Pico della Mirandola
Pico della Mirandola
Ruthlessly skewering himself, Stephen imagines his writings being rediscovered "after a few thousand years, a mahamanvantara. Pico della Mirandola like." The thought seems to have been prompted by reading Walter Pater's late 19th century essay on the Italian Renaissance wunderkind philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-94), an essay which helped to revive interest in Pico's writings. Pater's prose probably lies behind Stephen's mocking language: "When one reads these strange pages of one long gone one feels that one is at one with one who once..." The general idea, augmented by the Hindu concept of the mahamanvantara (a very, very, very long period of time), is that people in the distant future will recognize the genius of a writer who went unappreciated in the early 20th century.
Pico was a humanist scholar with command of four ancient
languages (Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic) and at least some
facility in others (Aramaic, Persian). He set out to recover
all sorts of ancient wisdom traditions, syncretically
harmonizing them with Christianity as inflected by the
Aristotelianism of the Scholastics and the Platonism of 15th
century Florence. Instead of the triumphant reception he
sought by defending his 900 Theses against all
comers in Rome, his teachings were condemned by the pope, his
books were burned, and he lived with perpetual threats to his
freedom and life from the Inquisition. He suffered near-total
obscurity until the last years of the 19th century.
It is easy to imagine Stephen identifying with this
multilingual reader of arcane texts. Pico aspired to transform
European civilization by revealing a radically new but
timeless theology, and he wanted to be recognized as a genius,
like Stephen "stepping forward to applause earnestly,
striking face." Gifford quotes from the biography
written by his nephew Giovanni Francesco Pico, which was
translated into English in 1890: Pico was "full of pryde and
desyrous of glory and mannes prayse." He did not receive
such praise until four centuries later, when a Victorian
Aesthete approached his writings with the breathless awe of an
amateur archaeologist entering a pharaonic tomb.
Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), by the Oxford don Walter Pater, approaches prominent artists and thinkers of the early modern era (Pico, Botticelli, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and others) through irreducibly particular aesthetic responses to qualities like "beauty," "pleasure," "charm," "strangeness," "passion," "insight," and "excitement." The essays in Pater's book seek to capture the exquisite achievements of a bygone era not through rigorous historical recovery of past intellectual practices but through passionate responses in the present.
Thornton quotes a sentence from the essay on Pico that illustrates Pater's approach: "He will not let one go; he wins one on, in spite of oneself, to turn the pages of his forgotten books." Gifford quotes two others: "And yet to read a page of one of Pico's forgotten books is like a glance into one of those ancient sepulchres, upon which the wanderer in classical lands has sometimes stumbled, with the old disused ornaments and furniture of a world wholly unlike ours still fresh in them," and "Above all, we have a constant sense in reading him . . . a glow and vehemence in his words which remind one of the manner in which his own brief existence flamed itself away." The frequent use of this word appears to have given Joyce the handle he needed to mock the idea of lost genius being rediscovered many centuries later.
The "mahamanvantara," which Stephen probably
encountered in Helena Blavatsky's Key to Theosophy (1890
ed.), is a Sanskrit word meaning "great year." It apparently
can be reckoned in various ways, but it invariably totals
billions or even trillions of years. It signifies a time of
cosmic activity, following a mahapralaya or great period of
cosmic downtime. In "The Holy
Office" Joyce wrote that he would not make his peace
with his contemporary Irish writers "Till the Mahamanvantara
Proteus redirects the barb of this extravagant thinking to mock the pretensions of the solitary genius. Stephen's hyperbolic estimation of the time his works will lie unread is of a piece with his fantasy of sending copies to "all the great libraries of the world, including Alexandria."