Welcome to Love of Place. Most of my work celebrates our connection to the natural world.

My new eco science fiction Knocking on Heaven's Door is just released. A number of early reviewers have been enthusiastic, including the website Geeks of Doom, which makes me smile. Not many people know me as a geek of doom! But I am happy to embrace the complexity of my personality.

I'm also so pleased that Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World has been awarded the 2016 John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing, as well as the 2014 WILLA Award for Creative Nonfiction from Women Writing the West.

My historical fantasy Teresa of the New World won the 2015 Arizona Authors Association Award for best Children's Literature and was a finalist for the New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards.

These are nice landmarks in a writer's life. I would be writing regardless--but, still, whew. It's good to have some encouragement.

Feel free to contact me at http://www.sharmanaptrussell.com or through my author Facebook page, Sharman Apt Russell.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The first half of Chapter Five from Standing in the Light...on Giordano Bruno and my relationship to magic.

A Renaissance Magician

In the last half of the sixteenth century, the Italian scholar Giordano Bruno developed a free-wheeling pantheism that embraced, promoted, and weirdly mixed a dozen different themes, from nascent science to ancient mysticism, social justice to free love. He publicly admired the mathematician Copernicus and the new and seemingly bizarre theory that the earth revolved around the sun. Like other Renaissance scholars, Bruno had also discovered the ancient Greeks, men like Heraclitus, who taught him that life was flux and change, and Democritus and Epicurus, from whom he adopted atomism and the idea of an infinite universe with infinite other earths and suns—possibly, even, other intelligences like our own.. Bruno wrote prodigiously: plays, poems, allegories, lectures. He championed freedom of speech and thought. He praised reason but also insisted on higher truths which could not be understood by the intellect alone.

One of these higher truths was that the universe was a divine Unity, an immanent God who could assume both corporal and incorporeal form. Bruno believed in souls, in their transmigration from the body, and in their eternal life as part of the larger universal soul. He believed in magic and fancied himself a magus or magician, a poet and wordsmith capable of evoking the hidden powers and sympathies in nature. His pantheism was animistic, with an astrobiological twist, for he declared that celestial bodies also had souls and were analogous to living beings. Above all, he admired the ancient Egyptian cults who had worshipped nature, for “Animals and plants are living effects of Nature,” he wrote, which is “nothing else but God in things.”

It sounds like fun. Except that this was the last half of the sixteenth century, Bruno had taken the vows of a Dominican monk, and the Roman Catholic Church considered these ideas to be abhorrent, dangerous, and heretical. At the age of fifty-two, the writer and philosopher found himself tied to a stake as part of a public execution in Rome’s Campo di Fiori, a plaza named after flowers. Giordano Bruno is not the only pantheist to die for his beliefs. But he is one of the best known and certainly the most voluble. Today his statue faces the Vatican in Rome in the same plaza where he was killed, and websites immortalize him as a martyr to science and symbol of defiance against intolerance. He would not be displeased.

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Growing up in a small town near Naples, Italy, Bruno often looked out at a great gloomy mountain in the distance. He would later write, “In my childhood, I thought that nothing existed beyond Vesuvius”—then and now, one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. His father was a soldier, his mother from the “lower gentry.” At seventeen, he became a monk in the monastery of S. Domenico, later a priest and doctor of theology. His intellect and talents were soon noticed. In 1571, Pope Pius V brought him to Rome to study ars memoriae, the art of memorization, a subject in which Bruno excelled. In the meantime, he was proving to be a rather troublesome friar, scornful of his superiors, dismissive of outward forms of devotion, critical of established beliefs. Returned to the monastery, at the age of twenty-eight he was discovered reading subversive books in the outhouse. Charged in 1576 with heresy and insubordination by the Neapolitan Inquisition, Bruno fled back to Rome to learn that the Roman Inquisition was also drawing up accusations against him. He fled this time to Switzerland, abandoned his monk’s habit, and began a life of travel.

