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CHAPTER 24




Dialogues of the


Maximum Systems

what follows is of uncertain nature: I am not sure if it is a chronicle of dialogues that occurred between Roberto and Fa­ther Caspar, or if it is a series of notes that the former took at night to rebut the latter the following day. In any case, it is obvious that for all the time he remained on board with the old man, Roberto wrote no letters to the Lady. And similarly, from his nocturnal existence he was moving, little by little, to a diurnal one.

For example, until now he had looked at the Island early in the morning, and then for only very brief periods, or else at evening, when the outlines and distances lost definition. But now at last he saw that the flux and reflux, the play of the tides, which for a part of the day brought the waters to lap the strip of sand that separated them from the forest and for the rest of the day made them withdraw, revealed a rocky expanse that, as Father Caspar explained, was the last outcrop of the coral reef.

Between the flux, or the afflux, and the reflux, his com­panion explained, about six hours go by, for such is the rhythm of the sea’s respiration under the influence of the moon. Not as some had believed in ancient times, attributing this movement of the waters to the breathing of a monster of the deep, to say nothing of that French gentleman who de­clared that even if the earth does not move from west to east, it still pitches, so to speak, from north to south and vice versa, and in this periodic pitching it is natural that the sea should rise and fall, as when one shrugs and his cassock moves up and down his neck.

Mysterious, this problem of the tides, because they vary according to the lands and the seas, and the position of the shores varies with respect to the meridians. As a general rule during the new moon, the high water comes at midday and midnight, but then the phenomenon is later each day by four-fifths of an hour, and the man who does not know this, seeing that at such-and-such an hour of such-and-such a day a cer­tain channel is navigable, ventures into it at the same hour the next day and runs aground. Not to mention the currents that the tides provoke, and some of them are such that at the moment of reflux a ship cannot make it to shore.

And further, the old man said, for whatever place you may be in, a different calculation is necessary, and Astronomical Tables are required. He tried, indeed, to explain to Roberto those calculations—that is, how you must observe the delay of the moon, multiplying the days of the moon by four and then dividing by five, or else the reverse. The fact is that Ro­berto understood none of it, and we shall see later how this slackness of his led to serious trouble. He confined himself merely to being amazed each time the meridian line, which should have run from one end of the Island to the other, sometimes passed through the sea, sometimes through the rocks, and he never knew which was the right moment. Also because, flux or reflux as the case might be, the great mystery of the tides mattered far less to him than the great mystery of that line, beyond which Time went backwards.

We have said that he had no particular inclination not to believe what the Jesuit was telling him. But often he enjoyed provoking him to make him say more, and then Roberto would resort to the whole repertory of argumentation he had picked up in the gatherings of those fine gentlemen that the Jesuits considered if not emissaries of Satan, at least topers and debauchees who had made the tavern their lyceum. Finally, though, it became hard for Roberto to reject the physics of a master who, adhering to the principles of that same physics, was teaching him how to swim.


His first reaction, with his shipwreck still impressed on his mind, was to declare that nothing on earth could induce him to resume contact with the water. Father Caspar pointed out that during that same wreck, it was the water that had sup­ported him—a sign therefore that it was an affectionate and not a hostile element. Roberto replied that the water had sup­ported not him but the plank to which he had been bound, and it was then easy for Father Caspar to point out to him that if the water had borne a piece of wood, an entity without a soul, tending to the Abyss as anyone knows who has thrown a stick from a height, all the more was water suited, then, to bear a living being disposed to enhance the natural tendency of liquids. Roberto should know, if he had ever flung a dog into the water, that the animal, moving its paws, not only remained afloat but quickly returned to shore. And, Caspar added, perhaps Roberto did not know that if infants barely a few months old were put into water, they were able to swim, for nature has made us swimmers like every animal. Unfor­tunately, of all animals, we are the most inclined to prejudice and error, and therefore, as we grow up, we acquire false no­tions as to the virtues of liquids, and thus fear and mistrust cause us to lose our inherent gift.

Roberto then asked if he, the reverend father, had learned to swim, and the reverend father replied that he did not claim to be better than many others who had shunned good things. He had been born in a town very distant from the sea, and he had set foot on a ship only at an advanced age, when—he said—his body was nothing but a withering of the cutis, a dim­ming of the sight, a besnotting of the nose, a whispering of the ears, a yellowing of the teeth, a stiffening of the spine, a wattling of the throat, a gouting of the heels, a spotting of the complection, a whitening of the locks, a creaking of the tibias, a trembling of the fingers, a stumbling of the feet, and his breast was all one purging of catarrhs amid the coughing of phlegm and the spitting of sputum.

But, as he quickly clarified, his mind being keener than his carcass, he knew what the sages of Greece had long since discovered, namely, that if you immerge a body in a liquid, this body receives support and impulse upwards, through all the water it displaces, as water seeks to reoccupy the space from which it has been exiled. And it is not true that this body floats or does not according to its form, and the ancients were mistaken in saying that a flat thing stays up and a pointed thing sinks; if Roberto were to try to thrust something by force into water, say, a bottle (which is not flat), he would perceive the same resistance as if he had tried to thrust a tray.

