Renaissance man

Issue 3/1990 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An extract from the novel Bruno (WSOY, 1990)

Since her first collection of poems, which appeared in 1975, Tiina Kaila (born 1951 [from 2004, Tiina Krohn]) has published four children’s books and three volumes of poetry. Her novel Bruno is a fictive narrative about the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake in 1600. It is the conflict inherent in her main character that interests Kaila: his philosophical and scientific thought is much closer to that of the present day than, for example, that of Copernicus, and it is this that led him to the stake; and yet he did never abandon his fascination for magic.

The novel follows Bruno on his journeys in Italy; France, Germany and England, where he is accompanied by the French ambassador, Michel de Castelnau. Bruno finds England a barbaric place: ‘…These people believe that it is enough that they know how to speak English, even though no one outside this little island understands a word. No civilised language is spoken here’

In the extract that follows, Bruno, approaching the chalk cliffs of Dover by sea, makes what he feels to be a great discovery: ‘Creation is as infinite as God. And life is the supremest, the vastest and the most inconceivable of all.’

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I was leaning on the foredeck handrail, peering into a greenish mist. The bow was thrashing between great swells, blustering and hissing and shuddering like some huge wheezing animal: Augh – aagh – ho-haugh! Augh – aagh – ho-haugh!

Plenty of space had been reserved for our use on this new two-master cargo boat. Castelnau was transferring his whole family from France – his wife, his daughter, his servants, his library, his furniture, his past and me – to London, where, as you know, he had been appointed Ambassador of France.

The others were dining; I had lingered on deck, leaning on the rail and observing the green mist as it swirled over the cool water, with the sky glimmering faintly through, more and more clearly as darkness deepened, the stars finally puncturing it into transparency with their millions of sharp blades. Augh – aagh – ho-haugh! … The ship’s sides, so amenable – so amenable this ship, so amenably conversing à deux with the sea, quietly, whispering … they were feeling each other out. This sea was no Mediterranean, but there was something so real in it, something taciturn and wise.

And I was aboard ship, a real ship! I relished every motion of it, every stir, every careen, as if it were doing everything merely for my diversion. How often had I resorted to nautical metaphors in conversation without realising anything of a ship’s character, its being, its amenability! Without realising anything of its delicious motion. Somehow – I don’t know precisely how – it was arousing intoxicating notions in me, as if I were inhaling sea-ether or exquisite bouquets wafted into me by the banks of mist.

I began exercising my memory – as always and everywhere – but here especially because, surrounded by this delicious whispering, it seemed particularly easy and particularly important.

Jupiter, Juno, Saturn, Mars, Mercury, Minerva, Apollo – these I invoked! Circe I prayed to, daughter of the sun, to Circe who had allured me into the pain of love. Diana, Venus, Cupid, Ceres, Neptune, Thetis, Momus. Isis – to these I offered up my word through the intercession of Circe: listen, then, Venus, I prayed, O propitious goddess, O beauteous, pulcherrima, arnica, beneuola, gratiosa, dulcis, amoena, candida, siderea, dionea, olens, iocosa, aphrogenia, foecunda, gratiosa, larga, benefica, placida, deliciosa, ingeniosa, ignita, conclitarix maxima, amorum domina….

Venus domina, pulchra, placida, multipotens, domina amoris et pulchritudinis, seculorum progenis, hominumque parens initialis, qui primis rerum exordiis sexuum diversitatem geminato more sociativit, et aeterna sobole hominum, animaliumque genera, quotidie propagat, regina omnium gaudiorum.

