Monday, October 8, 2012

Choosing a Bride by Johannes Kepler

Excerpted from The Sleepwalkers; A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe by Arthur Koestler; Penguin Books, 1959

Only one circumstance, but a basic one, relieved the gloom of Johannes Kepler’s later years: his second marriage, in 1613, to Susanna Reuttinger. He was forty-one, she twenty-four, the daughter of a cabinet-maker. Susanna’s parents had died while she was a child; she had been brought up in the household of the Baroness Starhemberg. We do not know what position she occupied in the household but to judge by the scandalized reactions of Kepler’s correspondents, it must have been a lowly one – something between a maid and a companion.

Kepler’s first marriage had been engineered by his well-wishers when he was an inexperienced and penniless young teacher. Before his second marriage, friends and go-betweens again played a prominent part – but this time Kepler had to choose between no less than eleven candidates for his hand. In a letter to an unknown nobleman, which extends to eight printed folio pages, Kepler has described in meticulous detail the process of elimination and selection that he followed. It is a curious document, and among the most revealing in his voluminous writings. It shows that he solved the problem of choosing the right wife among the eleven candidates by much the same method by which he found the orbit of Mars: he committed a series of mistakes which might have proved fatal, but cancelled out; and up to the last moment he failed to realize that he held the correct solution in his hands.

The letter is dated from Linz, 23 October 1613:

Though all Christians start a wedding invitation by solemnly declaring their marriage is due to special Divine arrangement, I as a philosopher, would like to discourse with you, O wisest of men, in greater detail about this. Was it Divine Providence or my own moral guilt which, for two years or longer, tore me in so many different directions and made m consider the possibility of such different unions? If it was Divine Providence, to what purpose did it use these various personalities and events? For there is nothing I would like to investigate more thoroughly, and that I more intensely long to know, than this: can I find God, whom I can almost touch with my hands when I contemplate the universe, also in my own self? If, on the other hand, the fault was mine, in what did it consist? Cupidity, lack of judgment, or ignorance? And why, on the other hand, was there nobody among my advisers to approve of my final decision? Why am I losing their previous esteem or appear to be losing it?

What could have seemed more reasonable than that I, as a philosopher, past the peak of virility, at an age when passion is extinct, the body dried and softened by nature, should have married a widow who would look after the household, who was known to me and my first wife, and unmistakably recommended to me by her? But if so, why did nothing come of it?. . .

The reasons why this first project came to nothing were, among others, that the prospective bride had two marriageable daughters, that her fortune was in the hands of a trustee, and, as an afterthought,

Also the consideration of health, because, though her body was strong, it was suspect of ill-health because of her stinking breath; to this came my dubious reputation in matters of religion. In addition to this, when I met the woman after everything had been settled (I had not seen her for the last six years), there was nothing about her that pleased me. It is therefore sufficiently clear that the matter could not succeed. But why did God permit that I should be occupied with this project which was doomed to failure? Perhaps to prevent my getting involved in other perplexities while my thoughts were on this person? . . . I believe things like this happen to others too, not only once but often; but the difference is that others do not worry as much as I do, that they forget more easily and get over things quicker than I do; or that they have more self-control and are less credulous than I am . . . And now for the others.

Together with the mother, her two daughters were also offered to me – under an unfavorable omen, if an offense to probity can be interpreted as such: for the project was presented by the well-wishers of the ladies in a form which was not very proper. The ugliness of this project upset me intensely; yet I began nevertheless to inquire into the conditions. As I thus transferred my interest from widows to virgins, and continued to think of the absent one [the mother][ whom, so far, I had not seen, I was captivated by the appearance and pleasant features of the one who was present [the daughter]. Her education had been, as it became sufficiently clear, was more splendid than it would be useful to me. She had been brought up in luxury that was above her station, also she was not of sufficient age to run a household. I decided to submit the reasons which spoke against the marriage to the judgment of the mother, who was a wise woman and loved her daughter. But it would have been better if I had not done so, because the mother did not seem to be pleased. This was the second one, and now I come to the third.

The third was a maiden in Bohemia whom Kepler found attractive, and who took a liking to his orphaned children. He left them for a time in her care ‘which was a rash act, for later on I had to fetch them back at my own expense’. She was willing to marry him, but she had, a year earlier, given her word to another man. That other man had, in the meantime, begotten a child with a prostitute, so that the maiden considered herself free, but she thought it nevertheless necessary to obtain the permission of her ex-fiance’s employer. This employer had some time ago given Kepler a letter of recommendation – and by a mysterious non-sequitur, Kepler states that this prevented the marriage. We are left to wonder.

The fourth he would have married gladly, in spite of her ‘tall stature and athletic build’, if meanwhile the fifth had not entered the scene. The fifth was Susanna, his future wife:

In comparing her to the fourth the advantage was with the latter as regards the reputation of the family, the earnestness of expression, property, and dowry; but the fifth had the advantage through her love, and promise to be modest, thrifty, diligent, and to love her step-children . . . . While I was waging my long and heavy battle with this problem, I was waiting for a visit from Frau Helmard, wondering whether she would advise me to marry the third, who would then carry the day over the last-mentioned two. Having heard at last what this woman had to say, I began to decide in favor of the fourth, annoyed that I had to let the fifth go. As I was turning this over, and on the point of making a decision, fate intervened: the fourth got tired of my hesitations and gave her word to another suitor. Just as I had been previously annoyed about having to reject the fifth, I was now so much hurt about the loss of the fourth, that the fifth too began to lose her attraction for me. In this case, to be sure, the fault was in my feelings.

