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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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COSMIC IMAGES
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7 occurrences of Dictionary_of_the_History_of_Ideas
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COSMIC IMAGES

I

1. Astronomy may be broadly defined as any attempt
at a logical explanation of celestial motions. For a long
time this science was based essentially on calculation.
Indeed, the distance of objects at first confined obser-
vation within certain limits; the positive data acquired
were limited to the study of positions and displace-
ments. However, this descriptive knowledge was ex-
tended naturally by scientific hypotheses. With the use
of Galileo's telescope (1610) observation leaped for-
ward as did speculation about the constitution of
heavenly bodies. But astrophysics really began only
with spectrum analysis (1859). Despite constant
progress, our knowledge of astrophysics will probably
remain, even in our time, indirect and limited; specu-
lation and imagination will both probably continue to
enjoy more or less an open field.

Imagination—the ability to elicit, forge, and connect
a chain of images—is necessarily oriented and main-
tained by preferences of taste and sensibility. We shall
here consider imagination as a comprehensive faculty
which involves the whole of our psychical life from
the most intellectualized level to the depths of the
unconscious. Now the field of astronomy makes a pow-
erful appeal to this faculty or power of imagination.
Nothing is more important to man than to have a view
of the universe as a whole, because all life on earth
depends on cosmic cycles and because the celestial
world surrounding us seems to exert a compelling
influence on man's destiny. The idea of a corre-
spondence between Macrocosm and Microcosm
strengthens the bonds between the mind of man and
the Universe. In the view of philosophers, the cosmos,
the whole of God's creation, is the very archetype of
any harmonious construction of the mind and the
pattern of any work of art. From the time when the
Earth is no longer the fixed center of a closed world,
the proportions in the mind's picture of the universe
change; but as the Earth shrinks the importance of the
Universe grows. The idea that man makes of the world,
therefore, affects on all levels that power of imagina-
tion which we have said engages his whole mental life.

2. Let us start from the highest level. We owe to
A. O. Lovejoy the idea of “metaphysical pathos”; we
may prefer the more general term, “the pathos of
abstract ideas.” Certain ideas of this kind, despite their
barren appearance, awaken in different temperaments
various reactions of a specifically emotional resonance.
No better definition of this phenomenon can be given
here than that of Kant in his Theory of the Heavens
(Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels,
1755): “If the aspect of so perfect a totality stirs the
imagination, a delight of another sort grips the intel-
lect, all the more so when it considers how so many
magnificent and grand consequences flow from a single
general law....” Kant's intellectual delight here was
stimulated by a consummately abstract idea: the har-
mony of a unified explanation.

Like this aesthetic emotion, to which it is closely
allied, the intellectual emotion often originates on a
level where obscure stimuli, difficult to bring to light,
can yield only an incomplete explanation of their
effects, so enriched are they by the development of
culture and thought. However, certain cosmic hy-
potheses appeal to unconscious predilections which are
comparatively easy to detect: such are all dreams about
genesis. In order to expose the origins of these imagi-
native constructions we shall look to the undisputed
gains of the main psychoanalytical schools (but without
referring to any of the strictly orthodox among them).

Here, however, we shall adopt a working hypothesis:
there exist families of minds, each corresponding to
a type of cosmic imagination; furthermore, the manner
in which a thinker conceives and imagines the universe
is the best key to the character of his mind.

Since attempts at classifying minds according to
ways of imagining the world have been made before,
our course has already been charted. G. Bachelard has
distinguished four types based on their respective
modes of dreaming about the elements, and we shall
meet them on the way. However, we prefer to follow
the ideas of A. O. Lovejoy, A. N. Whitehead, M. H.
Nicolson, and A. Koestler who have brought to light
a certain polarity and classified minds in two opposing
groups, which will be described below as the Parme-
nidean and the Heraclitean. The works of these four
authors, based on the study of scientific ideas and their
reverberation in the poetic imagination, are to be
joined to the conclusions of other inquirers whose
starting point is different, namely, those who have been
occupied with the idea of the baroque in the arts and
literature: H. Wölfflin, E. d'Ors, and J. Rousset. There
would then be two types of minds, one attracted


514

strongly by permanence, the other by change. The first
are usually called “classical,” the second either “ro-
mantic” or “baroque.” We prefer to follow Koestler's
suggestion, and designate the two types of mind under
the names respectively of two precursors of cos-
mogony: Parmenides and Heraclitus.