Hardly a safe haven, Europe was in the middle of thirty years of bloody warfare stemming from the rise of Protestantism, which challenged the dominance of the Catholic Church. In Geneva, the now-excommunicated monk hoped to find some refuge among the Calvinists, a Protestant sect who controlled that city. Instead, after Bruno disagreed with the authorities on a variety of religious matters, he was thrown into jail and forced to publicly apologize. In 1579, he moved on to a troubled France, where only seven years earlier French Catholics had hunted down and killed thousands of French Protestants (perhaps as many as 100,000) in the course of a few months. Despite the social turmoil—and despite the fact that Bruno’s ideas and pugnacious attitude were offensive to both Catholics and Protestants--the scholar managed to make a life for himself in Paris by focusing on one of his first loves, the study and teaching of memorization.

Mnemonic devices had long been used by orators from Roman times through the Middle Ages. Imagine a building, attach images to its parts that correspond to the parts of your speech, and then mentally walk through the building, “seeing” the images and information they signify. A good memory was highly prized in a world without books or with limited access to them. But Bruno was not simply interested in giving a good speech. He believed that increasing the powers of memory simultaneously increased the powers of the mind and enlarged the psyche. Moreover, when a student of the magical arts used certain archetypal images as part of his mnemonic system, then he could tap into the greater mind and psyche of the universe. Such potent and numinous images could open doors. They reflected the divine Oneness of all things.

Bruno’s published works on memory were a complex system of graphic word-pictures. Many of these involved the sun and moon. Some were original and startling, “a dark man, of immense stature, with burning eyes, angry face, and clothed in a white garment” and “Saturn: a man with a stag’s head, on a dragon, with an owl which is eating a snake in his right hand,” while others referred back to Egyptian mythology, Greek mythology, the Zodiac, Jewish Cabala and the legends of sorcerers like Merlin and Circe. These magical pictures were placed into various imaginary wheels divided into parts and corresponding to other wheels, which could be memorized and “imprinted on” by the obedient student. Give yourself up to such a system, Bruno wrote, and “you may gain possession of a figurative art which will assist, not only the memory, but all the powers of the soul in a wonderful way.” Possess such a system, and “you will arrive from the confused plurality of things to the underlying unity.”

For Bruno, the relationship of memory, imagination, and godlike power—the relationship of the human mind to the larger universe—was linked to an occult tradition going back thousands of years. This tradition had been preserved in the Hermetic writings, a set of books thought to be the work of Hermes Trismegistus, a mythical and highly-revered Egyptian sage believed to have lived right after Moses. The lost wisdom of this sage had been “re-discovered” in the fifteenth century. In Bruno’s time, these texts were seen as a sacred entrance into a golden past, when men were better and purer and closer to the mysteries of life. (In fact, historians would later discover that the books were written by Greek authors from 100-300 A.D.) In one of these treatises was the Egyptian Reflection of the Universe in the Mind, something that Bruno took to heart:

Unless you make yourself equal to God, you cannot understand God; for the like is not intelligible save to the like. Make yourself grow to a greatness beyond measure, by a bound free yourself from the body; raise yourself above all time, become Eternity; then you will understand God. Believe that nothing is impossible for you, think yourself immortal and capable of understanding all, all arts, all sciences, the nature of every living being. Mount higher than the highest height; descend lower than the lowest depth. Draw into yourself all sensations of everything created, fire and water, dry and moist, imagining that you are everywhere, on earth, in the sea, in the sky, that you are not yet born, in the maternal womb, adolescent, old, dead, beyond death. If you embrace in your thoughts all things at once, times, places, substances, qualities, quantities, you may understand God.

