By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
|Art by Paine Proffitt|
I was reminded of this photograph again while reading Margaret Wertheim's The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space From Dante to the Internet,a book that, despite its clumsy and misleading title, tells with lyrical clarity the story of how Western culture lost its soul to science. In eight chapters, each concerning a type of space, from celestial to cyber, Wertheim chronicles the collapse of our dualistic perception of physical and spiritual realms -- Descartes' res extensaand res cognitas-- into a single, purely physicalist perception of reality as the physics of Newton, Kepler and Einstein stepped in to explain the world.
Wertheim, the author of an earlier book on mathematics and spirituality, Pythagoras' Trousers,is a student of physics herself, as well as an expert on Renaissance art. But she is no mere materialist; throughout her book runs a palpable religious longing. "By going down this profoundly physicalist path, Western humanity has also lost something of immeasurable importance," she contends. "The very homogenization of space that is at the heart of modern cosmology's success is also responsible for the banishment from our world picture of any kind of spiritual space." It is not without regret that she documents that loss.
With The Divine Comedyof Dante Alighieri as a starting point, Wertheim conducts a tour through the entangled histories of art and science and the influence each discipline exerted on religious thought. To medieval man, whose physical world remained largely mysterious, it made perfect sense to imagine a Heaven above and a Hell below, as well as a mountain of Purgatory in the South Seas and nine rings of Hell descending into the center of Earth. "In the Christian medieval scheme, God was the organizing principle of space," Wertheim writes. "His presence gave the universe an intrinsic direction, up, while sin created an intrinsic pull down." Mortals lived on earth; angels inhabited their own bejeweled realm. In Giotto's magical portrayal of the Last Judgment on the ceiling of the Arena Chapel in Padua, "An angel rolls back the image like so much wallpaper," Wertheim observes, "revealing a glimpse of the 'true' reality beyond -- the pearly gates themselves."
Dante's hierarchical layout was not to last, and it was only a century later that a Spanish Jew by the name of Hasdai Crescas replaced the Aristotelian matter-filled universe with an infinite void, and in roughly 100 more years Galileo Galilei would plot that void according to a three-dimensional Euclidean paradigm. Still, God and his angels were slow to relocate. Even as Johannes Kepler calculated the orbits of planets around the sun, God was still very much a part of the equation. Sir Isaac Newton, in the 17th century, was a man so devoutly religious he nearly left Cambridge lest he compromise the integrity of his own heretical Christian beliefs; 50 years earlier, René Descartes had maintained that an angel visited him with the knowledge that in mathematics lay the secret to the universe. Science, however, got the best of them; neither man could preserve a place for a soul in their reified cosmologies. "To put this in its starkest terms," Wertheim writes, "in the infinite Euclidian void of Newtonian cosmology there was literally no placefor anything like a 'soul' or 'spirit' to be."
Wertheim is careful to point out that the crisis of spirit engendered by science is a peculiarly Western phenomenon; Eastern religious thought never split the spirit from the body and earth in the first place. But void space and infinite space are tough concepts to reconcile with Christian theology; science couldn't help debunking the gospel, and art was its co-conspirator. Culling from a breathtaking volume of thought from the academic to the vulgar, Wertheim shows how art reflected and sometimes even inspired revolutions in scientific thinking; how, in particular, the roving "virtual eye" perspectives employed by artists such as Andrea Mantegna in the mid-15th century laid the groundwork for Galileo to dispense with Aristotle's physics. "In effect, these Renaissance images set the mind free in a physical void," she writes, "allowing people to 'feel' for themselves this hitherto abhorrent concept." In the early 20th century, as the universe according to Einstein began to unfold as a four-dimensional membrane pocked with celestial spheres, perspective painting once again relaxed: Marcel Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, says Wertheim, is an expressly fourth-dimensional work.