The Cosmonaut of the Erotic Future
Though the ancient cosmology was effectively vanquished by the new clockwork universe, this was hardly a simple or straightforward affair. Even Sir Isaac Newton hedged his bets. While developing his theory of gravitation, Newton was also privately elaborating a highly idiosyncratic theology. According to certain obscure and, until recently, largely neglected writings, after the Apocalypse “children of the resurrection” (notably Newton himself) would be able to levitate at will, soaring “to the furthermost extremities of the universe.”1
1Frank E. Manuel, The Religion of Isaac Newton (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), p. 102. I also draw here on Joel D. Black, “Levana: Levitation in Jean Paul and Thomas de Quincey,” Comparative Literature, vol. 32, no. 1 (Winter 1980), pp. 44–45.
As a consequence of the anti-Newtonian spirit prevalent in the early Romantic period, an interest arose in a pre-Newtonian natural philosophy with emphasis, not so much on mathematical abstraction and experimental empiricism as on analogy and speculative intuition - a Naturphilosophie in which the attraction of bodies was based not on quantity of matter but on elective affinities determined by the intrinsic qualities of individual substances. In a universe organized on the principle of qualitative similitude rather than on the quantitative measurement, material objects will seek their level freely; earthly objects fall because they manifest a characteristic affinity for the Earth's center, while fire rises because of its affinity for the stars. A similar natural philosophy may underlie a philosophical system such as of Hegel, who notes in the Philosophie der Geschichte that matter is susceptible to gravity because it is de-centered., while spirit is bodiless and weightless because it incorporates its own center in itself - it is at home with itself: "Die Materie ist insofern schwer, als sie nach einem Mittelpunkte treibt ... Der Geist im Gegentheil ist eben das, in sich der Mittelpunkt zu haben ... Die Materie hat ihre Substanz ausser ihr; der Geist ist das Bei-sich-selbst-sein. In a sense, much of German and Anglo-American Romantic literature and philosophy can be characterized by its predilection or nostalgia for a cosmological system in which levitation played as important role as gravitation.
The replacement of a levitative by a gravitative cosmology in seventeenth century is interesting with respect to Michel Foucault's observation of a shift during the Neoclassical period from an episteme based on qualitative sympathies and similitudes to one based on representation and measurement (Les mots et les choses: une archeologie des sciences humaines, Paris, 1966, especially Chs. ii and iii). Stephen Toulman and June Goldfield trace the long historical development of a "levitative" world view in The Architecture of Matter (1962; rpt. Harmondsworth, 1965). This world veiw ranges from Aristotelian thought through the Stoic conception of pneuma (pp. 141-42) and Joseph Pristley's discovery of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas. Although Newton's formulation of gravitational theory was partly responsible for the more precise measurements of weights in chemical reactions which overthrew the myth of the levitative principle of phlogiston in the 1780s, he had been more credulous about the possibility of a levitative cosmology than one might expect. At the same time that he was formulating a public theory of gravitation and nontransformation of physical bodies in the Principia, he was evolving a private doctrine of levitation and transformation of matter in his unpublished and, until recently, virtually unknown theological writings and scriptural interpretations (see Frank E. Manuel, pp 100 ff.). Although Newton officially maintained in the Principia that weight, while not a fundamental property of the object, cannot be changed without altering the physical nature of the object, he nevertheless meditated upon the idea of a cycloid cosmology in which the universe could be radically transformed through divine intervention. In such an event, certain men (and in particular, Newton himself) would be able to levitate at will through the heavens, far above the angels (Manuel, pp 78, 101-02).