Beneath the sign of Aries, a mighty man with burning eyes, dressed in white; a woman and a man, staff and firmament in hand; beneath the sign of Taurus a man carrying a key, a snake and a spear; beneath the sign of Gemini a man whose hands are bound with cord, listening to a flute-player; beneath the sign of Virgo a woman drinking from a round vessel held in both hands, and an eagle tearing the heart from her breast; a man and a woman sunk to their waists in a marsh, hands raised high to receive a rain of flowers from the sky, with doves bringing food to their mouths and an eagle pecking their eyes out; an old man holding a balance and a sword in his hands, another, with his legs cut off, taming a buck with a sword while a lion pounces on the balance; beneath the sign of Scorpio an ignorant lout scrawling verses with a pen, a garland of roses on his right and a staircase on his left; trees shaking in the wind, a rain of leaves, a tiresome surge of black roof-ridges; in a house a naked woman, with spiked sandals on her feet, to her left blazing firewood in a firegrate, in front of the firegrate a lidded table, open, and inside it a blood-red heart; on the woman’s right a cupboard with a brass tray and a measuring jug on the lowest shelf and on top a chasuble, a shallow offertory bowl a green parrot and a peacock plume; curled up at her feet a white dog and behind her a man in black coming through the door; a forest shot through by the rays of a rising sun, and a frog, a basilisk and an owl, all belonging to Pluto, escaping into a cave, and a cock, a lion, a phoenix, an eagle, a goose, a lynx and a ram running towards the sun; men dressed in red, cardinals and a crowned king sitting in a circle round an apple-tree sapling, the tree offering its first apple to the king; behind them a tall pillar of fire, with the planets ringing it round, and in the background a mountain with a winding path leading to its summit, where a huge pear tree sways its branches, dropping ripe fruit on all sides, which Venus, Minerva and Juno are offering to each other: a three-headed animal sitting in a black pond, its goat-head looking backwards, its wolf-head looking forward, its lion-head roaring; blue-clad women and white-clad men in an unlighted room, a crucifix on the wall; outside the window, in the distance, a row of cypresses and old men bowed into the shape of funeral mounds, and on their backs crosses cut, making the blood flow and stain their grey clothes; from far off outside the window they stare in with bulging eyes, their gaze distorted with screams; but these women and men in the foreground, these are burying their children with sumptuous rituals.

The ship careened, and the mist, the mist was cool, and the stars, they had penetrated through the veiling mist. But what was I doing? I was thinking: ‘The soul that loves God cannot reach an end. End there is none.’ I was saying to myself.

Night was darkening. I could no longer make out the horizon, but my ears were becoming all the sharper, each surge, each splash adhering to my consciousness and penetrating my mind down to its minutest recesses.

Venus alma, formosa, pulcherrima, arnica, beneuola . . . A serpent, yes a serpent wriggling through a dense kitchen garden that smells of balsam, sesame and milk thistle: it winds round that man’s arm, who is gathering the garden’s produce; and struggling among the herbs are four hearts, each with four wings, two with eyes, and two inscribed with the words Nitrum in cassum; and the man cannot get a grip on them because his arms are held captive by the serpents; the garden, expansive, supplied with roads, paths, rivers, brooks, bridges; and a castle whose walls are carved with nymphs bathing in the Nile; soldiers wander in the park, some drinking water from the brooks, others asleep in the shade of the cedar trees, and a third group kissing geese, a fourth copulating with the deer, a fifth helping each other off with their clothes and spears; a man leaving and shutting the gate behind him steps out onto the road, pressing his hands uncertainly under his arms and then even more uncertainly out of sight in his robe; and now spring rain over the surge of roofs; in a house a great oven full of bread, a long table empty in front of it, covered with a cloth, and a room full of empty baskets, but no one in charge of the baking, the loaves baking and sending out their fragrance by themselves; and on the side of the stove two items, a flute, and a box with elder branches and a scrolled map inside. My mind flicks through the endless pack of cards, and the ship careens. Endless pictures, and the endlessness only constitutes one, the single and motionless. A pregnant woman bending down to pick shellfish from the sand, and at her feet a legless hare with red eyes gobbling a cabbage; snow falling on the street, falling hard, and the roofs, already white, are transforming into seraphs and beginning to sway their mighty wings, rising, and leaving their inhabitants unprotected in their rooms, to blink their eyes and listen to the merciless silence of the sky. In the first room a hundred and fifty spiders are spinning a web round the angel Samael, but leaving his left eye still visible, with which he looks at a pot steaming on the stove with a bull’s head boiling in it and staring at him with both eyes; in the other room a labyrinth, and Isis asleep in its heart, vainly awaiting the arrival of the bearded white-clad man lost in the maze, carrying a shepherd’s crook and under his arm a bleeding lamb; in the third room a festive table with fat gentry gathered round and a crowned Diana in their midst, distributing bleeding lamb; in the fourth room ragged-gowned men staring at the sky, snowflakes in their beards and astonishment in their eyes, as if they were seeing further than ever before, as if the snow were white blood from the torn sky; in the fifth room a boy, with three feathers in his hat, red shoes and a silk collar, surrounded by flowers; and a woman playing an organ, and a man in a blue velvet cape, offering her an oakleaf, with the Garden of Lusts painted on it and Danae, her lap filling with the golden shower of Zeus.

