Johannes Kepler’s story “The Dream,” about a daimon-propelled journey to the moon and the strange and often horrifying beings one might find there, ends as dreams do. “And then I woke up.”
“When I had reached this point in my dream, a wind arose with the rattle of rain, disturbing my sleep and at the same time wiping out the end of the book acquired at Frankfurt”–and we’re reminded that the lunar “dream” isn’t that of the character Duracotus but of the unnamed “I” who reads about Duracotus’s adventures in a book that never existed except in the narrator’s dream. “I returned to myself and found my head really covered with the pillow and my body with the blankets.”
It’s a clunky way to end a story, and Kepler’s segue into it–he’s been talking about the “constant cloud cover and rain” over parts of the moon when the storm wakes him up–doesn’t make it any more elegant. Shakespeare and Cervantes, who were both alive in 1609 when Kepler wrote the story, wouldn’t have approved.
But how else do you get Duracotus and his mother Fioxhilde back from the moon, given that the path to it is open only during eclipses? And actually it appears from the ending, contrary to what we were earlier led to believe, that they haven’t gone there at all, but have just been sitting and listening to the daimon (who, remember, is an allegorical representation of the science of astronomy) talk about it.
I said in my last post that “The Dream” wasn’t published until 1634, 25 years after it was written and four years after Kepler’s death. But that isn’t entirely true. “Publication” in Kepler’s time didn’t necessarily mean, by the printing press. Some authors preferred to “publish” their books by circulating them in manuscript, which gave them more control over what was often sensitive, not to say hazardous material. Or so they thought.
It didn’t quite work out that way for Kepler.
Instead, the manuscript text was taken “from Prague to Leipzig and from there to Tübingen in the year 1611. … Would you believe that in the barber shops (especially if there were any people to whom the name of my Fioxhilde is ominous on account of her occupation) there was chatter about this story of mine?”
That’s the kind of buzz an author wants. Provided, that is, that the author hasn’t written a story in which the principal character has a mother whose “occupation” is sorcery, and who bears a suspicious resemblance to the author’s real-life mother.
“Indeed, from that very city and house there emanated malicious gossip about me in the immediately ensuing years. When this gossip was taken up by senseless minds, it flared up into defamation, fanned by ignorance and superstition.”
And so Kepler’s mother Katharina was charged with witchcraft, arrested and kept in prison for 14 months. There she was shown the instruments with which she was told she would be (but thankfully wasn’t) tortured to make her confess. Eventually her son’s diligent efforts got her acquitted of the charges. “If I am not mistaken, you will judge that my family could have gotten along without that trouble for six years” if he’d had better sense than to write and then circulate “The Dream.”
So, at least, Kepler says in the 8th of his long, rambling, often fascinating “notes” to “The Dream,” which he wrote over the two decades that followed the story itself. Was he right in supposing that it was his story that got his mother into trouble, when “senseless minds” took it as autobiographical?
This idea, though accepted by most scholars, has recently been debunked on the Web, by a writer who seems to know what he’s talking about.
“The records of Katharina Kepler’s trial for witchcraft are still extant,” says the debunker, “and I can state with confidence that Somnium [“The Dream”] was not only not used as evidence in the trial but was in fact never even mentioned. … To make matters worse it would appear, at least superficially, that such a use would have been impossible as the trial took place in 1620-1621 and Somnium was first published in 1634!”
My own vote, as so often, is against the debunker and with the “debunked.” In Kepler’s time, as I’ve said, books didn’t need to appear in print in order to be “published.” And it’s easily possible that no one wanted to invoke “The Dream” as formal evidence in a trial–it was plainly fiction, after all–and yet that it was “The Dream” that created the atmosphere of nasty suspicion that made the trial possible.
Kepler seems to have had at least a passing interest in witchcraft and sorcery. In note 28 he speaks of himself as “engaged in reading” Martin Del Rio’s Disquisitionum Magicarum Libri Sex, which historian Brian Levack describes as “an encyclopedia of magic … the most popular and authoritative witchcraft treatise in the seventeenth century.” One more facet of the wide-ranging mind of this genius, living in a time when science and the supernatural hadn’t yet parted company and science itself could be imagined as a “daimon.”
There are other nuggets like this, which to my mind make the “notes” to Kepler’s story even more interesting than the story itself.
Kepler tells us, for example (in note 2), that he was turned on to the idea of a moon flight by reading the True Story of the ancient writer Lucian of Samosata, which he read in order to gain mastery of the Greek language. “I was helped by my enjoyment of the highly daring tale, which nevertheless offered some intimations concerning the nature of the entire universe …”
He believed in spontaneous generation, and once actually saw it happen. “In the year 1615, when the summer was very dry, at Linz I saw a juniper twig that had been brought in from the abandoned fields of the Traun. The twig had given birth to an insect of unfamiliar shape and of the color of a horned beetle. The insect had emerged up to its middle and moved slowly. The back parts clinging to the tree were juniper resin” (note 221).
He believed that the moon radiates warmth as the sun does, though naturally in much smaller degree. This, too, he knew from experience. “The warmth of moonlight … we may investigate with our sense of touch, aided of course by art. For if you receive the rays of the full moon on a concave parabolic, or even spherical, mirror, at the focal point, where the rays come together, you will feel a certain warm breath, as it were. This happened to me at Linz, when I was busy with other mirror experiments and not thinking about the warmth of light. For I began looking around to see whether anyone was blowing on my hand” (note 200).
He lived in a time long before international scientific meetings and congresses were possible. Yet he dreamed of such things. “I wish I had wings to carry me to England,” he wrote, “so that I might converse” with William Gilbert, the great English researcher of electricity and magnetism. “He is the kind of man whose godlike discoveries properly provide all students of nature with the greatest pleasure. Did not a time-consuming sea voyage stop me, my eagerness to learn could entitle me to associate with him without any great difficulty, I hope, since science knows no pride.”
(Actually, this is not from the notes to “The Dream,” which were written after Gilbert had died, but quoted in Edward Rosen‘s footnotes to p. 100 of his translation.)
And he knew that sooner or later we really would go to the moon, not just in fantasies like Lucian of Samosata’s or his own. He concludes his discussion of lunar tides (note 202) with the remark: “Let us believe this for the time being until some explorer goes into the matter in person.”
On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong took his “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” onto the surface of the moon. I wish I could truly and literally believe that Johannes Kepler’s spirit was there, taking that step with him.
by David Halperin
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Next week I’m taking a break. Back again the week of June 15!