Burke: Circles

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James Burke, Circles : 50 Round Trips through History, Technology, Science, Culture. New York : Simon & Schuster, 2000. 286 pages with select bibliography.

We're a big fan of historian James Burke here at Scienticity, largely on the strength of his brilliant, imaginative, and very energetic production in the late 70s of the television series and book Connections. It's a hard act to follow.

Circles is a collection of fifty essays, all written between 1995 and 1999 for Burke's monthly column in the magazine Scientific American, and they demonstrate the difficulty of containing Burke's breathlessly high-speed approach to telling history in a small space. Each essay of a few thousand words, when read back-to-back as I did, starts to take on a dizzying character, like those spinning disks of black-and-white spirals used in old television programs to induce hypnotic trances.

Burke's approach to telling history is to show some of the many connections between ideas as they appear and course through human thought on their way to changing human history and sparking other ideas. We heartily endorse this approach here at Ars Hermeneutica, and that's why were such big fans of Burke's earlier book, Connections. However, in this book the connections seem less causal in an historic way and more like linguistic connections. There's nothing wrong with that for the purposes of creating an interesting essay, but it doesn't create the extra frisson of the connectedness of ideas in history that the earlier Connections did.

I'm picturing Burke's metaphor of ideas in history as a vast field of standing dominoes, his way of presenting history akin to his knocking down one of the dominoes: we watch the spectacle as strings of dominoes collapse and create fascinating and enlightening patterns before our eyes. In the present case, however, these brief essays might be said to adopt the viewpoint of a miniature camera flying along at high speed just centimeters above the falling dominoes as we, the readers, try to read the numbers on each one. The effect can be exhilarating but dizzying and confusing, too, more special effect than special understanding.

Admittedly, the problem may be one of my own creation. These were originally essays in a monthly magazine, and I suspect they're much more refreshing read with a gap in between each one. However, since I so much wanted to see what would come next in each one, I read at a pace to match Burke's break-neck presentation, and that may have been my downfall.

My criticism, by the way, is only about the presentation. I have no quibbles with Burke's ideas about presenting history nor any of the stories he told. My complaint is only that sometimes the voice seemed too arch, the facts too telegraphic for ready comprehension unless one already knew what he was talking about. In many case – perhaps most – the reader will know, or can find out by reading another of Burke's books.

This excerpt is roughly the first half of the essay titled "Or Maybe Not", and I gives a representative taste of Burke's style.

With all the academic research available these days about what it was really like, back in the Dark Ages when the European cultural lights went out (or maybe not), it's a pity Hollywood continues to churn out all that anachronistic garbage about King Arthur. you know: characters using terminology from 900 years later, knights in fancy armor from 700 years later, coats of arms and chivalry from 600 years later, turreted castles with drawbridges from 600 years later, riders using stirrups from 500 years later, and so on.

Mind you, clearing up these anachronisms would probably go over like a lead balloon at the box office. Which is how it went with one of history's greatest exposés of a similar nature. The box office in question was that of the Catholic Church, whose fifteenth-century boss was a pope with as much political clout as spiritual. Or so he thought. Till in 1440 a philological scribbler (aka humanist scholar) named Lorenzo Valla, looking for some dirt on the papacy (his boss the king of Naples was having a row with the Vatican about who ruled what), used his Latin smarts to point out that the language and terminology used in the hitherto-unquestioned document of the Donation of (Byzantine emperor) Constantine—which had conferred on the roman pope secular authority over Europe—were (like the language and terminology of Hollywood King Arthur screenplays) bogus, and that the Donation was a fake, written four hundred years after the supposed event. Which of course put the kibosh on the pope's claim to temporal power. Everything curial hit the fan.

Valla only kept his head (literally) because he had a well-placed cardinal pal, the influential Nicholas of Kues, who had the papal ear and smoothed things over. Nicholas was a kind of Vatican ambassador-at-large, and the church's chief egghead. in mid-fifteenth century, independently of Copernicus, he opined that the Earth turned on its axis and wasn't the center of the universe. Also that there might be other inhabited planets. He advocated experimental methods (such as dropping things to measure their speed of fall and noting their air resistance) two hundred years before Galileo. He talked about relativity five hundred years before Mach or Einstein.

Nicholas's big hero was a guy he'd met (when they were students at Padua University—the MIT of the time), name of Paolo Toscanelli, whom Nicholas described as the best mathematician alive. But Toscanelli was more than that, as he was to prove. To start with, after graduation he went home to Florence and told an architect friend all about the new Arab perspective geometry he'd been studying. The friend (Fillippo Brunelleschi) used the info to develop stuff like converging lines of sight and vanishing points, which excited an artist nicknamed Masaccio to kick off the whole of Renaissance art with his Trinity painting. Which was so realistic people thought they were looking at the scene through a hole in the wall. [pp. 257—259]

So, in the end, perhaps my criticism has little merit. I found the essays appealing and the historic connections provocative. Maybe I just need to practice slower reading.

The final word goes to Burke, from his Forward to the book, which I think is a wholesome and welcome invitation to the reader, and a good outlook on telling history.

You may not agree with the way these essays present events. That's fine. There is no single correct way to track from the past to the present. And if your disagreement goes so far as to drive you to find alternate routes for what I write about that are even better, write your own history. The more of us doing so, the better. [p. 16]

-- Notes by JNS

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