Sublunar by Harald Voetmann, translated by Johanne Sorgenfri Ottosen. New Directions, 128 pages. 2023
Cloudless night. Wan crescent. The stars are ascendant, glaring, their light blue and lacteal. Imagine we could behold the heavens in their perfection, as they were perceived before the Enlightenment. Our world is a white-blue iris encased within the celestial spheres, each nested within another, filled with a substance philosophers call “quintessence” or “aether.” The spheres, Aristotle’s invention, maintain the immutability of the firmament, its contradistinction to the sublunar region, our mortal plane, where everything blooms and molders. The starry roost of the gods is unmoving and timeless. The motion of its fixed jewels is only apparent, an artifact of the spheres that contain them and wheel about us to a primordial command.
November, 1572 A.D. We see the impossible: a star among the vertices of Cassiopeia begins blazing like a pyre. Its radiance matches that of gleaming Venus. A “new star” we call it, though centuries later we’ll learn the event indicates a stellar death. If we are to believe our eyes, we have learned that the heavens are not changeless. The ancient meanings drawn between the stars hung above our terrestrial cradle like a spectral mobile, and by this light it fell to the ground. Look again. The stars are the same, but different: burning, spinning, bulging, moving, failing, like everything beneath the moon. Now we grasp the total dominion of nature. The matter cremated in those distant suns is the same flesh sloughing off our bones.
The morbid universe of Sublunar, the recently translated novel by Danish writer and classicist Harald Voetmann, is transformed by this spiritual catastrophe (“Tycho’s Supernova,” as the event is known today). Nature is reborn as a Parmenidean nightmare, arrested in “an eternal now, not frozen in being but in beginning and end.” The second installment in a historical trilogy interrogating “mankind’s inhuman will to conquer nature,” Sublunar recalls other excellent fictions (e.g. Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World or DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star) that correlate fundamental science with a mysticism that verges on madness. Sublunar, more concerned with misfortune than madness, conducts a negative astrology, renouncing the portent of the stars for the consequences of their newly-discovered insignificance. The result is a gloomy, rhizomatic, and often gross narrative (if descriptions of semen make you queasy, beware) that cycles between a fictitious Tyge “Tycho” Brahe and the astronomer’s learned peers: the ill-tempered alchemist Erik Lange and bumbling Revelationist Falk Gøye. In their own fashion, these characters realize that subsuming the heavens within nature entails the disenchantment of the universe and every creature that dwells within it.
Tycho Brahe was the superintendent of two 16th-century observatories erected on Ven, a tiny then-Danish island where the novel is set. Uraniborg, as Brahe named his earliest scholastic fortress, was the first European observatory funded entirely through state sponsorship, affording Brahe and his researchers state-of-the-art instrumentation (compasses, azimuthal quadrants, portable sextants, parallactic rulers, Jacob’s staffs, armillary spheres, etc.) that Voetmann deploys as the gadgetry of a benighted cosmology. What’s noticeably absent from this inventory is the optical telescope, which, only a few decades after Uraniborg was defunded, Galileo would use to reveal the rumples and craters of the moon, further verifying the heavenly imperfection Brahe outlined in his earlier treatise, De Nova Stella.
The astronomical catalogs that Brahe produced on Ven, notoriously painstaking as they were voluminous, contained some of the last data generated wholly through unmagnified vision. A considerable portion of Sublunar reproduces the “meteorological notation” of Brahe’s harried assistants, who spend much of their time recording the factors that frustrate or prevent naked-eye observation (e.g. “Murky, hail and frost, southeast softly graying, though mostly to the south, and reddish clouds”). The beauty and hazard of their dependence on the eye is the organ’s linkage with the mind, which allows Voetmann’s saturnine imagery—“hoarfrost” below the “great halo” of the moon; a receding “polyp of light without warmth”; “fog,” “haze,” “mist,” and “vapors”—to touch both ends of the optic nerve, intermingling what is seen with what is known. The assistants’ struggles with the varied occlusions above the Øresund strait ultimately conditions their idea of the sky itself. When they complain to their master of a night sky persistently “covered in clouds,” Brahe must correct them: “the sky is dark and clear, but we on Earth are covered in clouds.”
Brahe and his underlings experience sight as a limp appendage of an overmuscled will, commanding the eye to scan and squint however dependably it is denied. They soon learn that, as regularly clenching a fist makes it harder to relax, the nightly routine of trying to see fosters a relentless compulsion to look. The novel’s representative assistant “cannot abide the sight of the sky, and he closes his eyes, shuts himself into his own darkness where nothing is a point of reference, and it can never be mapped.” Two paragraphs later, the nameless man’s “eyes roll in their sockets, mapping the indistinguishable, tracing the edges of the inner darkness.” When Brahe retires to his bed chamber, he finds that his “eyelids were like a light veil covering my field of vision, a quivering mist, through which I could see the contours in the paintings on the vault over my bed.” Seeking relief, he “pulled my nightcap over my eyes, put my hands on top, finally even dug a thatch of straw from the side of my mattress and pressed it against my eyes.”
