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Worlds Without End

By David van Dusen.

Louis-Auguste Blanqui, Eternity by the Stars: An Astronomical Hypothesis, translated by Frank Chouraqui, Contra Mundum Press

I

Last November a researcher at Berkeley, Erik Petigura, published a scientific paper titled “Prevalence of Earth-size planets orbiting Sun-like stars.” According to The New York Times, the immediate result of this mildly titled contribution was that “the known odds of something – or someone – living far away from Earth improved beyond astronomers’ boldest dreams.” Petigura’s new astronomical model adopts the premise that “Earth-size planets are common around Sun-like stars,” and accordingly predicts the existence of up to 40 billion Earth-size planets in our galaxy alone. Of these 40 billion, roughly 12 billion could be expected to harbour some form of life – or at least, to be habitable.

That a planet is Earth-size says relatively little about its habitability. Habitability is determined by an array of “planet-specific properties,” writes Petigura, and crucially by its orbit falling within the “habitable zone” relative to its sun – not too distant, not too close. Only an Earth-size planet situated in a habitable zone and capable of preserving liquid water on its surface will qualify as “Earth-like.” Case in point: days before Petigura’s article appeared, the Times related the discovery of planet Kepler-78b, which shares a number of Earth’s compositional features but is “one of the most hellish planets” in the galaxy. An Earth-size but not an Earth-like planet, Kepler-78b is totally uninhabitable – a globe of molten rock 400 light years out that circles its sun every eight blazing hours.

It was only in mid April of this year that the Times reported on NASA’s data for a planet called Kepler-186f, which is orbiting a sun some 500 light years away and is – though “not a perfect replica” of Earth – the nearest thing to a replica that has ever been sighted. Kepler-186f is not merely an Earth-size planet, then. Rather, preliminary data suggests that Kepler-186f may be an Earth-like planet. Kepler-186f seems to orbit its sun in the habitable zone, and since its composition is likely to include liquid water, it may host life on its surface. “Perhaps it’s more of an Earth cousin than an Earth twin,” says astrophysicist Thomas Barclay, but Kepler-186f is a planet that “really reminds us of Earth.”

Nearly a year before he announced Kepler-186f, Barclay presented the findings on yet another Kepler planet – this one designated 69c – in a paper titled “A super-Earth-sized planet orbiting in or near the habitable zone around a Sun-like star.” If this year’s Kepler planet is an “Earth cousin,” then last year’s is a cousin at one farther remove. But what Barclay and other astronomers are hoping to identify is not a distant Earth cousin, or even a close cousin: Barclay wants to locate what he calls an “Earth twin,” and more precisely, the “first true Earth-analogue.” If Petigura’s new model is accurate, such analogue planets should be superabundant. Nevertheless, Earth’s first twin – as Barclay wrote in The Astrophysical Journal in May 2013 – “has yet to be discovered.” 

II

“At the present moment, the entire life of our planet, from its birth to its death, unfolds, day by day, on myriads of twin-globes.” This is one of the last sentences of Auguste Blanqui’s Eternity by the Stars: An Astronomical Hypothesis, which appeared – like Barclay’s report on Kepler 69-c – in May 2013. Or rather, the first English edition of Blanqui’s book appeared last year. Blanqui’s original, L’éternité par les astres – Hypothèse astronomique, dates back to February 1872. It is fortuitous, but not for that reason uninteresting, that the release of Blanqui’s Eternity in English should coincide – nearly 150 years on – with astrophysicists’ highly publicized talk of “Earth twins,” since Blanqui posits an infinite number of “twin-globes” or “globe-doubles” in infinite space.

In Eternity by the Stars, Blanqui wants to demonstrate the necessity – the strictly materialistic necessity – of an emergence and re-emergence of “billions of earths, absolutely identical, personally and materially,” in limitless space and time. Our cauldron-like skies produce – and must cyclically reproduce – “billions of earths by repetition,” Blanqui argues, because an “infinity of globes can only arise by the infinity of repetitions.” Thus, whereas contemporary astrophysicists search for a “true Earth-analogue” in deep space, by which they only denote a spare set of parallels – distance from a sun, atmospheric enclosure, evidence of a rocky surface, etc. – Blanqui asserts nothing less than the necessary existence of a “genuine earth-double” in deep space.