It was a question therefore of acquiring familiarity with the element, whereupon everything would take its course. And he proposed that Roberto lower himself along the rope ladder hanging from the prow, known also as Jacob’s ladder, but for his own serenity he should remain tied to a rope, or hawser, or cord as might be, long and sturdy, bound fast to the bul­warks. Then if he became afraid of drowning, he had only to pull the rope.

It is hardly necessary to say that this master of an art he had never practiced had not taken into consideration an infin­ity of concomitant accidents, ignored also by the wise men of ancient Greece. For example, to allow Roberto freedom of movement, Caspar supplied him with a rope of notable length, and at the first trial, like every aspirant swimmer, Roberto ended up below the surface of the water, then had difficulty pulling, and before the halyard drew him out, he had already swallowed enough salt water to make him want to renounce, on that first day, any further attempt.

But this was, all the same, an encouraging start. Having descended the ladder and barely touched the water, Roberto realized that the liquid was pleasant. Of the wreck he had a chill and violent memory, and the discovery of a tepid sea invited him to proceed further with the immersion until, never letting go of the ladder, he allowed the water to reach his chin. In the belief that this was swimming, he then wal­lowed there, abandoning himself to memories of Parisian luxury.

Since his landing on the ship he had performed, as we have seen, some ablutions, like a kitten licking its fur, but dealing only with face and pudenda. For the rest—and as he grew increasingly obsessed with his hunt for the Intruder— his feet became smeared with the dregs of the hold, and sweat glued his clothes to his body. Upon contact with this tepor that washed his body together with his clothing, Roberto re­membered the time he discovered, in the Palais Rambouillet, two separate tubs for the use of the marquise, whose concern for the care of her body provided a subject of conversation in a society where washing was not frequent. Indeed, the most refined of her guests believed that cleanliness consisted not in the use of water but in the freshness of one’s linen, which it was a sign of elegance to change often. And the many scented essences with which the marquise stunned them were not a luxury but, rather—for her—a necessity, a defense erected between her sensitive nostrils and their greasy odors.

Feeling himself more a gentleman than he had been in Paris, Roberto, clinging to the ladder with one hand, with the other rubbed shirt and trousers against his dirty body, while scratching the heel of one foot with the toes of the other.

Father Caspar observed him with curiosity but remained silent, wanting Roberto to make friends with the sea. Still, fearing that Roberto’s mind might stray in this excessive con­cern for his body, the Jesuit tried to distract him. He talked to him of the tides and the attractive powers of the moon.

He tried to make Roberto appreciate a proposition that had something incredible about it: if the tides respond to the sum­mons of the moon, they should be present when the moon is present, and absent when the moon is on the other side of our planet. But, quite to the contrary, flux and reflux continue on both parts of the globe, as if pursuing each other every six hours. Roberto lent an ear to this talk, but he was thinking more about the moon—as he had done all those past nights —than about the tides.

He asked how it is that we see always only one face of the moon, and Father Caspar explained that it turns like a ball held on a string by an athlete who makes it revolve, but who can see nothing but the side towards himself.

“But,” Roberto rebutted, “this face is seen both by the Indians and the Spaniards; whereas on the moon the same thing is not true with respect to their moon, which some call Volva and which is our earth. The Cisvolvians, who live on the face turned towards us, see the earth always, whereas the Transvolvians, who live in the other hemisphere, are unaware of it. Imagine if they were to move to this side! Think of their shock on seeing at night a shining circle fifteen times bigger than our moon! They would expect it to fall down on them at any moment, as the ancient Gauls always feared the sky would fall on their head! To say nothing of those who live right on the border between the two hemispheres, seeing Volva always on the point of rising at the horizon!”

The Jesuit made some ironic and arrogant remarks about the supposed inhabitants of the moon—an old wives’ tale— because all celestial bodies do not share the nature of our earth and are therefore not suited to supporting a living population, so it is best to leave those places to the angelic hosts, who can move spiritually in the crystal of the heavens.

“But how could the heavens be of crystal? If that were so, the comets passing through would shatter them.”

“But who ever told you the comets pass in the ethereal regions? The comets pass in the sublunary region, and here we have air, as you can see for yourself.”

“Nothing moves that is not body. The heavens move. Hence they are body.”

“In order to talk nonsensical, you even become Aristote­lian. But I know why you say this. You want air to be also in the heavens, then there is no more differentia between above and below, all turns, and the earth moves its derriere like a strumpet.”

“But we see every night the stars in a different posi­tion....”

“Richtig. De facto they move.”

“Wait. I have not finished. You would have the sun and all the stars, which are enormous bodies, make a revolution around the earth every twenty-four hours, and the fixed stars, or, rather, the great ring in which they are set, should travel more than twenty-seven thousand times two hundred million leagues? For this is what would have to happen if the earth did not make a complete revolution in twenty-four hours. How can the fixed stars move so fast? Their inhabitants would be dizzy!”

“If they have any inhabitants. But this is petitio principii.”

And he pointed out that it was easy to invent an argument in favor of the movement of the sun, whereas there were far more arguments against the movement of the earth.

“I know well,” Roberto replied, “that Ecclesiastes says ‘terra autem in aeternum stat, sol oritur,’ and that Joshua stopped the sun and not the earth. But you yourself have taught me that if we take the Bible literally, there would have been light before the creation of the sun. So the Holy Book must be read with a grain of salt, and even Saint Augustine knew that it often speaks more allegorico....”

