February 2006

Justin Taylor

nonfiction

Uncentering the Earth: Copernicus and the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres by William T. Vollmann

This time last year, reviewing Europe Central for Rain Taxi Review of Books, I impertinently proposed that Vollmann had written another book like Argall, the notoriously unreadable third installment of his Seven Dreams series. Europe Central hurt to read. The subject matter -- the Eastern Front in WWII -- was brutal, the prose heavy enough to pressure coal into diamond. You really had to endure it; just grit your teeth and push on.

As it turned out, a number of people disagreed with me, or maybe they dug the abuse. They saw the value in Vollmann’s diamonds and gave Europe Central the National Book Award for fiction.

Please don’t get the impression that I have a distaste for either difficult literature or for Vollmann. Quite the contrary -- I rank his novel You Bright and Risen Angels and his collection The Rainbow Stories as two among the greater books I’ve ever read. If there is persistent impertinence in my tone it should be taken as the sort of carping which can only come from the most earnest of admirers. Still, I hope that my reader will sympathize when I say that I approached Uncentering the Earth: Copernicus and The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres with no small degree of fear and trembling.

Another helping of crow, please and thank you.

Vollmann has more than risen to the challenge of unpacking, summarizing, demystifying, contextualizing, and advocating on behalf of Nicolaus Copernicus, of whom it is said:

“HE WAS A SCHOLAR OF POLISH BIRTH
WHO STOPPED THE SUN AND MOVED THE EARTH.”

We are warned right away that Copernicus’s The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres is a difficult tome, filled with cramped calculations and sharp turns of logic: a maze of tortuous sentences, each driven by a theological quest for perfection that threatens to tear apart everything it deigns to joins together. For that reason, Vollmann explains, he will neglect the most complicated sections of Revolutions, especially when these concern obsolete mathematical minutiae.

The explicit goal of Uncentering is to distill and clarify Copernicus’s theorems. Vollmann takes a tone of easy scholarship, afloat on a kind of self-assured cheer. The book reads like a conversation with a favorite professor lately gone emeritus, who still drops by the campus for a bull session now and again.

Maybe Vollmann is speaking truthfully when he writes about how hard Copernicus is for him to read, or when he complains about some passage or proof whose logic he can’t quite parse, but I became suspicious that he was just trying to be nice. In a footnote to a chapter on the orbits of Venus he notes “it took me an embarrassingly long time to grasp that… all I needed to do was divide each measure of arc-minutes or arc-seconds by 60 to obtain the proper ratio: 40.42. Never mind my stupidity.” While the self-deprecation is amusing, and apparently earnestly rather than falsely modest, the gesture is contextualized by the abstruse character and mathematical difficulty of what he’s grappling with and rendering palatable. I think he’s just trying to downplay the almost frightening prospect of just how smart he really is.

Don’t believe me? In the chapter entitled “Burnings,” which considers various Church-led attacks waged on heliocentric theory, Vollmann writes that “[John] Calvin is said to have denounced him thus: ‘Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?’ (But I cannot get hold of Calvin’s works… and another authority assures me: ‘Never having heard of him, Calvin had no attitude toward Copernicus.’)” Is it just me or did Vollmann just say that he’d have read the collected works of Calvin to check for Copernicus references? The deal-breaker, moreover, not the scope of such an undertaking but that he couldn’t get hold of the works!

Uncentering the Earth is divided into chapters packed with titled subchapters, a hallmark of Vollmann’s style. The subchapters facilitate a readerly inertia, propelling you from one to another to another. The titles are shrewdly chosen to reinforce sub-themes, and often do double-duty as blackly funny one-liners. Chapters themselves switch off between exegesis of the Copernican text, studies of specific astronomical cases, and discussions of the limits of thought at different points in history.

“In spite of my naïve hopes,” Vollmann confesses in a late exegetical chapter, “this book is… less an explication of Revolutions than a discussion of the issues which its reading engenders.” He may be sorry, but it’s one more thing I’m thankful for. Vollmann the Thinker is an hundred times the pleasure of Vollmann the Distiller of Numbers, and it is the former incarnation who brings the world of Copernicus’s day to brilliant life. This is Vollmann at the top of his game, and where the book’s real action is.

An emphatic empathizer, he dares us to consider the would-be villains of the tale on their own terms. “From my own perspective,” he writes, “these proceedings seem monstrously unfair. I believe in freedom of thought and self-expression. The dignitaries at the Council of Trent did not. But remember this in their favor: They were faithful to their postulates not only out of loyalty but also because for them it was their science; it was logically true. We would be omitting a crucial part of the story if we devalued these men’s ability to manipulate quantities and qualities just as rationally as we.” He also expresses a solemn respect for anyone who would undertake so bold and weirdly pious a quest as the search for scientific proof of God’s perfection. This was the frequently articulated goal of the ancient philosophers (later scientists) from Plato to Copernicus and even onward.

Very early in Uncentering, in a chapter analyzing the execrable preface to Revolutions added without permission by the church-cowed Osiander, Vollmann muses that “any number of time-darkened concepts might be polished bright again to serve as treasures for another era. Might [Osiander’s] preface’s notion that a particular course of abstruse study rocket us heavenward be one such jewel? Imagine how our lives would alter if we took that to heart! How many individuals do you know who’ve selected their vocations for the express purpose of apprehending perfection? (I’ve met some: artists, devout Muslims, teenaged lovers.) Wouldn’t perfection be more in evidence on Earth if a greater number of us devoted our lives to it?”

Vollmann has written some of the roughest and darkest prose that we have, most of it derived from first-hand experience. He has traveled the arctic alone, smoked crack and interviewed (and slept with) the prostitutes of at least two different continents, been shot at driving through a warzone, spoken frankly of the childhood drowning death of his sister and his perception of culpability in that accident -- the list goes on. If you can’t put yourself through The Royal Family at least treat yourself to The Atlas. His journalism is without equal. Even at his densest and least loveable his works suffer not from the weight of drear but from the unrelenting character of their depiction -- which is to say that the works do not suffer; we do.

Driving Vollmann’s pen, if not his life, is his own quest for Truth, and I shouldn’t need to tell you that Truth is always already Perfection. “The law of divinity is to lead the lowest through the intermediate to the highest things,” Vollmann quotes an unspecified Pope as saying; and the pope in turn is quoting St. Dionysus, and considering who he was named for we can perhaps arch all the way back to Plato and close the circuit. (The circle, of course, being the perfect and thus Godliest of figures, which is why, Vollmann explains, that even after Copernicus uncentered the earth he still could not bear to accept elliptical planetary orbits, whose existence he had ample proof of.)

If I’m tempted to propose, again impertinently, that assigning Vollmann the Herculean labor of dealing with the Copernican legacy was no less than justice itself, his satisfactory completion of said task then should only assure us that Vollmann is our literary Hercules.

Uncentering the Earth: Copernicus and the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres by William T. Vollmann
Atlas Books
ISBN 0393059693
240 Pages

Justin Taylor is an editor at Halfdrunkmuse.com, a poetry quarterly. Visit his personal website at http://www.justindtaylor.net/