Frédérique Aït-Touati, Fictions of the Cosmos

Frédérique Aït-Touati, Fictions of the Cosmos: Science and Literature in the Seventeenth Century, trans. Susan Emanuel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011). 261 pp. HB £31.50. ISBN 978-0-226-01122-4.

Fictions of the Cosmos explores the intricate relationship between scientific and literary discourses in seventeenth-century Europe. The interpenetration of early modern scientific and literary language and genres has been well-documented, in works such as Gerald Holton’s The Scientific Imagination (CUP, 1973), and, more recently, Elizabeth Spiller’s Science, Reading, and Renaissance Literature: The Art of Making Knowledge, 1580-1670 (CUP, 2004) and the volumes published in Ashgate’s ‘Literary and Scientific Cultures of Early Modernity’ series. The art-science interface in the seventeenth century merits this degree of scrutiny precisely because it is seen to be the moment when scientific and literary discourses came to be disentangled and defined in opposition to one another. Frédérique Aït-Touati sets out to re-examine this disentangling not simply in order to document the process, but so as to recover something of the textures and implications of the interweaving of those discourses in ‘pre-modern’ periods. Aït-Touati brings a sophisticated understanding of both bodies of knowledge to her endeavour: focusing on works of astronomy and cosmology, she explores the ways in which scientific texts used codes and languages common to literary works (especially prose fiction) and narrative in order to make the former works more accessible to modern readers.

The texts chosen for detailed analysis are indeed ones renowned for their dense language and argument. Helpfully, Aït-Touati’s focuses on the lunar journey as a subgenre of the cosmological narrative, and her six chapters are grouped in three sections so that the primary sources are treated both individually and in dialogue with one another. Part 1, ‘Cosmic Imagination’, examines four lunar journeys: Kepler’s Somnium (1634), Godwin’s The Man in the Moone (1638), Wilkins’s The Discovery of a World in the Moone (1638) and Cyrano’s L'Autre Monde: ou les États et Empires de la Lune (1657). The conceit of the dream vision – a technique deployed by Macrobius and Boethius and at its height of popularity during the Medieval period – is shown to have enabled readers to decentre themselves from their terrestrial homes and imagine the earth and its movements as viewed from the moon, thus helping them to engage with the heliocentric model as set out in Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus (1543). These literary ‘thought experiments’, it is argued, also facilitated a revolution in fiction itself, as ‘lunar fiction [slipped] from a poetics of wonder to a poetics of the credible’ (13-14), helping pave the way for a distinctive scientific discourse.

Part 2, ‘Conjectural Machines’, turns to the works of Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle and Christiaan Huygens and their use of literary techniques to imagine the universe as a ‘machine of the world’ and as a plurality of worlds with many centres. Positioned at the heart of Fictions of the Cosmos, these two chapters identify the relationship between Fontanelle’s and Huygens’s ‘machines of conjecture’ as one of similarity and difference, and in this latter respect – the differences between their texts – the demarcation between literary and scientific discourse with which we are now familiar becomes apparent. In the literary cosmologies of these two men there can be discerned a ‘competing poetics in which credibility may refer to either the epistemic incertitude of fiction or the solid construction of a theory’ (14) – but, decisively, not both. The third and final part, ‘Observing Monsters’, turns to the world of the very small as much as that of the very big. Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665) is set in conversation with Margaret Cavendish’s critique of the use of instruments in natural philosophy and her assertion of the creative power of the mind (the ‘fancy’, as she referred to it) in knowing the world. Their debate over the role of optical instruments and the images they produce is shown to be intimately related to the development – and interrogation – of the scientific method.

Leaving ‘the field of literature in order to understand it better’ is, Aït-Touati remarks, ‘a kind of decentering that recalls that of the astronomers who left the Earth to better observe it’ (13). But Fictions of the Cosmos enriches our understanding of both discourses, scientific (and proto-scientific) as well as literary. In particular, it demonstrates the ways in which cosmological texts drew on and helped illuminate particular qualities of prose fiction: ‘Cosmological texts, in which the boundaries of abstract and conceptual thought in the sphere of fiction and narrative are explored... invite us to perceive the richness of the “literary” found beyond the institutional boundaries of literature’ (13). English authors are situated in their European context and as part of a vibrant scholarly community. Emanuel’s translation has a clarity and precision which complements the graceful and engaging manner in which Aït-Touati handles potentially difficult subject matter. Fictions of the Cosmos makes an important contribution to the study of early modern science and literature by attending to the role of rhetoric in shaping the language and forms of scientific discourse as distinct from the ‘literary’ genres to which it was once closely related. Like Kepler’s lunar voyager, the reader of her book is transported to another world – that of seventeenth-century cosmology – in order to see both that world and the modern one with fresh eyes.

Jayne Elizabeth Archer, Aberystwyth University