The central irony of Sublunar is that though the pre-modern astronomer bewailed the eye as an instrument, its limits worked to conceal alarming insights about nature that could not be unseen, or unlearned. For Voetmann, Brahe’s astronomy is a branch of a heady cult (its title: Western natural philosophy) possessed by an unexamined appetite for cosmic secrets, driving its acolytes to model and document the heavens only to denude them of holiness. (In Voetmann’s preceding novel, Awake, Pliny the Elder catalogs the bounty of nature to reveal a “unity” that no human can partake in.) The Brahe of Sublunar, always the faithful Christian, nonetheless seems to regret this empirical undertaking. In writings to his twin brother who perished in the womb, Brahe describes the “Lord’s magnificent work” as “glorious to behold whenever possible, but awful to live inside.” His creeping pessimism inverts light and darkness, the basic media of astronomy and the rudiments of religious meaning. The notion is expressed twice, once to his unborn brother, then to his assistants:
Do we really believe that it is ever not dark? . . . The Lord has lit a lamp which orbits us [Brahe’s solar system was geocentric], but around it is only darkness. The sun illuminates it briefly in its course but never purges it completely. The darkness is constant and far more vast than the light. As the light wanes, it is not replaced by the dark, brothers, at least not to my eye. The underlying darkness is merely revealed, and we see that it was there all along, that the light held it, hid it.
Darknesses, voids, gaps, crevices, holes. Voetmann’s scientists and naturalists, all men, are compelled to unveil nature, probe its every cavity, fill its deepest hollows. Their gaze, slewed toward objects celestial or corporeal, is unavoidably sexual; the knowledge they seek finally carnal. The nameless assistant, lazing in a meadow with a lover, tickles her “nostril with a straw of quaking grass” as she naps. Helpless, he plunges deeper until she wakes and hits him. Brahe’s night visions are accompanied by an unbearable sensation that his innards have become a “thick, bubbling liquid.” He sends for his wife and at her first touch violently ejaculates the “pale slime” that had accumulated within him. Awake depicts Pliny the Elder inspecting the body of a common woman “born with no orifices,” no senses or portals to the outer jurisdiction of men. Pliny admits he has “never felt so much lust in my life, never felt so overcome with desire to seize something living.” He pays her father for the night so that he can “trail my cock all over her closed body.”
I did mention the grossness. Yet these scenes are also impressive, given how easily the theme of scientific-inquiry-as-psychosexual-domination would become stupid or disingenuous in the hands of lesser novelists. Voetmann is serious about this rendition of the scientific enterprise, which, in its lust for the secrets of nature, always seems to disrobe itself. Drinking with the alchemist Lange around a fire, Gøye extols his polymathic friend—“Behold, Nature, the bold scrutinizer of your being!”—without recognizing that this scrutiny will inevitably rebound upon the scrutinizers. In writings addressed to the King of Denmark, Gøye attests to nightly visitations by a “pair of eyes hovering in the air above me. A faceless gaze above my face,” observing him “with neither purpose nor interest.” Gøye does not consider the resemblance between the gaze which haunts him and the indifferent gaze of the scientist he praises.
Brahe makes a similar error when describing the “pains in my eyes” to his brother as “the body’s resistance to subjecting itself to the spirit, to wresting nature of her secrets in service of the spirit. The body’s own nature. The nature of which I am made, though only in part.” The astronomer holds his “spirit” in reservation against the disenchantment he has set loose upon the universe. But he knows better. Brahe’s position within scientific history was doubly unlucky: too early to witness the greatest triumphs of science, but too late to remain aloof to its ramifications for the human soul. The practices that failed to find divinity in the inert orchestrations of the cosmos would scour humanity’s innermost vault of globular cells and cratered bones to the same result.
Voetmann’s characters, just beginning to grasp this unhappy symmetry, habitually and self-servingly underestimate the reach of naturalization. They fail to see how it erodes the integrity of almost every belief they espouse, commonplaces and prejudices especially. Brahe deems “womenfolk” unfit for science or philosophy because their “manner” is “not founded on the mastery of passion.” Gøye, whose attempts at courtship amount to predation, ponders how high romance is lost on the peasantry: “Perpetual labor contents the peasant, and his solace is found in plowshare and hoe. Should he on the rare occasion—despite his nature—be struck by Cupid’s arrow, all principles of courtly love will indeed be lost on him.”
