There's a lot of celebration, a lot of sorrowful remembrance, a lot of analysis and political posturing, a lot of heated opinion, and far too much self-righteous judgement being tossed around today in light of last night's bombshell announcement. Emotions are running high all over, just like they did nearly ten years ago. I, too, have a lot of conflicting emotions. But mostly, I am overwhelmed with the surging onset of buried memories of one of the most truly horrifying days of my life -- a day spent weeping for hours on end as details slowly began to emerge. (I believe Method Actors refer to this phenomenon as "emotional memories." It's powerful stuff.)
I have never written about that day; it was just too painful. I write about it with great difficulty now, as snapshot memories keep replaying in my head despite my best efforts to block them. These are memories I share with countless others. There is the shock, horror, anxiety and dread over the safety of friends; the relief for those who survived -- and the grief for those who did not. There was the eerie quiet that descended on Washington DC as the entire city shut down -- a quiet broken only by the sound of military helicopters flying overhead. Then there are the memories of the aftermath: of exhausted, emotionally numbed friends pulling double (sometimes triple) shifts in the hospitals to sift through the gooey mess of mangled body parts in hopes of finding some clue to identification; of the thick cloud of smoke that hung over NYC, and the stench of decaying flesh that wafted from Manhattan deep into the outer boroughs for months after the tragedy. And of course, there was funeral after funeral after funeral. (One of my jujitsu instructors went to a funeral nearly every day for two solid months -- he had many close friends in the police and fire departments.)
So I am not feeling especially celebratory, or triumphant, nor do I feel "closure" -- although I totally understand why some people might justifiably have those feelings. Bin Laden was a symbol, the "face" of terrorism for many Americans, and fairly or not, whether we like it or not, in that respect, his death has a symbolic meaning. But as many others have said, it doesn't change the harsh reality of the last decade. It won't bring back those we lost, or wipe away the horror of that day, or undo the 10 years of war and accompanying limitations on civil rights that followed; we're still living in the same world as yesterday.
Sean very wisely writes about letting people have their moment, to react in the myriad ways they need to react, based on their own personal framework -- because naturally we can't help but view it through our own individual lens. And I agree. But I guess I'd rather put those ugly memories aside and celebrate human triumph, curiosity and exploration instead -- as much a part of our world today as terror -- because that's one of many reasons we persevere.
As it happens, today is also the birthday of Athanasius Kircher, a humble 17th century Jesuit scholar/priest who deserves to be rescued from relative obscurity. (I mentioned him in a prior post a few years ago, from which part of this has been adapted.) For awhile he had his very own eponymous society, and in 2002, New York University sponsored an entire symposium in his honor. There's also a permanent exhibit on Kircher lurking somewhere in archives of the Museum of Jurassic Technology here in Los Angeles.
Why do I love Kircher so much? His scientific reputation was a bit sketchy, in that he had a tendency to blend "traditional Biblical historicism and the emerging secular scientific theory of knowledge." While he published on magnetism, astronomy, optics, archaeology and linguistics (including Egyptian hieroglyphics), he also wrote treatises on the Tower of Babel and Noah's Ark. Sure, he conducted scientifically sound experiments, including one that essentially disproved Johannes Kepler's speculation that the sun was a giant magnet whose rotation around its axis caused the earth and planets to stay in their orbits. But he also took what he learned from that investigation and used it to invent a "magnetic oracle," a divination device that he dubbed "magnetic hydromancy."
Still, one certainly can't doubt the man's passion for scientific inquiry, nor his boundless curiosity about how the world works -- and that's where I find a kindred spirit. Even while tending to the sick when the bubonic plague hit Rome in 1656, he still took time to observe micro-organisms under a microscope in hopes of finding a cure. He didn't find one, but he did advance a germ theory of disease that was way ahead of the medical orthodoxy of his day.
Fans of Charles Babbage, take note: Kircher came up with his own machine for answering mathematical problems, although it was far from perfect, in that it required memorizing long poems in Latin in order to perform the most elementary functions, according to Michael John Gorman of Stanford University, one of the emerging scholars who are studying this fascinating personage. Fortunately there was also a cheat sheet for those with faulty memories: an 850-page instruction manual that makes the average Microsoft User's Manual seem like a model of concise clarity by comparison.
And what an adventurous life the man had -- a regular Indiana Jones of the 1600s. He skirted death on numerous occasions, beginning with a boyhood leg injury that turned gangrenous -- which, he claimed, was miraculously healed by the Virgin Mary when he visited one of her shrines while at seminary. (She also threw in healing of a herniated disc for no extra charge.) He was shipwrecked on an island while traveling to Austria, and was nearly hung by overly-ardent Protestant cavalrymen on another of his many travels. Just before Adolph, the Protestant king of Sweden, invaded Franconia and Wurzburg, Kircher fled his teaching post at a college in the latter town and eventually landed in Rome.
For his last great adventure, he traveled to southern Italy, Sicily and Malta, where he witnessed the eruption of Aetna and Stromboli, and even had himself lowered into the active crater at Vesuvius. Lowered... himself... into... an... active... volcano. The A-Man had some serious cojones. Naturally, the experience reminded him of eternal damnation: "The whole area was lit up by the fires, and the glowing sulphur and bitumen produced a intolerable vapor. It was just like hell, only lacking the demons to complete the picture."
Perhaps realizing he'd never top that experience, Kircher soon retired to a quieter life of scholarly contemplation, but he was just as prolific in his writing as his wandering, producing 11 full-length books in 20 years. Oh yes, he also established his own museum of strange artifacts (including a stuffed aardvark and an automaton) in Rome, one of the earliest recorded cabinets of curiosities. As one historian describes him:
The objects Kircher made were another sign of his ever-active curiosity and imagination; he never tired of figuring out how things worked or of designing some practical application of what he learned. One of his designs was for a projector that used candlepower to cast images from glass plates onto a wall.
He was interested in sound and music. Statues in his museum seemed to talk as he devised horns and tubing to bring street noise through the walls and out of the statues' mouths. The porter who kept the front door to the Roman College was able to speak to Kircher through tubes to let him know when visitors were waiting to see his museum. He also devised instruments that used water or wind power to create music. In one fanciful design, a keyboard extended back to a series of boxes. The keys had pins at their tips, under which were tails of cats arranged according to the pitch of their meows. Hitting a key would produce harmonized howling. There is no evidence that Kircher ever actually made such an instrument.
He died in 1680. Athanasius Kircher -- a manly man of science, and just enough of a mystic to keep things interesting. He probably endured more hardship and suffering than most of can even begin to imagine, but he let his science and his curiosity be the things that defined him.