Sunday, April 14, 2013

Returning to the bosom of obedience

"Do you know what word the Jesuits use to describe one of their order who has renounced his vows? They say he has become a 'satellite,' by which they mean that despite himself he remains in orbit around the Society, in a trajectory in which the forces of repulsion are in equilibrium with an attraction which he will never manage to eliminate. One doesn't leave the Society, one moves a greater or lesser distance away without ceasing, basically, to belong to it. And I have to admit that there is some truth in that way of looking at things. One can escape from slavery, although with difficulty, but never from several years of domestication; and that is what it is: training the body and the mind with one aim in view, obedience. So to 'disobey,' you know . . . Under those conditions the word doesn't have much sense. All it expresses is a mere temporary rejection of the law, a digression to be condemned, true, but that is remissible within the body of obedience itself. And if you think about it, you will have to admit that it's more or less the same for everyone. Breaking a rule, all the rules, always comes back to choosing new rules, that is, to returning to the bosom of obedience. You have the feeling you are liberating yourself, profoundly changing your being, when all you have done is to change your master. You know, the snake biting its own tail."

— from Where Tigers Are at Home, by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès.

I have been very much enjoying Where Tigers Are at Home, but it is a dense read, and I'm short on time and patience this month, so I still feel as if I've barely made a dent in this massive novel, and I'm not anywhere close to having any idea how to go about synthesizing its varied parts.

The above passage is part of a modern-day exchange involving Eléazard, who is editing a strange biography. Woven throughout the novel are sections of the manuscript, chronicling the life of Athanasius Kircher.

Imagine my delight to discover that he really existed. Kircher is a colourful character with esoteric knowledge. The novel has been alluding to his interest in Egyptology and Sinology. His research methods are a little unorthodox, or at least uncomfortable for some more bookish sorts, as evidenced in his study of volcanoes. Also, he appears to be rather lucky, or watched over by a guardian angel.

He has been written about by Umberto Eco, is cited in connection with the Voynich Manuscript, and seems to enjoy something like cult status around the web:

400 years after his birth there is a revival of interest in Kircher, perhaps because Kircher can be considered as the premodern root of postmodern thinking. With his labyrinthine mind, he was Jorge Luis Borges before Borges. In the years before Kircher's death and for 300 years afterward, he was derided as a dilettante and crackpot. The rationalism and specialization of Descartes had taken over. But at the start of the 21st century Kircher's taste for trivia, deception and wonder is back.

Kircher's postmodern qualities include his subversiveness, his celebrity, his technomania and his bizarre eclecticism. In an age of polymaths, Kircher was perhaps the most polymathic of them all. Like other Jesuits, Kircher was a religious man and a world scholar trying to prove that Aristotle and the Bible were right. He knew Hebrew, Aramaic Coptic, Persian, Latin and Greek. But Kircher was also a wild man, he got away with all-out heresy.

Kircher was, of course, a Jesuit, and his definition of "obedience" was broad, yet exacting, or so Blas de Roblès makes it out to be. I do not yet know to what degree he became a satellite.

See also: Kircher's Cosmos: On Athanasius Kircher

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