The celestial sphere as seen from Norbiton is a fragmented, torn and faded object. Norbiton is light-polluted, dull-skied. No one looks up; no one need look up. The moon is occasionally on, like a bare bulb, but you do well to see more than a dozen stars on the clearest night. A dozen. There are four-hundred billion stars in our galaxy, the ornament of the cosmos, and we can see a dozen.
We require, nevertheless—perhaps therefore—a map. A map of the ravaged sky. A spectral record of blank sectors, limbless creatures, impotent hunters, vanished asterisms.
If we are to navigate at night, it must be by whatever holds itself in absentia.
There is no God residing in those cold stars1. But when I saw Kelley’s wife for the first time at the bottom of the Kelley garden late one winter evening, she made an odd apparition, as though elderly goddesses still occasionally walked the earth: Proserpine up from her domain, half-in and half-out of this world, bringing me tea where I stood hunched and shivering by my telescope, mapping the skies of Norbiton.
Star maps are, if not (yet-awhile) Norbo-centric, then geocentric. We persist, for the most part, in imagining that all stars and other celestial objects are arrayed over the inside of a sphere which we then articulate using longitudinal and latitudinal grids—right ascension and declination—derived from the ecliptic and the celestial equator. The heavens have their time zones, their degrees, hours, minutes and seconds.
Over this grid we draw animals, heroes. Different cultures, different times see different things, but in 1922 the International Astronomical Union standardised the number at 88. We continue to map the galaxy against these 88 zany objects of knowledge. We say that a comet is ‘in’ Perseus, a meteor shower will appear ‘in’ Andromeda. We map the celestial sphere using the objects we wish to map as co-ordinates, like a sort of periplus.
So we have our grids, our co-ordinates, our promontories and landfalls; a celestial geography, a sketch map of this fringe of space; against this map we scan the heavens for signs of life, detect in the wobble of stars the presence of planets. We man our telescopes by night, gloved and scarved, hot drinks in hand; and we wait patiently.
We live in an age where the sky is not dead, but not yet peopled.
Marsilio Ficino, great scholar and magus of the Florentine Renaissance, lived, by contrast, in an age where the sky was most certainly peopled, and the stars were very close.
Ficino was a practitioner of natural or sympathetic magic according to which there exists, between us and the celestial sphere, a world of spirits no less articulated and complex than our own material realm. Where we look out from our city walls and see peopling the world beyond, only fritillaries, orioles, pangolins, tapirs, toads, ferns, bromeliads, they glanced also skywards and counted off Sephiroths, demons, Thrones, Powers, Dominions, sprites, decans, and gods2.
The totality of the physical material stuff of the world and all of this celestial and super-celestial population was interlaced in a system of infinitely complex relations. Minerals, animals, plants stood in fixed or mutable relation to their parent stars and patron deities. Oriole spoke to Throne, pangolin spoke to Sephiroth. The book of nature and the book of the heavens was a legible book, one and the same book.
Interpenetrating all was the spiritus mundi, a sort of ineffable effluvium which flowed ceaselessly from the celestial to the earthly realms, correlating objects with their stars. A magus – Ficino – could channel the spiritus by combining or aligning the appropriate objects like an electronic circuit with its switches, resistors and diodes.
There were various ways such combinations and alignments could be handled (put them in a cauldron?) but Ficino seems to have favoured the creation of talismans: images of the objects in question made at auspicious moments in which the spiritus mundi was not only legible, reflected, but in which it inhered, was captured3.
A talisman, made under natural magic, was designed to transmit only healthful, rejuvenating, Jovian influences. Ficino was, in point of fact, a physician, and his Libri di Vita, while dilating on magical practices and the arcane organisation of the universe, was a medical treatise which taught, among other things, how to cure or ameliorate melancholia.
Ficino was a scholar too, notable among other things for his translation of the Corpus Hermeticum, a body of writing erroneously believed in the Renaissance to be the work of Hermes Trismegistus, an Egyptian priest or wise man, contemporary of Moses or according to some (Gemistho Plethon) of Zoroaster, who, like the Sibyls, foresaw in some way the coming of Christianity.