Father Caspar smiled and reminded him that the Jesuits had long ago given up defeating their adversaries with Scrip­tural cavils; now they used incontrovertible arguments based on astronomy, on sense, on mathematical and physical reasons.

“What reasons, ad exemplum?” Roberto asked, scraping away a bit of grease from his belly.

“Ad exemplum,” Father Caspar replied, irked, with the powerful Argument of the Wheel: “Now you listen me. Think a wheel, all right?”

“I am thinking a wheel.”

“Bravo, so you can also think, instead of being Barbary ape and repeating what you heard in Paris. Now think that this wheel is stuck on a pivot, like it is a potter’s wheel, and you want to turn this wheel. What do you do?”

“I put my hands on it, perhaps just one finger on the rim of the wheel, I move my finger, and the wheel turns.”

“You do not think you had done better to take the pivot, in the center of the wheel, and try to make it turn?”

“No, it would be impossible....”

“So! And your Galileans or Copernicans want to have the sun in the center of the universe fixed and making move all the great circle of the planets around, instead of thinking the movement from the great circle of the heavens comes, while the earth remains still in the center. How could Dominus Deus put the sun in the lowest place and the earth, corruptible and dark, among the luminous and aeternal stars? Understand your error?”

“But the sun has to exist at the center of the universe! The bodies in nature need this radical fire, and it must inhabit the heart of the realm to meet the needs of all the parts. Must not the cause of generation be set in the center of everything? Has nature not placed the seed in the genitals, halfway between the head and the feet? And are the seeds not in the center of the apple? And is the pit not in the middle of the peach? And so the earth, which needs the light and heat of that fire, moves around it, to receive the solar virtue in all its parts. It would be ridiculous to believe the sun turns around a point that is of no use to it, it would be like saying, on seeing a roast lark, that to cook it you made the hearth revolve around it.”

“Ah so? Then when the bishop moves around the church to bless it with the thurible, you would have the church re­volve around the bishop? The sun can turn because it is of igneous element. And you well know that fire flies and moves and is never still. Have you ever seen the mountains move? Then how does the earth move?”

“The sun’s rays, striking it, make it turn, as you can make a ball spin by striking it with your hand, and even by breathing on it if the ball is little.... And finally, would you have God make the sun race, when it is four hundred thirty-four times bigger than the earth, only to ripen our cabbages?”

To give the greatest theatrical emphasis to this last objec­tion, Roberto wanted to point his finger at Father Caspar, so he extended his arm and pushed with his foot to make himself good and visible, a bit farther from the side of the ship. In this movement his other hand released its grip, his head moved back, and Roberto finished underwater, unable to make use of the rope, now too slack, to return to the surface, as planned. He then behaved like all threatened with drowning; he made uncoordinated movements and swallowed even more water, until Father Caspar tautened the rope properly, pulling him back to the ladder. Roberto climbed up, vowing he would never go down there again.

“Tomorrow you try again. Salt water is like a medicine, do not think it was gross harm,” Caspar consoled him on deck. And as Roberto made peace with the sea, fishing, Caspar ex­plained to him how many and what advantages they would both derive from his arrival on the Island. It was not even worth mentioning the recovery of the boat, with which they would be able to move as free men from ship to shore; they would further have access to the Specula Melitensis.

From Roberto’s report, we must infer that this apparatus exceeded his powers of comprehension—or that Father Cas­par’s account of it, like so many other speeches of his, was made up of ellipses and interjections, as the father spoke now of its form, now of its function, and now of the Idea that governed it.

And the Idea was not even his. He had learned of the Specula leafing through the papers of a deceased brother, who in his turn had learned of it from another brother who during a voyage to the most noble island of Malta, or Melita, had heard praise of this instrument constructed by order of the Most Eminent Prince Johannes Paulus Lascaris, Grand Master of the famous Knights.

What the Specula was like, no one had ever seen: the first brother left only a booklet of sketches and notes, which for that matter had now disappeared. And, on the other hand, Caspar complained, that same opuscule “was brevissimamente scripto, con nullo schemate visualiter patefacto, nulle tabule nee rotule, und nulla specialis instructione.”

On the basis of that meager information Father Caspar, in the course of the long voyage on the Daphne, setting the ship’s carpenters to work, had redesigned or else misconstructed the various elements of the technasma, mounting them then on the Island and measuring, in situ, its countless virtues—and the Specula must truly have been an Ars Magna in flesh and blood, or, rather, in wood, iron, canvas, and other substances, a kind of Megahorologium, an Animated Book capable of revealing all the mysteries of the Universe.

