The story so far, of pioneer astronomer Johannes Kepler’s pioneering science-fiction story “The Dream”:
The young hero Duracotus has gone with his witch-like mother to a crossroads, the kind of place where witches perform their rites. There she’s conjured up a “daimon.” Not a demon, exactly. A scholar of Greek, Kepler knew that for the ancients the “daimons” were low-level but often benevolent divinities, like the “little daimon” who whispered timely warnings in Socrates’s ear. That was what he had in mind. (Except not exactly what he had in mind, as we’ll see in a moment.)
But in paranoid times like Kepler’s, misunderstandings are all too possible.
His real-life mother Katharina would discover this a few years after Kepler wrote his story, when she got into a quarrel with a neighbor who “persuaded an influential relative to accuse Katharina of making her extremely ill by feeding her a witch’s potion” (Arthur I. Miller). Very bad things then began to happen.
“Fifty thousand German miles up in the ether lies the island of Levania,” the fictional “daimon” tells Duracotus and his mother. “Levania” is what we normally call the moon. L’vana is Hebrew for “moon,” and, as Kepler explains in a footnote, Hebrew words “are recommended in the occult arts.” We now know the moon is almost five times as far away as the daimon says. But this was the 17th century.
“The road to it from here or from it to this earth is seldom open,” the daimon continues. “When it is open, it is easy for our kind, but for transporting men it is assuredly most difficult and fraught with the greatest danger to life. We admit to this company nobody who is lethargic, fat, or tender. On the contrary, we choose those who spend their time in the constant practice of horsemanship or often sail to the Indies, inured to subsisting on hardtack, garlic, dried fish, and unappetizing victuals. We especially like dried-up old women, experienced from an early age in riding he-goats at night or forked sticks or threadbare cloaks, and in traversing immense expanses of the earth.”
Witches, in other words. And at this point it’s bound to cross the reader’s mind: is Kepler really serious about all this, as the ooky-spooky setting would lead one to imagine? Or is he telling his story with tongue at least partly in cheek?
As I mentioned in my last post, Kepler attached to his story a set of footnotes that are three times as long as “The Dream” itself. And in one of these footnotes he tips his hand.
“These spirits,” he writes in a note on the “daimon,” “are the sciences in which the causes of phenomena are disclosed. This allegory was suggested to me by the Greek word Daimon, which is derived from daiein, meaning ‘to know,’ as though it were daimon.”
So the “spirit” who addresses Duracotus and his mother isn’t really a supernatural being, but an allegorical representation of the science of astronomy. The “road” to the moon, of which the daimon has spoken, is the cone of the earth’s shadow in a lunar eclipse. The “daimons,” who hate light and throng to darkness, can travel only through such a shadow. In another note, Kepler tells why:
“Does a physical consideration underlie and blend with the jocular explanation of the reason why eclipses of the sun and moon bring so much misfortune? There is no doubt that evil spirits are called powers of darkness and of air. You would therefore regard them as sentenced and, so to say, banished to the shadowy regions, to the cone of the earth’s shadow. Hence, when this cone of a shadow touches the moon, then the daemons invade the moon in a mass, using the cone of the shadow as a ladder. On the other hand, when the cone of the moon’s shadow touches the earth in a total eclipse of the sun, the daemons return through the cone to the earth. … However, to the extent that in this passage the daimon stands for the science of astronomy, there will be seriousness in the assertion that for the mind there is no passage to the moon except through the earth’s shadow and the other things which depend on it.”
In other words, it’s the data culled from eclipses that yield the most valuable clues to the moon’s true nature. All very scientific, beneath the mask of “occult arts.” Or is the occultism something more than a mask? Kepler speaks as if he believes that eclipses do indeed bring misfortune; is he tongue-in-cheek once more? “No doubt that evil spirits are called powers of darkness and of air”? Kepler would have had to believe that or else disbelieve the Bible: Ephesians 2:2, 6:12.
Which side did he come down on? Both? Neither?
In a transitional, bi-polar time like the 17th century, who can tell?
Whatever its allegorical underpinning, the flight to the moon is described by Kepler’s daimon in harshly realistic terms. It’s made at fantastic speed, such that the 50,000-mile distance is covered in four hours (since that’s as long as a lunar eclipse lasts). “In every instance the take-off hits [the human astronaut] as a severe shock, for he is hurled just as though he had been shot aloft by gunpowder to sail over mountains and seas. … Then a new difficulty follows: extreme cold and impeded breathing. The cold is relieved by a power which we [daimons] are born with; the breathing, by applying damp sponges to the nostrils. After the first stage of the trip is finished, the passage becomes easier. At that time we expose [the astronauts’] bodies to the open air and remove our hands. Their bodies roll themselves up, like spiders, into balls which we carry along almost entirely by our will alone, so that finally the bodily mass proceeds toward its destination of its own accord.”
What we’d now call “inertia.”
And when the travelers reach the moon, what do they find there?
That’s what the rest of Kepler’s story is about.
by David Halperin
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