Reading through Galileo's Telescope. Margaret Cavendish and the Experience of Reading [*]
Spiller, Elizabeth A., Renaissance Quarterly
This essay reassesses the role of reading in the context of seventeenth-century natural philosophy by analyzing Galileo Galilei's Starry Messenger and Margaret Cavendish's The Blazing World. The unreliability of telescopic vision becomes a dominant metaphor for the unreliability of reading printed texts. Where Galileo sought to put the reader in his own position as a scientific observer by making reading a form of observation, Cavendish used the telescopic image to show how readers become the makers of their own fictions. From the recognition that reading and observation finally reveal our relationship to the world rather than the world itself comes what will ultimately be the modern assumption that acts of observation are also acts of reading.
In April of 1611, Galileo demonstrated his new telescope to prominent observers at a villa outside Rome. When the telescope was pointed at the heavens many present were not convinced that what they saw were satellites around Jupiter or mountains on the moon. Observers were impressed, however, by Galileo's ability to use his optic tube to read inscriptions carved on a distant building. Julius Caesar Lagalla disputed the ability of the telescope accurately to show objects on the moon; he nonetheless enthused that the telescope made it possible to "read the letters on the gallery which Sixtus erected in the Lateran ... so clearly, that we distinguished even the periods carved between the letters, at a distance of at least two miles."  In demonstrating the telescope on the Lateran palace, Galileo's intention was to show observers that this new technology offered reliable representations of distant objects. Lagalla's unwillingness to believe Galileo's claims about the lunar observations -- like the famous refu sals of Guilio Libri and others even to look through the telescope--are many and complex.  This incident certainly reveals new concerns about both the status of observational evidence and the reasons that observations were particularly problematic in astronomy. While allowing others to see the moon more closely, Galileo's visual demonstration could not actually carry them there. Here, however, what interests me is not so much Lagalla's unwillingness to believe what he saw of the moon as his excitement over what he saw on the Lateran. When he reads Sixtus's new inscriptions from that hilltop outside Rome, Lagalla is not using the telescope as an observational tool; instead, he is using it as a reading device.
If the difficulty that Galileo's witnesses face is, for them, one of seeing, we might argue that it is also one of reading. When Lagalla reads through Galileo's telescope he reacts indirectly to Galileo's attempt in The Starry Messenger (1610) to persuade readers of the new discoveries he has made with the telescope by getting them to adopt a new way of reading. While Lagalla makes himself a reader rather than an observer, Galileo wants to make his readers into observers. More generally, Lagalla's intuitive acceptance of the telescope as an appropriate tool for reading points to a larger affiliation between reading and the telescope. During the early modern period, telescopes and reading shared a close alliance. In a tradition originally derived from Roger Bacon's claims about the powers of catoptric glasses, early modern philosophers such as Thomas Digges repeatedly tell stories about the telescope's power as tool for reading distant texts. The lesson of these stories is that the telescope enhances -- magni fies, as it were -- a natural but limited human ability to read.  Reading is often associated with the telescope because both were understood as powerful, but potentially dangerous, ways of acquiring knowledge. As the recurrence of such stories suggests, what reading did was surprisingly analogous to what the telescope did: both were tools that worked across distance and made it possible to see things that were otherwise in accessible. Yet, in doing so, these were "technologies" in which the means to new knowledge involved distorted and potentially dangerous forms of mediation.
To a twentieth-century perspective, connecting reading to the cognitive and philosophical problems associated with the telescope may seem arbitrary. Yet, this claim should not be understood as simply an analogy that reflects current literary-historical interest in the topic of reading. Indeed, the philosophical problems that early modern thinkers faced with both reading and the telescope are hard for us to recognize precisely because we are accustomed to accepting both immense power and inherent limitations to knowledge that are in some way indirect, mediated, or vicarious. We unthinkingly rely on and yet also mistrust such information technologies. In the seventeenth century, by contrast, the relationship between reading and information -- factual and fictive -- is changing. On the one hand, reading is increasingly becoming a form of education and entertainment as work of imaginative fiction give readers vicarious experiences that "nothing affirms.  At the same time, however reading is also presented as a new source of information: manuals, guides, and travel narratives offer knowledge that could not, for most readers, be gained through personal experience or authority,  In both cases, reading lacks the authority of direct experience: the possibilities of new print media are also its dangers.