As humans drained of spirit cannot escape nature’s ambit, these hoary essentialisms implode without supernatural justification. In his more poetic messages, Brahe admits this corollary to his brother. In a universe where everything below and beyond the moon is circumscribed by nature, the ‘natural’ behavior for a peasant or woman is precisely what they do and are capable of doing. Moreover, the innumerable outcasts that civilization rejects as ‘nature’s mistakes’ are now sanctified as its “true children.” These are, Brahe writes, “the deformed. The six-legged lambs, the hermaphrodites, the cyclops, all the drooling idiots bred in sin under [the moon’s] glow.”
Returning from Syracuse, Brahe brings such a lunar child—a snarling “dwarf” named Jeppe—back to Uraniborg, where he is humiliated and abused by the men. During a research fellowship in Germany, Lange discovers another in his host’s jester, Nikolaj. Born without arms or legs, “little Nikolaj . . . did not entertain with his wit but rather with his condition.” Characteristically depraved, Lange conspires to watch Nikolaj “copulate with a whore” locally acclaimed for her “talents.” The obedient jester eventually mounts the supine prostitute with the help of a “half-foot,” concealed until this moment and “equipped with three long toes and attached to his left buttock.”
Welcome to Voetmann’s repugnant rituals of distinction, which entertain onlookers by degrading and alienating their lowly enactors. Yet the “shame” the observers report betrays a recognition of their common predicament within a wholly natural universe. Here, we are all freaks of nature.
Brahe, of course, acknowledges this because he already belongs among the “deformed.” The historic Tycho Brahe famously lost the bridge of his nose in a duel with his third cousin after they purportedly failed to drunkenly resolve who was the superior mathematician. In Sublunar, the noseless Brahe entertains the bid of a “Bononian flesh tailor” to regrow the organ by grafting Brahe’s nose to a “loose flap of meat” from his bicep while it was “still connected to the arm.” Dubious, Brahe opts to keep his “artificial nose-bit,” rumored to have been forged of silver and gold (it was probably brass). Brahe’s enigmatic prosthesis lends him strange affinities for inanimate devices that share his constitution. And why not? Both organic and mechanical objects harbor a mirage of teleology, which disappears when either are reduced to their meager atoms. In a dream, standing before the “great sextant outside Stjerneborg,” Brahe declares: “Without foundation and purpose we stand, instrument and man.”
What might seem to complicate this glum materialism is how much Christianity figures into this novel. But Sublunar insinuates that the disenchantment of the universe paradoxically bolsters Christianity’s appeal, even to the astronomers whose nightly findings challenged its precepts. For as they peered beyond the Earthly veils, these men found a mirror: self-knowledge, of an especially Christian variety. It’s no accident that the most conspicuous sentiment felt after Brahe’s ruinous discoveries is shame. “Cursed” by a “congenital deficiency” he cannot reveal, Gøye is ashamed to recount “reading and rereading” about “female hidden parts,” or being drunk before noon with Lange. Expelled from his fellowship for abusing Nikolaj, Lange is described by his servant as “dejected and ashamed,” swearing that he will “henceforward heed the sound Christian advice of his servant.”
Brahe declares that the Edenic shame of the body, its crevices, odors, and juices, its capacities for ecstasy and intoxication, falls to humanity from the stars. “Shame gathers around this world,” he writes to his brother. “Drizzles down from above to condense in a thick membrane around us.” The bane of the astronomer, occlusion, is reformulated as a punishment for the sin of knowing. In Brahe’s foregoing elegy to the darkness of the universe, he also says:
The underlying darkness . . . is not empty, it abounds with souls, and only appears dark to the sinful eye that cannot perceive its radiance. As the light holds a greater darkness, so the darkness holds an even stronger light. Our time between Heaven and Earth is brief until, by the mercy of Jesus Christ, we are absorbed and apportioned in either for eternity.
As nature is disclosed, God hides. Scientific paragons like Brahe, Galileo, Kepler, and Copernicus revealed the unholy body of nature to be our own, but in doing so amplified the widespread sense of fallenness, of a defective reality, upon which the Abrahamic faiths depend. What finally troubles Voetmann about science is its irrational impetus. The reader cannot help but wonder why his characters tirelessly pursue knowledge that is alien and corrosive to their humanity. Why does Pliny the Elder of Awake divide nature expecting to discover unity? Why does Brahe bother to measure the “cracks and imperfections” in the “mighty lid” of our collective funeral urn? If Voetmann has expressed anything in the first two translations of this marvelous triptych, it’s that the soul and nature reflect and contain each other; that questions of one necessitate questions of the other, even if the answers are miserable. It is a perilous game acquiring knowledge of the universe for no other reason than curiosity. But perhaps we too cannot help ourselves, even today. Beyond imperfect, our regnant picture of the universe is of an inhuman cathedral, fathomless, hostile, and desolate. So why should we seek its fundamental truths? If we are certain that nothing mystical, numinous, or redemptive exists out there, then why are we still looking?