This post deals with some recent readings I’ve done on the subject of Giordano Bruno. It’s divided into three parts:
- Recent Readings covers the books I read, and my reaction to them, with a special emphasis on the system of artificial memory (that is, how Bruno modified the classical art of memory/memory palace system) that was one of Bruno’s biggest claims to fame in his own time.
- Side Note: The Temples? plays Six Degrees of Separation between Bruno and Jonathan Swift. I’ve narrowed it down to five degrees, too, which surprised me, but maybe it shouldn’t: Europe from 1580 to 1680 was a pretty small world, and highly literate Europe in that time was even smaller. Of course, five degrees of separation is pretty far when you’re talking about a century of radical cultural change.
- More Bruno? touches on some other Bruno-related books I’m hoping to look at eventually, when I can get my hands on copies.
If any of that interests you, read on!
So, I’ve been researching for a short story (squarely in the weird fiction subgenre) that I’ve been working on, about… well, about the Art of Memory, and Memory Palaces, and Giordano Bruno… sort of.
Chances are, if you know what I’m talking about, you know it either from watching Sherlock (the BBC’s latest treatment of the Doyle character):
… or, maybe, from Jonathan Spence’s book on Matteo Ricci, one of the first Jesuit missionaries to China (and the first Westerner to enter the Forbidden City):
I don’t care for Sherlock, and the Matteo Ricci book is one of the few by Spence I haven’t managed to get to, but I’d picked up a vague sense of the art of memory here and there. It’s present enough in our culture for that to be possible, even now. (It’s used by the people who compete for the best memory in the world, too, apparently: see this article for more on that.)
But the Art of Memory, though it’s mainly a curio today, has deep roots in our culture. In the Western world, at least, people have been trying to figure out how to build the equivalent of working databases inside their heads since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. The various transformations that this art has undergone over the millennia is the subject of Frances A. Yates’ 1966 study The Art of Memory, a stunning book that deserves all of the praise it has received over the decades.
Yates doesn’t just study how the art transformed, but also why and to what end the transformations were enacted. It’s a great example of how culture doesn’t just spontaneously happen: it gets shaped and squashed and pushed into new forms by the energies exerted upon it.
Most energetic of all the figures in Yates’ book is a figure well-known to us today, if poorly understood: Giordano Bruno. Well, Bruno is only dimly-understood by Yates, for that matter, though she is well aware of it—and aware that she, at least, understands him less dimly than many. Providing little more than a snapshot of his biography, she delves instead into his texts, turning up absurdities galore, and then doing the hard work of sorting out what in the hell any one of them might mean.
It’s a funny thing: today, we remember Bruno as being a martyr of science, or of free speech. We remember his claim that the universe was infinite, and that there was life on other worlds. But in his own time, a lot of Bruno’s writing and time was spent discussing memory. In fact, most of his books promote artificial memory systems—or, perhaps, aspects of a single artificial memory system disbursed in different chunks in different books, each published in different countries.
Which is to say that even though his murder by the Church was horrific, and insane, and awful—and so was the years he spent in prison—Yates makes a compelling argument that in reality, Bruno was less a martyr for science or reason, as Cosmos would have us remember him:
… and more of a fascinating kook in an age full of fascinating kookery, or maybe a martyr for free speech, where the speech being defended is crank loonery.
(Cosmos took a lot of liberties, too, it’s worth noting. One example is the scene where Bruno appears at Oxford: in fact, a lot of the mockery and rejection had to do with something simpler than doctrinal opposition… people thought Bruno’s accent was hilarious. (As is discussed in Rowland’s book—see below—Englishmen at Oxford in the 1580s spoke Latin with English pronunciation, while Bruno spoke it with an Italian accent. At Oxford, people straight-up mocked his accent… which says a lot about Britain in the 1500s.) Likewise, Bruno wasn’t burnt at the stake primarily for asserting the existence of other suns and worlds: he got into more trouble for cussing out Mary and calling god a “dog-fucked cuckold dog” in despair (and flipping the bird heavenward) during his long, tortuous imprisonment. For more on those liberties take, check out this article over at Motherboard.)
Ultimately, Yates’ ultimate explanation is convincing enough that I no longer think of Giordano Bruno as an emblem of the Church’s opposition to science: rather, it was the Church’s hatred of free speech that led to his execution. Bruno said a lot of things, some of them very disturbing to the Catholic church, but whatever he was, he wasn’t some proto-Seth Shostak: his assertions of the infinity of the universe, and of life on other planets, seems to have owed more to a kind of Hermetic mysticism than any scientific insight. Likewise, his claims that even all sinners (including Satan) would ultimately be redeemed angered the Roman Church, but probably have more to do with carefully concealed occult beliefs about magic and self-transformation.