In the divine being all attributes are identical and simultaneous, or rather they are one and the same thing. The infinite is unmoving, it is everywhere. If we live in the shadows flickering on the walls of our finite cave, yet the shadows, the images, the forms, life, fall down from infinity itself.

The ship suddenly gave a lurch, jolted deep, and I clung on to the rail, a gust smacking the sail, once, and then again; a passionate surging crashed from the bow. A lantern hanging behind me swung and swept the floor with the shadow of the mast, as if the shadow were an immense dockhand. I stared ahead of me, though I could see nothing but darkness.

The green of the sea, its transparent ether, overwhelmed my mind, impelling me strangely like a beatific smile.

‘I’m aboard a ship!’ I thought, with a sudden ecstasy. How great it is, how inconceivable to be truly aboard a ship. ‘This is a real ship, not the image of a ship, not the idea of a ship, not the symbol of a ship! This is a mast, not the shadow of a mast,’ I reflected, my mind flooding with joy. ‘All this is real. All this is happening: I said it aloud, bursting into laughter at the suddenly stupid and insane absurdity of the thought.

I let go of the rail, and struck its smooth round surface with the palms of my hands, over and over again, more and more excitedly and vigorously, merely to reassure myself that it was not going to vanish away somewhere. And it did not vanish but responded to my blows with a dim bumping and muffled vibration, as only compact proper wood can. ‘Wood, sea and human flesh!’ I laughed.

Ropes, sails, a lamp! What else? Yes, earth and space.

Laughably self-evident: all that is real.

I laughed aloud. I laughed from the bottom of my heart and belly as if I were some huge instrument, being tried out for the first time and startling the listener with its first melodies.

If God is infinite and perfect, how can His creation be finite? How could God, perfect in everything, so skimp His creation as to make it, not in His image, but almost, somehow, sort of in His image? Yes! To be more like a symbol: more of a mere shadow.

No! No shadows fall from infinity: much better: there are no shadows! Everything is real. All this is happening! The creation is as infinite as God. And life is the supremest, the vastest and the most inconceivable of all.

Then how could the sun be the centre of creation, and how could the sphere of the fixed stars enclose it as a finite creation, if God is infinite? How, if God’s entirety and infinity are attributes of universal nature and a reflection of His perfect image?

‘No, Copernicus was wrong. Shamefully wrong! Perhaps not totally blind, but very very weak-sighted’; I laughed, I hooted and chortled, I giggled, guffawed and snorted. ‘No hierarchies, no chains of cause and effect, not images!’ O thou Diana of the Moon, it was thou who fought it long ago: embracing images misses everything they figure forth.

When England’s chalk-cliffed shores finally started to rear from under the skirts of the glimmering sky, Castelnau appeared on deck beside me, pale and shivering. ‘I’ve slept badly… I’m not sure yet of everything that living in that country is going to mean; he said faintly.

‘Copernicus was wrong from the start,’ I said. ‘The sun is not the centre of creation, because it’s self-evident (as I can demonstrate to you whenever you like, as soon as you’re willing to sacrifice a little time to the matter) that the world is infinite and consists of an infinite number of similar suns, all encircled by similar planets!’

‘Here you’ll have cause to put on a few more warmer clothes than you usually do. It’s still autumn as yet, but the winters… the winters are ghastly. Sometimes a gale blows in from the sea, nonstop month after month, fit to break down the patience of Job. There’s no help anywhere: no sun in sight, you have to shovel snow….’

Translated by Herbert Lomas

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