What Galileo saw

Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker:

ScreenHunter_97 Feb. 10 18.36Although Galileo and Shakespeare were both born in 1564, just coming up on a shared four-hundred-and-fiftieth birthday, Shakespeare never wrote a play about his contemporary. (Wise man that he was, Shakespeare never wrote a play about anyone who was alive to protest.) The founder of modern science had to wait three hundred years, but when he got his play it was a good one: Bertolt Brecht’s “Galileo,” which is the most Shakespearean of modern history plays, the most vivid and densely ambivalent. It was produced with Charles Laughton in 1947, during Brecht’s Hollywood exile, and Brecht’s image of the scientist as a worldly sensualist and ironist is hard to beat, or forget. Brecht’s Galileo steals the idea for the telescope from the Dutch, flatters the Medici into giving him a sinecure, creates two new sciences from sheer smarts and gumption—and then, threatened by the Church with torture for holding the wrong views on man’s place in the universe, he collapses, recants, and lives on in a twilight of shame.

It might be said that Brecht, who truckled to the House Un-American Activities Committee—“My activities . . . have always been purely literary activities of a strictly independent nature”—and then spent the next bit of his own life, post-Hollywood, accessorized to the Stalinist government of East Germany, was the last man in the world to be pointing a finger at someone for selling out honesty for comfort. But then the last man who ought to point that finger is always the one who does. Galileo’s shame, or apostasy, certainly shapes the origin myth of modern science, giving it not a martyr-hero but a turncoat, albeit one of genius. “Unhappy is the land that breeds no heroes,” his former apprentice says at the play’s climax to the master who has betrayed the Copernican faith. “No,” Galileo replies, “unhappy is the land that needs a hero.” It is a bitter valediction for the birth of the new learning. The myth that, once condemned, he muttered under his breath, about the earth, “But still, it moves,” provides small comfort for the persecuted, and is not one that Brecht adopted.

More here.

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