Combining his mnemonic system with the Hermetic experience of “reflecting the universe in the mind,” Bruno became a kind of Renaissance magician activating images that would help him achieve a knowledge of the divine, as well as a semi-divine personality. He was not alone in his efforts. Magic was still very much part of the Renaissance world—and not, necessarily, a bad or unChristian part. A hundred years earlier, one theologian wrote, “There is no department of knowledge that gives us more certainty of Christ’s divinity than magic and cabala.” An important distinction was made between good magicians who used natural magic and bad magicians who relied on demonic magic. A good magician aimed to discover the secret powers of nature, the hidden sympathies and resonances which he could manipulate and control for good ends. Some good magicians were an early form of the scientist--with alchemy the precursor to chemistry and astrology to astronomy. A bad magician, of course, might try instead to call up a demon or use his power for evil, which was a serious concern.

In France, as Bruno’s magical, marvelous system of memory became more popular, the French King himself took interest. Henry III had already studied the history of magic and became one of Bruno’s patrons. In 1583, as the political and religious violence in Paris increased, Bruno left for England with letters of recommendation from Henry III to the French ambassador. (The King himself would be assassinated six years later by Catholics angry at his attempt to work for peace with the Protestants.) In London, as a guest of the French ambassador, Bruno composed some of his most important works or dialogues--a mix of allegorical story and playwriting.

One of these works was dedicated, mischievously, to the doctors of the University of Oxford. Bruno had tried lecturing at Oxford where faculty were fined five shillings for each disagreement with the “laws” of Aristotle. By now, the writings of Aristotle had been reinterpreted by the Church to fit the Christian worldview. They were enshrined as uncontestable dogma, including the belief that the sun revolved around the earth. Bruno immediately disagreed with these laws, particularly the Aristotelian idea that the universe was closed rather than infinite and that the earth was the center of this closed universe. Instead, Bruno lectured on the newest ideas in astronomy and his own scheme of a divine universe that had no boundary and that contained an infinite number of earth-like worlds revolving around sun-like stars.

The Oxford faculty received this, in Bruno’s words, with “a constellation of the most pedantic, obstinate ignorance and presumption, mixed with a kind of rustic incivility which would try the patience of Job.”

Equally, one observer wrote how Bruno, the visiting lecturer, “undertooke among very many other matters to set on foote the opinion of Copernicus, that the earth did goe round, and the heavens stand still; wheras in truth it was his owne head which rather did run round, & his braines did not stand stil.”

It was a fair description. Bruno’s brains did not stand still as he continued to write and publish feverishly, to charm the French ambassador, to chat up Queen Elizabeth whenever possible, and to outrage almost everyone else. He had various love affairs, admitting once that he bedded as many women as possible, with no “desire to become a eunuch.” He was not above plagiarizing the work of other scholars and claiming it as his own. Nor was he humble. He admired Copernicus but also dismissed him as a mere mathematician, describing the astronomer’s work as “the dawn that must precede the rising of the sun” with the sun being Bruno’s own philosophy.

That philosophy was a magical, mystical, animist pantheism that could be called syncretic, eclectic, half-stolen, or half-digested. It is not so much that you love or hate the man, so much as you don’t know what to think. Mounting to the highest height and descending to the lowest depth, Bruno tried his best to understand God by making himself equal to Him, embracing in his thoughts all things at once, growing to a greatness beyond measure, drawing into himself all arts, all sciences, and the nature of every living being, on earth, in the sea, in the sky, fire and water, dry and moist, young and old, living and dead. He tried his best to believe that nothing was impossible.

In 1585, the French ambassador left England and returned to France. Bruno went, too. He stayed in Paris for less than a year, trying but failing to have his ex-communication from the Catholic Church annulled. He had time to fall in love with a new version of the compass, and he published four dialogues that attempted to appropriate the device as his own by labeling its inventor a “triumphant idiot” who could not—unlike Giordano Bruno--grasp the significance of this important work. In another graceless incident, he gave a public lecture describing his concept of an infinite universe with multiple worlds. At the end, he shouted triumphantly for someone to defend Aristotle. When someone did, Bruno tried to leave, was attacked by the students, and escaped only on the promise he would return the next day to continue the debate. Prudently, he left town instead.

