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Posts Tagged ‘Athanasius Kircher’

What We’re Loving: Porto Pim, Montana, Cat Pianos

March 15, 2013 | by


I am currently in Missoula, attending a conference at the University of Montana. At a welcome reception last night (in which we were treated to, among other things, some delicious bison meatballs), one title kept cropping up in conversation: John Williams’s Stoner. Why has this 1965 novel of loneliness and small lives acquired such a cult following? As one professor put it, “It captures academia perfectly.” (And since it’s one of my favorites, I felt at home right away.) —Sadie O. Stein

Thank you to John Glassie and Writers No One Reads for highlighting Athanasius Kircher, the seventeeth-century Jesuit priest and polymath who gives a whole new definition to “Renaissance man”: author, inventor, curator, Mount Vesuvius climber. While most of his ideas—covering more than seven million words, in Latin—are dead wrong (universal sperm, the hollowness of mountains), his poetic “translations” of Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions are masterpieces of expression. On a section of an Egyptian obelisk now in Rome’s Piazza della Minerva, Kircher wrote:

Supreme spirit and archetype infuses its virtue and gifts in the soul of the sidereal world, that is the solar spirit subject to it, from whence comes the vital motion in the material or elemental world, and abundance of all things and variety of species arises. 

Unfortunately, he only wrote one book of fiction (1656’s Ecstatic Journey), and while most of his work is long forgotten, he was an influence on such writers and artists as Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and Marcel Duchamp. Not bad for someone who invented an instrument called the cat piano. —Justin Alvarez Read More »


Making Monuments

November 9, 2012 | by

Library of Congress

From the time I was really young, I carried around an excellent fact about my father: he’d once stood on the very top of the Washington Monument. On the pointy tip, on the outside. That was the notion that I grew up with. I remember having some trouble picturing the circumstances in which he might have done this. We lived in the Maryland suburbs of D.C. and so I often saw the monument out the car window on trips downtown. I think I felt some retroactive worry for his safety, and I wondered about his apparently incredible sense of balance, but the truth of the story was never in doubt. It came up casually in conversation. Questions were shrugged off, or maybe I was too young to understand. Apparently it had to do with his job.

Later on he told me more. My father was a young engineer involved with the 1934 renovation of the monument. (That’s not a typo: He was born in 1908, and he was fifty-three years old when I was born in 1961.) Scaffolding had been erected all around, and as part of the project the solid aluminum point that sits on the very top was removed for refurbishment, leaving a flat square of marble. My father gave me the impression that he actually stood, or stepped, on that square, about 555 feet off the ground, before the point was reset. Judging from pictures I’ve recently found of other men standing around it, I’m not totally sure about that. Even so I’m not any less impressed than I ever was. I always thought my father was a pretty goddamn cool guy.

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