Pico della Mirandola

In Brief

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.

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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 receiveĀ  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 be done."

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."

JH 2018
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, painting by an unknown artist held in the Uffizi, Florence. Source: www.newworldencyclopedia.org.
Walter Pater, "from a group taken at Brasenose" (Bransenose College, Oxford), in an image of unknown provenance reproduced in Thomas Wright's The Life of Walter Pater (1907). Source: Wikimedia Commons.