Barclay’s casual mention of an “Earth twin” to reporters is obviously to be taken casually. Blanqui, however, leaves no doubt that Earth must have a twin in the strictest possible sense: a “double” (sosie) that could only be distinguished from our Earth by its location in space. Blanqui’s Eternity, towards the close of the 19th century, is meant to “open wide the doors of the Menaechmi” – a classical allusion that will slip past most 21st-century readers, but is worth getting hold of. Manaechmi is a Latin comedy by Plautus (on which Shakespeare modelled The Comedy of Errors), and the Manaechmi are twin boys separated in infancy, raised in different cities, and finally – after a day of wild confusion in the same city – introduced. “Believe me!” one character swears to a twin in Manaechmi’s revelation scene, “Water was never more like water, or milk like milk, than he is to you and you are to him.”

The Manaechmi are more like mirror-images than twins. Or as Shakespeare describes the Dromio twins – his own Manaechmi – in Comedy of Errors, they are “one in semblance.” When Blanqui speaks of “twin-globes,” he means it in that – on the face of it, farcical – sense. Yet Blanqui assures us that “all of this, joking aside, is very serious.” Deep space is actually Manaechmi territory. Unknown to us, we have hyper-identical “brother-stars” in a host of star systems. This is not the only place where a Plautus contrived Manaechmi and a Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. This is not the only place where a Kardashian girl married a Kanye, a U.S. Secretary of State is outflanked in a brutalized Near East, and your alter-ego is now scanning the words “your alter-ego is now scanning the words” in 3:AM Magazine.

III

If Blanqui is right, we have dead ringers in the sky. “But who,” he asks, “shall believe it?” Apparently, no one has believed it – or at least, not exactly.

In the superb introduction to his translation of Eternity, Frank Chouraqui lays out the evidence – much of it from Nietzsche’s papers – that Nietzsche’s “eternal return” was lifted from Blanqui. A decade after Blanqui announced infinite replication in space, Nietzsche promulgated infinite replication in time – and Nietzsche appears to have logged an 1883 encounter with Eternity in one of his Zarathustra-period notebooks. Chouraqui is non-committal, but it is clearly possible that Nietzsche transposed Blanqui’s spatial replication-effect onto the temporal plane to get his “eternal return of the same.” And in any event, neither eternity-concept is entirely novel. Blanqui’s replication-effect in Eternity recollects Epicurean physical theory (see Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, book 5, lines 1341–49), while Nietzsche’s recurrence-effect in Zarathustra revives the ancient notion of a recurring “Great Year” (which Cicero calculated in cycles of 12,954 solar years).

In the 20thcentury, Blanqui’s devotees include Jorge Luis Borges and his protégé, Adolfo Bioy Casares, both of whom used Eternity’s hypothesis to structure their fictions. It is Blanqui’s notions of bifurcation and replication that Borges exploits in “The Garden of Forking Paths” and “The Library of Babel,” and Eternity provides Bioy Casares with the speculative conceit of a supremely melancholy 1940 novella, The Invention of Morel. As Borges informs us in his preface to Morel, “Bioy renews in literature a concept which was refuted by St. Augustine and Origen, and studied by Louis-Auguste Blanqui.” Several years previously, in a History of Eternity he published in 1936, Borges observes that “all principles of eternal return” have been “justified by ‘an algebraic principle’.” Borges cites the return-concepts of Plato, Blanqui and Nietzsche, before concluding that the “best reasoned of these doctrines is Blanqui’s.”

Perhaps Walter Benjamin would have concurred with Borges’s judgement in the 1930s. He effuses about Blanqui in a 1938 letter to Max Horkheimer, for instance, in which he describes Eternity as a “rare find” which “has been as good as ignored to the present day.” Benjamin came to regard Eternity as an emblematic text of the modern epoch, and hailed Blanqui as “the bronze voice that shook the 19th century” – yet Eternity is still, to this day, “as good as ignored.” Whatever else Benjamin may get wrong in this letter to Horkheimer, it is suggestive that for him the really “shocking thing” about Eternity is that it “lacks all irony.” In other words, Blanqui’s subtitle is on the level: his hypothesis is not ironical or allegorical, but astrophysical.

This is the shocking thing. According to Blanqui, eternity is being actualized by distant globes on which our “existence doubles out” in all its glistering and horrifying specificity. Eternity is an infinite effect of the “permanent reproduction” of suns and their satellites – and therewith, of life. Eternal life is real, for Blanqui, even if it is a matter of what Bioy Casares – rephrasing Blanqui – calls “external identity.” There is no substantial immortality of soul or body, yet there is a simulacral immortality of body and soul. “The number of our doubles is infinite in space and time. In all honesty, one could not demand more.” Blanqui is a materialist who prophesies “worlds without end” – to recall the Christian formula – by means of replication in space, not resurrection in time. And as astrophysicists continue to sift the spectral data from deep space, his bold wager on eternity is nothing if not contemporary.

