gothic cathedrals and synagogues were gathered at a time not just Bruno, but also the astronomers Brahe and Johannes Kepler, the English-court astrologer and communicant with angels John Dee and his assistant Edward Kelly, and the Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo with his fantastic paintings of men composed of books, fruits, and mechanical devices. It was in sixteenth-century Prague that the great kabbalist Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel had taken mud from the Vlatava and fashioned a golem, using incantations to imbue this pile of dust with life, taking motes of adamah and making his own Adam. The creature was to protect the Jews of the Prague ghetto, and was controlled by the inscribing and erasure of a single Aleph on his forehead, that primordial letter being the simple difference between the words for “truth” and “death.” Supposedly the remains of Yoselle the Golem are still entombed in the attic of the Prague synagogue. Less evidence remains of that other necromancer, the historical Johann Faust, who though he mostly resided in that capital of division that was Wittenberg, spent some time in Prague decades before Bruno would be a resident.

[10]  It was Venice that gave him prison. Returning to Italy should have never been considered an option by the Nolan, and yet years living among the descendants of Goths in the lands of cold winters, warm beer, and bland food had convinced him to return to Italy. Still, that most Serene Republic of Venezia was not necessarily an inappropriate place for Bruno to take up residence, even if it was on that Catholic peninsula. It was a transitional place, between east and west, buffeted by the Holy Roman Empire, the Spanish, and the Ottomans. The Venetians had grown rich on massive trade, opening up the orient centuries before, and in the marketplaces of the Piazza San Marco there were artefacts from the Levant, spices from India, textiles from central Asia and cloth from China all being haggled over. The canals of that wedding-cake city were traveled by not just Catholics, but Protestants, the Orthodox, Jews, and Muslims. Venice was nominally Catholic, but her true faith was trade, and in the ecumenical spirit of capitalism the Other was mostly welcome within her watery byways. Despite the worst intentions of the papacy, Venice remained the capital of southern European publishing, now rivalled only by Frankfurt, and the city honoured the long dead printer Aldo Manuzio who saw accessible books as a birthright for all scholars. Venice had an independent and liberal spirit, and she had buffered herself against the political machinations of Rome as affectively as the dams which kept the city from sinking. The Venetian Inquisition was more to pay lip-service to Rome, being comparatively forgiving. And the doges, always careful to never acquiesce too much to any foreign power, either sultan or pope, ordained their own bishops without intercession from the Vatican (which is why many Hussite heretics received the collar in Venice). But Venice’s fortunes were falling – the defeat of the Armada off the coast of England began to move the centre of sea-faring commerce from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic– and the memory of her spectacular vanquishing of the Turks at Lepanto was beginning to fade into history. The doge needed the support of the Papal States as the Spanish began to hem him in, and so Bruno was arrested by the Venetian Inquisition. And in the course of his deposition, shadow diplomacy secured the Nolan’s extradition from Venice to Rome.

[11]  And it was Rome that gave him death. In a lifetime of traversing many rivers – the Seine, Danube, the Thames – he now faced the Tiber. Giordano – Jordan. He was obsessed with waterways almost as much as he was with the sun, but unlike in the conclusion of his poem The Heroic Frenzies he would not find baptism at this Jordan. Instead he found Robert Cardinal Bellarmine. Bruno’s career intersected with virtually every important intellect of the late sixteenth century, and while many of them were geniuses and were his equals, perhaps no piercing intellect understood him and took him as seriously as Bellarmine did. He was the first Jesuit cardinal, made so by Pope Clementine VIII, and often when he explained why he joined the Society of Jesus he said it was because it precluded the possibility of his ascending higher office since before him Jesuits had been barred from being made princes of the Church. But for all his stated humility, he was also a dogged and zealous enforcer of orthodoxy who fully lived the Ignatian zeal to affirm that black is white if the Church so decrees it. But Bellarmine also belied the old and naïve slur that the zealous are always stupid, for in the cardinal Bruno ironically may have found the first equal who truly absorbed and understood his system and what precisely was so dangerous about it. There were scores of heretics not just in Rome and Italy, but throughout Europe. Men and women were routinely brought in by the inquisitions, and overwhelmingly acquitted and released. Eccentric aberrations in proper theology were in some ways tolerated, punished just enough so that everybody would remember who was actually allowed to write doctrine. But Bruno was a different matter: here was a well-travelled and well-connected man who preached a strange gospel of pantheism and apocatastasis, who denied all miracles so as to enshrine the world itself as the only miracle, who saw organized faith as superstition and her clerics as ignorant asses. Using the analytical prowess that to this day has rightly earned the Jesuits their reputation as the intellectual vanguard of the Church, Bellarmine encapsulated the Nolan’s philosophy into eight positions untenable to Catholic orthodoxy, which Bruno was asked to repudiate. By the conclusion of the trial, after six years of imprisonment, and possibly torture with devices that had names like the strappado (which wrenched your limbs from your sockets as you were hoisted upon a pulley) and the Judas Chair (in which one was partially impaled upon one’s anus), Bruno refused to recant and couldn’t explain away the seeming heresy, and so his execution was ordered in that Roman field of flowers on an Ash Wednesday, in that jubilee year of 1600. According to one witness the philosopher told Bellarmine and the Inquisition that “Maiori forsan cum timore sententiam in me fertis quam ego accipiam”, that is, that he thought that they feared delivering the execution sentence more than he feared hearing it. If Bellarmine was troubled by this seeming curse from the Neapolitan magician, we do not have a record for it. And yet sixteen years later, perhaps haunted by the memory of the little monk being burnt alive in that Roman square, the once fearsome inquisitor would be uncharacteristically charitable when presented with another heretic, the astronomer Galileo, whom the cardinal spared from the auto da fé.

Ettore Ferrari, (1889)

Ettore Ferrari, Giordano Bruno (1889)

[12]  The question is still unanswered: what was Bruno a martyr for? It’s been cliché for centuries that he was the original sacrifice for the new science, a scapegoat delivered by the hands of a backward and superstitious church. But none of it is as easy as that, for, as I have said, Bruno was no scientist. And his own biography denies that he had a personal opposition to the very church which would ultimately condemn him; after his excommunication Bruno attended Mass every week (and when in non-Catholic countries attended the services of those lands), while faithfully and respectfully abstaining from the Eucharist, in accordance with the terms of his expulsion from the Church. Several times in his life he tried to have the bill of excommunication reversed, pleading with confessors that he be readmitted, but with these cases only able to be nullified by a bishop or the pope. In 1889 a group of Italian free-thinkers emboldened by the anti-clericalism of Garibaldi’s Risorgimento commissioned the sculptor Ettore Ferrari to place a statue of the Nolan in the Campo de Fiori as a monument to early science and secularism. In his hooded cowl, which the historical Bruno had not actually worn for years, and which made him look like a character from one of Mathew Lewis’ gothic novels, Bruno seemed to face accusingly in the direction of the Vatican. At least that’s how his directional stance has usually been interpreted. Who is to say that the look on his face isn’t one of longing?

[13]  It is an inconvenient fact that while Bruno was certainly a heretic in his era, he’d remain one today as well, albeit one not sacrificed in a public square. In the sixteenth century he perhaps naively and unintentionally existed outside the strictures of normative Christianity. But today his strange world-view and his esoteric epistemology would mark him as separate from the prevailing intelligentsia’s positivist orthodoxy. Despite modern declarations that canonize Giordano Bruno as a martyr for science, he was not. There was not yet a “science,” not even a word for it. The Renaissance is a foreign and confusing nation. Its laws are different from ours; its rules are different from ours; its thoughts and dreams are different from ours. They speak not just a different language, but the very definitions of words are different. Bruno lived in a twilight world, not quite antiquity and not quite modernity. He was not against it, but he was not a martyr for science. He was a martyr for something else. In his own words, his belief was that there was a “harmony with all nature, and… a general philanthropy by which we love even our enemies, lest we become like brutes and barbarians, and are transformed into his image who makes his sun rise over good and bad, and pours out a rain of grace upon the just and the unjust.” Perhaps he was a martyr for a faith that is not yet ready to be born? But in the end, he was a martyr for something. And maybe that, in its own way, is enough.

