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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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7 occurrences of Dictionary_of_the_History_of_Ideas
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III

1. We must devote particular attention to the hy-
potheses about the birth and death of worlds; they were
bound to have privileged connections with the imagi-
nation through the overtones they awaken in the
darkest regions of human sensibility.

There is hardly any question here of anything sug-
gestive of the Parmenideans. We are about to talk of
those who are friends of Change when it assumes the
form which is closest to our inner being: the life cycle.
The lovers of change conceived the evolution of the
world as a biological process, a favorite model of
explanation especially from the start of the eighteenth
century.

In particular two modes of the genesis of worlds
excite the imagination, and one of them is especially
explosive and violent. Out of a primordial star, father
of worlds, are born secondary heavenly bodies; the
planets escape from their suns, and these suns escape
from the “Sun of Suns”: by means of centrifugal force
(Emmanuel Swedenborg, Principa rerum naturalium,
1734) or by means of a collision with a comet (G. L.
L. de Buffon, Théorie de la terre, 1745). For the scien-
tist, it seems, a rational explanation is in order, but
reverie takes hold of it and the dreamer sees a seminal
emission or childbirth instead. This fantasy slips easily
into the dream of the Great Pulsation. The Sun-father
becomes the God Saturn who devours his children;
then, after a period of digestion, which is also a gesta-
tion, he procreates them again.

Opposed to this violent parturition there is a type
of slow, mysterious genesis whose prestige is bound to
be much greater than the violent type, since the
Mother nostalgia is powerful among most men. Only
this nostalgia can explain the capture of the imagina-
tion by the idea of “Prime Matter,” which revives the
old dream of primordial waters. In rationalistic cen-
turies while scientific astronomy makes progress, we
shall see the triumph of cosmogonies which owe not
their development but their success among the profane


521

or semi-profane to strong unconscious motivations.

The first and one of the most grandiose unitary
systems of the formation and evolution of the world
was Kant's Theorie des Himmels (1755), conceived
six years earlier when he was twenty-five. Like
many a great mind, Kant reconciled within himself
two contrary tendencies. From the Parmenidean he
sought a holistic structure: “a single system... a single
general law in an eternal and perfect order.” He in-
herited from his time a corpuscular Matter scattered
to infinity in an infinite space. He reestablished an
effective center, but it was not a geometric one, which
would be absurd for an infinite universe. The first
condensed nucleus was to become the Central Body
of the Universe. And if it was not God's throne, as
Wright would have it, at least this Sun of Suns had
a most extraordinary density and power of attraction.

Nevertheless, the Heraclitean tendency is dominant
in the young cosmologist. The order of the universe
is always in the process of being worked out. As in
Laplace's hypothesis of the origin of the solar system,
rings of gaseous vapors start turning around the primi-
tive star, break off, condense, and thus form systems
of concentric zones farther and farther away from the
center. As the organized universe wins over chaos, the
earliest born worlds grow old and disintegrate through
the wear of motion. And so there reappears an internal
zone of unorganized matter, though this chaos cannot
remain at rest more than an instant; active forces start
to work on it again, and while the cosmic bubble
expands to infinity, a new bubble swells at its center.
Whence the dynamic Universe has an equilibrium
guaranteed by a central mass, but it is perpetually
broken and reestablished like the march or progress
of man. The Scale of Perfection is not a fixed one either,
but is constantly adding new gradations. In fact, the
further one goes away from the center, the more does
the finer attenuated matter show itself gently yielding
to the soul embodied in it, and the distant planets are
the most perfect abode of the most perfect creations.
However, that absolute Beauty which resides in the
realization of all possible worlds is never completely
attained.

No matter how intellectual the young philosopher
Kant may be, he is still under the shadow of the pres-
tige of the idea of genesis. When he approaches this
chapter, he speaks of the “ravishing charm of the
subject.” He takes some delight in evoking a primordial
matter buried “in a silent night,” but possessing “in
its essence” the forces which are the sources of motion
and life. Sleep is only apparent in this maternal obscu-
rity, in the depths of which Kant saw seeds of worlds
germinating: “It is not a minor pleasure to let the
imagination wander to the limits of the creation
achieved in the realm of chaos.” More than that is the
way the death of worlds is seen as a phase of that
eternal process, visible also in flowers and insects, a
process which the philosopher has to accept, not with
resignation but with a certain delight.

2. Kant's hypothesis, like many syntheses of geniuses,
remained ignored in his time. But at the beginning of
the nineteenth century, another hypothesis emerged
which was to enjoy a resounding success through the
associations it awakened in the imagination, namely,
the idea of a Primordial Nebula.

