Thursday, April 30, 2020

Twenty (or Forty) Years After

A little more that forty years ago, I read The Three Musketeers for the first time. I knew then that the rollicking historical novel had a sequel called Twenty Years After, and I definitely wanted to read it. But loving the original so much, I never imagined it would take me over twice as long as the period in the title of that sequel to get around to it.. But I knew I would one day: my dad told me to.

We were probably in the local public library when he said it. He and I often went up and down the aisles looking at the titles, my dad giving me his opinions and advice. Well, not so much advice. When it comes from Dad, it’s more like life instruction. One day, son, when your beard begins to grow . . . . One day, son, you’ll have to make difficult decisions about balancing family and career . . . . One day, son, you should read Twenty Years After . . . . Yeah, it sounds different in that context, doesn’t it? And after all, he was right about the beard and the career. So I owed it to the Old Man to read this book and keep his record spotless.

And, boy! am I glad that I did! I woke up every day of the last few weeks looking forward to my time with D’Artagnan and his friends, and not a single page disappointed my expectations.

I suppose I have to admit that there are reasons the first book is so famous, so popular, so ingrained in public consciousness, and so frequently filmed, while the sequel languishes in obscurity. For instance, as much as Dumas tries to tell us that Cardinal Mazarin, though a smaller man than Richelieu, is just as interesting, the successor to Richelieu just comes out, well, smaller. The real Mazarin did big things like making France (and himself) rich and contributing to the principles of Westphalia that continue to govern international relationships, but somehow Dumas only saw the mean side of the man. Perhaps the author could never forgive the later cardinal for being Italian.

There’s also the problem of names and factions. I thought the rivalries between King, Queen, and Cardinal were confusing when I first read The Three Musketeers. Well, that political situation was a simple game of tic-tac-toe compared to the intrigues of Twenty Years After. It didn’t help that almost every major player in the machinations went by at least two names. Dumas’s original audience probably knew that J. F. P. de Gondi was also a cardinal named Retz and was also “The Coadjutor.” But I felt like Lois Lane landing the biggest scoop of her life when I discovered halfway through the book that they were all the same person. And then there’s le Duc de Condé, who is sometimes, without explanation, referred to as The Prince.

But all that got straightened out. And in any case, none of the confusion detracted from the joy of going on new adventures with the musketeers, four of the most wonderful characters I’ve ever encountered. And what adventures! They find themselves in battle against each other early on (those tricky factions!) and discuss (while battle rages around them) how to remain loyal friends to each other while continuing to perform their respective duties. (I know of some people in Washington who could learn from this book.) They chase and are chased by Lady de Winter’s son. (The rotten apple doesn’t fall far from the rotten tree.) They protect young Louis XIV during the Fronde. They try to rescue English King Charles I from execution. (They fail, as actual history determines they must, but Dumas allows himself to place Athos under the scaffolding where he holds a hushed conversation with Charles during that unfortunate monarch’s historically documented quiet moment to the side before he placed his head on the chopping block.)

I have The Man in the Iron Mask, another sequel, scheduled for 2022, year 6 in my third ten-year plan of reading. But now I discover that Iron Mask is only the last part of a trilogy that, in its entirety, is a sequel to Twenty Years After and completes the story of D’Artagnan. Two other Dumas novels – each with nineteenth-century length – fill in the gap between what I just read and what I plan to read in two years. What do I do? What do I do? I wish I could ask Dad.

Friday, April 10, 2020

The Last Man Who Knew . . . What?

I’ve read in my life about two people being called The Last Man Who Knew Everything: Isaac Newton and Athanasius Kircher. One is extremely famous, and the other is Athanasius Kircher. I first heard about Kircher in a History of Music Theory class I took at the University of Iowa around 1985. There, he was presented as a polymath, which I learned was a fancy word meaning someone who knows everything. Among the things he knew, apparently, was music theory. But I never learned much of the details because his works on music have never been translated from Latin. (I started reading Kircher's Latin once and quickly realized that deficiency in Latin is one of the many gaps that make me Not A Man Who Knows Everything.)

In any case, learning more about Kircher had been on my mental back burner for decades, and this month that simmering pot finally got brought to the front and spilled its savory contents into my bowl. I had originally put Paula Findlen’s Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything on my reading list for year 4. (You can still see that title on the master list under the "Third Decade" tab at the top of this page.) But last year as I was buying the books for this year’s literary trek, Amazon’s “Customers also bought” feature changed my mind. It seems Amazon readers prefer Joscelyn Godwin’s Athanasius Kircher’s Theatre of the World. It is a beautiful big coffee-table book filled with marvelously clear reprints of hundreds of amazing illustrations from Kircher’s books. Godwin explains that since most people today will have a hard time understanding the Christian and proto-scientific worldview and ideas by means of the texts of Kircher’s many works, the illustrations actually provide the best access to Kircher’s world for the twenty-first century reader. And for the most part he does an excellent job fulfilling that promise.

The book, for all its outstanding virtues, disappointed me in two ways, though. First, Godwin makes at least one mistake in explaining Kircher’s old-world view of the hierarchy of existence. In one diagram Kircher illustrates the inanimate, the sensitive, and the animate by means of three pictures, pictures which he lays out in a triangle and does not label, making it unclear from the text alone which picture goes with which concept. The pictures show – in alphabetical order – a cock and stag, a magnet’s needle, and a palm tree. Godwin’s explication links the inanimate with the needle, the animate to the animals, and the sensitive to the palm tree – the “sensitive palm tree,” he calls it. No one will argue that, of the three pictures, the magnet represents the inanimate. And the forms of the words sure suggest that the ANIMAls represent the ANIMAte. But are palm trees especially sensitive? I mean, do they cry when you insult them? If Godwin really knew the major sources of this Jesuit scholar (he repeatedly says that Jesuits were bound to accept Aristotelianism as interpreted by Aquinas), he would understand that these words represent levels of being. An iron needle has existence but, in spite of its movement, no life; it is inanimate. In addition to existence, a plant has life (Latin anima), but no sense of sight, hearing, etc. So it is animate but not sensitive. Animals, on the other hand, have existence and life and the five senses to boot, so they are sensitive. (Humans reach a fourth level of being, sharing existence, life, and senses with animals but adding reason. But rational creatures weren’t part of Kircher’s present purpose and so didn’t make it into the picture.) Now if Godwin got this central tenet of Aristotelianism wrong, what else, I wondered, did he misinterpret for me in illustrations of things that I knew less well?

I was disappointed in Kircher himself, as well, though. I thought he actually knew things in all the hot fields of study among seventeenth-century European intellectuals. But as Godwin explains (and here I have no reason to doubt him), all we can really say is that Kircher wrote about history, languages, astronomy, music, history of religion, ethics, geology, anthropology, mythology, and physics. What he didn’t know, he just made up. He claimed to have decoded the mystery of Egyptian hieroglyphics, but every obelisk ends up saying virtually the same thing in his “translations.” He drew pictures of many machines, only some of which he claimed to have built and seen working. He claimed to have a box of cards that wrote music automatically for the person who knew how to pull the cards out and interpret them, but he only showed samples of music that had been written this way (by whom?), not the system of cards itself.

So this dream I had enjoyed for thirty-five years, a dream of one day knowing about a fascinating genius that no one else knew about, my vision of having secret knowledge about a guy with secret knowledge, my hopes of being more entertaining at parties have all been dashed. I guess I’ll have to settle for Isaac Newton as my example of an intellectual paragon.

But actually, the Last Man Who Knew Everything was probably a woman who didn’t feel the need to tell the world about it.