It was—Father Caspar said, his eyes glowing like car­buncles—a Unique Syntagma of Novissimi Instrumenti Physici et Mathematici, “in rotas and cycles artfully disposed.” Then he drew on the deck or in the air with his finger, and bade Roberto to think of a circular first element, a kind of base or foundation which showed the Immobile Horizon, with the Rhomb of the Thirty-two Winds and all the Ars Navigatoria with forecasts of every storm. “For the Median Section,” he then added, “built on this foundation, imagine a Cube with five sides—can you imagine?—nein, not six, the sixth rests on the foundation so you do not see him. In the first side of the Cube (id est the Chronoscopium Universalis) you can see eight wheels arranged in perennial cycles represent the Calendars of Julius and of Gregory, and when recur the Sundays and the Epacts, and the Solar Circle, and the Moveable and Paschal Feasts, and novilunes and plenilunes, quadratures of the sun and moon. In the secundum Cubilatere, id est das Cosmigra-phicum Speculum, in primo loco occurs a Horoscopium with which given the hour of Melita present, what hour it is in the rest of our globe can be found. And you see a Wheel with two planispheres: one displays and teaches all the scientia of the Primum Mobile, and the second the doctrine of the Octava Sphaera and the fixed stars, and motion. And the fluxo et refluxo, quid est decrease and increase of the seas, from the movement of the moon stirred in all the Universe....”

This second was the most thrilling side. Thanks to it the observer could know that Horologium Catholicum mentioned before, with the hour at the Jesuit missions on every meridian; and further, it could also perform the functions of a good astrolabe, in that it revealed as well the quantity of the days and the nights, the height of the sun, the Umbrae Rectae et Versae, the altitude of the stars above the horizon, the quantity of crepuscules, the culmination of the fixed stars by year, month, and day. And it was through repeated experimentation here that Father Caspar had arrived at the certitude finally of being on the antipodal meridian.

There was then a third side that contained in seven united wheels all Astrology, all the future eclipses of the sun and moon, all the Zodiacal figures for the times of agriculture, medicine, and the art of navigation, along with the twelve signs of the Celestial Houses, and the physiognomy of the natural things that depend from each sign, and the corre­sponding House.

I lack the courage to summarize all of Roberto’s summary, so I will only mention the fourth side, which supposedly ex­pounded all the wonders of botanical medicine, spagyrical, chemical, and hermetical, with simple and compound medi­cines derived from mineral or animal substances, and the “Alexipharmaca, attractive, lenitive, purgative, mollificative, di­gestive, corrosive, conglutinative, aperitive, calefactive, infrigi-dative, mundificative, attenuative, incisive, soporative, diuretic, narcotic, caustic, and comfortative.”

I cannot explain what was on the fifth side, that is, the roof of the cube parallel to the line of the horizon, which was apparently arranged like a heavenly vault. But there is mention also of a pyramid, whose base could not have coincided with the cube’s, otherwise it would have covered the fifth side; more likely, it covered the whole cube like a tent—but then it would have to be of transparent material. It is certain that the pyramid’s four faces were meant to represent the four regions of the world, and the alphabets for each of them and the languages of the various peoples, including elements of the primitive Adamic language, the hieroglyphics of the Egyptians, and the characters of the Chinese and the Mexicans. Father Caspar describes it as a “Sphynx Mystagoga, an Oedipus Aegyp-tiacus, a Monad leroglyphica, a Clavis Convenientia Lin-guarum, a Theatrum Cosmographicum Historicum, a Sylva Sylvarum of every alphabet natural and artificial, an Archi-tectura Curiosa Nova, a Combinatory Lamp, Mensa Isiaca, Metametricon, Synopsis Anthropoglottogonica, Basilica Cryp-tographica, an Amphitheatrum Sapientiae, Cryptomenesis Patefacta, Catoptron Polygraphicum, a Gazophylacium Ver-borum, a Mysterium Artis Steganographicae, Area Arithmo-logica, Archetypon Polyglotta, an Eisagoge Horapollinea, Congestorium Artificiosae Memoriae, Pantometron de Furtivis Literarum Notis, Mercurius Redivivus, and an Etymologicon Lustgartlein!”

The fact that all this learning was fated to remain their private appanage, condemned as they were never again to find their way home, did not bother the Jesuit, either because of his faith in Providence or because of his love of knowledge as an end unto itself. But what strikes me at this point is that Roberto, too, could not conceive a single realistic thought, and he was beginning to consider his landing on the Island as the event that would give meaning, forever, to his life.

In the first place, though he cared little about the Specula, he was overcome by the thought that this oracle could tell him where the Lady was and what she was doing at that mo­ment. Proof that to a lover, even one distracted by useful corporal exercises, it is futile to speak of Sidereal Nuncios, for he seeks always and only news of his beautiful suffering and his dear grief.

Further, whatever his swimming master may have said to him, he dreamed of an Island that did not loom before him in the present, where he also was, but instead by divine decree rested in the unreality, or the non-being, of the day before.

What he thought of as he challenged the waves was the hope of reaching an Island that had been yesterday, and of which the symbol seemed to him the Orange Dove, beyond any capture, as if it had fled into the past.

Roberto was still driven by obscure concepts; he sensed he wanted something that was not Father Caspar’s goal, but he was not yet sure what it was. And his uncertainty must be understood, because he was the first man in human history to be offered the possibility of swimming twenty-four hours into the past.

In any case he was convinced that he really had to learn to swim, and we all know that a single firm motive helps vanquish many fears. Hence we find him trying again the next day.