The idea did not come out of Kant's system, but from
the observations of J. F. W. Herschel on nebulae. These
remote cosmic clouds exercised a strange attraction as
soon as they were discovered. Herschel had discerned
in these accumulated gases that the nebular matter
condensed more or less around more luminous nuclei;
he had thought he recognized in them embryonic stars
in various stages of development (Memoir, 1811). Lap-
lace took up the idea, and brought it closer to home
by applying it to the formation of the solar system
(Système du monde, 1824). For Laplace, a particularly
objective scientist, astronomy was “the solution of a
large problem in mechanics.” Concerned solely with
explaining the direction of planetary motion, he offered
his account “with all the reservations that should be
induced by everything which is not a result of observa-
tion and reasoning.” And he said this in a terse and
coldly neutral tone. Now we know that this theory met
with an enormous success, a success whose causes are
far from being purely intellectual (even among true
astronomers).

Thanks to Herschel, and then to Laplace, an exalted
idea, taken up again by many cosmologists (e.g., H.
Faye, and by J. H. Jeans, The Nebular Hypothesis,
1923), was to fascinate the imagination: the genesis of
the universe is in continual process under our very eyes.
And philosopher-poets like Lamennais multiplied such
metaphors: for example, the worlds “appear to us at
first like the small egg in which the liquid of life
thickens gradually” (Esquisse d'une philosophie, IV
[1846]).

The gropings of scientific explanations take turns in
thwarting or favoring the nebular reverie. Telescopes
of increasingly greater power reveal in the nebulae no
longer fragments of primordial chaos waiting to give
birth to new worlds, but simple masses of stars, a far
less exciting idea. Herschel was familiar with this dis-
appointment, but the strongest disappointment was
caused by the giant telescope of Lord Rosse (1845).
The imagination, however, takes refuge in its origins;
if prime matter no longer exists as the mother of
worlds, at least it has existed. The joy of seeing creation
in the process makes room for the nostalgia of the


522

vanished Mother, and especially of our nebula, the
Mother of our solar family (in the poetry of J.
Laforgue). The resurrection, by means of spectrum
analysis, of the gaseous nebula (1864) released, for
example, in Flammarion's Astronomie populaire (1864;
Popular Astronomy, 1879), a delight whose sources are
suspicious. Henceforth, said the astronomer, we can
see in these “lights which palpitate on the frontiers
of creation” the “genesis which shows us the birth of
other Universes.” It was the same emotion of young
Kant concerning the fringes of Chaos.

The discovery of spiral nebulae (1845) threw the
dream again on to new paths. The observer thought
himself the eyewitness of the great tournament thanks
to which systems have been formed. The arms of the
spiral can only be imagined as moving, as either curling
up or unrolling. Whether it is a condensation or dis-
persion, it is still a matter of genesis. The whirlwind
motion (very different from circular rotation, eternally
the same) is essentially creative. Dispersion triumphs
in the hypotheses of S. Arrhenius (Evolution of Worlds,
1907) and of J. H. Jeans (The Universe Around Us,
1929) which have so powerfully affected the modern
imagination.

3. The death of universes appeals to the imagination
no less than their birth; but it does so in two very
different ways. It can exert a horrifying fascination or
can be joyfully accepted as a stage of the cycle of life
and condition of rebirth.

There is a problem here in which hidden individual
or social preferences play an important role; for from
the day when we are to be faced with the death of
universes as a physical phenomenon, several ends are
considered possible: death by cold, after the extinction
of the sun; by slow disintegration; by the return of the
planets to the Father Star in a final flare-up; by collision
with an intruder, e.g., an extinct star. These kinds of
death—for the earth, for the solar family, and for the
entire universe—may be reduced to two types, which
approximate the two old myths of the flood and the
burning: a slow death at night, a sudden death by fire.

Now there are eras in which concern for the end
of the world is absent, others in which eschatology
becomes obsessive. And the prevailing choice is not
made for reasons that are essentially scientific, even
among scientists. Apparently before and during periods
of crisis, the imagination finds some satisfaction in
imagining a cosmic cataclysm, followed or not by a
renovated world; whereas in periods of disappointment
and political stagnation, the nightmare of a slow death
predominates. Thus, before and during the French
Revolution and the Empire, the expectation of a catas-
trophe dominated the mind; on the other hand, after
1815, and then again in the 1880's, the obsession of
universal darkness weighed on the imagination. Of
course, there are exceptions and distinctions that should
be made.

The appeal of a slow death during the night may
manifest itself in two very distinct ways, for there are
two nights: one, the gentle enveloping night, represents
to the unconscious the Mother rocking her child;
worlds allowed to fall asleep in her arms return to
primordial matter or to the nebulous in order to be
born again rejuvenated. But there is another night,
which is a Void at absolute zero, and is associated in
the unconscious with a devouring mother, who is far
from preparing for any rebirth. Now there are types
of men who not only aspire to an annihilating void
but desire to extend it to all, to “being” itself; and
this suicidal desire extends to the cosmic plane. This
disease of the imagination, encouraged by the vogue
of Schopenhauer, prevailed all over Europe during the
1880's and 1890's. We can also see a return of the
Parmenidean imagination in the haunting fear, then
current, of petrification in various forms: the com-
placent evocation of a dried-up earth reduced to a
skeleton or rock, caught in a shroud of ice or salt. The
vision that Galileo scoffed at, an earth turned to a
desert of sand or block of jasper, became once again,
through disgust with life, the nostalgia of a decadent
generation.