After Copernicus, new work in astronomy seemed not so much to reveal new truths as it did create new doubts of old certainties. As John Donne concludes, this is an age in which knowledge can no longer produce certainty for the "new Philosophy cals all in doubt" (1994, 255). In this historical context, the telescope became an image of doubtful knowledge because it was an instrument in which distortion became the means to truth. The telescope thus became a perfect figure for reading because it, like reading, was understood as a technology of mediated knowledge. Michael Baxandall has suggested that every culture has its own "period eye": the physical act of seeing is culturally conditioned in ways that determine cognitive perception. The way one sees determines what one can know. As an instrument whose reputation for unreliability was only later transformed into a standard that made it an enduring metaphor for knowledge, the telescope clearly shaped the "period eye" of the early modern age.  Whether in Jan Ve rmeer's paintings or in John Milton's poetics, this period is characterized by a new attention to the visual texture of the world as observers learn to see with a precision that made things both more minute and greatly magnified.  This visual texturing of the world is a product not simply of the telescope but of what the telescope suggests about how we see at all. What Svetlana Alpers argues of Johannes Kepler is true more generally: it is not the recognition that visual phenomena may be distorted and misleading that is new in this period. Rather, the telescope and other new optic devices reveal how distortion is the basis for all acts of perception (35). In the new visual culture of the seventeenth century, the telescope thus exemplifies the powers and limits of reading as a form of apprehension.
This essay historicizes the problems that readers faced in this new visual culture by examining Galileo's Starry Messenger and Margaret Cavendish's Description of a New World, called the Blazing World (1666). Making their texts work like telescopes, Galileo and Cavendish adapt the visual technology of the telescope into a model of reading. In Galileo's case, both the evidence produced by and the form of the telescope generate the structure of the book. In this work of visual astronomy, Galileo wants to show his readers new discoveries that he saw through the telescope. In substance, The Starry Messenger seems to be a model of the observational methodology that comes to be associated with empiricism: what Galileo documents is strictly personal experience. Yet, where philosophers such as Francis Bacon insist that texts should be verifiable, Galileo writes his text with the recognition that his claims would not immediately be verifiable. Integrating the visual distortion of the telescope into the text, Galileo makes The Starry Messenger into a visual instrument for seeing what he has seen. Thus, reading becomes not an impetus to further verification, but a form of textual observation that becomes an alternative to verification.
Cavendish extends Galileo's understanding of reading as a form of observational experience. Cavendish's situation, in England in the 1660s, differs in important ways from Galileo's position in Italy earlier in the century. Yet, by the end of the seventeenth century, Galileo had become so closely associated with the telescope that, for many English writers, he became a figure for the kind of knowledge produced by the telescope. Marjorie Nicolson identifies The Starry Messenger in particular as "the most important single publication...of the seventeenth century, so far as its effect upon the imagination is concerned" (1956, 4). Yet, the impact that Galileo had on the cultural imagination was complex. As Amy Boesky suggests, Milton saw Galileo as a representative of both the intellectual power and danger associated with the telescope's augmented vision (30). Like Lagalla, Margaret Cavendish was dissatisfied with what she saw when she used the telescope. Although Robert Hooke's recent work with microscopes provi des the main impetus for The Blazing World, it is thus Galileo who appears as the representative of observational optics in Cavendish's catalogue in The Blazing World of "the most famous modern Writers."  Thus, Cavendish's advocacy of reading as a form of "true" experience arises out of a resistance to the technology represented by the telescope that is the ultimate consequence of Galileo's adherence to such technology. Their different conclusions about the telescope produce a similar understanding of the problems and importance of reading as a means to knowledge. Without Galileo, one might say, Cavendish would not exist. In The Blazing World, Cavendish uses the utopian romance -- a genre whose central concern is that which could be but is not true -- to comment on the inadequacies of experimental and observational science. Cavendish challenges the way that this understanding of natural philosophy impoverishes readers by its narrow definition of personal experience. Using a frame narrative that replicates the structure of telescopic vision, Cavendish defines the boundaries of her fictional world with the telescope. As in The Starry Messenger, what Cavendish's text represents cannot be verified because it cannot be seen by the naked eye. Agreeing with Galileo's assumption that reading itself can give us "experience," Cavendish rejects the notion of verification itself. Iterability -- an increasingly important scientific practice requiring that experiences be repeated so that results can be verified -- is unintelligible in the context of Cavendish's belief in singularity. Reading, for Cavendish, is an experience, but it can only be verified by producing one's own world through one's own imagination.
In part because the admittedly idiosyncratic "experiences" of these works could not be duplicated, both Galileo's Starry Messenger and Cavendish's Blazing World have been regarded as largely eccentric failures. In this context, Galileo and Cavendish's works have been interesting as examples of provocative but not fully successful attempts to create a self. As critics have noted, both writers responded to their isolation -- for reasons of class, citizenship, politics, or gender -- from larger intellectual communities by using the language of absolutism to articulate alternative selves. Thus, as Mario Biagioli suggests, Galileo departs from available models of scientific writing in The Starry Messenger: by using the language of the Medici court, Galileo simultaneously legitimates the "natural" absolutism of the Medicis while also making himself a new kind of scientific ambassador to their power.  Initially isolated by politics from her homeland and by gender from …
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Publication information: Article title: Reading through Galileo's Telescope. Margaret Cavendish and the Experience of Reading [*]. Contributors: Spiller, Elizabeth A. - Author. Journal title: Renaissance Quarterly. Volume: 53. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 2000. Page number: 192. © 1999 Renaissance Society of America. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.
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