Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Ash Wednesday Supper

Giordano Bruno wrote this dialogue in 1583 while staying in London as the guest of Michel de Castelnau, Lord of Mauvissiere, the French King Henry III's ambassador to the Court of St. James. It is patterned after Plato's Symposium which he probably knew from its Latin translation made in the 15th century by Marsilio Ficino. The scene of action is a dinner party in Whitehall hosted by Sir Fukle Grenville, a close friend of Bruno's patron, Sir Philip Sidney.

Remarkably, Bruno made a stinging condemnation of European colonialism, before contrasting the effects of his own philosophy with the effects of capitalist greed. At the time, England had only begun its colonial explorations; Bruno was writing primarily about Spain and Portugal. He must have read the denunciations of Spanish cruelty in Mexico made by the Dominican Batolome de Las Casa- most probably in Naples, where the Dominicans knew a thing about Spanish oppression themselves.

"Now, in order for you to understand the present business and its importance, I set for you the premise to a conclusion that will easily be proven shortly: namely, that if Tipys is praised for having invented the first ships and crossed the seas with the Argonauts, if Columbus is acclaimed in our own time for being "the Tipys who uncovered new worlds", what is to be done with him who has discovered the way to climb the heavens, traverse the circumference of the stars, and leave the convex surface of the firmament at his back?

The Tipys of this world have found the way to disturb the peace of others, violate the ancestral spirits of the regions, muddle what nature had kept distinct, and for the sake of commerce redoubled the defects, and add further vice to the vices of each party, violently propagating new follies and planting unheard-of madness where it had never been before, concluding at last that the stronger are also the wiser, displaying new sciences, instruments, and arts by which to tyrannize and murder one another, so that the time will come, thanks to those actions, that by the oscillation of all things, those who have thus far endured to their misfortune will learn, and will be able to give back to us, the worst fruits of such pernicious invention."

Bruno vaingloriously ( as was typical of scholars at that time) contrasts this with his own philosophy ( termed 'The Nolan") which was a re-working of St. Augustine's idea that 'The centre of the Universe is everywhere, the circumference nowhere' , based on recent astronomical observations which were, none-the-less, still unsupported by mathematical proofs.*

"The Nolan, to cause entirely contrary effects, has released the human spirit and intellect, which were confined in the narrow prison of the turbulent atmosphere; where they scarcely had the capacity to look, as through certain holes, upon distant stars, and whose wings were clipped, so that they could not fly through the veil of these clouds and see what is really to be found above...Now behold him, who has crossed the air, penetrated the heavens, wandered among the stars, and passed beyond the margins of this world, made to vanish the imaginary walls of the first, eighth, ninth, tenth, and as many other spheres as you would like to add, according to the reports of vain astronomers and the blind visions of the vulgar philosophers; [who] thus, in the presence of all sense and reason, with the key of clever investigation has opened the cloisters of the truth, that can be opened by us, stripped naked the covered and veiled truth, given eyes to moles, enlightened the blind who could not focus their eyes to admire their own image in these many mirrors appearing on all sides, loosened the tongue of the mute who could not and dared not express their innermost feelings, healed the lame who could not make that progress with their spirits that our ignoble and dissolute flesh cannot make, and makes them no less present than if they were dwellers on the Sun, the moon, and the other known stars...These flaming bodies are the ambassadors who proclaim the glory and majesty of God, Thus we are moved to discover the infinite effect of the infinite cause, the true and living footprint of infinite vigor, and we have a teaching that tells us not to seek divinity outside ourselves, but within, more deeply inside us than we are ourselves."

* Like Thomas Hobbes, Bruno believed that "squaring the circle" would unlock the mathematic secret of the motions of the planets.

Ingrid D. Rowland; Giordano Bruno; Heretic & Philosopher; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, N.Y.,2008

[Needless-to-say, unlocking the secrets of the universe- a work still in progress- has not thoroughly dampened the enthusiasm nor much of the cruelty of modern colonialists, particularly those' who have thus far endured it to their misfortune'. But it is notable that no one suggested that a man like Albert Einstein be burned at the stake as was Bruno, though he might easily have been caught up in the exterminating regime of the Nazis.]


  1. Bruno's opportunity "to make himself known and show what he was about" at Oxford came in June, about a month after his arrival in England, when the Polish Prince Albert Laski made a state visit, escorted by the university's chancellor, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and Dudley's refined nephew, Sir Philip Sidney. The occasion demanded speeches and debates, from Oxford professors and from visitors and, perhaps through the French Ambassador's intercession, Bruno obtained a place on the program.

    With his varied experience as a teacher and a professor, he had every hope of success; he had, after all, taught the art of memory to Pope Pius V, won an open competition for the chair of philosophy at Toulouse, and, most recently, caught the attention of the court and the King of France. He must have expected a similiar reception in Oxford when he debated on theology, the field in which he held formal qualifications from two of Europes most prestiguous universities.

