Pico

In Brief

Stephen imagines his writings being rediscovered "after a few thousand years, a mahamanvantara. Pico della Mirandola like." This thought seems to have been prompted by reading Walter Pater's essay on the Italian Renaissance wunderkind philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, an essay which probably also inspired the mocking language that follows: "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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Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), a defining expression of late 19th century Aestheticism, 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 work seeks to capture the exquisite achievements of a bygone era through passionate responses in the present.

Thornton quotes a sentence from the essay on Pico that illustrates this undertaking: "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." (Italics added in all quotations.) The frequent use of the "one" locution appears to have given Joyce the handle he needed for mocking the idea of lost genius being rediscovered many centuries later.

Gifford goes farther, reading into the Pico allusion an insinuation of Stephen's egomaniacal ambition and pretension. Pico was a humanist scholar with command of four ancient languages (Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic) and smatterings of some others, and he sought to recover all sorts of ancient wisdom traditions, syncretically harmonizing them with Platonic- and Aristotelian-inflected Christianity.

Gifford quotes from the biography written by Pico's nephew Giovanni Francesco Pico and translated into English in 1890: Pico was "full of pryde and desyrous of glory and mannes prayse. . . . He went to Rome and there covetynge to make a shew of his connynge: (& lytel consideringe how grete envye he sholde reyse agaynst hymselfe)." The result of Pico's hugely ambitious plan to defend his 900 Theses against all comers in Rome was papal condemnation and threats to his freedom and life.

It is not difficult to imagine Stephen seeing himself in this multilingual reader of arcane texts, a man who aspired to transform European civilization by laying down the principles of a new, heterodox theology, but who instead suffered near-total obscurity until the last years of the 19th century.

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." 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 2016
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.
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, painting by an unknown artist held in the Uffizi, Florence. Source: www.newworldencyclopedia.org.