Concerning the fifth, there is also the question why, since she was destined for me, God permitted that in the course of one year, she would have six more rivals? Was there no other way for my uneasy heart to be content with its fate than by realizing the impossibility of the fulfillment of so many other desires?

And so to No. 6, who had been recommended to Kepler by his stepdaughter:

A certain nobility, and some possessions made her desirable; on the other hand, she was not old enough, and I feared the expense of a sumptuous wedding; and her noble rank in itself made her suspect of pride. In addition, I felt pity for the fifth, who had already understood what was afoot and what had been decided. This division in me between willingness and unwillingness had, on the one hand, the advantage that it excused me in the eyes of my advisers, but on the other the disadvantage that I was as pained as if I had been rejected . . . But in this case, to, Divine Providence had meant well because that woman would not have fitted in at all with my habits and household.

Now, as the fifth ruled, to my joy, alone in my heart, a fact which I also expressed to her in words, suddenly a new rival arose for her, whom I shall call No. 7 – because certain people, whom you know, suspected that the humility of the fifth and recommended the noble rank of the seventh. She also had an appearance which deserved to be loved. Again I was prepared to give up the fifth, and to chose the seventh, provided it was true what they said about her. . . .

But again he prevaricated; ‘and what else could have been the result but a rejection, which I had quasi-provoked?’

Tongues were wagging all over Linz; to avoid more gossip and ridicule, he now turned his attention to a candidate of common origin ‘who nevertheless aspired to the nobility. Though her appearance had nothing to recommend her, her mother was a most worthy person.’ But she was as fickle as he was undecided, and after alternately giving him her word and retracting it on seven subsequent occasions, he again thanked Divine Providence and let her go.

His methods now became more cautious and secretive. When he met No. 9, who, apart from a lung disease, had much to recommend her, he pretended to be in love with someone else, hoping that the candidate’s reaction might betray her feelings. Her reactions were promptly top tell Mother, who was ready to give her blessing, but Kepler mistakenly thought she had rejected him and then it was too late to put matters right.

The tenth was also of noble rank, of sufficient means and thrifty.

But her features were most abhorrent, and her shape ugly even for a man of simple tastes. The contrast of our bodies was most conspicuous: I thin, dried-up and meagre she, short and fat, and coming from a family distinguished by redundant obesity. She was quite unworthy compared with the fifth, but this did not revive love for the latter.

The eleventh and last one was again ‘of noble rank, opulent, and thrifty’; but after waiting four months for an answer, Kepler was told that the maiden was not yet sufficiently grown up.

Having thus exhausted the counsels of my friends, I, at the last moment before my departure for Rattisbon, returned to the fifth, pledged her my word and received hers.

Now you have my commentary on my remark at the beginning of this invitation. You now see how Divine Providence drove me into these perplexities that I may learn to scorn noble rank, wealth, and parentage, of which she has none, and to seek with equanimity other, simpler virtues. . .

The letter ends with Kepler entreating his aristocratic friend to come to the wdding banquet and heklp him by his presence to brave the adversity of public opinion.

Susanna seems to have justified Kepler’s choice, and lived up to his expectations. There is hardly any mention of her in his letters, and as far as Kepler’s domestic life was concerned, no news is good news. She bore him seven children, of whom three died in infancy.

I have said that Kepler’s way of discovering the right wife for himself strangely reminds one of the method of his scientific discoveries. Perhaps, having heard of his matrimonial odyssey, this sounds less far-fetched or whimsical. There is the same characteristic split in the personality between, on the one hand, the pathetically eager, Chaplinesque figure who stumbles from one wrong hypothesis to another and from one candidate to the next – oval orbits, egg-shaped orbits, chubby-faced obits; who proceeded by trial and error, falls into grotesque traps, analyses with pedantic seriousness each mistake and finds in each a sign of Divine Providence; one can hardly imagine a more painfully humorless performance. But on the other hand, he did discover his Laws and did make the right choice among the eleven candidates, guided by that sleepwalking intuition which made his waking errors cancel out and always asserted itself at the critical moment. Social rank and financial considerations are topmost in his waking consciousness, yet in the end he married the only candidate who had neither rank, nor money, nor family; and though he anxiously listens to everybody’s advice, seems to be easily swayed and without a will of his own, he decides on the person unanimously rejected by all.

It is the same dichotomy which we observed in all his activities and attitudes. In his quarrels with Tycho and constant naggings at him, he displayed embarrassing pettiness. But he was curiously devoid of jealousy or lasting resentment. He was proud of his discoveries and often boasted of them (particularly of those which turned out to be worthless), but he had no proprietary feeling about them; he was quite prepared to share the copyright of the three Laws with the worthless Junker Tengnagel and, contrary to the habits of the time, gave in all his books most generous credit to others – to Maestlin, Brahe, Gilbert and Galileo. He even gave credit where none was due, for instance to Fabricius, whom he nearly saddledewith the honor of having discovered the elliptic orbits. He freely informed his correspondents of his latest researches and naively expected other astronomers to part with their jealously guarded observations; when they refused, as Tycho and his heirs did, he simply pinched the material without a qualm of conscience. He had, in fact, no sense of private property concerning scientific research. Such an attitude is most unusual among scholars in our day; in Kepler‘s day it seemed quite insane. But it was the most endearing lunacy in his discordant, fantastic self.

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