In other words, Bruno—fascinating though he was—comes off in Yates’ account as Renaissance Magus, a sort of Helena Blavatsky figure of the late 1500s, wandering Europe and selling his teachings (in ever more bewildering and borderline insane form) in country after country. That sounds disrespectful, almost…
… until you look at the memory systems Bruno was writing about. They are, no kidding, outright bananas. Many of them involve such complex, overwrought, and highly abstract indexes or loci that one wonders how any human being could begin to use such a system for anything so workaday as remembering stuff. And, indeed, Yates suggests the inevitable conclusion: Bruno was selling a memory system, but not a rational one. Bruno’s system was sort of the infomercial version of the art of memory, wherein the student sets up the right astrological, symbological, numerological, and kabbalistic referential matrix inside one’s imagination, and somehow accesses the Platonic sphere, the world of pure forms, through the art of memory and through the act of recalling anything.
Fascinating idea, but, well, even if I was neurologically equipped to form pictures in my brain easily (it’s hard for me, believe it or not), I wouldn’t dare try to use such a system as Bruno presented: they seem unreasonably overwhelming, to the point where Yates even suspects Bruno’s doing it on purpose, as a form of cryptography: write enough scary stuff at first, and most people will never get to the parts of your book where the real (Hermetic magical) secrets are hidden in plain view.
The image of a figure wiring himself or herself up to the fundamental forces underlying the ultimate structure of the cosmos is compelling, of course, and the obvious question—the one I’m exploring in the fiction piece all this research is for—is what happens when it goes wrong? Assuming (for fictional purposes) that the supernatural side of all this actually works, there have to be loopholes in the system, and parasites in the cosmic ecology, after all.
Yates covers the art of memory stuff wonderfully, but I felt I needed some background on Bruno’s life, as well. For that, I read Ingrid D. Rowland’s Giordano Bruno: Philosopher / Heretic. It’s a serviceably engaging biography, though Rowland makes an effort to stay out of the arguments over Bruno’s philosophy that have erupted in the decades since Yates dubbed him a “magus of memory.” Rowland wants to give a more balanced account, and to give a sense of Bruno as a man, it seems. It does that, providing the reader with a pretty clear timeline for what Bruno did and wrote when and where, which is useful: for a man living in the later 1500s, he sure got around Europe a lot. What you gain in facts and digestibility, you lose in excitement: the book does what it says on the tin, but at no point did I feel particularly excited about anything I read in it. Rowland does explains how philosophy and heresy seem, for Bruno, to have been two sides of one coin, but there’s a matter-of-factness to it—and a sort of reverence—that leaves me feeling informed, rather than inspired.
It’s not that Rowland didn’t do a good job on the book, mind: she addresses things that Rowland doesn’t even really look at, like how asses were, symbolically, hugely important in Bruno’s writing, or how he also wrote comedic plays and highly combative dialogs that seemed to feature people he wanted to mock publicly. He even wrote a ribald, dialect-heavy stage drama in Italian and Latin during his exile in Paris, titled Candelaio, that seems (for English readers) to be most comparable to Shakespearean comedy. (More about that play here, though the website has some formatting issues.)
Which is to say, there’s a bit of everything about Bruno in here. It’s a very well-balanced treatment. Why it ends up being so much less compelling a vision of Bruno than Yates’s, I can’t say, though that does bring to mind my observation a while back about how balance can be balance and controlled imbalance can be more exciting. Sure, Bruno was a man, he was an iconoclast, he was a wanderer; he was a lech, he was quite a loudmouth and a shit-disturber, and he was incredibly thin-skinned. He didn’t fit into the world in any easy, comfortable way, and any time you try to define him as one thing, another side of him rises up to imperil that definition. Reading the book, though, we don’t really know what to do with him. In fact, I feel like I better understand the Inquisition’s issues with the man after reading Rowland: Bruno was a pain in the ass, prone to suicidally self-defeating decisions, and I kept wondering how in the world he managed to stay alive as long as he did… but I never felt quite excited about him as I read that balanced depiction, somehow.
It’s not that I reject Rowland’s version of the Bruno story: I feel Rowland did her research, and set out to tell a balanced version of the story. But the balance itself, I think, bleeds out a little of the fire of the tale. Somehow I find the unbalanced treatment in Yates’ telling more compelling. Once you’ve read Yates—and this isn’t even her main book on Bruno!—Rowland’s book feels like it’s supporting text, background to the kaleidoscopic insanity of Bruno’s actual writings.
I suppose it’s also that Yates is more willing to be critical of Bruno and skeptical of his claims: she writes of how horrifically over-the-top some of the schemata in Bruno’s memory system actually are, how unusable. She refers to one text’s explanation as a “barrage” of details, and she justifies including a diagram printed so small nobody will ever be able to examine and understand it on the basis that in any case “we shall never understand this thing in detail.” What’s the point? she seems to ask. Trust me, this stuff is bananas, she reassures you,. Interesting bananas, but don’t go trying this stuff at home, dear, she suggests, and you can’t help but feel she’s probably right.