Among cosmologists the physics of that period justi-
fied an increasing and total torpor of the universe worn
out by its motion and by the degradation of its energy.
Hervé Faye (Théories cosmogoniques, 1884), for in-
stance, offers an impressive table of these “dark and
icy globes circulating in the gloom of eternal night.”
Similarly with Flammarion (La fin du monde, 1894)
and with countless works of fiction and poetry, we find
the same images reproduced.

4. The death of worlds by the ordeal of fire exerts
a strange fascination on other minds. The appeal of
flames has retained the attention of psychoanalysts, in
particular, of G. Bachelard (Psychanalyse du feu,
1938). Fire for the unconscious mind has two opposing
functions, one destructive and the other regenerative.
On the cosmic plane, the destroyer Fire, the Fire of
Anger, devours and volatilizes worlds. But beneficial
and fecund Fire, like the burning woodpile of the
Phoenix, restores new life to the world transfigured.

This great flame, which is an integral part of biblical
prophecies of the Doomsday, as also of the pagan myth
of the “Eternal Return,” is one that cosmologists find
excuses for integrating into the evolution of their uni-
verse, not so much through their fidelity to tradition
as through a deep attraction to it. In England, Thomas


523

Burnet (Telluris theoria sacra, 1681), William Whiston
(New Theory of the Earth, 1696), and J. Ray (Three
Physico-theological Discourses,
1713) fell back on the
Holy Book. The French enlighteners, like Delisle de
Sales or Restif de la Bretonne, who were little con-
cerned with the Bible, opted for the flames and the
eternal return because these satisfied their insatiable
appetite for life and enjoyment. But right in the middle
of the nineteenth century, a genuine astronomer, J. P.
Nichol, believing he saw the nebulae rolling up and
turning into globes, secretly hoped that the universe
was marching “up to that mysterious terminating
glory” (Architecture of the Heavens, 1838). And this
was the message which aroused in the fantasy of Poe
the final flames of his Eureka.

In order to spark the conflagration, as an unconscious
desire urges, cosmologists at the end of the century
resorted to the shock of the collision of two worlds.
It was a matter of a more fortuitous and more partial
version of the eternal return, lacking the aesthetic rigor
of Poe's system, but having a more immediate physical
verisimilitude. The comet has always been given the
role of torch-bearer; meeting it is a fearful thing, like
meeting love, but a new life can be expected of it.
The comet stands in line among the hypotheses of
Flammarion concerning the end of the world, and in
1910, materialized by Halley's comet, it was to let
loose a flood of fears and hopes. At the end of the
nineteenth century, the comet found rivals in the ex-
tinct stars with which Faye, Flammarion, and their
followers peopled space, and which revived the old
myth of the Dark Sun.

Universal death by the degradation of energy and
total stabilization at absolute zero in absolute night
was a tolerable vision only for the decadent family of
minds of the catastrophists obsessed with the idea of
the impending death of the universe. Others refused
to accept it. This deathly equilibrium, before being
definitely established, was to be broken constantly by
some shock, transforming into heat the energy of mo-
tion; such was the “impact theory” of James Croll
(Stellar Evolution, 1889). So it was at the beginning:
the primordial spark jumped between two cold and
black masses. So will it eternally be. This fascinating
vision, resembling the alchemists' dreams, the marriage
of two dead stars giving birth to a glorious child, is
the view adopted by Flammarion (Astronomie popu-
laire, La fin du monde
). It was also the vision of a
cosmologist who enjoyed great prestige in the first third
of the twentieth century: Svante Arrhenius (L'Évolu-
tion des mondes,
1907). He insisted on the fabulous
reserve of energy—therefore, of life and fecundity—
which can remain in an extinct star until a collision
awakens it; and this impact gives birth either to a new
star (nova) or to a spiral nebula; a striking sketch shows
the two powerful jets of fire shooting out and whirling
about. This impact theory was then popularized by
H. Poincaré (Hypothèses cosmogoniques, 1911), by
Abbé Moreux, and by M. Maeterlinck (La grande
féerie,
1929).

Now, starting in 1927, the theory of the expanding
universe took shape and satisfied once again the need
for a unitary pulsation of the great Totality of the
universe. Minds repugnant to the idea of Infinity took
refuge in the curvature of space. To those who fear
cold and darkness, the nuclear furnace of the sun has
appeared inexhaustible; the quasars enable one to
dream of fabulous stores of energy. Articles populariz-
ing science suggest to us every day that light, the
cosmic voyager par excellence, traveling for billions
of years might end up by bringing back news of the
Creation. Astronomy still appeals to all types of imagi-
nation, to lovers of the immutable as well as to lovers
of change, provided that they can detach themselves
from the individual destiny of man and lose themselves
in that which surpasses them and all things.