Lehigh University, November 2015


Note: A shorter version of this essay is concurrently being published under the title Featured Heretic: Giordano Bruno by ExCommunicated, the newsletter of the International Society for Heresy Studies (www.heresystudies.org).

Ed Simon is a PhD Candidate in the English department of Lehigh University. His research focuses on religion and literature in the seventeenth and eighteenth-century Atlantic world. He has been previously published in The Revealer, the Journal of the Northern Renaissance, and the Public Domain Review among others. Currently he is the assistant editor of the Journal of Heresy Studies, and one of the founding members of the International Society for Heresy Studies. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon.

The Destroyer of Worlds in His Newfoundland

Ed Simon 


Military and civilian personnel inspect the Trinity site a few weeks after the test.  Courtesy of the United States Army Signal Corps

Military and civilian personnel inspect the Trinity site a few weeks after the test.
Courtesy of the United States Army Signal Corps

[1] On July 16, 1945 an assembled group of scientists saw a false sun rising in the west. Here, in the Jornardo del Muerto scientific myths of progress and religious myths of the last days were finally fused in a terrifying transmutation of mass into energy. They witnessed an alchemical nightmare at Alamogordo, New Mexico where man’s fear and desire for apocalypse was finally matched by man’s technical ability. It is hardscrabble country, desolate, alien, foreign, uninviting, inhuman. “Single Day’s Journey of the Dead-Man” is the translation of the name of this barren basin that was a northern edge of colonial New Spain. The Spanish supposedly named it after a German prisoner that perished while trying to escape the clutches of the Inquisition, death marking its earliest days. It is a country where the twin dreams of New World millennialism ambivalently exist alongside the apocalypse that naturally awaits any journey into not just a New World, but the Last World. It was here that the Spanish searched for the utopian paradise of the Seven Cities of Cibola, but also where Franciscans and Dominicans were killed in the Pueblo Revolt. Here, towards the far west of the North American continent, life and death exist in reciprocal accord. El Dorado and the Seven Cities of Cibola do not exist in the Jornardo del Muerto, but the Trinity Test Site did. It was there, long after this land had been indigenous, Spanish, or Mexican, that the United States – that inheritor of millennial expectations and apocalyptic desires – tested its first atomic bomb.

[2] Years later J. Robert Oppenheimer, the learned, cultured, cosmopolitan physicist who headed the Manhattan Project was asked by its military director Lieutenant General Leslie Groves why he had chosen to name the test site “Trinity.” Groves had assumed that Oppenheimer chose the name arbitrarily, just another generic religious place name that would throw off any suspicion that something special was happening in the New Mexico desert. The physicist answered, “There is a poem of John Donne, written just before his death, which I know and love. From it a quotation: ‘As West and East / In all flat Maps—and I am one—are one, / So death doth touch the Resurrection.’ That still does not make a Trinity, but in another, better known devotional poem Donne opens, ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God.’” And so this site – where the intense heat of man’s first nuclear explosion would transmute sand into glass – would forever be known as “Trinity.” Less than a month later 129,000 Japanese civilians would die at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

[3] Scarcely more than a year before the Trinity test Oppenheimer’s mistress, the psychiatrist Jean Tatlock, had committed suicide. Her father John Tatlock was a prominent literary scholar and had introduced his daughter to Donne right as the first generation of New Critics and modernist writers began his rediscovery as a poetic voice (and not just as the author of the sermons for which he was also rightly celebrated). It’s been conjectured that Oppenheimer first read Donne while living at Los Alamos, given a copy of his poems by Tatlock. If he named Trinity in honor of his dead mistress he scarcely could have picked a more appropriate writer. In Donne we see not just the combination of radically discordant metaphorical images “violently yoked together” (as Dr. Johnson famously had it) but also the conflation of the individual with the cosmos, a life with all of human history. Microcosms and macrocosms endlessly reflect one another so that a person can be the universe and a single death the apocalypse. In his splitting and combining of metaphors we have a type of literary fission and fusion and in the atom bomb we have the most sublime of this metaphysical poetry writ gargantuan. As Donne could see the whole world in a room, the apocalyptic destruction of the bomb from the tiniest of atoms shows us a little world made cunningly: it is a combination of elements, of angelic sprite and black sin.

. Robert Oppenheimer  Courtesy of the Department of Energy, Office of Public Affairs

Robert Oppenheimer
Courtesy of the Department of Energy, Office of Public Affairs

[4] That Donne should be connected to Oppenheimer is one of those illuminating oddities of history that, given the physicist’s incredible breadth of knowledge, should ultimately not be seen as surprising. In this, Year 70 of the Newfoundland that was discovered by men like Oppenheimer, it is worth considering the correspondences that exist between Donne and he. This may not provide answers but rather questions; there may be no argument but perhaps reflection. It would be untenable to argue that Donne influenced Oppenheimer. “Trinity” is merely the name Oppenheimer chose – an atomic bomb test by any other name would be as destructive. But this synchronicity across time does provide us seven decades later with a way of examining the metaphorical, or perhaps even allegorical connections that exist between poetry and reality. The two were after all not just masters of paradox in their respective domains – Donne with the wit of the metaphysical conceit, Oppenheimer with the enigmas of quantum mechanics – but in their own lives as well. The seventeenth century poet was both Jack Donne, libertine seducer of women, and Dr. John Donne, Dean of St. Paul’s. Oppenheimer was both the American patriot and the political subversive denounced as un-American by his own government; and he was the sensitive pacifist who constructed the most violent weapon in humanity’s arsenal. It was a tool that could melt both poles at once, and store deserts with cities, and make more mines in the earth than quarries were before. In the consilience of Oppenheimer and Donne, science and literature, there are shadows of the ever-receding sun in the west, premonitions of that last day to come.

[5] Indeed if America is the nation which may have provided the first actual means for a man-created apocalypse then Donne’s “Holy Sonnet XIV” is an appropriate baptismal name for that moment zero in human history. As mentioned earlier, both Donne and Oppenheimer were fascinated with the transformation of space. The tiny and the large, the atomic and the cosmic, exist in a more malleable relationship than common sense would assume. For Donne “one little room could be an everywhere,” and Oppenheimer demonstrated how the rapid splitting of atomic nuclei could unleash enough energy to level a city in a second. But Donne saw in the declining West a prophecy – for as history ever moved forward into the future it also moved geographically to the west – the prediction of the classicists’ translatio studii et imperii or the biblical Daniel’s visions. In America history had reached its conclusion, its westernmost terminus. The circle had been closed where the occident collapsed into the oriental, and Revelation must be fused with Genesis. Donne’s logic – in fact many people’s logic, spread across poetry, sermons, and pamphlets – had it that America’s westernmost status signified it as the site of our play’s last scene. The irresistible logic of history and the arc of teleology signified the new lands at the western edge of our maps as the site of Judgment. Indeed Donne himself preached in a sermon from 1628 at St. Paul’s that

In a word, whether we be in the Easterne parts of the world, from whom the truth of Religion is passed, or in the Westerne, to which it is not yet come; whether we be in the darknesse of ignorance, or darknesse of the works of darknesse, or darknesse of oppression of spirit in sadnesse, The world is the Theatre that represents God, and every where every man may, nay must see him.

