Monday, June 08, 2009

Europe after the rain

When Max Ernst painted the masterpiece "Europe after the rain" World War II was raging across the continent and the bombing of cities became a continuous rain of destruction that left behind landscapes of ruins. The grattage/frottage technique invented by Ernst is especially suitable for the kind of visual effect created by this painting: it literally scrapes and tears shapes off the canvas, in a way that immediately suggests a landscape created by a painful act of destructive force. Two vaguely human figures, seemingly a man and a woman, stand amidst a desolation where the enormous shapes surrounding them suggest memories of their former existence and look upon them like the living pillars of Baudelaire's poem, murmuring confused words. They stand back to back looking upon the desolation, with bird heads and tree limbs, with torn banners, and bodies that merge with the surrounding structures. They survey the destruction, they internalize it in their tattered and twisted bodies, and they prepare for the task of continuing with life, of building upon the ruins.

Slipping from the grand tragedy of mankind all the way down to the insignificant of the personal experience: it's been my first trip back to Europe in several months, the first after the rain, metaphorically intended as an image of the rain of destruction that fell on me during the past months. Are those figures lost in the tortured landscape meant to be us, watching what remains of what we had once managed to build? Or would it rather be them, surveying the successful destruction they provoked? I am lost in the superposition of meanings and I keep wandering across the painting's layers of significance. Outside, a light rain. Late spring Europe, under the rain.

Most of the time I have been reading, following a narrow thread of thoughts that brought me back more than twenty years, to a previous existence where Max Ernst's rain had a more earnest meaning and the best of my time went in the reading of dead languages and the thoughts of heretic philosophers. After all these years I finally managed to get my hands on the text I had always wanted to read: Hermes Trismegistos in the original Greek, which I just bought now in Paris in the excellent edition of Les Belles Lettres. It is amazing how a simple mistake in chronology and attribution of an ancient text could generate one of the most influential phenomena in the cultural history of Europe. The author called Hermes the Thrice Great was a late neoplatonist, writing in the 3rd century from what was the final era of Ptolemaic Egypt. As such, the text is really not so special, in the sense that it falls into a large supply of similar writings, on very similar themes, born of the eclectic melting pot of cultures and religions that characterized late antiquity Egypt. However, when the text first hit Renaissance Europe, it was mistakenly believed to be the work of an ancient Egyptian priest, dating back to a time that preceded, and influenced, Plato. As such, it became the text the entire culture of the Renaissance adopted as their inspiration. From Leonardo da Vinci to Giordano Bruno, the hermetic tradition became the leitmotif guiding the development of philosophy and science in the transition from the middle ages to modern Europe.

Most interesting is the fact that Hermes Trismegistos was in fact the ultimate maker of the modern European scientific tradition, as it is beautifully argued in the writings of Frances Yates collected here in France under the title "Science et tradition Hermetique". Copernicus in his treaty De revolutionibus orbium coelestium quotes Hermes Trismegistos when it comes to supporting the idea of a sun fixed at center stage and a moving Earth. Giordano Bruno quotes him when advancing the statements that stars are other suns with a plurality of worlds (we call them now exoplanets) orbiting around them. Long after the correct dating of the Corpus Hermeticum was finally given by Casaubon in 1614, and the hermetic movement of the Renaissance was officially put to rest, Newton was still quoting Hermes Trismegistos in his writings. The major scientists that shaped the course of modern mathematics and physics kept returning over and over again to the words of this obscure writer of late antiquity. Why is science so much in debt to the hermetic tradition? It does not seem to make sense at first: Hermes Trismegistos and his Renaissance followers were believers in magic, astrology, numerology. They did not seem to have anything much in common with the idea of science as we know it.

I am sinking more and more into the reading of the first volume of the Corpus Hermeticum. My Greek is rusty to say the least, after so many years lying dormant at the back of my mind, so progress is slow and painful, but that's the way the Renaissance philosophers and early scientists must have struggled with it too. After all, to think this Greek was archaic language and not thinly disguised Ellenistic Koine reveals that those early readers' Greek must have been just as bad as my own if not worse. Half a way into the text I begin to get a picture of what might have lead the scientists from Copernicus to Newton to measure themselves against the words of this metaphysical writing. It is an image of the inner process that accompanies the scientific creativity that is being sought in these pages, much like the inner process of dreams, the dreams of Wolfgang Pauli analyzed by C.G.Jung in his "Psychology and Alchemy". And there is the alchemical process indeed, the one of late antiquity and of the hermetic Renaissance alike, the one that also eventually merged into the practice of modern science. At the origin of modern science lies a dream, an inner process of transformation that makes scientific thought possible. We all experience that, the pain and the elation. Hermes Trismegistos became the creator of modern science by lending to its practitioners the words to express that inner drive. We do still need words to describe our inner turmoil, now more than ever. We need it for science to continue, for landscape of ruins to turn again into growth and form. Who is going to give us a new, or an ancient, Hermes Trismegistos for our times?