Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Faith and reason at the abyss -- then and now


Chemical Heritage Foundation

The New York Times Science section yesterday had a story (and a neat slide show, see above) about the role played by the history and practice of alchemy in the origins of modern chemistry. Boing Boing has links to the exhibition and the conference in Philadelphia on which the article was based. While the NYT article is interesting, it’s a bit of a mishmash and covers fairly well-trod ground. Didn’t we all learn in school that chemistry evolved out of the early experiments of the alchemists? What doesn’t come through is the incredible drama of the time when all this was happening.

But if you really want to get a sense of what it was like when the northern European Renaissance and modern science were being born out of the death throes of the medieval, faith-based world, read Marguerite Yourcenar’s great 1968 novel, “The Abyss.” It’s not quite in the league of “Memoirs of Hadrian,” her incomparable, magisterial masterpiece. But it’s an unforgettable and haunting evocation of a pivotal time in the history of Europe and the world. John Banville's "Kepler" covers some of the same ground, but not nearly as vividly.

From Joan Acocella's marvelous essay on Yourcenar in the New Yorker last year.
Yourcenar’s main project in the nineteen-sixties was her next novel, “The Abyss.” The tone of this book is very different from that of “Hadrian.” When an interviewer raised that point with her, she asked him to consider the events intervening between the two novels. When “Hadrian” was written, the war had just ended, and the United Nations had been established. There seemed to be some hope for the world. Then came a series of disasters. She listed them briefly: “Suez, Budapest, Algeria.” (She might have added the Vietnam War, which sickened her. She went to sit-ins, carried placards.) If reading “Hadrian” is like gazing on white marble, reading “The Abyss” is like breaking open a clod of earth and finding strange, dark things: glints and bones and bugs, slimes and roots, sulfur and verdigris. Flanders in the sixteenth century was a pit of violence—secular wars, religious wars, peasant revolts. All this is in the book, together with the explosion of ideas that occurred at that time: the Reformation, the discovery of new worlds, the birth of modern science, the beginnings of industrialization. The hero of “The Abyss,” and the representative of those new ideas, is Zeno, the illegitimate son of a rich banking family, who leaves home at the age of twenty to find truth. He becomes a priest, a physician, an alchemist, a philosopher.
Zeno is a wonderful imaginary figure for the reader, but he was more than that for Yourcenar herself.
Yourcenar often voiced the conviction that her characters actually existed, and lived with her, but there is no character she felt closer to than Zeno. He was a brother to her, as she put it. When she couldn’t sleep, she would hold out a hand to him. Once, weirdly, she recalled going to a bakery and leaving Zeno there; she had to go back and get him, she said. In view of this attachment, the stern and furtive character that she gave to Zeno seems puzzling. Perhaps it was a defense against too great a love for him. Or, more simply, one might say that Zeno was Yourcenar’s tribute to one part of herself, her love of knowledge, and that she made the tribute more pointed by cutting the other parts away. She said she expected “The Abyss” to be read by about ten people. Instead, like “Hadrian,” it was a big success.
In Zeno's time, Europe lived on the edge of the abyss -- a time of great suffering, disease, political turmoil, social upheavals, and wars, both secular and religious -- and at the same time, a vast explosion of knowledge and an unprecedented expansion of human understanding. It was a time when faith and reason were (sometimes violently) sorting out their relationship with each other. In short, a time very much like ours. Reading about Zeno is to spend some time with a companion who would see the problems -- and the opportunities -- we face as surprisingly familiar, despite the passage of nearly five centuries.