For Donne and many others the natural course that history must take was the transition of faith from the eastern world where the “truth of Religion is passed” to the western, to “which it is not yet come.” Indeed, Donne himself harboured an obsession with America: he had attempted to immigrate to Virginia but been unable to do so, and this very sermon was preached before the stockholders of the Virginia Company. For Donne, America was the site of mankind’s last act. With such a prophecy, whose poetry would have been more appropriate to christen that nuclear testing site in the western desert?

John Donne, c. 1595, Artist Unknown Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London

John Donne, c. 1595, Artist Unknown
Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London

[6] If we were to construct a new calendar system to reflect a new world, one would start with July 16, 1945. Donne wrote that “We think that Paradise and Calvary, /Christ’s cross and Adam’s tree, stood in one place.” Alamogordo New Mexico was the Adam’s tree of our new error, the atomic apple plucked as part of the Faustian bargain of pure knowledge manifested in terrifying violence. It’s the first moment and also paradoxically the last, a Calvary of sorts, though it remains doubtful whether this New Golgotha offers any promise of salvation.

[7] Some of the physicists harboured a worry that the intense heat of the nuclear explosion would cause a chain reaction in the atmosphere, atoms fusing together and engulfing the whole planet in the equivalent of a massive hydrogen bomb. Hans Bethe – the man who figured out how stars actually shone while the poets were just observing that they did – performed a few calculations on the back of an envelope and decided that that fear was probably unfounded. That day they did not go and catch a falling star. To wrench a lyric of Donne’s from its original context and to invert it, the scientists had feared “There I should see a Sun by rising set, /And by that setting endless day beget.”

[8] The physicist Richard Feynman recounted desperately trying to get his radio communication working with others assembled to watch the test, and finally freakishly hit the frequency of a classical music station out of San Francisco just as the bomb detonated, the desert eerily filling with the sound of arias as the horizon became a blinding light, the music only to be silenced by the tremendous sonic blast of the bomb itself as sound caught up to light.

[9] Enrico Fermi, who first constructed a fissionable nuclear pile under the squash courts at the University of Chicago, reported that: “Although I did not look directly towards the object, I had the impression that suddenly the countryside became brighter than in full daylight. I subsequently looked in the direction of the explosion through the dark glass and could see something that looked like a conglomeration of flames that promptly started rising.”

[10] A 13-year-old boy named Jim Madrid driving with his mother to Hollman Air Force Base where he often did odd jobs for extra money witnessed the blast as he travelled west: “It rose from the heavens, so bright, so extremely bright. My mother said in Spanish, ‘El sol esta arrimando. El mundo se va a acabar. The sun is coming close. The world is coming to an end…. She told me to drop to my knees, but I kept looking…. That light was horrendous. As high as the heavens. I expected to see God coming out from under it. If it’s the end of the world, I wanted to see.” As Donne wrote “Yesternight the sun went hence, / And yet is here to day. “A few hours after the blast a bewildered farmer found one of his donkeys standing, dead, with his eyes open. It seems he had been frightened to death by the blast, the first casualty of the nuclear age.

[11] In 1721 the Puritan divine Cotton Mather – who was an inheritor of Donne’s eschatological hopes in the redemptive promise of America – had a vision from the comfort of his Boston manse: “We have seen the sun rising in the west.” At 5:29:21 July 16, 1945 – half an hour before God’s dawn – a new sun rose in the west of Alamogordo. It signaled the emergence of man’s dawn. Donne and Mather had been correct: the means of apocalypse had been created here in the uttermost west, but whether redemption would follow remained unanswered, and seems increasingly unlikely.

[12] It was Oppenheimer’s reaction that would be the most famous. Not only a dutiful student of science, but a prodigy trained in languages, history, religion, literature, he claimed that a line from the Bhagavad Gita emerged in his mind like the flash to the west. “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one….. Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” It was unclear whether the United States had killed God or merely created a new one. The bomb was a “quintessence even from nothingness, / From dull privations, and lean emptiness”; it was a thing “Of absence, darkness, death – things which are not.” It had the power to bend, force, break, blow, burn and make the world new. Months later – after thousands of Japanese had been instantly incinerated, thousands more dying in hideous physical pain from radiation sickness, and still thousands more permanently handicapped – the physicist told President Harry Truman that he felt like he had blood on his hands. The president told him to wash them. And then he privately told an adviser that he never wanted to see Oppenheimer again.

The Trinity Test, July 16 1945, Alamogordo New Mexico Courtesy of  National Nuclear Security Administration, Nevada Site Office

The Trinity Test, July 16 1945, Alamogordo New Mexico
Courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration, Nevada Site Office

[13] It was in 1962 that Groves asked his odd-couple civilian partner in the birth of the atomic age why he had chosen the name “Trinity.” By that point HUAC had hounded Oppenheimer over tangential relationships to suspected communists during his student days, he had lost his security clearances and had effectively retired to the directorship of the Institute for Advanced Study where to the chagrin of the mathematicians and physicists he hired that other apocalyptically minded poet (and champion of Donne) T.S. Eliot, falling into alcoholism and despondency over his ruined reputation and the nuclear age he had inaugurated. It was at this point in his life that Oppenheimer reflected “Trinity” took its name from a conflation of two Donne lyrics, “Hymn to God, my God in my Sickness” and “Holy Sonnet XIV.”

[14] Oppenheimer’s explanation of the choice performs its own close reading of the poems by the light of a nuclear flash (we’ll leave Tatlock’s role to theorists of a more Freudian disposition). “Hymn to God, my God in my Sickness” says “As West and East / In all flat Maps – and I am one – are one, so death doth touch the Resurrection.” On a sphere, a globe, there is always more east or more west to travel to as one converts and conflates into another. It is only on a map (Donne’s “Imagined four corners”), that there are definite edges to the east and to the west, and that all four cardinal directions’ most extreme definitions are the edges of the paper. East and west are positive and not merely relational qualities in the fiction of the map. It is these “flat Maps” which produce the illusion of a definite east and west. For Donne, death and Resurrection are similarly illusory, ultimately being one. In the “flat Map” of a human life, death and resurrection seem real and final. For Donne, in the spherical reality that is actual life, death and resurrection merely mingle into one another, as east and west do in reality. In this way Oppenheimer seems to betray an optimism that his famous quotation of Krishna from the Mahabharata didn’t indicate – that this death should signal a resurrection. For Donne – and for Oppenheimer? – east is always touching west just as death is always touching rebirth. And yet batter our hearts nuclear bomb; no resurrection seems to have come from those New Mexico sands.

[15] It may have been that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki prevented a hideously violent invasion of the Japanese homeland. But the great fear of the promethean nuclear demon released from bondage is that it will verify Chekhov’s principle of narrative – if you see a gun on a table in the first act of a play you can be guaranteed it is going to go off in the last.

Engraving of Donne in his funeral shroud by Martin Droeshout, which was the basis of his grave statue.

Engraving of Donne in his funeral shroud by Martin Droeshout, which was the basis of his grave statue.

[16] A dark vision – it is the midnight of our age, and the world’s last night. New York, Washington, Moscow, Beijing, Berlin, London, all the great cities of the world destroyed in whatever war is to come. St. Paul’s Cathedral once laid waste in the Great Fire of the late seventeenth century and almost destroyed again in the blitz of 1940 finds itself in ruins. In the debris one can make out the remains of a chapel built in honour of the men that perished in that last world war. It is dedicated to the Americans who fought alongside the British, and facing that chapel is a statue of John Donne, the base of which is still black from the flames that almost destroyed London in 1666. In this way Donne stares at an America to which he always wished to journey and to which he never did. The statue is based on a drawing of Donne in his death shroud, made while he was still alive, and which he hoped would depict how he would look upon his resurrection at the Day of Judgment.

