August 2012

Madeleine Monson-Rosen


A Discovery of New Worlds by Bernard de Fontenelle, translated by Aphra Behn

Mathematicians are like lovers, says the astronomer to the beautiful marquise in Bernard de Fontenelle's A Discovery of New Worlds, "you cannot allow the smallest favor to a lover, but he will soon persuade you to yield another, and after that a little more, and in the end prevails entirely; so if you grant the least principle to a mathematician, he will instantly draw a consequence from it, which you must yield also, and from that another, and then a third, and then maugre all your resistance, in a short time, he will lead you so far that you cannot retreat. These two sorts of men, the lover and philosopher, always take more than is given 'em." Fontenelle's astronomer is both philosopher and seducer, and over the course of five nights' conversation on the subject of the cosmos and the possibility of extraterrestrial life, he beguiles both the marquise and the reader.

It's clear why this work, first published in French as Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds in 1686, appealed to its English translator Aphra Behn. In her preface, she notes, "I thought an English woman might adventure to translate anything a French woman may be supposed to have spoken." A Discovery of New Worlds represents an early exercise in the European Enlightenment's democratizing of knowledge. Like Behn's original works, Fontenelle's exemplifies much of what was novel about the novel as a form: the emphasis on women's thought and action, a charge of class-defying romance, the inclusion of contemporary social and political concerns within the narrative. Much as Behn's earlier work Oroonoko negotiates the politics of slavery, Discovery negotiates science in a form intended, as Fontenelle puts it, not only "to instruct, but to divert" its readers.

Written in order to bring a Copernican and Cartesian cosmology to a popular audience just a year before Newton's Principia Mathematica first described gravity, Discovery takes the form of a dialogue between astronomer and Marquise in which the astronomer explains the mechanics of the solar system. In this system, the planets and stars are held in their orbits by forces called tourbillions, a word Behn translates as whirlings, vortexes that hold orbits in place by means of centrifugal force. Although each night's discussion focuses loosely on a separate field -- the earth, the moon, the other planets, the stars -- each returns to speculations about life on other worlds: "We, the inhabitants of the Earth, are but one little family of the universe, we resemble one another. The inhabitants of another planet are another family."

Discovery of New Worlds has been issued in a lovely new edition by Hesperus Press, with an introduction by Cambridge astronomer Paul Murdin. Copernicus's heliocentric universe, Murdin writes, "implied that our world was not unique, since it was a planet like others." This principle, called the Principle of Mediocrity, still holds, according to Murdin, for most astronomers. Earth is not unique among the planets, "as most people still make the same argument as Fontenelle that they may have life on them." In tracing the history of astronomy from Aristotle to himself, Murdin describes the lay of the scientific landscape that Discovery arrived in and suggests that, in many ways, the landscape has changed little. Despite revealing the persistence of the Principle of Mediocrity, Murdin's introduction doesn't add much value to a work that is more significant for its contribution to social and literary history than for its scientific accuracy. He also offers the unforgivable introduction of Aphra Behn: "one of the main writers of 'amatory fiction,' the chick-lit of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries." A professional author, a world-traveler, as well as a convict and spy, Behn was no lightweight. She offers not only an elegant translation, but also adjudicates the theological questions provoked by Discovery in a translator's preface. Despite his credentials, Murdin's contribution to a better understanding of the work is, unfortunately, negligible.

Written in "vulgar language" -- French rather than Latin -- A Discovery of New Worlds accomplishes its own seduction by means of metaphor. Again and again, cosmological principles are illustrated beautifully, by Fontenelle's prose and Behn's translation, such as this description of astronomical time as the "memory of roses": "We have always seen the same gardener," say the roses, "he has always been as he is, he dies not as we do; nay, he changes not, and certainly will never be other than he is... Suppose a thing had been a hundred thousand times longer than ours, should we therefore conclude it should last forever?" As the human scale is to the roses, so the universe is to the human: eternity, in this philosophical investigation, is only semblance, and strikingly, the gardener in his metaphor is not God, but the cosmos. Fontenelle suggests, however, that the writer's life cycle is more cosmic than human, more like the gardener than the roses: "You will never look on the Sun, moons, or stars, without thinking about me," the astronomer tells his audience, a statement far more true of the author of this work than of the scientific theories he propounds. A Discovery of New Worlds evokes an age when human imagination and reason were the primary scientific apparatuses as well as the tools of literary creation. It reminds us that, like the mathematician and the lover, scientific and literary explorations are not as different as we might think.

A Discovery of New Worlds by Bernard de Fontenelle, translated by Aphra Behn
Hesperus Press
ISBN: 978-1843913665
120 pages