Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Heresy is not all that thrilling

Posted by Darin Hayton on 07/06 at 10:07 AM

Historical fiction and especially historical mysteries are popular genres. Historical fiction that combines mystery with the history of science is less common. Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose and Ian Pears’s Instance of the Fingerpost come to mind as good examples of such writing. S.J. Parris’s Heresy. An Historical Thriller seemed, at first glance, promising. Set in 16th-century Oxford, the story follows Giordano Bruno as he tries to solve a series of murders, uncover a Catholic conspiracy, and find some lost, fifteenth book of the Corpus Hermeticum. First impressions are not, however, terribly dependable.1

S.J. Parris’s historical mystery Heresy

As historical fiction, the history is pretty thin. Most of the historical details could be gleaned from one section of the wikipedia page on Bruno, England, 1583-1585. As history of science, Heresy is worse. While Parris portrays Bruno as modern in his preference for science (that is, logic) over dogma and his rejection of religious explanations of natural phenomena, Bruno comes across as a bumbling, often dim-witted, loud-mouthed hero.  His commitment to Copernicanism is repeated numerous times, but for no real purpose. Indeed, his cosmology, which seemed to occupy so much of his time while in England, is absent from this novel.2 Similarly, his interest in the Hermetic texts comes up again and again, but plays no appreciable function in the story.

Perhaps more disturbing is the caricature of religion and science. In addition to trying to solve a murder mystery, Bruno represents the modern, secular, tolerant quasi-scientific intellectual who rejects theological explanations and religion—sort of a new atheist avant la lettre. Instead, he wants only to use logic and “science” to solve the murders and to understand the operations of the natural world.3 He ridicules opponents of Copernicanism because they offer “old, tired arguments in favour of Aristotle—claiming no more scientific proof than the weight of scholastic authority” and “conflate science and theology and believe the Holy Scripture to be the last word in scientific enquiry.” Bruno, by contrast, puts forward his own “complex calculations to account for the relatve diameter of the moon, the Earth, and the sun in terms even an idiot could understand.”4

Throughout Bruno is portrayed as the voice of reason who, by virtue of relying on logic and science, is intellectually and religiously tolerant. By contrast, most other characters are portrayed as fanatically dogmatic and, consequently, killers—whether executing people in the name of religious and national security or murdering them because of they posed a threat to the religious conspiracy. To be sure, during the 16th and 17th centuries plenty of people were killed (executed, murdered, martyred, etc.) in the name of religion, including Bruno. But Bruno was not the lone voice of tolerance and reason. Indeed, he wasn’t much of a voice of reason. His understanding of Copernicanism was idiosyncratic and seems to have been motivated by his philosophical commitment to an infinite universe rather than some appreciation for “science.” As ThonyC over at The Renaissance Mathematicus has

almost certainly pointed out at least a zillion times on various intertube comment columns Bruno was immolated for his theology and not for any scientific theories he might or might not have held. Secondly Bruno famously rejected the mathematisation of natural philosophy that was developing at the end of the 16th century, not exactly the person to name as a martyr for mathematics.

Bruno was not a “scientist” and certainly not a “famous scientist,” despite what the dusk jacket announces at various places and how Parris portrays him throughout the book. Moreover, the conflict between science and religion that animates much of Heresy distorts the historical record. Bruno was not the spokesman for science, tolerance, and reason. Neither were the theologians and Oxford academics universally dogmatic killers opposed to logic and reason.

Despite the accolades in the press and the glowing blurbs on the dusk jacket, Heresy is not “a must read for every fan of historical thrillers.” Bruno does not “erupt with volcanic force from the pages” nor does he crack a “secret code, unraveling a church conspiracy as deep and dark as that in a Dan Brown novel.” The reference to Dan Brown is, however, appropriate: like Dan Brown’s books, Heresy is historically thin and deeply problematic.

1Nor, apparently, are the blurbs on the back of a book or the reviews at many of the daily papers.
2Bruno published various cosmological works in 1584, during his time in England, including: La cena de le ceneri and De l’infinito, universo e mondi, both of which are available on line at the La biblioteca ideale di Giordano Bruno. The Warburg Institute also maintains a nice bibliography on-line texts, both primary and secondary, at Bibliotheca Bruniana Electronica.
3Although Bruno makes some interesting inferences, he doesn’t, in fact, solve the mystery. Instead, he learns all the details toward the end when one of the accomplices explains them to him.
4Parris, Heresy, 147 and 148.

Tags: book review, giordano bruno, science vs. religion