[17] Now I ask, J. Robert Oppenheimer may have convinced us of the reality of apocalypse, but how many of us are naïve enough to still believe in Donne’s millennium which would follow? Can Donne’s grave be broken up again, can any of ours, can the world’s? After such death who can still believe in resurrection? Who among us has faith that on that last day the dead eyes of Donne’s funeral statue will be able to finally open, and that if he could, he would be able to see anything left in that west? Can we still believe in spite of it all?

Canna Blooming in the Scorched Earth by Eiichi Matsumoto, c. 1945 Courtesy of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

Canna Blooming in the Scorched Earth by Eiichi Matsumoto, c. 1945
Courtesy of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

[18] Evidence of hope: after the destruction of Hiroshima the official United States military report predicted that the soil in the city would be so radioactive that nothing would be able to grow there until the year 2020. Yet in the autumn of 1945 a photographer took a photo of a single red canna flower growing through the rubble of the destroyed city. Donne writes: “And Death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die.”

Lehigh University, September 2015

About the author

Ed Simon is a PhD Candidate in the English department of Lehigh University. His research focuses on religion and literature in the seventeenth and eighteenth-century Atlantic world. He has been previously published in The Revealer, the Journal of the Northern Renaissance, and the Public Domain Review among others. Currently he is the assistant editor of the Journal of Heresy Studies, and one of the founding members of the International Society for Heresy Studies. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon.

Notes on John Dee’s Aztec Mirror

Ed Simon

“…this thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine.”
Prospero, The Tempest

Dr. Dee’s Aztec obsidian mirror.

Figure 1: Dr. Dee’s Aztec obsidian mirror. London, British Museum.

[1] In the British Museum – away from the Rosetta Stone and Elgin Marbles with their legions of selfie-taking tourists – is a shiny, jet-black obsidian mirror (Figure 1). Not much bigger than any standard hand mirror, the artifact is circular with a hole-bored handle at the top. A beautiful, dark, reflective black, it was forged from volcanic Mexican obsidian which the Aztecs associated with their god Tezcatlipoca, lord of divination (among other things). This is a ritual object, and its exact provenance is unknown. The conquering Spanish brought back things like this by the boatload while they plundered Aztec gold to become the world’s first truly global empire (and in the process they imported disease, war, and slavery). The Aztecs had used obsidian stones just like this one for prophetic purposes over the course of generations. Now, spirited away from a destroyed and subjugated civilization they journeyed to a profoundly different culture where they would create new stories, and generate new prophecies. This particular mirror was owned by the eighteenth-century gothic writer, architect, and son of the former Prime Minister, Sir. Horace Walpole. He affixed a label to the mirror which simply stated “The Black Stone into which Dr Dee used to call his spirits …”

[2] Dr. John Dee has long fascinated students of the Renaissance. A sixteenth-century magus, Dee straddled the now-seemingly contrary realms of the occult and science. The great Warburg scholar Dame Frances Yates claimed that his massive library was the very mind of the Renaissance. But his was an esoteric knowledge, even during an esoteric age. Not quite at home in the classical humanism of his fellow rhetoric-minded colleagues, Dee longed to create the English equivalent of the Neo-Platonist and hermetic academies which had thrived in Florence a century before. His was a counter-Renaissance, indebted not to Erasmus and More but rather Ficino and Mirandola. And Dee’s sectarian allegiances, seemingly malleable depending on the denomination of whatever land he should happen to find himself in, was focused on a type of positivist magic. He longed for a scientific method of the occult. Dee was notorious in his own time – seemingly respected as brilliant but also chided for his lack of publication and feared for the secrets he may have divined. Yet while his name is not included among those innovators of what came to be called science – Kepler, Brahe, Copernicus, Bacon – he could include himself among their own slightly-occult circles (indeed he personally knew all of them save for Copernicus). In that shadow-land that is the emergence of modernity, Dee can count himself as being both last of the Chaldeans and one of the first of the moderns. His fortunes had a tendency to rise and fall as irregularly as fortuna’s wheel turned. He found himself imprisoned under Mary I and he begged the witch-craft obsessed James I to try him for sorcery (as that was the crime he was most often accused of) so that he could clear his name. Unique unluckiness that he had, he found himself persecuted when he didn’t want to be, and not persecuted when he did. And while some courtiers at Westminster were friendly to him, and some were not, he always had the confidence of his most beloved monarch who ruled between that frosty Catholic inquisitor Mary and the fearful Protestant literalist James: the Virgin Queen, Gloriana, Elizabeth. It was Dee who decided the day of her coronation, it was Dee who always had her confidence as astrologer, and it was Dee (perhaps looking into his black American mirror) who first christened a land for Elizabeth across the ocean as being “the British Empire.”

John Dee2

Figure 2: Title page to Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica featuring his personal occult glyph. Wikimedia Commons

[3] Dee endures at the margins of accepted history. Two generations ago he was revived as a subject of proper academic study by Yates, but there is still something unacceptable or ghostly about him. His name appears in just too many weird books in the occult section of the suburban mega-bookstore. He may have travelled in the same circles as Francis Bacon, but Bacon gets credit for identifying and defining the contours of the burgeoning scientific revolution; Dee is associated with “Enochian magic” and speaking to angels through a crystal ball (Figure 2). There is a gulf between him and us today, and because of it he stills seems dangerous, still lacks respectability. His vision is at times shockingly contemporary, the sober advocate of calendar reform, an instrumental figure in advocating mathematics as a universal language, the proponent of new cartographic methods. But there are always those pesky angels in our peripheral vision. And while we as scholars are encouraged to not project modern day prejudices anachronistically onto the past, to not diagnose or pathologize behavior that comes from an incredibly different culture (for the past as they say is a type of foreign country) Dee can try our patience with his seeming naivety. It’s hard not to feel a bit of condescension over the man who accepted at face value his scrivening partner Edward Kelley’s news that the angels had informed him that God required them to wife swap. And then it’s hard not to feel a bit heartbroken when Dee matter-of-factly informs his silent journal that the task was achieved after initial protestations from his wife.

John Dee’s occult “Enochian” alphabet, the language he believed existed in Eden.

Figure 3: John Dee’s occult “Enochian” alphabet, the language he believed existed in Eden.

[4] In his curiosity he is intensely admirable. Dee was motivated by a faith that beneath the seeming random nature of everyday life – the tragedies, the violence, and the sadness – there was a universal order and that man could understand it and improve upon his world. We mustn’t forget that this is a belief in progress, and whether progress actually is real or not it is intensely modern a faith. But we also must acknowledge that Dee believed this wasn’t just achieved through mathematics or natural science, but through his divination, his crystal ball, his obsidian mirror. Dee was the founder of Enochian magic, he invented with Kelley (or discovered depending on your perspective) a divine Adamic language that was spoken by the angels and named after the mysterious figure Enoch who it is written of in the Bible that “And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him” (Genesis 5:22). It’s the strange language of the Hebrew Scriptures, a culture even more foreign and harder to interpret than Dee’s. There is something moving in Enoch, the father of Methuselah, and the first person to not die, to presumably ascend to heaven like Mary mother of Jesus, Christ, or Muhammad after him. Enoch “was not; for God took him.” From these few inscrutable lines an entire Apocrypha grew out of Enoch. He appears in Ethiopic scriptures, in Old Slavonic religions texts, in rabbinic Midrash. In the kabbalah it is argued that Enoch was transformed into the “lesser Yahweh,” the angel Metatron – God’s very voice. It’s this, the language of this creature’s tongue that whispers in Dee’s ear. It’s the letters of this angel’s alphabet that Dee reads in Tezcatlipoca’s mirror (Figure 3).