The Parmenidean places himself outside of time and
takes the side of the eternal. Underneath his choice,
one can detect perhaps a fear, a recoil from whatever
is transformed, crumbles, decays...; in short, he
recoils from the biological laws which include decom-
position as an integral part. Because he fears death,
the Parmenidean does not love life. But there is some-
thing more: an aesthetic taste, a choice of an idea, and
at times, a religious motivation.

The forms of cosmic pathos to which the follower
of Parmenides is susceptible are those which have come
to terms with the Eternal, attracted by the purity and
rigidity of an incorruptible substance. Everything
enters into a clear and stable harmony: the Pythago-
rean aesthetic of numbers and configurations, the circle
and sphere as types of perfection; and as the divine
type of motion a steady eternal rotation, equivalent
to the unmoveable. With a greater degree of com-
plexity, the Music and Dance of the planets appear
in a harmony of numbers and combination of configu-
rations in a similarly experienced duration and in
strictly determined limits.

For this aesthetic of the Eternal is an aesthetic of
the Finite: what is perfect or complete necessarily has
limits. It is also the aesthetic of Discontinuity and of
Hierarchy: the Scale of Being is fixed with distinct
levels in the Parmenidean cosmos. Each thing has
its place, and the thinking man enjoys the pleasure
of feeling that he is in his right place. It is an aes-
thetic of immutable Unity, and not of a process of
Fusion.

The Parmenidean thinker is more or less suscep-
tible—and susceptibility varies in degree with each
individual—to the pathos of Unity in explanation, of
simplicity in basic assumptions, and of implacable rigor
in formulated laws. There is also the pathos of ideal
exactness in the appropriation and coherence of a
well-knit network of logical correspondences and rela-
tions which take in the whole of creation and leave
nothing out.

As for the Heraclitean, he is susceptible to the pathos
of Becoming, and in order that it may unfold and reveal
itself, he needs the Unlimited. If we seek any deep
motivation, we discover a taste for life which accepts
everything which life implies, including death as a
condition for a new birth. There is a boldness in his
outlook which rejects protection and authority, and
assumes a willingness to take risks of all sorts. The
appeal of the Heraclitean kind of pathos to instinctive
forces and to the Unconscious is naturally greater than
it is in the Parmenidean family of minds.

The Heraclitean type includes everything arising out
of the fascination of change, and transfers to the cosmic
plane whatever is integral to the cycle of life. There
are dreams of life's genesis: the pathos of Birth and
its original freshness, the pathos of continuous Creation
and its inexhaustible onward surge. There are dreams
of life's evolution: the pathos of continuity and of the
flow of the forms of life. Opposing the Parmenidean
pathos of Unity is that of Variety: the taste for profusion
and even disorder; the taste for the irregular, the origi-
nal, the unique which will feed the dream of the
plurality of worlds. In opposition to the joy of feeling
satisfied with being “in one's place,” there is the intox-
ication of being lost in the swarming proliferation of
universal Being. In order to accommodate all these
wonderful things, the true Heraclitean requires Pleni-
tude, a fullness within the Infinity of space, akin to
the infinity of God and to the unlimited capacity of
the soul of man.

While the Parmenidean accepts hierarchy and its
hemmed-in gradations, the Heraclitean, on the other
hand, is alive to the pathos of absolute freedom; and
in certain eras, he experiences the pathos of liberation,
of transport, and of flight without thought of return.
He is a traveler in the mind. Lastly, the science of
motion for him is not mechanics but dynamics. Cosmic
energies are absorbed in vital forces; he is receptive
not to steady and completely smooth rotation, but
welcomes the conflict of opposites, tension, and effort,
so that his Universe tends to be polarized.

3. In practice it is not always easy to classify types
of imagination because there are mixed forms. Some-
times the same myth can be sensed in two opposite
ways, e.g., in the case of the idea of Eternal Return.
There are, after all, pathological cases: obsessions
which cannot be judged as preferences, but as feelings
of disgust and terror; there also exist minds that are
perverted or paralyzed by the dominant world view
of their times. In fact, different sorts of individual
characters are encouraged or modified by the spirit of
the times. Philosophical influences play their role in
the predominance of different types of imagination,
e.g., whenever the Platonic influence is foremost, the
heavens claim more attention; on the other hand, the
Aristotelian influence turns the mind away from too
eager concern about outer space. Furthermore, in the
interaction of scientific research and cosmic dreams,
the scale of science and imagination is displaced to
the extent that the former makes itself independent


515

of the latter. Man's effort to confine science to involve-
ment with his deeper wishes becomes more and more
difficult, although never discouraged.