A Greek text of the Corpus Hermeticum was brought to Florence in around 1460. Cosimo de’Medici, sick and ageing Father of the City, ordered Ficino to break off his work translating Plato and get this new, older wisdom done out in Latin. Ficino complied.
The Corpus Hermeticum in reality dates from the second or third century AD. Its supposed anticipation of Platonising Christianity was in fact a muddled echo4.
The Renaissance knew that knowledge degrades from its original source, and that this original (and originary) object can be reassembled, reconstituted; as though the whole of intellectual history could be reverse-engineered, allowing wise men to trace all things back to the first moment—Abraham talking to God, Chronos castrating Uranus, proto-men sitting around a fire, cooking bone marrow, growing their brains.
We know, by contrast, that knowledge, understanding, as they evolve, so do they proliferate. Just as over time the landscape of the earth changes and the beasts of the earth diverge one from the other, hive off new beasts; so too is the landscape of knowledge strewn with the carcasses and dinosaur throwbacks of relic species, the strutting of dominant species, the scurrying of emergent species; animals of understanding better and worse adapted, more or less persistent. Knowledge has its fractured genealogy, its mass extinctions, its virgin births.
Gods, too, proliferate, are subject to evolution, diversification. Errors in the transmission codes (myth, ritual) creep in; crises come, circumstances change. The gods adapt.
There are gods, therefore, not only of the sky but of the earth, of the forest, of the sea. The Greeks had their executive Olympians (each with his own local face) and their deep-sky progenitors (the Titans, and before them Gaia and Uranus, primordial deities), but also ten thousand local gods, asterised heroes; no peasant, shepherd or slave did not tend a grubby local shrine to some local deity, more loved and feared than any state-sanctioned Apollonian worship; and the wilderness beyond was even more compacted with wild things, tree spirits, river gods, centaurs, Pan.
The Egyptians, not uniquely but with unique precision, proliferated their gods also in time. The celestial clock was divided not only into the twelve hours of the zodiac but also into minutes and seconds; each of the zodiacal signs is sub-divided into three, and these thirty-six decans, as they are known, preside in turn over each moment of the day and night in turn.
The ontology of gods also shifts. There is an episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, in which the Olympian gods turn out to have been a gang of alien chancers enjoying for a spell the credulity and adulation of the Greeks. The Q character in The Next Generation and Voyager is immortal, omnipotent, but not a god, merely a special alien. The resident gods of Bajor in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, are variously referred to as prophets and as wormhole aliens. They inhabit a cloudlike, non-temporal reality and are only able to intervene in the affairs of their adopted planet by cutting and pasting bits and pieces of their interlocutor’s memory engrams, and arranging them like hieroglyphics.
And so on. There are henotheistic religions—Hinduism, for example—where the endless family of gods are considered to be just aspects of the one true god. There are Christianities where God is in nature or beyond it, or where God is located somewhere in the cosmic background radiation, back at the big bang. In our secular worship, George Clooney and Scarlett Johansson are Olympians, Bogart and Bacall chthonic deities.
In Norbiton we pride ourselves on being a city of free men and women, and that freedom includes—demands—freedom from delusion; however, perhaps after all we do have our genii loci, our popular cults and shrines; perhaps we are no different from the grubby shepherds leaving small votive objects by sacred rocks, trying in vain to draw down the beneficence of an impotent invisible god, the spiritus mundi of success; perhaps, we will be asterised heroes to future inhabitants of Norbiton: Kelley and his dogs (the great hunter), Clarke the Green Man, Kelley’s wife, raped bride of the Underworld; Hunter Sidney the Tin Man; and who am I if not Thoth, scribbling ibis, melancholic baboon?
In the interests, then, of completing a more exact taxonomy (of metaphor, if not of actual deities), Kelley’s wife, Mrs Isobel Easter, is, in the pantheon of Norbiton, more chthonic than Olympian deity.
Chthonic deities are gods of the earth rather than gods of the middle air or of the celestial sphere. They are older, wiser, sleepier. They are not a success. The Olympians have recourse to the chthonic deities when they are in trouble. Otherwise they forget about them.
