Ideas issue of the New York Times Magazine, December 2006
Ideas issue of the New York Times Magazine, December 2006
by Scott Snyder, The Believer, June 2006
by Charles D'Ambrosio, The Believer, May 2006
Ideas issue of the New York Times Magazine, December 2005
Salon.com, February 2002 (core member of Surrealist movement, painter, poet, wife of Max Ernst and author of Between Lives: An Artist and Her World)
The New York Times Magazine, August 2001 (actor and playwright)
Time Out New York, January 1997 (on publicaton of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again)

Belief Systems and Sympathies: The Work of Athanasius Kircher

The Ganzfeld
September 2005

We now approach what historian René Taylor called "the vast and terrifying subject of Athanasius Kircher." Vast because anything else would be an understatement for the scope of work covered by the seventeenth-century Jesuit polymath (he engaged in acoustics, optics, geology, Egyptology, mechanics, astronomy, cosmology, linguistics, biology, medicine, and mathematics—among other fields). Terrifying because, from the viewpoint of modern science, Kircher just got so many things wrong.

If his contemporary René Descartes stood for scientific skepticism, Kircher was seen to represent credulity; his holistic worldview, which featured secret webs of cosmic influence, was predicated on biblical history, in particular the story of Noah’s Ark and the events surrounding the Tower of Babel. (Kircher’s schematic recreations of the Ark included allotted places for both gryphons and mermaids, and he exhibited tailbones of the latter at his museum at the Collegio Romano.)

But more recently, academics have begun placing Kircher in his proper context: a time, despite the presence of certain brilliant minds, before real science existed or was inevitable—a world where even Johannes Kepler was into astrology and Isaac Newton passionate about alchemy. And, rather than being terrified of Kircher, people are now becoming quite fond of him. He and his work have appeared in the fiction of Umberto Eco, been appreciated by (the now late) Stephen Jay Gould, and exhibited at the Museum of Jurassic Technology by David Wilson (who was himself brought to greater attention by Lawrence Weschler’s Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder).

Kircher's admirers are rightly amazed by the breadth and depth of his investigations and inventiveness, and especially by the more than 30 multi-volume, suitcase-sized folio treatises he published. Spectacularly illustrated with engravings and woodcuts, these works served as encyclopedias of contemporary knowledge and theory as well as venues for Kircher's own research, experimentation and—in no short supply—speculation. They are his great, lasting and bizarre gift to the world.

Kircher was born in 1602 near Fulda, in what is now Germany. In his youth, according to his own account, he was swept under a mill wheel (unharmed), stampeded by horses (unscathed), and stricken with life-threatening gangrene (which he survived by praying to the Blessed Virgin). He joined the Society of Jesus, studied and taught everything from Hebrew to mathematics in Cologne, Würzburg, and Avignon, and began to produce shows of fireworks on the side.

In 1633 he was called to Vienna to succeed Kepler as mathematician to the Habsburg court, and then redirected by Pope Urban VII to Rome, where he worked on almost every conceivable thing for the next 40 years. There he not only produced his immense, widely read volumes, but created one of the first public museums in history, the Museum Kircherianum. Along with antiquities, artifacts, and curiosities from around the world (amassed with the help of the Jesuit missionary system), Kircher exhibited dozens of his own inventions, including magic lanterns, magnetic clocks, perpetual-motion devices, vomiting machines, and a single "cat piano."

This was the kind of man who pursued his interest in geological matters by lowering himself down into the smoking crater of Vesuvius. He then put 25 years into his massive Mundus subterraneus (The Subterranean World), in which he described the oceans and great fires at the center of the earth. Believing that the secrets of the world's cultures and beliefs could be found in ancient Egypt, he filled six books on Egyptology and spent decades deciphering hieroglyphic texts—inaccurately, as it turns out. He examined all aspects of the nature of music and acoustics in his Musurgia universalis (Universal Music-making), offering comparative studies of the ears of different animals, describing his acoustical creations (speaking tubes, eavesdropping machines, hydraulic organs), and explaining that musical harmony was an expression of the harmonious relationships within the cosmos. And on and on.

"The master of a hundred arts," as Kircher was called, was indeed mistaken about a great deal. Magnetism, for instance, is not the operative force at work in everything from the motion of the planets to human relationships to divine love. On the other hand, microorganisms are in fact responsible for the spread of disease, as Kircher proposed after examining the blood of plague victims through a microscope. And in the years after Galileo had been threatened with the stake and Giordano Bruno burned, it's not too surprising that a devout Jesuit would take a weak stance on Copernicus.

Kircher lived at a time when, as least as he believed, one man could still reasonably try to gather and understand all that could be known. In a sense, he was the last person to come anywhere close.

The images here represent his attempt to answer the biggest questions of all, questions about the nature of the universe and the underlying systems that guide it.