4. For we must take into account a phenomenon
often noted but never explained: a sort of respiratory
rhythm in history, a psychological balancing-wheel,
which creates kinships between one epoch and another,
separated by long intervals. According to E. d'Ors, a
classical era is followed by a baroque era; in the cos-
mological imagination, a Parmenidean era is followed
by a Heraclitean era. Intellectual rigor gives way to
an insurgence of instinctive forces. There are whole-
some but harsh disciplines (like Aristotelianism) which
are obstacles to such revolts; then the day comes when
the barrier collapses. It was maintained by timidity;
all of a sudden fear has disappeared, and the attractive
but disturbing doctrines regain their sway and release
an enormous internal flood of images. These move-
ments are difficult to explain, for social causation does
not help; neither do the discoveries of new worlds or
of Greek manuscripts. But they must be recognized
and taken into account.

We can indicate summarily some of these intellectual
rhythms. The triumph of scholastic philosophy in the
thirteenth century inaugurated a Parmenidean era in
cosmology. The Florentine Renaissance in the fifteenth
century inaugurated a Heraclitean era which was
joined with the Neo-Platonism of the first centuries;
the new spirit kept growing stronger making possible
the infinite worlds of Bruno's cosmology and the dis-
coveries of Kepler and Galileo. The seventeenth cen-
tury saw the opposition between classical French
thought dominated by Descartes and British thought
dominated by the appeal of the infinite. Newton rec-
onciled temporarily the two tendencies by satisfying
both. But the eighteenth century, in the main super-
ficially classical, marked a return to the Renaissance,
to a taste for magic and the occult; Leibniz' philoso-
phy, whose influence was enormous, strengthened the
renewed need for Plenitude, infinite Diversity, and
creative profusion. And the nineteenth century, despite
the steady progress of pure science, was to see, about
every twenty years, a return of this Leibnizian intel-
lectual outlook accompanied by the flourishing growth
of the same dreams; for example, the plurality of in-
habited worlds offered itself to a plurality of existing
beings in a continuous ascent towards an unattainable
Perfection.

The relations between imagination and astronomy
will be studied here from two points of view: how
imagination favors or obstructs the efforts of true sci-
entists; and how, among nonspecialists, it takes posses-
sion of discoveries, distorts them, and supplements
them in its own way. We shall give only some attention
to the second point of view.

II

1. We shall consider astronomy at the time when
it began to stir, that is, when the sky was discovered
to be observable, when the personality of astronomers
and their relations to their cultural environment be-
came more accessible to investigation. And we shall
follow this intellectual adventure only until the first
third of the twentieth century when the Einsteinian
theory of relativity gradually brought to the uninitiated
an unimaginable world. Individual psychology will be
only a secondary consideration. (Kepler's psychology,
for example, has been admirably studied by Nicolson
and Koestler.) It is rather the turn of imagination
characterizing a whole era which will be discussed
here.

We start with the Ptolemaic cosmos, an improve-
ment on Aristotle, whose reign, established in the
thirteenth century, was soon to crumble. Ptolemaic
astronomy provided a home for the Parmenidean imagi-
nation and satisfied both of its intellectual and aes-
thetic demands: a refuge secured by the closed-in
cavernous Cosmos in which the stars, solidly attached
to their spherical vaults of rigid ether, followed these
spheres in their eternal rounds. It provided, with a
sense of security, the intellectual satisfaction of simple
mathematical relations and the aesthetic delight of a
perfect harmony: circles and spheres, inserted within
a single finite Sphere outside of which nothing existed
except the world of pure minds.

It is true that this perfect image was merely a
simplification, for the uninitiated, of a more hetero-
geneous and complicated view. There was the duality,
unacceptable to a rigorous mind, of the incorruptible
superlunar spheres and of the impure sublunar sphere
of the Earth subject to change, this very Earth which
paradoxically formed the center of the whole system,
i.e., usurped what was, for the spontaneous imagina-
tion, the place of honor. Only astrological influences
wove a network from one world to the other without
succeeding in unifying them. There was also the in-
creasing complexity of celestial mechanics accom-
panying progress in the observation of celestial move-
ments, which required the refinement of Ptolemy's
system; efforts made to “save the appearances” and
to preserve the dogma of the Circle greatly compro-
mised the simple harmony of the Great Dance. The
aim of Copernicus' De revolutionibus (1543) was pre-
cisely to restore that simplicity, and to do it by return-
ing to the heliocentric view of Pythagoreans like
Heraclides of Pontus. Copernicus, as Koestler has


516

shown, was Parmenidean: to solve the mathematical
problem of the world, Copernicus sought a more ele-
gant solution than Ptolemy's and wished to repair the
old clock by changing the arrangement of its wheels.