In this phase, Father Caspar explained, Roberto should let go of the ladder and move his hands freely, as if following the rhythm of a band of musicians, and impart a lazy motion to his legs. The sea then would support him. The Jesuit induced him to try first with the rope taut, then he slackened the rope without saying anything, or, rather, announced what he had done only when his pupil gained confidence. True, Roberto, at that announcement, immediately felt himself sink, but as he shouted, he kicked his legs instinctively, and found himself again with his head in the air.

These attempts lasted a good half-hour, and Roberto re­alized that he could keep himself afloat. But as soon as he tried to move with greater exuberance, he flung his head back. Father Caspar encouraged him to follow that inclination and let himself go, with his head thrown back as far as possible, the body rigid and slightly arched, arms and legs extended as if he lay on the circumference of a circle; then he would feel himself supported as if by a hammock, and he could remain there for hours and hours, even sleep, kissed by the waves and by the slanting rays of the setting sun. How did Father Caspar know all this, never having swum himself? Through Theoria Physico-Hydrostatica, he said.

It was not easy to find the proper position; Roberto risked strangling himself with the rope, belching and sneezing; but apparently at a certain point he found his equilibrium.

For the first time Roberto felt the sea as a friend. Following Father Caspar’s instructions, he also began moving his arms and legs; he slowly raised his head, threw it back, became accustomed to having water in his ears, tolerated its pressure. He could even talk, shouting to be heard up on deck.

“If now you wish, you turn over,” at a certain point Caspar told him. “You lower the right arm, as if it hangs under your body, you lift slightly your left shoulder, and ecce you have belly down.”

He did not specify that in the course of this maneuver Roberto should hold his breath, since he would find himself with his face in the water, and in a water that wants nothing more than to invade the nostrils of the intruder. So, out of ignoratio elenchi on Father Caspar’s part, Roberto drank another pitcher’s worth of brine.

But by now he had learned how to learn. Two or three times he tried turning over, and he grasped a principle, indis­pensable to every swimmer, namely, when you have your head in the water, you must not breathe—not even with your nose; indeed you must snort hard, as if to expel from the lungs even the little bit of air that you need so badly. Which seems an intuitive thing, and yet it is not, as this story makes clear.

He had further realized that it was easier for him to lie supine, face in the air, than prone. To me the opposite seems true, but Roberto had learned that way first, and for a day or two he continued in that attitude. Meanwhile he dialogued on the Maximum Systems.

He and the Jesuit had resumed their debate about the movement of the earth, and Father Caspar had engaged him in the Argument of the Eclipses. Removing the earth from the center of the world and putting the sun in its place, you must set the earth either below the moon or above the moon. If you put it below, there can never be an eclipse of the sun, because the moon, being above the sun or above the earth, can never come between them. If you put it above, there can never be an eclipse of the moon, because the earth, being above it, can never be interposed between it and the sun. And fur­ther, astronomy could no longer predict eclipses, as it has always done so well, because it bases its calculations on the movements of the sun, and if the sun does not move, the exercise would be in vain.

Roberto should consider also the Argument of the Archer. If the earth were to turn every twenty-four hours, then an arrow, when shot straight up, would fall to the west many miles from the archer. Similar is the Argument of the Tower. If you dropped a weight from the western side of a tower, it would land not at the foot of the edifice but much farther on, for it would fall not vertically but diagonally, because in the meantime the tower (with the earth) would have moved eastwards. But as everyone knows from experience, a weight falls perpendicularly, and so terrestrial motion is proved to be nonsense.

Not to mention the Argument of the Birds, which, if the earth turned in the space of a day, would never be able to keep up with it, however indefatigable they might be. Whereas we can see clearly that if we travel, even on horseback, in the direction of the sun, any bird can overtake and pass us.

“Very well. I do not know the answer to your arguments. But I have heard it said that if the earth turns and all the planets, and the sun stands still, many phenomena are ex­plained, whereas Ptolemy had to invent epicycles and deferents and all sorts of other stupidities that do not exist on earth or in heaven.”

“I pardon you, if you wanted to make a Witz. But if you speak serious, then I say you are pagan as Ptolemy and I know well he had many mistakes made. Und so I believe the great Tycho of Uraniborg a very correct idea had: he thought that all the planets we know, namely Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Mer-curius, and Saturnus revolve around the sun, but the sun revolves with them around the earth, the moon around the earth revolves, the earth unmoving stands in the center of the circle of the fixed stars. So you explain the mistakes of Ptolemy and say no heresies, whereas Ptolemy made mistakes and Ga­lilei heresies spoke. And you are not obliged to explain how earth, so heavy as it is, goes roaming around the sky.”

“And how do the sun and the fixed stars manage?”

“You say they are heavy. I say not. They are celestial bod­ies, not sublunary. Earth, yes, that is heavy.”

“Then how does a ship bearing a hundred cannons sail around on the sea?”

“The sea pulls it, and the wind pushes.”

“In that case, if it is a matter of saying new things without irritating the cardinals of Rome, I have heard of a philosopher in Paris who says that the heavens are liquid matter, like a sea, which circulates everywhere, forming something like whirl­pools... tourbillons...

“What are they?”

“Vortices.”

“Ach so. Vortices, ja. But what do these vortices do?”

“This. The vortices pull the planets in their revolution, and a vortex draws the earth around the sun, but it is the vortex that moves. The earth remains immobile in the vortex that pulls it.”

