The Long View: Island of the Day Before

The accurate measurement of longitude was a driving force of much of science during the Age of Exploration. A hell of a lot of good research came out of nations competing to do this faster and better, in search of filthy lucre. This is one of the foundational elements of my cocktail party theory of progress in science.

This book review from 1996 is the ultimate source of my characterization of hard science fiction [as opposed to space opera] as a way of introducing the reader to some useful concept in story form. In addition to the importance of measuring longitude, the baseless self-referential system of symbols that dominated the thought of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment is on display here.

The Island of the Day Before

by Umberto Eco
Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995
(trans. 1995 by William Weaver)
$25.00, 515 pp.
ISBN: 0-15-100151-0

The Memory-Scow of Fr. Wanderdrossel, S.J.

No matter how complicated a novel's plot or how subtle its message, all reviews of novels should start by telling you what the book is about. This novel is perfectly simple. Boy grows up during the Thirty Years' War. Boy goes on quest in order to find a way to determine longitude. Boy finds Jesuit. Boy goes mad and drowns. Everything else is a digression. Which is the problem.

If you believe you live in a world where getting there is not just half the fun but the only fun you are likely to have, novels should be written as a garland of digressions. Doubtless there has to be some unifying thread of plot to keep the whole thing together, but the treasure chest the characters have been seeking must always turn out to be empty. Of course, it would not do to have the characters ever quite realize just how much they are wasting their time. The author and the reader can know that the world, or at any rate the story, is meaningless; the characters' job is to try to find meaning and to fail in the attempt.

Umberto Eco, professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, has written this kind of novel more than once. The trick is to use the book as a lecture room in which to instruct the reader in the milieu of some historical period or social setting, but without waxing tediously didactic. This, of course, is the method of good "hard" science fiction, which leaves the reader usefully instructed in certain principles of physics or biology after reading a story that otherwise closely resembles a Western. Eco does this very well. In "The Name of the Rose," we learned a great deal about late medieval ecclesiastical politics in the course of a story that did not pretend to be anything more than a merry parody of a Sherlock Holmes adventure. In "Foucault's Pendulum," we became much the wiser about the subsidy publishing business while following what I for one think was a slightly superior occult conspiracy. (Of course, Eco's occult conspiracy was not as good as the one in Theodore Roszak's underappreciated novel, "Flicker," but you can't have everything.)

"The Island of the Day Before" is even more ambitious, since we are treated to nothing less than a tour of the episteme of the 17th century. If you believe Foucault (the twentieth century deconstructionist, not a man after whom any type of pendulum is named), the eighteenth century was a time of logical, schematic knowledge. As exemplified by Linnaeus's system of biological classification, the Enlightenment mind was a-historical, given to discerning timeless formal patterns. The episteme of the nineteenth century, in contrast, was evolutionary in its view of both the physical world and of society. Together, these two epistemes constitute the mind of modernity. As a way, perhaps, to discerning the characteristics of the postmodern era, Eco tries to give us a sense of the European mind on the eve of modernity, before the epistemes of the modern era overwhelmed other ways of understanding the world.

People in that age did not expect the world, or their own lives, to make much sense as a linear narrative. It was not that they were suspicious of such narratives; as with Eco's plots, there was always one handy to tie things together. Rather, their first instinct was to look for subtle connections between particular and particular. Their politics and their science, and not least their prose, were complex, obscure, allusive. One did not try to understand the world by extrapolating from first principles. Rather, they lived in a world of signs and symbols. There was no high road to understanding. An education meant going from book to book, ancient and modern, in order to understand obscure allusions made by others, and as preparation to make a few of your own.

Most symbols were obviously of human manufacture. It was a great age for emblems and crests and heraldic devices, from which a suitably informed person might be able to deduce a great deal about the user's history and philosophy. Since they also thought that the natural world worked in much the same way, natural knowledge was a catalogue of the hidden sympathies between metals and birds and plants and planets. Medicine was an understanding of how the humors and parts of the body fit into this dense web of sympathies and pointers. I have long suspected that the Hermetic tradition fascinated Yeats because it provided a language in which things and not just words could rhyme. In the period in question, all sophisticated people thought like that.

All of this sounds as text-driven as recent schools of literary criticism, and maybe in practice it was. However, the big difference between late premodernity and early postmodernity was that the former was not incredulous of the possibility of certainty, of reliable foundations for thought and belief. Europe in the first half of the 17th century was clearly in a transitional state. Western Christendom had broken up politically and confessionally into divisions that could not yet acknowledge each other's legitimacy. Traditional Ptolemaic cosmology was no longer acceptable, but no alternative was available that was consistent with contemporary physics. Europe had become aware of the size of the planet and how alien many of the societies on it were, but as yet had no idea how to fit this new information into received ideas about history and providence. Of course, in another few decades, all these questions would be answered in what seemed to be a perfectly satisfactory manner. The connecting theme of this book, however, is a search for certainty that failed. The search was cartographical, the search for a method to determine longitude.

