Intonations of a Metaphor

by Kiko Matsing

from The Fearful Sphere of Pascal
by Jorge Luis Borges, New Directions, 1962

Circle Limit IV (Heaven And Hell)
M.C. Escher, Circle Limit IV (Heaven And Hell), 1960
National Gallery of Canada

It may be that universal history is the history of a handful of metaphors. The purpose of this note will be to sketch a chapter of this history.

Six centuries before the Christian era, the rhapsodist Xenophanes of Colophon, wearied of the Homeric verses he recited from city to city, lashed out at the poets who attributed anthropomorphic traits to the gods, and offered the Greeks a single God, a god who was an eternal sphere. In the Timaeus of Plato we read that the sphere is the most perfect and most uniform figure, for all points of its surface are equidistant from its center; Olof Gigon (Ursprung der grechischen Philosophie, 183) understands Xenophanes to speak analogically: God is a spherical because that form is best–or least inadequate–to represent Divinity…

Universal history continued to unroll, the all-too-human gods whom Xenophanes had denounced were demoted to figures of poetic fiction, or to demons–although it was reported that one of them, Hermes Trismegistus, had dictated a variable number of books (42 according to Clement of Alexandria; 20,000 according to Hamblicus; 36,525 according to the priests of Thoth–who is also Hermes) in the pages of which are written all things. Fragments of this illusory library, compiled or concocted beginning in the third century, go to form what is called the Corpus Hermeticum; in one of these fragments, or in the Asclepius, which was also attributed to Trismegistus, the French theologian Allain de Lille (Alanus de Insulis) discovered at the end of the twelfth century, the following formula, which future ages would not forget: “God is an intelligible sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”…

Dante’s poem preserved the Ptolemaic astronomy which for 1,400 years reigned in the imagination of mankind. The earth occupies the center of the universe. It is an immobile sphere; around it circle nine concentric spheres. The first seven are “planetary” skies (the firmaments of the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn); the eighth, the firmament of the fixed stars; the ninth, the crystal firmament, which is also called the Primum mobile. This in turn is surrounded by the Empyrean, which is composed of light. All this elaborate apparatus of hallow, transparent and gyrating spheres (one system required 55 of them) had come to be an intellectual necessity; De hypothesibus motuum coelestium commentariolus is the timid title which Copernicus, denier of Aristotle placed at the head of the manuscript that transformed our vision of the cosmos…

… In the seventeenth century, humanity was cowed by a feeling of senescence… In that dispirited century, the absolute space which had inspired the hexameters of Lucretius, the absolute space which had meant liberation to Bruno, became a labyrinth and an abyss for Pascal. He abhorred the universe and would have liked to adore God; but God, for him, was less real than the abhorred universe. He deplored the fact that the firmament did not speak, and he compared our life with that of castaways on a desert island. He felt the incessant weight of the physical world, he experienced vertigo, fright of solitude, and he put his feelings into these words: “Nature is an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” Thus do the words appear in the Brunschvicg text; but the critical edition published by Tourneur (Paris, 1941), which reproduces the crossed-out words and variations of the manuscript, reveals that Pascal started to write the word effroyable: “a fearful sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose cirumference is nowhere.”

It may be that universal history is the history of the different intonations given a handful of metaphors.

(Translation: Anthony Kerrigan)