“Bravo, Signer Roberto! You would not allow that the heavens are of crystal, because you were afraid the comets would break them, but you like them to be liquid, so the birds inside them drown! Further, this idea of vortices explains that the earth turns around the sun, but does not turn on itself as a child’s top spins!”

“Yes, but that philosopher said also that in this case it is the surface of the seas and the superficial crust of our globe that revolve, while the deep core remains still. I think.”

“More stupid than ever. Where did this gentleman write this?”

“I do not know, I think he gave up the idea of writing it, or of publishing it in a book. He did not want to irritate the Jesuits, whom he loves very much.”

“Then I prefer Signer Galilei, who had heretical thoughts but confessed them to very loving cardinals, and nobody burned him. I do not like this other gentleman who has thoughts even more heretical and does not confess, not even to Jesuits his friends. Perhaps one day God will Galilei forgive, but not your friend.”

“Anyway, it seems to me he revised that first idea. Appar­ently all the accumulation of matter that goes from the sun to the fixed stars turns in a great circle, borne by this wind....”

“But did you not say the heavens were liquid?”

“Perhaps not. Perhaps they are a great wind....”

“You see? You do not know even—”

“Well, this wind makes all the planets turn around the sun, and at the same time it makes the sun turn around itself. So there is a minor vortex that makes the moon move around the earth and the earth turn in place. And yet it cannot be said the earth moves, because what moves is the wind. In the same way, if I were sleeping on the Daphne, and the Daphne went towards that island to the west, I would move from one place to another, and yet no one could say that my body has moved. And as far as daily movement is concerned, it is as if I were seated on a great potter’s wheel that moves, and surely you would first see my face, then my back, but it would not be I that moved, it would be the wheel.”

“This is the hypothesis of a malicious who wants to be heretic but not seem one. But you tell me now where are the stars. All of Ursa Major, and Perseus—do they turn in the same vortex?”

“Why, all the stars we see are so many suns, and each is at the center of its own vortex, and all the universe is a great circle of vortices with infinite suns and infinite planets, even beyond what our eye sees, and each with its own inhabitants.”

“Ach! Now I have got you and your hereticissimi friends! This is what you want: infinite worlds!”

“Surely you will allow me at least more than one. Oth­erwise where would God have set Hell? Not in the bowels of the earth.”

“Why not in the bowels of the earth?”

“Because”—and here Roberto was repeating in a very ap­proximate fashion an argument he had heard in Paris, nor could he guarantee the precision of his calculations—”the di­ameter of the center of the earth measures two hundred Ital­ian miles, and if we cube that, we have eight million miles. Considering that one Italian mile contains two hundred and forty thousand English feet, and since the Lord must have allowed to each of the damned at least six feet, Hell could contain only forty million damned, which seems few to me, considering all the sinners who have lived in this world of ours from Adam until now.”

“That would be true,” Caspar replied, not even deigning to go over the calculation, “if the damned were inside their bodies. But this is only after the Resurrection of the Flesh and the Last Judgement! And then there will no longer be either earth or planets, but other heavens and other earths!”

“Agreed, if the damned are only spirits, there will be a thousand million even on the head of a pin. But there are stars we cannot see with the naked eye, and instead are seen with your spyglass. Well, can you not think of a glass a hun­dred times more powerful which will allow you to see other stars, and then one a thousand times more powerful which will allow you to see stars even more distant, and so on ad infinitum? Would you set a limit to Creation?”

“The Bible does not speak of this.”

“The Bible does not speak of Jove, either, and yet you were looking at it the other evening with that damned glass of yours.”

But Roberto already knew what the Jesuit’s real objection would be. Like that of the abbe on that evening of the duel when Saint-Savin provoked him: If there are infinite worlds, the Redemption can no longer have any meaning, and we are obliged either to imagine infinite Calvaries or to look on our terrestrial flowerbed as a privileged spot of the Cosmos, on which God permitted His Son to descend and free us from sin, while the other worlds were not granted this grace—to the discredit of His infinite goodness. And, in fact, this was the response of Father Caspar, which allowed Roberto to attack.

“When did the sin of Adam take place?”

“My brothers have perfect calculations mathematically made, on the basis of the Scripture: Adam sinned three thousand nine hundred and eighty-four years before the coming of Our Lord.”

“Well, perhaps you do not know that travelers who arrived in China, including many brothers of yours, found lists of the monarchs and dynasties of the Chinese, from which it can be determined that the kingdom of China existed more than six thousand years ago, hence before Adam’s fall, and if this is true of China, who knows for how many other peoples it may also be true. Therefore the sin of Adam, and the redemption of the Hebrews, and the great truths of our Holy Roman Church deriving from them, affect only one part of humanity, since there is another part of the human race that was not touched by original sin. This does not in any way affect the infinite goodness of God, who behaved towards the Adamites like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, sacrificing His only Son for them. But just as the fact that the father of the parable sacrificed the fatted calf for his son the sinner does not mean he loved his good and virtuous children any less, so our Creator loves the Chinese and any others born before Adam, and is happy that they did not incur original sin. If this happened on earth, why should it not have happened also on the stars?”

“Who told you this pack of bull Scheise?” Father Caspar shouted in a fury.

