No. 118 (essentialsaltes) wrote,
No. 118

What do you say to an angry witch?


Like Galileo, Johannes Kepler is one of the early founders of modern astronomy and indeed, modern science. Kepler is in some ways the more interesting of the two, since his scientific efforts are, in many cases, tinged with mysticism. Galileo is in many ways fully modern, while Kepler straddles the line between superstition and science. Anyway, one of the rather unusual events in Kepler's life is that his mother was tried for witchcraft. I didn't know much about the event, but I hoped that would be remedied by reading James A. Connor's Kepler's Witch.
Unfortunately, the increase in my knowledge is only slight. I suspect the reason for that is ultimately that the surviving records of the trial are inadequate as source material, but Connor won't admit it. Some of that original trial material is quoted in the book, and this forms the greatest addition to what I already knew. Of course, it's the usual story: 'She touched a two year old calf, so that it died; she gave so-and-so a potion so that she now suffers from an unspeakable illness'. And when one looks behind the scenes, it's also the usual story: Frau Kepler was cantankerous, made the wrong enemies, and also had the misfortune of being a Protestant in Hapsburg lands around the time of the start of the Thirty Years' War.
Still, one would think that with a title like Kepler's Witch, we would learn a great deal about Kepler's mother and the trial. The beginning of the book presents the context and some of the testimony used against her. Then in chapter 2, we travel back in time to Kepler's birth. The next two-thirds of the book are a biography of Kepler, while Kepler's mother and the trial get only a couple chapters near the end.
It's kind of a bait-and-switch, but I'm happy to read a biography of Kepler. Except that the book is not very good. For one thing, Connor tells us early on that he's not going to talk about Kepler's scientific discoveries. "I did not try to give an account, except as a sketch, of Kepler's science. There are many great books about his science ... This book, rather, is about Kepler's life, about his suffering and his triumphs." This is really unfortunate, because what Kepler actually did (and the work that he went through to achieve it) is amazing. As much as his life story is inherently interesting, it seems very strange to talk so little about what makes him worthy of study in the first place.
Nevertheless, Kepler's life (which partook more of suffering than triumph, I'm afraid) does make a good story. Having survived smallpox as a child, Kepler outlived his first wife and most of his numerous children (many of whom died in infancy or childhood). A man of principle, Kepler's unwillingness to convert to Catholicism led to enormous difficulties, up to and including losing jobs and being expelled from the city of Graz. Yet at the same time, the Lutheran authorities were not happy with Kepler's personal religious convictions, which departed slightly from then-current dogma. Consequently, Kepler was excommunicated from the Lutheran church. Converting to Catholicism would have made his life much easier, but for almost twenty years, he still considered himself a member of the church that shunned him.
So much for the content, now let me bitch about Connor's writing. Far more frequently than can be explained without reference to illegal drugs, he springs bizarre and indigestible similes on the reader: "as two oversized egos batted against one another like mythical frost giants throwing stones" "The history of the Czech people has been like a man carrying a stack of dishes on his head; every day the neighbors clap, shout, pound the floor, rush at him, and make faces, because they want to see it fall."
But Connor's greatest offense is that the book is a chronological muddle. In addition to having most of Kepler's life as a sort of flashback that comes between the chapters that actually talk about the witchcraft trial, the book is highly repetitive as the beginnings and endings of the chapters overlap in time. If something important happens at the end of a chapter, you can be sure that the next chapter will start by going back two years in time and eventually staggering forward five. Emperors die and spring back to life in the next chapter. Kepler is exiled, and then unexiled. The whole book stumbles erratically in time, and yet there is seldom any 'thematic' reason why this should be so. Indeed, some of these chronological hiccups are due to intercalary sections on the Hapsburg dynasty and other tangential events that could easily have been omitted.
Seldom are biographers of the same caliber as their subjects, but Kepler deserves far better. Nothing in Kepler's Witch is as stirring as Kepler's own words. In the future, Kepler imagined, "ships of the air, with sails designed for the atmosphere of heaven, could be made, and then people would arise who would not fear the vastness of space."
Tags: book, science

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