Apologies if you get this a bit later than the (arbitrary) schedule (which I’ve set for myself and not told you). I’ve spent most of today engrossed in working on the novel, which is, I suppose, a good problem to be having. I had a character who I was unsure of, and just the other day I wrote a scene that happens early in the work wherein she has an emotional break down/through. Which gives me a better handle on the character, but now I have to go back and renegotiate all of her actions in the light of that. I said on twitter recently “I write human motivations like I play piano. I’ve got a pretty good ear for it and I can improv ok, but I don’t really understand what I’m doing.”
Phurpa - Conferring Empoverment end Self-Transformation :: Srs bsns Deep Tibetan chant
If I have a patron saint, it is probably Athanasius Kircher. He is (as you would expect from that introduction), very difficult to summarize. Sadly this is one case where the intention of accuracy in Wikipedia leads to a certain dryness at odds with the subject matter. From there, you can get the bare facts: 17th Century Jesuit scholar, “polymath”, as they put it. He was interested in things. Lots of things. Like, all the things.
He studied geology, including being lowered into an active volcano. He studied medicine, making some of the first microscope observations of the blood of plague victims, and understood notions of hygiene that are comparatively quite modern. He advanced theories of sound and optics. He invented the projector. He translated ancient Egyptian texts (very poorly, as it turned out). He invented a magnetic clock, a perpetual motion machine, a vomiting robot lobster, and a box with an elaborate system of mirrors for observing cats so they did not know they were being observed. He had a theory of what we would later call evolution that involved Noah’s Ark.
Perhaps the best overview for the modern viewer is to just scroll through the collection of images at the Stanford Collection of Kircheriana. And yes, “Kircheriana” is a word that someone else made up, that’s not me. There’s a certain highly attenuated subset of the academic community who are trying to rescue his knowledge from the obscurity it fell under after the (Caution: Aggressively Subjective Opinions Ahead) reductionist so-called “rationalism” that took over the scientific community at that time.
Yes I know that rationalism is useful, and atomic reductionism is one of the primary foundations of science, and it allows us to have things like modern medicine and architecture. But I would argue that we’ve lost something in our insistence on breaking down everything into component parts, and largely ignoring any sort of holistic approach. I just removed three paragraphs of axe-grinding on this subject because it’s one of my pet causes, but I can sum up: perfect rationalism and blind esotericism are both boring and useless as positions. I have a lot more to say on this if you want.
But to bring this back to Kircher.
Back when I was in college, I had a friend, Annie, who was a genuine 60s hippie who had gone back to school for her degree, so she was sort of a Tribal Elder for our little clique. I was complaining one day in that way you do when you’ve been launched out of high school into an environment where you’re expected to know what you want to do with the rest of your life. I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m into so many things, all the options, etc. And Annie gave me a word, which has stayed with me ever since and defined my path to a great degree. “You’re a Nexialist,” she said. “one who researches the connections between all other disciplines.” 
That’s what Kircher was, among other things. He lived in a time when there were vast intellectual changes going on in the world, and he wanted to understand all of it. If you look at his work, it’s not about a depth of understanding of anything. His numerous errors attest to this, and even in his lifetime fellow academics played pranks on him, presenting him with, in one example, a supposedly ancient cypher that, once he pronounced its authenticity, they held up to a mirror so that he could see it read “Noli vana sectari et tempus perdere nugis nihil proficientibus,” or, “Do not seek vain things, or waste time on unprofitable trifles.”
Its easy to present this as a Jack of All Trades / Master of None situation, but I think it goes deeper than that. I’d argue that Father Kircher was trying to be accurate in depth, within the limitations of his larger program, which was, I think, seeing the connections between all things.
There’s a poetry to connection. There’s a beauty in the relationships between ideas, in seeing a totality, or at least, a shape in the lines between things. It’s the basis for The Waste Land, and much of Joyce. I think it’s part of what drove Tim Berners-Lee to the notion of hypertext – there’s deep rationality in that idea, but, obviously, some level of pure beauty as well. Kircher was operating at a historical moment where it seemed just possible that one man could know everything, could ride that expanding shockwave of exponential growth that was spreading through the western world at that time. Kircher was trying to map the blast radius of an information explosion.
Sounds kind of prescient, set like that, doesn’t it? “Information explosion” is a fair description of where we are today. Each of us now has access to a vast amount of data, or, put more accurately, each of us now has to contend with a constant and ongoing flood of data whether we want it or not. The way we form relationships between ideas can help us to understand sets of things as gestalts, and, at the very least, reduce the cognitive load of knowing everything. We make classifications, bring together broad sets of ideas, and we do so mostly on either a level that is unconscious, or decided by the UX designers of phone apps and web pages. Being able to intentionally understand the relationships of the information we are forced to contend with, as opposed to having that understanding foisted upon us by fate an third parties, may wind up being an essential survival skill of the next era. And Father Kircher did a lot of advanced research in what it means to comprehend a vastly complex system of interrelated parts that seems to be growing at an exponential rate.
Or, as he put it, “the world is bound in secret knots.”
I had an additional point in this, but I can talk about Kircher for days, and I’ve already broken 1k here. So, where I was going on placing him in the context of the modern world will have to wait for a future episode.
As always, feel free to write back if you have comments, and if you enjoy it please let anyone else know about this little thing I’m doing.
She neglected to mention that in terms of viable career path this essentially equates to “scifi writer,” it took me many more years to figure that part out. ↩
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