I don’t know if I should be thinking of Mrs Isobel Easter as Isotta, or Isabella d’Este; or as an Earth Mother or as the Minotaur, or as Venus Humanitatis. She is just a woman, albeit a woman who is hard to get hold of; and a resolutely pleasant woman.
Botticelli, it has been argued, painted his Primavera (1482?) under the instruction of Ficino, for the cosmic benefit of his, Ficino’s, student, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’Medici. What he was making, knowingly or not, was a talisman.
The painting is read, right to left, as a progression from earthly or sensual love to spiritual enlightenment (what else is the breath of Zephyrus if not the exhalation of the spiritus mundi?); Mercury, extreme left, is drawing down celestial harmonies. Venus, in the centre, is (starting to dance or) making a gesture of welcome. The painting, according to this argument, is a not a representation but a vehicle of spiritus, a transubstantiated object. It hangs in the young man’s bedroom, a quivering store of celestial beneficence; it warms him, spiritually, intellectually, like Ready-Brek.
Whether this understanding of the painting is true or otherwise is in a sense irrelevant: the painting is in any case almost axiomatically a talismanic object.
Notable about it, apart from a sort of genial barminess of conception, is its lack of spatial depth. Venus is slightly set back from the hieroglyphic pageant at which she is present, and there is a narrow foreground of (sympathetic?) flowers. But this is a two-dimensional map of heaven, more trecento than quattrocento. Or rather, like Byzantine icons, the space which the figures are proposed to occupy is in front of the picture plane – i.e. they are a projection into our own space, rather than nestled in some idealised, infinite, homogenous space, some beyond.
In retreating from a fully articulated perspectival construction (otherwise assuredly present in his work) Botticelli is reinstating the picture plane as something made, something you share a space with; not something you look through. It makes an appearance in the world of objects with weight. It is not a representation, does not seek to render itself invisible; it is a mass of paint, canvas, stretchers, frame. Its existence, to coin a cheap phrase, precedes its essence.
I said that the object was axiomatically talismanic, and I need to justify that; and I would do so, not by insisting on the magical properties of all weighty objects, but by emptying the word talismanic of its magical or supernatural content. An object that is in some way or other hyper-present, with which you share space, has necessarily a gravitational pull, is part, moreover, of a gravitational system of like-minded objects; and, being objects, not only do you enter into a sensory relationship with them—you can see them, touch them, knock them together, move them about—but you can interfere in their patterns, impose upon them, operate upon them, destroy them if need be.
What I appear to be saying is that the material objects that surround you, that you carry through life, are more than mere asterisms in which you—gullible mortal—see patterns; they are truly constellated, they are gravitational; you need to worry about them.
In his Mysterium Cosmographicum of 1596, Johannes Kepler attempted to account for the orbits of the known extra-terrestrial planets by progressively nesting the five platonic solids one inside the other, the sequence running, from inside out, octahedron, icosahedron, dodecahedron, tetrahedron and cube.
From this muddling with Platonic objects of knowledge emerged the laws of planetary motion (1609, 1619) and the understanding of elliptical orbits. Kepler, unlike Ficino, had found a way of understanding, mapping, and organising the proliferating universe of phenomena.
Thus planets have elliptical orbits; they accelerate as they near the perihelion and decelerate as they near the aphelion; the length of time it takes a planet to orbit the sun increases rapidly with its distance from the sun.
If there are spirits in the sky, they keep themselves to themselves.
There is an episode of Battlestar Galactica in which Admiral Adama takes a little scout vessel called a Raptor and settles himself to wait for a ship which may or may not pass his way—a ship carrying the President of the Twelve Colonies, Laura Roslin, with whom he is in love (I don’t remember where she has gone or why); while the rest of the fleet go off where he might not be able to follow. And as the fleet completes its FTL jump and vanishes, phut...phut...phut..., he opens an old book and starts to read. It’s very quiet, and he’s just hanging in empty space. He is nowhere, reading a book. It appears not to bother him that there is nothing. Or that he is very nearly everything.
I was in Kelley’s garden towards midnight that night to look at Saturn and Jupiter. Kelley’s sky is fractionally bigger and brighter than mine, and he had, after consultation with his wife, given me permission to slip in and out late in the evening via a gate in the wall at the bottom of his garden that gave on to a path that skirted the park, and to which I had a key. And so there I was, telescope pointed up, considering the stars.
