Monday, April 13, 2009

There is nothing absurd, nothing obscure, nothing impious in this book, except to mules and asses - Ingrid Rowland's Giordano Bruno

In response to Bibliographing Nicole's cruel mockery, this week it's nothing but proper book reviews. Today, Giordano Bruno (2008) by Ingrid Rowland.

OK. How to start one of these things? Joan Acocella, in a New Yorker review, begins with juicy details of Bruno's death, burned at the stake as a heretic on Ash Wednesday, 1600. He rode a mule from the Inquisition prison; he wore a leather gag. Then a bit on the book, then three pages summarizing it, then back to the book itself for a few paragraphs. She has a lot of room and can sprawl a bit. Anthony Gottlieb, in a more compressed New York Times piece, also has to tell us who Bruno was before he can get to the book.

I don't want to do all that. If you're reading this and don't know who Giordano Bruno was, ya got the internet, right? Unless someone printed this out for you, I guess. Or maybe it's being read to you over the phone. Doesn't seem very likely. But that's not my point.

Acocella's summary of Bruno's life is excellent. If it's only worth ten minutes to you, read that, and not Ingrid Rowland's book. The book is first-rate, though. There cannot be many other scholars who have such a comprehensive view of the artistic and intellectual times. Her imaginative conception of Naples and Venice is thorough, completely convincing, but I think she's just as good crossing the Alps with Bruno to Geneva, Paris, London and all over Germany. She never pushes the evidence, and acknowledges the huge gaps in what we know of Bruno's life and travels. Both reviewers seem to find this irritating.

They also both criticize Rowland for "too little examination of [Bruno's] ideas." Can they be serious? They want more space devoted to neo-Platonist conceptions of the celestial spheres, or the influence of the Kabbalah and scholasticism on Bruno's idea of the infinite? Really? Isn't that what the bibliography is for? Rowland's greatest conceptual success is treating Bruno more like an imaginative writer than as a philosopher or proto-scientist. For example, when Rowland discusses, extensively, the metaphor of the forest in neo-Platonist writings, she is talking about ideas. The metaphor is itself an idea.

I can attest that Giordano Bruno is readable. Quite good, actually. I read The Expulsion of the Triumphal Beast (1584) several years ago. It's plenty difficult, but also funny, in the spirit of Lucian. Rowland has convinced me to read The Heroic Frenzies, at least, forthcoming, translated by Ingrid Rowland. Just a taste of Triumphal Beast, also translated by Rowland (although the old Imerti translation I read seems just as good), a bit of earthy satire of omnipotence:

"MERCURY: [Jove has] ordered that today at noon two of the melons in Father Franzino's melon patch will be perfectly ripe, but that they won't be picked until three days from now, when they will no longer be considered good to eat... That from the dung of her ox fifty-two dung beetles shall be born, of which fourteen shall be trampled and killed by Albenzio's foot, twenty-six shall die upside down, twenty-two shall live in a hole, eighty shall make a pilgrim's progress around the yard, forty-two shall retire to live under the stone, sixteen shall roll their ball of dung whenever they please, and the rest shall scurry around at random." (Dialogue I, Part 3)

And it continues on, with Jove deciding on the number of hairs singed by a curling iron, when a woman loses a tooth, which food will be converted into the semen that impregnates Ambrogio's wife (leeks in millet and wine sauce). In the title of the post, I put a quotation by a student of Bruno's which Rowland found in the margins of a copy of Paracelsus, now in the amazing Herzog August Bibliothek at Wolfenbüttel. Well, when it comes to Paracelsus, I'm a mule and/or an ass, but for at least a few of Bruno's books, he's closer to correct. A few. Closer - still lot's that's absurd and obscure. I think I'll skip On the Scrutiny of Species and the Combinatory Lamp of Ramon Llull, and One Hundred and Twenty Articles Against Mathematicians and Philosophers, and, let's see, much, much more. If you read them, come on back and let me know all about it.

One criticism of my own: the publisher should have sprung for illustrations. I am sure Rowland wanted them, and I blame the publisher. On the other hand, whoever insisted on the extra-short chapters was correct; Rowland uses them with artist's sense of momentum, building up to the single long chapter, when Bruno finds himself in an Inquisition prison. He spent ten years, the rest of his life, in one prison or another.

I have actually, full disclosure, seen Rowland once, from a distance, walking across the University of Pittsburgh campus. This was several years ago.

I'm not so sure that this was really a book review. Tomorrow, a real one.

By the way, a medieval and/or early modern literature blog along the lines of Wuthering Expectations - call it Gargantua Furioso, maybe, or how about Orlando Quixote - would be something I would very much enjoy reading.


  1. Theophrastus Bombastus von HohenheimApril 13, 2009 at 6:11 PM

    Through a funny coincidence, I discovered your "blog" because my homunculus read it to me! We are both big fans of Giordano Bruno. The homunculus even plans to start a "blog" like the one you describe. Except all the books he reads will have strong, sympathetic, semi-human main characters.

  2. I ask my students to write book reviews (in Conservation Biology and Bioethics thus far, but I may be expanding it to other courses) and they are required to describe weaknesses with the books. Probably this is because I believe it adds some seriousness, but really it is to convince them to think critically and remind them that fawning will not earn them extra credit.

  3. An admirable attempt! You even went for the "full disclosure." That's getting super serious.

    In re: Gargantua Furiosa, I quite like Quid Plura?, though it's not strictly lit. (Full disclosure: the blogger and I have a mutual advertising arrangement of "blogroll links" and have exchanged a couple friendly emails.)

  4. Nicole, thanks for the Quid Plura link - worth knowing about, whether or not it's whatever I'm imagining. Two whole posts devoted to galangal!

    When, writing about the Sean Carroll book, I joked that a reviewer had to include a pro forma criticism, I had this very NYT review of Rowland's book in mind. The criticism seemed thoughtless. Thoughtful criticism, that's the goal, right? I see why you have to order students to do it. Plus there's the idea that if it's published, it must be right; I know teachers have to fight with that.

    Sort of spooky how you just mention Paracelsus and he appears. I guess that's an advantage of having a homunculus to do all your Google work for you. I look forward to reading the blog of the homunculus of Paracelsus. Thanks for stopping by, Theo!