An extended discussion of this most interesting problem in the history of applied science is perhaps out of place here; readers who want a full account are referred to Dava Sobel's excellent recent book, "Longitude." Basically, the chief problem faced by early oceanic navigators was that, while it is not hard to tell how far north or south of the equator you are (the measure of latitude), there is no comparably simple way to tell how far east or west you are (the measure of longitude). You can determine latitude, for instance, by measuring how far the sun rises above the horizon at noon. It is a natural quantity, produced by the fact the earth is a sphere that spins on its axis. Longitude, however, is a relative, artificial concept. You must pick an arbitrary line that runs north and south all around the earth, through both poles, and then try to figure how far east or west of this line you are. (Today, of course, this line, called the prime meridian, is the meridian of Greenwich in England.) If you know the difference between your local time and the time at the baseline, you can easily determine how far east or west of the line you are, since every hour's difference means 15 degrees difference in longitude. If you have an astronomical observatory and the leisure to make certain very fine astronomical measurements, such as the relative position of the moon to the fixed stars, you can determine what time it is at the prime meridian. However, such measurements are hard to do aboard ship. It took until John Harrison's invention in 1761 of a spring-regulated clock, suitable for use aboard ship, to finally solve the problem. Until then, the ambiguity of longitude created a doubt about one's position in the world that seemed almost ontological, or so Eco would have us believe.

Supposedly, we know about the story in this novel because the author acquired the papers of one Roberto della Griva. Born in 1614, he was a member of a minor noble family of northern Italy, self-described vassals of the marquis of Monferrato. This memoir-romance-love letter collection was written while the author was cast away on an abandoned ship, whose whole company save one had been eaten by cannibals. The ship was anchored off an island in the south Pacific, located on a meridian which Roberto believed to be the natural prime meridian. (For reasons which still make a fair amount of sense, many people of the time thought the prime meridian should run through the Canary Islands.) He thus believed that he was on the west side of what today we would call the international date line, the island on the east side. When he looked at the island, he was therefore looking at the day before. As I said, the book is simple.

As a child, Roberto conceived the notion that he had a wicked brother, kept secret by the family, to whom Roberto ascribes all his own bad actions. Roberto believes, with varying degrees of seriousness, that he goes through life being punished for his brother's misdeeds. This imaginary brother, named Ferrante, serves not so much to relieve Roberto of moral responsibility as to explain Roberto's bad luck. If something bad happens to Roberto, it is Ferrante's fault, one way or another. Roberto finds the putative existence of Ferrante ever less comforting with the passage of time.

Roberto's experience of the homicidal meaninglessness of life begins at age 16 at the siege of Casale, whose fortress is key to the frontier between France and Italy. Eco explains with great lucidity the dispute which caused the French and their Italian allies, including Roberto and his father, to defend the city against the Spanish and the Holy Roman Empire. Even after the explanation, the siege still makes little sense. None of the participants was acting irrationally; logic simply worsened the tangle. The siege eventually degenerates into a truce whereby the Spanish occupy the town and the French the citadel. Finally the whole thing is settled by negotiation. Roberto's father is killed early on, to no particular purpose. Roberto returns to his ancestral land only long enough to arrange for an income for himself, and then travels to France.

The early 1640s find him in Paris, at the moment of the transition between the regime of Cardinal Richelieu and that of Cardinal Mazarin. Roberto does not really have a philosophical mind, but he is interested in scientific and metaphysical questions, so he frequents salons attended by astronomers and philosophers. We thus learn a great deal about what the early 17th century thought about the plurality of worlds and the possibility of a vacuum. The young Pascal puts in an appearance, and one character gets a letter from an officer serving in Holland whom are not told is named Descartes. Roberto sees a successful application of a substance called the "powder of sympathy." This is used to treat wounds, not by application to the wound itself, but by application to the weapon that caused it. He becomes something of an expert on sympathetic medicine, with grave consequences for his future. He also becomes infatuated with one of the great ladies of the salons. He believes, through a fanciful interpretation of the available information, that she is equally infatuated with him. He starts writing her self-revealing letters, a practice he continues even when there is no way to deliver them. This habit eventually produced Eco's holographic manuscript.

