The Foppish Casual Dance of Atoms

He said Bruno was a terrible heretic.  I said he was terribly burned.

–Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist

This much I knew about Giordano Bruno even before Stephen Dedalus told me, and before I had seen the statue of him that stands where the stake once stood, in the Campo dei Fiori in Rome.  I knew that he advocated Copernicus’ theory of the heliocentric solar system, which was bad enough, but I didn’t realize what a truly terrible heretic he was until I read Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve.

The Swerve traces the viral influence of the Epicurean poet Lucretius on Western culture after his rediscovery in 1417, and Bruno was clearly infected.  A friend described him as an Epicurean in the vulgar sense, meaning a fun guy to have dinner with, , but he was a follower of Lucrettius in much more threatening ways: not only was the Earth not the center of the universe, there was no center; any star in the sky might be a sun with equally important planets and life forms revolving around it.  And humans, in particular, were not the reason for the world to exist, but creatures like all others, made of the same atoms.  God did not go around planning our lives in infinite detail, counting (as Jesus would say) the hairs on our heads.

Given this précis, I’m sure you’ll agree that he deserved to be turned over to the Holy Office (the Inquisition to its friends), to have a stake driven through his tongue to stop his insane and destructive filth, to be burned to death, and to have his ashes crumbled and scattered lest anyone try to save a relic.  But a summary of opinions doesn’t give the flavor of his cheeky blasphemy.  Here is a passage from something with the catchy title The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast—Mercury, Jove’s assistant, is explaining what a hassle it is to arrange a special Providence for every sparrow that falls, etc., even for one afternoon in a sleepy village (Bruno’s hometown of Nola in Campania):

That today at noon two of the melons in Father Franzino’s melon patch will be perfectly ripe, but that they won’t be picked until three days from now, when they will no longer be considered good to eat. Jove requests that at the same moment, on the jujube tree at the base of the Monte Cicala in the house of Giovanni Bruno, thirty perfect jujubes will be picked, and he says that several shall fall to earth still green, and that fifteen shall be eaten by worms. That Vasta, wife of Albenzio Savolino, when she means to curl the hair at her temples, shall burn fifty-seven hairs for having let the curling iron get too hot, but she won’t burn her scalp and hence shall not swear when she smells the stench, but shall endure it patiently. That from the dung of her ox two hundred and fifty-two dung beetles shall be born, of which fourteen shall be trampled and killed by Albenzio’s foot, twenty-six shall die upside down, twenty-two shall live in a hole, eighty shall make a pilgrim’s progress around the yard, forty-two shall retire to live under the stone by the door, sixteen shall roll their ball of dung wherever they please, and the rest shall scurry around at random.

Laurenza, when she combs her hair, shall lose seventeen hairs and break thirteen, and of these, ten shall grow back within three days and seven shall never grow back at all….

That the skirt Mastro Danese is cutting on his board shall come out crooked. That twelve bedbugs shall leave the slats of Constantino’s bed and head toward the pillow: seven large ones, four small, and one middle-sized, and as for the one who shall survive until this evening’s candlelight, we’ll see to it. That fifteen minutes thereafter, because of the movement of her tongue, which she has passed over her palate four times, the old lady of Fiurulo shall lose the third right molar in her lower jaw, and it shall fall without blood and without pain, because that molar has been loose for seventeen months. That Ambrogio on the one hundred twelfth thrust shall finally have driven home his business with his wife, but shall not impregnate her this time, but rather another, using the sperm into which the cooked leek that he has just eaten with millet and wine sauce shall have been converted….


As you see, I’ve actually shortened it a bit, but I hope this is enough to give an idea of how Bruno provides both a devastating reductio ad absurdumof divine intervention in our lives and a psychedelically vivid evocation of the material world.    I am especially fond of the different fates of the dung beetles—how that must have irked the believers—but Bruno’s exuberant attachment to the world of human and other animal bodies is just as important.  James Joyce must have been gobsmacked when he ran across this, and you can see in these villagers the distant cousins of Leopold and Molly Bloom.

Incidentally, I briefly mentioned Bruno’s belief that all things in on Earth and in the sky are made of atoms in different shapes and combinations, a theory he picked up from Lucretius (who got it from Democritus via Epicurus).  This was one of his most terrible heresies, and Greenblatt explains why.  The Council of Trent, as part of its general campaign of medieval nostalgia, had adopted as dogma a neat trick of Thomas Aquinas, in which he used the Aristotelian distinction between the substance of a thing and its accidence to reconcile the paradox of transubstantiation.  The idea is that the host becomes the body of Christ in substance even while it retains accidental properties of a wafer.  But in the atomic theory, the sensory properties of a thing are a product of the kind and arrangement of the atoms it is made out of, so the obvious fact that the host is a wafer means that it really is a wafer.  Therefore the atomic theory is wrong, and we have to fry anyone who mentions it.  Inneresting, as we say in Minnesota.

Here at least the fanatics of Counter-Reformation could find common cause with the fanatics of Reformation.  In the 1600s, the Puritan Lucy Hutchinson undertook the arduous task of translating ‘lunatic Lucretius,’ and came away despising not only his general impiety but especially his embrace of the “foppish casual dance of atoms.”  My guess is that, as often happens, she scorns the dance because she was not invited.

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4 Responses to The Foppish Casual Dance of Atoms

  1. Ann Foxen says:

    Remember the 1410’s? We were doing a dance called the Foppish Casual Dance of Atoms.
    You always wore scarlet, the color craze of the decade,
    and I was draped in one of those copes that were popular,
    the ones always worn to ritual murders.

    I think I’m in love! I want to live in Giordano Bruno’s world where every subatomic particle gets to be the center of its own universe. Who ever knew a Renaissance Italian could be so zen?

    And is Michele Bachmann the reincarnation of Lucy Hutchinson? I hear she’s been disinvited from the dance once again. Inneresting.

    • Roy says:

      Certainly everything in Nola was hand-lettered. I am certainly glad he has a statue in the Campo. Some aspects of Lucretius too are rather Zen, the focus on this world together with a recognition that desire is frequently the enemy of peace.

      On Fri, May 31, 2013 at 9:24 AM, lippenheimer

  2. Mary says:

    I love this story and Ann’s reply. didn’t any of the dung beetles get to do the foppish dance?

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