John Dee

Figure 4: Dr John Dee, by an unknown artist. Oxford, Ashmolean Museum. Image: wikimedia commons

[5] And yet his seemingly ungrateful fellow countrymen did not distinguish between the good angels and bad demons when it came to the supernatural communications he and Kelley supposedly received through objects like the British Museum’s mirror. One can imagine Dee’s face staring into that volcanic blackness, “the smoky mirror” (as Tezcatlipoca’s names translates from Nahutal). What we would see in that dark reflection is a man who evokes the characters he is often associated with, a cross between Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus and Shakespeare’s Prospero (Figure 4). Sunken and tired eyes, a long, prominent aquiline nose and any trace of a facial expression hidden under the costume of a pointed wizard’s beard. On his seemingly hairless head a simple academic skull-cap, around his neck the frilled collar of the Elizabethan attendant to courtiers that he was, and his clothing the austere black of the Puritans who reviled him. We do not know who had possession of the mirror between Dr. Dee and Sir Walpole, perhaps more provocatively we do not know who had possession of it between its arrival in Europe and Dee’s acquiring of it. Other than that antiquarian Walpole’s brief note, we do not even know if Dee actually owned it. Tezcatlipoca’s reputation as being a god who can only be depicted in a smoky mirror endures, for smoke obscures, confuses, stings the eyes. While a mirror is supposed to clearly reflect smoke smudges into uncertainty. Much like Dee, the mirror exists in a fundamentally mysterious zone. What does the mirror mean? Does it make any argument, or like a carnival mirror merely defer questions and answers back on themselves, providing us with no closure but with an opportunity to ruminate, to divine if you will?

[6] It is important that Dee’s possession was an object from a specific place, and that place was the Americas. And it was made by a particular people, by the Aztecs, Indians. Whether defenders or denigrators of the Indians, whether de las Casas or Cortez (or their contemporary proxies), it’s often taken as a teleological given, an inevitable outcome that the indigenous would be conquered by Europeans. And yet nothing could be further from the truth, to assume that the Indians’ defeat was a guarantee is to assault them and to do violence to their memory. Well into the eighteenth century the interior of America was well under native control. It was the Europeans of the time who saw their own march of conquest as inevitable and we’re heirs to that opinion. If any one event can be taken to have enshrined in the European imagination their promised and prophetic future dominion over the fourth part of the world it was Cortez’ destruction of the Aztec. Enhanced by Spanish and generally European propaganda in the five centuries since it happened, the mythopoeic significance of the event shouldn’t be discounted as a foundational legend on the creation of our brave new world that has such people in it. To begin with, the discovery, or rather invention of America (as the critic Edmundo O’Gorman has it) was such a profound shift in the cosmology of the western imagination that arguably even the Copernican Revolution or the Reformation itself seem insignificant in its light. To learn that an entire undiscovered hemisphere filled with unknown people lay beyond the western horizon must have been shocking to common people in a way that astronomy with its complex epicycles and its orbits couldn’t be. It was, as one Spanish explorer had it: “the greatest event since the creation of the world.” The old Trinitarian three-continent geography had been disrupted, the very literal existence of the Americas was a challenge, if not a heresy, that demanded an answer. It should not be minimized – the profound affect this land to the west had on the European consciousness. Indeed it was new in a way that could charitably only be understood as mythic. John Mandeville’s medieval voyages may have been to a constructed India, but India was always known to be real. China was known by the Romans (who traded with her). Africa may have been a “dark continent,” but it was there. And always Prester John was somewhere with the ten tribes of Israel across the boulder filled Sambation. But America was something different, something that required a new myth but could only be discussed in the language of old: Cockaigne, paradise, Eden.

[7] And in the construction of that myth various beliefs were projected onto this “new” world, which declared it both paradise and fallen world. But that such lands existed was challenging enough, to find a civilization as the Aztecs with its triumphant city of Tenochtitlan must have strained the cognitive abilities of the Spanish who came upon it. Central to the myth of Spanish dominance has been the old chestnut of Cortez being mistaken as the god Quetzalcoatl by Montezuma. But our evidence for the actuality of this is from second-hand sources, Dominicans and Franciscans recording the syncretic beliefs of a subjugated people a generation later. That this white skinned eastern god journeying from the east should seem so messianic is not hard to understand. The Aztecs story has never been told in a western tongue, it is just as blank as their obsidian mirror. And as that mirror reflects back what its viewers wish to see the Spanish read their triumphant victory over the indigenous as providential proof of the white-man’s inevitable dominion over this new world. That this was accomplished not by a few hundred starving conquistadors but indeed thousands of Indian troops rebelling against Tenochtitlan, and of course with the hidden microbes that would seem like “magic bullets” (to borrow Greenblatt’s phrase) to both Cortez and Montezuma is not part of our myth. But it was there, in a land west of More’s Utopia (which Vasco de Quinoa would try and make a reality in Mexico the very year More lay his head on the block) where contingencies and mistakes of history happen. It was first here that the Spanish and then the rest of Europe would first fully create an imaginary land they christened America.

[8] It seems prescient that Dee’s vision was potentially so shaped by an object from the New World, from America. Dee’s historical mirror-image, his oppositional twin Francis Bacon, imagined a perfect society named Bensalem in his proto-novel New Atlantis. The citizens of Bensalem – which lay to the west off the coast of Peru – like so many others Bacon envisions utopia as American – are ruled by the empirical discoveries of the scientists who labor in a university known as Salomon’s House. In Bensalem the structuring system is one of scientific positivism. Decisions are rationally made by recourse to a combination of both deduction and induction. Theories are formulated, tested experimentally and observationally, discarded if proven wrong and accepted if the evidence is in favor of them. Bacon was a Christian of course, so his Bensalemites are as well (and a profoundly multicultural group to boot), though almost incidentally and the story of their conversion is secondary, if not borderline comical. It’s clear that what rules Bensalem is a form of science. But for Bacon, for whom knowledge was power, this is not a neutral or disinterested science, but a system that exists to utilize the natural world for the benefit of man. Perhaps more than even a scientific utopia it is a technocratic utopia. Bacon makes clear that his imaginary American “New Atlantis” is predictive of where he thinks technology designed through empirical science could lead humanity. So what does Bacon’s America look like, what does his future look like? A Bensalemite explains to their visitors that what is possible are “high towers,” and “the producing also of new artificial metals,” to make fruit that is “greater and sweeter, and of differing taste, smell, color, and figure.” There are “heats, in imitation of the suns,” that in New Atlantis it is possible to “represent and imitate all articulate sounds,” that there is “flying in the air,” and “ships and boats for going under water.” Most tellingly there are “houses of deceits of the senses, where we represent all manner of feats of juggling, false apparitions, impostures and illusions.” America has oft-been represented as that land of continual, almost garish progress, a technologically addicted society ruled by a never-ending desire for novelty. For a contemporary reader it is eerie to read of Bacon’s society with its skyscrapers, its synthetic materials, seeming nuclear power, recorded sound, airplanes, submarines and most telling of all movie theaters (or TV, or computers…..).

[9] But it’s only a mistake of historical perspective that has us seeing Dee as so different from Bacon. After all, Dee believed that the universe was orderly and understandable, that mathematics could describe it, explain it, and predict it, that tools could be developed that changed and improved life. What was his obsidian mirror but a calculating machine, a computer? It was after all a type of technology, a black mirror as enigmatic as the computer screen turned off reflecting our own distorted faces back at ourselves. But Dee, for all of his professional silence, was too outspoken in his private writings. Bacon had the good sense to have faith in future generations to solve these problems and to invent these technologies, Dee’s arrogance was such that his system was already complete. Instead of scrivening mirrors we have computers and they operate not on unseen angels but on unseen electrons. Because of his failures Dee remains modernity’s dark and forgotten twin. We are able to live in a world that he could conceive of, but one which he could have never invented.

