[This guest post by John Glassie is partially adapted from A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in a Time of Change, his new book about Athanasius Kircher, published by Riverhead Books.]
No one reads Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), a seventeenth-century Jesuit priest and polymath who wrote more than thirty big books on everything from optics, acoustics, linguistics, and mathematics to cryptology, Egyptology, numerology, and Sinology. Kircher was born on the eve of a municipal witch-hunt in what is now central Germany. As described in his memoirs, he then survived stampeding horses, a severe hernia, and the armies of an insane bishop, among other things, before showing up in Rome in 1633, just a few months after the Galileo trial. He lived there for more than forty years until his death.
Kircher wasn’t just a writer. He was an inventor of speaking statues, eavesdropping devices, and musical machines. (He is alleged to have invented an instrument called the cat piano. It’s probably more accurate to say he helped popularize the idea.) He was the curator of an early modern museum — a cabinet of curiosities featuring the tailbones of a mermaid and a brick from the Tower of Babel — at the Jesuit college in Rome. He collaborated with baroque master Gianlorenzo Bernini on two of his most famous sculptures. He pursued his interest in geological matters by climbing down inside the smoking crater of Mount Vesuvius. And he was perhaps the first to use a microscope to examine human blood.
The main reason no one reads him today is that he wrote everything, something like seven million words, in Latin. English translations are few and far between. Another important reason: a general sense that so much of what he wrote was wrong. It is true that many of Kircher’s ideas — secret knots of cosmic influence, universal sperm, the hollowness of mountains — didn’t stand the test of time. Kircher was steeped, like all of his contemporaries, in the magic and superstition of the pre-scientific period. But he was also a brilliant, extremely erudite man whose beautifully illustrated, encyclopedic works — books such as Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae (The Great Art of Light and Shadow), Musurgia Universalis (Universal Music-making), and Mundus Subterraneus (Subterranean World) — served as benchmarks of knowledge of the era. The great intellectuals of the day, people such as Descartes, Leibniz, Huygens, Boyle, and Hooke, all contended with his writings in one way or another.
Kircher’s prose, not exactly sparse, frequently aspired to a kind of mystic greatness. Why, for example, is the sky blue? Blue is “a color by which the uninterrupted sight may contemplate that most agreeable space of the heavens.” Light itself, meanwhile, “passes through everything” and “by so passing through, it shapes and forms everything; it supports, collects, unites, separates everything. All things which either exist or are illuminated or grow warm, or live, or are begotten, or freed, or grow greater, or are completed or are moved, it converts to itself.”
Kircher’s poetical tendencies found their fullest expression in his erroneous “translations” of Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions. Oedipus Aegyptiacus (Egyptian Oedipus), his 2,000-page tome on the subject, was published in the early 1650s after two decades of work. According to one of Kircher’s later interpretations, a certain section of the Egyptian obelisk now in the Piazza della Minerva in Rome has to do with the way the
supreme spirit and archetype infuses its virtue and gifts in the soul of the sidereal world, that is the solar spirit subject to it, from whence comes the vital motion in the material or elemental world, and abundance of all things and variety of species arises.
Perhaps there’s no surprise here: it was during his own lifetime that Kircher began to develop his reputation as an author who couldn’t always be trusted. Descartes, for example, was vexed by Kircher’s claim in Magnes, sive de Arte Magnetica (The Magnet, or the Art of Magnetics) of 1641 that a sunflower seed could drive a clock — based on its innate sensitivity to the magnetic attraction of the Sun. The notion was absurd, but not so absurd that that Descartes didn’t try it himself. “I had enough free time to do the experiment,” he wrote in a letter, “but it didn’t work.”
Exaggerations and even fabrications notwithstanding, Kircher wrote only one book that could rightly be called a work of fiction, and that was Itinerarium Exstaticum (Ecstatic Journey) of 1656. At the time, Kircher wanted to enter the discussion about all the new astronomical observations afforded by the telescope, but an insufficiently critical treatment of the new astronomy could get you in trouble with the Inquisition, if not burned at the stake. So he wrote it as work of the imagination — the story of a cosmic dream in which an angel named Cosmiel leads Kircher’s fictional stand-in, a priest named Theodidactus (“taught by God”), on an edifying flight through the heavens.
There isn’t much doubt, by the way, that Kircher privately believed in the Copernican model of the universe. But his opinion wasn’t based solely on the astronomical evidence. A sun-centered system also made much more mystical sense. “The whole mass of this solar globe is imbued . . . with a certain universal seminal power,” Cosmiel explains about the Sun. It “touches things below by radiant diffusion.”
Whatever else may be said about it, Ecstatic Journey represented a step toward modern science fiction. In fact, although Kircher’s scientific stature largely faded, his work influenced many writers and artists, including Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, Marcel Duchamp, and Giorgio De Chirico.
In Poe’s story “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” the narrator comes face to face with a mile-wide vortex in a northern sea, and is understandably awe-struck. “Kircher and others imagine that in the centre of the channel of the Maelström is an abyss penetrating the globe, and issuing in some very remote part,” he says. “This opinion … was the one to which, as I gazed, my imagination most readily assented.”
• Scans of Kircher’s books offered online by various libraries and institutions. Google Books and the Internet Archive provide access to many scans as well.
• John E. Fletcher and Elizabeth Fletcher. A Study of the Life and Works of Athanasius Kircher “germanus Incredibilis”: With a Selection of His Unpublished Correspondence and an Annotated Translation of His Autobiography. Leiden: Brill, 2011.
• Athanasius, Kircher, China Illustrata. translated by Charles D. Van Tuyl from the 1677 original Latin edition. Muskogee, Okla: Indian University Press, Bacone College, 1987.
• Athanasius Kircher, The Vulcano’s: Or, Burning and Fire–vomiting Mountains, Famous in the World: With their Remarkables. Collected for the most part out of Kircher’s Subterraneous World (1669).
• Daniel Stolzenberg. Egyptian Oedipus: Athanasius Kircher and the Secrets of Antiquity. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013.