Rowland, by comparison, approaches Bruno with a greater degree of reverence. The book isn’t exactly hagiography, but one senses a certain hesitation to display Bruno’s warts in full daylight. For example, Rowland makes no secret of the fact that Bruno was a hothead, but the real evidence for this mainly emerges in the last fifty pages of the book, when some of his religious cursing gets quoted back at him by the Inquisition (in the summary of the trial that survives), along with charges that illuminate his sexual proclivities, his abusive tongue, and more. There’s an assumption that since Bruno was some kind of great man, he couldn’t simultaneously be a gibbering kook, an A-level jerk, a sex maniac, or, dare I say it, kind of an asshole. Which is alright, I guess: it’s digestible, and I don’t think it really veers off into hagiography, either. It’s balanced, and respectful: it just wasn’t particularly interesting, at least to me.
But cast him in the right light (yes, a light that combines what Yates writes with Rowland’s account) and Bruno starts looking like a sort of proto-Aleister Crowley figure. Still, maybe that says more about me: maybe I’m the one hungry for sensationalist revisionism here. Still, one wishes Rowland’s book been just a little more willing to divulge a little more detail about Bruno’s human failings and how they, too, fed into his life, career, and thought.
Side Note: The Temples?
As I say, if you want a reliable source for tracking Bruno’s movements and publications, and a digestible overview, the Rowland is good. But it was the Yates that excited me.
Beyond that, there was one bit of trivia I ran across that confused me at first. Yates mentions a William Temple who was also an advocate of one form of the art of memory, who opposed Bruno’s system. A Provost of Trinity College in Dublin, and a former secretary to Sir Philip Sidney (who was known to have spent time with Bruno), this William Temple was a “Ramist,” meaning he preferred the system promoted by Pierre de la Ramée, known to the English as Pierre Ramus.
(As I understand it, Bruno’s system was seen as being at odds with Ramus’ for various reasons which essentially boil down to the latter being an essentially rationalist system of memorizing stuff, whose practitioners were deeply hostile towards the more occult, magically transformative approach of the former. Ramists even had begun starting to oppose the use of images as mnemonics. Which memory system ought to be used was a huge controversy in Elizabethan England—according to Yates, the competition between systems of the Art of Memory formed one of the great intellectual controversies of the era, something we today seem to have almost completely forgotten!)
Anyway, the name William Temple rang a bell, since one of Jonathan Swift’s first occupations was as the secretary to a Sir William Temple. (He took the job because Temple had connections and Swift thought he could get Temple to pull some strings and getting him a high church position in England. When Temple didn’t do so after a few years, Swift left and remained bitter forever after about it.)
Of course, it seemed unlikely that someone alive to debate Bruno’s writings prior to Bruno’s death (all the way back in the 1580s and 1590s) could also be alive to employ Jonathan Swift a century later, for a few years around 1689. Still, I thought, there must be a family relation, right?
Yes indeed! The former Sir William Temple, the Ramist logician of Trinity College who opposed Bruno, was the grandfather of the latter Sir William Temple, who employed Swift as a secretary. Swift studied at Trinity College, a century too late to meet the elder Temple, but perhaps he had a chance to see what the elder had written about Bruno’s memory system. Then again, the expansion of commercial bookselling and the sudden profusion of affordable reference books during that century between the two Temples and during Swift’s own lifetime—as well as Swift’s own bristling impatience with anything he saw as nonsense—probably make it unlikely he’d have been particularly interested in archaic systems of memory anyway.
Where Bruno could see memory as a key to magical power, and Ramus could see it as a powerful tool for study and rhetoric, a little more than a century later Alexander Pope was able (with typical snark) to instead cast memory as a “garbage dump.” Which, I suppose, underlines that books are not just a tool for remembering, but also a powerful effector of certain kinds of forgetting.
Anyway, I’ve read all the books I can about Bruno for now, and I’m fighting to get this project done by the deadline. Further reading about the man and his memory system will have to wait, though a few books have caught my attention:
- Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition is Frances A. Yates’s main book on Bruno, and nails down her understanding of him as a Renaissance magus-in-friar’s-clothing. I see it as doing for the Renaissance what Leon Surette tried to do for modernist literature: uncover the absolute centrality of occult ideas and preoccupations among a group of people we don’t usually think of in those terms. Yates’ work caught on, while Surette’s seems not to have. (It’s a little more embarrassing to admit T.S. Eliot and George Bernard Shaw and authors of that stature were hip-deep in the occult than it is to admit it of people like Newton, I guess.)
- Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair by John Bossy is probably flawed, it’s the prospect that he might have been engaged in espionage during his stay in England is nonetheless tantalizing. England was, after all, rife with religious conflict at the time—Catholic and Protestant factions were spoiling for a fight, despite Queen Elizabeth’s desire to tamp all that down—and apparently her secretary Francis Walsingham had countless agents spying on the Catholics throughout England. Bossy claims—on what’s been universally described as flimsy evidence—that Bruno was spying on the French embassy for Walsingham. The book is often described as something of a slog, but even so, I would love to get a look at it, if only because Bruno-as-religious-spy is another bizarre, fun facet to add to the man as a speculative, fictional figure.
- Bruno’s own Candelaio, which apparently is now available in English translation. Sounds like a pretty wild play!