Saturday, December 29, 2012

Doctor Copernicus - John Banville

I recently read (and posted a review of) John Banville's 'The Untouchable', a fictionalisation of Anthony Blunt's life. This novel is a similar psychological portrait, of Nicholas Copernicus who launched the heliocentric paradigm of the cosmos in the early sixteenth century.

This is not a biography - Wikipedia is perfectly adequate for that. Banville is interested, as he was with Blunt, in the inner life of an intellectual with controversial, heretical views.

Intellectuals are frequently not so brave, especially when their subversive ideas cannot be understood, except by specialists. Mocked and traduced by ignorant rabble-rousers with baleful agendas, trapped by their intellectual precision and honesty, they lack defences.

And is it worth going to the wall for a theory? Especially when we know that theories are invariably provisional and should not be confused with absolute truth. It is known that Copernicus was conflicted, frightened and ambivalent. He may have been aware of the ramshackle nature of his theory: due to his insistence on circular orbits, he had to utilize more epicycles than the conventional geocentric Ptolemaic system.

Banville's style comprises fine descriptive writing with a penetrating insight into character and motive. His novel transports the reader to late-mediaeval Europe with its squalor, cold, lice and power-politics. I'm glad I went and I'm pleased to be back!