Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Literary Galileo . . .

Ruggiero Rescuing Angelica
(Image from Wikipedia)

Galileo was often jousting quixotically with Ptolemy's epicyclical windmills, various sly coiling serpents, and other antiquated revolutionary objects in his guise as knight errant, and the historian of science John Heilbron notes that in Observations on Sunspots, Galileo employs "a far-fetched allusion to the stars" to adopt the role of the knight Ruggiero, a Saracen (i.e., Muslim) convert to Christianity in Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso who rescued Angelica from a dragon, I gather, and gains her Ring of Reason, though I've not read much of Ariosto's masterpiece and am not certain of these details, nor of their order (cf. Heilbron, Galileo, pages 191-192).

That ring, anyway, would perhaps have served Galileo well in his intellectual jousts . . . except that reason was hardly sufficient in a time when science wasn't supported by scientific institutions, and that Galileo thought of himself less as a 'scientist' anyway than as a philosopher, and as a poet.

By the time Galileo wrote his works The Assayer (1623) and Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems (1632), he was even less interested in writing science -- though he was also doing that -- than in having a splashy literary impact. Heilbron explains the 'nonscientific' character of these two 'literary' works by Galileo:
And what shall we make of the extravagance of the Pisan Drop, the creation point of the planets, said to answer perfectly to calculations? Or of the bizzarria (oddity), to which we will return, that a freely falling body does not accelerate but only changes its direction of motion? Salviati [i.e., Galileo] takes the trouble to demonstrate this bizzarria and Sagredo accepts it as a marvel. Modern readers also wonder at it. Was Galileo, the master of experiment, the facile geometer, the slayer of Aristotle, dishonest, as Arthur Koestler would have him, or just a charlatan, as Paul Feyerabend preferred? Neither. Galileo as stage manager is the creator of ingenious fancies, mathematical caprices, an epic poem, a set of stories. Sagredo asks Salviati to describe the curve of a freely falling body in space; the masked Galileo replies with the clever nonsensical bizzarria; nature too is part of the masquerade. Galileo's comedic talent reached full strength in the barbs, jokes, word plays, paradoxes, irony, satire, and gross caricature of the Assayer. As if to signal its epistemological level, Galileo inserted more quotations from Ariosto than he did in any other of his books. (Heilbron, Galileo, pages 230-231)
Heilbron's point is that Galileo wasn't writing science as we understand it today. He was marshalling the power of rhetorical techniques and poetical figures, along with accepted literary convention, to overwhelm his opponents, all of which helps explain the 'martyr' of early modern science who often doesn't seem very scientific to us now.

He does, however, come across as more interesting, partly because his clever wit made him many powerful enemies and thereby undermined the very cause for which he jousted . . .

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At 5:31 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

Ruggiero (...) rescued Angelica from a dragon, and gains her Ring of Reason

The beast was an "orc", more precisely. A sea monster whose features and place off Island, as decribed by Ariosto (not by the ancient Greek writers), perfectly fit the prehistoric reptile Mosasaurus, whose fossils however were discovered only two centuries later.

As for the ring, maybe Galileo was allegorizing, since in the Orlando Furioso it is said to be the Ring of (king) Gyges, rather than of Reason. It made you invisible, and could undo any kind of magic delusion.

At 5:38 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'll have to read Ariosto someday . . . if I can ever find the time.

I'm sure that familiarity with Ariosto's poem would enhance my understanding of Milton.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:45 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

familiarity with Ariosto's poem would enhance [the] understanding of Milton

Oh yeah, much, but--- Tasso would even more than that--- if somebody here happened to follow the column The TeaM ;-)

At 5:49 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, I'm learning from your regular e-list postings on that.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:54 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

Never mind, Jeffery, I was just joking: I think you are one of the readers I can most rely on.

- - -

... and not only as a reader: the Emanations texts are great fun to illustrate! Quirky sci-fi, my favorite one! Thanks for inviting me into the team.

At 5:59 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, I depend on you (and Wikipedia) since I've not read much Italian literature other than Dante.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:05 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

I've not read much Italian literature other than Dante

Well, you're ahead of many Italians.

Btw, on Febr. 20 I will lecture on Dante and Salvador Dali
... after (O.T.) remarrying my wife on the 19th, i.e. in the church; in the City hall, it already happened in 2006.

At 6:09 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...


Jeffery Hodges

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