These pleasant years in Paris are ended when Cardinal Mazarin dragoons Roberto for a machination. (Roberto blames Ferrante for the misunderstanding that puts Roberto into the Cardinal's power.) Mazarin, like the leaders of other maritime states of his time, was much interested in the longitude question. He was particularly concerned that the English might find a solution before France did. Learning that the English were about to conduct experiments using the principle of the powder of sympathy to transmit the time to ships at sea, the Cardinal blackmails Roberto to take passage on the Amaryllis, a Dutch vessel on which the experiments would be made. Since Roberto is being sent to act as Mazarin's spy, the Cardinal gives him a good measure of sound advice about human nature and the ways of the world, such as one might expect from a contemporary of Baltasar Gracian, author of "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." (Actually, Mazarin's instructions also sound like Elrond's farewell address to the Fellowship of the Ring in the "Lord of the Rings," or at least what Elrond would have sounded like, had he been a pompous ass.)

Both the Dutch and the English being too stupid not to take paying passengers on a secret mission, Roberto has no trouble booking passage on the Amaryllis and sailing to the south seas. He also has no trouble finding out what the English are up to. A dog had been wounded with sword and brought on board, where an appalling English physician kept the wound from closing. The sword remained in London. At set times in the day, the sword was heated, which was supposed to make the dog howl and whimper. Noting when the dog exhibited acute distress, its tormentors on the Amaryllis believed that they could tell exactly what the time was in London. Happily, the ship sank in a storm. Roberto was the only survivor. He could not swim, but he had sense enough to grab a plank.

Roberto washes up, not on a deserted island, but on a deserted ship. This is the Daphne, another Dutch ship, also obviously on some kind of scientific expedition. There is a roomful of all manner of time pieces. There are a garden and an aviary. There is unending succession of storerooms filled with remarkable stuff. Indeed, one of these cubbyholes turns out to contain Father Caspar Wanderdrossel of the Society of Jesus. It should be mentioned that the first third or so of the book consists of Roberto's recollections incited by one or another of the chambers of the Daphne. To me, at least, this procedure is reminiscent of "The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci," Jonathan Spence's biography of the great missionary to China. The book was much concerned with Ricci's science of mnemonics, which works by creating associations between facts you want to remember and an imaginary structure you know well. I could be wrong. Roberto had also been exploring the Amaryllis's seeming endless stores of aqua vitae, so it is hard to say. ("Aqua vitae" is Latin for the Irish "uisce beatha," which of course is whiskey. Did 17th century Dutch ships carry barrels of whiskey? Rum maybe? The question is irrelevant, but in keeping with the spirit of the book.)

Fr. Wanderdrossel was himself looking for a way to determine longitude (hence the roomful of clocks), but only to help prove a larger thesis about the origin of the waters of the Great Flood. The priest believed that the excess water arose physically from submarine fissures in the antipodes, and then was magnified temporally by being passed from one day to another across the international date line. At least, this is what I think he said. Fr. Wanderdrossel had spent many years in Rome, but unfortunately he spent most of his time there speaking Latin to other Jesuits. His talk is therefore a jargon of Latin and German and such English (doubtless meant to represent the Italian of the original) as used to be found in the comic strip, the "Kaztenjammer Kids." The result is unlovely, yet his dialogues with Roberto go on for pages and pages. However, the content of their discussions, which dealt in large part with the structure of the solar system, are very interesting. Roberto defended the Copernican system, whereas Fr. Wanderdrossel endorsed the more moderate hypothesis of Tycho Brahe, which had the sun and moon orbiting the Earth and the planets orbiting the sun. The remarkable thing is that, absent Newton's laws of motion, Tycho Brahe has the better of the argument.

For reasons that seemed sufficient at the time, the crew had abandoned Fr. Wanderdrossel and taken the Daphne's only boat to the island, where the cannibals got them. Despite the cannibals, Roberto and the priest look for a way to reach the island. The priest cannot swim either, so he tries to teach Roberto how to swim. Despairing of the young man's progress, he brings a remarkable machine out of storage, a sort of diving bell with an open bottom that would let the occupant walk to shore over the sea floor. Roberto lowers him over the side, and he is never seen again. Roberto considers the possibility that the floors of all the seas are covered with hidden Jesuits.

Roberto thereafter divides his time among swimming practice, the aqua vitae, and his increasingly fanciful writings. The latter come to deal almost exclusively with the wicked deeds of his brother, Ferrante. By and by, Roberto describes how Ferrante himself sets out in search of the prime meridian. When Ferrante reaches it, he uses its time-travelling capacity to sail back to the time of Christ, whom he kidnaps from the Garden of Gesthemane and imprisons on the Island of the Day Before. The Redemption never having taken place, the whole human race is damned. Roberto does devise a fitting end for Ferrante, however. Not long after, Roberto drowns, leaving his papers to astonish a later world.

There is nothing wrong in principle with a story that has no particular point, or whose point is that there is no point. Unfortunately, none of this was really as much fun as it should have been. A pessimist, or a professor of semiotics, might say the same about life. However, books are supposed to be better than life.

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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  The Island of the Day Before By Umberto Eco