Lehigh University, April 2015

About the author

Ed Simon is a PhD Candidate in the English department of Lehigh University. His research focuses on religion and literature in the seventeenth and eighteenth-century Atlantic world. He has been previously published in The Revealer, the Journal of the Northern Renaissance, and the Public Domain Review among others. Currently he is the assistant editor of the Journal of Heresy Studies, and one of the founding members of the International Society for Heresy Studies. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon.

Michael Martin, Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England (Ashgate, 2014)

Michael Martin, Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England (Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 2014). ISBN: 978-1-4724-3268-1, 230 pp., £60.00.

Reviewed by Edward Simon


[1] In his book, Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England, Michael Martin tries to interpret and understand the ways in which figures, both canonical and non-canonical, used methods mystical and ‘scientific’ and experienced God through writings both literary and theological. In readings of poets John Donne and Henry Vaughan, hermiticists John Dee and Thomas Vaughan, scientist Kenelm Digby and prophet Jane Lead, Martin phenomenologically investigates experiences these figures had with the divine. He writes ‘Each subject in this study faced a spiritual or religious event – an actual, lived experience . . . and it impelled each one of them to live a life in conformity to its revelation’ (2). Martin’s investigation encompasses the late sixteenth to early eighteenth centuries, a period which saw religious upheavals in the form of the British civil wars, but which also developed consensus on religious conformity after the Restoration. During the seventeenth century medieval methods of personal piety were reinterpreted. Martin writes ‘Despite the anxieties that some Protestants felt about the truth claims of traditional mysticism, individuals continued to seek – and find – ways to encounter the divine’ (4). What unites all of these figures is that they each had their own individual reactions as to what religious ‘experience’ meant. Martin’s is a bold investigation, since much of Christian mystical experience is so firmly medieval, located in the fourteenth century with figures like Julian of Norwich, Margery Kemp, and the author of the Cloud of Unknowing. Martin rescues figures from the margins, such as Lead and Dee, to demonstrate the ways in which early modern visions were manifested. The book constitutes a collection of case-studies demonstrating the vitality of religious experience in the seventeenth century. It also models for scholars new ways to discuss the role of religion in the late Renaissance.

[2] Martin distinguishes himself from the traditional approach to religion manifested in cultural materialism, developing an interpretive framework phenomenological and theological in nature. With the ‘turn to religion’ in literary and especially early modern studies, a new crop of monographs have begun to appear, which like their predecessors have problematized how we think about religion and literature. In 2004 Arthur Marotti and Ken Jackson noticed a trend in early modern scholarship that had existed for a decade and that was influenced by geo-political realities at the turn of the century. Marotti and Jackson wrote, in Criticism, that the turn to religion acknowledged ‘a deep psychological and emotional experience, a core moral commitment, a personally and socially crucial way of transvaluing human experience and desire, a reality both within and beyond the phenomenal world’. Religion had re-entered discussions of the early modern period on its own terms. The New Historicism of Stephen Greenblatt and others allowed for more discussion of religion than had previously been engaged with by more materialist strains of cultural studies but, at its core, religion was still normally reduced to some other category. As Martin explains ‘Greenblatt’s project – to demystify religion and to subsume the religious into the political – ignores (or at least trivializes) the human desire for communion with the divine that is so central a part of the religious side of metaphysical poetry, sermon literature, and mysticism’ (6). If pioneering Marxist historiographers had a tendency to see religion as politics in disguise, the New Historicists at least included religion as a designation within cultural identity. Still, in many of these studies, religion remained an issue of class, gender, or race by other means.

[3] While literary study has become more generous to religious phenomena, expressions, and texts, continental philosophy has begun a return towards the transcendent. Theorists like Slavoj Zizek, Giorgio Agamben, Simon Critchley as well as theologians like John Caputo (embracing the religious turn in Jacques Derrida) commandeered theological language as a tool in critical analysis. Martin explains his own position ‘I read early modern religious writing through the lens of Continental philosophy . . . [because] The question of God is not a joke or a fairytale to Continental philosophy, as it is for so many latter-day positivists-turned-literary critics. Nor should it be’ (19). The intermingling of these two strains allows for the emergence of scholarship that is more radical than that which just allows for religion as a culturally embodied practice. In a 2014 review written for Marginalia, medievalist Ryan McDermott calls this the ‘new theological literary studies’. It is a movement that is willing to use terms like ‘transcendence’, ‘incarnational’, ‘sacramental’, ‘apophatic’, ‘kataphatic’ and so on. This approach to religion and its relation to literature is less anthropological than the old turn to religion and, bolstered by continental philosophy’s recent conversion, willing to use theological language as its own type of High Theory. Indeed Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England is a prime example of this. The word ‘encounter’ alone indicates that arguments will move beyond the old-fashioned cultural studies model of understanding religion, and even beyond the currents of the turn to religion as identified by Marotti and Jackson. Martin does theology through criticism and criticism through theology. In remaining agnostic on any literal truths about the encounters his figures experience he interprets these events while avoiding any condescension. He makes clear, ‘There must be a way in which we can study the literature and culture of an era without portraying ourselves as superior to the people who created it’ (11).

[4] The first Chapter, ‘John Dee: Religious Experience and the Technology of Idolatry’ considers a figure who has often been ‘relegated to the “geek table” of intellectual history’ (18). Owner of one of the largest libraries in Europe, Dee was an intellectual polymath. At home at the courts of Elizabeth I and of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II; Dee was a central intellectual figure of his time. Martin writes: ‘Positioned at the avant-garde of European intellectual life, he was both a man of the medieval past and one anticipating the rational and empirical ethos that would follow Bacon and Descartes’ (23). He has recently become the object of study in works on early English imperialism – it was after all Dee who coined the phrase ‘British Empire’. Yet because of the ambiguous intellectual status of what Dee was doing – was it science or magic? – he has often been downgraded. This is, in particular, due to his relationship with Edward Kelley, a magician who helped Dee through dozens of communications with angels, who spoke them in an ‘Enochian’ language and who transmitted various hermetic truths which seemed beyond the limits and bonds of Catholic/Protestant denominational conflict. Martin’s intellectual humility-as-a-matter-of-method plus his staunch refusal to engage in any sort of chronocentricism force him to take Dee seriously. Martin has produced the first ever full-scale study of Dee that takes him seriously as a religious thinker and not just an occult one. The Chapter helps to reorient an important figure. What emerges is a portrait of religious liberalism during a sectarian period.

[5] Martin’s second Chapter, ‘A Glass Darkly: John Donne’s Negative Approach to God’ provides us with a novel interpretation of Donne. The Chapter reads across poetic works like the Holy Sonnets, to prose works like Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, and Donne’s sermon Death’s Duel. The other figures considered here are, in varying degrees, fairly obscure authors, while Donne is central to the canon. This makes Martin’s unique reading of Donne’s religious project all the more impressive. With his recusant youth, his internal debates on religion and his conversion to Anglicanism, Donne is a microcosm of the intellectual vanguard’s debates about theology. Martin contributes to this discussion by identifying a key-strain of Christian theological discourse that permeates Donne’s work. Martin argues that ‘Donne was attracted to negative and mystical theology as a form of religious commitment reluctant to engage in absolutist claims’ (64). Regardless of denominational commitments, Donne was a thorough-going apophatic theologian, in opposition to normative kataphatic practice with its literal language. Donne rather engaged in the practice of via negativa, understanding God in terms of what He is not, indeed understanding God to the point of conceptualizing Him as an absence. Martin convincingly argues that Donne was familiar with the philosophical systems of the fifth-century Syrian Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite who combined a Neoplatonism with an apophatic awareness. He writes ‘Dionysius’s ideas crop up in a number of Donne’s sermons in a clearly positive light. Mystical and negative theology profoundly informed Donne’s religious intuitions: a lineage generally ignored by Donne scholarship’ (p. 65). Through creatively utilizing a mystical tradition that Martin says would place Donne next to ‘Teresa of Avilla, Ignatius Loyola, and Thomas a Kempis’ (p. 68), Donne’s apophasis is at least still radically iconoclastic in its Protestantism, where Donne avoids visions which could become icons, and thus ‘a temptation to idolatry’ (84).

