Reading through Galileo's Telescope. Margaret Cavendish and the Experience of Reading [*]

By Spiller, Elizabeth A. | Renaissance Quarterly, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

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." [1] 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. [2] 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. [3] 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. …

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Reading through Galileo's Telescope. Margaret Cavendish and the Experience of Reading [*]
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