However, around Copernicus an intellectual ferment
was taking place in which he did not seem to partici-
pate; and, as in times of crises, the two families of
minds became self-conscious and opposed each other.

The return to favor of Neo-Platonism at the end of
the fifteenth century contributed to the unification of
the world. Marsilio Ficino explained astrological influ-
ences by the Spirit of the World (Spiritus mundi), a
kind of vital fluid which came from the stars and
planets to impregnate our earthly abode (De vita libri
tres,
1489). Thinkers were thus prepared to accept the
unity of substance between our Earth and the other
heavenly bodies. Moreover, the Platonic cult of the
divine Light and of the Sun as the image of the Idea
of the Good, encouraged these thinkers to accept the
central place which Copernicus was to assign to this
orb, and he did so with visible satisfaction. In addition,
they were prepared to accept the role of the Sun as
the mover of the planets, a role which Kepler was later
to attribute to it (Astronomia nova, 1609).

Moreover, a new state of mind was created: man
took confidence in his powers to explore the world and
to make use of it, affirming an idea that the world was
put at his disposal by God. The outstanding work in
which this assurance was expressed is the Oration on
the Dignity of Man
(1436) by Pico della Mirandola.
For the first time Prometheus had a clear conscience.
A new boldness inspired him: he no longer needed the
safeguard of a protective shell; the rigid casement of
the celestial spheres seemed like a prison to him, as
did the infallible doctrine of Aristotle. A curiosity that
was both more exact and more extended encouraged
voyages of exploration, and in turn was developed by
them. This curiosity extended to the celestial domain,
where it was believed there was nothing more to dis-
cover. Finally, a fresh love of life led to the joyous
acceptance of everything life brought with it: genera-
tion and decay. Alchemy contributed to this appraisal
of the vital cycle that was thought to be realized in
the alchemist's oven (athanor); and the incorruptible
nature of the starry world lost its prestige. This cult
of life and this explorer's sort of boldness found perfect
expression in Galileo (Dialogue on the Two Main Sys-
tems of the World,
1632). In this work he proclaimed
the superiority of the living over the static:

As for me, I hold the Earth as noble and admirable because
of the numerous and varied alterations, mutations, and
generative changes that take place in it.

And with regard to Aristotle's authority:

Only the blind need a guide, but anyone with two eyes
in his head and with a mind should use them to guide
himself.

However, this turn of mind had asserted itself much
earlier. Thanks to it certain events in the sky—the
outburst of new stars (the Novae of 1572 and 1604)
and the passing of comets, introducing change in the
immutable superlunar heaven—created a sensation and
excited discussions. Concerning the Copernican clock-
work, the followers of Heraclitus would maintain above
all that the “Sphere of the Fixed Stars” had become
useless because it no longer moved; it could dissolve
and open out on the Infinite. It was thus that, before
the crucial astronomical discoveries were made, G.
Bruno (in his Dialogues, 1584) was able to put forth
through the power of his imagination a typical
Heraclitean cosmos: an infinite space, infinitely full,
an inexhaustible, creative gushing of energy, an un-
limited number of suns as centers of as many infinitely
varied planetary systems, endless degrees of Perfection,
an equilibrium in motion, a network of transformations
and of perpetually new forms—all of it alive and giving
birth to life. No hesitancy in Bruno; he trampled with
the rapturous fury of an iconoclast over the ruins of
the old cosmos, and the impulse of liberation and
departure on his part was unattended by any appre-
hensiveness or by any looking back. From Bruno came
the avid concern for the infinite which we find in
British thought of the seventeenth century; following
Bruno also, intoxication with life and variety was
henceforth linked to the theme of the “Plurality of
Worlds,” a theme which would still be alive in the
work of Camille Flammarion and in novels of the
twentieth century.

2. Bruno will be remembered for a long time as a
bold and audacious soul, gifted with an unusually fiery
temperament. It was, however, by following the path
of observation that astronomy leaped forward with
Kepler and Galileo; the spirit of the times was all for
observation. It was a novel thing to devote so much
time and effort to determining the orbit of Mars, and
especially to do what Kepler did, not without anguish,
namely, to sacrifice doctrine for facts and the dogma
of the perfect circle for the evidence of the ellipse.
It would have been unthinkable, a half century earlier,
to perfect, as Galileo did, a magnifying lens as a tele-
scope directed towards unknowable celestial bodies,
and to accept the facts of a moon with mountains, a
sun soiled with spots, and celestial bodies woven out
of the same elements as the earth.