He went on to Germany, tangled with the Calvinists again, and escaped to Prague where he did not find employment. Excommunicated now by the Protestants, he continued to write but could not find a way to make a living. In 1590, he traveled to Frankfurt, then Zurich, and back to Frankfort.

His mnemonics retained their striking magical images, “a crowned man of an august presence most gentle of aspect, riding on a camel, dressed in a garment the colour of all flowers, leading with his right hand a naked girl…” or yet another “naked girl rising from the foam of the sea, who on reaching dry land wipes off the humour with her palm.” As one scholar has noted, for this artist, “The fable, the poetic image, and metaphor are no longer vain ornaments but become vehicles of thought.” As Bruno himself wrote, “To think is to speculate with images.”

In the fall of 1591, Bruno moved to Venice, responding to the invitation of a wealthy gentleman who wished to be taught the secrets of memory. In hindsight, we have to wonder why the scholar returned to Italy where he knew he would be exposed to the Inquisition. Probably he was penniless, and certainly he was arrogant, with the inflated belief that his charm and intellectual gifts made him invulnerable. He was also na├»ve and fostered the hope of reconciliation, that someday he would convince the Church to see him as an important philosopher and thinker--not a threat. He may have had a sense of mission, for the politics of Europe had shifted and Bruno anticipated new reform within the Catholic hierarchy. More simply, he may have been homesick. His father may have still been alive. He may have missed the language, the music, the food. Once in Venice, at least, he did not go immediately to his patron’s house but lived independently until March of 1592.

On his part, the wealthy gentleman named Mocenigo--the villain in this plot-- may have always been a spy for the Venetian Inquisition or, as likely, became alienated from his teacher as the months passed. By May, relations between the two had clearly soured. When Bruno planned a return to Germany to supervise the printing of his latest work, Mocenigo opposed the journey. On the night before Bruno’s departure, the patron locked his tutor in a room and summoned the authorities. That night Bruno was taken to the prison of the Holy Office.

Bruno’s trial by the Venetian Inquisition lasted over two months. Mocenigo was a star witness. He accused Bruno of describing the Catholic faith as blasphemous and “against the majesty of God” by confining God to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. He testified that Bruno held many erroneous views on the Trinity, on the divinity of Christ, on the holy mass. Bruno did not believe that sins were punished in hell and even denied the virginity of Mary. He practiced magical arts and called Christ a magician. He said that the universe was infinite with infinite worlds. He said that all monks were “asses” and the Church “asinine.”

Mocenigo further stated that Bruno had frequently complained that the original Christians converted through gentleness and good works but now the Church resorted to violence and force. Bruno had asserted a new golden rule: “To not do unto others that which we would not have done unto us.” Bruno had argued that the current state of ignorance, corruption, and hatred could not continue and a new society had to emerge, one that practiced tolerance and encouraged freedom.

For the most part, all these accusations were perfectly true. They repeated what Giordano Bruno had written in his books and presumably spoken out loud to Mocenigo. On trial for his life, however, the scholar now denied almost every charge and either apologized for or recanted what he could not deny.

He justified his ideas about an infinite universe by explaining that he had been speaking philosophically and that such philosophical thoughts had no relation to the tenets of faith. They were the idle products of reason, not “substantial truth.” He tried to realign some of his theories with Christian dogma. His soul of the universe, for example, was really another name for the Holy Ghost. In other instances, he explained, he had been repeating the ideas of heretics like Democritus and Lucretius and Epicurus. They were not his ideas. Bruno did admit doubt concerning the nature of the Trinity, but these were internal dilemmas, not public denials of Church doctrine. He also admitted that at times he had been in error: he should never have condoned the sin of fornication. He admitted that in sixteen years he had only been to a confessor twice but that he intended someday to live as a good Christian. He admitted he was curious about the magical arts, but nothing more. In fact, he held books on necromancy “in contempt.”