    Yet nothing in all his travels had prepared him for the reaction he recieved. The English laughed at him. The made fun of his accent, his gestures, his passsionate energy, and his tiny stature. They would have found his latin difficult to understand; the dons pronounced the ancient language as if it were written in English, so that the blessing "benedicite" that began their opening prayers became "bene-dee-chee-tay". The audience listened to how he spoke rather than to what he said, and smirked as they listened....Bruno's presentation at Oxford began to offer some of the same sadistic pleasures as watching a bear "at the stake", and when, like the bears, he grew angry and agitated, he only added to the public's glee. By the time he had finished he was furious, and it is unlikely that anyone had listened to what he said except to imitate him later.

    Furthermore, English wit permitted (and still permits) a level of personal attack unthinkable in Spain or Italy...English jibes are all intimately personal. After only a month in Britain, Bruno could not yet come back to his adversaries with a pungent "Swive thou" or "beef-witted clotpot"; he could only store up his rancor- and retell the story of his experience at Oxford, when the time came, in his owm magnificently abuse Italian.

  2. The streets of sixteenth-century London were as rough as anything Bruno would have seen in Naples or Paris, where at least he could speak the language.In "The Ash Ednsday Supper" the trip from Butcher Row to Whitehall is a phantasmagoric pilgrimage, first in a ferryboat that seems to be plying the river Styx rather than the Thames, and then on foot, through the pelting British rain, knee-deep in mud, and jostled by Cockneys; to one, Bruno tries out his English and replies, "Tanchi, maester"- "Thankee, Master!". In "The Ash Wednsday Supper", Teofilo rants on Nolan's behalf about the rudeness of Londoners, and their hatred of anything foreigbn:

    "England can brag of having a populace that is second to none that the earth nurtures in her bosum for being disrespectful, uncivil, rough, rustic, savage, and badly brought up...When they see a foreigner, they look, by God, like so many wolves, so many bears who have that expression on their faces that a pig has when its meal is taken away... and, recognizing that you are some kind of foreigner,[they] look down their noses, laugh at you, smirk at you, fart at you with their lips, and call you, in their language, a dog, a traitor, a stranger- for this among them is an insult...Now, if you should have the misfortune to touch one of them, or put your hand upon youe weapon, behold, in an instant you'll be in the midst of a horde of rustics, popping up quicker than the legend says the dragon's teeth sowed by Jason turned into armed men; it seems as if they emerge from the earth, but they are certainly coming out of their workshops, and they make an honor guard of their staves, rods, halbberds, javelins, and rusty you'll see them set upon you with rustic fury, each one venting the scorn they have for happened a few months ago to poor Messer Alessandro Citolino, who, to the delight and laughter of the whole crowd, had his arm smashed and broken..So if you want to go out, don't think you can simply take a walk about the city. Cross yourself, arm yourself with a breastplate of patience-bulletproof- and bear with what's not so bad for fear that you'll suffer worse."

  3. "Bruno came to England in 1583. This Italian, impassioned, combative evangelist of the new vision made and impact. His brand of Occult Neoplatonism was a combination of Ancient Egyptian religion, a Copernican universe that was also a gigantic image of the spiritual creation, and a phenomenal cultivation of memory sysyems. All these systems of his were based on principles similiar to the Cabbalist's Tree of Life; in other words each was based on some form of a ladder of symbolic correspondences, every correspondence fixed with its mnemotic image, ascending from the lowest orders of existence, through the angelic powers of the planets (which functioned as Sephiroth) to the Divine Source which, in Bruno's system (as in Dee's) was Divine Love. The practicioner operated any of these systems like the Cabbalist, mounting the ladder, locking his meditations into overdrive ( the furor of Love) by various procedures of ritual magic (that would now be called self-hypnosis). On the way, like the Cabbalist, Bruno strove to open 'the black diamond doors' of the psyche, releasing visons, revelations of divine understanding, and even supernatural intelligences and powers. This 'magically animated imagination", as he described it, was the key to his teaching. He called his mnemonic images 'seals', meaning 'sigils', a sigil being the signature of a daemonic being. These entities of Bruno's, like Dee's angels, did not exist as scholastic abstractions, crowding onto the point of a needle. Just as for he Cabbalist, they had personality and were open to human negotiation, accessible to the attuned mind of the magically trained adept, susceptible to his manipulative will, and were able, properly handled, to raise him to near god-like awareness and being. So it was claimed....with all religions and all mythologies conscripted into his giant synthesis , this 'awakener of sleeping souls' (his own term for himself) looked down on the savage conflicts of the Reformation as on the 'squabbling of children', and created a cyclone of controversy (at one point he had to take refuge in the Italian Embassy) in the superheated atmosphere of this small society that secreted Shakespeare just coming of age and Sir Francis Bacon in his mid-twenties".

    Ted Hughes;"Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being", faber and faber, 1992 page 22