However, the victory of the sons of Heraclitus was
hotly disputed. What resisted change and the infinite
was not primarily, as is commonly believed, the con-


517

servatism of the Church and the Aristotelian School-
men, but rather a bundle of prejudices which occupied
the framework of their inner lives. It is hard to under-
stand today the moral collapse which the crumbling
of the immutable Firmament signified for the sons of
Parmenides. After losing the physical shelter and moral
asylum of that deathless sphere towards which he could
look for a refuge, man felt as exposed as a mollusk
whose shell is broken. In the Dialogues of Bruno and
of Galileo, the Parmenidean role is played by car-
icatured persons: “Where then is that beautiful order
and that elegant hierarchy of Nature?” moans Bruno's
critical interlocutor. Still the bewilderment and confu-
sion of Simplicius and his like are natural and worthy
of compassion. John Donne spoke the same language:
“... all coherence gone.” Even in the soul of the
innovators opposing reactions conflict with one another
and block progress.

The case of Kepler is typical. This great mind
brought together within himself in tense opposition
Heraclitus and Parmenides. He started from a dream
of classical harmony, from a Pythagorean worship of
numbers and shapes. He shied away from the Infinite,
because nobody could locate any determinate place
in it (De stella nova, 1606). He needed a hierarchy,
a special nobility for the Sun and the Earth. His uni-
verse has a center, it remains spherical, and his pro-
portions are based on the regular solids, perfect poly-
gons, and musical harmonies (Harmonice mundi, 1619).
Kepler made sure to integrate into this equilibrium the
discoveries of his own calculations: the elliptical orbits
of the planets and the inequalities of their motion.

But Kepler's geometric God is also an energetic God;
the fusion of these two natures was achieved at the
summit of Kepler's genius. The sun, image of the Fa-
ther, is the source of life and motion; from the central
astral body, there emanates a “moving force,” an “im-
material substance” which draws the planets, an idea
which came close to Newton's universal force of at-
traction. In Kepler's Pythagorean cosmos, we have the
first model of a dynamic universe, the first hint of
Energy.

3. A few years after Kepler's discoveries, mechanism
triumphed over vitalistic dynamism in science and in
the formulation of celestial motions.

Descartes was not an astronomer, but his cosmology
wielded a powerful influence on thinkers in many
countries as well as in France (Principles of Philosophy,
Latin ed., 1644; French, 1647; Treatise on the World,
posthumous, 1664). With respect to imagination Des-
cartes's case is unique. He is undoubtedly classical
in his preference for the simplicity of basic premisses
and for the inflexible Rigor of fixed Laws. Space was
not absolute and the Void did not exist; Descartes
started with an infinitely divisible and inert matter.
Perfect motion, for Descartes, would be the kind that
is determined by the principle of inertia, not in a circle
but in a straight line. However, this motion is impossi-
ble in a Plenum in which no particle could be moved
without displacing another—whence the Vortex, and
whence by friction the formation of three kinds of
particles. The most tenuous or subtle matter immedi-
ately fills all empty spaces; this dust forms the suns
and their planets. In all this there is no scale of values
or importance. So Descartes constructed, starting from
an initial simplicity, a complicated, unstable system
which was as stifling for an imagination in love with
life and freedom as it was repugnant for the soul in
love with harmony.

This system seemed, nonetheless, to satisfy both the
rigorousness and the imagination of Descartes. The
numerous images that he employed (eels twisted on
the floor of a boat, straws in the eddies of a river) bear
witness to his bias for minute displacements which
reduce the universe to terrestrial models.

And yet Descartes did serve the cosmic imagination:
he contributed greatly to the vogue of astronomy at
the end of the seventeenth century. Since his was an
unlimited universe, he satisfied those sensibilities that
hungered for the infinite. As he brought in a great
variety of vortices in perpetual combination and sepa-
ration, he drew in his wake the lovers of change and
diversity. He revived the great dream of the plurality
of inhabited worlds. He created an impression of
intimacy among these systems which come in contact
with each other and modify one another. Finally, by
introducing a cooling off of the sun or the impact of
a comet, Descartes provided, in his lifeless cosmos, for
death as a stage of the life-process. The end of the
world, formerly considered a supernatural event, had
now become Nature's threat; and it had to do with
a theme of fascinating astronomical dreaming, as we
shall see.

