The infinite hic et nunc of Giordano

Go to the table of contents —by André Ourednik Lire cette page en français

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The day after Ash Wednesday, with the smoke rising in spirals into the February sky, Giordano Bruno glared at the crowd through the haze irritating his eyes, hanging on as well as he could to the idea of the metempsychosis which had dragged him up on to this funeral pyre. One of Bruno’s thirty heresies, the infinite universe, was now unfolding above him, ready to receive his soul in search for other idiots to humiliate by his satiric expression. His hope of meeting noble minds up there withered in the silence imposed on his tongue by the wooden jaw. Cold sweat trickled down his forehead. He above all feared to meet other jealous beings of their own existence, so much that they would refuse to share it, much like the mass of pilgrims who had come to celebrate the Jubilee on the Field of Flowers, and who now gathered here to watch him perish. With each breath of this avid mass, the air was getting thinner. Their faces twisted with morbid curiosity. They formed a imposing wall of human flesh, slumped over by the feeling of all being right in comparison to this eccentric now burning in the up there.

Of what was free around him: only the heavens, which he himself stripped of this odd envelope adorned with stars invented by antique scholars, who thus imprisoned themselves by the power of their own minds into a prison whose walls glittered with frightful paradoxes. Even Copernicus still believed in all this. Only Bruno lifted his head towards a “vast ethereal region whose magnificent luminous spaces keep distance to each other and thus give space for life to spread.” He saw the heavens he had thus described in a text whose prescient title, “The banquet of ashes”, naturally came back to him that day.

This same text, read centuries later in a Swiss prison made the inmates angry at first. Taking a course in philosophy for reasons less ethereal than those for which the young woman who was teaching it, they ran up against the philosophical jargon that swirled out of this ravishingly pink mouth, remind them of all the rejections and misunderstandings they’ve experienced in their lives up to then. They scorned her, making jokes and dubious allusions. In her ears their voices mixed in with the echoes of others. She thought hearing her self-made uncles glooming around their peasant-stock family dinners never tired of asking why she studied a useless subject.

She could have read Thomas More, Seneca or Socrates with them, any one of these martyrs of reason whose heads piled up as the centuries went by. She had chosen Bruno on a whim out of a list of possibilities because she had never studied this text, and she saw therein the occasion to delve in to the matter and to combine doing so, who knows, her vague ideas for a doctoral thesis and her humanitarian ambitions of service to the community. The carceral pedagologues approved of her subject (she did, in fact, duly fill out all the forms concerning the organization of her course).

Among the students was a prisoner about 40 years old, always properly shaved, who angered her more than the others. He talked constantly, loudly, with a Slavic accent. She never knew that he was the only one truly interested in her course, so much that he continued to talk about Bruno’s multiple worlds with his cellmate long time after class was finished. “There are an infinite number of them outside these walls”, I swear, he swore with enthusiasm. Then he imagined what he would do there, free not only in his movements but above all freed of his own past, a daunting weight on his existence which clouded the memory of his friends on this earth. Bruno insisted that the multiple worlds never touched, and that it was better this way, that even on earth it was better that there be no commerce between the continents so that life, generously spread by God, could flourish everywhere in its own singularity. He abhorred the colonization of the Americas for this very reason. The need to travel so far seemed dubious to him. He figured that creatures appeared on each continent of each world in spontaneous generations, each time giving a new answer to the question of what existence means.

In the system of alchemy he studied, the four pure elements are mixed in an imperfect amalgam that make up our lives. At that moment a simple metamorphosis of these elements happened too close by Bruno, where flames rose from the wood, weighing down on his train of thought, not without cruelty, this huge fire that Anaximander said had created our world springing from a speck of dust hanging in space. Formed first on earth, it then took off to gather around it a ring of stars. This tale of creation inspired Aristotle, Hipparchus and Ptolemy when they conceived of a geocentric universe that the kind but careful Copernicus turned upside-down.

The Copernican trick consists in nothing but a geometric simplification, a way of predicting the trajectories of celestial bodies at the lowest cost. The sun, according to Copernicus, is not in the center because of a mechanical reason - a reason confined to nearby heavens, by a line of reasoning obsessed with the planets’ orbital movement, by the circles they describe and of which the sun, yes, truly the center or almost, because the true center of gravity between two bodies, one which orbits around the other, is in fact always a bit between the two, even if the bigger one comes closer. The same thing is true as the relation between human beings, which is never anchored in one or the other, but is formed equally between the two. For having thought “circle” Copernicus had seen neither the ellipse, nor the infinite. Giordano Bruno scorned these physical geometries of heaven and their arbitrary center. There are, in fact, other circles: other planetary orbits firstly, but also circles which have nothing to do with the movement of masses. For instance that circle—known by each and everyone one of us—which goes from every-day annoyances out to the edges of the universe. Its center is on this earth and there isn’t just one: there are as many centers of the universe as there are human spirits. The challenge is not to imagine one but to imagine all of them, in their unimaginable plurality. To keep them in mind at all times.

The task became impossible for Bruno on that February 20th. He found himself frightfully trapped in his hic et nunc, this infinitesimal point, his indivisible unit of substance of pain where the entire world collected. The existence of others, their joy, their suffering can only be imagined in context of one’s own. Believing in the plurality of beings plays out between solipsism and ecstasy. When you are not in sync with yourself you lose your center, when the space you occupy becomes impossible you flip to one or the other extreme, either falling back on your own consciousness of yourself or dissolving in to the world, incapable of thinking, incapable of putting a name on it. During Giordano Bruno last moments his here doubtlessly took on infinite proportions.

I am left with a vague memory of this place. Here we are sitting—it’s the end of September I believe—in front of a grim statue of a hooded monk in the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome, in the middle of a colorful swarming crowd of tourists to which I belong. An author of a Lonely Planet tourist guidebook open on my lap asks me “Do you see the Darth Vader-looking guy? —Well, that’s Giordano Bruno.”

I brake up laughing in spite of myself at this silly analogy. Luke Skywalker’s asthmatic father tracing one last ellipse with his laser sword, turns back, pulls on his black coat, and gathers us with one gesture in a world of shared references. A particular way to encourage people to go beyond their own horizons and send themselves off to the stars. Or to make fun of the tragedy of our strange times putting our tragedies on media sales-shelves until we’re driven sick. The statue’s shadow grows longer and falls upon the vegetable vendors’ stalls. We watched the sun passing behind the rooftops. In Bruno’s universe, the stars themselves are living yet immortal beings, like the planets that orbit around: “Fearing no obstacle, nor crystal nor glass, I slice the heavens… I go beyond the ethereal fields… I leave behind me what others see from afar…”.

—André Ourednik, writer and geographer

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