POSTSCRIPT: BLANQUI FROM ARCHIVES OF THE NEW YORK TIMES

Auguste Blanqui has at least a double existence in the archives of The New York Times. In the Times’ February 2000 review of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, Blanqui appears as “a bloody-minded propagandist and fearless leader of conspiracies and secret societies.” He is described – at once – as the most hermetic of the 19th-century “utopian socialists,” and as a revolutionary of “unrelenting militance.” It was Blanqui’s disciples, we are told, who spearheaded “a number of uprisings in Paris, in 1830, 1839, 1848 and 1871.” Yet Blanqui the bullish insurgent is also the author of “arcane texts,” and Walter Benjamin’s “deepest … political sympathies” are reserved for one of Blanqui’s texts in particular – namely, Eternity by the Stars.

Blanqui appears very differently in the summer of 1879, when the Times of New York reprinted a London Times column titled:

BLANQUI INTERVIEWED. A TALK WITH THE FAMOUS CONSPIRATOR IN HIS PRISON.

Here, the British correspondent opens with a late-Victorian hook: “Never have I witnessed a greater contrast than that between the man I saw before me and the stir which his name has for the last few weeks created.” After a detailed description of Blanqui’s “fanciful garb,” we are given a verbal lithograph of the prisoner’s “physiognomy”:

His head is short at the lower part, broad toward the temples, and set off with a bristly white beard. His complexion is clear and rosy, his forehead broad, but low, and slightly compressed at the temples; his ears are rather delicate, his eyes long and fixed; his nose is thin at the top, broad and square below; his mouth wide, his lips red and his expression, though sometimes lit up with an agreeable smile, shows a kind of cynical curiosity.

Blanqui’s first words to the correspondent are meant to betray something of this cynicism, since they gently mock the London Times: “You have come here to satisfy the insatiable curiosity of the great English journal?”

We have seen that in the year 2000, the New York Times’ Blanqui is called a “utopian socialist.” This is of course Marx’s meanest slur, and neither an orthodox Marxist nor a stock-jobbing banker can say “utopian” without a curl of the lip. (Note, however, that Marx himself recognized Blanqui as being “the heart and soul of the proletarian party in France.”) In this 1879 interview, Blanqui presents himself as a muscular, atheistic Republican in the 18th-century sense of the term.

I am not a professor of politics or socialism; I am a man of action. What exists is bad; something else must take its place, and gradually things will become what they ought to be. … First and foremost, France must be unchristianized. She must be rid, not only of Catholicism, but of Christianity. The Catholics are now the masters. We still have the Inquisition. It no longer burns, but it imprisons. … Journalists are condemned because they turn religion into derision. It ought to be allowable to turn religion into derision in the name of reason.

When Blanqui is asked, “Would you leave the churches open?” he concedes: “Yes, but [we would] watch the preaching.” When the correspondent later protests that Blanqui would “destroy property,” he denies it outright: he espouses neither a communist abolition nor a socialist nationalization of property, but rather an “equilibrium” of property and labour, with new tax codes to manage it.

He who works must be relieved … and [we must] restore the equilibrium. … Taxation is bad, it must be modified. … I [would] chiefly tax capital, and [would] forbid the reconstruction of large properties. There must at the same time be perfect freedom of the press and public meetings to discuss all the reforms.

When he is pressed on the question of total disarmament, Blanqui takes a non-utopian line: France should not “disarm in the existing circumstances,” but “she must be armed differently.” The French army is “a cause of crime and a menace to liberty,” and should be drastically restructured, but Blanqui repeats his formula a couple of times: “France must be armed differently.”

Blanqui admits that his positions do not amount to directives for a new political order, and quotes Voltaire: “I rid them of a monster and they ask me what I shall put in its place.” He first wants to dismember the clerical-capitalist monster. Further reforms will then be decided by public consultation and free debate. And compared to this stance, it is Marx – not Blanqui – who looks like a utopian socialist.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David van Dusen is a doctoral fellow at the University of Leuven. His first book, The Space of Time, appeared in 2014. He writes with some regularity for Radical Philosophy, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Times Literary Supplement, and he skives at @DuseVanDuse.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, September 9th, 2014.