4. However, Newton's system of mathematical
physics (Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica,
1687) was going to offer a fuller and more lasting
satisfaction to both the types of minds defined above.
Newton as a scientist—prudent and modest—seems to
have been at first a mathematician preoccupied with
giving not an exhaustive explanation of the universe
but a simple and elegant equation. He was also a
religious man and wished to show the necessity of a
permanent divine activity in the construction and
working of the world-machine. He did not seem to
have foreseen the many consequences of his theory that
were often in conflict with one another.

To the classical type of imagination Newton offered
certainty and balance; real space and real motion in


518

relation to really immutable points; independent sys-
tems, each being supported by a practically fixed lumi-
nous body (a sun), around which dark bodies revolve
at wisely measured distances, all arranged by an infal-
lible Governor who is ready to repair any alteration.
Thus, he offered harmony in motion, not so different
from the Great Platonic Dance. But above all, his
system is charming for the wonderful simplicity of its
resources: once the Universe is set in motion by the
initial push which inertia perpetuates, a single force
suffices thereafter, namely, “universal attraction.”
From the Atomists and from Descartes, Newton in-
herited a unified idea of matter to which a universal
law could be applied; now the latter did not end up
with complications and disorder, as Cartesian me-
chanics did, but resulted in a more satisfying harmony.
The limitless character of this universe no longer con-
tradicts classical taste, henceforth adapted to the Infi-
nite for various reasons. Philosophical reflection from
Bruno to Henry More made acceptable, especially to
the British, the idea that an infinite God could find
his perfect image in an infinite creation. On their side
the Cartesians believed that the simplicity and rigor
of laws could suffice to assure the unity of a boundless
universe. The natural bent of their minds was to em-
phasize among Newton's classical disciples the reassur-
ing stability of this system as well as its unifying char-
acter. In the eighteenth century theories abounded in
attempts to reduce the two laws of motion to a single
one, and Louis de Tressan (1783) already utilized for
this purpose an electric fluid as a universal agent.

Now the romantic mind found in the Newtonian
world a still more complete satisfaction. The imagina-
tion in search of liberty and free flight found in
Newton's space a propitious and exalting medium.
Among the independent systems, all related to ours and
yet different from ours, in which we can imagine an
infinite variety of living forms, suited to delight the
human visitor, large spaces open up which evoke not
a dark and dry abyss, but a peaceful ocean welcoming
the navigator. The Void assured the elasticity of a very
tenuous ether and the smoothness of celestial motion;
it is bathed by an omnipresent Light, and especially
by the “very subtle Spirit” which Newton inherited
from Henry More and which, from the depth of
Newton's thought, assured the transmission of this
unexplained force of Attraction. The contemporaries
and successors of Newton went much farther and
imagined worlds related to one another by mysterious
life-messengers: imperishable seeds. The idea came
from a fanciful cosmologist who had been speaking for
Descartes, namely, B. de Maillet (Telliamed, 1748); but
Newton's system contributed to the success of this
fascinating dream, which was to be revived in the
twentieth century by the Swedish astronomer Svante
Arrhenius (The Evolution of Worlds, 1907). Thus
Newton's system stirred the bold imagination of those
who had inherited that proud confidence in the worth
of man which inspired the Renaissance and burst out
afresh in the eighteenth century. Newton is responsible
for the cosmic voyages of the mind which have multi-
plied in poetry and fiction.

Furthermore, Newton brought about the triumph of
a new pathos of dynamism. Universal gravitation for
the first time gave a universal value to the idea of mass:
the ancient and medieval celestial bodies were weight-
less. Now, the Creator became the athlete who shapes
and hurls these cannonballs. His poetic emblem is no
longer Milton's compass but Edward Young's scale-
balance (Night Thoughts, 1742-44). If the classical
mind tends to reduce to unity the agent of universal
motion, the romantic mind tends to polarize the world
and insists on seeing a conflict between the two forces,
repulsion and attraction. In contrast to Newton, the
romantic mind tends to make of both repulsion and
attraction forces which, though working in exactly
opposite directions, have the same nature; just as inex-
plicable on the physical plane as they appear similar
to psychical forces—Love and Hate—a view which
Empedocles had already declared.

According to H. Metzger, whom we follow here,
the paradoxical force of attraction, which mysteriously
acts at a distance, owed its career precisely to this
unconscious or conscious assimilation by the imagina-
tion. The idea that a thing is attracted by what it
resembles is also part of the primitive mentality; the
“active power of desire” experienced within us directly
is easily transferred to the external world. By reversing
this transfer the romantic imagination went on to see
in human love a particular case of the universal law
of Attraction. This confusion already inspired the sys-
tem of R. G. Boscovich (Theoria philosophia naturalis,
1758) and prevailed as late as the works of the astrono-
mer Camille Flammarion.

