Kepler's Allegory of Containment, the Making of Modern Astronomy, and the Semiotics of Mathematical Thought

Article excerpt

That the German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) is an allegorist comes as no surprise to anyone who has encountered his cryptic Somnium, a text largely finished by 1610, added to for some twenty years, and published posthumously in 1634 by Kepler's son Ludwig. A clever book which speculates about the astronomical perspective of dwellers on the moon, the Somnium seu Astronomia Lunari, as it was fully titled, summed up Kepler's lifelong interests in dream lore, symbolism, demonology, the mystical value of geometry, and medieval literature. A resolute believer, along with Galileo or Newton or Boyle, that the physical cosmos was the script of God, Kepler was steeped as well in classical literature even in his adult, professional life. When he arrived in the city of Graz in 1594 to teach arithmetic to the adolescent sons of the well-to-do at the Protestant Stiftsschule, he also taught rhetoric and the poetry of Vergil because his mathematical lectures were unpopular and undersubscribed (Caspar 56-57); likew ise, his letters seem peppered with intense, often overwrought mythographic metaphors. (1) As Graz school authorities in charge of Kepler's teaching assignments claimed and as Kepler biographer Max Caspar quotes, "mathematics is not everyone's meat" (56). But Kepler also had tropes, figures, and myth in his very bones.

My object in this essay is to place Kepler within the genealogy of the great European allegorists, the genealogy containing Martianus Capella, Bernardus Silvestris, Dante, and Chaucer. A consummate practitioner of literary allegory, the great astronomer crafted one of the most compelling otherworldly journeys in literature. But his allegory, I believe, captures far more than the hermeneutically encrypted laws of the new physics or the heliocentric astronomy. Kepler's Somnium encapsulates or incorporates topoi from a number of his theoretical writings, proffering what can be thought of as a narratology or "allegory of containment," an imagined geometry both figural and literal, textual and thematic. At the same time, it conducts a parable of cognitive or meta-discursive self-reflection. That is, the Somnium yields itself up best, first, when studied through contemporary narratological technique--with special focus on the narratological master trope of embedding or framing--and second, once it is understood as an allegory not only about speculations concerning space and heavenly bodies but also about the very psychic or cognitive mechanisms by which the mathematical or scientific investigator could be said to produce mathematics and science. The narrative structure of the Somnium is self-reflexive, furnishing a relentless "narrative of narrative" (Williams 24). With all of allegory's attendant tropes and figural mechanisms, the text reflects upon mathematical cognition itself; a cognition formalized eventually by the American semiotician C. S. Peirce and his twentieth-century successor, Brian Rotman--both of whom, I will argue, are prefigured in Kepler's many-leaved allegory of science and narrative.

My highlighting of Kepler's "allegory of containment" will thus bypass his major contributions (the Astronomia nova or the Harmonice mundi) and focus on some minor texts, such as the Somnium--perhaps the last of the cosmic allegories of the Latin Middle Ages--as well as the early Mysterium cosmographicum (1596) and Nova stereometria (1615). Whereas the Mysterium tends to be disparaged in the positivist sketches of philosophy or history of science because of its earliness and its unabashed abstract Platonism, (2) the Nova stereometria or Stereometria Doliorum Vinariorum ("The Measurement of Wine Casks") receives praise for its role in the advancement of seventeenth-century mathematics. Yet both brief texts thematize an allegory of geometry, a process that finds reciprocal representation in the geometry of allegory presented in Kepler's sensuous and concrete narrative of the Somnium.

Kepler's Somnium has often been thought of as the first work of modern science fiction. …