Ben Carver (University of Exeter)
This post accompanies Ben Carver’s Journal of Victorian Culture article published (2013). It can be read in full here.
My article, ‘‘“A Gleaming and Glorious Star”: Rethinking History in the Plurality-of-Worlds Debate’ looks at how astronomical knowledge reframed debates about history in the nineteenth century. In 1817, Thomas Chalmers considered the possibility of other worlds and quoted from the Psalms for a modern age of astronomical knowledge in which orthodox Christian cosmogony seemed to be troubled in new ways:
When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that you art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou should visitest him?[i]
The rise of observational science and the obsolescence of scripture and, later, natural theology for an understanding of the physical world is a familiar narrative. Given the limited the capacities of astronomical observation in the nineteenth century, however, there was a phase of astronomical enquiry which brought analogy and imagination to bear upon the possibility of other inhabited worlds.
One quality of the debate in the mid- to late-nineteenth century was its extension of human knowledge and values into space. Figure 1 is a plate from James Nasmyth and James Carpenter’s study of the Moon (1874), in which they complemented the limited telescopic data of our nearest and most familiar celestial body with knowledge of how materials acquired their physical characteristics on Earth. In this case, the deterioration of our skin or the wrinkling of an apple provided, by analogy, an explanation of how the valleys and mountains of the Moon had formed through a process of aging and contraction of planetary surfaces. Their work consisted mostly of observational astronomy, but in a passage titled ‘A Flight of Fancy’ they indulged in more speculative flights of imagination: the ‘thoughtful telescopist’ would almost inevitably ‘identify himself so far with the object of his scrutiny, as sometimes to become in thought a lunar being’ and to fabulate scenes and topography: ‘Where the material eye is baffled, the clairvoyance of reason and analogy come to its aid.’[ii]This transportation worked both ways, for they made plaster of Paris mock-ups of lunar crags, which they they photographed and used as illustrations of the Moon itself.
The imaginative capacity to project oneself into space had historical dimensions: light was understood to be the transmission of the past at a finite speed, leading Felix Eberty to conceive of the cosmos as a total archive of human and other histories if one were able to adopt the appropriate viewing platform to view each and any event.[iii] Louis Auguste Blanqui took up the notion of space as criss-crossed by a mesh of gazes as different planetary civilizations stared expectantly or helplessly at each other’s victories or destruction in a pamphlet written in prison during the time of the Paris Commune. He, more intensely and despondently than any other writer, reflected on the fact of universal of repetition that seemed to be ‘just a simple conclusion based on spectral analysis and Laplace’s cosmogony’:[iv]
What I write at this moment in the dungeons of the Fort du Taureau I will have written for eternity, on a table, with a pen, in my clothes, in circumstances that are completely alike. And so it is, for each.[v]
This idea of eternal return pre-dated Nietzsche’s presentation of the concept in The Gay Science (1882) but is contemporary with his use of astral figures for exploring the effect of science upon history (described as the interposition of ‘a gleaming and glorious star’) in his first ‘Untimely Meditation’.[vi] Blanqui and Nietzsche, by imagining the infinities of space and time to be endlessly repetitive, both wished to turn the discoveries of astronomical science against the culture from which they emerged, to counter a complacent belief in historical progress and also the march into the heavens of bourgeois modernity.
[i] Thomas Chalmers, A Series of Discourses on the Christian Revelation: Viewed in Connection with the Modern Astronomy, 8th edn (Glasgow: John Smith and Son, 1817), p. 17.
[ii] James Nasmyth and James Carpenter, The Moon Considered as a Planet, a World and a Satellite (London: John Murray, 1916 ), p. 257.
[iii] Felix Eberty, The Stars and the Earth; Or, Thoughts Upon Space, Time, and Eternity (Boston, Mass.: Crosby, Nichols and Co., 1854 ), p. 16ff.
[iv] Auguste Blanqui, ‘Eternity According to the Stars’, CR: The New Centennial Review, trans. by Anderson Matthew H., 9 (2009 ), 3–60 (p. 58).
[v] Blanqui, p. 57.
[vi] Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, ‘On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life’, in Untimely Meditations, ed. by Charles Taylor, trans. by R. J. Hollingdale, Texts in German Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 57–125 (p. 77).