“Many speak of it. And an Arab sage said it could be de­duced from a page of the Koran.”

“You say me the Koran proved the truth of a thing? Oh, God omnipotens, I implore Thee strike down this vain, windy, bloated, arrogant, turbulent, rebellious beast of a man, the demon, dog, devil, cursed infected hound, let him not set foot on this ship!”

And Father Caspar lifted and snapped the rope like a whip, first striking Roberto on the face, then letting go of the line.

Roberto fell back with his head down, groped and gasped, could not pull the rope hard enough to tauten it, cried for help as he swallowed water, and Father Caspar shouted to him that he wanted to see him give up the Geist and choke to death so he would sink straight to Hell as befitted the ill-born of his race.

Then, since the Jesuit was a Christian soul, when he con­sidered Roberto sufficiently punished, he pulled him up. And for that day both the lesson in swimming and that in astron­omy came to an end, and the two went off to sleep, each in his own direction, without exchanging a word.


They made peace the next day. Roberto admitted that he did not believe in this vortex hypothesis, and considered, rather, that the infinite worlds were an effect of an eddying of atoms in the Void, and that this did not in any way exclude the possibility of a provident Divinity commanding these atoms and organizing them in accord with His decrees, as Roberto had learned from the Canon of Digne. Father Caspar, however, rejected this idea also, which required a Void in which atoms could move, and Roberto had no desire to argue further with this generous generalizer who, rather than sever the cord that kept him alive, gave it all too much play.

After receiving a promise there would be no more threats of death, Roberto resumed his swimming experiments. Father Caspar tried to persuade him to move in the water, as this is the fundamental principle of the art of natation, and he sug­gested slow movements of the hands and the legs, but Roberto preferred to lie idle, floating.

Father Caspar allowed him to linger, and exploited this inaction to rehearse his other arguments against the move­ment of the earth. In primis, the Argument of the Sun. Which, if it remained motionless and we were to look at it precisely at noon from the center of a room through a window, and the earth turned with the supposed velocity—and it would require a great velocity to make a complete revolution in twenty-four hours—then in an instant the sun would vanish from our sight.

The Argument of Hail followed. It falls sometimes for a whole hour but, whether the clouds go to east or west, north or south, it never covers the countryside for more than twenty or thirty miles. But if the earth revolved, and the hail clouds were carried by the wind in its course, hail would necessarily fall over at least three or four hundred miles of countryside.

Then there was the Argument of White Clouds, which drift through the air when the weather is calm, and seem always to proceed with equal slowness; whereas, if the earth revolves, those that go westward should advance at immense speed.

He concluded with the Argument of Terrestrial Animals, which by instinct should always move towards the east, to comply with the movement of the earth that is their master; and they should show great aversion to westward movement, sensing that this movement is against nature.

Roberto accepted all these arguments for a little while, but then he took a dislike to them, and opposed all that learning with his own Argument of Desire.

“But finally,” he said to the Jesuit, “do not deprive me of the joy of thinking that I could rise in flight and see in twenty-four hours the earth revolve beneath me, and I would see so many different faces pass by, white, black, yellow, olive, with caps or with turbans, and cities with spires now pointed, now round, with the Cross and with the Crescent, and cities with porcelain towers and lands of bells, and the Iroquois pre­paring to eat alive a prisoner of war, and the women of the land of Tesso busy painting their lips blue to please the ugliest men of the planet, and those of Camul, whose husbands pass them to the first newcomer, as Messer Milione tells in his book....”

“You see? As I say: when you in the tavern think of your philosophy, it is always thoughts of lust! And if you did not these thoughts have, you could this voyage make if God granted you the gratia to revolve yourself around the earth, which is a gratia as gross as leaving you in the sky suspended.”

Roberto was unconvinced, but he could think of no fur­ther rebuttal. Then he took a longer way, setting out from arguments he had heard, which similarly did not seem to him in conflict with the idea of a provident God, and he asked Caspar if he agreed in considering Nature a grand theater, where we see only what the Author has put on stage. From our seat we do not see the theater as it really is: the decorations and the machines have been set up to make a fine effect from a distance, whereas the wheels and the counterweights that produce the transformations have been hidden from our view. And yet if in the stalls there was a man practiced in the art, he could guess how a mechanical bird could suddenly be made to fly up. So should the philosopher think when faced by the spectacle of the universe. To be sure, the difficulty for the philosopher is greater, because in Nature the ropes of the machines are hidden so well that for a long time everyone wondered who operated them. And yet, even in this theater of ours, if Phaeton rises towards the sun, it is because a rope pulls him and a counterweight descends.

Ergo (in the end, Roberto was confident, rediscovering the reason why he had initiated this divagation) the stage shows us the sun revolving, but the nature of the machine is quite different, nor can we be aware of it at the outset. We see the spectacle but not the winch that makes Phoebus move, for indeed we live on the wheel of that winch—but here Roberto became lost, because if the metaphor of the winch was ac­cepted, then that of the theater was lost, and all his reasoning became so pointu—as Saint-Savin would have said—that it was pointless.