Bruno also reversed his most basic belief in pantheism and an immanent God, declaring, “I have believed and maintained without doubt all that which every faithful Christian must believe and maintain concerning the first person [the Father].”
Strategically, at a few crucial points, he simply sputtered and contradicted his accuser. Of course, Mary was a virgin! Of course, the bread and wine of Mass became the body and blood of Christ! Of course, sinners were damned!
At the end of the trial, the former monk humbled himself completely, kneeling before the judges as he begged for mercy. “All the heresies that I have entertained, and the doubts that I have had regarding the Catholic faith and matters determined by the Holy Church, I now detest and abhor; and I am repentant for having done, held, declared, believed, or having meditated upon any matter that was not Catholic…”

Who can blame him? I would have been on my knees from the start, simpering: Don’t mangle my fingers. Don’t use the rack. Don’t burn me alive. I admire Bruno’s gamesmanship, the weeks of talking and cajoling, twisting and turning, which required all his charm and intellectual gifts. As he pleaded for his life, he probably thought it would be spared and perhaps even that he would be set free. He had some cause for hope. The Venetian Inquisition was relatively mild and in the sixteenth century had sentenced to death only five heretics in 1,565 trials.

At this point, unfortunately, Rome stepped in. Bruno had made too many enemies and been too generous with his opinions. The Pope himself demanded the writer’s extradition. Although Venetian authorities did not usually comply with such requests, this time--under political pressure--they did. In February, 1593, the forty-five-year-old Bruno was transferred to the Castel Sant’ Angelo, the prison of the Roman Inquisition.

Eight years passed. Even in jail, Bruno had a hard time keeping quiet, and fellow inmates began to accuse him of making new heretical statements. In further interrogations, the Roman Inquisition went over these offenses, as well as those from the Venetian trial. The fourteenth deposition returned to Bruno’s ideas of an infinite universe with many worlds and the fifteenth to his interest in magical arts. The philosopher continued to deny everything except for the odd minor transgression. In 1594, he wrote an eighty-page response. There were more charges, more interrogations, more long replies. The Roman Inquisition probably felt that its case was weak since the defendant denied his heresy and the new witnesses against him were prisoners. Legally, this opened the door to torture, used when evidence was inconclusive and extreme measures needed to discover the truth.

In January, 1599, officials presented Bruno with a shortened list of eight charges, and he finally submitted. He would agree that these views were heretical and recant them. In return, he would not be executed. In February, at another interrogation, Bruno remained submissive. In April, he produced a written statement of his retraction. In August, that statement was considered satisfactory except for two points, one involving the Trinity and one the analogy of body and soul as being like a ship and pilot.

In September, the Inquisition suddenly reversed its position and decided that the legal case against Bruno was still weak. The Pope ordered a further retraction by Bruno and a reexamination of all previous interrogations.

The next day, Bruno said again that he would do whatever the Church wanted him to do. He also had anther written statement.

In that statement, Bruno recanted his recant. Perhaps he realized that he was never really going to be forgiven or forgotten. Perhaps his renewed insistence that he had done nothing wrong—that he had nothing to repent--was a response to torture or perhaps a way to avoid torture. In any case, the philosopher refused any more acts of submission. He had a forty day period in which to change his mind. He remained firm.

On February 17, 1600, Giordano Bruno was marched from prison to the Campo di Fiori where he would be burned alive. He was stripped naked. In one report, his tongue was tied in order to stop him from speaking. According to a more detailed account, tying the tongue meant thrusting a metal spike horizontally through the cheeks and another spike vertically through the lips, forming a bloody cross that effectively blocked speech. Once the fire started, Bruno was not offered the mercy of strangulation. He is best remembered today for this moment.

Certainly the astronomer Galileo, who also subscribed to the theories of Democritus and Copernicus, remembered it thirty-three years later when he took his place before the Inquisition and denied his beliefs.

Ah, evil, Marcus Aurelius would have sighed. The same old thing. The same old thing, from one end of the world to the other. Nothing new at all.

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