The equilibrium of the two forces, an equilibrium
so dear to classical minds, was capable of being shaken
by the baroque imagination in love with conflict and
in a close conspiracy with cataclysmic catastrophes.
Attraction and repulsion could take turns in triumph-
ing, the first reducing the world to a fabulously dense
molecule, the second expanding it and scattering it
anew, all this in accordance with a rhythm of alternat-
ing expansion and contraction: a dynamic and spatial
variant of the ancient “Eternal Return,” an idea which
has had an influential career since the middle of the
eighteenth century, enjoying favor that has lasted down
to our own times, thanks to the theory of the expanding
universe.


519

5. With Newton's system assuring the classical unity
of explanation, there were also minds for whom the
spatial unity of the architecture of the universe re-
mained such a desideratum that they went ahead and
worked at reconstructing the centralized universe of
the ancients.

The desire among these minds for a regular arrange-
ment of the stars on the celestial vault was at the base
of their reconstruction. If from the earth the skies
appear so irregular (a fact which Descartes found
shocking), it was because our vortex could not be the
center of the world; but there should exist a center
from which the celestial vault would appear in a per-
fect harmony. The first astronomical observations on
the displacement of the fixed stars (by E. Halley in
1718) favored the idea of the rotation of the whole
of our galaxy (perhaps around Sirius, which would be
its great sun) and of the entire universe around a central
star. Thus appeared the system of Thomas Wright (An
Original Theory of the Universe,
1750), which despite
its mediocre mathematical value impressed important
thinkers like Kant. In Wright's system there reappeared
the old cult of the Circle and Sphere and the vast
rotation of the whole starry vault, which had been at
a standstill since Copernicus. But the original creation
of this visionary cosmology was the fabulous “central
body,” the only stationary body, balancing by itself the
Universe; the “central body” was not a sun of fire, but
a habitable globe around which the stars appeared
juxtaposed, forming a continuous vault of fire. It was
the “First Mover,” seat of the forces which move the
universe, God's throne, and the “Abode of Recom-
pense.”

The central body and the great vortex appeared
again among serious astronomers at the end of the
eighteenth century; and among imaginative cosmolo-
gists like J. A. Lambert (Kosmologische Briefe, 1761)
and J. E. Bode (Anleitung zur Kenntniss des gestirnten
Himmels,
1768), whose influence on the Sturm und
Drang
dreamers was great.

Nevertheless these minds shared the then dominant
yearning for infinite diversity. Wright established it in
both space and time: he envisaged an unlimited plenum
of creations, each with its central body, and conceived
the blessedness of the elect to consist in the contem-
plation of the wonderful variety of the world. Bode
insisted not only on the multiplicity of forms but also
on their perpetually changing variety in which an
inexhaustible creative power was displayed.

6. Henceforth, the cosmos definitively entered the
historical scene. Newton's system was the last to have
placed the “Harmony of the World” outside of time,
installed and maintained by God, and transfigured by
him on the “Last Day.” Now, among Newton's disci
ples there was a slipping away; for the majority of
minds curious about astronomy the fate of the universe
was being progressively consummated in time.

As we have already indicated, starting from the
middle of the eighteenth century there occurred a
return of the imagination in favor of a cyclical concep-
tion of that destiny (such as Vico had just installed in
human history). The “Eternal Return” may be a way
of saving Parmenidean changelessness, but such was
not the case with the men of that century, for it was
the life cycle that mattered to them; we shall come
back to this matter. Euler's calculations (Mémoire,
1746) on the progressive recession of the orbits of the
planets provided an astronomical excuse for reviving
an obscure desire. The idea spread that the planets of
each system would return to the sun, and the latter
to the “Sun of Suns,” which periodically would absorb
them, and then would disperse new worlds into space.
Thus Unity alternated with Diversity. This obsession
was exceptionally strong in the troubled time of the
turn of the eighteenth into the nineteenth century, and
inspired such visionaries as Delisle de Sales, Restif de
la Bretonne, and Fabre d'Olivet; it was also to give
birth to its masterpiece, the Eureka (1848) of Edgar
Allan Poe. In this work, the cyclical idea retained only
a minimal relation to obscure pulsations, and assumed
a maximum of aesthetic satisfaction. Poe's idea of the
cosmos as a poem inspired him with a pure intellectual
joy resembling Kant's. What constituted Poe's delight
was the law of Reciprocal Adaptation in virtue of
which cause and effect flow into each other and be-
come indiscernible. The Circle of Perfection was re-
established on an intellectual plane. “Beauty is truth,
truth beauty,” and that is all there is to know. Diversity
was integrated with Unity in the form of the greatest
possible totality of relationships in continuous growth
until they are resolved. Matter was integrated with
energy and the latter with pure Spirit. Finally the
yearning to return to the Source was sublimated here
into a mystical unity.