[6] ‘Love’s Alchemist: Palingenesis and the Unconscious Metalepsis of Sir Kenelm Digby’ examines a figure who straddles science and magic, though who is perhaps less known than even Dee. Digby was far more famous in his own day where he ‘could rightfully claim to be listed among the virtuosi of the late Renaissance. He was among the first asked to join the Royal Society soon after its founding, and his peers and associates included such notable scientists and thinkers as Descartes, Hobbes, Boyle, and the German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher’ (88). Dee and Digby are interesting to read in terms of how much the intellectual firmament surrounding science and religion altered in only half a century. During Dee’s life the differences between science, religion and the occult were indeed murky. As Martin explains ‘The rise and expanding acceptance and popularization of Cartesian materialism, Baconian empiricism, and Hobbesian pessimism resulted in a burgeoning worldview that was characterized by increasing distrust in alleged spiritual phenomena such as visions or apparitions and that tended to ridicule personal religious experiences as enthusiasm’ (85). Despite the fact that ‘Science, art, and religion . . . were obviously slipping away from each other’, Martin makes clear that they ‘were not yet sequestered into isolated spheres’ (90). Martin examines this through Digby’s investigations into palingenesis, which is a Pythagorean belief in the ability of decomposed or destroyed organic material to be resurrected. Digby was a believer that this process could demonstrated and through (poorly planned and far from rigorous) experimentation he believed he had demonstrated palingenesis. Yet in his unusual reading of Digby, Martin claims that ‘He thinks he is treating the subject as a scientist, which in fact he is unconsciously treating it as a metaphysical poet’ (99).

[7] ‘The Rosicrucian Mysticism of Henry and Thomas Vaughan’ provides another novel interpretation of the poet Henry Vaughan and his mystically-minded brother Thomas. An important metaphysical poet, Henry Vaughan has been overshadowed by others like Donne and George Herbert. His Neoplatonist interests stand out in his verse, and Martin is correct to read him alongside his twin brother. In reading both Vaughans together Martin erases the distinction that would classify one as a poet and the other as a scholar when a more proper reading of both places them in communication. He writes ‘In this chapter, I argue that the Vaughan brothers’ approach to God can best be described as a kind of “Rosicrucian mysticism”’ (109) and he indeed supplies a bevy of evidence to support the assertion that the Vaughans were within the confines of Rosicrucianism. It is helpful that he has chosen to use this word over the far more general ‘hermetic’ or even ‘occult’. That Rosicrucianism – with its unclear origins and its conspiratorial nature – is central to the programme of not just figures like the Vaughans but, indeed, ones like Rene Descartes, is a point that should not be forgotten. Martin provides a corrective (one that has, in part, been going on for a generation) in critiquing Frances Yates’ seminal 1972 book, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. Unlike Yates, for Martin the scientific revolution did not happen because of Rosicrucianism, it happened in spite of it. Despite its ecumenical nature and its regard toward empiricism, Rosicrucianism was still a reactionary force. This vision of the cosmos was one in which science worked with the truths of faith, where empirical research could comment on the supernatural and vice-versa. It’s also an illusory system that does not work. Martin claims that ‘The Vaughans and their Rosicrucian forbears are emblematic of, not the aurora of a new day (as they thought), but of the sunset of religious and scientific holism’ (149).

[8] In ‘The Pauline Mission of Jane Lead’ Martin contributes to a growing body of scholarship on the leader of the Philadelphian Society. Building on the scholarship of Julie Hirst, Martin traces the influence the Lutheran/Pietist German mystic Jakob Böhme had on ‘Lead’s visionary, religious, and publishing activities [which] all contributes to one central goal: calling the faithful . . . to a renewal of religion’ (156). For Martin what is notable about Lead’s revisions to Böhme – especially in embracing the explicitly feminine figure of Sophia – is the Pauline nature of Lead’s ministry. Like so many other Böhmeist intellectual descendants ‘Lead attempted to transcend categories of class, gender, nation, and even the idea of a church’ (165). More than even her heterodox (or heretical) embracing of Sophia-mysticism or Origin’s soteriology of apocastasis, it was Lead’s egalitarian vision that was radical.

[9] As a series of studies it is easier to take the book’s merits by chapter than it is to pronounce judgment on it over all. The weakest chapters are the third and fifth. While Digby is interesting, Martin’s reading of his motivations is too subjective, if not eisegetical. He connects Digby’s interest in resurrection with his dead wife, writing ‘In his case, palingenesis became a kind of “waking dream symbol”, an absent referent for his absent wife and a receptacle for his desire to bring her back to life’ (90). This is overly speculative, projecting a contemporary Freudian psychoanalysis onto a figure from the past. If Digby’s obsession with palingenesis is related to his wife’s death, Martin does not demonstrate it. The chapter on Lead is more successful, but suffers from being derivative of other scholarship. While her connections to Böhme are obvious it would be interesting to see her placed in a context of wider European Böhmeist individuals.

[10] The book is exemplary in the truly original chapters on Donne and on the Vaughans. Reading Donne through apophatic theology provides a means for fully interpreting texts that have been established for so long. In a similar vein, Martin’s readings of the Vaughan brothers and his placement of them within the Rosicrucian milieu of seventeenth-century Europe provides powerful new interpretations of both figures. Finally, Martin’s most important contribution is to ‘New Theological Criticism’. For too long there has been a positivist strain concerning religion in literary studies (ironically at the same time as the humanities have engaged in a crude relativism as regards the natural sciences). The New Theological Criticism, however, embraces the possibilities of taking religion seriously on its own terms (even if we ourselves are not ‘religious’) generating more sophisticated readings of texts. Martin’s book is on the whole an exemplary model of this new critical paradigm.

Lehigh University, March 2015

James Simpson, Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2011)

James Simpson, Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2011). ISBN: 978-0199591657, vi + 222 pp. £26.

Reviewed by Edward Simon


[1] In his newest book, Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition, James Simpson continues a project that he began in 2010’s Burning to Read: English Fundamentalism and its Reformation Opponents. This is to say that both take as their aim the cross-disciplinary goal of explicating what exactly is ‘modern’ about the early modern period. Seemingly central to these two books, both as critical disposition and methodology, is Simpson’s concept of ‘cultural etymology’, which he describes as ‘looking for recognitions between present and past obscured by the passage of time and the urgency of the present’ (p. 49). In his earlier work Simpson traces the ways in which religious fundamentalism – which in popular discourse is often seen as somehow ‘medieval’ – was actually the result of a modernity that was born from the Protestant Reformation. The traditional triumphalist historiography of sixteenth and seventeenth-century Reformation and Counter-Reformation has often portrayed Protestantism as a progressive, liberal and modern reaction to the superstitious and zealous medieval Roman Catholic Church. Simpson, in a manner similar to revisionists like Eamon Duffy, deftly demonstrates what is erroneous about a perspective which portrays Thomas Cromwell as a Thomas Jefferson of the English Reformation. As he effectively demonstrated in Burning to Read the Reformation was modern, but not in the way traditional scholarly models had argued. Rather a reliance on the Sola scriptura hermeneutic coupled with an intense focus on the textuality of the Bible encouraged a nascent literalism that would have been foreign to the allegory-permeated Middle Ages. In Simpson’s formulation it was not until the anarchic years of the mid seventeenth century that Protestant modernity embraced interpretive strategies that could be thought of as ‘progressive’. In this way Simpson shows how the literalism of contemporary fundamentalism is not a holdover from a more primitive medieval past, but was indeed a consequence of the emergence of modernity in the sixteenth century.

