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October 31, 2006

David Wootton asks - apart from Brecht - why has our culture failed to turn Galileo into a hero? The Life of Galileo - Bertolt Brecht

Posted by David Wootton

Bertolt Brecht's The Life of Galileo
in a version by David Hare; directed by Howard Davies
National Theatre, London
Olivier Theatre
in repertory 6th July - 31st October 2006

After seeing Bertolt Brecht's The Life of Galileo, David Wootton - the University of York's Anniversary Professor of History - asks, apart from Brecht why has our culture not made Galileo a hero?

Is the trial of Galileo the crucial moment in modern history? Brecht certainly makes one feel it is. Despite the overwhelming power of the Church, Galileo's ideas survived after being condemned twice, first in 1616 and then in 1633, and it is scarcely possible to imagine modern science without them. Imagine a Europe in which there had been no Reformation, in which the power of the Catholic Church to condemn an idea was unchecked: Galileo's books would have been banned and burnt, and scarcely a copy would have survived, locked in an archive of forbidden books to be consulted only by authorised theologians.

And without Galileo there could have been no Newton, no Einstein. Aristotle would still be taught in the universities, as he still was in eighteenth-century Italy. Ptolemy would still be a living textbook, as Galen still was in the 1860s. Our earth would still stand at the centre of the universe. Galileo's ideas survived for one reason and one reason only: in Holland there were printing presses that were not subject to Catholic censorship.

Brecht wrote Galileo during the Second World War (he escaped the Nazis, first to Switzerland, and then eventually to America). Obviously he was attracted to the story because it is in part - at least when seen from our distance in time (Brecht made good use of historical distance on other occasions, notably in his great play about war, Mother Courage)- a story of the triumph of an idea over a powerful tyranny.

But Brecht was a Marxist, and so he is obliged to give us an account of Galileo's ideas as representing the interests of a class, the manufacturing bourgeoisie.

This isn't quite a crass as it seems, for Galileo started his professional life as an engineer, and to the end of his life he was trying to find a technological pay-off for his new discoveries in physics. There's nothing particularly problematic about reading Galileo as if he shared Bacon's ambition to transform the world, although it is certainly not an idea he formulates in the convenient way Bacon does.

Moreover, as Brecht emphasises, Galileo chose to write in Italian, not Latin. For whom was he writing? Certainly not for university professors, whether theologians or scientists, for they all preferred to think in Latin, as the play shows. It is alarming to think that his model may well have been Giordano Bruno, executed by the Church ten years before Galileo turned his telescope towards the heavens - alarming, because Galileo must have understood the very moment he first wrote a sentence in Italian rather than Latin that he had raised the stakes. Clearly he was trying to appeal beyond the establishment to a new and wider audience. He knew perfectly well that he was provoking the establishment to strike back.

What gave Galileo new courage after the initial condemnation of Copernicanism in 1616 was the election of a supporter of his, Maffeo Barberini, as pope in 1623. This alone made possible his great Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems of 1632. Brecht portrays Barberini as an atheist, which of course he may have been; and also as a cynic, perfectly willing to abandon Galileo when the going got tough - and this seems entirely accurate. Where Brecht throws history aside is in giving Galileo one daughter (rather than two daughters and a son), and in writing for this daughter a failed romance with a landed aristocrat - he presumably feels this subplot necessary in order to get feudalism onto the stage.

Brecht, of course, has his own way of doing history. We move back and forth between scenes set in the sixteenth century and scenes highly suggestive of the twentieth (cabaret performances, border guards with machine guns). But there's very little evidence here of the famous Brechtian determination to keep the audience at an emotional distance. It is true that for most of the play we see Galileo as others see him (this is, after all, a play not a novel); but at the end he is given a lengthy speech in which he gives us his own bitter assessment of himself. There is nothing to prevent us from identifying with the character, and for all the play's insistence on a class reading of events, it portrays a world in which individuals count for everything.

My first reaction was to think that someone must have been monkeying with Brecht's text. This is a new version by David Hare, which one cannot buy because the Brecht estate, after lengthy consultations, decided not to license publication; but where I checked it against an authorised translation it seemed surprisingly faithful to the original, although certainly much more idiomatic. It is Brecht, not Hare, who makes Galileo a person with whom we identify.

This is all by way of preliminary to saying that this is a magnificent and moving production of a great play. Simon Russell Beale excels himself as Galileo, aging in front of our eyes (though it helps not to have seen him in The Alchemist, in which he puts some of the same shuffles and twitches to work). The little world of his household is beautifully conveyed by a tour de force of ensemble acting. The corruption and decadence of the Church is rendered seductive and credible. The tragedy that we know will turn into a posthumous triumph is beautifully balanced between the representation of catastrophic political failure and the representation of unparalleled intellectual success. The whole thing works wonderfully.

Which leaves me with a puzzle. One can see why Brecht wanted to make a hero of Galileo, although it involved bending and twisting his own theories of theatre and of history. But why has no one else been able to do this subject justice? Why is there no great biography, no famous historical novel, no TV series? One can see that it is hard to come to grips with Newton - difficult maths, a dull life, eccentric beliefs. One can see that Bacon is almost impossible - a corrupt politician and a great mind at one and the same time is almost too much for anyone to handle (but Jardine and Stewart have tried). As for Copernicus, we know too little about him, and there is too little to say. But why isn't Galileo a great hero in our culture? When even Brecht, who doesn't believe in heroes, turns him into one, why can't we?