Father Caspar replied that to make a machine sing it was necessary to shape wood or metal and arrange holes, or attach strings and scrape them with bows, or even—as he had done on the Daphne—invent a water device; but if we opened the throat of a nightingale, we saw no machine of this sort there, a sign that God followed paths different from ours.

Then he asked if, as Roberto looked with such favor on infinite solar systems revolving in the sky, he could not admit that each of these systems might be part of a larger system that revolved in its turn within a system still larger, and so on—for, proceeding from such premisses, you became like the virgin prey of a seducer: she grants him first a small concession but soon will have to grant him more, and then more, and once embarked on that road, she might arrive at any terrible extremity.

Of course, Roberto said, one can conceive anything. Vor­tices without planets, vortices that bump into one another, vortices that are not round but hexagonal, so that each face or side fits into another vortex, all of them together forming a kind of hive with its cells, or else they are polygons that, pressed one against the other, create voids that Nature fills with other, lesser vortices, all cogged among themselves like the works of a clock—their entirety moving in the universal sky like a great wheel that turns and propels inside itself other wheels that turn, each with smaller wheels turning within, and all that great circle making in the sky an immense revo­lution that lasts millennia, perhaps around another vortex or vortices of vortices... At which point Roberto risked drown­ing, because of the great vertigo that overwhelmed him.

And it was at this moment that Father Caspar had his triumph. Then, he explained, if the earth revolves around the sun, but the sun revolves around something else (and omitting the question of whether this something else revolves around a something else of yet another something else), we have the problem of the roulette—of which Roberto must have heard talk in Paris, since from Paris it went into Italy among the Galileans, who would think up anything provided they could disturb the world.

“What is the roulette?” Roberto asked.

“You can call it also trochoid or cycloid, but it is much the same. Imagine a wheel.”

“Like before?”

“No. Now imagine you the wheel of a wagon. And imagine on the rim of the wheel a nail. Now imagine the wheel not moving, and the nail just above ground. Now you think that the wagon moves and the wheel turns. What to the nail happens?”

“Well, if the wheel turns, at a certain point the nail will be on top, but when the wheel has made its complete revo­lution, the nail is again close to the ground.”

“So you think this wheel has like a circle moved?”

“Why, yes. Certainly not like a square.”

“Now you listen, booby. You say the nail finds itself on the ground where it before was?”

“Wait a moment.... No, if the wagon went forward, the nail would be on the same ground, but much farther ahead.”

“Therefore it has not made circular movement.”

“No, by all the saints in Paradise!”

“You must not say Byallsaintsofparadise.”

“Forgive me. But what movement has it made?”

“It has made a trochoid, and for you to understand I say it is like the movement of a ball you throw before you, then it touches ground, then makes another arc of circle, then again—but, while the ball makes smaller and smaller arcs, the nail makes always regular arcs, if the wheel always at the same speed goes.”

“And what does this mean?” Roberto asked, anticipating his defeat.

“This means you would have so many vortices and infinite worlds, and that the earth turns, and here your earth turns no more, but goes through the infinite sky like a ball, tumpf tumpf tumpf.... Ach! what a fine movement for this most noble planet! And if your vortex theory gut ist, all heavenly bodies would go tumpf tumpf tumpf.... Now let me laugh, for this is finally the most gross amusement of mein Leben!”

It was difficult to reply to an argument so subtle and geo­metrically perfect—and what is more, in perfect bad faith, because Father Caspar should have known that something sim­ilar would have happened also if the planets revolved as Tycho posited. Roberto went off to sleep, damp and downcast as a dog. In the night he reflected, wondering if it was not best for him now to abandon all his heretical ideas on the movement of the earth. Let me see, he said to himself, if Father Caspar is right and the earth does not move (otherwise it would move more than it should and be impossible to stop again), does this endanger his discovery of the antipodal meridian, and his the­ory of the Flood, and also the fact that the Island is there a day before the day it is here? Not at all.

So, he said to himself, perhaps it is best for me not to debate the astronomical opinions of my new teacher, and in­stead devote myself to swimming, to achieve what really in­terests me, which is not to prove that Copernicus and Galilei were right, or that other old bloat Tycho of Uraniborg—but to see the Orange Dove, and set foot in the day before— something that not Galilei, not Copernicus, not Tycho, nor any of my masters and teachers in Paris ever dreamed of.

So, then, the next day he presented himself again to Father

Caspar as an obedient pupil in matters both natatory and astronomical.

But Father Caspar, with the excuse of a rough sea and some further calculations that he had to make, postponed that day’s lesson. Towards evening he explained that to learn na­tation, as he said, requires concentration and silence, and you cannot have your head among the clouds. Seeing that Roberto tended to do just that, it was the Jesuit’s conclusion that the young man had no aptitude for swimming.

Roberto asked himself why his master, so proud of his mastery, had renounced his plan so abruptly. And I believe the conclusion he came to was the correct one. Father Caspar had got it into his head that lying or even moving in the water, under the sun, had produced in Roberto an efferves­cence of the cerebrum, which led him to dangerous thoughts. Finding himself in intimacy with his own body, and immersing himself in the liquid, which was also matter, had somehow bestialized him and led him to those thoughts that are peculiar to insane and animal natures.

So Father Wanderdrossel had to find some different means that would allow them to reach the Island but would not endanger the health of Roberto’s soul.





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