[2] Where he focused on words in that earlier work, Simpson expands his attention towards images in his excellent new book, Under the Hammer. In a brilliant coupling of literary theory, art history and cultural historiography, Simpson surveys the ways in which iconoclastic violence has been mediated through Anglo-American culture and how it, in turn, has altered that culture. Across four chapters his short book addresses the initial image-destruction of both the Henrician and Edwardian reforms, through the violence of the English Revolution into the emergence of Enlightenment notions of ‘art’ and ‘taste’ in the eighteenth century. It is Simpson’s argument that iconoclasm, like the fundamentalism he examined in his earlier book, is not a quality of an archaic, brutal, violent past which we have left behind, but that indeed iconoclastic reasoning permeates and, in fact, defines our modern culture and that in the West the most recent permutations of this find their origin in the Reformation. Simpson writes, ‘I take issue with this projection of iconoclasm as historically and geographically “other” and “backwards”, at least as far as the West goes’ (p. 3). Using this reasoning he opens with two seemingly disparate events that he argues are conceptually connected. The first is the infamous destruction of two gigantic statues of the Buddha in Bamiyan, Afghanistan by the Taliban in March of 2001. The other is the author, himself, as a young man in 1967, attending an exhibit at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, entitled Two Decades of American Painting and featuring the radical avant-garde of abstract expressionist painters such as de Kooning, Rothko, and Pollock. The two events couldn’t seem more different, the first is a barbaric and reactionary assault on culture and the latter is a celebration of the very idea of culture. And yet as different as they may be, Simpson explains over the course of his book how the obvious iconoclastic fury of the Taliban and the abstraction of mid-century American art are both reactions to the idea of the image. As he explains it: ‘History is the history of the image, and historical freedom means demolition of the religious image’ (p. 69).

[3] Under the Hammer ranges widely across centuries and academic disciplines. In its first chapter, ‘Iconoclasm in Melbourne, Massachusetts, and the Museum of Modern Art’, Simpson employs contemporary art criticism when he considers the abstract expressionist paintings he first encountered as a youth in Australia. In what acts as an extended introduction to his concept of cultural etymology, Simpson provides readings of the paintings he viewed in Melbourne like Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting alongside interpretations of the ecclesiastical plain-style architecture of Puritan churches in New England. In his second chapter, ‘Learn to Die: Late Medieval English Images Before the Law’, Simpson examines pre-Reformation iconoclastic rhetoric in both orthodox as well as Wycliffite writings, especially as regards the Ars moriendi genre. His third chapter, ‘Statues of Liberty: Iconoclasm and Idolatry in the English Revolution’, looks at both the fury of the Civil War years, as well as offering a novel reading of iconoclastic themes in not just the obvious choice of Milton’s Eikonoklastes, but the first book of Paradise Lost as well (examined through the prism of Milton’s early poem On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity). The most radical and, in many ways, most interesting section of the monograph is its final chapter, ‘Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm and the Enlightenment’. Simpson writes ‘The more ambitious form of the argument, which I shall also pursue in this book, is that the Enlightenment treatment of the image, and in particular the Enlightenment museum, share many of the iconoclast’s aims’ (p. 11), later making the argument that ‘the Enlightenment museum … resembles nothing so much as the Puritan temple’ (p. 48). The point is drawn home as we are asked to compare the stark white walls of New England Puritan churches with the minimalist architecture of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This chapter’s central argument – and, in many ways, it seems as if the first three chapters are leading up to the radical conclusion – is that the Enlightenment aesthetic of ‘taste’ is a form of secularized iconoclasm that paradoxically preserves the image by disenchanting it. In other words Enlightenment taste neutralizes the sacred power of the relic and transforms it into something that is theologically non-objectionable. He examines the contents of Horace Walpole’s catalogue of the extensive art collection of his father, the former prime minister, Robert Walpole, noting the large presence of Catholic devotional art in the otherwise vehemently Protestant household. By divorcing the image from its content, a new, progressive and modern category of art that is different from relic can be constructed; explaining that, ‘Taste is a strategy designed to look at Rome again’ (p. 133).

[4] In any book as provocative and fascinating as this, a number of issues and questions will arise. Simpson has provided a rich and compelling argument that should generate a number of new scholarly investigations. For example, how could a materialist or class-based critique enrich Simpson’s line of inquiry? In addition to theological influences, did cheap print in the seventeenth century affect the transition from an image-based to a word-based culture? And if contemporary art museums are a type of ‘Puritan Temple’ how do modern class-based political questions contribute to the cultural capital afforded these institutions over other means of expression? In addition to class issues there are also questions of gender that remain largely unexplored in Under the Hammer. The physicality of medieval art often focused on Marian devotion, one of the most notable aspects of Elizabeth I’s reign were the ways in which she was able to appropriate and divert attention which was often directed towards those images onto herself. Gendered images were partially secularized during the Elizabethan settlement and instrumental in the building of the English nation-state. In any study of that subject questions of iconoclasm should be central. The complicated (and contradictory) gender politics of the second half of the sixteenth century would be a fascinating and important subject to examine through this lens. Also more attention afforded towards the Baroque Counter-Reformation could have been helpful. How much of the Baroque was not evidence of a Horror vacui as concerns the plain canvas, but indeed a Catholic reaction to Protestant iconoclasm? And how much of our modern understanding of artistic quality is based on an individual work or movement’s adherence to a minimalist iconoclastic standard? Do we read Pop Art as a type of contemporary, Baroque reaction to the iconoclasm of abstract expressionism? What of more nebulous aesthetic terms like ‘kitsch’ and ‘camp’? How do they fit into Simpson’s art history schema? It remains for an art historian or literary critic to place Clement Greenberg and Susan Sontag in conversation with Under the Hammer. Finally, while the book’s bibliography is impressive, in any argument as sprawling as this more space could have been devoted to iconoclastic thinking which is not Protestant. Simpson mentions both the medieval Byzantine war on images, as well as the anti-clerical iconoclasm of the French Revolution, but more of a consideration could have been made of those events.

[5] Though Under the Hammer doesn’t make direct reference to the recent flurry of theorists like Giorgio Agamben, Simon Critchly, Slavoj Žižek and Paul Kahn who have begun to problematize the traditional narrative of historical secularization, it could be read alongside them. As in Burning to Read, Simpson demonstrates the complicated theological origins of much of what we think of as secular modernity (and its discontents). Under the Hammer is important in other ways, in breaking down the arbitrary division between periods (medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment), ranging across disciplines (literary theory, art history), embracing a more encompassing geography of the early modern (examining both English and American writing and art of the period) Simpson has produced a truly revelatory text that should act as a veritable call-to-arms for scholars. His concept of cultural etymology is an immensely useful term, simultaneously a methodology and a perspective that helps to contextualize the trace of influences in ideology, culture, and literature that may otherwise remain invisible. As he explains it ‘iconoclasm is not “somewhere else”’ (p. 11), it is just as current if transformed. Through his deep readings of texts throughout several centuries and using insightful prose he demonstrates how this is possible and, in the process, he provides other critics with a powerful new tool.

Lehigh University, July 2013