7. However, the cosmogony of Eureka was late and
isolated—intellectually Poe was an offspring of the
eighteenth century—at a time (1848) when the trium-
phant world view was not only Heraclitean but ro-
mantic, in the strict sense of the word, rather than
baroque. The Great Vortex, without being abandoned
(pure astronomers are still inclined to accept it, at least
in the form of a complete rotation of our whole galaxy)
enjoys less favor than the flight to infinity. The circle,
and even the ellipse, yielded to the straight line or
to curves (parabola, hyperbola) which are fascinating
because they are open-ended. Scientific excuses were
offered by Herschel and then by Laplace (Exposition
du système du monde,
1796). “Several observations,”


520

Laplace says, “are represented well enough by suppos-
ing the solar system being carried towards the constel-
lation of Hercules.” It was only a mere hypothesis but
the romantic imagination took hold of it. And for the
intellectual delight of completely embracing the whole
cosmos, the romantic substituted the joy of feeling
himself projected outward, beyond all anticipation, the
joy of resigning and losing one's self, relishing the
mysterious and a certain intellectual vertigo with the
savor of the “maybe.” Carried away towards what?
Towards regions of light, dense with stars, or towards
some frightful collision? The romantic mind succumbed
to the pathos of the “Voyage Out With No Return.”
This propensity for the “voyage out,” associated with
the desire for freedom, had created the prestige of
comets. (We refer to the comet of the astronomical
era, when the comet was recognized as a heavenly
body and not as a supernatural apparition.) The comets'
vast orbits, their unpredicted appearance, and the
belief, due to Descartes, that they can escape from
their own vortex and pass from one system to another—
all that had made comets the model vagabonds; but
now the whole solar system was in flight. Works, solidly
documented for their time in astronomical matters,
yielded to this intoxication and maintained it. For
example, Alexander von Humboldt's Kosmos (1845)
offered the reader an impressive speeded-up film of
a universe in flight: “Countless stars are carried away,
like whirlwinds of dust, in opposite directions.” Jean
Reynaud's Earth and Sky (Terre et ciel, 1854) also
insisted on the exalted idea that navigation by the stars
never followed the same route twice.

However, among the romantics (with a few excep-
tions like Byron and Leopardi) optimism carried the
day; fear itself can be, after all, no more than a
pleasurable intoxication. Faith in a Supreme Being was
not given up. Only the “harmony of the world” was
not divorced from time; it was in the process of be-
coming. Minds, preoccupied with socialism, like the
Saint-Simonian socialism of J. Reynaud, or with an
esoteric idea, like that of Flammarion (to name only
truly informed astronomical writers), conceived the
universe as “a great fraternal society” (Reynaud) or
as a place reserved for souls allowed to rise from one
world to a higher world in an indefinite progress.

Quite different was the reaction to the universe in
flight by the pessimistic type of minds that formed the
majority of sky-watchers at the end of the nineteenth
century. What occurred now was a very intense nega-
tion of the “harmony of the world.” The source of this
current was not astronomical; the slow and steady
progress of science did not justify it, but on the con-
trary, it offered grounds for creating enthusiasm. The
discovery of Neptune in 1877, the study of Mars'
“canals” revived speculation on the plurality of in-
habited worlds, and the flood of Martian fiction began
to mount.

The influence of Schopenhauer and Hindu philoso-
phy, accompanying perhaps an era of social stagnation
and boredom, and perhaps also, the mysterious play
of the psychological pendulum, imposed on cosmolo-
gists and poets the vision of an empty, dark, and icy
space in which the imaginary voyage can only be a
nauseating dizzy fall into the infinite. The hospitable
space of Newton gave way to an uninhabitable space.
And in this sea of Darkness all that the earthly ship
could expect thereafter without a pilot was shipwreck.

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.

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(Paris, 1961). Hélène Tuzet, Le cosmos et l'imagina-
tion
(Paris, 1965). A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern
World
(Cambridge, 1926).

HÉLÈNE L. TUZET

[See also Chain of Being; Continuity; Cosmic Voyages;
Cosmology; Creation; Cycles; Evolutionism; Hierarchy;
Infinity; Macrocosm; Metaphysical...; Romanticism.]

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