There are, I suppose, some obvious explanations. We aren't very interested in science or scientists (Darwin is perhaps the one exception). We, and even more our American cousins, shy away from the conflict between religion and science (and we shy away from Dawkins because he keeps reminding us of it). Heroism has become a subject for Hollywood blockbusters starring Bruce Willis – it's an idea we turn to when we want to be mindless, not mindful. And so we have scarcely any place in our culture for Galileo. He's never made it into a Penguin classic (nor into Everyman). Most of the scholars who work on him have Italian last names and/or are Catholics agonising about the place of their Church in the modern world - it was only in 1992 that the Church finally apologised for the condemnation of Galileo.

There isn't (I think) a single British academic whose main work has been on Galileo. Galileo is surely the only major intellectual figure who is usually approached through a book first published as long ago as 1980 (Stillman Drake's Very Short Introduction) - this is a book which was already dated when first published, but has yet to be superseded. Surely more people know the story of Galileo from Brecht's play than from any other source - and most people who read or see the play are interested in Brecht, not Galileo. Compare Galileo with Leonardo or with Machiavelli - and it is immediately apparent that the problem isn't that he is Italian. Who hasn't seen the Mona Lisa or read The Prince? So just what is the problem?

Brecht sees one problem clearly. Galileo was a coward (he wouldn't even face torture, let alone execution). He was a cheat (he sold the telescope to the Venetians as if it were his own invention). He was a bad parent (Brecht is certainly right about this, even if he plays fast and loose with the facts). And he was, as an Italian writing in Italian for Italians, a failure (at the end of his life he was planning a Latin edition of his works, and receiving visits, not from Italians, but from Englishmen such as Hobbes and Milton).

Brecht can't resist turning him into a hero because he can't resist the challenge, and because he sees in his life the working of history's mysterious dialectic. But we, it seems, can. If only he had gone into exile in 1616, and ended up in Oxford (where Bruno had been before him) or, better still, in Amsterdam, rather than staying to face defeat and compromise. There would be a book and a TV series by Simon Schama, a novel or two, an industry of reproductions and artefacts (all we have now are those strange Galileo thermometers in which balls float at different heights). Or would there?

One of the wonderful things about this production is the set, which is infinitely versatile. On an invisible disk hanging over it we see projected the moon, when Galileo is pointing his telescope at it, the satellites of Jupiter, the sun with its spots. As the play ends we see the earth, a blue globe floating through space, which at the last spins. Galileo was the first to imagine this sight, to grasp what the earth would look like if seen from the moon; and one of the first to realise that our sun is just a star, our earth just a planet like many others. We all inhabit a world that he discovered.

Strange indeed that we need Brecht (who died the year before the launch of the first Sputnik) to tell us that Galileo, better than anyone else, symbolises the world we have made. Brecht thought he was watching that world in its final death throes. He was wrong; but on the significance of Galileo he was absolutely right. His marvellous play exposes one way in which our culture positively embraces ignorance. There is something here we don't want to think about. We are all on Pascal's side. The silence of those vast spaces frightens us. We really would prefer it if the earth stood still. We really do want to think the moon landing was faked. We really don't want to admit that we are lost in space. Might we prefer it if Galileo's books had indeed all been burnt?

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History, University of York. He is the author of Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates.


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Being a member of a Physics Department under threat of closure, this is to me quite a personal question.

Bertold Brecht's play is, I think, symbolic of why Galileo is not properly appreciated. From my point of view, it seems a piece of Communist polemic which treats Galileo as a political football, and trivializes the effort and extent of his achievement, not only in astronomy but being, in effect, the father of modern physics. This problem is greatly amplified by his being treated as a sort of icon in the Science versus Religion debate. I heard the play as a young man over 40 years ago, but only recently has my view of Galileo been enlarged by reading three sensible, non-polemical books, which I will briefly describe.

Harold Hellman’s Great Feuds in Science: Ten of the Liveliest Disputes Ever ISBN: 0471350664 gives a much better account of the Galileo affair. It was here that I learned how Galileo had courted trouble by casting the Pope’s protagonist as Simplicio. True, this was the Italian name for the Neoplatonist philosopher Simplicius, but in the context would be readily taken as calling the Pope a simpleton.

Robert March’s Physics for Poets ISBN: 0072472170 is the book which really showed me how great was Galileo’s achievement in moving from Aristotelian physics to the first modern view. It may look simple to us now, but in the then worldview it was far from being something that any fule ought to have kno’n. And the Aristotelians were not ignoramuses who thought the earth was flat – that myth was created by Washington Irving in 1828.

Alan Chalmers, in What Is This Thing Called Science? ISBN: 0335201091, shows how Galileo’s astronomical discoveries were far from easy with the primitive telescopes he was using. A very good book for those who’ve been taught the standard kiddies’ view of scientific method.

So how should we appreciate Galileo’s effect on the world today? Never mind the academic:

without Galileo there could have been no Newton, no Einstein.

Consider, instead, that Fred Dibnah would have been toiling on those steam engines, rather than presenting them for our appreciation and nostalgia. Very likely, too, that the coal might be running out without oil having been discovered to replace it.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at November 1, 2006 08:20 PM
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