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Friday, February 08, 2008

Renaissance Aliens? I mean, Renaissance Aliens!

Here's Burton, writing about the stars:
Then (I say) the earth and they be planets alike, inhabited alike, moved about the sun, the common centre of the world alike, and it may be those two green children which Nubrigensis speaks of in his time, that fell from heaven, came from thence. (Pt. 2, Sec. 2, Mem. 3, p. 54).
Well, OK, "Nubrigensis" is William of Newburgh, so these are actually twelfth-century, medieval aliens, but lets let that pass for a moment. Burton's reasoning here is sort of amazing: if the earth is a planet, and shines to those on other worlds the way the stars shine to us, then -- "per consequens" -- "the rest of the planets are inhabited, as well as the moon" (p. 53). He attributes this logic to Kepler.

I love that the actual content of this perhaps earliest alien-landing scenario is exactly the same as the premise of every sci-fi film on the subject ever since: little green men come to earth.

Burton spends quite a bit of time on this hypothesis of infinite, inhabited other worlds, and in an odd way the idea seems to be in his head right from the very start of his book: on the very first page, when he's talking about why he's writing under the pseudonym Democritus Junior, he suspects that some people, seeing this name, will expect
(as I myself should have done), some prodigious tenent, or paradox of the earth's motion, of infinite worlds, in infinito vacuo, ex fortuita atomorum collisione, in an infinite waste, so caused by an accidental collision of motes in the sun, all which Democritus held.
I suppose the point is that the inner world of the human body and mind is just as strange and prodigious, just as unknown, as these alien worlds? We could call that the Innerspace reading of The Anatomy.

Unlike the whole line of "War of the Worlds" films, Burton seems much more troubled by the thought that all those stars and planets out there are empty, than he is at the prospect of little green men landing here. "Tycho in his Astronomical Epistles," he writes,
break[s] out into some ... speeches, that he will never believe those great and huge bodies [ie, the stars] were made to no other use than this that we perceive, to illuminate the earth, a point insensible in respect of the whole. (p. 55)
Sound familiar?
When I behold this goodly Frame, this World
Of Heav'n and Earth consisting, and compute
Thir magnitues, this Earth a spot, a grain,
An Atom, with the Firmament compar'd
And all her number'd Stars, that seem to roll
Spaces incomprehensible (for such
Thir distance argues and thir swift return
Diurnal) merely to officiate light
Round this opacous Earth, this punctual spot,
One day and night ...
In paragraph 31 of his intro to Paradise Lost, Merritt Hughes describes the seventeenth century as a real high-point for aliens, noting a whole series of texts between about 1610 and the 1680s asserting the possibility of life on other planets or on the moon.

The general movement of the discussion in Burton seems to me to resonate with the conversation between Adam and Raphael in Book VIII: from infinite worlds we go to this sense of tremendous waste or disproportion when confronted by the vastness of space; then from there we go into an extended complaint about excessive, misguided, and pointless human speculation -- "absurd and brain-sick questions, intricacies, froth of human wit, and excrements of curiosity" -- culminating in a kind of resignation: "when God sees His time, He will reveal these mysteries to mortal men" (p. 60). It's not exactly "be lowly wise," but it's not totally far off, either. Except that, for Burton, the real danger seems to be theological speculation: imagining little green men, fine; stirring up trouble by getting into involved disputes over doctrine, not so great. So it's sort of Milton in reverse.

  • At 2/09/2008 01:22:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    I'm loving this series of posts.


  • At 2/09/2008 09:02:00 AM, Blogger AGW wrote…

    Put it down to colonialism, perhaps: you don't really start getting Wellsian earth-invasion stories until you start getting Stokerian cross-colonization fears. The world of wonder described in the lines above is there for the exploring; it inspires awe, but not anxiety. By the time "War of the Worlds" came around, dreams of exploration had given way to realities of exploitation and awe had, in many cases, given way to insidious fear of self and other.


  • At 2/09/2008 03:19:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Great posts. By the way, the Green Children of Woolpit, to whom Burton is referring, more likely came from Fornham St. Martin than from Mars. See here:



  • At 2/09/2008 05:08:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    I second Heironimo: these posts are terrific. For more on the green children, see also a medievalist's account of William of Newburgh (though they are described as coming from the earth, not from the stars):

    My favorite early modern account of aliens is the chain-smoking moon people of Francis Godwin's Man in the Moon, who get all their tobacco from America.


  • At 2/11/2008 09:48:00 AM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    Awesome! I should've known our readers would know more about the green kids than I do.

    And oh, those moon people with their tobacco and their stuff.


  • At 2/12/2008 01:07:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Not too long ago David Cressy wrote an article on early modern space travel. I think a literary scholar would have done it better...


  • At 3/03/2008 01:07:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Empson of course had a whole set of essays on the implication of aliens for Donne. They're quite amazing. (I believe he concluded that the Valediction was set on the planet Venus.)


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