Thursday, 14 February 2008

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Edith Wharton & Geocentrism & Heliocentrism & Help, Please? Everyone knows Copernicus killed geocentrism (mostly) during His Revolution, but not everyone knows who killed heliocentrism or when it even died. If you happen to know who did, when, with what and where, I think you owe it to the readers of this blog to tell them. Were I not too busy parsing Edith Wharton, I would. But see she writes things which confuse me, like this passage from her autobiography A Backward Glance (1927): Through [Egerton Winthrop] I first came to know the great French novelists and the French historians and literary critics of the day; but his chief gift was to introduce me to the wonder-world of nineteenth century science. He it was who gave me Wallace's Darwin and Darwinism, and The Origin of Species, and made known to me Huxley, Herbert Spencer, Romanes, Haeckel, Westermarck, and the various popular exponents of the great evolutionary movement. But it is idle to prolong the list, and hopeless to convey to a younger generation the first overwhelming sense of cosmic vastnesses which such "magic casements" let into our little geocentric universe. As you can see, here Wharton rightly frown on geocentrism. But then she writes things like this in "The Angel at the Grave" (1901): In the compressed perspective of Paulina's outlook it stood for a monument of ruined civilizations, and its white portico opened on legendary distances. Its very aspect was impressive to eyes that had first surveyed life from the jig-saw "residence" of a raw-edged Western town. The high-ceilinged rooms, with their paneled walls, their polished mahogany, their portraits of triple-stocked ancestors and of ringleted "females" in crayon, furnished the child with the historic scenery against which a young imagination constructs its vision of the past. To other eyes the cold spotless thinly-furnished interior might have suggested the shuttered mind of a maiden-lady who associates fresh air and sunlight with dust and discoloration; but it is the eye which supplies the coloring-matter, and Paulina's brimmed with the richest hues. Nevertheless, the House did not immediately dominate her. She had her confused out-reachings toward other centers of sensation, her vague intuition of a heliocentric system; but the attraction of habit, the steady pressure of example, gradually fixed her roving allegiance and she bent her neck to the yoke. Goes without saying that the heliocentrism that almost saved Paulina from her "compressed perspective" is better than the geocentrism from which "the great evolutionary movement" rescued Wharton and her contemporaries. The question is, how much better is it? I don't believe heliocentrism is held in high esteem in 1901, but what I know about the history of astronomy stops short of the Nineteenth Century. (Such is the perilous life of the autodidact!) You can see my general point: Wharton imagines coming into knowledge as analogous to the sneaking suspicion the Earth revolves around the Sun ... only heliocentrism is equally incorrect, inasmuch as it imagines everything in the known universe revolves around the Sun. Obviously wrong. But since my larger argument...

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