Last Renaissance man or first Postmodernist? or both?

click for full portrait The German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher was born on 02 May 1601 (23 May 1602?) in Thuringia, and died 27 November 1680 in Rome.

Kircher, a rough contemporary of Descartes [31 Mar 1596 11 Feb 1650] and Galileo [15 Feb 1564 08 Jan 1642], was no ordinary man. He studied Egyptian hieroglyphs and helped Bernini [1598 1680] with his fountain in the Piazza Navona (1651). He made vomiting machines and eavesdropping statues. He transcribed bird song and wrote a book about musicology (still used in the 21st century). He taught Nicolas Poussin perspective and made a chamber of mirrors to drive cats crazy. He invented the first slide projector and had himself lowered into the mouth of Mount Vesuvius just as it was supposed to erupt. He proved the impossibility of the Tower of Babel and made a model of how the animals were arranged in Noah's Ark. And he collected the objects that filled the Museo Kircheriano, Rome's first wunderkammer or collection of curiosities.

Kircher's body is buried in Rome. His heart is buried three hours away, at a shrine for St. Eustace (which he founded). 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 [24 Aug 1899 14 Jun 1986] 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.

One of Kircher's most daring acts was to write out a long list of Egyptian kings, proving that Egypt existed long before the world was even supposed to have been created. In a dry and sneaky way, Kircher planted the idea that the literal understanding of the Bible was wrong. Kircher found himself imagining deep time, and that was just the kind of thing for which Giordano Bruno [1548 17 Feb 1600], the dogma-hating metaphysician, was burned at the stake.

Somehow Kircher not only survived but continued to tweak authority in the open air of Rome during the Counter-Reformation. He made translations of Egyptian hieroglyphs (later discovered to be completely fanciful). He guided Bernini in erecting an Egyptian obelisk at the Piazza Navona and may even have helped him with the hydraulics for his fountain, which alluded subversively to Kircher's own ideas about the earth's underground rivers.

All that may not sound so radical, but in 17th-century Rome it was an "in your face" thing to do.

The folks in Rome weren't the only ones Kircher's magic worked on. He had readers all over the world. Kircher was a celebrity in his own time, with a crazy fan club that extended all the way to the Americas. Kircher wrote some 60 volumes on astronomy, geology, magnetism, music and philology, in which he cited himself over and over again.

Kircher's books were the first great coffee-table books. People bought them to prove they were learned, to show that they were part of the international network of reading and writing. They didn't read so much as look at the pictures. One fan cut Kircher's picture out of a book and meditated on it to calm himself. Another fan kept sending Kircher chocolate in order to remain friends with him. Kircher's most ardent fan, a nun in Mexico City, decided to try to make herself over in the mold of Kircher's favorite goddess, Isis, the mother of gods, the ruler of heaven and earth. She also transformed Kircher's name into a verb. Kircherizing, she declared, is making connections among things.

Kircher's correspondence includes thousands of letters from 800 correspondents around the world writing in 30 different languages, including the universal language invented by Kircher himself.

Kircher thought up such crazy machines as an organ driven by a drum that reproduces bird song, a fountain that lifts up a genie, a vomiting lobster, and a statue that pronounces Delphic oracles?

What do these puzzling inventions have in common? Kircher used them to explore and explode boundaries.

Take Kircher's talking statue, which is even trickier than it seems. It has a hidden intercom system. By standing in another room and speaking through a tube connected to the statue, you can make it appear to speak. Or by putting your ear to the tube, you can overhear what the people in the other room with the statue are saying. Kircher was playing with deception and demonology, which was no laughing matter in the 17th century.

Kircher also played on the boundary of decency. He made a magnetic Jesus that would walk on water and embrace an image of Peter. And a startling number of his machines do nothing but wretch and vomit. Kircher was not beyond tormenting animals either. He planned a cat piano. If you struck a single key on this piano, a sharp spike would be driven into a cat's tail, causing it to yowl. By arranging many cats according to the pitch of their yowls, Kircher could make music. He produced a donkey choir on similar principles.

One of Kircher's most cunning inventions was a catoptric box or chamber of mirrors, which could be used in a number of ways. If you put a coin in, you could watch people grab for the illusionary riches. Or if you put a cat in, you could watch it chase the many reflections of itself until it would finally give up in a state of rage and indignation. Kircher made a spectacle of incivility, hoping that this theater of passions would reveal true natures.

Kircher did nothing less than set the terms for a new theory of knowledge, an epistemology based on deception and play. Imagine that kind of approach to science. It is a liberating way of thinking.


updated Friday 02-May-2003 4:03 UT