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Will Wonders Never Cease?

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Posted on Jun 30, 2012
Lapham's Quarterly

By Lewis Lapham, TomDispatch

A longer version of the piece appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. This version was posted at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

As between the natural and the supernatural, I’ve never been much good at drawing firm distinctions. I know myself to be orbiting the sun at the speed of 65,000 miles per hour, but I can’t shake free of the impression shared by Pope Urban VIII, who in 1633 informed Galileo that the earth doesn’t move. So also the desk over which I bend to write,  seemingly a solid mass of wood but in point of fact a restless flux of atoms bubbling in a cauldron equivalent to the one attended by the witches in Macbeth.

Nor do I separate the reality from the virtual reality when conversing with the airy spirits in a cell phone, or while gazing into the wizard’s mirror of a television screen. What once was sorcery maybe now is science, but the wonders technological of which I find myself in full possession, among them indoor plumbing and electric light, I incline to regard as demonstrations magical.

This inclination apparently is what constitutes a proof of being human, a faculty like the possession of language that distinguishes man from insect, guinea hen, and ape. In the beginning was the word, and with it the powers of enchantment. I take my cue from Christopher Marlowe’s tragical drama Doctor Faustus because his dreams of  “profit and delight,/Of power, of honor, of omnipotence,” are the stuff that America is made of, as was both the consequence to be expected and the consummation devoutly to be wished when America was formed in the alembic of the Elizabethan imagination. Marlowe was present at the creation, as were William Shakespeare, the navigators Martin Frobisher and Francis Drake, and the Lord Chancellor Francis Bacon envisioning a utopian New Atlantis on the coast of Virginia.

It was an age that delighted in the experiment with miracles, fiction emerging into fact on the far shores of the world’s oceans, fact eliding into fiction in the Globe Theatre on an embankment of the Thames. London toward the end of the sixteenth century served as the clearinghouse for the currencies of the new learning that during the prior 150 years had been gathering weight and value under the imprints of the Italian Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation in Germany. The Elizabethans had in hand the writings of Niccolò Machiavelli and Martin Luther as well as those of Ovid and Lucretius, maps drawn by Gerardus Mercator and Martin Waldseemüller, the observations of Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Giordano Bruno, and Paracelsus.

The medieval world was dying an uneasy death, but magic remained an option, a direction, and a technology not yet rendered obsolete. Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, found the air “not so full of flies in summer as it is at all times of invisible devils.” To the Puritan dissenters contemplating a departure to a new and better world the devils were all too visible in a land that “aboundeth with murders, slaughters, incests, adulteries, whoredom, drunkenness, oppression, and pride.”

Thinks Tanks of the Sixteenth and Twentieth Centuries

In both the skilled and unskilled mind, astronomy and astrology were still inseparable, as were chemistry and alchemy, and so it is no surprise to find Marlowe within the orbit of inquisitive “intelligencers” centered on the wealth and patronage of Henry Percy, “the Wizard Earl” of Northumberland, who attracted to his estate in Sussex the presence of Dr. John Dee, physician to Queen Elizabeth blessed with crystal showstones occupied by angels, as well as that of Walter Raleigh, court poet and venture capitalist outfitting a voyage to Guiana to retrieve the riches of El Dorado.

The earl had amassed a library of nearly 2,000 books and equipped a laboratory for his resident magi, chief among them Thomas Hariot, as an astronomer known for his improvement of the telescope (the “optic tube”), and as a mathematician for his compilation of logarithmic tables. As well versed in the science of the occult as he was practiced in the study of geography, Hariot appears in Charles Nicholl’s book The Reckoning as a likely model for Marlowe’s Faustus.

During the same month last spring in which I was reading Nicholl’s account of the Elizabethan think tank assembled by the Wizard Earl, I came across its twentieth-century analog in Jon Gertner’s The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. As in the sixteenth century, so again in the twentieth: a gathering of forces both natural and supernatural in search of something new under the sun.

The American Telephone and Telegraph Company undertook to research and develop the evolving means of telecommunication, and to that end it established an “institute of creative technology” on a 225-acre campus in Murray Hill, New Jersey, by 1942 recruiting nearly 9,000 magi of various description (engineers and chemists, metallurgists, and physicists) set to the task of turning sand into light, the light into gold.


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