My telescope, a 130mm Newtonian reflector, was one of my re-emerging objects.
It had for several years been something that I did not so much look through as at. There were objects in my room that I had not seen, as such, for years. Now they were reasserting themselves, and as is the way with these things you raise your head above the crowd at your own risk: since I would not need my telescope for my celestial map, I had decided, I was in the mood to sell it, and eke out my small subsistence; and so I was out tonight partly by way of evaluation, and partly to have a valedictory look at Saturn and Jupiter.
As I set up in the frost, Kelley sauntered down himself for a look at Saturn. I keyed in the co-ordinates and the telescope whirred into gear and swung round on its target and there it was, hanging like a tiny drop of liquid in suspension, several minutes ago. Kelley stooped to the eye piece and squinted down it, grunted a little to himself, and then stood up, looking over the barrel of the telescope at the point of light in the sky. I asked him if he wanted to look at Jupiter and he said no, that was enough planets for one night. He thanked me and went off back to the house.
An hour or so passed before I met his wife. I had been watching the stars with an empty head—when it is cold you don’t think too much, you spend the time fiddling with lenses, putting things down and losing them, hunting in the grass by red torchlight; then hunting in the sky for recognisable objects, fragments of constellations, looking between star maps in the red light and the scrap of sky under observation, trying to tally them. Your neck soon aches and you don’t do much thinking beyond the mental scurrying of a man lost in the dark, groping for co-ordinates.
Mrs Isobel Easter walked up over the hard ground with a cup of tea and was handing it to me almost before I had registered her presence. She said ‘I thought you must be cold. Can you show me Jupiter?’ I moved the telescope a couple of feet, swapped lenses, and lined up the planet while she stood holding my tea. I took my tea from her and she brought her eye up to the eye piece and held it there for a minute. ‘I can only see three moons,’ she said. ‘Europa, Ganymede, Callisto and Io. I wonder which it is that’s missing.’ She straightened up. ‘I feel like Galileo.’ I gulped down the rest of my tea and she took the cup. ‘Have you much to do?’ she asked. ‘You seem very busy with your planets.’ I told her I was done, it was too cold to spend long standing here, and I thanked her for the tea and the stretch of grass. She thanked me in return for the greater gift of a sight of Jupiter, and left me feeling, oddly, that the place—the garden and the house—made sense now. And that I had after all, perhaps inadvertently, summoned down one of the last spirits of the middle air.
Ficino, in his dissertation on talismans, also speaks (tentatively, obscurely) of a universal talisman: if you can make a talisman to draw down the spirit of a constellation, a decan, a planet, he reasons, surely you can hope to make one that is valid for the whole universe? Ficino calls it the mundi figura; it is to be constructed of brass, gold and silver, those being the metals of Jupiter, Sol and Venus; it is to be assembled at various auspicious moments, on auspicious days; it should be completed in Venus, be green, gold and blue, and so on. No doubt the variables were hard to align.
Ficino also suggests that the talisman might have moveable parts, like a mechanical clock or orrery. An object that could handle and arrange its natural objects dynamically, track the astral influences and the passage of the decans in real time, a celestial computer. Ficino was clearly responsive to the sense that all mechanical innovation, as all art, addresses or approaches or circumvents the Pygmalion myth in one way or another: to infuse motion into dumb matter is to feel yourself on the cusp of godhead. Erroneously, as it happens.
But I am moved to wonder whether in the Anatomy and the Ideal City we are not constructing just such a universal talisman. Perhaps our first crude success was to draw down Mrs Isobel Easter. Absence will ultimately reveal itself in a shower of cosmological data, an effluvium of the spirit. If, somehow, we could set the whole contraption in motion, have it track in real time the creeping precessional mis-alignment of the celestial sphere, the retrograde slouch of the planets, the feckless, cavalier and unrepentant travel of the comets; if we could build such a mundi figura, could we hope eventually to dissipate our too-deep love of this strange astral cloud of melancholy, under the favourable auspices of which we labour to build the very perpetual motion machine of being of which I speak?